Graphic novels continue to conquer all

A very good article – with illustrations – on the online New York Times today about the spread and importance of graphic novels. You need to log on to access most stories, but it is free and you can get a daily email digest of headlines too. There’s also a link to an online discussion between Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman – groovy. Here’s an excerptfrom the article (it goes over several pages, I recommend it):

Not Funnies


Published: July 11, 2004

You can’t pinpoint it exactly, but there was a moment when people more or less stopped reading poetry and turned instead to novels, which just a few generations earlier had been considered entertainment suitable only for idle ladies of uncertain morals. The change had surely taken hold by the heyday of Dickens and Tennyson, which was the last time a poet and a novelist went head to head on the best-seller list. Someday the novel, too, will go into decline — if it hasn’t already — and will become, like poetry, a genre treasured and created by just a relative few. This won’t happen in our lifetime, but it’s not too soon to wonder what the next new thing, the new literary form, might be.

It might be comic books. Seriously. Comic books are what novels used to be — an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal — and if the highbrows are right, they’re a form perfectly suited to our dumbed-down culture and collective attention deficit. Comics are also enjoying a renaissance and a newfound respectability right now. In fact, the fastest-growing section of your local bookstore these days is apt to be the one devoted to comics and so-called graphic novels. It is the overcrowded space way in the back — next to sci-fi probably, or between New Age and hobbies — and unless your store is staffed by someone unusually devoted, this section is likely to be a mess. ”Peanuts” anthologies, and fat, catalog-size collections of ”Garfield” and ”Broom Hilda.” Shelf loads of manga — those Japanese comic books that feature slender, wide-eyed teenage girls who seem to have a special fondness for sailor suits. Superheroes, of course, still churned out in installments by the busy factories at Marvel and D.C. Also, newer sci-fi and fantasy series like ”Y: The Last Man,” about literally the last man on earth (the rest died in a plague), who is now pursued by a band of killer lesbians.

You can ignore all this stuff — though it’s worth noting that manga sells like crazy, especially among women. What you’re looking for is shelved upside down and sideways sometimes — comic books of another sort, substantial single volumes (as opposed to the slender series installments), often in hard cover, with titles that sound just like the titles of ”real” books: ”Palestine,” ”Persepolis,” ”Blankets” (this one tips in at 582 pages, which must make it the longest single-volume comic book ever), ”David Chelsea in Love,” ”Summer Blonde,” ”The Beauty Supply District,” ”The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Some of these books have titles that have become familiar from recent movies: ”Ghost World,” ”American Splendor,” ”Road to Perdition.” Others, like Chris Ware’s ”Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” (unpaged, but a good inch and a quarter thick) and Daniel Clowes’s ”David Boring,” have achieved cult status on many campuses.

These are the graphic novels — the equivalent of ”literary novels” in the mainstream publishing world — and they are beginning to be taken seriously by the critical establishment. ”Jimmy Corrigan” even won the 2001 Guardian Prize for best first book, a prize that in other years has gone to authors like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer and Philip Gourevitch.

The notion of telling stories with pictures goes back to the cavemen. Comic-book scholars make a big deal of Rodolphe Topffer, a 19th-century Swiss artist who drew stories in the form of satiric pictures with captions underneath. You could also make a case that Hogarth’s ”Harlot’s Progress” and its sequel, ”A Rake’s Progress,” were graphic novels of a sort — stories narrated in sequential panels. But despite these lofty antecedents, the comic-book form until recently has been unable to shed a certain aura of pulpiness, cheesiness and semi-literacy. In fact, that is what a lot of cartoon artists most love about their genre.

There was a minor flowering of serious comic books in the mid-80’s, with the almost simultaneous appearance of Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking ”Maus”; of the ”Love and Rockets” series, by two California brothers, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez; and of two exceptionally smart and ambitious superhero-based books, ”Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and ”Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” by Frank Miller. Newspapers and magazines ran articles with virtually the same headline: ”Crash! Zap! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” But the movement failed to take hold, in large part because there weren’t enough other books on the same level.