The Rise of Graphic Novels and the Novelists Who Love Them

With the success of Marvel’s Avengers and Spiderman franchises, comics and graphic novels can seem like a trend which has gained popularity only in recent years, but the reality is much different: comics have a distinct origin and history lasting nearly one hundred years, and have run independently in parallel to the book industry and have had steady growth over the last two decades. The rise of the graphic novel can be likened to the rise of magazines alongside books: for example, magazines like Geist or The New Yorker are literary in nature, but they are a distinct format and an industry in and of itself and could not be described as a trend. Rather than being a subgenre of the book industry I believe the graphic novel is an important innovation in how we consume literature, evidenced by how it contains as many genres and subgenres as the traditional text-only book industry itself. There has also been an increasing number of novel authors crossing over into the comics industry in the past ten years, which I believe is a result of two major things: the increasing popularity and legitimacy of the graphic novel medium as a literary endeavour and educational tool, as well as the increasing appeal of reaching a new and younger fan-base for publicity and marketability.

 

I would like to clarify the usage of the term ‘graphic novel’ and the term ‘comic book’ in this essay: Merriam Webster online dictionary defines a graphic novel as “a story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book,”[1] and defines comic books, which are also referred to as ‘comics,’ as “containing sequences of comic strips —usually hyphenated in attributive use.”[2] A graphic novel is a bound book which is eligible for an ISBN assignment, and a comic book as a short, usually serialized, published graphic story. Comic books can be collected into graphic novels and published in that format as well. Colloquially, both formats fall under the description ‘comics.’

 

Just as the comics industry has struggled to find its foothold and flourish, magazines did in their early days as well. An early advocate of magazines declared that in America “the expectation of failure is connected with the very name of a Magazine.”[3] Early editors staked their literary identities and reputations on this medium. Magazines originated with the intent to parse through the most culturally important information circulating in newspapers, books and pamphlets and curate and distribute it in a more culturally prestigious format so that it could be usefully and “agreeably” consumed by the average American reader.[4] It took some time before magazines gained popularity as a trusted medium. Today print magazines are waning in popularity and are being subsumed by their digital counterparts but they were a significant cultural innovation in how we consume content, and are still one of the major players in the publishing industry today. Like trade books or magazines, the comics industry took some time to be successful in its many forms. Comics originated in newspaper comic strips and transformed into more original, longer form content when DC comics was established. After the introduction of a longer form of original narrative content they spread out into many different genres, from superhero comic to more adult themes like crime, horror and romance comics in the 1950s.[5] Comics ran into difficulty when they were blamed unfairly for the increase in juvenile delinquency after World War II, and were censored by the Comics Code, limiting its ability to branch out significantly as a literary form. After the introduction of television, youth participation in reading comics dropped significantly and by the 1980s it had become a fan-based entertainment medium without broad mass market appeal.[6] This slump in the industry was soon to be revived by the critically acclaimed and influential graphic novels that were introduced in the late 1980s. Anticipated by literary author John Updike in The Death of the Novel, who saw “no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece,”[7] several comic books changed the cultural status of the industry in the literary community: Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978) Watchmen by Alan Moore,(1986-87) and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer award winning Maus (1987).

 

Demand in the comics industry has been growing sustainably for fifteen years or more. From 2003 to 2017 the estimated overall market sales increased year over year from 350-400 to 925 million USD.[8] In reaction to this demand, two traditional multinational book publishing corporations have started their own graphic novel imprints: HarperCollins is launching their comics imprint HarperAlley this year and Penguin RandomHouse introduced Random House Graphic in 2018. The value of all print and digital purchases reached 1.095 billion USD in 2018 according to Comichron, the leading aggregator of comics industry data.[9] According to a report on graphic novel sales from Publishers Weekly the market is up by 11.7%, compared to the 1.3% increase seen across all print publishing, with double-digit growth in the juvenile market.[10] One explanation for the surge of graphic novel popularity is that they have found popularity in the library and education system, in some cases they have been adopted as texts in progressive school systems. This trend of using comics as an educational format began around 2005 when Byron Priess Visual Productions and Penguin Books joined to start publishing Puffin Classics, an imprint selling graphic novel reproductions of literary classics. In 2007, Sterling Publishing, owned by Barnes and Noble, started another line of adaptations called Action Classics, which were reported to sell around 15,000 each print run[11]. Thomas LeBien, editorial director of Hill and Wang and publisher of many graphic novel literary adaptations notes that “the graphic novel doesn’t cannibalize sales of the original. They re-energize the originals.”[12] He goes on to say that adaptations force new engagement and energize conversation about the original text and author. The education system is exploring new, less conventional avenues of educational texts as statistics show that sixty percent of the population are visual learners. One educator interviewed notes that “graphic novels give visual learners an equal opportunity to absorb information the way they are most comfortable learning. We’ve seen in these past five to seven years that teachers are getting over visual bias.”[13] This movement has been led by educators and librarians. Graphic novels are often preferred by readers with limited attention spans, including adults who are gravitating towards graphic novels as they are easier to consume, while providing the intellectual stimulation they are hoping for out of novels.[14] One recent example is an adaptation of the notoriously dense Mueller report into graphic novel format by Barbara Slate, who is publishing the series with the intention to bring the report into a more accessible format for adult readers.

 

Over the past ten years there has been an increase in successful novelists crossing over into the graphic novel format, which can be attributed to both the appeal of the medium and possibly to the attractiveness of reaching a broader audience. After Jodi Picoult included a section of her novel The Tenth Circle in graphic format, DC reached out to her to write a Wonder Woman arc. After some initial hesitation she decided it was worth the plunge into another literary format: “In all the years that I’ve been writing — 15 years now — there’s only one genre that’s really debuted in The New York Times Book Review, and that’s the graphic novel,” says Picoult. “And that tells me that someone’s taking them really seriously as a form of literature.”[15] Margaret Atwood was successful in her run with Angel Catbird and scored her first number one best seller of her storied career with that novel[16]. Undoubtedly this encouraged her to release her graphic novel format of A Handmaid’s Tale in March 2019. Te Nehisi Coates’ run of Black Panther at Marvel sold 300,000 copies bolstered by his existing reputation as a novelist. It also introduced Coates’ traditional book reader fans to the comics format. A 2016 Guardian article describes the move as one that will not only introduce Coates’ to the broader Marvel readership, but likewise, is introducing Coates’ readers to one of Marvel’s most progressive comics series.[17] In an interview, Coates describes his transition to the comics world as one he secretly always wanted to make: “What’s the good of getting a MacArthur genius grant if you can’t go and write a comic book for Marvel?…There are things that people consider to be genius, and then there are things that deep in my heart I’ve always believed to be genius”.[18]

 

Studies find that movies based on books tend to boost the sales of their source material as well, and one could infer that just as the television series The Handmaid’s Tale boosted sales of the original novel in 2017,[19] a popular graphic novel could boost the notoriety and expand awareness around an author’s other works. As excerpting a portion of a book or writing an article on a topic in a magazine might help diversify an author’s audience and garner publicity for their other longer-form works, it also seems strategically advantageous to write in the graphic novel or comic format to gain exposure. San Diego’s annual comic con drew around 130,000 attendees in 2018, as an example of potential audience size.[20] In a recent Twitter post of mine about this issue, Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson (@GreatDismal) responded to my question about whether this move into graphic novel adaptations was a strategic one. In his case, it was not as intentional as Jodi Picoult or Coates’ foray:

 

“My involvement with comics has been literally accidental (though interesting and enjoyable). I’d never imagined Archangel as a comic, but I thought of it when the publisher enquired [sic] about doing comic of something else” …[21] It didn’t strike me as a very lucrative field, not for the creators at least, and I put that down to its [sic] being without agents or unions”[22] (@GreatDismal, October 1, 2019)

 

When asked if he felt that the cross-over into comics had increased sales of his backlist of novels he responded that he did not pay attention to those numbers, but that he felt the impact would not have been as large as if it had been produced in a streaming service.[23] Gibson may not be interested in the growing of his audience after such a sustained successful career as an author, a junior writer may feel much differently about having that level of  exposure to a growing audience of readers.

 

Despite the recent additions of graphic imprints at Random House and Harper Collins, the graphic novel industry has historically stood alone from the book industry in the publishing world, gaining audience as it grows. As access to information becomes overwhelming and leisure time is decreasing, we are experiencing the same problem that magazine editors attempted to tackle in the turn of the twentieth century: how do you consume what is really important content to you? We see this crunch in time and attention span reflected in readers choosing audio books and graphic novels. The comics industry may feel like an entertainment industry in competition with the book industry, but I believe it is a complement and can be an introduction to weighty literary conceits rather than a distraction from it. Coates’ describes comics as his introduction to cultural texts:

 

“When I was a young person, my introduction frankly into the world of literature and the beauty of words and the beauty of language, occurred through three things,” Coates says. “It occurred through the magic of hip-hop, it occurred through the magic of Dungeons and Dragons, and it occurred through the magic of Marvel comic books, so I feel back at home.”[24]

 

Whether successful novelists have transitioned into the industry out of affection for the craft, or because they were solicited by the larger comics publishers like DC, Marvel or Dark Horse, I am willing to bet that name recognition and fandom from their now young fans will translate to purchases of their traditional form novels in due time.

 

Endnotes:

[1]“Graphic Novel,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster, October 5, 2019),

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/graphic novel.

[2] “Comic Book,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster, October 5, 2019), https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comic book.

[3] Jared Gardner, The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sfu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3414185.

[4] Gardner, Rise and Fall, 27

[5] Jean-Paul Gabilliet, Bart Beaty, and Nick Nguyen, Of Comics and Men: a Cultural History of American Comic Books (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2013).

[6] Gabilliet, Beaty, and Nguyen, Of Comics and Men, 38

[7]  Paul Gravett, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life (London: Aurum, 2005).

[8] “Comic Book Sales by Year,” Comichron, accessed October 5, 2019, https://www.comichron.com/yearlycomicssales.html.

[9] “Comic Book Sales by Year”

[10]Dallas Middaugh, “What We Know About 2018 Graphic Novel Sales,” Publishers Weekly, April 17, 2019, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/79818-what-we-know-about-2018-graphic-novel-sales.html.

[11] Price, Ada. 2009. “New Books from Old: Turning Classics into Comics.” Publishers Weekly 256

(51): 27–29. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=47600522&site=bsi-live&scope=site.

[12] Price, “New Books from Old: Turning Classics into Comics” 27-29

[13] Dallas Middaugh, “What We Know About 2018 Graphic Novel Sales,” Publishers Weekly, April 17, 2019,https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/79818-what-we-know-about-2018-graphic-novel-sales.html.

[14] “Comic Book Sales by Year,” Comichron, accessed October 5, 2019, https://www.comichron.com/yearlycomicssales.html.

[15] John Ridley, “Three Writers Are Drawn by the Allure of Comics,” NPR (NPR, March 25, 2008), https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=87867518.

[16]Geoff Boucher, “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: First Look Inside Graphic Novel Adaptation Of Margaret Atwood Classic,” Deadline.com, March 4, 2019, https://deadline.com/2019/03/the-handmaids-tale-margaret-atwood-first-look-graphic-novel-adaptation-of-margaret-atwood-classic-1202568766/.

[17] Boucher, “Handmaid’s Tale”

[18]Staff, NPR. “Ta-Nehisi Coates Hopes ‘Black Panther’ Will Be Some Kid’s ‘Spider-Man’.” NPR. NPR, April 6, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/04/06/473224606/a-reluctant-king-ta-nehisi-coates-takes-on-marvels-black-panther.

[19] Pamela Millar, “The Handmaid’s Tale and the Emmys,” BookNet Canada (BookNet Canada, October 25, 2017), https://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2017/10/25/the-handmaids-tale-and-the-emmys.

[20] Heidi MacDonald, “In a World of Too Many Cons, San Diego Is Still King,” PublishersWeekly.com, April 1n.d., https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/77455-in-a-world-of-too-many-cons-san-diego-is-still-king.html.

[21] William Gibson (@GreatDismal), “My involvement with comics has been literally accidental (though interesting and enjoyable). I’d never imagined Archangel as a comic, but I thought of it when the publisher enquired [sic] about doing comic of something else,” Twitter, October 1, 2019, https://twitter.com/GreatDismal/status/1179201072788672513

[22] William Gibson (@GreatDismal), “It didn’t strike me as a very lucrative field, not for the creators at least, and I put that down to its [sic] being without agents or unions,” Twitter, October 1, 2019, https://twitter.com/GreatDismal/status/1179203113699274752?s=20

[23] William Gibson (@GreatDismal), “They may have done, but honestly I’ve never paid any attention to figures like that. I would imagine, tho, that it wouldn’t be much, not compared to adaptation to streaming tv, say,” Twitter, October 1, 2019, https://twitter.com/GreatDismal/status/1179207679245467648?s=20

[24] Staff, NPR. “Ta-Nehisi Coates Hopes ‘Black Panther’ Will Be Some Kid’s ‘Spider-Man’.” NPR. NPR, April 6, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/04/06/473224606/a-reluctant-king-ta-nehisi-coates-takes-on-marvels-black-panther.

 

3 Responses to The Rise of Graphic Novels and the Novelists Who Love Them

  1. JMax says:

    I’m wondering what you make of Neil Gaiman, who made a name for himself in comics first, and since then has come to be recognized as a ‘serious’ writer of novels and short stories. His trajectory is kind of the reverse of the story you tell here… what lessons can we draw from that? Are we focusing more on the status hierarchy, or the few more famous exceptions to it?

    • haileyp says:

      I actually initially thought of Neil Gaiman when I read Emily’s paper the first time. It’s interesting that an author can move to and from graphic novels in the same way and be considered “serious” in either situation. Emily you note that comics have been “increasing in popularity and legitimacy” over the past 10 years, but in the case of Neil Gaiman, it would seem, according to the trajectory of his career, that his comics in particular did not need to be legitimized based on their format, but perhaps were considered an acceptable form of literature based on the quality of his work alone since he moved from comics to novels and not the other way around. Just a thought I had.

  2. haileyp says:

    Hi Emily,

    What an interesting topic! I definitely agree that graphic novels are an important way of consuming literature and are particularly useful for people who are visual learners, as you mention. One part of your argument that really stood out for me was when you mentioned the benefits of using comics as an educational tool in the classroom. One study on this very issue concluded that, indeed “comics engage critical thinking as similar or greater levels as compared with critical thinking engagement in traditional (no image) books, and [that] students find a value in the educational use of the comic books” (“Comic books” 2017). I think we are moving towards normalizing comics in the classroom, and perhaps eventually every classroom, not just courses that focus on the comic format specifically. While the study I found only focused on university-level students, I think comics as a learning tool would benefit elementary, middle, and high school students too.
    The study shows that comics “engage critical thinking” (“Comic books” 2017) among the university students in this study, but I also think that comics could be used as an effective resource, at least for some students (particularly those in middle and high school), as a tool for developing those critical thinking and analyzation skills. I think including the format of comics as a text that is required reading for students would be an overall effective strategy to encourage the development of critical reading skills.
    This time last year Pantheon released Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, which I think is a really interesting step. The Diary of Anne Frank is such an important story and has been an important resource in schools for decades. Now that it is available in the form of a graphic novel, her story is bound to reach a broader audience among elementary and middle school students particularly. It would also be easier to read to the entire class in this format, as opposed to making the text an assigned reading that should be completed at home.
    I wonder if we will start to see other texts deemed “culturally important” or “classics” made into graphic novels in the near future. I think graphic novels would make this important literature more accessible to students who prefer to learn in ways that are visual. I definitely think this step is a necessary one as our society faces so many distractions that vie for our free time, particularly for kids and young adults. It seems inevitable, then, that a new way to access important literature would surface. While I don’t think graphic novels will dominate the novel format on a large scale, I do think that they will access a group of people who prefer to learn visually, and who therefore might not have accessed the same material otherwise or engaged with it to the same extent.
    I enjoyed engaging with this topic, thanks!

    Notes:
    Renee Krusemark, “Comic books in the American college classroom: a study of student critical thinking,” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 8, no. 1 (2017): 69, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21504857.2016.1233895

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