Friday, October 12, 2007

The age of the Graphic Novel

Ever since Superman and Batman made their advent in the late 1930s, comic books have constituted an endearing and essential part of our teen years. The vicarious pleasure we experienced when the Green Lantern defeated yet another evil nemesis with his power ring and the open-jawed disbelief with which we received Superman’s death ( early 90’s) were emotions of such undistilled purity and innocence. Our years of boyish adventure were spent putting on spandex and trying to make batarangs. In our late teens, when we rediscovered the opposite gender, Archie and his gang from Riverdale High entered our lives and Betty and Veronica formed the fantasy diet for many a freckled adolescent. In due course, adulthood came along and we outgrew comic books. Those who still had the hots for Wonderwoman and idolized the Flash were mercilessly ribbed about it and soon fell out of popular society. Generation after generation, a few individuals retain this childlike wonder and innocence and get relegated to the backburner of society. These are the lucky few, the ones that fall through the chinks. For them, the magic lives on.

Up until the 80’s, a major percentage of mainstream comics (think Marvel and DC) dabbled in fare that was childish and repetitive : black versus white, add some tights, add some fights. The Comics Code Authority, instituted because a certain Fredrick Wertham felt comic books led to juvenile delinquency, had severely stifled creativity in the industry for decades. All that was about to change. A slew of great stories with mature themes was suddenly unleashed on the world in the eighties. Suddenly, comic books were no longer for kids. Realizing the potential of the visual medium, great visionaries like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were bringing their unique, often bleak , disturbing and thought-provoking visions to the pages of comics. Moore’s groundbreaking opus Watchmen did plenty to get comic books re-integrated into the mainstream. It won a Hugo award and became a bestseller. Inspired by this success, many artists followed suit with daring and risqué stories. Violence and blood once again rode the streets of comicdom. Murder, mayhem and anarchy followed, leading to a turbulent but extremely creative period in the industry. Moore’s Swamp Thing, From Hell and V for Vendetta, Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez were seminal oeuvres, changing and redefining the landscape of comics. Soon, those of the geek and nerd persuasion were crawling out of the woodwork and walking with their heads held high.

Enter the nineties and with it Neil Gaiman. This heretofore unknown writer resurrected a little known DC character called the Sandman and reinvented him in a stunningly original series. The Sandman books were published under the DC Vertigo imprint, a new line of adult comics. Buoyed by the success and critical acclaim they received, DC commissioned many new titles. Garth Ennis’ highly irreverent Preacher ( my personal favorite), Warren Ellis vision of a dystopian future, Transmetropolitan and the long running Hellblazer and Moonshadow were the most successful progeny of the Vertigo imprint. On the other side of the world, Japanese manga had become a craze and was churning out great masterpieces such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira. Graphic novels had finally arrived with a bang and comic book- aficionados were suddenly hip. Even still, they occupied a niche culture that baptized only a chosen few. But, like rap music, the initiates were cool cats.
Hollywood soon cottoned on to the popularity of comic books and superhero movies have become a Hollywood staple. Dozens of graphic novel adaptations are in the works, most notably Miller’s Sin City 2 and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

Today, the comic scene is abuzz with creativity, propelled by such fine minds as Brian Michael Bendis, Grant Morrison, Brian Wood, Bill Willingham and Brian Azzarello. The best contemporary titles on the scene include Fables, 100 Bullets, The Walking Dead, DMZ and Y the Last Man. The medium offers infinite potential and with the artistic genius of such stalwarts as Glenn Fabry, Dave McKean and the inimitable Alex Ross, rest assured that the future of the graphic novel is in great hands.

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