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Getting graphic: The new comic art

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Comics, along with TV, rock music and artificial sweeteners, have long been blamed for the corruption of world youth. They’ve been routinely dismissed as cheap, disposable entertainment with a target audience made mostly of adolescent boys.

The veteran heroes of Marvel and DC – Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and the like – have always had a shred of respect (not to mention commercial appeal); still, you’ll never see them shelved in the Classics section. Meanwhile, edgier series, like Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, have been protested by parents and teachers alike for their violent, sexual content and lowbrow style.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the term “graphic novel” was met with some skepticism and stifled laughter. Once seen as pretentious and pricey comic books, these novels hoped to tell deep, dark and realistic stories in a mostly-illustrated format.

Authors like Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore set new standards for style and writing, covering heavy topics like racism, homophobia and government corruption.

Graphic novelists have earned their genre begrudging respect while raising some serious questions: Can you fit literature into a speech bubble? Is it OK for art to have action, adventure, and a supervillian or two?

It’s this tension which has made graphic novels the most innovative and exciting literary creations of the past half-century. The Golden Age of comics has just begun.

The quality and diversity of the graphic novel genre is staggering. You may have heard of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which recounts his Jewish family’s experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland. Boldly political and intensely personal, it was one of the first comics that teachers would ask students to read in class.

Your next read might be Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a tirade against Cold War politics disguised as a clash between costumed heroes; it’s now featured on Time’s Top 100 Novels list.

And of course, no collection would be complete without the physically and verbally violent Frank Miller. His gritty, film noir-style novels are the stuff of directors’ dreams; in fact, the recent Batman films borrow heavily from his 1986 novel The Dark Knight Returns, arguably the greatest story ever written on the Caped Crusader.

Graphic novels read much faster than their non-illustrated cousins. Their eye-catching artwork makes them immediately appealing, establishing the characters, settings and tone within the first few pages.

Since the genre is less subject to scholarly study, graphic novelists can also take a few more liberties: taboo themes like violence, sexuality and drug abuse are common. This gives stories much more realism and impact and provides a refreshing alternative to stuffy classics.

The one thing I don’t love about graphic novels is the cost.  It’s a little frustrating to pay $20 plus for a book that takes a short time to finish. If you also invested in the 20th anniversary edition of Watchmen, you know my pain too well. On the other hand, graphic novels’ modest length makes them endlessly re-readable, and they’re too good not to be shared.

Graphic novels have given me some of my most rewarding experiences as a reader. The genre has been waging its own quiet revolution since the mid-70s, fighting against the conventions of art and society.

The fight continues to this day; strange and gutsy works, like Seymour Chwast’s comic version of the Divine Comedy, are released every year. Graphic novels are cool and smart, with something to offer comic and literature geeks alike.

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