Graphic novels -- the bound, novel-length comic books -- are the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. A brand new audience -- one composed primarily of teenagers reading imported Japanese manga and adults who go for more high-minded literary fare like Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust memoir Maus -- has emerged to fuel the graphic novel explosion.
It's rapidly becoming a very big business. Book publishers Del Rey, Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins are all getting into the graphic novel game in a big way. Stephen King is writing a graphic novel prequel to his highly popular Dark Tower series, and the latest graphic novel in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series debuted on the New York Times fiction bestseller list.
There's also a growing synergy between film studios and comic companies. It's best exemplified in Sir Richard Branson's new multimedia venture Virgin Comics and Animation. According to Chief Creative Officer Gotham Chopra, the company's mission is to create not only a publishing empire but to also use comics "[A]s the R&D factory for properties which we hope to aggressively leverage into other media platforms."
Graphic novels are well on their way to becoming a legitimate mass medium. Just like comic books used to be.
A 1945 market research study1 cited in the book Comic Book Nation found that approximately half the U.S. population -- nearly 70 million people -- read comic books on a regular basis. That included not only 90 percent of all children between the ages of six and eleven but also 41 percent of men and 28 percent of women aged eighteen to thirty.
To put these figures into perspective, weekly cinema attendance hovered between 50 and 60 percent of the total U.S. population during the same time period.
So what happened? How did comic books go from mass medium to niche medium in the span of a few decades?
The comic industry's decline began with the publication of the anti-comic polemic Seduction of the Innocent by prominent psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham in 1954. This led to an investigation of the entire comic book industry by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. With the threat of government censorship looming, a consortium of family-friendly comic publishers and distributors decided to censor themselves instead by forming the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory body that kept all but the most wholesome entertainment out of the marketplace, thus giving superhero publishers like Marvel and DC a virtual monopoly.
This was a disaster. It reinforced the general public's perception of comics as a juvenile medium -- and one for nerdy juveniles at that -- and brought the artform's evolution to a halt. As superheroes became the dominant genre to the exclusion of all else, girls and adults of both sexes abandoned the medium in droves over the subsequent decades. Making matters worse, comic prices increased faster than inflation and the comics themselves gradually disappeared from most mass market venues.
Today the only retail outlets that typically sell comic periodicals are comic book specialty stores which too often are unkempt, uncool and unwelcoming to anyone who isn't a hardcore superhero fan. This made it next to impossible for any comics other than superhero comics to succeed in the marketplace. And by alienating the general public, it ensured that comic sales would continue to spiral downwards since there was no way to recruit new fans as the old ones died off or left the hobby.
This caused the market for comics to shrink even further to the point that February's top selling comic periodical, Astonishing X-Men #13 only sold an estimated 140,655 copies (compare that to the approximately 1.6 million copies per month the eponymous Superman comic book was selling in 1946).
Enter the graphic novel. It's superiority to the comic pamphlet is found in a better price point -- and therefore greater perceived value -- along with a certain cultural legitimacy. The general population finds them far more appealing than comic books, and even some of the most devoted superhero fans have stopped buying comic periodicals altogether, preferring instead to wait for the inevitable graphic novel compilation.
I should know; I'm one of them. I've liquidated around 2000 comics -- more than half my collection -- in order to fund my graphic novel habit. I'm spending less and reading more than when I was buying single issues. The graphic novel is the "killer app" that the comic book industry has been waiting for. Respectable. Affordable. And actually kind of cool.
Comics have power. The Danish cartoon controversy has taught us nothing if not that. In a sense, comics are more real than reality. As cartoonist, author and comic book philosopher Scott McCloud writes in his book Understanding Comics, "The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and self-awareness are pulled, an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it!"2
The Japanese have known this for some time. Manga makes up 40 percent of all printed material published in Japan every year. Practically everyone -- young and old, male and female -- reads manga because there's a manga for everyone, and it's available everywhere. It's a true mass medium -- an example of what the comic industry in America could have been, and what it may yet become.
Joshua Elder is a free-lance writer based in Chicago, Illinois. His book, Mail Order Ninja will be released this July from HarperCollins. It's not actually a book in the traditional sense at all -- it's a graphic novel.
1. Sanderson Vanderbilt, "The Comics," Yank: The Army Weekly, 12 November 1945.
2. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994. Pg 36.