Coming to (Literary) Terms: Bildungsroman

Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.

The term of the day is bildungsroman (formation story)!

A bildungsroman or a formation story/ novel is a story commonly associated with a coming of age tale, but can also be a story that we view as a key point of development in a character. While I tend to think of this as a growth from childhood to adulthood, it is just as easy to be a story of an adult and their internal growth

This type of story is almost a staple of current mainstream work. DC Comics has utilized this format beginning in 1986 with Batman: Year One, and has since used it as a format to show heroes and villains in their more formative years. While these stories may suffer through various canonization (becoming widely accepted as important to a subject) and retcons (portmanteau of “retroactive continuity”), the stories typically show the mistakes and lessons that help to more clearly define eponymous (title) characters. Since the most notable superheroes have such a large, and ever expanding history, the bildungsroman is a great way to situate, or redefine a character for a particular time period. My personal favorites of this bunch are Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb created books such as Superman: For All SeasonsBatman: The Long Halloween, and Spider-Man:Blue.

That is not to say that there aren’t plenty of graphic novels outside of the mainstream that utilize the tool. One of my favorite books, Blankets by Craig Thompson, is very much a story about the formation of identity, covering common occurrences like first loves and faith, to more extreme traumas of childhood that affect his growth. Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese  explores a young man’s experiences of growing up as a first generation American born Chinese, and the cultural schism created, told through three different, interrelated perspectives.

While not actually falling under this term’s scope, manga, in particular shonen, utilizes the growth of its characters. Personal, popular favorites like Toriyama’s Dragon Ball and Kishimoto’s Naruto are great examples of a continuous story of growth and maturity for the central characters. I would like to note that the Chinese mythological character Son Wu Kong, has a story of great change, and is a great example of a bildungsroman. The reason why the term doesn’t fit, is mainly because of it’s intent; the works are very long and tend to lack a definitive focus on the growth and change itself (at least that would be my argument against).

Thanks for reading. Hopefully, you learned, confirmed or expanded your own knowledge. Feel free to comment or contend (I’ll correct, if you’re correct, so you better come correct).


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