Comic Relief; Take That, Batman. Graphic Novels Are Moving out of the Hobby Shop and into the Mainstream

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Byline: Rana Foroohar (With Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Mary Acoymo in London, Mark Russell in Seoul and Kay Itoi in Tokyo)

If you have any doubt about the power of comic books, consider that they are now required reading for the future military leaders of America. In order to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, cadets from the class of 2006 must study Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel "Persepolis," a coming-of-age tale set during the Iranian revolution. It's a wise choice for the syllabus, not only because it is such a compelling read but because the simple black-and-white frames of Satrapi's family saga will likely give the cadets a better understanding of Iran than any academic text, newspaper report or strategy paper ever could. "Persepolis" shows

Iranians not as banner-waving fanatics or higab -covered shadows, but as individuals--funny, fraught and often fearful of the strange, powerful forces unfolding around them. "I'm not a politician or a sociologist or a historian, but I witnessed a lot of things that happened in a place that many people are concerned about right now," says Satrapi, speaking from her Paris studio. Comics, she adds, are particularly well suited to telling her story to a global audience: "Images are an international language."

Comics are certainly having an international moment, in terms of both sales figures and increased literary respect. Global publishers say that graphic novels--which include everything from the hugely popular Japanese illustrated stories known as manga to highly sophisticated works like "Persepolis," Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers" and Joe Sacco's "War's End" had their best year ever in 2004 and look to grow even more in 2005. In the United States, sales of graphic novels have leaped from $75 million in 2001 to $207 million in 2004. Booksellers in America, Britain, Germany, Italy and South Korea cite graphic literature as one of their fastest-growing categories. In Borders, one of America's largest bookstore chains, graphic-novel sales have risen more than 100 percent a year for the past three years. In France, where comics have long been mainstream, sales are reaching record highs, up 13.8 percent to 43.3 million copies in 2004; indeed, five of the 10 best-selling books in France last year were comic books. Manga, which already represents 20 percent of Japan's publishing market, is also spreading rapidly in South Korea, Thailand and other countries; in many cases, locals are buying American versions of the originals in an effort to learn English.

Move over, Spider-Man. Graphic literature has finally broken out of hobby shops and into the mainstream. Superhero fantasies have given way to grittier, more pointed works grounded firmly in reality. Academics in the United States and Europe are teaching comics as literature in the classroom. Books like "Persepolis"--as well as Sacco's "Palestine" and "Safe Area: Gorazde," and Guy Delisle's "Pyongyang"--are held up not only as great literature but also as instructive guides to global conflict zones. Polish graphic artists are commemorating the country's upcoming 25th anniversary of Solidarity with a slew of new comics. Once the province of indie publishers, graphic novels are now turned out by serious houses like Pantheon in New York and Jonathan Cape in London. Museums like New York's Whitney and London's Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit cutting-edge comics as art. In France, Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres presided in May over the first national celebration of comic books (one of nine officially recognized arts), knighting comics artists from Japan, France and Belgium. Said Donnedieu, "I wanted to mark my attachment to this sector of creativity, to honor its beauty, its irony, its sometime ferocity, its perpetual imagination."

Indeed, the genre knows no rules or boundaries. The term "graphic novel" was popularized by Will Eisner, one of the first artists to elevate the medium beyond pulp fare with his 1978 work "A Contract With God," depicting his childhood in a Bronx, New York, tenement. …