I was in San Diego for work this past week, and because a friend from high school lives out there, I got together with him and his wife for dinner one night. It was nice catching up with him (and meeting her for the first time), in particular because we got talking about books. I found that they have similar tastes, and they were pretty impressed with my Neil Gaiman story - both the fact that he retweeted my blog about him and that I subsequently fanboyed disgracefully at him at World Fantasy Con in Brighton.
The conversation moved swiftly to other topics, but one thing I kept turning over in my head - despite the fact that I didn't say it - was how I'm more of a fan of his comics than his prose novels. But the first term that came up in my head to describe Neil Gaiman's comics work was "graphic novels", which I don't really like when it comes to describing the art form.
I get the sense that a lot of people refer to the Sandman books as "graphic novels" to distinguish them from ordinary comics (ie, superhero comics). Meanwhile, bookstores use the term to describe all comics that are collected into trade paperbacks, again, presumably to distinguish them from the monthly 22-page comics.
As far as I'm concerned, though, the term "graphic novel" is somewhat inadequate for describing the species, as is the term "sequential art", which was current for a while but may have fallen out of use. For that matter, "comics" isn't an entirely satisfying name either, for the simple and perhaps anal reason that most comic books aren't meant to be funny. For the record, Stan Lee refers to them as "comicbooks", to avoid the "not funny" thing - a solution I find as elegant as any, to be honest.
I'm enough of a geek that I used to put my love of "sequential art" on my resume, which led to interrogations from potential bosses once or twice about what that meant. It just resulted in me admitting that I liked comics, which was a double-whammy of 1.) not looking serious for job-seeking purposes, and 2.) looking embarrassed about what I was into. I eventually took that line out of my resume, and just went back to calling them comics.
With regard to the second point, though, I feel that embarrassment is really what's at the root of these nomenclature issues. It follows that if comic books are about guys in tights punching each other, but you read The Sandman or Tamara Drewe, then you aren't reading "comics", you're reading something more... novelistic. It's similar to Margaret Atwood's protestations that she doesn't write science fiction because that's just "talking squids in space", or the fact that many SF purists don't like the term "sci-fi", as it implies brainless action movies that happen to be set in space.
I can understand those comics readers who want to distance themselves from the more traditional types of books, but I think they'd do better to try and reclaim the term for all books that follow the form. Because the longer this divide continues between comic books and graphic novels, the more entrenched becomes the idea that comics are for juvenile males (whether 14 or 40) - and that will continue to push women and other male readers away from the form in its entirety.