Words, pictures and the rise of the graphic novel
PUBLISHED: 07:31 18 August 2018
With The Beano celebrating it's 80th birthday this summer, Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at different forms of comics and explores the rise the graphic novel. He examines how this increasingly important form of storytelling has blossomed into an art-form of its own
Since the dawn of time, when prehistoric man illustrated his adventures hunting animals on the walls of caves, people have been telling stories by using pictures.
Even when language was formalised and written down, monks illuminated richly-bound, hand-copied Bibles and religious works with colourful illustrations. Cartoons and caricatures first appeared at the time of the Ancient Egyptians. A recent exhibition at the British Museum revealed ancient papyrus ‘comics’ satirising characters and events at the Pharaoh’s court.
Given this history it’s not surprising that the graphic novel should appear but rather that it took so long to make its presence felt.
Satirical cartoons have been an effective political and social weapon since the time of George III and the Prince Regent but these, along with comic strips, have tended to be exercises in humorous point scoring rather than coherent storytelling devices.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries came the rise of the Penny Dreadfuls which illustrated stories of crime, murder and adventure in the Wild West and around the British Empire. These tended to be heavily illustrated prose stories rather than graphic novels as we know them today but the blend of words and pictures made a strong impression on readers.
These ‘pulp’ publications, so-called because they were printed on cheap paper and were regarded as the lowest form of populist literature. In the run-up to the First World War, in Britain comics started appearing aimed at children, often aimed at replicating the adventures of silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in titles like Film Fun.
After the war publisher DC Thompson started up new comics like The Rover and The Wizard before adding titles The Dandy in 1937 and The Beano in 1938.
But, it was the Americans who laid the real groundwork for the graphic novel with the advent of superheroes like Superman and Batman, these followed on from pulp fiction comic-book heroes like The Shadow and Doc Savage.
These publications had spectacular covers and were illustrated throughout, as were these new superhero comic books. Superman first appeared in Action Comics in 1938 while Batman appeared in Detective Comics in May 1939 before getting his own title in the spring 1940.
If the US had superheroes and Britain had Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids, the other great home of the graphic novel was Belgium who, during the 1930s, published the first TinTin stories.
Author Herge went on publish a total of 24 graphic novels about his diminutive hero. TinTin was followed in 1961 by Asterix the Gaul, who so far has appeared in 37 graphic novels. Across the other side of the world Japan also embraced a form of graphic storytelling when it developed Manga. Originally they appeared as episodes in a series before being collected together in a graphic novel.
This idea of grouping together instalments of comic books to create a stand-alone trade paperback or graphic novel was seized on by the American superhero giants DC and Marvel who started collecting together story-arcs from some of their best-selling titles, principally Superman and Batman, along with Spider-Man and The Avengers. These sold really well, The Batman title A Death in the Family, detailing the demise of Robin was a best-seller, and the upgrade in printing really showed off the artwork. As a result both Marvel and DC started commissioning stand-alone graphic novel stories.
These attracted a different breed of writer, independent graphic novelists and artists, people like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, and the tone of these new publications became darker, more adult, more complex.
The heroes of these tales, were no longer so carefree. Problems which had only been hinted at in the regular comic-books now took centrestage. Frank Miller took the opportunity to rewrite Batman’s backstory in Year One which also meant that Catwoman’s origins also had to be rewritten and she had her own linked graphic novel, meanwhile The Joker was reborn in the darkest graphic novel of them all The Killing Joke.
As graphic novels became more accepted into the mainstream, different titles appeared which had nothing to do with superheroes. Eclipse Comics released Sabre by Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy. Sabre, a science-fiction adventure story while Will Eisner published a tale of life in New York, A Contract With God and Alison Bechdel created the influential and autobiographical coming out story Fun Home, which has now been turned into a West End and Broadway musical.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s three genre defining titles appeared which bestowed literary worth of the genre. The first of these was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons; story The Watchmen for DC Comics, then Art Spiegleman gave the world Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the biographical story of Spiegleman’s parents in World War 2 during the Holocaust. This was nominated for several literary awards, and in 1992 received a special Pulitzer Prize. Finally came Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the world’s best-selling graphic novels. There are currently 10 volumes with estimated sales of over one million copies.
Graphic novels are not only here to stay but they will undoubtedly evolve the storytelling form.