Graphic Novels Grow Up

Graphic novels have finally come of age. Only a few decades ago, comics (precursors to graphic novels) were maligned and censored, now graphic novels are popular among children and adults. Publishers Weekly reported that in 2018 the top selling graphic novels “are almost all aimed at kids or teens.” Leonard Marcus, author and historian, explains: “Graphic novels are the most exciting thing that has happened to illustrated books for young people in a generation.”  

To celebrate this renaissance, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts is displaying an exhibition titled, “Out of the Box: The Graphic Novel Comes of Age,” curated by Marcus and on view through May 26. The exhibit focuses on the theme of coming of age, a nice parallel for the art form, and features the work of ten graphic novel artists and writers: Vera Brosgol, Catia Chien, Geoffrey Hayes, Hope Larson, Jarrett Krosoczka, Matt Phelan, David Small, Raina Telgemeier, Sara Varon, and Gene Luen Yang. 

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Marcus, also author of Comics Confidential: Thirteen Graphic Novelists Talk Story, Craft, and Life Outside the Box, traces the modern birth of graphic novels to comic books from the 1930s—think Superman and Little Orphan Annie. Kids loved them but authority figures and decision makers did not. In fact, according to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, “in October 1954, publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and adopted a regulatory code” known as the Comics Code for comic book publishers to self-censor their work.  

However, children still enjoyed comics and as they grew up, continued to revel in their once-verboten comics, leading to the mainstreaming of the form. Marcus points to a sea-change in the 2000s when artists from the ‘80s and ‘90s launched and published their own zines which flourished, especially on the internet. At the same time, Japanese comics known as manga attracted new readers as they were translated into English. American publishers noticed the shift to the web and began looking for artists online, notably with Scholastic’s  Graphix  imprint, created in 2005. Other publishing houses quickly followed suit. Teachers and librarians recognized the appeal these works had for kids who were labeled non-readers and embraced graphic novels as a powerful tool for instruction—a far cry from the days when a kid caught with a comic in class would likely find his precious volume confiscated.   

For the exhibition, Marcus wanted to showcase that coming-of-age stories can be humorous or serious and that styles can range from traditional pen and ink to intricate watercolors. In short, the medium can be whatever the artist wants to make of it.  

Marcus explains that the popularity of graphic novels fights against “the old notion that people outgrow illustrated books by the time they are seven and eight. Beyond that, it’s like putting short pants away and becoming an adult from a reader perspective.” 

“But,” Marcus observes, “it turns out everyone loves comics.”

Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, Deadspin, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem.