A Look at Graphic Novels
Resident comics expert Julian Chambliss, associate professor of history, discusses the five graphic novels that changed the industry.
A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978)
Will Eisner was an ardent champion of the comic form, arguing that comics were a “sequential art.” Driven by his desire to demonstrate that artistry, he spent two years creating A Contract with God, which is often cited as the first modern graphic novel. That label is contested, but this work, which uses Eisner’s 1930s Bronx tenement upbringing as an inspiration, brought added emphasis to the biographical and avant-garde material emerging from independent comics publishers in the 1970s. The four stories that comprise the book—“A Contract with God,” “The Street Singer,” “The Super,” and “Cookalein”—illustrate immigrant life during the Great Depression. This collection is part of a trilogy that includes A Life Force (1988) and Dropsie Avenue (1995), yet unquestionably, Contract is the book that introduced the uninitiated reading public to the emotional impact graphic novels could achieve.
Maus (1986, 1991)
The first comic to receive a Pulitzer Prize for letters, Maus is one of the most celebrated graphic novels in modern memory. Published between 1980 and 1986 as a serial in the underground comic magazine Raw, the first volume was collected in Maus I: My Father Bleeds History in 1986. The second volume, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, was published in 1991. Based on interviews with his father about his Holocaust experience, Maus employs anthropomorphism depicting distinct nationalities as different animals—Jews as mice and Germans as cats. It also complicates the storyline by blending an autobiographical examination of Spiegelman’s paternal relationship with a narrative focus on his family’s Holocaust experience. The result is an emotionally engaging and artistically challenging work.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Designated by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best English language novels published since 1923, Watchmen marked a fundamental transformation of superhero comics in the United States. Set in an alternative universe where the U.S. was victorious in Vietnam, Richard Nixon is still president, and the United States is close to nuclear war, Watchmen hinges on a murder mystery. Although lauded as one of the greatest superhero stories, Watchmen features characters devoid of superpowers (with the exception of Dr. Manhattan). Instead, readers are introduced to individuals struggling with the personal and societal consequences of vigilantism. Recurring visual elements, supplemental prose sections in each issue, and a separate story about comics within the story all serve to highlight how the medium functions.
One of the first Japanese graphic novels available in its original entirety in the United States, Akira introduced American readers to the depth and complexity of manga, a term referring to Japanese comics. Like U.S. comics, Akira features an adolescent protagonist with superpowers, Tetsuo Shima; however, Akira demonstrates the dynamic style, complex characterization, abundant subplots, thematic depth, and a Japanese postwar worldview that is intrinsic to manga. While numerous manga titles with greater sales exist (Astro Boy and Fist of the North Star have both sold more than 100 million copies), Akira stands out for its transformative impact on the perception of manga in the United States and around the world. It is credited with generating an anime craze in the 1990s that fundamentally altered the global pop culture landscape.
Cerebus was the longest-running independently produced comic book in history. The story of an amoral, 3-foot-tall barbarian aardvark, Cerebus began as a parody of Conan the Barbarian inspired, in part, by Howard the Duck. Lauded for its engaging storytelling, humor, and characterization, Sim’s work has been recognized by every major industry award. Experimentation in form, style, and content make Cerebus noteworthy; however, it is the comic’s self-published and self-financed status—combined with Sim’s vocal assertion of artistic control—that has arguably had the biggest impact. Indeed, Sim inspired the Creator’s Bill of Rights, a professional manifesto that outlined expectations toward intellectual property for comic creators; and writers as diverse as Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) allude to Sim as a creative and professional influence.