Comic Genius. Not Just for Kids.


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.


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

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