Professor Paul Lopes first fell in love with comic books as a young boy in California. A Marvel Comics fan, he devoured the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man every week. Like many others, however, he “grew out” of his love for comics. But, as a sociologist who studies rebellion and transition in art worlds, he rediscovered his love of this art form in 2002 — and he wants more of us to do the same.

As this summer’s blockbuster The Avengers invaded thousands of multiplexes, broke box-office records, and evoked cheers from critics and audiences alike, I could not avoid the feeling that the American comic book had once again pulled Hollywood into an aesthetic black hole. Movies based on comic books feature spectacular sense-numbing special effects barely connected together by one-liners bantered about by one-dimensional characters. And with the young Scarlett Johansson prancing about the mise-en-scene as Black Widow, it seemed pretty obvious who the target audience was for The Avengers. Writ large on screen, the old stigma that comic books are pure low-brow pulp — worthy only of children, adolescents, and acne-ridden, scruffy men suffering from arrested development — seemed inescapable.
    These comments aside, don’t get me wrong. As a cultural sociologist, I’m a long-time defender of both middle-brow and low-brow art. You might even say I am an aficionado of pulp fiction. And I have spent considerable time studying the distinction between high art and popular art in America. During most of the last century, the divisions between the high-brow, the middle-brow, and the low-brow signified a hierarchy among art, artists, patrons, and audiences in America. In the early 20th century, the high-brow perched itself comfortably at the top. But by mid-century, many saw this position as besieged from all possible fronts, from middle-brow book clubs and Broadway plays to low-brow television shows and Hollywood films. Some cultural sociologists claim that, by the end of the last century, high-brow America had lost this “battle of the brows” to a new omnivorous America. Many Americans now feast on art and culture in an all-inclusive fashion. Omnivorous Americans have a taste for classical music as well as hip-hop, French cuisine as well as Philly cheesesteaks, literary novels as well as pulp mysteries, and Masterpiece Classic as well as Dancing with the Stars.
    Sadly, although I should be bubbling with delight at this revolution, one lone art appears to have been left behind. The full range of the comic book genre, so dear to my heart, has not been invited to the table. The overwhelming presence of superhero comic book characters in mainstream popular culture has distracted many from discovering how radically different, and varied, comic art has become over the last 30 years. So, although some discerning urban hipsters in the late 1980s did notice the emergence of a new, more serious, form — the “graphic novel” — this incredible transformation failed to capture the imagination of most Americans, whether high-brows or omnivores.
    It was this special moment in comic art that soon grabbed my attention as a scholar. My interest eventually led to the publication of my book, Demanding Respect: the Evolution of the American Comic Book. The Scene invited me to introduce you to contemporary comic book culture and the American graphic novel by telling the story of this radical change in comic art. I believe comic art will capture your imaginations in ways you never before experienced, so sit back and let me introduce to you the miraculous, extraordinary, fantabulous world of American comic art!

American comic books

As a true believer of the aesthetic potential of comic art, I still must admit that today’s typical view of comic books as low-brow pulp is not woven out of thin air. It reflects the unfortunate state of the more popular mainstream comic books, whether appearing in comic book shops, projected onto multiplex screens, or evident in the costumed “fanboys” and “fangirls” roaming San Diego’s Comic-Con, the biggest comic book convention in the country, which is attended by around 125,000 people every year.
    A rough estimate reveals the world of comic art as composed of 90 percent superhero and fantasy comic books and their fans. The other 10 percent comprises an incredibly diverse array of comic art, artists, and readers. Although mainstream versus alternative are the most common terms used to 
distinguish these two camps, like all art, comic artworks, artists, and readers fall more along a continuum between pure mainstream on one end and pure avant-garde on the other. (Yes, I’m suggesting that there is avant-garde comic art. Check out the artists Chris Ware and Kaz if you don’t believe me.)
    American comic art today covers all possible 
literary expressions, including fantasy, mystery, gothic-romance, history, autobiography, journalism, politics, and slice-of-life portraits. American comic art also encompasses a wide breadth of graphic art styles. But when did this little-known revolution in comic art occur? How did superhero comic books begin to grow up — as well as make room for a more diverse, and decidedly adult, comic art universe?
    Comic books first captured the imagination of Americans in 1938 with the appearance of Superman in Action Comics. At the time, most adults viewed them as low-brow pulps for children that were at best a minor distraction on the road to better literature, or at worst, a menace threatening to undermine literacy and morals across America. With the arrival of Western, crime, romance, horror, science, and war comic books after World War II, more adults began reading comic books, but the original image of them as childish subliterature never completely disappeared. This unshakable view, now threatened by the adult content of these new genres, led to a national anti-comic book crusade in the early 1950s spearheaded by civil and religious groups as well as government officials. Responding to the intense pressure of this crusade, the industry implemented the Comics Code in 1954, which eliminated the more adult-oriented comic books from American newsstands. This self-censorship only reaffirmed the view of comic books as an art form whose only potential lay in making children giggle or feeding male adolescent fantasies.

Alan Moore, writer; Dave Gibbons, illustrator/letterer,
Watchmen, Chapter II, pg. 10. (DC Comics, 1986)

This excerpt from the celebrated graphic novel Watchmen explores the
absurd and deeply disturbing delusions of omnipotence, purity, and
unmatchable strength inherent in the superhero genre.

Comics grow up
A comic book revolt, however, began in the 1960s. There were two bands of revolutionaries. The first, which would transform American comic art from within the mainstream, was made up of a fandom who established magazines and conventions that celebrated American comic books, and more importantly, comic book artists, as worthy of admiration and respect. This development allowed superhero and fantasy comic books to move toward more elaborate and complex narratives, and mainstream artists to create more unique expressions of graphic illustration.
    The second band of comic art revolutionaries was made up of underground artists who emerged from the counterculture of the 1960s. Artists such as Robert Crumb (Zap Comix) and Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) created transgressive and political comix as a radical rejection of “straight” culture and politics. They also set the stage for the avant-garde.

    Ironically, just as these revolutionary bands appeared to seize the day, the viability of the mainstream and underground comic book markets withered away. Low profit margins and high returns in the mainstream comic book market made them unappealing to both newsstands and general retailers, while anti-drug and anti-pornography campaigns made the underground market (mostly through head shops) unsustainable. By the 1980s, therefore, the two movements converged into a single subculture of hard-core comic book fans. This subculture was served by a much more limited direct market where comic book shops preordered a set number of issues from comic book publishers for a regular set of readers. Within this new scenario, artists, publishers, and readers came together to demand respect for this art form, in the belief that comic art deserved serious content as well as serious appreciation. This convergence allowed for radical experimentations in comic art. Earlier experimentation had already led to more elaborate story arcs in comic book series, which easily morphed into the new long-form format we now know as the graphic novel.
    Unlike previous comic book series, the graphic novel allowed artists to bring greater narrative 
coherency and complexity into a well-structured text. The graphic novel, therefore, proved to be 
a more suitable form for creating compelling 
fictional as well as non-fictional narratives. With fans open to the wide potential of comic art, artists were able to explore, in both graphic novels and limited comic book series, the promise of this new artistic medium.

The graphic novel
The world outside the comic book subculture was first introduced to the American graphic novel in the mid-1980s with the publication of three books that, to this day, remain iconic representatives of this great revolution in comic art. The first, Maus, was published as a graphic novel in 1986 by underground comix artist Art Spiegelman. This alternative graphic novel revealed the potential of comic art to explore complex and disturbing human tragedy — in this case, the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Maus is now a standard text in college courses across the country, including many sections of Colgate’s Core 152: Challenges of Modernity. The other two releases revealed the surprising potential of mainstream comic book genres: Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. Both explored the darkness of vigilantism inherent in the superhero genre and, interestingly, deliberately interwove complex textual references to the history of the American comic book. But sadly, these three critical and commercial successes failed to secure a viable niche for graphic novels in the trade book (general interest booksellers) market, so this medium never captured the attention of a mass audience. On the other hand, these three books set the stage for comic book artists to continue to explore the potential of graphic novels along the continuum of mainstream to alternative avant-garde comic art.

Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, pg. 219 ( Pantheon Books, 2000)

This page from avant-garde artist Chris Ware’s graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth demonstrates the power of both the words and images in comic art. Jimmy Corrigan received two highly respected literary prizes in 2001, the Guardian First Book Award and the American Book Award. Ware’s work has been on exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
    Ironically, it was the rapid success of translated graphic novels from Japan known as manga that reversed the fate of the American graphic novel at the turn of this century. The earlier successful introduction of Japanese animation, anime, to American television set the stage for manga quickly becoming the fastest-growing publishing market in the United States. While manga catered to young girls and boys, their success enticed trade publishers to try reintroducing American graphic novels for all ages into the trade book market. This time, it worked. American graphic novels found a niche.
    Besides manga creating an opening for American graphic novels, two other factors paved the way for a more permanent trade market for this new art form. Given the low-brow reputation of comic books, you might be surprised to learn that an active movement of librarians began promoting graphic novels in libraries and classrooms. At the same time, urban hipsters of the 1980s and 1990s who had witnessed the revolution in comic art had become media gatekeepers at major magazines and newspapers like Entertainment Weekly, Time, and the New York Times. In feature articles and book reviews, these gatekeepers lent critical support to this new market in graphic novels. Today, American graphic novels generate greater sales revenue in the United States than either manga or traditional comic books. And this time around, there are plenty of past and present works to supply this new mass market.

Compelling and meaningful

The term graphic novel often elicits smirks on the faces of either fanboys who think it is a pretentious term (even while they busily buy superhero and fantasy graphic novels) or literati who cannot imagine how comic art could ever compare to serious literature. While I sympathize with the fanboy’s wariness over the term, I am less enamored by those who disparage this medium. The mixture of text and graphics seems to send many critics into a paroxysm of hostility never aimed at works of text or visual art alone. While we can argue forever over how a medium determines its own unique aesthetic, human beings can take any medium and make it a serious vehicle of expression — whether by splashing a subway train with graffiti art or sounding out beautiful musical melodies on an old steel drum.
    I tell my academic colleagues that what is most amazing in teaching Maus is seeing what an emotional impact Art Spiegelman’s narrative makes on my students. The story as told evokes an incredible sense of immediacy and empathy. What makes comic art such as Maus special and compelling is the strong intertextual play built into what aficionados call sequential art. Scott McCloud, an acclaimed critic of comic art, argues that the spaces between the panels of sequential art compel readers to imaginatively fill in the narrative, drawing them in both intellectually and emotionally.
    Moving through Maus from panel to panel and page to page, the reader is irresistibly drawn into the harrowing account of Holocaust survivor Vladek Spiegelman, as well as the son who feels compelled to tell his story. In cartoon form, Spiegelman portrays different ethnic or national groups as animals: European Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and Americans as dogs. In the opening page of the chapter “Time Flies” in the second volume (shown at left), Spiegelman delves into the conflict-ridden nature not only of being the son of Holocaust survivors, but also of becoming an acclaimed artist in telling their tale.


Art Spiegelman, Maus, Volume II, pg. 41. (Penguin Books, 1992)

Depicting his young self wearing a mouse mask in his studio while imagining the millions of Holocaust victims piled below him and Auschwitz outside his window (a barely perceptible swastika backgrounds all the panels), artist Art Spiegelman imparts layers of meaning to the reader — questions of social identity, responsibility, guilt, and the unbearable toll of that human horror. But he also demands from the reader an emotional and human accounting of these images and their history.

    Such compelling reading is not unique to Maus. I remember having a similar response to Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, which challenges readers to take an emotional and human accounting of a Muslim community under siege in a U.N. “safe area” during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s. It transcends what can be achieved in a text-only account of this war. Sacco provides a similar moving account in his American Book Award–winning Palestine. And whether one is reading Stuck Rubber Baby, Howard Cruse’s deeply moving graphic novel on growing up gay in the Jim Crow South, Marjane Satrapi’s jarring account of the Iranian revolution in Persepolis, or Alison Bechdel’s poignant account of the deeply conflicted relationship with her closeted gay father in Fun Home, the power of the graphic novel is inescapable. Many mainstream graphic novels show the potential of pulp sequential art as well. Simply pick up Neil Gaiman’s fantasy The Sandman, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s cyber-punk Transmetropolitan, or Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s crime graphic novel Road to Perdition and you will see my point.
A last remark
In the space of this short essay, it is impossible to introduce readers to the full joys of comic art. If I have piqued your curiosity, please take a look at the “must reads” (at left) to help you on your own Quest for the Great Graphic Novel.
    I think it best, however, to end with a bit of a confession. While I am passionate about alternative graphic novels like Maus, I also love pulp graphic novels like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. On top of indie films like Ghost World (based on an alternative graphic novel by Daniel Clowes), I also get sucked into the guilty pleasure of watching Hollywood superhero blockbusters like The Avengers (I cheered with everyone else in the theater as the heroic Hulk pummeled the evil Loki!). And I hope it is not because I’m suffering from arrested development! You see, I believe I am one of those new cultural omnivores. I love a delicious French bouillabaisse as well as a good Philly cheesesteak. I love the Nobel Prize–winning authors José Saramago and Toni Morrison, but it is hard to find time to read them when you have to watch the next Smash or Parks and Recreation. Whatever your tastes, however, I guarantee you can find a graphic novel to satisfy what I hope will be your new, irresistible craving for comic art.

As we worked with comic artist Matt Madden to create the opening comic strip for this historical article, we decided we should end by looking to the future. By coincidence, both he and author Paul Lopes had given special talks at the LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel exhibition at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica this past spring. So, Lopes posed the following question: “Matt, as someone who entered comic book culture as a young mini-comics rebel in the early ’90s, how do you view the future of alternative comic book artists like yourself?”

      Madden was only too happy to respond. “Right up to the end of the millennium, most cartoonists of my generation felt like we were stuck in a cultural backwater. Some even embraced the freedom that comes with that insularity. But for my part, I’ve always hoped to reach a wider and more diverse audience, so the crossover of the last 10 to 15 years is really exciting to me. I see more people reading comics and, as importantly, more kinds of people making comics. Influence and energy are flowing in all directions. I think we’ll see a lot of amazing new work in the years to come.”

Must reads
If you count yourself among the uninitiated, there are several ways to introduce yourself to comic art and graphic novels. First, consider picking up the four listed here — they will reveal to you the power of this art form. In addition, Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life not only presents a wonderful history and literary analysis of the American graphic novel, but also presents detailed introductions to some of the best published over the last 30 years. You might also simply wander over to the graphic novel section of the nearest bookstore, whether a local independent bookseller or a chain, and peruse the shelves. Mainstream graphic novels will probably dominate the shelves, but make sure you find the section with alternative graphic novels. You will be amazed at the rich variety!
— Paul Lopes

The Complete Maus. Art Spiegelman. New York: Pantheon. 1996.
Art Spiegelman created one of the most compelling testaments of the Holocaust. An epic tale of survival, a moving tale of self-discovery, and an amazing story of an artist’s struggle over self-expression and self-transformation, Maus is one of the greatest American artworks of the 20th century. No wonder the Pulitzer Prize committee gave a special citation award to Spiegelman in 1992 for this masterpiece.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. New York: DC. 1987.
This graphic novel is the most sophisticated deconstruction of the superhero genre ever published. It weaves details of comic book history into a classic story of heroes rising to the occasion to defeat a megalomaniacal villain. At the same time, it is a dark story of the unintended consequences of individuals once wedded to a vigilantism that was long ago abandoned by their own society. Moore presents, in a feat of intertextual jujitsu, a complex story that even those unfamiliar with the superhero genre can appreciate.

Fun Home.
Alison Bechdel. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 2006.
With Fun Home, Alison Bechdel ended up with more best-book-of-the-year citations than any other book in 2006. Already a highly regarded comic artist with her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel revealed herself as a brilliant and thought-provoking memoirist in this touching personal story of her troubled relationship with her closeted gay father and the legacy of his hidden life.

Marjane Satrapi. New York: Pantheon. 2003.
Persepolis is a must read for anyone interested in experiencing the full power of comic art. Iranian born, Paris-based Marjane Satrapi originally created this work in the French language. But since its translation into English, Persepolis rivals Maus as the most popular alternative graphic novel in the United States. This harrowing retelling of the Iranian revolution and its terrible effect on Satrapi’s family reveals an incredibly humane meditation on human tragedy and hope. Also like Maus, the style of graphic art transports the reader into an imaginative realm that makes the tale more “real” by its emotional and empathetic effect.