A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, A Contract With God, Cerebus the Aardvark
is a term used to describe a long comic in book form containing a fictional or non-fictional narrative with a thematic unity. Since 1986 graphic novels have become increasingly popular. They are mainly about 50 pages in length, in full colour, and with card covers. Technically, for story-telling purposes, graphic novels depend on the characteristics of a traditional comic: they utilize a weave of text and image rather than a process of simply illustrating the text. However, the relationship of the graphic novel to the comic is that of the prose novel to the short story. Precedents can be traced to juvenile comics in the 1940s. Despite the fact that comics were stereotyped as a children's medium and were, therefore, produced in short and throwaway form, there were some extended narratives designed to be kept for longer. In Britain and America, the Classics Illustrated series, for example, which aimed to introduce classic works of literature to children in a palatable form, included several adaptations of more than 60 pages in length (including A Tale of Two Cities, 1942, and Les Miserables, 1943). Meanwhile, in Europe, longer comics with card covers had been produced from the late 1930s and were finding a mixed-age audience. The main continental hero was ‘Tintin’, an intrepid boy reporter, whose albums sold in their hundreds of thousands, and were first translated into English in 1958. But the roots of the graphic novel boom of the 1990s are in comics ‘fandom’, which developed in the 1970s and 1980s. This was, and remains, an organized network of fans and collectors of predominantly American comics, centering around ‘fanzines’ (a conflation meaning ‘fan-magazines’), ‘marts’ (comic markets), and comics conventions. Out of this network emerged specialist shops, catering to collectors and selling solely comics. To service this market, publishers experimented with longer-lasting formats, including card covers. Moreover, because certain artists and writers were particularly popular, a system developed whereby lengthier collections of their work would be sold on the basis of their reputations. Thus, with some awareness of the large sale of album-comics currently being achieved in Europe, a culture based on comic albums and graphic novels began to develop.
Pioneering graphic novelists in this period included American Will Eisner, best known for his A Contract With God (1978), a series of semi-autobiographical vignettes about life in 1930s New York (the first book to be marketed as a ‘graphic novel’, thus establishing the term); Canadian Dave Sim, whose Cerebus the Aardvark, collected into albums from 1985, was both a parody of Conan the Barbarian and a complex satire; and British Bryan Talbot, whose The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, collected between 1982 and 1988, was a sophisticated science fiction odyssey. Although science fiction and fantasy were consistently the most popular themes, other subject matter was not uncommon.
In 1986–7, three outstanding titles were responsible for introducing the concept of the graphic novel to a much wider audience: Maus (1986), by Art Spiegelman, about the Nazi Holocaust, told in anthropomorphic terms—with Jews as mice, and Nazis as cats; The Dark Knight Returns (1986), by Frank Miller, a radical reworking of Batman mythology; and Watchmen (1987), by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, another adult revisionist superhero story. All three utilized the creative potential of the graphic novel to its optimum effect, and exhibited complex plotting and strong characterization. All had previously been serialized and became bestsellers in album form.
Mainstream book publishers soon began to publish graphic novels, particularly Penguin and Gollancz. Within a remarkably short time, they have become an established feature of the literary landscape, increasingly reviewed in the literary pages of the quality press, and even studied at some universities. Subject matter has expanded to include everything from Westerns (Lieutenant Blueberry, from 1989), horror (Hellblazer, from 1988), science fiction (The Incal, 1988), superheroes (Marshal Law, from 1988), autobiography (The Playboy, 1992), adaptations from classic literature (Twelfth Night, 1989), and political journalism (Brought to Light, 1989). In 1992 Maus II, Art Spiegelman's sequel to Maus, became the first graphic novel to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Literature. See Adult Comics: An Introduction (1993) by Roger Sabin. See also Comics.