It’s a Comic World

June 25, 2010

Booklist’s Books for Youth Annual Forum on Friday night drew a roomful of comics admirers who came to hear an art editor, a children’s book illustrator, a publisher, and a comics creator share their thoughts on how graphic novels have evolved from collections of newspaper comic strips and formulaic superhero fare into a massive mainstream publishing phenomenon.

First up was Françoise Mouly, founder of Raw magazine and art editor of the New Yorker, who also happens to be married to comics artist and Maus creator Art Spiegelman. Mouly pointed out that ever since the 1840s, when Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer devised a method of printing sequential images in strip form, comics have been linked to the technology of print and production. Shortly before the Second World War, Sunday newspaper strips were collected into magazines to create the comic book format that nearly every kid growing up in the mid-20th century learned to love. The term “graphic novel” became popular after it appeared on the cover of the trade paperback edition of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God in 1978. The publication of Spiegelman’s collection of Maus tales in 1986 gave a further boost to the genre, and by 2006 mainstream newspapers began taking graphic novels seriously, reviewing and even serializing them. In 2008, Mouly launched Toon Books, a series of high-quality hardcovers designed to take beginning readers, one level at a time, from picture books to chapter books.

Matt Phelan, illustrator of the Newbery Medal–winning children’s novel The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, said he loves the graphic novel format because “you have a 32-page structure, but you can do anything you want in those pages.” Kids love comics and are open to all kinds of stories, he said. “But they have to be good. They deserve the best kind of books we can write.”

First Second publisher Mark Siegel offered a rundown of the graphic novels in his catalog since 2006, saying that his patrnership with librarians “has been one of the best features” of the business. Librarians have a unique perspective on how graphic novels should be presented to their audience, and “the key is access.” Abandon the 741.5 Dewey class and provide a separate collection entirely divided into sections for kids, teens, and adults. “This is a recipe for maximum success,” he added.

Gene Luen Yang wound up the session with his enthusiastic story of how he went from comic book fan to Printz Award–winning comic book creator, illustrating his narrative with Facebook emoticons depicting the reaction of his parents at every stage (sadness, doubt, elation). The first step was self-publishing—comic-book culture’s sure-fire way to prove you are a man, not a nerd: “I can draw and write and handle business too,” he said. “I'm not a loser.” However, his first venture with a series called Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks was not financially successful. Yang then moved on to mini-comics, which “really proves your manhood. Now you are handling your own distribution and you don't care about making any money.” Things improved in 2003 with the help of comics publisher Slave Labor Graphics, and got much better with Mark Siegel’s First Second, which published American Born Chinese in 2006 to great acclaim. “Book publishers actually give you some money before your book is published,” Yang said. “I would have signed with them if they’d bought me a burrito.”