Graphic novels, the fastest-growing sector of the book publishing industry, reinterprets old classics and covers a range of subjects as diverse as its readership.
The superhero business is big business. Not only have these escapist movies contributed tens of billions of dollars in the box office, they have also shone a new light on comic books and graphic novels. Driven by the sustained popularity of Batman, Spider-Man, the Avengers and more, global sales of comic books and graphic novels topped US$ 9 billion in 2021.
While these figures were taken during the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone was hunkered down at home, the growth of graphic novels predate the pandemic. Demand only grew stronger during the lock down period and now graphic novels have become the fastest-growing genre in the book industry. The boom cannot only be traced to the popularity of the superhero genre to the male demographic. In fact, the rise of graphic novels happened because it’s been able to transcend their core readership and expand to a wider audience that includes kids, young adults, women, people of color and the LGBTQ population.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE GRAPHIC NOVELS?
There is no formal description of what a graphic novel is, with people usually confusing it with ‘comic books’ or ‘trade paperbacks’. While all of them feature a sequential art narrative, there are differences:
‘Trades’ and ‘graphic novels’ are closely related with a key difference: the word ‘original’ meaning never before published. Still, that hasn’t stopped the people and even the industry from using these terms interchangeably.
The term ‘graphic novel’ was first used in 1964 but the form traces it origin way back in 1837 when Rodolphe Topffer published The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. The first to ever use the ‘graphic novel’ term was Will Eisner’s seminal A Contract with God, first published in 1978. Wide acclaim for this title helped push the term to the mainstream and soon saw dominant comic book publishers Marvel and DC use it to market their line of books (including trade paperbacks).
NOT JUST CAPES AND SPANDEX
The 1980s was a golden age of graphic novels with DC publishing Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to critical and widespread acclaim —all of which have been turned into movies. Marvel was also in on the game publishing X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills and of course the Infinity Gauntlet (which if you’ve been living under a rock is the basis for Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame). It should be noted that all of these, except for the X-Men title were originally published in serialized form, before finding enduring success in the trades.
But reducing graphic novels to just the superhero genre does it a massive disservice. The subjects tackled by graphic novels are as diverse as its readership. Straying from literature marketed primarily towards teenage boys, it’s become a very accessible media format for everyone to consume and enjoy.
One of the biggest gainers in this industry are books geared toward Young Adult (YA) readers. Just as books (think The Fault in Our Stars or The Hunger Games series) have found massive popularity with young adults, so have YA graphic novels. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese has been described as a modern fable that charts the experiences of Americans with Chinese ethnicity. There is also That One Summer by Mariko Tamaki that details a girl’s heartbreaking and yet hopeful coming-of-age story.
And if you go to even younger genres, you’d see Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and The Baby-Sitters Club (of which Telgemeier serves as artist) consistently topping the best-sellers list. So pervasive is the popularity of graphic novels, especially among the younger population, that they have been credited for promoting a reading culture in this age of social media and TikTok videos.
GRAPHIC NOVELS GROW UP
And of course, there are the adult themed graphic novels that also feature a wide array of subjects. One cannot discuss this genre without ever mentioning Maus by Art Spiegelman in which he shares his father’s experiences during the Holocaust by representing Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, etc. His work has been ranked highly in various Best of… lists for graphic novels and remains the only form of its kind to have won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Other must-reads are Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis which takes a look at her time growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle.
More than autobiographical graphic novels, another popular genre in the industry are adaptations of classics. Publisher Manga Classics has been adopting classic stories such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in manga style to great praise, re-introducing these classics to new and old readers. And we’re just scratching the surface here, we haven’t even taken a deep dive of manga.
if you still look at graphic novels as ‘just kiddie stuff’ then it’s time to re-orient your perspective. Graphic novels have become a truly accessible content format that covers a variety of subjects and are only bound to become a more significant part of our cultural and educational landscapes.