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Graphic novelties no more

16th April 2011 - Stephen Forde

For me, 1977 was notable for three events. It was the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee. I won my primary school fancy dress competition by dressing up as the Queen. And the comic 2000AD was launched, starting my life long interest in sequential art.

Jacket image for The Green LanternSequential art? Yes, it really is a proper expression -no more improbable than the term graphic novel - that was to become the term of choice once adults finally admitted they liked pictures with their words. I say finally because back in the day adults didn't read comics or graphic novels or -and whisper this - books meant for children. Peanuts in the Daily Mail, Andy Capp in the Sun, and If... in the Guardian: that's as far as it went once you got into longer trousers, a suit and a tie.

If you didn't want pitying looks on the train to work, you avoided reading about the adventures of The Green Lantern, Spiderman, Batman and Superman. You tried not to explain the fascist dystopia of Judge Dredd and Mega City One to co-workers, and pretended to be the Silver Surfer only in the privacy of your bedroom.

Kids though were free from such restraints, and I had them all. They taught me, how to draw, paint, get money out of mum, that a true friend gives you all his comics before he moves away and that with great power comes...well, you know.

There was though, as in all good stories, a parallel universe. An underground galaxy far, far away populated by the likes of Fritz the Cat, the Freak Brothers and Mr Natural. The problem was you couldn't get copies down the corner shop and, for the kids in love with Spiderman and his ilk, one big problem: none of the characters could fly or websling, and some barely had a costume.

So was this 'alternative' stuff a bit of a dead end then? Not a bit of it, as in the in the mid/late 80s influenced by those aforementioned underground comics, you had artists melding capes with angst and politics and black humour: V for Vendetta, Dark Knight Returns, Watchman, Maus, and the rare-as-hen's-teeth Raw magazine.

Jacket image for PinocchioAs a result we now have books that exist only in sequential form, the graphic novel, with achingly adult tales of love lost and regret the direct result of those underground comics whose creators, people like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, wanted to tell stories devoid of alien super-strength. Even the men in capes have got in on the act, no longer are the writers content to have the hero beat the villain to a pulp; oh no, we have to see their inner turmoil. Why are they a caped crusader; why are they are wearing tights; why they are never recognized when their only disguise is a mild-mannered demeanor and a pair of glasses?

I have, though, one main reservation about the rise of the graphic novel. While I approve of the mixing up of adult themes with bonkers plots and unearthly powers, sometimes the 'graphic' side of the modern graphic novel can leave a lot to be desired. For every beautifully realised Pinocchio and edgy 100 Bullets, there is a leaden illustrated version of a 'classic tale' or a scratchy pen-and-ink depiction of love gone sour.

This is often not enough for those of us raised on the characters of Stan Lee and the art work of Jack Kirby. The creators of lacklustre graphic novels should remember its not enough that the man of steel can cry; he has to look good in tights while he's doing it.

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