The Growth of the Graphic Novel Format in the U.S.

It’s the 10th anniversary for Vertigo, the comic imprint that finally brought some measured respectability for the field, so much that it’s covered this week in the New York Times business section. Those new graphic novel areas in Borders and all the comic-themed movies have finally awakened the big boys up to the idea that there might actually be some gold in them there funny books. Of course, a respectable publication like the Times can’t talk about comics in the same manner which they might talk about the business of, say, grown men dressing up in tight-fitting costumes with pads slamming into each other over a little sack of pig skin. Says theTimes:

Vertigo represents the graphic novel of ideas, if such a thing can exist: comics aimed at an older, broader audience.

Aside from that one clause, though, reporter Dana Jennings does a good job at actually reporting some of the salient facts, including:

  • “Graphic novels or comic books in book form are one of the few growing segments in a stagnant book business…they accounted for $100 million in retail sales in 2002, up 33 percent from 2001.” The United States is a little late to the bandwagon, which Karen Berger, head of Vertigo, talks about later in the article. Japan and Europe have long learned of the “found money” that can be had by bundling the more popular comics. I suspect that the reason for this is that the form has always been seen in the U.S. as disposable, as it began in newsprint. That’s also the reason for the collector’s market in pre-1960s comics and why the collector’s market for newer comics busted in the 1990s (collector’s like scarcity, and it’s hard for a 100,000 copy print run to be scarce if 95% of your buyers don’t throw away the product).
  • “As a result, placement in the stores is getting better.” I’ve been watching the Borders at the White Flint Mall as the graphic novel contagion started as one small section in the science fiction area and has now blossomed into nearly a third of what is reserved for the “fantastic” literature. Of course, this means a corresponding loss of shelf space for science fiction and fantasy (some of these authors have jumped over to the more respectable literature section).
  • “In a visual medium, Vertigo focuses on writers first. ‘We’ve raised the profile of the writer,” said Ms. Berger, who, if she were a comic book character, would be the smarter older sister of Betty from the “Archie” series. “It’s the stories that drive the books.'” (Hmm, I guess you could think that middle bit there a bit of faint praise–depending on what you think of the Archie books.) Of course, it was always the stories that drove the books, although I would modify that statement with the knowledge that many artists were as responsible for the stories as the writers (thinking of Jack Kirby, in particular, here). In the 1990s, the artists took most of the limelight, a reflection of the collector fever, people who bought a book, polybagged it and put it away, so all they cared about was the colorful art on the cover and not the text+vision inside.

As a story, it focuses as much on Karen Berger as the line she heads, but for most people the two are the same. I did appreciate the emphasis the story gave for Vertigo’s success because Berger “has become, of all things, an honest-to-goodness book editor. She nurtures writers. She nurtures a backlist (older works still in print), unheard of in the traditionally month-to-month world of comics.” I’m sorry to say the backlist is rapidly becoming unheard of in the hand-to-mouth world of book publishing as well.

[Finished 17 September 2003]

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