High Art, Hit Movies and Manifestos | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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High Art, Hit Movies and Manifestos

A sharp new generation of graphic novelists spearhead a push into the mainstream.


Happy moments don't come around often in the world of comic books. Years of bias, terrible distribution and a general lack of interest from serious booksellers have combined to prevent smart works of comics literature (or graphic novels) from getting the shelf space they deserve in mainstream bookstores. And those rare moments of critical attention that were given to comics, turned out to be momentary blips on the cultural radar with no lasting effect. Neither Art Spiegelman's 1992 Pulitzer Prize for the Holocaust narrative Maus, nor the stir caused in international journalism circles in 2000 by Joe Sacco's gripping comic strip account of the war in Bosnia, Safe Area Gorazde, resulted in significant change in the way publishers and bookstore owners thought about the medium.

All that is about to change. A combination of art, luck and activism is combining to fundamentally alter the way works of graphic novels are sold in the United States. Companies like the Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly and Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books--who are no longer satisfied to see this sharp new work relegated to the status of humor or genre fiction--are producing a growing number of graphic works that compare favorably with the very best contemporary fiction, history and journalism being published today.

"Graphic novels are put in sections that are largely neglected," says Elizabeth Walker, publicist for Drawn & Quarterly. "They're usually stuck between sci-fi and fantasy and readers can only find them on shelves full of Spider-Man and X-Men trade paperbacks. Bookstores are recreating the ghetto of the comic shop or hobby store right there on the sales floor."

The situation is particularly ironic, because the lack of attention given to graphic literature is partly due to the tendency of comic book shops to ignore the medium in favor of fast-selling Japanese manga and superhero stories. It's difficult to blame recession-conscious bookstores for following a similar path--Publishers Weekly noted the "stunning sales growth" of manga last month--but the overwhelming focus on books for kids and teens can be frustrating for readers who prefer serious works of literature in sequential art format.

And so, beautifully designed works like Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, a hilarious, heart-wrenching story of abuse and loss, Dan Clowes' poignant coming-of-age story Ghost World and Vittorio Giardino's fascinating look at a 1950s childhood in Czechoslovakia, A Jew In Communist Prague, get swamped by the focus on manga and superheroes.

Another perfect example is Joe Sacco's Palestine, a fascinating portrayal of daily life in the Occupied Territories. Though Sacco's two books of graphic journalism have sold over 30,000 copies each--excellent numbers for any nonfiction political book--many bookstores file it on a shelf next to Spider-Man stories (if they stock it at all). A Raleigh Barnes & Noble not only didn't have the titles, it couldn't even find Sacco's name in its database. Meanwhile, the just-released British paperback edition of Palestine comes with an introduction by noted academic Edward Said.

What more does an author have to do before he's taken seriously by the bookstore world?

Publishers are hard at work trying to make systemic changes to this less-than-ideal situation. Last week, a group of comics heavyweights including the Pulitzer-winning Spiegelman and Drawn & Quarterly president Chris Oliveros lobbied the Book Industry Study Group for new standards concerning the way the book trade deals with graphic novels. All graphic literature, regardless of subject, is now grouped under the humor category.

"We're picking our battles," says D&Q publicist Walker, "and this was a big one. There was only one code for dealing with graphic novels and comic books, but there's a huge variety of them being published. We said, 'This is ridiculous' and wrote an open letter asking if they'd look at this issue."

The group not only looked at it, but also agreed to create a new category for graphic novels and comics, with sub-headings for fiction, nonfiction, anthologies and comics technique.

Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly also broke new ground last year by setting up relationships with well-established book distributors.

"For really the first time ever in this literary age of comics, publishers actually have good book trade distribution," says Fantagraphics publicist Eric Reynolds. "We've hooked up with W.W. Norton & Company, the oldest alternative distributor and publisher in the country. They gave us a certain amount of cachet and clout. Booksellers said, 'Oh, wow. You're with W.W. Norton?'"

Drawn & Quarterly took things a step further, cementing its new distribution ties with Chronicle Books by producing a beautifully illustrated manifesto called "Selling Graphic Novels in the Book Trade." Designed to help booksellers over the graphic novel learning curve, the manifesto encourages stores to create distinct graphic literature sections near contemporary literature or art book displays, rather than folding graphic novels into science fiction or humor sections. One bookstore manager told Publishers Weekly that the move "probably tripled" his sales of graphic literature.

"We printed up literally thousands and thousands of the manifestos," says Walker. "We're trying to make selling graphic novels less intimidating."

The industry got another significant boost in October when the American Library Association focused last year's Teen Read Week on graphic novels. The ALA hyped the theme "Get Graphic @ Your Library" by pointing librarians to adolescent-interest books like Bryan Talbot's Tale of One Bad Rat and Judd Winick's Pedro and Me, about the author's friendship with Pedro Zamora of MTV's Real World.

Hollywood has also helped save the day. The success of graphic novel-based movies like Ghost World, The Road to Perdition and From Hell--a detailed, provocative dissection of Jack the Ripper's Victorian England by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell--quickly got the attention of the book business.

"We've seen a huge breakthrough in the last year and a half," says Reynolds at Fantagraphics. "All of these things coalesced at the same time. Sales of Ghost World are off the scale; we're almost at 100,000 copies. Right now, the industry has a critical mass of different books that not only challenge the conventional wisdom about what makes a good comic, but have also had success."

John Valentine of Durham's Regulator Bookshop agrees. He says the store sold "a ton" of Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde over Christmas.

"Graphic novels and that kind of art aren't being niched anymore," he says. "The success of the Ghost World movie made it clear that there was some serious art being made, crossing over from comics to literary worlds without losing a beat."

Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh has also noticed the increased attention given to comics but hasn't yet seen increased interest from customers. Nevertheless, the store created a small graphic literature section about a month ago.

"We were all enthusiastic about expanding our graphic novel collection," says owner Nancy Olsen, "but the person who was most interested in them just moved to St. Louis. Until we feel like we have someone on staff who knows what's out there and what to order, we're waiting to expand."

"It often comes down to one person in the store who knows and likes graphic novels," agrees Walker. "If there's somebody there making an effort, then you might get a good selection."

"There's just so much good contemporary fiction and nonfiction in comics right now," notes Reynolds. "Good vintage and classic material, too, like Krazy Kat, which is easily one of our top five sellers."

"Comic book retailers have failed to react to the changes we're seeing at this end of the industry," he adds. "So bookstores are sweeping in and stealing some of [the] business."

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