Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Graphic Novels

The following entry presents analysis and criticism of graphic novels, a genre of literature that combines narrative and illustration, through 2003. For further information on graphic novels, see CLC, Volume 86.

Comic books and graphic narratives have traditionally been ignored by mainstream literary critics due to the perception that these works are primarily entertainment, intended for children or adolescents, with little or no lasting literary merit. In the mid- to late-1980s, however, a growing number of critics and scholars began to regard the graphic narrative medium as an innovative and powerful storytelling technique. The term “graphic novel”—coined by comics writer and illustrator Will Eisner in the late 1970s while in search of a publisher for one of his longer works—has come to refer to book-length comic narratives or collections of comic story arcs as opposed to the traditional, single-issue comic books which are typically shorter and published serially. Since their first inception, comic books have been aimed at a largely male audience, with superhero fantasies being the most popular recurring storyline. In contrast, modern graphic novels cover a wide variety of genres, including fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, history, adventure, and humor, while presenting subject material appealing to both male and female readers.

Although versions of the graphic novel format have been in existence since the 1880s—publishers of the era often released illustrated versions of classic works of literature—modern graphic novels only began to be regarded as part of the publishing mainstream during the 1980s, largely due to the release of several major works. Perhaps the most significant is Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History (1986), a full-length graphic novel that relates Spiegelman's father's experiences in German concentration camps during World War II. Maus earned Spiegelman a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and became a commercial, literary, and critical success, drawing attention to graphic novels as a viable medium for serious literature. In addition to Maus, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore's Watchmen (1987) are two critically acclaimed stories which deconstructed the major themes and expectations of the traditional comic book superhero fantasy. Dark Knight Returns takes Batman, a classic comic book hero, and recontextualizes his purpose within a gritty, neo-fascist future, while Watchmen presents a realistic world where the introduction of a god-like superhero creates lasting socio-political effects. The sophistication and popularity of these graphic novels, among others, opened the doors for artists and writers to use the medium to create more complex and non-traditional narratives, such as Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's Love and Rockets series, and Harvey Pekar's Our Cancer Year (1994), in which he and his co-authors recall Pekar's struggle with cancer. In addition to these atypical narratives, the superhero milieu remained an important element within the graphic novel genre, reflected by the publication of such lauded works as Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again (1987), Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), and Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum (1989). This diverse focus helped expand the audience base for graphic novels and led to several instances of cross-pollination with other media, most notably, film. The release and widespread success of the Batman film in 1989 led to a surge in graphic novel sales and inspired a number of similar comic-based films, including The Crow, X-Men, Spider-Man, Road to Perdition, and The Hulk. This phenomenon was so pervasive by the late 1980s and early 1990s that even mainstream literary publishers, such as Penguin, began investing in publishing and marketing graphic novels. Along with this mass-market recognition, graphic novels also began to receive attention in literary journals and became included as part of the literature curricula at several universities.

However, despite their success in the 1980s, the 1990s witnessed a downturn in the graphic novel boom in the United States. While superhero comics continued to gain popularity with readers, comic sales dipped in general, and many booksellers significantly reduced the number of graphic novels they carried. In Adult Comics: An Introduction (1993), Roger Sabin asserts that this reversal may have been caused by the return of public indifference towards comic books by many adults. This ambivalence was worsened by inappropriate pricing, the inexperience of mainstream publishers and booksellers in producing and selling graphic novels, and questions regarding the genre's subject material. However, despite these concerns, graphic novels continued to expand their presence in the literary market—largely due to their unique narrative form and appeal to adolescents—and the late 1990s witnessed another resurgence of interest in graphic novels. Several academic and public libraries have since focused on building large graphic novel collections, using these works as a way to lure younger readers into the library, and bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders have added graphic narrative sections in their stores. A new wave of graphic novels, including Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (1999), Mike Mignola's Hellboy series, Brian Michael Bendis's Torso: A True Crime Graphic Novel (2002), and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003), has attracted a degree of critical and commercial attention similar to that garnered by works of traditional fiction, thus confirming the literary legitimacy of the graphic novel form.