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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.
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
- Children’s graphic novels are being reviewed by traditional awards committees and winning, like Gene Luen Yang’s recent Printz for American Born Chinese
- 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.
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.
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.
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
Okay, I feel that I have been giving short shrift lately to picture books, which as a designer are one of my first loves. I am having book guilt. So, I have decided that this is Pixie Stix Picture Book Week, and I will post a new review of one of my spring favorites each day. Enjoy!
Polo: The Runaway Book by Regis Faller
Roaring Brook; January 2007; 80 pp; $16.95 HC
Core Audience: All ages; Lovers of great design; Aficionados of wordless picture books
Strengths: Lyrical story full of wonderful visual detail and charming plot twists
Those of you who have been faithful readers know how much I loved Faller’s previous book The Adventures of Polo. Published first in France, these books about a little dog with a great imagination and a bottomless backpack are among my favorite offerings of the last year.
There is so much to love about Polo, it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the design. Faller’s illustrations are crisp, engaging, and totally irresistible. He plays liberally with graphic formats, using frames, full-bleed, and white space in unexpected juxtapositions throughout the book. An unspooling ball of red yarn breaks the right hand margin, and on successive pages becomes a Family-Circle style loop-de-loop, the ground, a hill to slide down, and then the outline of two trees and a dog-eating castle. Line as path, line as ground, line as object. The book is full of these kinds of graphic transformations.
Before we even get to the title page, we have a whole wordless vignette with Rabbit buying and sending a book to Polo on his little island. Drawn only in black, white, and yellow on a tomato red background, this little prequel grabs the attention from the get go, and sucks the reader right into Polo’s world.
And what a world it is. Magical. Lyrical. Full of the most amazing things. I LOVE books that unfold in a way that takes me on an unexpected journey, and Faller has one of the most unfettered imaginations going. When Polo’s new book is stolen by a little yellow creature–(a star? an alien? a florescent dust bunny with arms?)–Polo immediately sets off from his island in hot pursuit. What follows is a delicious adventure where the chase is only half of the fun. Each development is less predictable than the last as Polo meets a cast of characters including a humongous penguin, a little pig princess, elephant belly dancers, cloud wrestlers and a genie complete with wishes. And them there are the conveyances… A rope to nowhere, a hot air balloon, a raft, a mechanical flying bird, a magic liquid mirror, a dandelion puff, and numerous ladders, holes, caves, nooks, and crannies. Really, I can’t do the book justice in words when it comes to how imaginative it is. You just have to check it out.
Although Polo’s books are officially labeled with a 4-8 age range, to dismiss them simply as picture books for the youngest readers does them a great disservice. At 80 pages, the visual complexity, unexpected plot twists, wordless storytelling, and multiple frames are quite sophisticated, and the lyricism of the story will capture the imagination of everyone who picks them up—even adults.
At this point I am going to give you my rating, and if you are just interested in the review, read no further. This book is FABULOUS, and if you like great design and visual storytelling, stop reading and go order it now.
However, if you are interested in a little more analysis on the publishing industry, read-on….
[Begin digression into TRENDWATCH industry-speak]
For my part, although the Polo books are certainly picture books in production format, I place them in the rapidly growing category of graphic novels for children, and I think they fall on one end of a spectrum that includes things like Emmanuel Guibert & Joann Sfar’s Sardine in Outer Space series and Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which is having an incredible resurgence among elementary readers. In fact, take a good look at the publishing news right now and it’s hard to miss the buzz in this area: in 2006 graphic novels hit $330 million in sales in North America, (surpassing the comic book format), with booksellers clamoring for more titles published for kids because of the demand they’re seeing at book fairs and in stores.
Why do I bring this up? Certainly wordless picture books are not new in and of themselves. (Think Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, Itstvan Banyai’s Zoom, or Patricia Lehman’s The Red Book and forthcoming Rainstorm.)
However, given the growth in the graphic novel category, and young readers’ increasingly sophisticated and technological world which predisposes them to a high level of visual comprehension, I think this is an exciting time to explore innovative formats and hybrids of traditional publishing forms. Polo is an excellent example of blending genres to great effect, and I expect we will see more and more of this in the kids’ market.
In fact, Roaring Brook’s children’s graphic novel imprint 01:FirstSecond, under the direction of the brilliant Mark Siegel, is on the cutting edge of producing great new graphic work for a whole range of young readers, from elementary school to the most sophisticated teens, and they are actively reaching out to educate the traditional children’s book market. Many other publishers have been launching their own graphic novel imprints for kids as well. (Do a search at Publisher’s Weekly Online for the term “Graphic Novels”, and you’ll get 58 story hits just since the first of this year.) And let’s not forget Manga, which has never been stronger in the US. In a few years we’ll be able to look back on this period as a new golden age of graphic novels, with a whole expansion of the market for kids.
So now what?
I would ask you where you fall? Do you get this genre? If you are a bookseller or a librarian, where do you shelve graphic novels for kids? Do you think it’s a real trend? Do you care?
I think it is a trend, but I also think that there is a pretty clear line between people who get this genre, and people who don’t. I’m not sure if it has to do with age or perception or relationship to technology or what.
However we can always return to the basics. A book like Polo, which straddles these worlds, is at the end of the day, a wonderful book … and comfortingly familiar for all its brilliant ambition.
Yay, Polo. Je t’aime.
For a compelling diversion, visit Polo’s magical world online at Chez Polo. It’s worth it just for the soundtrack.
Hello faithful readers!
I’ve been away for a little R&R, but now I’m back, so look for many new posts in the weeks to come. Here’s something new for the New Year. Enjoy!
Much ado has been made about the demise of the book with the rise of the digital age, and to be sure, e-books are one of the strongest areas of the publishing market. As a confirmed bibliophile, I see e-books as a convenience product that supplements rather than replaces books, and in the children’s realm they now work best for reference applications. As far as children are concerned, the printed book-as-a-perfect-technology is hard to beat.
What I have been watching for in the last few years are cross-over projects which capture both the narrative quality of a book and the multi-media potential of digital technologies. Children today are growing up in an increasingly sophisticated environment, and I was sure that sooner or later someone would begin to publish for this. I think digital enhancements to printed books are inevitable—like book related websites and tie-ins—but this is something different.
Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a game or a virtual environment. I’m definitely not talking about a toy or a movie. I’m talking about a new medium that integrates the narrative form of a book with new ways of telling the story which are digital. And now I think I’ve found the first completed instance of it.
This is the dark and moody story of Alice who is eight when the narrative begins. Alice has a problem. She keeps losing her parents. Her mother is an artist, and her father does something covert and shadowy that may have to do with the oil industry. As the series is conceived, Alice progresses from age eight to her 20’s through ten episodes, each set in a different location. Episode 3 was just released in December. There is a tense and suspenseful undertone to the completed installments, set in China, Italy, and Russia. Each episode gets more complex narratively and visually as Alice’s sophistication grows. The sense of menace grows with each episode as well.
What distinguishes this project, and qualifies it as something “new” as opposed to a game or interactive movie, is that the narrative moves in one direction. The interactivity of the experience is confined to advancing the story by clicking a forward command, (think turning the page), and some simple games that Alice has created and shares with the reader within the context of the story. Unlike a game or CD-rom, there are no choices to be made on the part of the reader. Unlike a movie, the story must be read in words in addition to its visual elements. Like a picture book, the visuals exist to support the narrative, not the other way around. The reader reads and controls the advancement of the story. It shares more with a book than other forms of digital media.
In an excellent 12/7 interview in The Guardian, Pullinger talks about what her narrative intentions were. “For me, the kind of gameplay in Inanimate Alice is the kind of interactivity I’m interested in as it’s part of the story, not a diversion from the story,” says Pullinger. “As a reader I’m not interested in choice, I’m not interested in having to make decisions as I’m being told a story. But I think that anything that involves interactivity involves a different mindset than reading a piece of fiction.”
This project has garnered an incredible number of awards in Europe, and just by reading the press and reviews, it’s clear that people are having a hard time figuring out what to call this new medium. “Kinetic novel”, “digital drama”, “online movie productions”, “digital fiction”, “new media objects”, “blook” (which I hate), “flashfiction”, and the terribly pedantic “Ergodic literature” have all been thrown around.
Kate Pullinger acknowledges the complexity of this problem. “I think that when a new form emerges, part of the problem is how to figure out what to call it, how to describe it – but what I do know is that I like to make it and people like to read it when they find out about it…” She has more to say about it in a recent blog post.
This isn’t Pullinger’s first foray into digital narrative, but it is the first for children. A previous project The Breathing Wall (2004) tells the story of a man incarcerated for the murder of his girlfriend. Part mystery, part dreamscape, the two-hour CD story is told through two types of narrative, alternating between day-dreams (flash movies), and night-dreams. The night dreams are told with an experimental software program called the Hyper Trance Fiction Matrix, which allows the story to respond to the listener’s rate of breathing via a headset with microphone. (Wild, right?)
Clearly, this whole thing is in its infancy, but I for one am interested in seeing where it goes. Right now there are fairly rigid barriers between what is being conceived as a “book”, and some of the more amazing technological innovations in the video game and digital design industries. As these fields merge more closely under the heading of “new media”, I think we’ll see more and more of this type of project. Pullinger and Joseph are both involved in writing programs at DeMontfort University in the UK, which has a new Institute of Creative Technologies program.
Is there a commercial future here?
No one has figured that out.
Will these kinds of stories completely replace the book?
Are they intriguing?
Many thanks to Read Roger for first bringing this to my attention.
Bonus: Check out an online version of US author/illustrator Jean Gralley’s passionate argument in favor of digital children’s books that first appeared in the January ’06 issue of the Horn Book. She also has a very cool flash animation piece called “Books Unbound” that demonstrates the potential of digital picture books.