The shape of things to come
by Mike Baron
With graphic novels the fastest-growing segment of the publishing industry, the United States stands poised to join the rest of the civilized world in finally embracing the art it created. In 2002, the graphic novel represented a $100 million market. According to Publisher's Weekly, "this was a 33% increase from the year before, when they accounted for 1% of American book sales." According to ICv2 graphic novels drove the comic market during the first half of 2005, dragging what had been a flat 2% growth rate to a startling 5%. Sales for Tokyopop leaped 40% during the first six months.
Much of this is due to the rise of manga, capturing that elusive, heretofore unobtainable female readership. A number of retail store owners have told ICv2 that females are responsible for 60% of manga sales. This is a new phenomenon, and it bodes well for the comic market. But it is only part of the story. The big news is that graphic novels are penetrating the adult book market in a serious way. These are books that do not go through Diamond or the traditional comic distributors, and are not aimed at traditional comic readers. Borders, Barnes & Noble, and other major bookstores now feature dedicated graphic novel sections as well as numerous end caps catering to adult and teen readers.
In 1940, Superman sold four million copies per issue. Compare that to the comics' near-death experiences in the seventies and nineties. What happened to the audience? The audience grew up, the comics didn't. Comics remained fixated on teen male power fantasies and stayed trapped in a time warp for twenty years, during which America latched onto other media, most notably television. America turned its back on comics, as it turned its back on its other brilliant bastard, jazz. But jazz and comics are true art, and benefit from the unrelenting charge of the artists. Break-out artists such as Art Spiegelman, Miles Davis, Frank Miller, Wynton Marsalis force the intelligentsia to reevaluate the form. The war is over. Comics have won. The New York Times regularly dedicates space to graphic novel reviews, as do Entertainment Weekly, People, and other important venues. Maus wins a Pulitzer Prize. Hollywood goes on a feeding frenzy: Hellboy, Sin City, A Brief History of Violence, The Road to Perdition. Of course Hollywood has also gone on a feeding frenzy based on video games.
The break-out graphic novel has not yet happened. There are no graphic novels on the NYT's Top Ten. It's only a matter of time. DC and Marvel have courted mainstream authors such as Brad Meltzer and Orson Scott Card with excellent results. Writers such as Greg Rucka easily straddle comics and novels. So when is one of these popular writers going to do an original graphic novel that appeals to the masses? Where is comics' Harold Robbins, Leon Uris, or Jacqueline Suzanne? Readers may cringe at some of these names. Pick your own. John Grisham. Jude Devereaux. Maeve Binchy. Kathleen Woodiwisse. The biggest eight hundred pound gorilla of them all, Stephen King, is launching his own series through Marvel this year. We'll see whether that translates into serious adult book sales. ICv2 honcho Milton Griepp pegs the graphic novel segment of the general book population at "perhaps as much as 2% on a great day." But that's 2% more than the book industry was able to register a decade ago. It's a two hundred million dollar slice of a ten billion dollar pie.
Start with a great story. Doesn't matter if the author is known or unknown. Give it a great look - a single artist, and print it like a French album, squarebound with hard covers. It should be 'O' sized (the magazine, not the person, since that keeps changing.) Imagine if Gone With the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird had first appeared as a graphic novel. They may or may not have succeeded. Who's to say? But the graphic novel experience is not the same as a literary experience. Those who deal in words alone can conjure a mood, a texture and a depth of detail that graphic art cannot quite match (although comics bring their own unique gifts to the table.) Horror proves the dividing line between comics and prose. Try as he might Stephen King will never be able to conjure the horror in comic book form that he has conjured in The Shining and several other books. That is because as soon as you give evil an image, it becomes less evil. But that is only a tiny example of the difference between comics and prose.
All the key ingredients are in place. The crossover phenomenon, which relies on word of mouth as much as anything, will happen in the next three years. It won't be a traditional comic book property, like Watchmen. It will appeal to readers of all ages and both sexes.
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