I read comic books as a child. I read MAD magazine as a teen. These never translated into an appreciation for the graphic novel as an adult.
Graphic novels have been around a long time, depending on your definition of the term. There have been books collecting strips of cartoons or anthologies and roughly related stories as cartoon strips, often first serialized and published in newspapers since the late 19th century though, for me, that’s not really a novel or a continuing story. The definition is a bit subjective. There’s a pretty good overall history of the graphic novel here.
Graphic versions of classic novels were published in the 1940s, aimed at children. That’s closer to the mark, I’d say. There were a few other full length illustrated stories and books published around that time as well including this gem as described by Wikipedia:
In 1950, St. John Publications produced the digest-sized, adult-oriented “picture novel” It Rhymes with Lust, a film noir-influenced slice of steeltown life starring a scheming, manipulative redhead named Rust. Touted as “an original full-length novel” on its cover, the 128-page digest by pseudonymous writer “Drake Waller” (Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller), penciler Matt Baker and inker Ray Osrin proved successful enough to lead to an unrelated second picture novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha by pulp novelist Manning Lee Stokes and illustrator Charles Raab.
It Rhymes with Lust. That’s just all kinds of awesome, a novel about a gutsy, red headed woman. Fantastic! Through the 1960s, there were other publications but it wasn’t a growing industry yet although monthly comic books were highly popular.
Blackmark by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin, published in 1971, is the first to be termed a “graphic novel” in retrospect and is a sci fi/fantasy adventure. The first books to actually call themselves graphic novels, however, happened in the mid 70s and a genre was born. It isn’t just an American phenomenon, either, though in Europe and other countries, the term was not used as such, not at first. The product was the same or similar, though. I’ve noticed that they have become hugely popular in the last 10 or 15 years but it’s not a genre I’ve really taken to on the whole.
I have read a handful of them, but it’s only reinforced my view that it’s not really for me, though I can see I may continue to pick one up now and then depending on the author or subject. The first one I read was written by my favourite author, Diana Gabaldon. It was based on the first Outlander book that introduced Jamie and Claire Fraser to the world but was told from Jamie’s point of view and was called The Exile. I own it but for the life of me, I can’t find it anywhere. I can recommend The Exile for Gabaldon fans as a companion to the Outlander series.
Last year, for a reading Bingo challenge square, I read the autobiography of Stan Lee who was instrumental in founding Marvel comics. It’s called Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. I had bought it for my husband for Christmas a few years ago and decided that would do for the Bingo Square. I enjoyed The Exile more, I would have to say but reading about his life this way gave me the highlights if not the detail.
I guess that’s the thing about graphic novels that I don’t like. I read a lot and I like to read thick books which generally have lots of detail. Reading a graphic novel is something you might read in one sitting, giving you the bare bones or highlights of a story but not as much depth as I prefer. The Exile was a nice complement to the rest of the big, chunky books that Ms. Gabaldon writes and I knew the detail and story behind it albeit from the point of view of Claire rather than Jamie, so I could fill in the detail myself. I’ve not been one to read comics as an adult and a graphic novel by its very nature is just a longer comic book. I know people love them for the artwork as much as the story and some of them do have beautiful illustrations which I can appreciate. You can read Ms. Gabaldon’s own version of the history of how she came to write it here on her website.
The most recent graphic novel I read because it was by another of my favourite authors, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. It’s called Angel Catbird and is a fantasy about a scientist whose DNA gets mixed with an owl and a cat and finds that there is a secret group of animal/humans in his world. I believe it’s going to have further volumes though I may not continue the series. I was curious as to what she’d do with it and it was pretty good, I have to say. She found a good artist to go along with her concept. I can recommend this as well, for Atwood fans and for fantasy fans. It’s quirky and fun with a good introduction by Atwood as well.
There’s apparently a very good Canadian graphic novel called Essex County by Jeff Lemire who is going to be appearing at our local library one night in June. Essex County is a trilogy of books set in semi-rural Ontario and is highly recommended apparently. The trilogy is quite a large book from what I remember seeing in the bookstore. It’s not something I would purchase but perhaps someday I might borrow it from the library. Although a few of the co-members of one of my Goodreads groups did not rate it highly, seeming to have a similar opinion to mine about the genre in general, it does get very good ratings and was included in a Canada Reads contest . The stories are apparently emotional and somewhat bleak but that might make it more interesting. Lemire is quite prolific, he’s got a number of series of graphic novels out .
Graphic novels have become a popular source for movies and television, too. That has brought a new legitimacy to the genre, I think and given it a little nudge into the mainstream. I have seen several movies based on graphic novels including Sin City, V for Vendetta, 300, Snowpiercer, (I didn’t realize that was based on a graphic novel), Ghost World (great movie!), R.I.P.D. , and the dire Cowboys and Aliens which I wouldn’t recommend. Awful. Let’s not forget The Walking Dead which is based on graphic novels and is one of the most popular tv series out there though not my thing at all. There are dozens of comics that have been adapted and will be adapted for the big and small screens (let’s not even get started on the phenomenon that is Japanese anime!) Personally, I’m waiting for another big screen TinTin adventure!
People that love graphic novels and comics/anime are passionate about them. They’ve come a long way since they were published as collections of daily comic strips. The artwork is a showcase for talented artists and these days, big name non-graphic authors are trying their hand at them. That brings a lot of new readers to the genre even if only to have a taste of their favourite author but some of those readers might branch out and explore a bit more. I don’t think I’ll be one of them as such but I won’t reject the genre out of hand, either.