Professor and comics scholar Andrew Kunka examines correspondence between artists Will Eisner and Jack Katz in a lengthy article for the Spring 2017 issue of INKS: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society (of which I am a member). While Kunka concentrates on the origins of the term “graphic novel” in the newly launched INKS, there is more to his chronicling of the letters — the review of which seems to have been a part of a trip to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library at the Ohio State University some years ago. Kunka is certainly interested in how Eisner’s popularization of the use of “graphic novel” has roots in his pitching his revered 1978 comic to prospective publishing houses, but the piece also lays out how these two creators were thinking and talking about their work and the form back then.
“In his discussions of (A Contract With God)’s initial publication,” writes Kunka, “Eisner regularly told of how he came up with the term ‘graphic novel’ on his own, in order to distinguish his work from the juvenile reputation of the comic book.” However, in these approximately twelve years’ worth of letters that originate in 1974, Katz’s correspondence to Eisner is quite rife with the term in referencing his The First Kingdom comic, a 24-issue sci-fi fantasy epic that Katz completed in 1986. The artist’s promotion of The First Kingdom would eventually be “as much about pushing the concept of the graphic novel into the mainstream as it was about selling the series.”
Up until he took a hiatus from the comics industry in 1955, Katz worked for a number of publishers on various genre comics — sometimes “for about thirty dollars a week in cash” — an output that included the infamous pre-Comics Code Authority horror anthologies of the day (see my recent Hyperallergic piece). He returned to comics in the late 1960s and began work on The First Kingdom in the 1970s while teaching art.
“(A)though it never achieved commercial success,” write Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner in Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present, “The First Kingdom can be counted among the earliest examples of the contemporary graphic novel movement.”
Kunka cites critic Richard Kyle’s use of “graphic novel” in as early as 1964, and looks at Paul Levitz’s 2015 book on Eisner, in which Levitz explores the artist’s longform comics experiments and the impact that Eisner’s work had on the medium.
“Comics history is filled with stories that achieve the level of legend and often remain unchallenged,” writes Kunka in INKS. “One of the jobs of comics scholarship and research is to correct, expand, and modify the historical and biographical record.”