Graphic Scenes, Part One: Introduction to Graphic Novels

19:47, Oct 25 2012

Some of you might remember my addiction to silly sci-fi from a few posts ago. I love sci-fi of nearly all kinds, but for some reason I don't have a lot of time for sci-fi comics. 

The New Zealand Comics Creators put out a brief comic around 2010 featuring a large, slug-like alien critic saying "No good comic ever came out of Earth without there being an alien in it," but I feel like he might have allowed some bias to creep in there.

Personally, I think what's more unique to modern comics than whizz-bang explosions and aliens are the tiny beautiful moments captured by modern alternative writers like James Kochalka and Will Eisner.

(If it helps, James did write a song called "Pizza Rocket" with his band, James Kochalka Superstar.)

People have argued that medieval tapestries or even cave paintings count as forerunners to the format, so I'll avoid talking about when the first "real" comic came out. After getting established in newspapers during the early 20th century, comics went through a "Golden Age" in America during the late 1930's-40's. Character-driven sagas like Archie, Walt Disney's funny animals, war stories and a few superheroes escaped from the newspapers and gained popularity.

After World War II, SpidermanSupermanBatman and all the other men infused the industry with their trademark campy optimism right through the "Silver Age" until the late 1970's. From hereon in, things get murkier and a bit darker in tone, but two different strands seem to have emerged: "Neo-Silver" work like contemporary Marvel and DC superhero titles and underground "comix." 

Wikipedia seems to feel the underground genre died out in the 1970's with Robert Crumb. However, since Crumb himself is actually still alive and publishing, this doesn't seem to have stopped the scene getting more popular over the last few years. There are a lot of amazingly creative underground publications being quietly distributed in larger cities right now, like Wellington's Incredibly Hot Sex with Hideous People

Somewhere in here, comics began to level up into the more sophisticated, literary graphic novel format. Like my very favourite publication, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, a lot of successful graphic novels grew out of the ashes of a much-beloved comic originally started by giants Marvel or DC.

The Sandman series was originally commissioned by DC Comics to revive their Sandman character who debuted in 1974. However,  Gaiman's ambitious, thoughtful series exploring humanity's motivations for living and the nature of reality was not really what anyone expected, eventually winning a swag of awards for its sheer creative oomph. After first hitting the stands in 1988, it's still one of the most popular series around.

Sandman usually comes as 10 large-format books, known as "trade paperbacks." This is the standard look for graphic novels, and the main technical difference between them and traditional comics. Designer Dave McKean was responsible for the series' gorgeous, haunting photo-collage covers and between-chapter work- he's now a well-respected graphic novelist in his own right.

Like most very long stories, the plot wiggles all over the place, but the focus is on an immortal god-like character named Dream who is in the process of stepping down from his post. He has a family- Destiny, '90's raver-styled Delirium, androgynous Desire, Despair and goth icon Death, and much like any family, they all turn up and make a scene at some point.

Sandman is published and marketed by an imprint of DC named Vertigo. Vertigo was started to distinguish DC's graphic novels from their stable of comics as an edgier, more grown-up collection, and their catalogue is a good place to start if you're looking for an interesting way into graphic novels. 

Further classic graphic novels worth checking out are:
-    Alan Moore's Watchmen, and the Promethea series.
-    Art Spiegelman's Maus.
-    Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin's Tank Girl.
-    Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan.
-    Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise.

Some of these are a little weird, but they're all worth it.

NEXT WEEK: How New Zealand graphic novels measure up against the rest of the world, and Sarah's big list of graphic novels for beginners.

A disclaimer: I am not a comics expert, and this is not a definitive explanation of their evolution. Also, it's probably a bad idea to look Incredibly Hot Sex with Hideous People up on Google.