What made Graphic Novels Break Through?

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.

How Graphic Novel got into Libraries

As the graphic novel form took off in the 1990s, one of the first places it landed was public libraries. The respectability of MAUS as well as the initial buzz generated by the publicity generated by DARK KNIGHT & WATCHMEN raised the visibility of the comics medium. Lots of people in the library were more curious than biased against comics, so they started small graphic novel collections, steeled themselves, & waited for the complaints.

Complaints did occasionally come their way, but mostly librarians saw that they’d stumbled onto something. Patrons, particularly boys, loved comics. These books were read, borrowed, & stolen. The word was out—libraries were not dead places, they were even a bit hip.
Even better, books were coming out like UNDERSTANDING COMICS, STRANGERS IN PARADISE, & ELFQUEST, more in line with library collection policies. As librarians learned how to best collect comics they had to read them, making them become fans or at least educated skeptics.

There were barriers aside from content that made collecting graphic novels difficult. Vendors who sold to libraries didn’t carry them, &, for the most part, they weren’t reviewed (librarians generally bought books after they were reviewed) so librarians began holding conferences about graphic novels in an effort to educate each other & work out problems collecting comics. Throughout the 90s these issues were thoroughly examined, but the real breakthrough occurred when publishers saw the benefits of libraries collecting graphic novels. Initially, the big publishers saw libraries as competition, that one library sale negated multiple individual sales. However, over time the publishers saw public library collections as a way to promote the changing comics field, & a partnership was formed between the comics industry public libraries. Interestingly enough, throughout most of the 1990s, the two most popular graphic novels in public libraries were MAUS & UNDERSTANDING COMICS.

For more information about the history of the graphic novel, read my book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel, available now.


Elfquest & The Graphic Novel

The first graphic novel to explode out of the comic book marketplace & into bookstores was Elfquest by Wendy & Richard Pini. In many ways it was the model for some of the break out graphic novels we’ve seen over the last several years. Elfquest was self published under the Pini’s own WaRP Graphics company & supported by the network of comic book stores. Elfquest was an outgrowth of the underground Comics, but with a wider appeal, & it signaled the beginning of the Alternative Comics movement. Alternative Comics told stories with commercial appeal that weren’t published by the major comic book companies. Elfquest told an adventure story but it wasn’t a superhero story. The heroes were elves & the overarching story was a melding of fantasy tropes, fairy tales, & Native American lore. The black & white serial began in 1978, and was quickly collected into graphic novel form, making it into bookstores in 1981. Elfquest’s trajectory exemplified Will Eisner’s hope for the graphic novel form. Eisner saw the graphic novel as a mature work appealing to readers who had grown tired of superhero stories, but could still be interested in stories told in cartoon format. Elfquest went through many publishing incarnations. Originally published by the Pini’s own WaRP Graphics line, it was next reprinted in color by Marvel Comics’s Epic line in the mid 1980s, then again by DC Comics in the in the early part of this century, both in a collector’s archive edition & as a manga-sized series of books. Although it’s been around since 1978, Elfquest never gets old.


For more information on the graphic novel, read my book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel, available later this month.


Camelot 3000 & the Graphic Novel

Camelot 3000 and the Graphic Novel
Pioneering cartoonists creating the first graphic novels followed a bumpy road. Although the concept was out there in the late 1970s & early 1980s, the acceptance of the new longer format was mixed. Many early graphic novels were big news at the time but are now virtually forgotten. One of the early experiments was Camelot 3000 by Mike W. Barr & Brian Bolland. Camelot 3000 was a story of Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table warding off Morgan le Fey in 3000 AD. It stayed true to the Arthurian legends while taking some liberties. Writer Mike Barr was a well respected chronicler of the DC Universe & Brian Bolland was an exciting British import. The series ran as a twelve issue mini-series from 1982-1985, just prior to Watchmen and Dark Knight, although it has only been in print in a collected edition sporadically and certainly hasn’t received the acclaim of those books that followed.


Here’s a youtube link to Camelot 3000.: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3mXWfzbdRE

For more information on the history of the graphic novel, read my book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel, available later in October.

The Independents & the Graphic Novel

In the 1980s comics began to recognize that a long form comic’s story had potential, based in part on Eisner’s Contract with God & Jules Feiffer’s Tantrum. Various names for this longer comics story form were thrown around. Among them “Sequential Narrative” and “Picture Novella” gained some weight but the term that stuck was “Graphic Novel.”
The 1980s was also a time when Independent publishing flourished. One of the first big hits was Wendy & Richard Pini’s fantasy ElfQuest, which mixed Native American lore with fantasy tropes. Another was Dave Sim’s Cerebus, which began as a parody of Conan the Barbarian but then evolved into an ongoing storyline in its own right.



Possibly the independent hit of this period was The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird. Initially a parody of the ninja craze and a tribute to the work of Frank Miller, the Turtles charmed the country, and the black and white book originally financed by a family member became a sensation. In a fairly short time the turtles were everywhere, on school lunch boxes, on clothing, & on stationary.
Other cartoonists watched the success of the Turtles & saw possibilities. Soon the comic book market was running over with self published work. Some experienced success, but only the Turtles broke the dam between the comic book readership & the wider world of popular culture.

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 in October

Jack Kirby & The Graphic Novel

If Jack Kirby were still alive he would have turned 95 on August 28th. Is there anything in the history of mainstream comics that emerged unshaped by Jack Kirby? He put his stamp on superheroes in the 1940s with his dynamic artwork. He and Joe Simon created the Romance genre in the 1950s, and in the 1960s he reinvented the hero concept by co-creating the great majority of Marvel heroes, many of whom have exploded onto the big screen in the last 2 decades.
The original intention of ‘The Graphic Novel’ was to present a complete story betweens a back & front cover appealing to readers who might not otherwise be interested in comic book stories. These were book like products as opposed to collections of several issues of an ongoing serial. Kirby, through his staggering ability, was almost single-handedly, was responsible for the parade of monthly issues coming from Marvel in the 1960s, so his work at Marvel did not relate to the emerging graphic novel form.
But an argument should be made that his DC work in the 1970s was serious and did attempt whole stories. His Fourth World series, including The New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People, told an interwoven story of gods and super powered beings and was played out on a galactic stage, and because the characters were more mythic than most superheroes, the stories held appeal for audiences outside of comic book stores. Unlike previous Kirby creations, Captain America, and The Fantastic Four, for example, Kirby edited, wrote and drew his Fourth World stories. As a result, readers got Kirby for the first time unfiltered. Kirby’s Fourth World ran from 1970-73. The series was revived briefly in the 1980s, and culminated in the 1985 graphic novel The Hunger Dogs. He didn’t produce a lot of graphic novels but Kirby had a hand in the development of the form.

To learn more about the history of the graphic novel, read my book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel, coming out in October.


What’s Hollywood got to do with it?

Since 2002, comic book related movies have come out on an average of one every 2 months for 10 years.    Hollywood has always had some interest in adapting comics for the big screen. In the 1970s, the comics’ field & the movie studios borrowed heavily from each other.  Star Wars: A New Hope hit the big screen in 1977, and spawned several comic book spin-offs, the most visible one being the Marvel version which ran from 1977-1986.  The reverse also happened, a short-lived live action Spider-Man TV series hit the small screen in the late 70s, but the audience wasn’t really ready for it.  The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby, was more successful, running from 1978-1982.














But the strongest Hollywood statement in support of comics in the 1970s was the feature film franchise Superman, starring Christopher Reeves. Beginning in 1978, the Superman franchise ran 4 films, and was witty and sophisticated, a new hope for fans of superheroes.    In order to reach mainstream audiences, each Hollywood vehicle had to present these characters in a more mainstream light in order to bring in larger audiences. The trend that continued in the Batman movies of the 1980s and 1990s, turned into infatuation with the movie Spider-Man in 2002.  Hollywood gave the comics industry a boost and it raised the visibility of comics, but it did very little to increase the credibility of serious graphic novels, although movie versions of graphic novels such as American Splendor & Ghost World were made.  Although movies like these were well received, mainstream audiences weren’t necessarily aware that these movies were originally graphic novels.

To learn more about the history of graphic novels, read my book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the graphic novel, being solicited now

Trade Publishers and early Graphic Novel attempts

As far back as the 1940s, trade publishers experienced success publishing graphic novel like books, collections of newspaper comics, and early book length comic stories by recognized children’s book author-illustrators Crockett Johnson and Don Freeman. Pogo collections by Walt Kelly published in the 1950s and early 1960s paved the way for the book length graphic novel, Prehysterical Pogo (in Pandemonia) released in 1967. The Tintin books started appearing in the U.S. under the Little Brown imprint as early as 1962, so it’s clear that trade publishers had no problem with book length comic stories that they found acceptable. Trade houses were not comfortable with the type of comic stories that had come under attack in the 1950s—horror and crime comics as well as superhero comics, although sales of these types of books were lucrative.

The Great Comic Book Heroes Cover
This began to change with the publication of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, in 1965. Feiffer’s book extolled the value of superhero comic books and examined them as symbols of childhood innocence as opposed to childhood contamination. The book included early stories of heroes that Feiffer admired and it sent out a signal: the comic book people were ready to fight back against the charges of Dr. Wertham, and by publishing with a trade house, Feiffer’s book gained respectability. In 1979, Feiffer published his own graphic novel, Tantrum, about a couple going through a mid life crisis. Tantrum was released by a trade house. In a period of 15 years, Feiffer had argued that comics were good for children and then created a graphic novel that could interest adults.

To learn more about the history of the graphic novel, try my book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel, being solicited now.

What Forces Led to the ‘Graphic Novel’?

One of the major drivers was the Comic Book Store

The world of comics was changing in the 1970s. The fan conventions and the head shops of the 1960s had led to the creation of the comic book store, where readers could buy new & used comics. The comic book store offered a wider variety of comics than newsstands, so readers who might have given up on comics in their teens could read undergrounds and other kinds of books. Through the undergrounds publishers knew there was an older comic book reading audience & the comic book store gave publishers a way to reach these readers. However, the 60s were gone and mature readers were interested in more than tales of sex crazed stoned out hipsters, so publishers experimented with more sophisticated genre tales. One of the first was Manhunter, published by DC Comics by the team of Archie Goodwin & Walt Simonson. Manhunter originally a 1940s hero, was in this incarnation revived by a Terrorist organization to be their assassin. The writing was smart and the artwork inventive. Equally important, the tone was bitter. Manhunter ran as a backup feature in Detective Comics, and was awarded 6 awards from the Academy of Comic Book Arts (the major industry award at the time) for a series 7 episodes long. Although it wasn’t collected in graphic novel form until the 1980s, it was one of the first commercial attempts to tell a completed genre story. The editors at DC comics realized that the time was right for this story partially because of the comic book store clientele. Others followed.

See more about the origins of the graphic novel in my upcoming 2nd edition of “Faster than a Speeding Bullet, The Rise of the Graphic Novel.” Being solicited in comics shops now.

Next: the Trade Publishing Influence