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Once upon a time in a graphic novel

P.J. George discovers that graphic novels are ruling the bookshelves

Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Straddling art and literature The fan base of the graphic novel is the kid who got hooked on to Superman at 10 and refuses to let go at 30

Once upon a time comics were read by children and all was well with the world. But you have an inkling that things are a tad different now when you find that you have to be over 18 to buy most of the titles on the comic book racks. Welcome to the world of graphic novels. If you remember ‘300’ only as some violent movie and have not heard of ‘Maus,’ going beyond this point might be an exercise in futility. But, if Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman are the gods on your bookshelves, congratulations... you are part of the graphic novel multiverse.

What is a graphic novel?

For the uninitiated, a graphic novel is a novel-length comic, spread over anything from 64 to over a 1,000 pages. Although the purists would cringe at the suggestion, it can also be successive issues of a comic magazine which tell a single story bound together (in publishing terms, a trade paperback).

Any corrupting connotation that the word “comic” could bring to this form straddling both art and literature could easily be wiped off by taking a walk through the streets of the dystopian ‘Sin City’ or listening in to the socio-political commentary in ‘Persepolis.’ Of course, the caped and masked crusaders from the DC and Marvel stables continue to rule over the commercial hubs in this canon but there is a maverick underground to the steady mainstream that the uber geeks are always on the lookout for.

Though by default suited for fantastic characters and dramatic themes, even the simplest of subjects has a major advantage in the graphic novel form; the age-old dictum that a picture speaks a thousand words. In fact, the graphic novel as social criticism has taken the comic genre into more hallowed circles. Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus – A tale of survival,’ (1986), a dark fable of Nazi Germany with the Nazis pictured as cats and the Jews as mice, won a Pulitzer. Recently, the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood,’(2003) on the life of a young girl in Ayatollah’s Iran, won the jury award at Cannes and the ire of the Iranian government.

But the real fan base of the graphic novel is the kid who got hooked on to Superman at 10 and refuses to let go at 30. The DC and Marvel Universes have turned themselves over to more adult sensibilities with Superman and Batman no longer being the ‘no-questions-asked must-save-the-world’ superheroes but enigmatic men with dark temperaments. With anti-heroes such as Wolverine from ‘X-Men’ and John Constantine of ‘Hellblazer’ on the loose, comic heroes of the present are more Hamlets than Lancelots.

Writers and illustrators

Most of the celebrity writers and illustrators in this genre are also from the ranks of the comic book creators. Frank Miller, with his signature neo noir style is definitely in the top league here.

With several classics in the canon such as ‘300’(1998) and ‘Sin City’ to his credit, he is the master of the dark and the disturbing.

Another genius in the ranks is Alan Moore, the maverick creator of ‘Watchmen’ (1987) and ‘V for Vendetta’ (1989). Neil Gaiman of ‘Sandman’ fame and Will Eisner, a pioneer in the genre with his ‘A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories’ (1978), are other must-know must-read names in the class.

Sarnath Banerjee who created India’s first graphic novel, ‘Corridor’ (2004) about a shop-owner in Delhi, is the desi in the field to watch. In 2007 he created his second novel ‘The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers’ about a Jew in 18th century Kolkatta.

The essential graphic novel

‘Maus: A Survivor’s Tale’ by Art Spiegelman,

‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson

‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’ by Frank Miller

‘The Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ by Kim Deitch

‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore

‘Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth’ by Chris Ware

‘Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood’ by Marjane Satrapi

‘300’ by Frank Miller

‘Sin City’ yarns by Frank Miller

‘Palestine’ by Joe Sacco

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