Cover Story

What's black and white and read all over?

Graphic novels are the latest blockbuster answer to an image-driven culture in search of stories and meaning

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

Every once in a while Christians discover that they are way behind in some emerging art form-and then comes a rush to compete, sometimes by imitating the style of prominent secular artists. Contemporary Christian music has produced some original talent but a lot of sounds like singers, as in "Let's sign that group. It sounds like The Bangles." As Christians enter the field of graphic novels, will we see original work, or merely a sliding of toes into the spare sandals of Japanese manga?

Maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves: What are graphic novels, anyway? Books that display explicit sex and violence? No: The term refers to comic books that tell a story-not necessarily fictional-and have enough pages to need a bookmark. And in the early years of the 21st century, they are hot in publishing:

Time: "Graphic novels have finally reached a point of critical mass in both popular consciousness and sales . . . the public awareness of these books has vastly increased, creating a kind of renaissance era of intense creativity and quality."

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The New York Times: "Comic books are what novels used to be-an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal . . . the fastest-growing section of your local bookstore these days is apt to be the one devoted to comics and so-called graphic novels."

The New Yorker: "Graphic novels . . . pumped-up comics . . . are to many in their teens and twenties what poetry once was. . . . Like life-changing poetry of yore, graphic novels are a young person's art, demanding and rewarding mental flexibility and nervous stamina. Consuming them . . . toggling for hours between the incommensurable functions of reading and looking . . . is taxing."

Scholars trace the form to 19th-century albums in Europe and to an American book-size comic, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (1837). The first major popular success may have been the Tintin books of Belgian artist Herge (Georges Remi, 1907-1983): His sagas of gutsy reporter Tintin and faithful dog Snowy have been translated into dozens of languages. A Tintin movie directed by Steven Spielberg is due out next year.

After World War II, manga, a Japanese word for "whimsical pictures," became a huge part of Japan's publishing industry, with virtually every genre (including action-adventure, romance, science fiction/fantasy, and pornography) represented.

Today, graphic novels in the United States include kids' books with big-muscled dudes and "adult" stuff with big-breasted dames, but also brainy works whose authors try to fulfill a prophecy from novelist John Updike: In 1969 he spoke of "the death of the novel" and speculated about "a doubly talented artist" who would "arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece." The term "graphic novel" began to appear in the 1960s and 1970s: The first volume to have the term on its cover was Will Eisner's A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories: A Graphic Novel (1978), but Eisner's work was actually four short stories, and the title suggested more than the stories delivered.

Two prime contenders for the "masterpiece" designation emerged during the 1980s. In Maus: A Survivor's Tale (Pantheon, 1986), Art Spiegelman's brilliantly told story of his Holocaust-surviving father and the psychological damage his dad (and then the whole family) sustained, Spiegelman depicted Jews as mice and Germans as cats, but there was nothing Disney-like about a story interweaving Holocaust history with father/son psychological conflict. A Pulitzer Prize and many other awards have recognized Spiegelman's innovative work.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons also showed mastery in Watchmen (Graphitti Designs, 1987), an imaginative science fiction work about the human side of superheroes in a world that needs and hates them. Moore's goal was to make a superhero Moby Dick; something that had that sort of weight, that sort of density, and Watchmen's multi-level, symbol-laden dialogue combined with cinematic techniques to make it at least a big tuna. Time in 2005 called Watchmen one of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present."

A more recent masterpiece contender, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon, 2003, 2004), combines simple drawings and elegant prose to tell in a charming yet passionate way Satrapi's story of growing up in Iran. Her Marxist-leaning family during the 1970s demonstrated to overthrow the Shah, and realized too late that the new, Islamic regime was far worse. Persepolis became both a critical and a commercial success, selling half a million copies-and now it is also a movie.

But the graphic novel that artists discuss the most is Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000). It's the story of a sad 36-year-old Chicago resident who accurately calls himself "a lonely, emotionally impaired human castaway." Corrigan in most scenes is no longer a kid but a sad, dim-witted searcher for a lost father who is glad to stay lost. Some pages contain large panels seemingly created by an expressive painter; others sport intricate little boxes that appear to be etched by an obsessed engineer. Every section, though, displays nihilistic despair about the meaninglessness of life and the unsatisfactory nature of father-son relationships.

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