The biggest phenomenon in publishing over the last several years hasn’t been Oprah’s Book Club, a new fad diet, or even Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code”. In fact, a good argument could be made that the hottest publishing trend in the 2000s involves the careful combination of pictures and words in a form that strives to break free from its discredited past: the graphic novel.
In 2002, graphic novel sales in the United States amounted to approximately $100 million. A year later, that figure topped $165 million, jumping to $207 million in 2004, and likely over $300 million in 2005. In 2003, a Nielsen Bookscan representative told Time magazine columnist Andrew Arnold that graphic novel sales were expanding “exponentially” and an executive at the Borders Books chain acknowledged that “over the last four years graphic novels have shown the largest percentage of growth in sales over any other book category.”
To be sure, a large part of the graphic novel boom is attributable to sales of the books to young people. The superhero stories long popular among teenage boys remain a large part of the graphic novel publishing industry, and by far the hottest selling titles of the 2000s have been Japanese manga, bound collections of Japanese comic book series that have become all the rage among young adults, especially teenage girls. This association with young people has often been used as a means to denigrate the form. When New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl complained in 2005 that “graphic novels are a young person’s art, demanding and rewarding mental flexibility and nervous stamina,” he was only the latest high-brow to voice an opinion long aimed at works that combine pictures with words: that they are somehow juvenile, incapable of addressing serious subject matter, the reading material of those with short attention spans. It was an opinion that had precedents in the 1950s, when Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” charged comic books with contributing to a rise in juvenile delinquency and a Comics Code Authority was established to control comic book content. In truth, there were and are an increasing number of graphic novels that are not written for nor are they likely to appeal to the “typical” graphic novel audience. These graphic novels, aimed at a more sophisticated adult audience, reveal a form that is coming of age quite nicely.
Though most date the start of the graphic novel to 1978, the year Will Eisner published “A Contract with God”, the year that the form really got going was 1986. That was the year that Art Spiegelman published “Maus, A Survivor’s Tale”, part one of a two-volume memoir of his family’s experience in the Holocaust. Depicting the Nazis as cats, the Jews as mice, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs, Spiegelman created a tale so stirring and real that it became the first graphic novel ever to win a Pulitzer Prize and is now considered one of the finest fictional treatments related to the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s work appeared in the same year as Frank Miller’s Batman story “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986) and a year before Alan Moore’s “The Watchmen” (1987), two works that treated the superhero genre with a cynical, sometimes caustic revisionism, attracting adult readers who had grown tired of the easy optimism of the superheroes of their youth. These works, united only in their form, illustrated the fact that graphic novels---comic books that took on longer, more developed stories---really could go off in a variety of different directions. And soon they did.
One of the more interesting trends in the graphic novel form has been toward nonfiction, or at least something like nonfiction. Scott McCloud’s 1993 work “Understanding Comics” is a great early example of graphic novel nonfiction, for he not only created a persuasive argument that the graphic novel form “offers range and versatility with all the potential imagery of film and painting plus the intimacy of the written word,” he proved it by using words and “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence,” his definition for the graphic novel form. Joe Sacco -- in works like “Palestine” (2 vols.; 1994, 1996) and “Safe Area Gorazde” (2000) -- immersed himself in the cultures of war-torn regions and returned with finely observed, complicated and moving accounts of some of the globe’s most tenacious ethnic and religious conflicts.
Jim Ottaviani, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to open the world of quantum physics to graphic novel readers. In “Fallout” (a 2001 tale of the science and politics behind the construction of the atomic bomb) and “Suspended in Language” (a 2003 biographical treatment of scientist Neils Bohr), Ottaviani -- by day a University of Michigan librarian -- used the accessibility of the illustrations to draw readers into complex scientific arguments they might otherwise never have entertained.
Venturing into graphic novel fiction, one discovers a rapidly expanding and changing world of possibility. Just five years ago it was a rarity to find a major New York publisher willing to take on a graphic novelist; today, Random House imprint Pantheon has hired graphic design wunderkind Chip Kidd as the editorial director of their comics division, and he has helped bring to press a stunning array of works, including Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth”, Daniel Clowes’ David Boring, Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” (2 vols.), Kim Deitch’s “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, Possy Simonds’ “Gemma Bovary” and many more. Exploring themes of loneliness, alienation, ethnic identity and human longing in language that is alternately dead-on-accurate and piercingly funny, these works lift both the literary and the artistic standard of this form.
Pantheon’s books get an unusual amount of attention thanks to the marketing power of Random House, but there are also plenty of very good graphic novels being produced by small publishers. Craig Thompson’s 582-page “Blankets”, for example, which tells the story of a young man breaking away from his Christian fundamentalist upbringing amid his first encounters with love and independence, was published by tiny Top Shelf Productions. Andi Watson, whose works “Slow News Day” and “Breakfast After Noon” are contemporary romances penned in a style reminiscent of 1930s magazine illustration, has placed his works with several smaller houses, including Slave Labor Graphics and Oni Press.
The list of adult-oriented graphic novels with really literary merit could go on and on and, increasingly, it seems likely to. As the reading public drops its wariness toward books with pictures, and as book publishers and booksellers discover the markets that exist for these books, author/artists are likely to come forward to fill the demand. For more information, look into some of the following sources, or look a little deeper into the graphic novel collection at your local bookstore or library. Sure, the manga titles and superheroes might still dominate, but serious fiction and nonfiction are increasingly finding space as well.
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