14 April 2010

Amazon's TOP 50 GRAPHIC NOVELS Charts Sales, Not Accuracy

Amazon.com's weekly list of their fifty best-selling graphic novels is as interesting to read as it is misleading. It's not that we doubt the accounting abilities of the world wide web's biggest bookseller, only their terminology.  For instance, take Amazon's most recent "Top 50" list, dated 09 April 2010: Of their top 25 best-selling graphic novels, only two of the books listed actually are graphic novels.  Do you know which listed duo Amazon has correctly identified?  Let's take a look at the first half of Friday's Top 50:

1 Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
2 Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw
3 Diary of a Wimpy Kid
4 Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
5 Kick-Ass
6 Twilight: The Graphic Novel, Volume 1
7 Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight Volume 6: Retreat
8 Diary of a Wimpy Kid 5 *
9 The Complete Peanuts 1975-1976 (Vol. 13)
10 Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
11 Batman and Robin, Vol. 1: Batman Reborn *
12 Scott Pilgrim Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour *
13 50,000,000 Pearls Fans Can't Be Wrong: A Pearls Before Swine Collection *
14 The Boys Volume 6 SC
15 The Walking Dead Volume 11: Fear The Hunters
16 The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
17  Yotsuba&!, Vol. 8 *
18 Fables Vol. 13: The Great Fables Crossover
19 The Losers: Book One (Vol. 1 & 2)
20 The Complete Persepolis
21 Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 2: Scott Pilgrim Versus The World
22 Dark Tower: The Fall of Gilead
23 Warriors: Ravenpaw's Path #2: A Clan in Need
24 Scott Pilgrim, Vol 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
25 Watchmen

We've taken the liberty of colorizing Amazon's listings for your ease of reading pleasure - and now that you've had a chance to read them easily, let's get back to our question from up top. Only two of Amazon's first 25 enumerations are really and truly actually 'graphic novels:' do you have your answers ready? Here's ours:
16 The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
20 The Complete Persepolis
We could be real sticklers and argue that Robert Crumb's The Book of Genesis might fall outside of a graphic novel's strict definition, as  true graphic novels must also be original works, and we're pretty sure Crumb didn't draft the Bible.  However, Genesis was created for the graphic novel format, and Crumb's work didn't exist previous to his publishing it as a graphic novel, so we'll accept his best-seller into the Original Graphic Novel Club. 

You may have gleaned from our paragraph above, then, that to be a true graphic novel, a work has to be (a) original (b) not appeared in print in any other format (c) was created as a complete work specifically for the graphic novel format and (d) is, of course, sequential art (or comics). 

We're definitely understanding graphic novels better than we ever have, and hopefully you are, too.  But it feels like we're missing something.  What about those four paperback Scott Pilgrim volumes that, along with Jeff Kinney's Diary of  A Wimpy Kid books, dominate Amazon's upper half? They are original, they were created for the format they're in, and none of them have been in print before. So far, so good; they look like graphic novels to us.  But are they?
Bryan Lee O'Malley, Scott Pilgrim's creator,  would be the first to attest his volumes are  actually comic books, although they don't adhere to the monthly 22-page pamphlet format most folks think of when they think of a comic book.  (His publicists would likely disagree and side with Amazon, but that's beside the point. )  They're not graphic novels, though. The giveaway here is that they're volumes, which is another way of indicating that Scott Pilgrim is a series. Graphic Novels, by contrast, are self-contained works; they don't continue with a 'Part II'.  So, we'll add another point to our definition of what a Graphic Novel is by saying that it's (e) a self-contained work.

Though we admittedly don't know the future plans for the otherwise self-identified Twilight: The Graphic Novel, an adaptation but nonetheless original work created for the 'graphic novel format,' Volume 1 is part of its title. That suggests to us that the Manga-esque Twilight comic book has high aspirations --- but it's not a graphic novel, either.

If the remaining 13 books of the Top 25 aren't graphic novels, what are they? Two of the Top 25 -- numbers 9 and 13 -- are collections of comic strips; the remaining ten are trade paperbacks, or collections of (mostly) reprinted material. For a better understanding of what a trade paperback is, check [here] or [here].

In case you've been wondering about Amazon's bottom half, you'll find #26 thru #50 below.  Peruse at your leisure, and we'll meet you down below with a few closing observations. 

26 The Walking Dead Compendium Volume 1
27 Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
28 Scott Pilgrim Volume 5: Scott Pilgrim vs The Universe
29 Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History
30 Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 3: Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness
31 Asterios Polyp
32 Rough Justice: The DC Comics Sketches of Alex Ross
33 Tales from the Crypt #8: Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid
34 Instructions *
35 Planetary Vol. 4: Space-time Archaeology
36 Irredeemable: Volume 1
37 Irredeemable Vol 2
38 Captain America: Reborn *
39 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
40 Hellboy Volume 9: The Wild Hunt
41 Batman: The Killing Joke
42 The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
43 Batman: The Long Halloween
44 The Exile: An Outlander Graphic Novel *
45 Halo: Helljumper
46 Wolves at the Gate (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Volume 3)
47 V for Vendetta
48 Astonishing X-Men Omnibus
49 Batman: Year One
50 Predators and Prey (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 5)

 A few of our Top 50 observations, as promised:

Fourteen of the Top 25 and 18 of the Top 50 have been or will soon be motion pictures; only 11 of the 50 are superhero related, three of those written by Alan Moore and 5 of those belonging to Batman; at #5, Kick-Ass, released just over a month ago and with a movie adaptation opening this Friday, recently surpassed 100,000 copies in print; and last but not least, only a total of six of Amazon's Top 50 Graphic Novels really and truly are actually graphic novels.

Curse us for the fundamentalists we are, but does Amazon's misrepresentation mean anything?  After all, they're only re-affirming what most people think graphic novels are in the first place, aren't they?  Of course, but that does beg the question as to what exactly that hazy notion might be.  

Amazon.com's Top 50 list includes everything from children's books, trade paperbacks, serialized comics and comic strip collections, to a fairy tale storybook and even a hardbound collection of a comic book artist's original sketches.   A variety like that makes us think that Amazon's 'Graphic Novels' are, by and large, books containing narratives told mainly through a combination of words and pictures.  They do  make an exception for children's storybooks, but as most don't make a habit of using word bubbles, we figure they're immune to the classification.

Ultimately, we're hard-pressed to draw any firm conclusion. All we can say with certainty is that considerable over-use of the word has rendered 'graphic novel' meaningless,  an impotent and completely non-descriptive generalization. In other words, the once prestigious term 'graphic novel' has evolved to be no different than the one thing  it  was invented to  be distinguished from: a comic book.  

To fundamentalists like us, that means everything.

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