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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
"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.
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.