Graphic Novels Entering the Literary Main Stream

IT'S THE MORNING of the day when Adrian Tomine will become the first graphic novelist to give a reading in the 30-year history of Toronto's Harbourfront Reading Series. The Berkeley, Calif., cartoonist is cognizant of the honour, but he's a little worried about putting on a good show.

Graphic Novels Entering the Literary Main Stream

IT'S THE MORNING of the day when Adrian Tomine will become the first graphic novelist to give a reading in the 30-year history of Toronto's Harbourfront Reading Series. The Berkeley, Calif., cartoonist is cognizant of the honour, but he's a little worried about putting on a good show. "I've always said no to readings before," he admits. "I've seen cartoonists try, and it always turns out like children's hour at the library. You hold a blown-up panel and say 'Here, the man is walking down the street; now he says this, and then she says that.' " But Tomine has accepted this invitation because he believes his medium is at a tipping point. A number of factors have coalesced to make book-length comics for grown-ups the hottest new thing on the North American literary scene. Right now, that is. If graphic novels are going to maintain this new-found respectability - and the promise of making a decent living that it holds out for artists - the genre's stars will have to do their part to keep it in the public eye.

Half those stars are Canadians, estimates Chris Oliveros, owner of Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly, which publishes most of them. One of two continental comics powerhouses, his firm is also home to Tomine; almost everyone who isn't with D&Q publishes with Seattle-based Fantagraphics. Oliveros and D&Q-published Canadians like Seth (born Gregory Gallant) and Chester Brown, two of the biggest names in the business, share Tomine's belief. And his caution. Graphic novels have had other moments in the sun before slipping back into cult status.

In the 1960s, underground comics artists like R. Crumb inspired a brief spike in popularity that died with the counterculture. Nearly two decades ago, Art Spiegelman's Maus, a brilliant, book-length treatment of the Holocaust, with the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, looked like the breakthrough book. Praised by literary critics and sold in bookstores as well as comic shops, Maus turned out to be a one-off event. There was "nothing to follow it" in content or artistic achievement, according to Oliveros. And that, he suggests, is the key difference between past and present - a critical mass of aesthetically pleasing, intellectually engaging material now filling the pipeline.

The new groundbreaking work, says Oliveros, was Brown's Louis Riel (2003). "That let bookstores know they could have a comics section and sell to an older readership. Then the snowball kept rolling with Seth's Clyde Fans Book 1 and Bannock, Beans and Black Tea. If Riel had stood alone, we'd be in the same boat as after Maus." And those works are appearing in a culture open to them. The line between childhood and adulthood, once so solid that crossing it meant abandoning childish form as well as content, has been blurring for some time. As long as they are mature in execution and theme, and packaged with D&Q's lavish production values, graphic novels are no longer dismissed simply because they are comics. Equally important, as Seth notes, is that "our culture is extremely visual right now," especially the generation attuned to the Internet's stream of images, "and readers come to us already sophisticated."

The artists themselves are pleased to think the world is finally catching up with them, at least in terms of being image-conscious. Like the many prose writers who cannot remember a time when they weren't scribbling, the cartoonists have been drawing since they became fixated on superhero comics as kids. "I loved every kind of comic - I got into this because I thought drawing was fun," says 44-year-old Brown. "I still do, sometimes," he adds with a laugh, alluding to the hard slog of inking 241, six-panel Louis Riel pages. "Yeah, I grew up wanting to draw Spider-Man or whatever," says Seth, 42. "But then, after long training and finally being capable of doing it, I found I'd lost interest in the subject matter." (That would have been around the same time, age 20 or so, that he started calling himself Seth - "just a pretentious art name for an '80s punk, though the Biblical and Egyptian references also appealed to me.")

Brown underwent the same disappointing epiphany about the same time, and the two artists responded in a similar fashion. They didn't abandon comics, but began crafting small series while keeping their day jobs to pay the bills. None of their work was aimed at mainstream audiences - Brown's Yummy Fur was a violent '80s farce about pygmies, zombies and Ronald Reagan. But Brown approached one project with scholarly seriousness. My Mom Was a Schizophrenic, a six-page 1995 strip drawn from his own family history, took a lot of research. "I thought, I want to do this again, take a complicated subject and boil it down. Since comics work best with a narrative, I looked about for an historical subject and then I read Maggie Siggins' Riel biography."

The result, after five years of effort, is extraordinary. Brown makes no bones about whose side he's on (the dispossessed Metis'), but he leaves the eternal questions about Riel himself - madman or visionary, traitor or patriot - to readers' judgment. The illustration is two-toned (black on cream-coloured paper) and coolly realistic, with some pardonable exaggerations, like Sir John A. Macdonald's vast cucumber of a nose. Brown consciously modelled the art on Harold Gray's blank-eyed Little Orphan Annie, but it's also strongly reminiscent of Tintin creator Hergé. The spare dialogue is a weakness to some critics. (Unsurprisingly, writing in graphic novels - the work of primarily visual artists - generally comes in for more criticism than the illustration.) But here the words work flawlessly with the muted atmospherics and minimalist settings. It's no surprise to hear Brown say that what holds him to cartooning is its "silence and stillness." The U.S.-based book trade journal Publishers Weekly, despite knowing so little about the subject as to call the Metis leader "a fictional Canadian revolutionary," declared Riel "a strong contender for the best graphic novel ever."

Clyde Fans, published in April, has to be another one. There is far more overt irony in Seth's work, from the colours - shades of blue and black on cream - to the seemingly banal subject matter. The artist used to walk by a Toronto storefront office of the same name, gazing in at portraits of two men he took to be the owners. In Seth's version they're brothers; Abraham, the elder, is featured in the first half of the book, set in 1997. That means 78 pages of an old man puttering around his home and electric-fan shop, reminiscing about his life, times and family. The second part sends brother Simon on an excruciatingly embarrassing 1957 sales trip.

Put like that the book sounds horrible. Instead, it's astonishingly seductive. The superbly drawn details of Abraham's life are hypnotic: everything from the buildings to his home furnishings is from the 1940s and '50s, making his wall calendar, stuck on 1978, seem weirdly futuristic. The book slowly becomes a meditation on nostalgia - clearly a central theme for Seth, who dresses like a Guys and Dolls extra - and anomie. Late in life, Abraham is conscious, as Simon was even in 1957, of having failed to leave a mark on the world, or to have found a place in it. Despite conveying its meaning as much by pictures, including many silent panels, as by words, the overall effect of this unsettling and thought-provoking book is literary.

Oliveros is right, then, about the quality of work on offer. So will graphic novels take a permanent place beside other literary genres in North America, as they always have in Europe and Japan? Most signs are positive. Media attention is constant and sales are good; Louis Riel is in its third printing. The success of veterans like Seth and Brown, and of D&Q itself, has inspired younger artists. Tomine, 30, says he "always had a kind of fantasy about writing for D&Q," which was founded when he was 15. And Tomine, whose subtle drawings of contemporary urban angst brought a lineup of fans to his Toronto reading, is a role model for even younger artists. For the past 18 months, notes Oliveros, he's been able to get his better works into bookstores, even if some shops stick them in the sci-fi section. If graphic novels are still there in two years, when Clyde Fans Book 2 is expected, it may mean that their time has finally come.

See also Comic Books in English Canada.

Maclean's October 11, 2004