Thursday, December 09, 2004

The tide turns for graphic novels

San Antonio Current does a nice job of charting the rise of the graphic novel, from He Done Her Wrong and A Contract With God and Other Stories to The Dark Knight Returns and the manga explosion. Scott McCloud and Publishers Weekly's Calvin Reid are interviewed at length about the history of the graphic novel and the reasons behind its current popularity:
Graphic novels' current success, Reid says, hinges on two highly unlikely events: a distributor's near-disastrous bankruptcy, and the influence of an upstart publisher who printed books in the wrong direction.

In 2002, just as comics publishers were beginning to enjoy steadily rising exposure to the bookstore market, the distribution company LPC collapsed. LPC was a gateway to bookstores for many small publishers and a few of the majors, and its bankruptcy showed publishers just how important bookstores were to their bottom line. The new companies who moved in to snag LPC's former customers also saw an opportunity, and began to agressively pursue shelf space in bookstores.

Meanwhile, a small company called Tokyopop was shaking up the face of comics publishing in a big way. American publishers had reprinted Japanese comics, known in their native country as manga, for decades. But Japanese comics read from right to left; American companies had generally reversed the art while they translated the dialogue. Tokyopop kept its manga in their original "backwards" orientation, and emphasized their Japanese aspects instead of trying to cloak them. They were a little bit weird, a little bit different - and kids wanted them. "You can mark the boom in manga sales to at the point that American publishers stopped trying ot Westernize manga," Reid said.
The Current also speaks with Jennifer Velasquez, coordinator of teen service for the San Antonio Public Library, who notes graphic novels are turning more teens -- particularly teen-age boys -- into avid readers: "Teenage boys aren't supposed to be readers, but they actually get these books and read them."

Velasquez mentions something I found interesting: Her library began stocking comics about four years ago, when Viz sent a big package of manga as a gift. I wonder how many publishers do that?

The article includes "a quick guide for new readers," which recommends 14 graphic novels worth investigating, from Bone to Palomar to The Invisibles.

This issue also boasts four comic-strip features: "Monument(al) sleuths," a visit to a cemetery by Lea Hernandez and Susan Pagani; "The politics of traffic," an election analysis by Andy Singer; "Po-mo movie musings," a movie-season preview by Joe Lee; and "A Kiku garden of delights," a restaurant review by Robert Acosta.