Comic Genius. Not Just for Kids.

batman.jpg

An enduring superhero makes the transition from page to screen.

As we enter another festive season, books remain one of the most popular of Christmas gifts, but in the age of digital, with its ever-increasing choice and variety of reading formats, there is one statistic which may come as a surprise to many. Nearly one in four adult comic readers is 65 years of age or older, according to a report from US media analysts Simba Information. One of the leading authorities on market intelligence and forecasts in the media and publishing industry, the company believes that the market for comics has been driven by a series of successful film adaptations in recent years, most notably Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight, which stands as one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Yet, as Overview of the U.S. Comic Book and Graphic Novel Market 2009-2010 clearly shows, the industry remains misunderstood at best.

“Despite notable efforts from many in the industry, comics and graphic novels continue to be repeatedly mislabeled as just another children’s book category,” said Warren Pawlowski, online publishing manager for Simba Information and an analyst within the company’s Trade Books Group. “With nearly a quarter of the comic reading audience beyond the age of retirement, there is a misconception that needs to be corrected.”

The report, which delves deeper into the persona of the modern-day comic reader, with detailed demographic comparisons to book buyers and the general population, also provides bestseller analysis of the three major segments within the comic industry—comic books, graphic novels and manga—featuring multiple listings of the top titles and publishers by both title output and total dollar sales, as well as sales forecasts for the coming year. Until the last few years, the comics industry, particularly the graphic novel segment, has been a market largely untapped by traditional book publishers. However, a growing number have come to embrace it, with both publishers and retailers realising the numerous and significant opportunities offered by this diverse market.

War

A landmark work. Joe Sacco’s The Great War.

Sure to be top of many ‘best books’ lists for 2013, especially as thoughts turn towards the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I next year, is the latest work of art and possible magnum opus from the American journalist and comics writer Joe Sacco. In an extraordinary, 24-foot-long wordless panorama, The Great War depicts the events of a single day – the launch of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July, 1916. It is a day which has come to epitomise the madness of the First World War. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded that first day, and there were more than one million casualties by the time the offensive halted a few months later. From the riding exercises of General Douglas Haig to the massive artillery positions and marshalling areas behind the trench lines, to the legions of British soldiers going ‘over the top’ and being cut down in No-Man’s-Land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse, The Great War is a landmark work in Sacco’s illustrious career, and ‘makes visceral one of the bloodiest days in history.’

The Great War seems to work in slow motion. The reader’s eye doesn’t dart quickly over the pages, pulled along by a sense of narrative; rather, we are invited to look closely at every inch of every page, and it’s only in this intense inspection that the horror hits. Over there, an officer quietly vomits. Over here, a horse is put out of its misery. And in this corner, a soldier twists on a stretcher, his arms thrown out in front of him as if he wants nothing more than to embrace death. Most of the time there are so many men in Sacco’s trenches – at the Somme, soldiers were forced to spend the night before the beginning of the offensive on their feet – that all we can see from our position behind the lines are the massed ranks of their helmets, piled and gently curved as if they were just counters in a particularly heinous form of tiddlywinks. So when a face or a gesture is visible, you’re pulled up, caught out, remembrance suddenly sour and fierce rather than merely mournful.”

Rachel Cooke, The Observer, Sunday 8 September 2013

Click here to see my full list of recommended picture books, comics and graphic novels for all ages.

See also:

The 13 Best Children’s, Illustrated and Picture Books of 2013

Related Posts:

Getting Serious with Comics

The Wonderful World of Comics

Understanding Comics

Getting Serious With Comics

journalismIf there is any doubt in your mind that comics is a serious literary genre, I would recommend that you have a look at the remarkable collection of stories which is Journalism by the Maltese-American comics writer Joe Sacco, a volume which gathers together his previously-published reports from conflict zones around the world, including the illegal war in Iraq, the underground war in Gaza and the struggle for progressive independence in Chechnya. In his own preface to the book, Sacco acknowledges that there will be those who find it difficult to take seriously a journalist whose preferred medium is the comic strip:-

“There will always exist, when presenting journalism in the comics form, a tension between those things that can be verified, like a quote caught on a tape, and those things that defy verification, such as a drawing purporting to represent a specific episode. Drawings are interpretive even when they are slavish renditions of photographs, which are generally perceived to capture a real moment literally. But there is nothing literal about a drawing. A cartoonist assembles elements deliberately and places them with intent on a page. There is none of the photographer’s luck at snapping a picture at precisely the right moment. A cartoonist ‘snaps’ his drawing at any moment he or she chooses. It is the choosing that makes cartooning an inherently subjective medium. This does not let the cartoonist who aspires to journalism off the hook. The journalist’s standard obligations – to report accurately, to get quotes right, and to check claims – still pertain.”

“The blessing of an inherently interpretive medium like comics is that it hasn’t allowed me to…make a virtue of dispassion. For good or for ill, the comics medium is adamant, and it has forced me to make choices. In my view, that is part of its message.”

Joe Sacco, from Preface to Journalism

The use of pictures to tell stories, however, is as old as man himself, as evidenced by the discovery of cave paintings in Western Europe dating back up to 35,000 years. From 113 AD, Rome’s Trajan’s Column is an early surviving example of a narrative told through pictures in sequence, while Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes and medieval tapestries such as the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066, are all examples of combining sequential images and words to tell a story. The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century meant the temporary separation of words and images once more as they required separate printing techniques, but a mass medium had been born and the form could be delivered to a wide audience. As printing techniques developed, due to the technological advances of the industrial revolution, magazines and newspapers were established. By the middle of the 19th Century these publications were including illustrations – soon to be known as ‘cartoons’ – as a means of commenting on political and social issues of the day. Before long, many more artists were experimenting with establishing a sequence of images to create a narrative, and the comic strip was born.

From its origins in the daily newspaper strips in the USA in the first half of the twentieth century, publishers recognised the popularity and the potential of the comics genre, and comic strips began to appear in booklet form, first as reprints and then as original stories. Their popularity spread rapidly across the globe in a variety of new forms and formats, as readers began to identify with the cartoon characters and look forward eagerly to the next instalment of their adventures. This identification with character is key to the success of comics, as it is with other  narrative media, and lies, according to Will Eisner, in the peculiarly human need to step into another’s shoes, or to imagine oneself in another’s position:

“Perhaps the most basic of human characteristics is empathy. This trait can be used as a major conduit in the delivery of a story. Its exploitation can be counted upon as one of the storyteller’s tools…………..Empathy is a visceral reaction of one human being to the plight of another. The ability to ‘feel’ the pain, fear or joy of someone else enables the storyteller to evoke an emotional contact with the reader. We see ample evidence of this in movie theatre where people weep over the grief of an actor who is pretending, while in an event that is not really happening.”

Will Eisner, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative

Eisner recognises here the similarities between the comics genre and film, although as he points out elsewhere in his 1996 study Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, they also have their – fairly obvious – differences. While both comics and maus.jpgfilm rely on the interplay between words and pictures, film has the additional element of sound and the illusion of real moving action, whereas comics has to generate the same effects from a series of static images on the page.
Comics and picture books have long been associated with storytelling, and some of the comics of my own youth in the 1960s consisted of  a combination of comic strips and text-only narratives. In many ways they were a bridge between early reading and the ‘serious’ reading of adolescence and adulthood, but since comics were apparently easy to read and consisted predominantly of drawings, for a long time they were regarded not only as inferior, but as a serious threat to literacy. Eisner believes that this reputation was partly justified, as for decades many writers in the comics genre pandered to the lowest common denominator in terms of the intellectual demands of their content, but it would be interesting to consider a philosophical question here – whether reading anything ever made a person less literate than they were before they read it.

By the end of the 20th Century comics had become something of a niche market, as they found themselves competing with more sophisticated media, though paradoxically the evolution of the graphic novel  had also revived the genre to the point where it became accepted as a literary medium worthy of discussion and study. When Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman  won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel ever to do so, the comics genre had truly arrived back in the mainstream.

See also previous post The Wonderful World of Comics

For some notes on understanding how comics work, see my summary of Scott McCloud’s seminal work Understanding Comics 

Don’t miss 26 Ways to Use Comics in the Classroom and 5 Free Tools for Creating Comics at Free Technology for Teachers

Another must-read: Malcolm Wilson‘s excellent blogpost Comics in the Classroom – Online Tools

The Amulet of Samarkand

I am increasingly intrigued by, and attracted to, the range of graphic novels now available on the market, so when a new one comes along – OK, when a publisher sends me a copy and asks me to review it – how can I resist? Fortunately, in this case, what I can say is welcome to the colourful world of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus and The Amulet of Samarkand. Unaware of the original Bartimaeus trilogy of Jonathan Stroud, and approaching the text with an in-built wariness towards yet another story about a  smart kid with magical powers, I was quite prepared to dislike this book, but by the end of its 144 pages (compared with the original novel’s 500) I was kind of hoping there might be more.

This is a novel aimed at young readers, but one which will be enjoyed especially by those sophisticated enough to appreciate the humour which binds the young Nathaniel (apprentice magician, more able than he is given credit for by a bullying master), Bartimaeus (the 5000-year-old djinni whom he conjures up to assist in reclaiming the said amulet) and the reader, in what is really a conspiracy against the pesky adults who tend to control things and generally make a mess of it. In this case, in a clever reversal of the traditional magical fantasy tale, the demon is the ‘good guy’ and the baddies are the tightly-knit, elitist group of ruthless magicians who run the country from Westminster (sound familiar?)

Set in what is described on page one as ‘London. Now’, the backdrop to the story is actually a dystopian future London which looks a bit like the the London of the middle of last century. And when I say looks like, I mean is stunningly drawn and coloured to look like. This book is first and foremost an absolute visual delight. I particularly liked the depiction of rural England, where Nathaniel and Bartimaeus take a trip to a government conference at Heddleham Hall, organised by the arch-criminal and Junior Minister for Trade, Simon Lovelace. In the words of the ancient spirit with the 21st Century sense of humour, ‘It felt good to be free of the city and surrounded by the natural contours of the trees and crops. I perked up a bit.’ Earlier, he had spoken of escaping London’s congested streets, feeling ‘groggy with motion sickness and the terrible stench of technology.’

The novel comes alive in graphic form. Text copyright Jonathan Stroud 2010. Illustrations copyright Lee Sullivan 2010

It isn’t hard to tell where the author’s sympathies lie. When Nathaniel and Bartimaeus find themselves in a deserted building in the centre of London, having narrowly escaped another attempt on their lives by the villainous Lovelace, the latter muses, ‘What was this place, do you think? A library? Don’t suppose the commoners are encouraged to read much anymore, are they? That’s usually the way it goes.’ So there you have it. It isn’t really about the theft of a precious bracelet at all. It’s about the theft of our intellectual freedom. Read books, be clever, or this is the kind of pickle you will find yourself in. And so say all of us!

Language purists may well pick up on the fact that the novel contains American spellings (such as ‘theater’ and ‘fulfill’), which is strange for a book by an English author, but it was developed and published by Stroud’s American publishers Hyperion in the first instance, before reaching the UK market. A minor irritation for this reader, but I suspect not even that for enthusiasts.

The Amulet of Samarkand is adapted from the original novel by Jonathan Stroud with the help of Andrew Donkin, himself the author of more than sixty books for children and adults. It is beautifully drawn by Lee Sullivan (Transformers, Judge Dredd, Doctor Who) and the amazing colouration is by Nicolas Chapuis (Elephantmen, The Wheel of Time). It is also available from Amazon for less than a fiver, which is a far bigger crime than the theft of a precious brooch.

Click here for a complete list of recommended comic books and graphic novels.

The Wonderful World of Comics

For those of us of a certain vintage, comics played a huge part in our childhood and early adolescence, and in our reading development. I have vivid memories of Roy of the Rovers, who rattled in the goals for Melchester in the original Tiger comic, and Alf Tupper, the ‘tough of the track’, whose races in The Victor against more privileged opponents I looked forward to with eager anticipation.

I knew that Alf, the original working-class hero, would always win out in the end of course, despite arriving at the track straight from a heavy shift at the welding yard where he worked, carbo loading with a massive portion of fish and chips, just as the starting pistol was going off.

Changing out of his hob-nailed boots and into his running spikes as the race progressed, he always caught the (posh) early leader right on the finishing tape, chest out, the beads of sweat flying from his brow testimony to the superhuman effort he had put in to emerge victorious yet again.

I must confess also at this point to sneaking a read every week at my sisters’ Bunty comic, since a story was a story after all, and my addiction had no room for gender discrimination.  One of the greatest pleasures of all was when a kindly neighbour or friend of the family passed on a stack of second-hand comics, a veritable feast of goodies.

I have often wondered therefore why comics and their more sophisticated sibling, the graphic novel, don’t play a more significant role in school literacy or reading programmes. Why is it that, in the words of Scott McCloud in his  definitive study Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art, that “for much of this century the word ‘comics’ has had such negative connotations that many of comics’ most devoted practitioners have preferred to be known as ‘illustrators’, ‘commercial artists’ or, at best, ‘cartoonists’!”?

In a fascinating exploration of its past, present and future, McCloud examines and explains how the comic art form, although centuries old, is still perceived as a recent invention and suffers the curse of all new media. Traditional thinking, he claims, has held that truly great works of art and literature are only possible when the two are kept at arm’s length, but ‘TOGETHER, WORDS AND PICTURES CAN WORK MIRACLES.’

Cartoons, comic strips, picture books and graphic novels are perfectly legitimate texts in their own right. They are very much part of our cultural heritage, and should not be regarded as easier, inferior or less important than print-only texts. Nor should they be kept in the special cupboard to be read as a treat when the serious reading is finished. Rather, they should be celebrated and studied, and they should have their rightful place in the mainstream of literacy development.

Further Reading

I have summarised some of the key points from Understanding Comics on a separate page here

Dr Mel Gibson of Northumbria University has an excellent website devoted to comics and visual literacy here

Read more on comics at Comics Worth Reading

Find lists of the best comics and graphic novels for the classroom on this blog and at The Graphic Classroom

Read Ollie Bray’s blog on Classical Comics here

Find more excellent resources on graphic novels, including a free downloadable poster at Scottish Book Trust