Claws out, but who’s watching?

In 1683, England suffered the worst frost in its history. The Thames froze over for two months, with ice up to eleven inches thick covering London. After things warmed up, an anonymous artist pithily summarised the whole affair with an illustration. A sophisticated and detailed picture shows an elderly prophet in the mould of Tiresias looking over London. The caption beneath reads: “When maids grow modesty, dissenting crew/ become all loyal, the falsehearted true/ Then you may probably not and not til then/ expect England see a frost agen.”

This illustration is one of the earliest examples of ‘broadsheets’ – anonymously produced woodcuts produced on paper or parchment, usually satirizing subjects like religion and politics. Sold at busy occasions like public executions, these provocative and humorous images made a killing. And they still exist today in some capacity: the ‘Matt’ cartoons that sometimes don the cover of The _Daily Telegraph_ and the ‘Cyanide & Happiness’ shorts on the internet owe something to these broadsheets.

Similarly conceived from these grim beginnings were comics. In the 18th and 19th centuries, publishers realised there could be a market for comedy illustrations. As well as giving way to fine satirical prints by reputed artists like William Hogarth and George Cruickshank, this led to the establishment of magazines like the legendary _Punch_ in 1841.

Enormously popular amongst all social classes, _Punch_ poked fun at figures ranging from Benjamin Disraeli to Prince Charles. In its rich 150 year history, the magazine reached subscription figures as high as 175,000 as the world went batty for comics, with the rise of other publications like _The Beano_, _Superman_, _Mad_ and _Wonder Woman_.

These new and colourful comics exploded on to the scene. In the mid 1950s, The Beano was said to be circulating at around two million copies per week in the UK alone, and _Tintin_ was described by Charles de Gaulle as “my only international rival”.

Between 1985 and 1993, Alan Moore’s classics _Watchmen_ and _V For Vendetta_ sold in immense numbers; the modern graphic novel was born. However, it hasn’t seen quite the same amount of mainstream success as its illustrative predecessors.

Why? Mainly, I think this is due to the manner in which comics and graphic novels have been portrayed in mainstream culture of late. In 1965, the _Oxford English Dictionary_ defined the word “comic” as “a publication for children designed to excite mirth”.

This seems to have had a lasting effect on a society that now constantly associates all comics and graphic novels with notions of childhood and immaturity. The average kid grows up reading and collecting comics, but isn’t expected to continue this hobby into adulthood. It’s something one grows out of in a sense.

But this plainly isn’t true. The escapism offered by comics and some graphic novels prove extremely successful in mainstream culture, just not in comic book form. The aforementioned popularity of comic sketches like ‘Matt’ and ‘Cyanide & Happiness’ surely indicates that people still think the comic strip is a viable tool for social satire and mature wit, while the box office success of Christopher Nolan’s _The Dark Knight_ suggests that cinema goers enjoy the simple pleasures of the archetypal goodies versus baddies narrative emblematised in the superhero.

However the fact that you probably won’t have heard of Ted Rall’s masterfully satirical _Attitude_ series is indicative of the mainstream’s reluctance to consider the graphic novel as a viable tool for social critique. Similarly, the fact that Frank Miller’s _Batman: The Dark Knight Returns_ – the source text to _The Dark Knight_ and a dark, brooding masterpiece – enjoys only a cult following, is symbolic of the negative perceptions surrounding the genre. Sure, it’s cool to see a film with Heath Ledger and Christian Bale about a superhero and his adversary’s battles set to a dystopian landscape. But to read about it in a picture book? Too geeky.

{{ quote Society now constantly associates all comics and graphic novels with immaturity }}

Part of this comes from the way graphic novels are distributed. Though specialist outlets like Forbidden Planet are essential in that they make availability widespread, they are too inaccessable and segregational. By emphasising the “cult” aspect of reading and collecting graphic novels, these stores perpetuate the negative ideas surrounding comics, and put off those looking to get involved.

Also, the definition of the genre itself too proves problematic. You’ll have probably noticed that I’ve been juggling the terms “comic” and “graphic novel”, sometimes referring to them as the same thing. This is because the lines between both are so blurry, what constitutes either category appears to depend on the individual’s opinion.

For me, a graphic novel is a grown up comic, a comic is an infantile graphic novel. But this definition is obviously flawed, as when I ask myself “What is mature? What is immature?” I have no idea how to separate the two in context. For example, _Tintin_ appears to be a mild and educational comic aimed at children. However it is deeply pacifist, and has political connotations in abundance.

Moreover, “modern” graphic novels are still earning acceptance from the literati. Again a problematic definition, by “modern” I mean the work of new generation figures like Chris Ware who subvert the whole meaning of the graphic novel, displaying it as driven by art and not narrative, or by metaphor and allegory and not content. Graphic novels sometimes permeate into mainstream literature – Chris Ware’s _Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid of Earth_ won the _Guardian_ First Book Award in 2000 and Art Spieglman’s _Maus_ won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. However, the Spieglman’s Pulitzer wasn’t for fiction, it was called the Pulitzer Prize Special Award, because the panel couldn’t readily classify it as fiction.

Evidently, it didn’t suit their category for the comic either. Chris Ware eloquently touches on this in an introduction to his own work that featured periodically in _The Independent_: “Most art forms don’t require an explanation or justification every time some new composition appears (imagine, for instance, having to sit through a brief history of film-making every time one went to the cinema) but for some reason comics are still “emerging” as a viable art form in their own right, free from the constraints of commercialism and genre, and so sometimes confuse the reader if they don’t fulfil some previous stereotype of content.”

Though comics have existed longer than the novel, Ware implies they are still searching for real recognition. This is typical of the paradoxical nature of graphic novels, and is most probably caused by the remarkable boom detailed at the beginning of this article. The massive success of _Punch_, _The Beano_ and superhero comics in the twentieth century created a narrow definition for the graphic novel that has been carried forward into the twenty-first century.

But in a sense, who needs recognition anyway? As Ware also asserts, graphic novels are “free from the constraints of commercialism and genre”. This isn’t something that can be said of the novel, which is constantly weighed down by its tradition and canon.

A genre with no foreseeable boundaries, who knows where the journey of the graphic novel will take the reader next? I do hope you’d join me in finding out, as the pleasure of sniffing pages from tattered old books is comparable only to unwrapping a brand new graphic novel.


Leave a Reply