Despite its current popularity, the graphic novel has been around for centuries. Basically, the term "graphic novel" is just a fancy name for a long narrative, whether fictional or factual, illustrated with drawings and/or paintings and text. Medieval scribes created minutely detailed illuminated manuscripts that told tales from both Old and New Testaments. Pre-Columbian Aztecs produced bark paper codices with both pictures and text tracing their tribal history and social customs. Well before late-20th-century manga hit the comic book scene, the Japanese were using ink-painted images with text on scrolls back in the 12th century. William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1735), a portfolio of printed engravings based on paintings that feature the moral fall of a young man into the abyss of drink, prostitution and gambling, ending with his incarceration in an insane asylum, could be considered an early graphic novel.

According to Stan Tychinski in A Brief History of the Graphic Novel, the title of the first modern graphic novel might be awarded to a book containing The Yellow Kid comic strips, put out by the Hearst newspaper syndicate in 1897. In the United States, the 1920s and '30s saw the rise of cheap, but lavishly illustrated, pulp paperbacks based on war stories, Westerns, and science fiction. In 1933, M.C. Gaines created his own comic book, New Funnies, a compilation of daily newspaper comic strips. Later that year, Detective Dan, the first completely original comic book, was published by Humor Publications.

One of artist Joyce Farmer's favorite
pages from Special Exits, a graphic novel 13 years in the making, about the decline and deaths of her parents.
Kathleen Vanesian
One of artist Joyce Farmer's favorite pages from Special Exits, a graphic novel 13 years in the making, about the decline and deaths of her parents.
Tits & Clits
Kathleen Vanesian
Tits & Clits

Location Info

Map

Changing Hands Bookstore

6428 S. McClintock Drive
Tempe, AZ 85283

Category: Retail

Region: Tempe

Details

Joyce Farmer will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 22, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe to sign her book and participate in a Q&A led by local artist Jon Haddock, co-founder of the Comic Book Creators Support Group. Visit changinghands.com.

In the late '30s and '40s, the public was introduced to its first superhero comics, while the late 1940s and '50s would usher in the era of crime and horror comics, as well as luridly graphic romance potboilers. Underground comics came to the fore in the mid-1960s, reaching an apex in the '70s; they capitalized on sex, youth culture, drugs, and violence, together with contentious social and political issues that had divided the country, including civil rights and the Vietnam War,

The 1980s seemed to be the time when eminently serious subject matter became fodder for graphic novels. Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986, 1991), the story of Spiegelman's father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, is a classic graphic novel of great import, both historically and personally. Lately, graphic novels have taken on a number of equally heavy biographical subjects. For example, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, deals head on with a father's homosexuality, pedophilia, and suicide and a daughter's coming of age as a lesbian. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, is a gripping memoir of a girl's youth in Iran during the Iranian Revolution, while The Ride Together, by siblings Paul and Judy Karasik, grapples with the lasting effect of severe autism on a family. And in a major turnabout, Robert Crumb's recent Book of Genesis includes elaborate illustrations to accompany every word of the first book of the Bible.

Joyce Farmer's Special Exits, which documents her personal experiences with the ravages of aging, debilitation, dying, and death, as well as relationship dynamics and family history, carries on in this vein. Though Joyce expected her target audience to be 45 and older, she was surprised to find out the book already has a following in the 19- to 25-year-old range.

"It turns out the target audience is more 20-somethings [who] are very interested in their grandparents, and even their parents, and the problems their parents have to face," she says.

Maybe the rise in popularity of graphic novels in the past few decades is the inevitable result of technological advances that have pushed people into getting overwhelming amounts of information in small, manageable chunks, which is reflected in the very format of comics and graphic novels. In addition, the Internet age has unquestionably fostered an expectation of and demand for flashy visuals with text.

Whatever the reasons, Gayle Shanks, co-founder of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, says the form has really taken hold. "In and of itself, the graphic novel has now become a genre that many authors are writing in and nothing else," she notes. "You have authors who are experimenting with this new model . . . and they're starting a following.

"I think the thing that's most exciting for me and for us at the store is that the graphic novels are attracting a younger audience — that audience that might be reading on electronic devices rather than from real books. [They're discovering] it's much more fun to hold that book in your hand and look at those pictures in real life than it is on the computer."

And, she adds, "Teachers are using them as a way of getting reluctant readers to read. And that's been the case with comic books. I remember learning that if you can get kids to read comic books, you might get them to read a novel."

Krysten Schoville, the young ASU student in charge of the graphic novel section at Shanks' bookstore, adds that the art in a good graphic novel is just plain mesmerizing: "These authors are not only telling you a personal story, but they display their art so vividly that you become involved with their ideas and emotions, not just what you're imagining when you're reading a 'regular' novel."

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9 comments
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helentroy4
helentroy4

It is such a pleasure to come to the New Times website and see Ms. Farmer on the home page. She has such lovely skin with an almost luminescent glow. Thank you for writing this article. I was not familiar with her work.

As for the naysayers who say that kids these days are uninterested in this genre, and are naive ignorant sad sacks when it comes to these kinds of publications, I think that you are woefully ignorant of the popularity of what are now called graphic novels which are this generation's underground comics.

Movermoves
Movermoves

can't understand why there would be an art critic in phoenix. there isn't any art here.

Crazed Country Acid Head
Crazed Country Acid Head

todays yuppies could care less about underground comix. those days are gone with the 60s and 70s hippie generation. the punks today dont even know what underground anything is. they are all ignorant naive mental sad sacks.

The Snoid
The Snoid

I have a collection of about 400 old underground comix from the 60s and 70s from all different writers and artists.

Self Help Guru
Self Help Guru

there is no culture here either or blues music culture. phoenix is just a very unsophisticated boring dusty sandy desert in the middle of nowhere looking for a city. but i love the sunshine, blue sky's and hot dry desert heat so i put up with this boring burg even though there is nothing to do here but ride motorcycles, swim and get skin cancer.

 
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