With some help from Hollywood, graphic novels gain popularity

Sunday, July 21, 2002

MUSCATINE, Iowa -- For a time, the business of comic books seemed limited to tales of costumed superheros, gumshoe detectives or thwarted alien invasions, the clientele an assortment of adolescents, collectors and geeks.

But the industry stereotype is undergoing a transformation of sorts thanks to a longer, more literary comic offshoot called the graphic novel.

Bolstered by comic writers and artists bent on telling more complex tales and by a string of Hollywood movies adapted from graphic novels -- including the new "Road to Perdition" -- publishers, booksellers and readers are beginning to take note.

"This is an art form that is every bit as valid for telling stories and entertaining people as movies or any other form," Max Allan Collins, author of "Road to Perdition," said in an interview from his home.

"The thing about it is that everybody understands the vocabulary of comics. ... The hope is that people who see and like the movie will be interested enough to begin to cross that perceived forbidden land into the world of comics and graphic novels," said Collins, who for 15 years wrote the Dick Tracy comic strip.

Cosmetically, the graphic novel resembles any other book on the shelf.

Between the covers is another matter, though.

In the 300-page "Road to Perdition," the black-and-white panels drawn by London-based cartoonist Richard Piers Rayner make visual the images and action of traditional literature.

The panels -- which vary from one to four per page -- give form and feature to characters, set scenes of homes, diners and downtowns in sharp detail and provide a sense of action and drama. Text balloons advance the plot and story line.

Publishers and comic connoisseurs use the term "illustrative literature" to describe the books, which they say emerged from reader demand for more sophisticated comic-driven storytelling.

Calvin Reid, news editor for Publisher's Weekly, said it is simplistic to view the graphic novel as merely a glorified comic book.

"There is a whole new market that has grown up with comics in the last 20 years that is looking for more," Reid said. "And publishers have been adapting to a bigger share of their audience wanting longer, more sophisticated stories ... without having to go into the comic store once a week."

The 1987 publication of "Maus," the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust, is credited by many for setting the graphic novel apart from traditional comic books.

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