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Graphic Novels:

Can You Hear The Trucks?

Do you ever get a sense of déja vu? Recently I’ve been getting the eerie feeling that I’ve gone back through the Time Tunnel and it’s the late Eighties all over again. Some of you will remember the buzz starting in 1987 surrounding the so-called ‘Big Three’ breakout comics: Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen and Spiegelman’s Maus. From style mags to Sunday papers, from ‘yoof’ TV to highbrow arts programmes, it seemed the media couldn’t get enough of these alien artefacts ‘graphic novels’. Here supposedly was proof that comics ‘had finally grown up’. Big-time publishers led by Penguin Books lurched into the market and major bookchains devoted shelf space and window displays to the flurry of titles.

The Dark Knight Returns - Watchmen - Maus

I remember the mood of optimism that comics were poised to cross over and finally enjoy critical acclaim and commercial success.  Sound familiar? Currently, we’re witnessing another promising period for graphic novels, so to avoid the boom-bust cycle repeating, I thought it might be instructive to look back and examine why all those hopes in 1987 seemed to go pear-shaped by the early Nineties.

There were a great many contributing factors to the backlash and collapse. A glut of mediocre product drowned all but a few of the strong, original works that came on the heels of the ‘Big Three’. A hasty cobbling together of a few serialised comic books does not necessarily make a worthwhile graphic novel. For every Spiral Cage, Love & Rockets or Sandman there came a horde of embarrassments. How many more grim, psychotic remakes of superheroes could anyone stomach?

The Spiral Cage - Love & Rockets - Sandman

Then there was the disappointment when some of Moore and Miller’s much-anticipated, over-hyped follow-ups, like Killing Joke or Give Me Liberty, came nowhere near the lofty standards they had set for themselves. And why did any publisher think that Lenny Henry, Doris Lessing or Ramsey Campbell were bound to write brilliant graphic novel bestsellers? On top of these errors in judgement, the tragic finality of Moore and Sienkiewicz’s Big Numbers collapsing after only two published issues in 1990 could be seen as a symbolic final nail. Was it too ambitious even for two such towering talents to realise the rich potential of this medium?

Another problem was pretension, either way too much of it or not nearly enough. In an attempt to be taken more seriously, some writers and artists tried too hard and became preachy, overearnest or dull. That only served to reinforce the view of some cultural critics who insisted that comics should stick to being ‘rock’n'roll’, and stay wild, rebellious and permanently pubescent. As one commented, ‘Do comics rot your brain? Only if they’re done properly.’

Plenty of industry pros, old and young, agreed. They poo-pooed their peers’ poncey aspirations and simply pumped out more of the same, only nastier. Pretension and underachievement together bred disenchantment among the new buying public and the media. Only a few years after singing their praises, in 1991 fickle Time Out whined ‘If adult comics are the wave of the future, how come nobody’s reading them?’

More factors conspired, from the chilling effects of the economic downturn and customs seizures and shop raids of adult comics to the saturating presence of Tim Burton’s Batman movies and high levels of theft of overpriced graphic novels from bookstores. It’s also worth remembering that of the ‘Big Three’, two featured superheroes, an instant turn-off to many non-comics readers, while Maus came to be hailed for its treatment of the Holocaust almost in spite of it being in comics form.

Perhaps the most fundamental problems were the exaggerated expectations of everyone involved. The seismic scale of this cultural shift could never happen overnight. People tend to have a rather rose-tinted view of comics in France or Japan, forgetting that bande dessinée and manga took many years, at least since the Sixties, before they gained an adult audience and a measure of respect.

But maybe here this change in attitude might start to take hold within a generation. Now that it’s fifteen years later, almost a generation, some truly formidable graphic novels have been completed: Palestine, Preacher, Cerebus, Bone, From Hell, Locas, Palomar, Jimmy Corrigan, Epileptic, Cages, for starters. A library of undeniable quality is amassing. Patience is a virtue, because great graphic novels need time to come to fruition and more are slowly ripening. Chris Ware is laboring on two epics serialised in weekly pages. Crumb is illuminating the Book of Genesis. We’ve entered an era of large, doorstop compilations like Lost Girls, Black Hole, Buddy Bradley, La Perdida and more meaty reads you can’t whiz through on the toilet.

La Perdida - Black Hole - Buddy Does Seattle

It’s different from 1987 in other ways now. There may be yet another Bat-film looming, but the public are starting to discriminate between movies from superhero comics and movies from graphic novels like American Splendor, Road to Perdition, Ghost World or Sin City. They are also discovering that the originals these come from are frequently far superior. Then there’s manga, a whole culture hooking new readers. And the internet, bypassing journos to spread info and opinions as never before.

Sin City - Road To Perdition - Ghost World

I’m sure mistakes will be made, bad books published, great books stupidly slammed or ignored, and anti-comics prejudices will rear up (manga have already been the targets). But it’s not 1987 and we won’t get fooled again, because lots of people, writers, artists, editors and readers, are in this for the long haul, for however long it takes for the graphic novel to achieve its possibilities. About that vision, pioneer of the form Will Eisner once remarked, ‘I put up a tollbooth out in a field and I’ve been waiting for a highway to come through. And now I can hear the trucks.’

Actually, Will, there’s a massive, never-ending, unstopable convoy of trucks roaring along that route you trailblazed. And maybe this time round, we might just get there.

Posted: December 31, 2006

The original version of this article appeared in 2005 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.

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