WashPost on graphic novels
August 23, 2008 6:02 AM   Subscribe

"Drawing Power", by Bob Thompson of the Washington Post. "What I want to know is: How did this formerly ghettoized medium [graphic novels] became one of the rare publishing categories that's actually expanding these days?"(single page)
posted by stbalbach (40 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
"It occurs to me that if you had to pick the single tipping seesaw most responsible for the graphic novel boom, manga might be the one."

Gosh. Golly. Y'don't say!
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:33 AM on August 23, 2008


How did this formerly ghettoized medium [graphic novels] became one of the rare publishing categories that's actually expanding these days?

Because it's always easier to look at pictures than read blocks of text. See also: movies and television.

I think this doom-saying article was posted here before, but there's some interesting insight around page three regarding how text-based learning works differently on the brain compared to visual/oral learning alone.

I have nothing against comics/graphic novels in their own right, but text will always be a more nuanced form for transmitting information than pictures, no matter how they're packaged or formatted. But I'm not surprised that books with pictures are an easier sell. (And I'm fully expecting a snarky "tl;dr" in response to the above link, which will further prove my point.)
posted by spoobnooble at 6:54 AM on August 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Because it's always easier to look at pictures than read blocks of text. See also: movies and television.

Which also explains why comics have, ever since they were introduced into the market, dominated and shut out traditional novels and other book forms.

Come on. We haven't even seen a halfway serious shift to comics even in areas where they'd seem like a natural dominating force, assuming you're right about it just being easier to look at pictures and that explains it all. Example: Clancy-style technothrillers; historical/fantasy romances; schlock movie tie-ins.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:07 AM on August 23, 2008


Comics are getting way too expensive, and the audience has matured, so they're moving to graphic novels, and getting better value for their money. End of story.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:27 AM on August 23, 2008


I didn't put them in the same category as real books.

That's probably because they're not books, they're comics, you silly wank. Do you put TV programs in the same category as films, too?

Comics are getting way too expensive, and the audience has matured, so they're moving to graphic novels, and getting better value for their money. End of story.

I don't know if I agree with that. Most of the folks who bought ROM: Spaceknight have either outgrown superhero comics -- and by association, the medium -- or are buying Secret Invasion, they're not moving on to Epileptic or I Killed Adolf Hitler.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:54 AM on August 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


That writer must be getting paid per rhetorical question.
posted by jbickers at 8:04 AM on August 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Here's why: They are the rare publishing category where the people who buy the books just have to look at the pictures. Find me a literate comic book reader, they're not out there.
posted by parmanparman at 8:12 AM on August 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I dunno, Alvy. I loved Rom: Spaceknight and I'm not loving most of the big company's stuff.

On the other hand, there's flashes of brilliance: James Robinson's Starman, the first 25 issues of the new Blue Beetle series, almost every not-tied-in-to-anything-else issue of Runaways, some of the noncanon Iron Man stuff like Hypervelocity (which took the Iron Man technodinking to a new and ridiculous level, like an AI Copy of Tony Stark's brain repeatedly musing on whether it should write itself an alcohol intake simulator).

You have the manga uptake to help with that; you also have the fact that three months after an arc in a major book (like JLA or JSA or Avengers or Batman) ends, that arc will be out in what we used to call a 'Trade Paperback', which counts against the Graphic Novel listings. I know from a local store that the single-issue sales are arcing down while the TPB sales are arcing up, from people who don't want to sit around and wait a month to know what happens next, they want it all in a single sitting.
posted by mephron at 8:14 AM on August 23, 2008


I have nothing against comics/graphic novels in their own right, but text will always be a more nuanced form for transmitting information than pictures, no matter how they're packaged or formatted.

I don't think that's true at all. Joe Sacco's fantastic Safe Area Gorazde is a perfect example. Yes, he could have written a Big Block O' Text book about it, but by adding in the visuals, he's able to connect the reader even further to what is going on. And i say that as a guy who reads two or three Big Block O' Text books a week.
posted by cmonkey at 8:18 AM on August 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't know what the impact was on Clowes's sales, but couldn't Ghost World have helped a bit? I know it wasn't a smash it, but it did get me to buy the book. But then graphic novels are too expensive for me, so I didn't become a repeat customer.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:24 AM on August 23, 2008


They are the rare publishing category where the people who buy the books just have to look at the pictures. Find me a literate comic book reader, they're not out there.

Assuming you're not joking, that's as dumb as saying people who buy bound collections of Cezanne or Brassai prints are illiterate, since all they have to do is look at the pictures.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:25 AM on August 23, 2008


...text will always be a more nuanced form for transmitting information than picture...

So, those thousand words that I've always heard a picture is worth... Damn! They been lying to me all this time? So, it's more like, what, about 625 words? Or maybe, say, 417 nuanced words?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:31 AM on August 23, 2008


It's not that complicated. The readership grayed. Go back thirty years, and you find supermarkets and drugstores saturated with comic books. Back then, kids read them. Eventually, most stopped, and those that hung in there (and got old) began buying them via direct sales stores (i.e., comic book shops). Direct sales is more profitable for the comics industry because those comics are non-returnable (not so of newsstand comics), and so more and more of the industry's efforts were turned toward direct sales. As the model reader became older, a person with a real job and the disposable income that comes with it, more expensive comics were produced (helping to compensate for the massive profit loss that years of abandoning the previous model reader -- a kid -- had generated), and those comics were positioned at the bookstore market.

On a long enough timeline (going backward), it's clear that "graphic novels" have actually lost an enormous number of readers. But their arena has shifted to a place where they once had zero readers, so it appears the category is expanding. As direct sales shops fold and readers respond to the deep discounts that chain bookstores can afford to give (and direct sales shops cannot), the category will continue to grow in a way that freaks out Prose Guy, but will still not equal where comics were at, sales-wise, when they were marketed to an all ages crowd. And ultimately it may well contract without a steady infusion of new readership, which...? May very well not appear.

Mind you, that's all American/European comics, above...manga appeals to that younger readership, and surprise-surprise, sells much better.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:31 AM on August 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


mephron: I agree with what you're saying about the popularity of the collected TPB contributing to the ascendancy of the long-form comic, but the article (Which is pretty much just another 'Biff! Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!' bit of fluff that's older than Maus) is more about the growing popularity of long-form alternative comics.

While there is a certain amount of audience overlap between American mainstream (Superhero) comics and American alternative (Everything else) comics, the majority of folks buying Exit Wounds aren't Wolverine fans jonesing for something more grown up and with a higher dollar value. There is less chauvinism amongst mainstream comics fans towards the alternatives than ever before, and it's decreasing everyday, but it's not the Capes and Cowls crowd who made Fun Home TIME's Book of The Year.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:43 AM on August 23, 2008


Here's why: They are the rare publishing category where the people who buy the books just have to look at the pictures. Find me a literate comic book reader, they're not out there.

Have you actually -met- and spoken to any comic book readers? Not the twelve year old buying Detective Comics with his paper route money, but adults who actually read comics?

I'm pretty surprised to find out that I, my fiance, and a large number of our friends aren't literate. The overflowing bookshelves in my apartment must be for show then. Huh. Kind of a pain in the ass just to pretend that I know how to read.

Wait. No. (By the way, if you want literate comic book readers, I can point you to about fifty. And while that possibly doesn't break the anecdote to data threshold, it's still a pretty healthy number)

There's a set of trade paperbacks/comics (I can't remember if it was published in separate issues, since I bought it as a TPB) called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Now, granted, a large portion of it is Alan Moore wanking a bit about how literate he is, but the entire series is chock full of references to classic literature - mostly horror, sci-fi and fantasy, but also spy thrillers and mysteries. It's great fun, it's very pulp - and how can you not love a series with Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray and Captain Nemo? (that would be, for your edification, the protagonist of King Solomon's Mines, the lead female character in Dracula, and the captain of the Nautilus as seen in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island.)*

*Yes, this was largely -me- wanking about how literate I am.

I am a comic book reader. I mostly buy TPB's because I'm too busy to go down to my local comic shop once a week. I'm very well read (I'm that person whose carry-on bag for planes is 75% books), I write as a major hobby, and as you can see, I like to communicate.

I have -never- met an illiterate comic book reader. Not in my social circles, not in chatting up people at comic book stores when I used to go, not in casual conversation. The closest I have ever come to that is that I know teachers who use comic books and TPB's as supplementary teaching tools and casual reading incentive for students who have fallen behind on grade-level reading skills.
posted by FritoKAL at 8:57 AM on August 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Find me a literate comic book reader, they're not out there.

I know a few. They also know where to put their commas.
posted by katillathehun at 8:57 AM on August 23, 2008 [11 favorites]


but text will always be a more nuanced form for transmitting information than pictures

What about ASCII art?

But seriously, I don't understand the argument that comics are a degenerate form of text. Certainly, you can argue that a photograph or a painting doesn't convey as much raw information as a written narrative or essay; on the other hand, comics are both words and pictures, and can modulate and combine the strengths of both media into something altogether different.

I just got done reading Moore & Gibbons' Watchmen (for the fifth or sixth time in anticipation of the upcoming film), and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was still finding new visual/textual layers within the book that I hadn't encountered in previous readings. In the case of Watchmen, Gibbons' visuals are so informed by the text of Moore's infamously dense script (the first chapter's script is over 90 pages, much of it precise panel-by-panel descriptions of the visual elements) that they become a secondary running commentary that dips in and out of the actual text proper.

Of course, if you read Danger Girl or Fruits Basket, your mileage may vary.
posted by Strange Interlude at 9:16 AM on August 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Find me a literate comic book reader, they're not out there.

I read graphic novels sometimes. 100 Bullets and Astro City are my favorite on-going series, but I've got Maus and most of the big indie comics, too.

Am I illiterate?
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:21 AM on August 23, 2008


Find me a literate comic book reader, they're not out there.

This is ridiculous. I expect better of you, parmanparman.
posted by everichon at 9:27 AM on August 23, 2008


I know a few. They also know where to put their commas

HOWEVER, ARE THEY VAGUE ON THE USE OF MIXED CASE AND WEIRD ABOUT BOLDING?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:35 AM on August 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Here's why: They are the rare publishing category where the people who buy the books just have to look at the pictures. Find me a literate comic book reader, they're not out there.

(shakes head)

parmanparman, parmanparman, parmanparman...

...I know you've got much too long and storied a history around here to be a troll, but what the heck? I think that literacy is literacy, whether you're reading Neruda or Naruto. Frankly, I approve quite a bit of how a generation of young western manga readers are readily diving into descriptions of eastern cultures found in books as varied as Lone Wolf & Cub or Azumanga Daioh -- they're certainly getting much more cultural nourishment than the folks reading whatever Oprah tells them to.

Also, on preview, what FritoKAL said.
posted by Strange Interlude at 9:35 AM on August 23, 2008


Alvy: yeah, I'm old and cranky enough to remember when Maus first appeared and a number of people were doing the 'OMG COMICS NOT FOR KIDS' response, which the summary seemed to indicate this was. Having read it multiple times before, I figured I didn't need to read it. Thank you, by the way, for proving me right on that!

And I agree: the problem is that, right now, mainstream superhero comics are really in a death spiral. The new readers aren't there anymore; they're going for the manga. The old readers are trailing away, with some disgust about the New Secret Infinite Crisis Invasion War that's screwing things up en masse.

I love the superhero comic, but I wonder if it's going to be completely replaced by the superhero movie and online comic forms sooner rather than later.
posted by mephron at 9:38 AM on August 23, 2008


pictures came before words
posted by onkelchrispy at 9:52 AM on August 23, 2008


Wait, wait, wait...maybe ParmanParman is saying that literate comic book readers aren't out there...they're in here, in our hearts, among us now even as we type our Metafilter comments.

Comics and young adult novels are both reaping the benefits of their prior ghettoization, because when nobody's taking you seriously, you can do whatever you want.

And I think my number one pick for literate comic is Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Even if I crack out on She-Hulk, Runaways, Fables, & Y the Last Man, Fun Home is the first cross-genre graphic novel that I've seen book club ladies buy without knowing it was illustrated.

Disliking a well-written book because the text pairs with illustrations smacks me as similar to the folks who can't read first-person fiction, or who refuse to have any fantastic elements in their reading material, or who won't read books from any century other than our own. It's a fine preference as long as you realize you're being really biased for subjective reasons, not some overarching Truth. Comics are kinda zenlike. If you're reading them too fast, you're doing it wrong. And I say this as someone who reads them too fast sometimes. You gotta chill out. You gotta relish it. It's not about how many words you can chew through. The sentences that aren't there should be contained in the pictures, and you gotta let yourself ease up and appreciate it.
posted by redsparkler at 10:09 AM on August 23, 2008


Hey hey hey! You can get cultural nourishment from Oprah AND comics. Let's not be harshin' on the Oprah folks. For every Eckhart Tolle there's a Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
posted by redsparkler at 10:13 AM on August 23, 2008


Put a picture on a wall and we'll spend centuries debating its meaning and nuances. Stick a picture in a book and we'll dismiss whether there are any deeper meanings to that image.

Have a book with only text and we'll debate its meanings endlessly. Add a few pictures, and people shut down.

Graphic novels can be as deep and interesting as any piece of art or novel. They just happen to more more surreal and dream-like. The fact that in 2008 we still have newspapers such as the Washington Post have by-the-numbers "Well, Goll-ee!" articles about this hardly new medium shows what a lack of arts education we still have in North America that doesn't help people learn to challenge imposed and invisible boundaries.

There are few things as annoying to me than uppity ignorance. Just let go, stop caring about impressing people with how cool and high brow you can pretend to be, and enjoy it...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:21 AM on August 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


redsparkler is right about the proper speed for reading comics. You see, comics, when done right, combine text and pictures in a way that conveys information differently from text or pictures alone. Some people don't get this. When comics creators don't understand the principle, you get panels in which the villain is shown demolishing a wall with a single punch, along with a caption that reads "WITH INHUMAN STRENGTH, DR. FURIOUS DESTROYS THE BRICK WALL!": Redundancy. The images and words are there to complement each other, not repeat each other.

Comics readers also sometimes fail to grasp this. In the '50s, the EC editors sometimes had to print messages in the editorial section just to remind the readers to read the captions, because they're important too. And on the flip side, I've seen people (Hi, Mom!) blaze through comics way too fast and inevitable come away unimpressed, proving that they only read the words and didn't take the time to absorb the information from the images.

I'm a plain-text reader as well as a comics reader, and anybody who thinks that comics make me illiterate deserves to be crushed under my bookshelves.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:39 AM on August 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Comics and young adult novels are both reaping the benefits of their prior ghettoization, because when nobody's taking you seriously, you can do whatever you want.

Great point, redsparkler! I've been saying basically this same thing for years now; I find that respectability is often a crutch for a lack of ideas.

Let's not be harshin' on the Oprah folks. For every Eckhart Tolle there's a Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I'll grant you, Oprah does occasionally salt and pepper in some actual good writers along with the emotionally-fascist self-empowerment nonsense, but I find that it's the latter that actually sells.

Speaking as a bookseller, whenever Oprah has some wifty new age Keebler mascot like Tolle or Wayne Dyer or Rhonda Byrne on the show, we're besieged for days or weeks (in the case of The Secret, months) by people coming in looking for their books, usually to the point that the publishers run out and we have to backorder them. By contrast, if Oprah puts a Garcia Marquez or Faulkner or Wiesel on the list, I find that there's typically almost no added interest at all; we end up selling about the same number of those as we would normally sell for high school lit classes or kids' book reports. I'm happy to sell whatever my customers want, but it's so depressing seeing so many people willing to throw money at (literal) snake oil when they could be eating (figurative) ambrosia.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:00 AM on August 23, 2008


redsparkler and Faint of Butt, I have to disagree. I think comic books should be read at speed. Only then can you get the total experience. It's like saying opera should be slower compared to orchestral music: sure, you have more bandwidth with opera, but you don't shout "stop" in the middle of Rigoletto because you have to digest music AND acting AND text. You just hang on for the ride. There's nothing like racing through a comic book to find out what happens to Mina or Kaneda or Torquemada or Jesse or even Vladek, because it's so darn exciting and you're completely engrossed.

But then, of course, you go back and read it again. I have re-read comic books over and over again, at different ages and over the course of the same week, seeing new things every time in just the way that you describe. I simply never do this for the vast majority of novels, because they just don't work the same way (though I know re-reading novels is both common and regarded as good, so I'm sure the failing is all mine!)

But to say you should read in this detailed way this first time? NO! You're cheating yourself!
posted by alasdair at 11:46 AM on August 23, 2008


One reason I don't buy graphic novels is that, compared to regular books, they have a high cost per hour of entertainment. $13 for 1 Gaiman that I'll read into 2 hours vs. $8 for The Three Musketeers (in French) that will give me 5-6 hours of reading.

Maybe a model like the salons de lecture they used to have in France in the 18th and 19th century could work: for a fee, you got access to a room with all the lastest novels and newspapers, and could read to your content. It would be nice to have for graphic novels. But I doubt publishers would allow that business model.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:26 PM on August 23, 2008


Wait - comics aren't in decline?
posted by Artw at 1:40 PM on August 23, 2008


Oh, and go fuck yourself parmanparman.
posted by Artw at 1:43 PM on August 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


One reason I don't buy graphic novels is that, compared to regular books, they have a high cost per hour of entertainment. $13 for 1 Gaiman that I'll read into 2 hours vs. $8 for The Three Musketeers (in French) that will give me 5-6 hours of reading.

lol.. i feel sorry for fast readers.
posted by stbalbach at 3:16 PM on August 23, 2008


Teaching Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis in my Composition class in a few days. It was picked as the class-wide summer reading for the entire incoming freshman class.

Graphic novels are accessible but complex, "fun" to read but demand a great deal of mental energy to really understand. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is still one of the best resources on this.

Anybody who simply dismisses the value of the graphic novel is missing out on a great literary and creative medium, and also might be characterized as an asshat. (not that I would make such a characterization, but y'know.)
posted by exlotuseater at 7:32 PM on August 23, 2008


I picture parmanparman hunched over his keyboard, the oppressive darkness around him illuminated only by the sickly flickering glow of the monitor. He giggles to himself as he types, pausing occasionally to scratch under his cheetos-stained sweatpants, growing slowly erect in anticipation of the outrage that will follow his perfect troll. His begins breathing rapidly as he finishes his masterwork, the pain of his dismal existence made temporarily ever so slightly less unbearable as he gasps in release and clicks the POST button.

Then the darkness of the basement and his loneliness swallows him whole once again.
posted by Justinian at 7:40 PM on August 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I picture parmanparman hunched over his keyboard, the oppressive darkness around him illuminated only by the sickly flickering glow of the monitor. He giggles to himself as he types, pausing occasionally to scratch under his cheetos-stained sweatpants, growing slowly erect in anticipation of the outrage that will follow his perfect troll. His begins breathing rapidly as he finishes his masterwork, the pain of his dismal existence made temporarily ever so slightly less unbearable as he gasps in release and clicks the POST button.
Then the darkness of the basement and his loneliness swallows him whole once again.


So you're saying he does like comics?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:47 PM on August 23, 2008


buuuuuuuuuuuuurn
posted by Justinian at 7:52 PM on August 23, 2008


One of the obvious points not getting enough attention here is that most of the best is autobiographical: Persepolis, Maus, Black Hole, Fun Home, American Splendor, & Ernie Pook's Comeek to name a few. The term graphic novel may be the genre's worst enemy. Not that folks like Ware, Vaughn & Guerra, Gaiman, Moore & Gibbons or Moore & Gebbie, aren't also defining the category, but there should probably be a distinction between the fictional, and that which comes from experience or history.

Bookstore anecdote—worked in book retail for quite a while as this phenomenon developed, and as it was usually on the indie side, we always carried this sort of thing. The question was where because often there wasn't a critical mass for its own section. Here's where some of it went when eventually I had my own store and I could decide:

Maus—Judiaica
American Splendor—Autobiography
McCloud—Cultural Studies
Gaiman, Moore, Mignola, and others—Science Fiction/Fantasy
Barry—Humor and Women's Studies (I realize now this was a mistake. Now I'd put it in Autobiograpy) except Cruddy which went into fiction.
Clowes—Fiction
Bechdel—Gay & Lesbian and Local Author (she's from where I live, though doesn't live here now. Almost all of our copies of Dykes were autographed. Fun Home was odd to read as I knew the places and many of the people.)
Raw—Anthologies

Fire, Women, & Dangerous Things.

My store closed in 2000 and I've been in publishing since, so I never had the opportunity to shelve folks like Ware or Satrapi. But if I did have a bookstore today I'd have a Graphic Literature section, and it would have an Autobiography and/or maybe Non-fiction subsection.

By the way, I just read an interview with Barry in Bust and discovered that she usually just gets by on her work. She can barely pay her insurance and lives hand to mouth. This really upset me. She's a national treasure and some day folks will compare what she means to graphic literature to what Whitman was to Transcendentalism. Please read her if you haven't.

Comics with spines. Awesome.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:01 PM on August 23, 2008


Aww, the "single page" link cuts out my comic strips!
(self link, sorry)
posted by JBennett at 1:12 PM on August 24, 2008


Find me a literate comic book reader, they're not out there.

Because supergenius book readers never expose themselves to "lesser" media. Find me a Nabokov fan who watches movies; they're not out there.

I mean, literate people don't even *own* television sets.
posted by straight at 12:10 PM on August 25, 2008


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