Comic books are out of their ghetto—but critical acceptance comes with a priceby Ben Hamilton / December 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
If you were young and passionate about comics in the late 90s (living in, say, semi-rural East England), you were bound to live a frustrated existence. American comics could only be found in comic shops—and comic shops, if you ever caught sight of one, had the forbidding, black-windowed aura that usually accompanies a dodgier kind of entertainment outlet. Amid the science fiction shelves in book shops, you might have found a trade paperback of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (always volume 4, 7, or 9—hardly ever 1), and after years of striving you might read the entire Sandman saga, but out of chronological order, and with such long gaps between volumes that nothing had a chance of making sense. If you visited a library and asked for the “comic section” (as I once did) you would get a frown, maybe even a sneer, and perhaps an uncertain finger pointed towards the children’s shelves.
Nowadays an avid reader of comics will have less difficulty finding them. If a library is still standing, it will have a range of comics, and they will be among the most popular items on the shelves. Chain bookshops have now given comics their own section, sometimes in a more prominent place than general fiction (and the complete Sandman is always in stock).
Attitudes have evolved, too. Switch on Radio 4 and you’re in danger of hearing high-minded critics trying to make sense of Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Even more remarkably, it has been announced that this year’s Costa Prize includes two comics among the nominations: Joff Winterhart’s Days of the Bagnold Summer and Mary M and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, nominated for the novel and biography categories respectively. No longer ghettoised, comics are making a play for the centre ground.
Except hardly anyone calls them comics now. They call them graphic novels. It’s an ugly construction, and too persistent to ignore. It also signals something important: one of the most beleaguered and underappreciated forms of popular culture has undergone a torturous rebranding process, starting in the 80s and reaching fruition in recent years. What have we lost in the transition?
The term “graphic…