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Wednesday, September 8, 1999 Published at 18:11 GMT 19:11 UK


Return of the dark art

Gemma Bovery: Graphic novel meets middle-class angst

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

Before 1989 and director Tim Burton's darkly gothic portrayal of Batman, the Caped Crusader had been suffering something of an image problem.

All that men-in-tights, thigh-high boots and K-POW-style fist fighting was more high camp than high art.

Burton's Batman was altogether more complex: brooding, insecure with a hint of male menopause, he was not your run-of-the mill superhero.

[ image: Superhero traditional-style: Superman]
Superhero traditional-style: Superman
Yet this was by no means all Burton's idea. His inspiration was clearly derived from comic artist Frank Miller's 1987 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

And Burton was not alone in detecting the potential in Miller's work.

Dark Knight, along with Watchmen, by the English writer Alan Moore, and Maus by Art Spiegelman, were sending shockwaves through the publishing world at that time.

Serious, intelligently crafted stories with mature, emotionally rounded characters, and, to top it all, pictures, bound into book form.

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, issued in 1986, was the least comic-like of the three, dealing with Spiegelman's father's experience as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner.

[ image:  ]
The graphic novel was born. Before long it was being touted as a serious new force in mainstream publishing; a rival to the shelves upon shelves of predictable pictureless paperbacks.

Then nothing. Like a blinding supernova, the graphic novel seemed to implode under the momentum of its own relentless hype.

In truth, while the idea of the illustrated novel never realised its promised potential, it has never gone away.

The art form is enjoying something of a comeback with Gemma Bovery, the story of a young adulterous woman which has been played out over the summer day by day in the Guardian.

The strip, by cartoon artist Posy Simmonds, wraps up on Thursday and is released in book-form by Jonathan Cape next week.

But the sight of a mainstream publisher in this field is rare. Most new graphic novels are repackaged comic strips, which display little of the dedication or imagination credited to Moore, Miller, Spiegelman or indeed Simmonds.

[ image: Palestine by Joe Sacco: Illustrated journalism]
Palestine by Joe Sacco: Illustrated journalism
"The majority of stuff is aimed at young men between 15 and 24 and tend to be superhero-based," says Roger Sabin, arts journalist and author of Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels.

"You have to search quite hard for the original work."

Palestine, by Joe Sacco is one fairly recent title that stands out in Sabin's mind as an "extraordinary piece of work".

Sacco travelled to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and literally drew up the book of illustrated journalism.

Another of Sabin's favourites is the Hey Buddy! series by Peter Bagge, which combine comedy and illustration and appeal to the "hip student" crowd.

But among older readers, it seems snobbishness is partly responsible for seeing off graphic novels.

[ image: One that broke the mould: Watchmen, by Alan Moore]
One that broke the mould: Watchmen, by Alan Moore
On the continent, in France in particular, but also Italy and Spain, graphic novels, or albums as they are also called, have long been an accepted form of literature.

Asterix and Tin Tin are enduring illustrated characters and graphic novels - collections of comic strips - are commonplace in newsagents, says Kev Sutherland of Twist and Shout Comics.

Their subject matter runs from costume drama to science fiction, and cosmic fantasy ("like sci-fi but right off the rails").

According to Dez Skinn, of the trade magazine Comics International, the British fail to understand the importance of visual art.

"The problem we have in this country is that we are a highly literate society, but not an artistic one. But in Europe there are loads of great artists but far fewer authors.

"Anything [here] that needs pictures to tell stories is considered sub-literate."

[ image: Maybe Posy Simmonds can help revive the graphic novel: Picture: Jane Bown]
Maybe Posy Simmonds can help revive the graphic novel: Picture: Jane Bown
Cost was also a factor in the failure of the medium, says Sutherland. Graphic novels require a writer and illustrator, they take longer to produce than a normal novel and demand quality paper and high printing standards.

"Large numbers of first-time novels are produced for nothing but read like a million dollars, it's much harder to do this with graphic novels," says Sutherland.

"If you have a good story with pictures that are not outstanding, then what is the point? It's the cost of convincing the eye."

But ultimately, the consensus is that the genre failed to breakthrough because it could not sustain the creative impetus generated by the initial crop of books.

Alan Moore went on from Watchmen to write Big Numbers - a "domestic-level drama dealing with chaos and fractal theory," says Sutherland.

But the project was halted after only two editions, because his artist, Bill Sienkiewicz, had too many other commitments.

Copycat work

Meanwhile, news of the craze for graphic novels brought a flood of bland, unoriginal, bound comics into the UK, which kept with the superhero focus. The result was to devalue the genre, says Skinn.

"Ultimately they owed too much to the American comic book heritage," according to Sutherland.

"It's hard to break the mould and convince those who do not read comics that comics are anything other than superheroes, especially if you go on to give them just superheroes."

Perhaps Posy Simmonds, queen bee of wry middle-class angst, will help change all that.

Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds is published on 16 September, by Jonathan Cape.

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