Graphic Narratives History And Overviews - Essay

History And Overviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 through its reflexive, comic-within-a-comic structure, Watchmen deconstructs—verbally and visually—50 years of comic book conventions, making visible what has always remained latent: the psychopathology of heroes, the fascistic trajectory of adolescent power fantasies, and rampant misogyny, among many other elements central to the form's thematics.

Watchmen explodes the fantasy world of the comics at the same time that it spins a compelling yet inescapably archetypal comic book yarn. In spite of its elegant, labyrinthine structure and delightfully detailed panel design, however, the book ultimately (and purposefully?) succumbs to many of the same themes and techniques it intends to deconstruct. One revels in Watchmen's cleverly engineered contradictions even as one is suckered into the narrative's grand operatic flow.

The problem with Watchmen is that, like Daffy Duck's famous self-immolation act, it can be done only once. Even though I am willing to be convinced that art was involved when "performance artist" Joe Coleman first went on stage to bite off the head of a mouse, by the time he chewed off his fiftieth rodent noggin it was merely embarrassing. Like so much (post-) avant-gardist work, the point is made the first time and, though perhaps worth repeating until everyone gets it, all repetitions after that become less than redundant. So, too, with Watchmen.

Although both Watchmen and [Jay Cantor's novel Krazy Kat (1987)] are energetic and innovative in their own ways, and there remains more than two thousand years of art to deconstruct and reassemble, the prospect of a long walk down a short bricolage pier is less than appealing. This is not to imply any fundamental limitations of the postmodernist agenda, nor that the job of deconstructing the past is to be taken lightly, but the seemingly endless recycling and reappropriation of cultural icons does seem to be emblematic of postmodern production—production highly rationalized in that all art becomes standardized in the process of meaning removal. If the past serves the present well, it is only because the past has been preprocessed: It is instantly recognizable at the surface, a dereferentialized surface now stripped of meaning and structure and thus aura. The routinization of authentic cultural items in postmodern production may prove every bit as savage as that enacted on traditional work by mechanically reproduced simulacra. If so, the question of whether the postmodern can be regarded as a truly autonomous epoch remains open to debate.

If there is an overwhelming bleakness to the notion of a rationalized postmodern aesthetic, there remain works that, while not necessarily revolutionary in a paradigm-breaking sense, are at least transcendent within the constraints of the dominant aesthetic. One such work that glows with an irrefutable authenticity, a beacon powerful enough to penetrate even the dense gloom of the postmodern malaise, is Maus, Art Spiegelman's (1986) masterful and moving biography of his father's experiences in Nazi Germany.

Although "Holocaust comic" is a perversely exquisite oxymoron, Maus represents not only validation of the comic form but fulfillment of the best possibilities inherent in the postmodern validation of the "baser" media. Originally appearing in the pages of Raw, an irregularly published magazine of innovative comic and graphic art, the first six chapters of the as-yet-unfinished story of Maus have been assembled in a single volume by Pantheon Books. Drawn in appropriately stark black-and-white and subtitled "A Survivor's Tale," Maus tells two stories: the frustrating present-day relationship of Spiegelman and his widowed father and the mad nightmare of his parents' survival in Auschwitz.

All of the characters in Maus, in a classic tradition of the comic form, are depicted as animals: The Jews are mice, the Nazis cats, the Poles pigs. These choices of species may be obvious, but are effective nonetheless. Every character is as real, every emotion as true, and every episode as harrowing as anything from Elie Weisel or Primo Levi or A. Anatolii.

Spiegelman has a remarkable ear not only for how people say things, but for what their words do and do not mean. The balloons his words appear in are not the overblown casings of hyperreal hyperbole, but delicate shells containing pearls of stripped-down truth. Without ever resorting to the crude phoneticisms of a Tom Wolfe, Spiegelman creates believable dialogue and convincing inflections for Polish collaborators and Borscht Belt bungalow dwellers alike. His deliberately pared-down drawing style, which renders the faces of various characters virtually identical, is sparse in detail but dense with feeling: Characters become knowable for themselves as complicated and fully developed personalities. The darkness of Spiegelman's vision reproduces the atmosphere of the time, with an impact as shattering and—perhaps most surprising—as immediate as a masterwork like the Alain Resnais film Night and Fog.

There are, no doubt, those who will ask, in the spirit of Dwight Macdonald, why such a story need be told as a comic. Given the author's remarkable talent and irrefutable authenticity, why not tell the tale in a conventional literary or biographical form? That is the wrong question, one which assumes that there is necessity and value in maintaining rigid hierarchies between high culture and low, midcult and mass. The more progressive impulses of postmodernism bring us to the comic form with a more appropriate question: Why not?

Maus refutes all objections to the comic as a complex and meaningful medium. Although some of Maus's impact may result from the novelty of experiencing such a story in so different a form, it demonstrates the possibility of countering rationalization—and not only by toying with those forces à la Watchmen. Other works that work against the rationalized grain include Stray Toasters, Bill Sienkiewicz's astonishing transgenre comic book, and Lynda Barry's weekly strip Ernie Pook's Comeek, which plays with nostalgia without succumbing to it.

Postmodernism leads us to consider that the limitations of a medium may be minor relative to the artist's breadth of vision and depth of devotion. Whether this idea surfaces—or is itself reduced to mere surface—will determine the position that postmodernism finally occupies in the judgment of history.

Keith R. A. DeCandido (essay date 15 March 1990)

SOURCE: "Picture This: Graphic Novels in Libraries," in Library Journal, Vol. 115, No. 5, March 15, 1990, pp. 50-5.

[DeCandido is a librarian and a reviewer for The Comics Journal. In the following excerpt, he presents a general description of the graphic novel genre, suggests where to acquire graphic novels, and surveys some of the available works.]

Not many libraries have discovered graphic novels yet. The American Heritage Dictionary has not discovered them yet either; it does not define the term. A graphic novel is a self-contained story that uses a combination of text and art to articulate the plot. It is equivalent in content to a long short story or a short novel (or novella, or novellini, as the old New Yorker cartoon has it) and is in some ways a larger version of a comic book. It differs from the fotonovela in that the art is generally drawn in a graphic novel; photographs are used in the fotonovela.

The comic book as we know it has its origins in the Depression era. William M. Gaines, one of the masterminds behind the EC Horror Comics of the 1950s and Mad magazine, claims that his father originated the comic book in the mid-1930s by placing Sunday funnies into a booklike format. The idea caught on, and comics were not only used to collect funnies, but were created independently. In the 1940s, patriotic superheroes and soldiers were used to propagandize the war effort; in the 1950s, superheroes gave way to romance and horror.

Like everything else, comics came under fire by McCarthy-era paranoia, and the Comics Code Authority, a glorified censorship squad, was formed to keep comics in line. (It should be noted that the code is next to useless these days—it comes from the same mindset as the movie ratings system, and is even less relevant.) The superhero was revitalized in the early 1960s with Marvel's line of quasi-realistic heroes. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the underground comix creators began publishing graphic novels that moved away from the Comics Code and clichéd superheroes. In the 1980s, The Big Two, Marvel and DC, started expanding into graphic novels. The form is more flexible in size and shape, and allows greater creative freedom. Today, graphic novels are plentiful, from all publishers, in all shapes and sizes.

Generally graphic novels are either the size of a magazine (more like the late lamented Ms. or LJ than Rolling Stone or Mirabella), and usually printed on glossy paper for crisper artwork. Others are as large as regular, newsprint comics. Some are original, self-contained stories, others are collections of serialized chapters (à la 19th-century novels by Dickens and others).

The term "graphic novel" is a misnomer; while "graphic" is certainly accurate, "novel" is not; they are shorter than a standard novel. Maybe we could call them "graphic novellinis"? Comics critics have debated the question in the pages of such magazines as The Comics Journal (CJ), Comics Buyer's Guide, Amazing Heroes, and Comics Interview, with little result. Some have tried "graphic album" (used by CBG in their annual fan poll), but that sounds too much like an LP decorated with a cartoon. Carter Scholz, in CJ once proposed "graphic installment." Finally, the critics sigh, scratch their heads, and put "graphic novel" in quotes….

One of the current problems that libraries may have in attempting to collect graphic novels is that the system of distribution is different from what libraries generally use. The librarian who selects graphic novels for the New York Public Library (Research) is forced to buy at Forbidden Planet (a N.Y. store specializing in sf, fantasy, and graphic literature). Queries to major publishers and distributors about dealings with libraries were met with confused or negative responses, though many expressed a desire (or at least a willingness) to deal with libraries. First Publishing (the largest of the non-Marvel-or-DC publishers) representatives regularly speak to librarians at the American Booksellers Association convention, however, even they have no special arrangement with libraries.

The principal reason for this is the rigidity of the distribution system of graphic literature. Publishers send books directly to distributors, who send books directly to news-stands and comic specialty shops. Of the two largest distributors, Diamond has no arrangements with any libraries, and Capital City sends material only to two or three.

Some libraries have begun to collect graphic literature, but very few have anything beyond a few titles. Boston Public Library only carries Art Spiegelman's Maus. Baltimore County Public Library only carries Batman-oriented material due to recent demand. (According to Mary Paulus of BCPL, they base their purchases on materials information cards submitted by readers, and graphic literature apparently is not requested much.)

Sam Bennett at Kansas City Public Library, Mo., says they buy a few, mainly based on reviews in Publishers Weekly, and he does look out for interesting things. The Kansas City Art Institute Library, Mo., the New Orleans Public Library, and Salem Public Library, Mass. (among others) order very little, if any; indeed, many librarians we contacted for this article needed a detailed explanation of what a graphic novel is. We were able to identify one place with a large graphic collection, the Bowling Green State University Popular Culture Library, Ohio. In fact, it was the only one polled that unhesitatingly gave a long list of titles it carried.

Bookdealers were just as disappointing. Mike Nicita of Golden-Lee said that they do carry graphic novels, but libraries don't order in any magnitude "worth mentioning in your article," a sentiment echoed by Sandy Rose of Brodart. Ingram's Larry Price could not determine if they carried graphic literature or not—it is not classified as a separate genre, and is therefore untraceable. Jean Srnecz of Baker & Taylor said much the same thing, adding that graphic novels have not "emerged as a major publishing category." B&T does carry graphic literature, but it is not publicized separately….

The traditional age group for comic book purchasers is in the upper teens (based on the respondents to CBG's annual poll). Graphic novels capture a higher age group, mid-20s, due to their generally greater sophistication. Few of the best of graphic novels come from Marvel or DC, nor do they involve superheroes overmuch. Although people in tights and capes are the backbone of the industry, they are in the minority in the literary art form.

The themes are no different from any other literature: some form of conflict, usually between "good" and "evil," or dealing with the intricacies of interpersonal relationships. That about covers every plot from Shakespeare to Danielle Steel. Graphic literature is unique in that it combines representation with words. It is not simply art conveying a story, nor just words, but the combination that sets the medium apart (this is why many of the best works are written and drawn by the same person).

If one must categorize it, it should have its own denomination, rather than being lumped in with art books, or sf/fantasy, or "pop," or (as some bookstores do for whatever arcane reason) humor. Since the form has only recently gained anything resembling mainstream acceptance, it is still feeling its way around, so one cannot blame those who don't know how to treat it….

Any library contemplating a graphic collection should definitely consider the following as musts, in order of merit. This list is by no means complete, but would make an excellent start.

Maus by Art Spiegelman is collected from the pages of RAW, an anthology comic put out by Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly. It is a biographical tale of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, detailing his trials as a Jew in Europe during World War II. Besides the sheer power of the story, Spiegelman twists the "talking animal" convention used often in comics (and also by George Orwell in Animal Farm). Jews are mice, Germans, cats, Poles, pigs, and Americans, dogs. A second volume, Mauschwitz, is being serialized in RAW. Libraries that collect Holocaust literature should consider this.

Cerebus, High Society, and Church and State (2 vols.) by Dave Sim, with Gerhard, is Sim's monthly comic, planned as a massive 300-issue story in separate installments (Sim feels 300 comic books will have enough content to qualify as a novel). Each installment has been collected into one (or two) massive volumes. The first, Cerebus, collects issues prior to Sim's decision to make this one big story, and is marred by crude stories and cruder art, but should be included for completeness. Although ostensibly the story of a walking, talking, obnoxious aardvark in a medieval land of humans, Sim does an excellent job of detailing the nuances and peculiarities of political power (High Society), religious authority (the two-volume Church and State) and personal relationships (Jaka's Story, still in progress in the monthly book). The art, with tones and background inking by Gerhard, is magnificent.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons got notice in the mainstream press, as it takes the superhero convention and grounds it in reality. Moore and Gibbons do not just present a world with superheroes, but this world, with the addition of a "superhero" fad around the late 1930s, early 1940s. Grown men and women acted as vigilantes in funny suits. This concept itself alters little, but when a true superman (called "Dr. Manhattan") arrives, everything changes. The balance of power shifts, the United States wins the Vietnam War, Nixon remains president for a third, fourth, and fifth term, and numerous other significant changes, all because the government has a superman working for it. ("God exists," one perceptive scientist remarks, "and he's American.") Moore and Gibbons take the superhero to its ultimate, to a level mainstream comics couldn't possibly attain. The attention to detail is superb, and by the time you finish (probably, despite its length, in one sitting), you are stunned.

Moonshadow by J.M. DeMatteis and Jon J. Muth, with Kevin Nowlan and Kent Williams could easily be subtitled "Candide in Space." Moonshadow's mother is a hippie who was plucked from the Earth in the early 1970s by the G'l Doses, an enigmatic race of beings that look like balls of light with beatific smiles, who flit about the galaxy operating on pure whim, plucking beings from all manner of worlds. One of those G'l Doses is Moon's father, and it is that father that boots Moon & Co. (his mother; his cat, Frodo; his unwilling companion, the lecherous Ira) into space. Throughout his travels—referred to by the older Moonshadow, narrating in flashback, as his search for enlightenment—he encounters all manner of beings, learns of love and hate, war and peace. DeMatteis writes with joy of life, of love, and of literature (each chapter opens with a relevant quote, from Blake to Beckett to Tolkien to Carroll). Moon's quest is in many ways the Romantic quest of so many early-19th-century poets, and Muth's watercolor art with Nowlan's calligraphic letters only augment the feeling of wonder and delight in exploration and discovery.

American Splendor by Harvey Pekar and others. Any random sampling of issues in this series would do nicely, or one could purchase the collection. Pekar does "slice-of-life" work (with a multitude of artists, including the infamous and weird R. Crumb), specifically from his own life. Pekar gives pieces of his experiences, delightful in their mundanity, comfortable in their familiarity, and made enjoyable by his remarkable skill with dialect.

Love and Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez is available in the monthly magazines, and many collections in varying formats. These brothers work separately to different ends, but both have remarkable storytelling abilities. Gilbert's main focus is rural Central Americans living in the middle of (or perhaps in spite of) conflicting capitalist and communist forces. Jaime's characters live in urban barrios, also on the low end of the economic spectrum, and he chronicles their crazed personal crises. Gilbert has also done more abstract work recently, including "Frida" in Love and Rockets #28, a magnificent portrait of Frida Kahlo, artist and wife of artist Diego Rivera.

The Journey Saga. Vol. 1: Tall Tales by William Messner-Loebs is the first collection of the "Journey" series, the story of Josh "Wolverine" MacAllistaire, a trapper in early 1800s Michigan, a frontier rife with story possibilities. Messner-Loebs has a charmingly laid-back narrative style ("Black bears in the wild, as a rule, stood three-foot at the shoulder and measured six foot from flank to snout. They weighed close on three hundred pound … 'Course, some were bigger …"), and a mishmash of French, German, and American (both native and colonial) people, not to mention wildlife, who fall in and out of Josh's life. Josh counters his daily tumult with a simple commonsense approach that belies a terrible ferocity. Brilliant storytelling, with good attention to historical detail. Can be considered historical fiction.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley is a high-quality superhero comic, but still a superhero comic. There are numerous inconsistencies that Miller (and his editors Denny O'Neil and Dick Giordano) glossed over, but this is perhaps the ultimate Batman story, with superb, larger-than-life art, and is primarily responsible for the present Bat-mania of which the Batman movie is the climax.

The following titles are not musts, but worth-lookingats….

AARGH stands for Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia, and was published as a backlash against Proposition 28. That British law effectively enables the government to censor the very concept of homosexuality from British cultural life. It contains contributions from various artists (see also StripAIDS USA).

Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead Is Purely Coincidental by Drew and Josh Alan Friedman takes loony pokes at popular culture.

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland focuses on the relationship between Batman and the Joker far more devilishly and horrifically than the Batman movie.

Brought to Light by Alan Moore, Joyce Brabner, Tom Yeates, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Paul Mavrides was supposed to be jointly published by Eclipse and DC, but DC's parent corporation, Warner Bros., pulled out, fearing possible reprisals. This "graphic docudrama" features two stories severely critical of our government, involving the "secret wars" conducted by the CIA and National Security Council in Central America. It was done in conjunction with the Christic Institute's legal suit against the U.S. government. Moore and Sienkiewicz's story is the better of the two, but both will shatter any illusions one might have about covert activities perpetrated by the United States….

The Cowboy Wally Show by Kyle Baker is a satiric treatment of television politics.

Elektra: Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz is an overwhelmingly surreal look at government—sort of. Very strange and very good.

The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told and The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told present companion pieces to present Bat mania, and include some very interesting stories from the late 1930s to the early 1980s.

Greenberg the Vampire by J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Badger is the hilarious story of a neurotic, Jewish, horror-fiction-writing vampire.

Joe's Bar by Jose Munoz and Carlos Sampayo is the story of a local Manhattan bar told with surprising realism considering the two Argentine creators have never been to New York. Gritty and dark.

Justice, Inc. by Andrew Helfer and Kyle Baker takes the Avenger, the old radio hero who could alter his facial features, and uses it to critique the CIA's practice of over-throwing legitimate (and socialistic) governments and replacing them with dictatorships. Very skilled.

Lone Wolf & Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima tells the story of a ronin (a samurai without a lord), formerly the shogun's executioner, who travels the road of the assassin, hoping someday to avenge his family's murder. He travels with his very young child. Very Japanese in style and narrative.

Neat Stuff by Peter C. Bagge. If you picture Roger Rabbit's eyes bulging, that's Bagge's people, only they are like that all the time. His portrayals of scuzzy characters are hysterical.

The Raven Banner by Alan Zelenetz and Charles Vess is a charming tale of Norse mythology with beautiful painted art by Vess.

The Shadow: Blood and Judgment by Howard Chaykin portrays the 1980s-ization of the radio hero. Convoluted and violent, but interesting.

Someplace Strange by Ann Nocenti and John Bolton tells the story of two kids and a punk who travel to an alternate universe. Excellent character study, and weird art.

Starstruck by Elaine Lee and Michael Wm. Kaluta is sf as a cross between William Gibson's cyberpunk books and Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Gorgeous art.

Stray Toasters by Bill Sienkiewicz. Congratulations if you can follow the plot. Abstract, surreal, peculiar, and warped.

StripAIDS USA is like AARGH, and AIDS benefit. This is primarily by American artists, reacting against misconceptions about both the disease, and those who get it.

Time2 and Time2: The Satisfaction of Black Mariah by Howard Chaykin has jazz music, gangland warfare, adultery, violence, and more convoluted plot twists than previously believed possible. Larger-than-life art in the vein of Miller's Dark Knight.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd is a frightening treatment of totalitarian, post-World War III Britain, and a statement on where Britain is now heading.

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Eric Anderson is a fascinating study in racial prejudice and the influence of tunnel-minded televangelists, especially in light of the Swaggart and Jim and Tammy imbroglios that have occurred since its publication.

Pagan Kennedy (essay date 19 March 1990)

SOURCE: "P. C. Comics," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 250, No. 11, March 19, 1990, pp. 386-89.

[In the essay below, Kennedy comments on the history of comic book publishing in the United States and discusses the distinctive qualities and appeal of several graphic novels.]

By 1969, Zap Comix had become so much a totem of the underground San Francisco scene that its editor, ninety-pound weakling Robert Crumb, was finally able to get laid. As he relates in a recent cartoon story, "I made up for all those years of deprivation by lunging maniacally at women I was attracted to … squeezing faces and humping legs…. I usually got away with it … famous eccentric artist, you know." His Zap included everything from instructions for smoking a joint to the adventures of Wonder Wart-Hog, in which the main character, unable to get it up, uses his snout instead. Underground comix, distributed through head shops along with bongs and roach clips, were ancillary to (male) hippie culture: They were kinky and they were druggy, and if they were too loud, then you were too old.

I discovered comic books that same year. I was 7 and I bought mine at Dart Drug while Dad browsed through the lawn-care aisle. Like most girls my age, my tastes ran toward Casper, the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the White Witch and Richie Rich, the Poor Little Rich Boy. Their titles were tellingly oxymoronic—in their candy-colored world, even ghosts, witches and capitalists were cute. And they, unlike the superhero stories the boys read, taught that goodness meant goody-two-shoeism: Rather than a strong left hook, girls' heroes got by on politeness, obedience and proper grooming. If Casper inadvertently scared human beings with his spooky looks, he, the spirit world's answer to Uncle Tom, would win them back with his courteousness. And Richie, that prig in the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, always minded his millionaire dad.

Why was there such a tremendous gap between the fluff that companies like Marvel, DC Comics and Harvey Comics dished out to us kids and the acid humor of the undergrounds? One reason may have been a 1954 book by Frederic Wertham called Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham accused comic books of causing everything from juvenile delinquency to bad grammar. The book prompted a televised Senate hearing, and the subdued publishers formed the Comics Code Authority of America, which drew up guidelines that put the quirkier titles, notably those of Entertaining Comics (EC), out of business. Mad, which became enormously influential for 1960s underground cartoonists, was the only EC survivor—albeit as the tamer Mad Magazine.

Moreover, DC, Marvel and other biggies turned the creation of comic books into an assembly line. One artist drew according to a writer's script; another inked in the drawing; another put in color; another, the lettering. Of course, artists and writers seldom received royalties on their work or owned the characters they developed, a policy that insured that they would churn out copy.

Many of those who formed the underground had been kids when EC—which specialized in torn-off limbs, eye-balls popping out of skulls and Twilight Zone plot twists—was put on trial. Faced with a system in which comics that didn't meet the code couldn't get shelf space, publishers such as Last Gasp Eco-Funnies and The Rip Off Press printed up their own books and distributed them directly or through porno and head shops.

Not only did these presses seek to encourage free expression, they also tried to overturn the exploitative behavior of the mainstream companies. As Jack Jaxon, one of the founders of Rip Off, wrote in 1971, "Publishers of comix work with the artists in what virtually amounts to a partnership arrangement…. We [artists] also retain the copyright to our published work." Jaxon's manifesto, reprinted in 1989 by Blabl, included an epilogue in which he admitted, "Perhaps I was hasty in predicting the eventual collapse of the mainstream industry."

Indeed, as the 1970s wore on, head shops feel afoul of the law, and the underground—tied to a waning hippie subculture—began to wither away.

But with the 1980s, two alternative titles, RAW and Weirdo, arrived to resuscitate the scene. On the face of it, they had a lot in common: Both were edited by veterans of the 1960s underground, and both showcased the work of old and new talents in the potpourri style of literary magazines. But in sensibility, they couldn't have been farther apart. Art Spiegelman's edgy, European RAW was printed on pages at least as large as Interview's and would have looked equally at home on a Soho coffee table. The large format and high-quality paper showed off each panel as a work of art, not merely a device to further the story at hand. Even when RAW artists drew in primitive and scratchy styles, you knew it was because they were more tortured and sensitive than you'd ever be.

R. Crumb's Weirdo also embraced primitive art styles, but in the American snot-dripping-out-of-the-nose tradition of Big Daddy Roth, renowned for his monsters driving hot rods. The inclusion of Crumb's own work in Weirdo tended to overshadow that of other artists, fine as many of them were. With his witty confessional style (tales of high-school foot fetishism, fr'instance) and drawings reminiscent of 1920s cartoons, Crumb was more a guru than a peer to other weirdos.

However, it was Spiegelman who most affected the way comic books are marketed. His masterpiece Maus—A Survivor's Tale recounts his father's experiences in a concentration camp, showing Jews as mice and Germans as cats. This "graphic novel" trailblazed comics' migration from the ghetto of special-interest markets to the (relatively) big bucks of book publishing. At first serialized in RAW, Maus was picked up by Pantheon and sold through bookstores—at a rate of 1,000 copies a week at one point. RAW itself is now put out by Penguin, alas in book format rather than as a coffee-table magazine.

But even after America's introduction to the graphic novel, relatively few comic books have made it into B. Daltons or Waldenbooks. For the rest, the "direct market" store—those comic book boutiques that stock both collector's items and the latest titles—has taken the place of the head shop, accounting for two-thirds of all comic books sold in the country. Such stores provide a venue for experimental works that otherwise might not get distributed. In addition, the specialty shops serve as hangouts where comics cognoscenti can meet to discuss the death of Robin or pick up more than the latest issue of X-Men.

What's perhaps most interesting about these stores, when you consider the antipathy between the mainstream and undergrounds in the 1960s, is that Zap (still going) now sits side by side with Spiderman on the shelves. The differences between the mainstream and the alternatives are falling away.

The big guys, eyeing an audience that now ranges in age from 13 to 29 (but which is still almost completely male), are scrambling to be arty and adult. In 1986, the same year Maus came out, megalith DC Comics published its own graphic novel, a Batman story called The Dark Knight Returns. The book marked several departures for DC. First, rather than having been churned out entirely in assembly-line fashion, it bears the distinctive stamp of one person, writer and penciler Frank Miller. Second, its themes aim unwaveringly at an older audience: Batman copes with the aging of his body, a soul as dark as his enemies' and, last but not least, nuclear war. In addition, The Dark Knight, first put out as a serialized comic, was published as a perfect-bound book on slick paper rather than on newsprint. At $12.95, few kids would be able to afford this comic book—indeed, it might put a strain on some adults' allowances.

But don't let its gussied-up looks fool you: The Dark Knight is just more of the same schlock. Miller adopts an easy nihilism to justify Batman's make-'em-die-screaming philosophy. The book has been hailed for reviving the vampirish 1930s Batman, but one would hope it is only fanboys weaned on costumed-hero books who are insisting that The Dark Knight qualifies as literature.

Watchmen, also serialized and later published in book form by DC, tackles the same hero-gone-wrong theme: The title is taken from the epigraph to the Tower Commission report, "Who watches the watchmen?" While you wouldn't want to call this book literature either, it's a lot more sophisticated than The Dark Night. Scriptwriter Alan Moore portrays costumed heroes as both bungling do-gooders and Lieutenant Calley-style sleazebags. In short, they're just like the...

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