Thursday, February 23, 2006

Comment: What's A Bookseller To Do With Graphic Lit?

Apparently it's official: graphic novels are literature. Or at least literary. Or at least culturally important enough that official people will review them as books. Or at least book publishers are publishing them (and a lot more of them than before). The New York Times (the paper of record, and thus the last place to know what's going on -- since they have to wait until it's an official trend before writing about the trend) reviews graphic novels in its book pages, and in this article (archived, sorry) note that comics are the fastest-growing segment of the publishing industry. The NYT Magazine now has a "funnies" section (I'm told). Time Magazine has a surprisingly insightful article on the development and current state of the format. And these are just the big guys and the most recent pieces. If you're a book person, you've probably read hundreds of pages of commentary, discussion, and argument about comics/graphic novels/sequential art. And the debate over the name is only the beginning.

I myself am probably pretty representative of the new demographic of readers of comics. I never really picked up the things when I was a kid (aside from the occasional Disney comics given to me by my folks). It wasn't until a few years ago, when I threw in my lot with a genuine comic geek, that I started to give the genre a little cred. The ALP is an omnivorous reader and has a massive comic collection, which I started to raid early on. By the time I jumped in, there were enough books with serious literary chops (MAUS, PERSEPOLIS, etc.) that there was plenty of highly respectable material to read. But I got into the superhero stuff too. While I couldn't find my way into the more complicated series (the Avengers? X-Men? Way too much backstory), I picked up on some new series like RUNAWAYS and EX-MACHINA (a supercool one about an everyman with superpowers who becomes mayor of New York) and FABLES (a brilliant, intense series about exiled storybook characters living in the human world), and I devoloped my own obscure little loves (Green Arrow, especially the second generation -- Connor the Zen monk as bow-wielding stoic bad-ass with father issues has some weird appeal for me).

Actually, the ALP is sometimes disapppointed in the pop culture nature of my comics taste -- with so many high-lit comics out there, I spend an awful lot of time on the fantasy stuff. But for me it's like discovering a new mythology -- archetypes that can be told a thousand different ways, Joseph Campbell style -- and the best of it feeds into my love of well-done genre fiction. I like the highbrow stuff too -- there's an artist named Farel Dalrymple whose collection POP GUN WAR I think is one of the most original and strange and beautiful books I've come across in years, and I've poked through my share of Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman. I have a great respect for and enjoyment of Will Eisner, widely agreed upon as the founder of the genre, but more as a pioneer than as an artist -- while his working-class sensibility and deeply felt moral quandries are wonderful, he can be a bit over the top. As with most genres, I can describe a lot more than I've actually read -- that's my job as a bookseller. But the point is, there's a wealth of stuff out there to be described, to be recommended and enjoyed and pondered and discussed.

In my opinion, the question for bookseller when considering carrying graphic novels is not if but how. At the store where I now work, we have graphic novels mixed in with literature. Some of them may justify that category -- Tezuka's massively ambitious 8-volume comic book fictionalization of the life of the Buddha probably has a better claim to being literature than, say, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. But I can't tell you the number of times a customer has come in and asked where we have the graphic novels, and I have to gesture towards the whole section and wish him (or her) luck. And not all "graphic novels" are novels, of course -- some are short stories, biography, memoir even journalism. The TIME article outlines the dilemma:

Trade bookstores have become an increasingly important outlet for comic publishers so the strategy for selling them on the floor has become critical. Should Superman, manga and "Maus," sit side by side? Chip Kidd, among many others, can't stand this. "I truly believe that Spiegelman's 'Maus' should be shelved next to Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, not next to the X-Men. Maus is a Holocaust memoir first and a comicbook second." Micha Hershman, the graphic novel buyer for the Borders bookstore chain has no such doubts. "The graphic novel is a format," he says. "We would not segment the category by splitting up the graphic novel section." According to Hershman, Borders' research shows the "demographics for 'Maus' overlap with the ones for Spider-Man," so that it is theoretically easier to lure the reader of one to the other than it is to lure a reader of Elie Wiesel to "Maus."

While I hate to agree with Borders over Chip Kidd, I think Hershman has a point. Graphic novel readers seem to be a specific type, like readers of mystery or biography. Their tastes within the genre tend to be fairly catholic. In thinking about how to organize my bookstore (oh heavenly complicated subject, one that can make for many more postings), I've determined I will have to have a separate section, where Spiegelman rubs shoulders with the comic book journalism of Joe Sacco and the superhero antics of Brian K. Vaughn. These books have earned the right to be sold in literary bookstores, and their unique status and readership demands a section all their own.

As for the name of the section? "GRAPHIC LITERATURE" (or maybe even just GRAPHIC LIT). Let 'em think it's the adult section if they want to. The comic book geeks like me, and those just coming into the fold, will know where to go.