IN THE BATTLE POPE comic book series, a slovenly, muscle-bound version of the Catholic leader bumbles from one superheroic adventure to another--with a hippie Jesus as sidekick. The only time a serious question of religion arises is when it offers a convenient punch line.
While people of faith certainly enjoy their share of juvenile humor, they've often had to look hard to find more-substantive treatments of spirituality and real-world issues in comics. But the last few decades have seen a maturation of the genre, as comic books and graphic novels--which are essentially book-length comics--address serious issues in thoughtful, creative ways. Think of Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning Maus, which documents his father's experience in the Holocaust, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a graphic memoir of her childhood during the Iranian revolution.
The industry has snowballed in the past five years, and now rakes in big readers and big bucks--last year, graphic novel sales in the U.S. and Canada reached $395 million. Combine this with revenue generated from movie adaptations of graphic novels such as Watchmen and Wanted and you have an industry that feels larger than life.
Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second Books, which publishes graphic novels, said his plan when creating the imprint in 2006 was to include graphic novels about race, politics, and social justice "for the world citizen," which coincided with creators' increasing desire "to tackle big things in new ways."
He understands why some readers are reluctant to pick up graphic novels--he said he had faced an analogous challenge when he met his wife, a former ballerina. "Once I'd gathered enough of ballet's vocabulary so I could begin to discern and appreciate it for what it is, I could also be touched, moved, transported by some great moment. And it was electrifying" Siegel said. "It's the same with comics. Spiegelman, Satrapi, and now a host of others are expressing things that transcend the medium. You don't need to be a comics connoisseur to feel it when some work is about the human story, when it's universal."
Siegel seeks out novels that address tough questions or plug into current news. The imprint's recent graphic novel The Photographer chronicles the experience of a photographer who followed a Doctors Without Borders mission into Afghanistan, which helped it gain relevancy--and sales. The 270-page book combines Didier Lefevre's photographs with simple yet realistic art by Emmanuel Guibert.
"Even if The Photographer wasn't breaking out like this nationwide, I would have no regrets" Siegel said. "Once I'd read it, I couldn't not publish it."
AN UNEVEN HISTORY
Comic books first appeared in 1934, but the industry's maturation in the United States was stunted for generations when, in the 1950s, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and overzealous government officials mistakenly connected superhero and true-crime comics with adolescent crime, as recounted in journalist David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Comics became stigmatized as juvenile, fantastical, and even harmful, a label that is only now dissolving. In Europe and Japan, where comics never were repressed, artists have been creating thoughtful, mature work for decades.
Adam Johnson, a Stanford University creative writing professor who co-teaches the university's graphic novel class, counts himself among those who took some convincing to pick up a graphic novel.
"Maybe I was a jaded kid, but I was like, 'No hero swoops in to save the day, man;" Johnson said. "It was only when comics got permission to be nonfiction by Spiegelman that it really took off'. This guy gave his father's whole existence in this format, and it was so dexterous in how it moved in time and showed back story. …