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The Secret Origin of the ‘Graphic Novel’: Where Eisner Heard the Term

Though he wasn’t the first person to use it, legendary comics creator Will Eisner is credited with popularizing the term “graphic novel” to describe the long-form comic book story. As the story goes — or at least, as it’s often repeated in Eisner biographies like Bob Andelman’s A Spirited Life and Michael Schumacher’s A Dreamer’s Life in Comics — is that Eisner needed something other than “comic book” to call A Contract With God in order to get publishers to take it seriously, and came up with the term “graphic novel” on the spot.

That’s been the accepted origin for his use of the term since 1978, but while doing research for an upcoming project on race in comics at Ohio State University’s Eisner collection, college professor and comic book scholar Dr. Andy Kunka discovered that it’s not actually the case.

In addition to comics and original art, OSU also has a vast collection of Eisner’s letters and personal correspondence, including an August, 1974 exchange with creator Jack Katz, who was seeking Eisner’s criticism of his book, The First Kingdom, where Katz says:

Here is the first book of a series of 24 books which it will take to complete the epic. … What I am starting is a graphic novel in which every incident is illustrated.

Four years before Eisner pulled the words “graphic novel” out of the ether, he read it in a letter. And as Kunka explains, this “at least provides an addendum to the oft-repeated story of how he came to use the term to describe A Contract with God. And, therefore, the accepted wisdom of that story needs to be revised.”Whether he picked up on it consciously or not, this would seem to be Eisner’s first exposure to the term that he would later popularize. It wasn’t just an coincidental one-off exchange with a fan, either: According to Dr. Kunka, the Eisner and Katz would write each other for at least the next four years, with Katz enclosing copies of what we’d now refer to as his OGN series, The First Kingdom, and responses from Eisner that, according to Kunka, were “detailed in his praise and critiques of Katz’s work.”

So why does it matter where Eisner heard about the “graphic novel?” For one, the obvious fact that it’s an important piece of comics history that we now have far more insight into — especially considering the rise in the term’s popularity to the point where members of the mass media think they’re a completely separate form from comic books.

For another, the idea that Eisner created the term has become conflated in a lot of people’s minds with the idea that he created the form. The latter’s been roundly disproven — Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller and Matt Baker’s It Rhymes With Lust is pretty easily recognizable as exactly what we think of today as the graphic novel, and it came out in 1950 — but the former’s still a pretty gray area despite, as Kunka points out, the term having floating around as early as 1964.

In other words, it’s interesting stuff, and it’s well worth reading up on as a fascinating piece of comics history and the nature of ideas spreading as memes.

UPDATE: Eddie Campbell, comics creator best known for working with Alan Moore on From Hell, shows up in Dr. Kunka’s comments with additional information regarding Eisner’s take on early uses of the graphic novel format. He doesn’t mention whether this ties in with his use of the term — the interview he references took place in 1969 — but if it does, it’s still at odds with the accepted story as printed in Eisner’s biographies. Like I said: Interesting stuff about the history of both the term and the format, and well worth reading!

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