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Graphic novels history

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Infant Joy William Blake - The Songs of Innocence

Infant Joy William Blake - The Songs of Innocence

Graphic Novel Background

A graphic novel is a really interesting piece of work because it combines the visual style of a typical comic strip with the depth of a written novel.

Whilst a graphic novel remains similar to a comic-book in terms of its look, it usually takes on far more in-depth and emotionally engaging stories than comic books. They are typically longer and featured in one or a couple of published books rather than many ongoing instalments.

Graphic novels will typically feature a unique art style which conveys its content in a very artistic and focused way.

Whilst a written novel requires a series of elaborations in order to construct an image inside a reader’s head, a graphic novel is able to push the creator’s own image through a series of artistic designs right there on the page. It is no surprise to see that graphic novels are hugely popular part of contemporary culture.

If you want to know more about the influence of popular graphic novels such as Watchmen, V For Vendetta, Batman, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Maus, Ghost World, Persepolis and 300 then this is the place to start.

Graphic novels are increasingly made into films, mainly due to increases in the realism of CGI special effects. Batman was an old style TV series, with costumes and big ‘POW’ graphics laid over the real life action. Now, all is pixels.

We should also mention comic strips like Dilbert, Snoopy, Andy Cap, the UK comics Beano and latterly the ‘adult’ Viz. Manga from Japan represent another and very different tradition. The Simpsons is a comic strip turned into a cartoon.

The history of the graphic novel is as rich and colourful as the images which appear between the pages.

Early History

Who can forget cave paintings? Perhaps not novelistic but a narrative of life in prehistory is daubed on the walls of caves. A graphic novel can be told without any words at all.

We can trace the roots of graphic novels as far back as the 1700s when legendary English poet William Blake created a series of books, including The Songs of Innocence, which combined both written text and painted images.

The great American comic book tradition took another century to take off. By this period short comic serials were being created but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that comic books developed into the style that we know today.

Technology is part of the story, as developments in cheap offset litho colour printing made the comics and books cheap and fast to publish.

In the 1940s, Classics Illustrated, starting to turn popular novels of the day into comic book series. This arguably was the first use of comic books to tell larger, more substantial stories.
Around the 1950’s, comic books started to cotton onto the trend of pulp-style fiction. These digest-size serials took on adult themes such as sex, violence and crime and would take on the more mature themes that graphic novels would become known for.

These graphic-novel precursors were usually mixed together as short stories and printed on cheap paper and sold for a low price.

Towards the 1960’s the popularity of comic books started to grow substantially. As comic books grew in popularity so too did the desire for a wider range of content and more depth of story.
In particular, Marvel comics created a range of comic books which moved away from simple narrow stories into much larger story arcs with multiple character cross-overs. The popularity of these saw an increasing demand for longer stories.

In 1968, Marvel took to this advice and published a 40 page comic-book story titled ‘His Name is Savage’, calling it a ‘new comics tradition’.

Around the same period, Europe saw the rise of comic-book characters like Tintin and Asterix. The appeal for in-depth comic books was becoming universal.

Modern Period

Starting from the 1970s onwards, the long and sprawling graphic novels that we know today would begin to be realised. Arguably, the first modern-day graphic novel was Blackmark in 1971. Originally it did not use the term ‘graphic-novel’ to describe itself but was later credited with being the first one.

Blackmark featured a science-fiction and fantasy style story which spanned over 100 pages. It set about the general expectations with its use of descriptive word balloons and lavish comic-book art style to accompany its in-depth story.

In 1976, Bloodstar, a post-apocalyptic sword and sorcery tale, became the first work to use the term ‘graphic novel’ to describe itself. Red Tide and Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species followed in a similar manner and would become highly popular with an audience of young adults.
At this point, graphic novels started to differentiate themselves from comic books greatly. They were being presented like individual novels rather than continuous serials.

Other Famous Examples from this period –Tantrum, Future Day, Racket Rumba.

Popular Appeal

Once the appeal for graphic novels had been established in popular culture, the amount of graphic novel rose dramatically. The depth that they were willing to go in their stories became far greater. Their acceptance as serious works of fiction was just beginning.

In 1978, Will Eisner’s graphic novel, A Contract With God told a series of stories focusing on the ordinary lives of everyday people. It took on autobiographical qualities and showed how graphic novels could present adult themes on par with accepted literature. The critical reception to Eisner’s book pushed graphic novels in new directions.

In the mid 1980’s, well-known comic-book publisher, Marvel sought to appeal to the emerging medium and issued their own series of graphic novels from seasoned comic-book writers such as John Bryne, Frank Miller and Jim Starlin.

Other Famous Examples from this period – Hitler’s Astrologer, Heartburst, A Sailor’s Story.

Present Day

The kind of the graphic novels that we best know today came about in the late 1980s onwards.
Arguably the most famous graphic novel of all time, Watchmen, was first released in 1986. It marked a dramatic turn in the superhero idea that would show how graphic novels were willing to take on conventions from comic books and turn them upside down.

Watchmen featured an alternate take on history, beginning after the Vietnam War, and took on themes such as death, violence, selfishness and resentment. It moved away from the stereotypes associated with comic-book superheroes and showed a more difficult side to life.

In the same year Art Spiegelman’s, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale would be released. Famous for its use of innocent-looking animal characters in order to tell the biographical story of Jewish life within wartime Germany, it became the first widely received graphic novel to win a major literature prize, The Pulitzer Prize.

After this period, darker toned themes and direct commentary about politics and society became widely used in graphic novels. The likes of Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, V For Vendetta, From Hell, Hellboy, Ghost World, 300, Sin City, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen etc all showed more serious sides to superhero characters by turning them into troubled people with overbearing personal and social problems.

The legacy of these graphic novels lives on and their popularity has opened up a wider range of themes which graphic novels are willing to tackle.

Many graphic novels have been turned into movies and this has helped their popularity rise substantially.

Mitchell N Dec 2012

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