Every couple of years, some newspaper or magazine runs an article about how comic books aren't just for kids anymore. The latest one is from this Sunday's NYT Magazine. It's over seven thousand words long! I haven't read the whole thing yet, but it looks like a great intro to the "graphic novel" genre. There's also a good group photo of Seth, Chester Brown, Adrian Tomine, Speigelman and Joe Sacco. Don't miss the slide show with audio commentary by the cartoonists.
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.
The difference this time is that there is something like a critical mass of artists, young and old, uncovering new possibilities in this once-marginal form, and a new generation of readers, perhaps, who have grown up staring at cartoon images on their computer screens and in their video games, not to mention the savvy librarians and teachers who now cater to their interests and short attention spans. The publicity that has spilled over from movies like "Ghost World," originally a graphic novel by Dan Clowes, has certainly not hurt. And there is much better distribution of high-end comics now, thanks in part to two enterprising publishers, Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal and Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, which have managed to get their wares into traditional bookstores, not just the comics specialty shops. Some of the better-known graphic novels are published not by comics companies at all but by mainstream publishing houses — by Pantheon, in particular — and have put up mainstream sales numbers. "Persepolis," for example, Marjane Satrapi's charming, poignant story, drawn in small black-and-white panels that evoke Persian miniatures, about a young girl growing up in Iran and her family's suffering following the 1979 Islamic revolution, has sold 450,000 copies worldwide so far; "Jimmy Corrigan" sold 100,000 in hardback, and the newly released paperback is also moving briskly.