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A genre grows up

June 26, 2005|Laurel Maury

Critics have taken a long time to notice comics. But comics haven't always taken themselves seriously, either. A staffer at the New York Review of Books reports that publishers of art house comics began sending the publication review copies in earnest only two years ago, more than a decade after Art Spiegelman won a special Pulitzer citation for his graphic novel "Maus."

At the recent book industry confab in New York known as BookExpo America, the graphic novel panel had a standing-room-only crowd to hear from the likes of Harvey Pekar, who brought kindly realism to comics with "American Splendor"; Frank Miller, author of the graphic novel series "Sin City" (made into the recently released movie) as well as the popular graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns"; Adrian Tomine, author of the indie classic "Optic Nerve"; Brad Meltzer of the anxiety-ridden superhero comic series "Identity Crisis"; and noted book designer Chip Kidd.

The biggest surprise may have been a dinner at a Manhattan restaurant hosted by industry giant DC Comics after the panel. It was a cultured, civilized affair where the players were at once gossipy and passionate about their craft. There was no air of self-congratulation. It was the sort of intimate, chatty gathering of talent one expects in literary New York but that has been rare since George Plimpton died. "Classy, classy," murmured Calvin Reid, comics editor of Publishers Weekly. "I can remember when DC would meet in an Irish pub." Those in attendance included Miller, Pekar and Meltzer as well as Kyle Baker of the superhero comic book series "Plastic Man," Dave Itzkoff, an editor at Spin, and Jessa Crispin of the blog Bookslut.

Pekar, whose graphic novel "The Quitter" will be published by DC Comics this fall, talked about his literary influences: the author Henry Miller and George Ade, a newspaperman of the late 19th century whom Pekar described as one of the great transcribers of American life.

Baker and Reid huddled over Baker's upcoming, self-published series on the Nat Turner slave rebellion and discussed the visual effect of the different images. (Even major comic artists view self-publishing as respectable.) Baker's drawings of slaves are striking -- worthy of a critic's attention.

Discussion centered around the plots of stories. Meltzer said his inspiration for "Identity Crisis" was his realization, after Sept. 11, that police and firemen take life-and-death risks every time they put on their uniforms.

Miller explained his views on comic drama: "What 'Sin City' is is stylizing reality, stylizing sex, stylizing violence.... I drag my audience along because I am impatient with reality." He mused: "When I see how my comic books tribe is affecting the rest of the world, I feel inspired."

Comics have influenced American thinking since "The Yellow Kid" championed the anarchy of street life in immigrant America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If it is the job of criticism to trace and understand culture, critics are behind the times. *

-- Laurel Maury

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