Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What Ever Happened to Comics?

Alexander Dunst

In a 2014 conversation in Chicago, Art Spiegelman summarized his understanding of the path taken by comics, once known primarily as cheap and popular entertainment: “[W]hen something is no longer a mass medium, it has to become art or it dies. I figured it was necessary for comics to find their way into libraries, bookstores, universities, and museums.”[1]. To this day, Spiegelman, remains best known as the author of the graphic memoir Maus, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. But as a mentor, editor, and teacher, Spiegelman has also been one of the most farsighted thinkers within his chosen medium, recognizing the need to adapt comics to a changing cultural landscape. In my book The Rise of the Graphic Novel: Computational Criticism and the Evolution of Literary Value, I return repeatedly to Spiegelman’s quote because it captures the ambition, shared by a whole generation of artists, to elevate the prestige of this once derided medium.

One answer to my title question might therefore simply be: the graphic novel. Of course, that’s not the whole story. Arguably, this relatively recent publication format—which sells comics as bound volumes and often in mass market bookstores rather than via news vendors like the popular magazines of old—already receives more scholarly attention than serial or web comics, which are home to some of the most innovative storytelling appearing today. The role of superhero comics, which, as intellectual properties, dominate contemporary cinema screens, provides another fascinating storyline and arguably deserves more scrutiny. In the book, however, my interest lies in the social and narrative transformation wrought by the odd moniker “graphic novel.” The term was first used in fanzines in the mid-1960s and likens the visual medium of comics to a more esteemed literary genre. Scholars, fans, and comics authors have tended to either accept this designation at face value, recognizing its potential as a marketing term, or denied it any relevance.

In contrast, The Rise of the Graphic Novel looks at an unusually large number of titles from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada—253, to be precise—to understand if and how the social elevation of comics also led to formal and stylistic changes. To survey these 253 graphic novels, the book adapts computational methods of cultural analysis developed over the last two decades in adjacent fields, from digital literary studies and corpus linguistics to empirical film research. The results often came as a surprise to me, either because they contradicted established opinion, or simply fell outside the parameters of qualitative research. Scholars often associate graphic novels with the black-and-white aesthetic of titles such as Maus or the pastel colors found in now canonical examples like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. The stylistic analysis of the 253 titles in the book’s corpus at once presented a strikingly different and far more variegated picture: Genre comparisons showed a restrained color palette to be typical of graphic memoirs. Yet historically, color has spread from the more popular types of comics published as stand-alone books, including superhero and science-fiction tales, to the graphic novel as a whole. In the book, I trace this evolution to the growing availability of digital printing technology since the late 1990s, which made full color affordable to smaller publishers and provided a way of distinguishing graphic novels in the literary marketplace.

Some results seemed significant despite their utter simplicity. For instance, the average page length of graphic novels climbed steadily from 107 pages in 1995 to 272 pages twenty years later. Remarkably, the largest increase in page length came in the early 2000s, as literary publishers like Knopf or Penguin invested heavily in graphic novels and the format shifted away from a reliance on comic stores. Other results were obtained with the help of recent advances in so-called artificial intelligence, which make it possible to automatically recognize comics text and images. Ever since authors and fans adopted the term graphic novel, some of them have described it as more “complex” than serial comics. Similar claims were already made on behalf of the literary novel at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, a look at several features, from sentence length to the number of panels per page, showed that while graphic novels have indeed become more visually elaborate, this is not the case for their textual content—seemingly the more literary characteristic. Once again, better print quality may provide part of the explanation for this curious detail.

More generally speaking, we might say that the graphic novel continues to exploit the possibilities encapsulated in its counterintuitive, yet creatively productive, contradiction of terms. Situated at the meeting point of visual and literary, popular and establishment, cultural forms, graphic novels tell a fascinating story about the transformation of contemporary narrative. Comics may no longer be the ubiquitous mass medium they were before the spread of television. Yet, as Spiegelman envisaged, they have continued to find niches in a highly heterogeneous cultural sphere, moving into bookstores and libraries but also beyond, onto the web and movie screens around the world. If graphic novels have become art and literature all at once, for the time being, popular comics show no signs of dying either.

[1] Art Spiegelman and W. J. T. Mitchell, “Public Conversation: What the %$#! Happened to Comics,” Critical Inquiry 40(3) (2014): 21.

The Rise of the Graphic Novel by Alexander Dunst

About The Author

Alexander Dunst

Alexander Dunst teaches American Studies at Paderborn University. His research focuses on twentieth-century cultural history, the digital humanities, and contemporary US literature...

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