There’s a urban legend about influential comics scribe Will Eisner that claims he coined the term “graphic novel.” The tale says that while pitching his idea to a publisher in the seventies, Eisner, thinking that the publisher wouldn’t take his idea seriously if he pitched it as a comic book, claimed he had written a graphic novel. The publisher ate it up and published his book, A Contract With God, which became one of the most important works of comics in the modern era. So the legend goes.
Ten years after Sandman, 20 after Watchmen, and 30 years after A Contract With God, graphic novels are becoming movies, comic writers are hired to write for shows like Lost and Heroes, and Hollywood writers like Bob Gale and Joss Whedon are somehow writing graphic novels. Comic books have hit the mainstream – again.
Comic books first became legitimate forms of storytelling in the late ‘80s, when Art Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize, Alan Moore’s Watchmen won the Hugo, and Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns and Batman. The astounding success of these Holy Books of Comicdom attracted to the industry speculators who thought comics were a goldmine, and hoped that every first issue would be as successful as a future Action Comics #1 – where Superman first appeared.
But, then people started buying comics for resale value, not caring about the quality of the story. The comic book industry responded by printing covers made of fur – seriously – and drawing women with bodacious tatas. Sure enough, the industry collapsed on itself, companies went bankrupt, and comic book aficionados were left with piles of worthless of comics full of bad writing, ugly art, and the word X-TREME somewhere in the title.
The Will Eisner anecdote – regardless of its veracity – introduces a problem with comic books. The problem is that comic books never really went mainstream. They just hit puberty and changed their name to seem more suave. When a subculture goes mainstream it undergoes what a neighbourhood does when it’s gentrified: it’s cleaned up, the substance is thrown out, and it is stripped of what made it great in the first place. In that sense, comics haven’t gone mainstream at all. There are still tons of great books out there from all types of genres. You don’t become mainstream just because some intellectual properties are sold to a film industry that is devoid of ideas and faces declining profit margins at the box office.
Instead of reassuring me that I am no longer considered a weirdo for my comics fetish because comics are now cool, just enjoy comics for what they are. Whether it’s a real life account of day-to-day life or a cliché story full of plot devices, big boobs, and the word X-TREME somewhere on the cover, there’s something there for everybody. And at the end of the day, if reading comics takes my mind off of the impending economic apocalypse, who gives a hoot if Joss Whedon is writing X-Men?
Duong Pham is a U3 Economics student. Share your comic book lovin’ with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.