Not Your Sunday-Morning Cartoons

By Jaggi, Maya | Newsweek International, January 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Not Your Sunday-Morning Cartoons


Jaggi, Maya, Newsweek International


Byline: Maya Jaggi

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

Stars from the world of comics and bande dessinee-- 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 dessinee (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.

Zahra's Paradise joins a cluster of new graphic books out this fall. Habibi by Chris Thompson (the American author of Blankets, an award-winning 2003 graphic novel about growing up in an Evangelical Christian family) is a love story revealing common ground between Christianity and Islam through lavish, black-and-white drawings partly inspired by Arabic calligraphy. Billy, Me & You, by British first-time author Nicola Streeten, chronicles family grief at the death of a child. Inspired by BD, yet breaking the comics mold, is Bye-Bye Babylon, a graphic memoir by Paris-based painter Lamia Ziade of growing up in 1970s Beirut. Text and drawings are separate, as childhood treats give way to guns in a compelling inventory of civil-war memories.

1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, also out this fall, spans almost two centuries, yet half the entries were published after 1990. Its editor, Paul Gravett, says that after decades of being "stuck in genres and formulae," comics have broken free. Successes stretch from dark revisionist superheroes, as in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (1982), to Logicomix (2009), which traces philosopher Bertrand Russell's quest for mathematical truth, by a Greek team led by Apostolos Doxiadis. A surprise bestseller, it has been a hit in 25 countries. While conventional superhero sales have plummeted--partly with the rise of cinematic CGI and computer games--many more women are reading and creating graphic novels. Memoir is thriving with the rise of graphic auteurs who both draw and write. Persepolis (2000), Marjane Satrapi's memoir of growing up after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, was a seminal success and a hit film.

In MetaMaus, Spiegelman's new companion to The Complete Maus, he defines comics as a "narrative series of cartoons" that "boil down everything to its essence." The panels are like "stained-glass windows in a church," telling a story through time. …

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