Aimed primarily at adults, graphic narratives present fiction and nonfiction featuring complex plots and serious themes in a comic-book format. One of the first adaptations of literature to a graphic narrative format occurred in 1941 when Albert Kanter launched the Classics Comics series, later renamed Classics Illustrated. With graphic versions of such diverse classics as Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1820), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1600–01), Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866), and Homer's The Iliad, the series flourished in the United States from 1941 through 1971—when the publisher stopped reprinting old titles. In 1990 Berkley, First Publishing, and Classics Media Group revived Classics Illustrated; other publishers and writers have produced similar types of works. Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, for instance, adapted Paul Auster's City of Glass (1985), and Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz have collaborated on graphic versions of numerous works by Franz Kafka. Proponents of graphic narrative adaptations argue that such material will promote cultural literacy by introducing adolescents to works they might not otherwise read. Detractors contend that graphic versions oversimplify the original's content and discourage people from reading.
Writers and illustrators have also developed original fiction and nonfiction works in the graphic narrative format. Distinct from traditional comic books in their subject matter and level of thematic complexity, graphic novels—which appear as serials, collections, or in single volumes—usually feature numerous, highly-developed characters interacting in a complex plot within a naturalistic setting. For instance, the series Love and Rockets, drawn and written by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez, emphasizes rural Central Americans dealing with conflicts between capitalist and communist forces. The series also deals with the personal trials of Hispanic Americans living in barrios. Other works in the genre, such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen (1987), feature superheroes but depict them in a realistic setting and treat them in a sophisticated, revisionist manner. As Russell Schechter has argued, Watchmen "through its reflexive, comic-within-a-comic structure,… deconstructs—verbally and visually—50 years of comic book conventions." Nonfiction graphic narratives include Larry Gonick's The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990) and The Cartoon History of the Universe II (1994), which treat world history from the Big Bang through the decline of the Roman Empire; Joyce Brabner and Tom Yeates's Flashpoint (1989), a journalistic account of the Central Intelligence Agency's attempt to assassinate Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan contra; Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Frank Stack's Our Cancer Year (1994), a memoir of Pekar's struggle with cancer; and Joe Sacco's Palestine (1994), an account of his visit to the West Bank in the early 1990s. Commenting on Maus: A Survivor's Tale II (1991), Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic narrative about the Holocaust, James Colbert wrote: "It is, indeed, unusual to think of authentic novels as having pictures. The notion is so new that, although comics are an indigenous, truly American art form, we haven't even figured out what to call such works. Comic book seems diminutive, even pejorative. A graphic novel seems like something Madonna would write. But lest we forget, the other definition of novel is 'new and not resembling something formerly known or used; original or striking, especially in conception or style.'"
Representative Works Discussed Below
Just Who the Hell Is SHE, Anyway? (novel) 1994
Bone Saw [editor, with James O'Barr] (anthology) 1993
From Inside (novel) 1994
Brabner, Joyce, and Yeates, Tom
Flashpoint: The La Penca Bombing (nonfiction) 1989; published in Brought to Light
Time2 (novel) 1986
The Shadow: Blood and Judgment (novel) 1987
Time2: The Satisfaction of Black Mariah (novel) 1987
Crumb, Robert, and Mairowitz, David Zane
Kafka for Beginners [Introducing Kafka] (fiction and nonfiction) 1993
DeMatteis, J. M.
Greenberg the Vampire [with Mark Badger] (novel) 1986
Moonshadow [with Jon J. Muth, Kevin Nowlan, and Kent Williams] (novel) 1989
Brief Lives [with Jill Thompson and Vince Locke] (novel) 1994
The Cartoon History of the Universe: Volumes 1-7, From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (history) 1990
The Cartoon History of the Universe II: Volumes 8-13, From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (history) 1994
Helfer, Andrew, and Baker, Kyle
Justice, Inc. (novel) 1989
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History And Overviews
Russell Schechter (essay date August 1989)
SOURCE: "Kat and Maus," in Communication Research, Vol. 16, No. 4, August, 1989, pp. 552-62.
[In the excerpt below, Schechter contends that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's graphic novel Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus are postmodern works that validate the comic form.]
Criticism of the postmodernist enterprise as ultimately empty might well be a tendential parochialism. If one is going to live by the argument that modern works have an aura that is extant but different from that of traditional works, one must accept the possibility of a distinctive postmodern aura resulting from recombinant pastiche and possibly different from both traditional and modern forms. Watchmen, the recent postmodern comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1987), provides ample evidence for the argument. Although comic books began as compilations of newspaper strips, the two forms quickly developed in their own—though closely related—directions. Watchmen, designed for a late-teen and adult readership, reflects an origin in postmodernity: Its impact depends on the reader's acceptance of the distance of the "meta" position.
The subject of this comic is the comics. It lays bare the abundant absurdities of what has been a mostly juvenile, underachieving form in an extremely sophisticated and adult manner. In part...
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The Classics Illustrated Series
Beth Levine (essay date 24 November 1989)
SOURCE: "Berkley, First and CMG Join to Revive Classics Illustrated," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 236, No. 20, November 24, 1989, p. 48.
[In the following essay, Levine remarks on the revival of the Classics Illustrated series.]
"Classics Illustrated"…. For millions, the name conjures up the midnight hours they spent reading by flashlight under the bedcovers. For others, the comic book versions of such titles as Moby Dick and David Copperfield symbolize the only way they survived English lit. In February, Berkley, First Publishing and Classics Media Group will revive the once-popular series with all-new full-color art and text in a perfect-bound graphic novel format, priced at $3.75 per book.
In this unusual joint venture, Berkley will distribute the titles to the bookstores and deal with publicity, promotion and advertising. First Publishing will handle editing, production and distribution to specialist comic book outlets, while Classics Media Group manages audio, video, TV and film rights. Classics Illustrated was previously published from 1941 to 1972; in its heyday, the series sold 25 million copies a week. (Berkley et al. plan more modest, though yet unannounced, first printings.) Why revive a format that lost steam 17 years ago?
"There's a disturbing degree of illiteracy in...
(The entire section is 653 words.)
Reviews Of Recent Works
Roz Kaveney (review date 18-25 December 1987–1 January 1988)
SOURCE: "Eaten by a Lion or Something," in New Statesman, Vol. 114, Nos. 2960-2962, December 12-25, 1987–January 1, 1988, pp. 41-2.
[Below, Kaveney reviews several graphic novels including Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament from Knock-about Publishers and Jose Munoz and Carlos Sampayo's collaboration entitled Joe's Bar.]
When we were all very young, the reverend Marcus Morris attempted to channel our taste for comics into that brand of liberal Christian imperialism so skillfully preached in Eagle and Girl. In between Belle of the Ballet and Dan Dare, we had to sit more often than we cared to through famous stories from the Bible, all of them done in excruciating, stilted good taste.
And some of us grew up to be the artists and writers who have contributed to Knockabout's Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament, which goes to show that blasphemy is a matter of having a complex relationship with your past and your roots.
Outrageous Tales has already been greeted with tabloid and rent-a-quote MP outrange—and, of course, with vague threats of prosecution from Mary Whitehouse. In some measure, it would have failed in its purpose had it not been.
Knockabout has been prosecuted and persecuted for a variety of underground comics...
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Berman, Avis. "Art Spiegelman: The Maus that Roared." Artnews 92, No. 5 (May 1993): 63-4.
Examines the making of Maus and its use of a comic-book format.
DeCandido, Keith R. A. "Comic 'Books.'" Library Journal 116, No. 10 (1 June 1991): 134.
Provides brief reviews of several graphic novels, including Dave Sim and Gerhard's Jaka's Story.
Kaveney, Roz. "Strip Shows." New Statesman 113, No. 2926 (24 April 1987): 26-7.
Remarks on several contemporary graphic novels, including Gilbert Hernandez's Heartbreak Soup.
Larson, Kay. "Of Mice and Men." New York 25, No. 2 (13 January 1992): 65-6.
Discusses Art Spiegelman's two-volume Maus: A Survivor's Tale, arguing that "the comic-book format, merging historical nightmare and ordinary reality, allowed Spiegelman to conflate those two extremes and point toward their enormity."
Nicholls, Richard E. "Detective Comics." The New York Times Book Review (2 October 1994): 32.
Briefly reviews City of Glass.
Prescott, Peter S., and Sawhill, Ray. "The Comic Book...
(The entire section is 290 words.)