Comics historians can point to the antecedents of the graphic novel when looking for clues as to how the breakthrough to the mainstream happened. They can point back as far the early 1960s when Little Brown brought Tintin to these shores, and early graphic novels published by NBM in the 1970s, Gil Kane’s books His Name is Savage & Blackmark, and Will Eisner’s, A Contract with God to name a few. These were all critical. However, 1986 was the year that the real transformation began, with Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen & Maus. Dark Knight & Watchmen made a lot of noise & promoted the idea that comics were changing, but Maus did more than that. Maus was such powerful reading that general readers didn’t look at it as a comic book or a graphic novel (the term hadn’t stuck yet) but as a new kind of reading experience. Maus almost single handedly showed the world outside comics that graphic novels could relate trans formative reading experiences. Maus actually became a staple of high school curriculum.
Unfortunately, no books of the magnitude of Maus followed for several years, but by the late 1990s, a handful of graphic novels had surfaced in the mainstream, including, Dan Clowes’ Ghost World, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series. All these books showed that mainstream readers had more in common with comic book readers than they might have thought, & the rest, as they say, is history.
To learn more about the history of the graphic novel, read my book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel, available now.