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March 29, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
With the recent rise in popularity of graphic novels, the comic industry is no longer just for pasty-faced teens and unemployed 30-somethings living in their parents’ basement. The graphic novel has emerged as genuine literature that appeals to a large audience. Skip Harvey, an employee at Rock Bottom Comics, agrees that the graphic novel helped get more mainstream people into the industry.
Employees of Quinlan Keep and Rock Bottom Comics, local comic writer Scott Ziolko and professor Mary Salzman recommend five graphic novels you shouldn’t miss.
• Maus —Art Spiegelman’s memoir of his father’s experience in the Holocaust won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
• Preacher — Go to church with author Garth Ennis in his story of divine Preacher Jesse Custer, who is losing faith and must go on a journey across the country to rediscover it.
• The Sandman — Neil Gaiman follows the exploits of the Endless, immortal siblings who are representatives of abstract ideas.
• Watchmen — Follow hero Rorschach in Alan Moore’s classic dissection of the nature of the superhero and ultimately comics themselves.
• 300 —The Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans fought to the death against the Persians, is retold by Frank Miller.
The release of graphic novel film adaptations such as V for Vendetta and 300, along with added exposure from the literary community, is strong evidence of graphic novels’ newfound recognition. “I think that graphic novels are the way that the industry is going,” says Boen Quinlan, owner of local comic shop Quinlan Keep.
Unlike serialized comics such as Spider-Man and Hulk, where a single issue only tells part of a narrative, graphic novels consist of a concise story. The tale is bound in one single volume that readers can enjoy from beginning to end without waiting for the next episode.
Graphic novels sometimes depict the usual stories of fiction and fantasy, but more often they explore current events such as The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation or transform classic pieces of literature such as Wuthering Heights or Shakespeare’s masterpieces Macbeth and King Lear. Local artist Scott Ziolko is currently working on a graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet.
“[Hamlet] is meant to be used as a performance, but I want to see if it is possible to convey that same type of emotion and drama on a printed page as opposed to the stage,” Ziolko says. Although he is still developing the project, Ziolko intends to translate the story of Hamlet into a more contemporary setting to suit the rather modern art style of graphic novels.
Along with the adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays, the acceptance of the graphic novel as a respected genre can also be seen in academic study. At MU, Mary Salzman, visiting assistant professor of art history, teaches a class called The Graphic Novel. She says that graphic novels address a variety of genres such as superhero, teen angst, journalism and immigrant stories. In the course, Salzman instructs students to critically examine the many interweaving themes presented in the works via text-image analysis.
MU’s Ellis Library even houses its own Comic Art Collection, featuring several thousand single-issue comics, graphic novels and other rarities. The collection was initially started to hold original drawings by Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey. Genevieve Dawson, a graduate assistant for Special Collections, admits that she first prejudged graphic novels but later came to understand that “[graphic novels] have artistic, literature and language value.”
Besides this interest in graphic novels at the collegiate level, high school students also have the opportunity to study them. Harvey taught a course on comics and graphic novels to high school juniors last summer at the Missouri Scholars Academy. The class topics ranged from the study of comics’ roots to a class discussion on the effect of graphic novels on Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunts. “One of the hottest topics of debate was my assertion that comic books, along with the musical base-root of jazz/blues, is one of only two genuinely original American art forms,” says Harvey on the course.
Although the difference between graphic novels and comics can be difficult to grasp, there is still another addition to the genre — the trade paperback, which newcomers should understand in order to make sense of the genre as a whole. Trade paperbacks, like graphic novels, are bound collections of a single story, but trade paperbacks compile comics that originally had been released sequentially. Some of the most acclaimed graphic novels such as Preacher or The Sandman are officially categorized as trade paperbacks.
In discussions of graphic novels, Harvey ardently separates trade paperbacks from graphic novels. Although he admits that the casual reader does not need to actively distinguish graphic novels from trade paperbacks, he says that in order to study the history of the graphic novel, the reader must have a grasp on the proper usage of the terms.
But Quinlan and his employees have a more casual definition. “If it’s a comic that is approaching art, it is usually called a graphic novel,” says Quinlan Keep employee Alex Chervitz. “It’s a term of art that has fallen into common vernacular.”