Comic-WW

Well, my little graphic novel digression sparked a very interesting conversation with Elzey over at the excelsior file, and I encourage anyone interested in this topic to go check it out. The discussion has made me want to dip my pen into this well a little deeper.

In his well-reasoned and well-documented post he points out that this whole “children’s graphic novel trend” is really at least 20, and perhaps more like 50 years in the making, and I have to agree with him. On the shoulders of giants, as it were.

As someone who has always been drawn to graphic work–(starting with Wonder Woman, Tintin and Asterix, and continuing down the shelf to things like Optic Nerve, Ghost World, and Dave McKean’s Cages)–I have a great appreciation for the groundwork laid by everyone from Windsor McCay and Hergé, to Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman, as well as more contemporary voices like Chris Ware, Adriane Tomine, Joe Sacco, Daniel Clowes, and Jamie Hewlett.

Current success stories like Marjane Satrapi, and the recent graphic adaptation of the 9/11 report by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon continue to raise the visibility and credibility of graphic novels in the mainstream book buying market. (The fact that Jacobson and Colon are also the industry veterans behind Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost makes the whole 9/11 project just that much more brilliant for so many reasons beyond their great artwork.)

It was not my intention to suggest below that this whole children’s graphic Trendwatch is coming from nowhere. There’s no such thing in culture as the virgin birth. In fact, I would argue that what’s happening here isn’t so much that there’s a new genre in town, but rather, that mainstream publishing is finally catching on to something the underground has been into for years.

Comic-Thrilling

Here’s what IS new

  • Libraries and bookstores are carving out dedicated sections for graphic forms IN THE CHILDREN”S SECTION. (Previously, something like Tintin or Little Lit would wander between the picture book section and the comic anthologies over near humor somewhere)
  • Mainstream publishers are launching graphic imprints at an astounding rate
  • Adult graphic novels are suddenly being edited and published in the regular fiction lists of big publishing houses along side the next Oprah pick
  • Graphic novels are inspiring pleasant dreams of $$ for the upper management in big publishing houses in a market that has been flat
  • Suddenly my mother knows what a graphic novel is

I have noticed a funny thing about cultural ideas that suddenly hit the mainstream like this. There seems to be a direct inverse relationship between the number of times a buzzword is used in the press, in marketing meetings, and at cocktail parties, and the corresponding depth of people’s actual knowledge of the word. It’s like the word or concept gets stripped of its nutritional value, and all we know of it is its candy coated shell. Tastes great, but not much fiber inside.

Comic-Chaperone

What really interests me in this whole discussion is why now? What’s the tipping point—(thanks Malcom Gladwell)—that’s pushing this over the edge? Is there really an honest demand on the part of children for this, or are we creating our own market and making it so? I do think there is something to the idea that the post-computer, post-gameboy generations are more primed to relate to the world on a fast moving visual basis. I also think there’s something to the idea that publishers have latched onto this trend as the next “big thing”, and are milking it for all that it’s worth.

Toward the end of his recent post, Elzey makes some really important points about the precarious place we find ourselves in right now regarding the future of this “trend” in the children’s market:

  • Everyone seems to agree that graphic novels are a valid literary form, but there’s much confusion over what constitutes “good or worthy graphic literature”.
  • In an effort to cope, “Booksellers either don’t carry graphic novels because they don’t understand the genre or, as with the larger chains, they carry large amounts of what is carried by the major publishers in a scattershot somethings-bound-to-click-with-the-public manner.”
  • It’s not a graphic novel just because you take a book and draw it out rather than write it out. Especially if it’s bad to begin with. Likewise, re-purposing existing property by putting it in a graphic format—read: Nancy Drew, The Time-Warp Trio, Goosebumps—does not a quality graphic novel make.
  • If we’re going to consider graphic novels as literature, we need to apply some rigorous criteria to determine what is good. This is especially true as publishers gear up to flood the market. As someone who represents independent booksellers, I would welcome this, as would my overworked constituents.
  • If we’re going to give away awards to graphic novels, let’s not get into the tricky business of comparing them in the same category as written fiction. In Elzey’s words “I think we need to give them their own category and not spend a lot of time wringing hands over comparing apples to oranges.”

For sure, there’s some really great work being done in this field right now, and I hope it gets its just rewards. Some of the most promising new launches are being done with vision and passion, (see my comment about 01:First Second below), and the great graphic imprints like Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics continue to stick to their mission. Artists like Regis Faller are making wonderful books for children that bridge the genre gap, and backlist classics that were way ahead of their time are no longer orphaned. They now have a home in a dedicated children’s graphic section.

Comic-Unleashing

What lies ahead? I expect the usual rubber-band effect. For awhile there will be a real glut of graphic work for children, and much of it will be marginal to awful. The gems will be there, and discerning booksellers and librarians will find them, and hug them to their collective bosoms. Those gems will join the classic backlist to form the bones of a really good children’s graphic section, and those great new works will be wonderful publishing success stories. After saturation, there will be a cooling both of the market, and of upper management’s enthusiasm, and we’ll be back on the ground, further ahead than we were when we started, with some great books to show for the effort.

I still think it’s a tremendous time for graphic novels and other visual media. I hope that the most worthy artists will be able to take advantage of the favorable climate to kick some creative butt.

I also hope we, as an industry, develop a reputable yardstick for measuring quality very soon, before the fire goes out from too much kindling and not enough air.

Thanks, Elzey for giving me some excellent food for thought.

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Postscript 3/14:

Here’s a couple of really useful links for keeping on top of information on Graphic Novels and Comics for the kid_lit set:

Comics in the Classroom.net – great round up site of news and reviews on graphic media for children written by a teacher from New Brunswick, Canada.

The Graphic Classroom – reviews of graphic media suitable for the elementary classroom

 

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