If you think you’re not the sort of person who reads comics, you will a) be heartily sick by now of words like “graphic novel” and “Watchmen” and b) be feeling, perhaps, a bit left out.Publishing houses such as Jonathan Cape and Faber & Faber run flourishing lists of graphic fiction, and the comics shelves in Borders and Waterstone’s continue to grow.
Like science fiction, this is a medium with its roots in pulp and the alternative: for every scholar who attempts to trace the history of sequential art back to pre-Columbian parchment or the Bayeux Tapestry, there will be 50 diehards who claim it all started with Superman.
But although superhero stories are still as active a part of the comics medium as its other ancestor, the “funny papers” strip cartoon, many creators and artists have devoted years of energy and talent to guiding the medium out of its generic constraints.
In the run-up to the recent American presidential election, much ink was spilt over the publication of two biographies, of Obama and Mc Cain, in comics form.
What Scott Mc Cloud, the critic and cartoonist, attempted to categorise in Understanding Comics – perhaps the medium’s best work of literary criticism, and itself a comic – as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response”, now comprehends a rainbow of genres: history, criticism, biography, crime, sci-fi, romance, memoir, the classics, literary fiction, blogging, pornography and more.
It appears that the concept isn’t as up-to-the-minute as it might appear, however.
Google swiftly throws up a comic-strip biography of John F Kennedy, published in 1961 for circulation to US embassies abroad and thoughtfully scanned for posterity.Independent creators devise and publish their own work for free to devoted fans on the internet.Like science fiction, comics have spent a long time keeping their distance from what is seen as the mainstream of literature: both disciplines have had their moments of self-consciousness and post-modern reflexivity, and have begun a cautious rapprochement with the mainstream.Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood and Marcel Theroux are among the writers who have profited recently from the realisation in publishing that people will buy science fiction if you refrain from putting a spaceship on the cover.Comics, meanwhile, have profited from the canny coinage “graphic novel”, designed to imply an intellectual and narrative heft greater than that of simple strip cartoons, although most creators and fans disdain the term.When told that he wrote graphic novels rather than comic books, Neil Gaiman wrote bemusedly: “I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker, she was a lady of the evening.” The central misconception around comics is the idea that they’re a genre, not a medium.