Beyond funny: black voices in the world of comics and graphic novels.

Author:Fleming, Robert

Welcome to the new world of the funnies. Comics, anime/manga and graphic novels--the last cultural frontier. Yes, when it comes to comics, everything old is new again.

Graphic novels and comics in general are on the upswing in terms of sales and literary respect. The novels, which include the vastly popular Japanese illustrated tales known as manga, have been enjoying a jump in sales, with performance going from $75 million in 2001 to $207 million in 2004, according to current industry figures from Publishers Weekly. Internationally, booksellers in much of the industrialized world have seen graphic lit become one of the rapidly growing categories in books. At Borders Books & Music, one of America's strongest bookselling chains, graphic novel sales have leapt more than 100 percent a year for the past three years.

Comics have an endearing history. In 1905, Winsor McCay created Little Nemo in Slumberland; 1913 witnessed the arrival of George Herriman's Krazy Kat; and in the 1950s. Charles M. Schulz introduced Peanuts. In the 1960s, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee developed some of the most cherished superheroes to enter mainstream American culture, including the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men.

New Format, New Themes

Now a new and improved comic literature has come out of the specialized shops and into the major bookstores and libraries. The topics and themes of these graphic novels are more provocative, edgier and much more mature than those in earlier comics. Even Hollywood has taken notice of this trend and captured a younger, more sophisticated audience, as its dream factories have made movies out of several graphic novels, including Daniel Clowes's Ghost World, Max Allan Collins's The Road to Perdition, Frank Miller's Sin City, and Man Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta.

One award-winning comic artist and graphic novelist, Ho Che Anderson, a black Brit named after the Vietnamese and Cuban revolutionaries Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, knows the inner workings of several major mediums, for he has been a novelist, radio producer, newspaper reporter and commercial illustrator.

Asked about the difference between a graphic novel and a comic, Anderson, the creator of the King and Pop Life series, says: "Comics are what sell on newsstands. Graphic novels are what sell in bookstores. They're fancier versions of the same thing. Comics are generally six-by-ten-inch pamphlets doled out on a monthly basis that are chunks of larger, complete stories.... Graphic novels are glossier publications that collect and complete those ongoing narratives or are self-contained stories created for the format itself. They can run anywhere from forty-eight pages to three hundred pages (or more), depending on the story. The basic idea behind them is that you get a complete story in one book, rather than the serial nature of most comics."

The concept of the graphic novel was brought to the fore by Will Eisner, who popularized the format of a serialized...

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