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Straddling art and literature Graphic novels
Straddling art and literature Graphic novels

Graphic novels are ruling the bookshelves

Once upon a time, comics were read by children and all was well with the world. But, things are a tad different now — you have to be over 18 to buy most titles on comic book racks. Welcome to the world of graphic novels.

If you remember 300 only as some violent movie and have not heard of Maus, going beyond this point might be an exercise in futility. But, if Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman are the gods on your bookshelves, congratulations... you are part of the graphic novel multiverse.

What is a graphic novel?

For the uninitiated, a graphic novel is a novel-length comic, spread over anything from 64 pages to over a thousand pages. Although purists would cringe at the suggestion, it can also be successive issues of a comic magazine that tell a single story bound together (in publishing terms, a trade paperback). Any corrupting connotation that the word “comic” could bring to this form, straddling both art and literature, could be wiped off by taking a walk through the streets of the dystopian Sin City or listening to the socio-political commentary in Persepolis.

Of course, the caped and masked crusaders from the DC and Marvel stables continue to rule over the commercial hubs in this genre, but there is a maverick underground that fans are always on the lookout for.

Though, by default, suited for fantastic characters and dramatic themes, even the simplest of subjects has a major advantage in the graphic novel form — the age-old dictum that a picture speaks a thousand words.

In fact, the graphic novel as social criticism has taken the comic genre into more hallowed circles.

Fan base

Art Spiegelman’s Maus – A tale of survival, (1986), a dark fable of Nazi Germany with the Nazis pictured as cats and the Jews as mice, won a Pulitzer. Recently, the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, (2003) on the life of a young girl in Ayatollah’s Iran, won the jury award at Cannes and the ire of the Iranian government.

But the real fan base of the graphic novel is the kid who got hooked on to Superman at 10 and refuses to let go at 30. The DC and Marvel Universes have turned themselves over to more adult sensibilities with Superman and Batman becoming enigmatic men with dark temperaments. With anti-heroes such as Wolverine from X-Men and John Constantine of Hellblazer on the loose, comic heroes of the present are more Hamlets than Lancelots. Most of the celebrity writers and illustrators in this genre are also from the ranks of the comic book creators.

Frank Miller, with his signature neo noir style, is definitely in the top league here. With several classics such as 300 (1998) and Sin City to his credit, he is the master of the dark and the disturbing.

Another genius in the ranks is Alan Moore, the maverick creator of Watchmen (1987) and V for Vendetta (1989). Neil Gaiman of Sandman fame and Will Eisner, a pioneer in the genre with his A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories (1978), are other must-know, must-read names in the class.

Sarnath Banerjee, who created India’s first graphic novel, Corridor (2004), about a shop-owner in Delhi, is the desi in the field to watch. In 2007, he created his second novel The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers about a Jew in 18th century Kolkata.

P.J. GEORGE

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