In 2005, Time Magazine compiled an unranked list of the 100 best books from 1923 – 2005. Among these 100 books is WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986), a graphic novel. Placing WATCHMEN within the ranks of 99 other literary greats proves that graphic novels are becoming widely accepted in mainstream literature despite the humble beginnings on the American comic strip. Here’s a quick history of the graphic novel, enjoy! (all images are from Amazon)
A graphic novel (a phrase coined by the great Will Eisner in 1978, who was trying to distinguish his book A CONTRACT WITH GOD from the superhero comics that dominated the market at the time and put his work in bookstores) is simply a comic book that is the length of a book. A comic book is sequential art, told with panels of illustration instead of with prose. Agraphic novel is more durable than a floppy comic book, and tells a complete story. But getting from the early forms of cartoons to Time Magazine’s best books was a long journey.
In the early 1900’s, American newspapers printed comic strips along with news, sports, and editorials. Although originally they were humorous, comic strips quickly came to encompass all genres including fantasy, adventure, action and science fiction. These comic strips were wildly popular, so popular in fact that in the 1930’s, newspapers began to reprint collections of old comic strips and sell them on newsstands as separate items. These were the early comic books, which quickly gave way to new titles and characters that were totally independent of the newspapers altogether. The landscape of comics changed forever in 1938 with the roaring success of Action Comics #1 featuring Superman.
For decades afterwards, comics were printed for newsstands. These comic books were very inexpensive, only about 20 pages long, printed on thin paper, and the stories continued for only a few issues before moving on to a new topic. As Americans grew up, they left their comics behind and went off to college. Thousands of boxes of comics went out with the garbage. They didn’t seem to be of any value to anyone, and were lost, but not forgotten.
For a number of reasons (waaaaay to many to talk about here), the comic book market changed drastically starting in the late 1960s. By the 1990’s, the industry was unrecognizable. Comics were no longer sold at newsstands; they were sold primarily at specialty shops. Each character had not just one title, but many titles and spin-offs and events. The cover price of comic books doubled, and doubled again, and doubled again. DC suffered a financial meltdown, what is now called an ‘implosion’, in 1978. Marvel saw a steady decline in sales starting in 1968, imploded in 1993, and finally went bankrupt in 1996. But people still wanted comics. And those who read comics as children wanted to re-read the comics from their youth.
Marvel and DC both began to reprint those beloved comic books in softback and hardback form. Marvel and DC would collect six issues of an old series and reprint it with a sturdier cover. Marvel and DC already owned the art, and readers were desperate to rediscover collections that were impossible to find otherwise. These reprinted editions, called trade paperbacks, helped keep those comic book companies alive, and helped comic book stores survive tough financial times. WATCHMEN is actually a reprinting of a twelve-part comic book series that DC Comics released in comic book shops between 1986 and 1987.
WATCHMEN was never meant to be an ongoing series like Batman and Superman. After the twelve issues were printed, DC Comics collected the issues and marketed them as a graphic novel, drawing the attention of bookstores, libraries, and book reviewers. This, along with the collection and marketing of BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (a collection of four comic book issues) and the collection of The SANDMAN by Neil Gaiman (a collection of issues 1-8 released in 1991) is a definite turning point in the history of graphic novels. This was a distinctly different sales and marketing strategy from the earlier reprinting of ongoing series by Marvel and DC.
In a few instances, an artist and publisher would collaborate to produce a graphic novel that never went to comic book shops as single comic book issues. They might go directly to comic book shops and bookstores as a complete book. And now,graphic novel genres are as diverse as the early comic strips from the newspapers. Fantasy, science fiction, adventure, thrillers, romance and drama are all represented. And while Time Magazine, in 2005, made a separate list of the ten best graphic novels, we’ve come a long way since then.
The most notable and stunning graphic novel, also from 1986, is MAUS by Art Spiegelman (Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History: 1) MAUS I and II is a touching father and son epic, and a tale of the Jewish Holocaust as remembered by people who lived through it. The nationalities are anthropomorphized – the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, Americans are dogs, the Poles are pigs. This visual element, turning humans into animals and even beasts, magnifies the fear and vulnerability the characters faced while trying to survive Hitler’s genocide in a way that only a graphic novel can.
Batman: Year One and Batman: The Killing Joke remain two more of the most popular graphic novels of all time, but graphic novels are much more than just superheroes. Persepolis, Habibi, American Born Chinese, Ghost World, From Hell, 300, and Pride of Baghdad, The Underwater Welder (and a ton more that are being released all the time, too many to name!) are examples of excellent graphic novels that steer clear of the superhero genre altogether and cover drama, horror, historical fiction, and more. And two of the most popular comic book series right now are not superhero, The Walking Dead and Saga , and they collect their individual comic books into trade paperbacks shortly after the individual issues come out in comic book stores. So even if you don’t have a comic book shop near you, you can keep up with all the latest comic book series in collected forms.
I hope you pick up some of these great books. I’ve also written about the difference between comic books and graphic novels, which is a painful and needlessly convoluted discussion. The final word – buy comics! — Damian Wampler