Comic Relief – Graphic Novels move into the mainstream. Newsweek article.

Take that, Batman. Graphic novels are moving out of the hobby shop and into the mainstream.

Newsweek International    |    Rana Foroohar    |    August 22, 2005

If you have any doubt about the power of comic books, consider that they are now required reading for the future military leaders of America. In order to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, cadets from the class of 2006 must study Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel "Persepolis," a coming-of-age tale set during the Iranian revolution. It's a wise choice for the syllabus, not only because it is such a compelling read but because the simple black-and-white frames of Satrapi's family saga will likely give the cadets a better understanding of Iran than any academic text, newspaper report or strategy paper ever could. "Persepolis" shows Iranians not as banner-waving fanatics or higab-covered shadows, but as individuals—funny, fraught and often fearful of the strange, powerful forces unfolding around them. "I'm not a politician or a sociologist or a historian, but I witnessed a lot of things that happened in a place that many people are concerned about right now," says Satrapi, speaking from her Paris studio. Comics, she adds, are particularly well suited to telling her story to a global audience: "Images are an international language."

Comics are certainly having an international moment, in terms of both sales figures and increased literary respect. Global publishers say that graphic novels—which include everything from the hugely popular Japanese illustrated stories known as manga to highly sophisticated works like "Persepolis," Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers" and Joe Sacco's "War's End"—had their best year ever in 2004 and look to grow even more in 2005. In the United States, sales of graphic novels have leaped from $75 million in 2001 to $207 million in 2004. Booksellers in America, Britain, Germany, Italy and South Korea cite graphic literature as one of their fastest-growing categories. In Borders, one of America's largest bookstore chains, graphic-novel sales have risen more than 100 percent a year for the past three years. In France, where comics have long been mainstream, sales are reaching record highs, up 13.8 percent to 43.3 million copies in 2004; indeed, five of the 10 best-selling books in France last year were comic books. Manga, which already represents 20 percent of Japan's publishing market, is also spreading rapidly in South Korea, Thailand and other countries; in many cases, locals are buying American versions of the originals in an effort to learn English.

Move over, Spider-Man. Graphic literature has finally broken out of hobby shops and into the mainstream. Superhero fantasies have given way to grittier, more pointed works grounded firmly in reality. Academics in the United States and Europe are teaching comics as literature in the classroom. Books like "Persepolis"—as well as Sacco's "Palestine" and "Safe Area: Gorazde," and Guy Delisle's "Pyongyang"—are held up not only as great literature but also as instructive guides to global conflict zones. Polish graphic artists are commemorating the country's upcoming 25th anniversary of Solidarity with a slew of new comics. Once the province of indie publishers, graphic novels are now turned out by serious houses like Pantheon in New York and Jonathan Cape in London. Museums like New York's Whitney and London's Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit cutting-edge comics as art. In France, Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres presided in May over the first national celebration of comic books (one of nine officially recognized arts), knighting comics artists from Japan, France and Belgium. Said Donnedieu, "I wanted to mark my attachment to this sector of creativity, to honor its beauty, its irony, its sometime ferocity, its perpetual imagination."

Indeed, the genre knows no rules or boundaries. The term "graphic novel" was popularized by Will Eisner, one of the first artists to elevate the medium beyond pulp fare with his 1978 work "A Contract With God," depicting his childhood in a Bronx, New York, tenement. Three decades on, publishers and retailers often use "graphic novel" to distinguish one-off books from the serialized ones put out by companies like Marvel and DC Comics—but many of the artists themselves prefer the outsider status that "comics" connotes. (In Daniel Clowes's new novel, "Ice Haven," comic-book critic Harry Naybors pontificates about nomenclature, finding the term "comics" superior to the "vulgar marketing sobriquet 'graphic novel'.")

The themes—war, oppression, terrorism, racism—as well as the drawings themselves are becoming increasingly sophisticated. "For decades, comics have been little more than yet another commercial tool to cheat children out of their lunch money," says Chris Ware, author of the much-heralded "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," the story of four generations of downtrodden men in Chicago. "Slowly, that's changing, with a growing number of genuinely artistically minded people starting to draw them, and the subject matter migrating to screenplays and Hollywood films."

Every month seems to bring a new film based on a comic book. Ironically, it was a drop in sales of serialized comic books like "Superman" and "Spider-Man" that helped catalyze the movie deals. Hollywood producers keen to show off new digital technology jumped on superhero content, and reaped the rewards of the built-in audience for superhero films. The mass-market exposure of the characters, in turn, started driving more people into the comics sections of their bookstores, where they discovered manga and graphic novels. Now those genres are getting more play on the big screen, too—witness the recent film versions of Frank Miller's "Sin City," Clowes's "Ghost World," Max Allan Collins's "The Road to Perdition" and Alan Moore's Jack the Ripper tale "From Hell."

The rise of serious graphic literature is less a new phenomenon than a return to a forgotten one. Rodolphe Topffer, a German illustrator who made Europe's first interdependent combinations of words and pictures in the early 1800s, was admired by Goethe. Charles Dickens's first works used pictures. As with so many things, Europeans invented modern comics—and Americans commercialized them. By the early 20th century, comic strips had taken off in U.S. newspapers, snapped up by hordes of new immigrants who used the universal language of images to learn English. Comics remained high art on the Continent, but in the Anglo-Saxon world they became mass-market pop fare, read, discarded and used to wrap fish. The rise of the sci-fi/superhero comic books in the 1950s did little to clean up the reputation of graphic literature.

So the 1986 publication of "Maus," Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about his parents' survival of the Holocaust (Jews were drawn as mice, Germans as cats), was a revelation. "I had thought that comics were all about superheroes," says Satrapi. "I remember seeing 'Maus' and thinking, 'Wow, you can do that?' and then, 'Yeah, and why wouldn't you do that?' " For at least a decade, no other comic novel approached the significance of "Maus."

The fact that so many do now is testimony to Spiegelman's godfatherlike role in graphic literature. For years he has spread the good word about comics (with the help of his French wife, Francoise Mouly, who is in charge of cover art for The New Yorker magazine), publishing smart comic magazines and mentoring top artists like Ware, Clowes and Satrapi. Given the outsider reputation of comics, it's no wonder that these same artists now express ambivalence about their acceptance by the cultural elite. "It's a Faustian bargain," says Spiegelman, for a medium that has traditionally been populated by outsiders to be discussed by academics and bought by the cozy middle classes in mainstream bookstores. "But at least we're a category now, and there is a place for more people to see the work."

The boom in graphic literature may stem in part from the need for fresh ways to comment on the increasingly complex political and social issues of the day. When asked why comics are having a moment now, Spiegelman jokes, "I hope it's not related to the [U.S.] administration." Still, it's true that he was the first well-known artist to react to 9/11, with a series of controversial comic strips that were rejected by many newspapers and magazines before ultimately appearing in the graphic novel "In the Shadow of No Towers." The subversive power of comics allowed Spiegelman to depict falling towers and satirize the Bush government while most other writers were staying clear of the disaster zone. "Comics aren't supposed to be 'serious,' so we can say anything," notes Satrapi. "Also, the use of a drawing, rather than a photograph, can create the distance necessary to handle a sensitive topic without being cynical."

Of course, the comic book benefits from the fact that we live in a visual world, communicating as much through images as through words. But even as comics lend themselves so well to the digital age, they also have an almost artisanal sensibility that appeals at a time when so much communication is virtual and ephemeral. "Part of the pleasure of a book is its object-ness," says Spiegelman. "Graphic novels inhabit that completely." "In the Shadow of No Towers" is printed on 12 heavy cardboard pages like a children's board book. The beautifully detailed panels in "Jimmy Corrigan," almost Victorian in their intricacy, make it feel more like a piece of artwork than a novel. Creating these books is akin more to sculpting than to writing; each panel is drawn by hand, and entire novels can take a decade or more to create. "It's work for a monk," says Satrapi.

The comics universe will undoubtedly continue to expand. A number of new releases, like Clowes's "Ice Haven" (which crosses the adolescent angst of "Ghost World" with "Simpsons"-style social satire) and Satrapi's "Embroideries" (frank talk about the sex lives of Iranian women), are already racking up strong sales. In October, in honor of the 20th anniversary of "Maus," Spiegelman will publish "Meta Mouse," a collection of sketches and background work from the original. Bidding wars for hot new titles are heating up; W.W. Norton has reportedly paid a hefty advance for R. Crumb's version of the Biblical tale of Genesis. Beyond this, manga publisher Tokyopop recently cut a deal to serialize manga in the hugely popular U.S. teen magazine CosmoGirl. And rival publisher Dark Horse plans to launch a series of manga Harlequin romance novels.

Meanwhile, the movies just keeping coming, with stars like Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron and Nicolas Cage soon to be seen in comic-book adaptations. Offerings this fall include "V for Vendetta," based on an Alan Moore novel set uncomfortably close to reality in a totalitarian London under siege by terrorists. "Art School Confidential," an adaptation of Clowes's comic about a disgruntled art-school student—starring John Malkovich—is due in September. Meanwhile, Satrapi is penning a French animated version of "Persepolis" and is in discussion with an American studio about a possible English-language version. "There are still so many stories that can be told by comics," she says. "It's a relatively new medium, but I think it has a really long and beautiful future."

With Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Mary Acoymo in London, Mark Russell in Seoul and Kay Itoi in Tokyo
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2005

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