Comic books, the rock ‘n’ roll of literature, have always been a rigorously disreputable form of junk art for adolescents of body or mind. Hyper-energetic, crude, sexually regressive, and politically simplistic, comics—like rock (and, in recent years, hip-hop)—give fluent voice to their audience’s basest and most cynical impulses. These are their virtues, arguably, as outlets for emotional release and as social counteragents.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some young musicians developed grander notions and concocted a wholly different sort of rock, a bombastic, pretentious monster of musical crossbreeding (the mind of Little Richard combined with the heart of Richard Wagner) too colossal to be contained on a 45 RPM single or even on just one 33 RPM album. Record shelves buckled under with extravagant multidisc “concept albums” and “rock operas” laden with pulp mythology and inchoate mysticism, performed by rock bands such as Genesis and King Crimson, accompanied by the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra and its chamber choir. Pop music, inflated beyond recognition, nearly suffocated under its own weight.
Over the past ten years or so, something similar has been happening in comics. A generation of ambitious, serious artists and writers have been applying vast amounts of their creative energy into a milieu which is essentially the visual equivalent of the rock opera: the “graphic novel”—that is, a full-length book in comics format (cartoon drawings with word balloons for dialogue) printed between hard covers or glossy soft-cover. The idea is not new. In Europe, books such as Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey and Otto Nuckel’s Destiny had told stories intended for adults in expressionistic woodcuts or drawings as early as the 1920s, although they were only a distant ancestor of the comics we know. The first self-proclaimed graphic novel in the US, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, was published a quarter-century ago, in the same year as The World According to Garp. No one seemed to pay much attention to what Eisner and a handful of others inspired by him were trying to do until 1992, when a special Pulitzer Prize for letters went to a graphic novel, Maus, a two-volume Holocaust allegory by the “underground” comics (or “comix”) artist and writer Art Spiegelman, an acolyte of the gonzo comics innovator Robert Crumb.
Since Maus, more than a thousand graphic novels have been published, and they are, on the whole, grandiose mutant spawn of mainstream comics, overloaded with faux mythology and mysticism suitable to Seventies rock. Eisner and Spiegelman, like Bob Dylan and the Beatles during the Sixties, had experimented with grown-up themes and complex modes of expression in efforts to take their art form out of the realm of junk, whereupon a legion of less-gifted imitators reduced the notion to baroque parody.
With few exceptions, the creators of the graphic novels published in recent years have been ignoring Eisner and Spiegelman’s innovation, which was not one of scale, but of kind. The thick covers, the extra pages …