Readersforum's Blog

January 3, 2012

The Graphic Novel Renaissance

Graphic novels have won acclaim as an innovative medium for exploring issues such as Iranian politics, the Holocaust, and turmoil in the Middle East.

Twenty-five years after ‘Maus’ put graphic novels on the map, the art form is exploding.

By Maya Jaggi

Stars from the world of comics and bande dessinée— the Franco-Belgian strip cartoons that spawned the likes of Tintin and Asterix—mingled this past October at a gathering at London’s French Institute. What’s the difference, Newsweek asked, in how their art is perceived in French-speaking countries versus Britain and the U.S.? “Respect,” one English cartoonist shot back.

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Bande dessinée (BD) has a long pedigree (the French call it the “ninth art”) while Japan’s homegrown version, manga, is dignified with the name given to fine-art sketches. But transatlantic snobbery can still trivialize comics as the preserve of an all-male subculture obsessed with spandex-clad superheroes. Yet Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman’s anthropomorphic memoir about his father, a Holocaust survivor, started a revolution in respect for comics a quarter century ago. A long graphic novel for adults involving Jewish mice and Nazi cats, Maus’s layered exploration of history and memory kicked down doors to nonspecialist bookshops, libraries, and universities, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Since then, critical opinion has scrambled to keep pace with an explosion of creativity among cartoonists. Graphic novels have been winning global acclaim—and they’re becoming a crucial artistic medium for memoir, fiction, history, biography, and stories that put a face on social change, in cultures from Canada to Iran.

This fall saw the publication in 12 countries of Zahra’s Paradise, a graphic novel narrated by a blogger, in which a mother searches for her son in the violent aftermath of Iran’s disputed 2009 elections. Created by Iranian-American journalist Amir and artist Khalil (their surnames are being withheld for safety reasons), it was first serialized for a transnational readership as a free, multilingual web comic. Before the third chapter was online, the book had been sold into nearly a dozen languages, turning a profit for its publishers, First Second Books in New York.

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