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.
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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