From ‘Pow!!!’ to ‘Maus,’ Wonder Woman to W.W. III, the graphic novel’s evolution is still being written

By Casey Samulski

Will Eisner slapped the phrase “A Graphic Novel” on the hardcover and trade paperback editions of his “A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories.” It was not a work of superheroes and fantasy, rather a story of immigrant life in the Bronx set in the 1930s.

When Art Spiegelman finished serializing his story “Maus,” the tale of his father surviving the Nazi occupation, and went on to publish it in two volumes, he met massive critical success, eventually garnering a Pulitzer in 1991. The world of the graphic novel would never be the same.

Kevin Colden, a graphic novelist who lives on Delancey St., remembers reading “Maus” in his adolescence. It was the first moment he realized he could create in comic format the stories he aspired to do.

“O.K., this is real stuff,” he recalled thinking.

“Maus” was the game-changer as much for its prominence as for anything else, something Colden called “required reading” for anyone interested in the medium.

But comics had been working toward more serious narrative content since much earlier. Colden pointed to Bernard Krigstein, who published “Master Race” in March of 1955 for EC Comics, a story of a Nazi concentration camp commandant hiding in New York and his eventual discovery.

A page from Seth Tobocman’s new comic book “Disaster and Resistance,” which includes sections on 9/11, New Orleans, Israel and the “New Sixties” protest scene of 2000, above.

“The potential has always been there to utilize the medium seriously,” said Colden, noting that Japanese manga had not shied away from dark or adult-oriented material. He said comics were perceived as a children’s medium more because of “the cheap production methods,” the pulpy paper and the 22-page format that ingrained a minimum level of action for any narrative taking place. But he noted that “even in the ’60s, Marvel was exploring pathos,” and for all the senseless violence, the quiet moments could be “almost Shakespearian.”

What then makes something a graphic novel?

Miss Lasko-Gross, Colden’s wife and also an artist herself, said the graphic novel’s nomenclature has more to do with human psychology than true differences between it and comic books. She explained that if one says he or she is a comic-book artist, people “immediately go to a tights-and-benevolent facism place.”

Graphic novels, on the other hand, have taken on a pastiche of the serious or literary, sequential art used to address far more than the exploits and nuance of Batman’s anti-heroism or Ironman’s latest villain.

It’s not that the worlds of DC and Marvel cannot address serious subject matter in their genre-oriented nature.

Rather, it’s what Lasko-Gross calls the “rigidity” of their franchise structure.

“You can’t take anything too far because there’s continuity issues.”

Veteran fans expect prominent characters to remain within certain behavioral norms, and while there is always some nuance to this, the confines can be too limited, too “surface-level” to achieve an author’s aims.

Books like “Maus” have succeeded precisely because they were not trapped within Captain America’s fictionalized bouts with the Nazis. Rather, “Maus” is just the simple, true story of a Holocaust survivor told honestly.

With a comic book having a 22-page format, Lasko-Gross said the average audience for Marvel or DC “will get impatient without a certain amount of action.” Toppling this limitation through bound, collected volumes, “graphic novels,” allows for more narrative leeway.

In a way, it’s changes like these that made Colden’s and Lasko-Gross’s works possible. Colden’s tale of a brutal Philadelphia murder, “Fishtown,” is dark, brooding and intense, something that echoes Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” in its bleak imagery and foreboding structure.

Lasko-Gross’s autobiographical work “Escape From Special,” which illuminates her childhood through the dreamy, sometimes sudden language of early memory, would have been treated as an aberration in an earlier era. Instead, it has been her most successful work, with her follow-up, “A Mess of Everything,” slated for release in February 2009.

These works are a long way from the medium’s capes-and-tights origins, an evolution fueled by the perception that while comic books may be forever relegated to young readers, graphic novels, as the moniker implies, are “serious literature.”

That’s not to say that shorter or serialized work is incapable of playing to an adult audience. “Maus” started off serialized in Spiegelman’s own publication, RAW magazine, an underground comic he started up in 1980.

Seth Tobocman, an East Village artist, along with Peter Kuper, another Manhattan resident, started up World War III Illustrated the same year as Spiegelman. Other than RAW and his own collection, Tobocman could think of only two others doing adult-oriented comic work in the U.S.

WWIII Illustrated is a collection of political comics aimed at addressing the current events in the city and around the world. From the 1988 Tompkins Square riots to the Iran-Contra affair and 9/11 to the Bosnian genocide, World War III takes an unflinching look at the world’s political state and offers serious commentary on it all.

“We wanted to return to political subject material,” said Tobocman of their modest beginnings.

Tobocman explained that it was precisely this bent that made marketing World War III so tricky.

“We were never involved in the comic-book audience,” Tobocman said, explaining that it was record stores, anarchist bookshops and the like that made WWIII Illustrated possible. This was the price of being at the forefront — the market was not yet obvious for the kind of material these artists wanted to produce.

Kuper, the collection’s co-founder, had known Tobocman since first grade. After winding up at Pratt together, the two found themselves in an unfortunate period of history for their chosen medium.

“The underground scene had folded up by about 1977,” said Kuper. A space for their ideas thus seemed lost. Self-publishing became the only viable route. Kuper explained that with Reagan’s looming presidency, “World War III seemed appropriate.”

Kuper said the idea wasn’t just to have a vanity press for themselves, but rather a place to collect all of the street art they were seeing in the East Village and Lower East Side, art that was “disappearing with the first rain.” Street art, graffiti, stencils, these were all serious influences for the contributors.

WWIII today continues to release issues, even after “adult comics” have become an accepted reality, because there is still, as Kuper put it, a need for an “uncensored publication to respond to whatever is going on.”

Until recently, Kuper said it was only those who were “compelled beyond all reason” who could do serious comics, because there was so little money and respect in it. When WWIII started, only people with “no choice in the matter” would invest themselves, Kuper said.

“What’s now changing is that you’re getting people who can walk in and get their first graphic novel published by a mainstream publisher,” he said.

Having his last three books released by Random House, Kuper is an example of a comic artist who kept on even through the leaner times of the ’80s to the relative prosperity of the new millennium.

Eric Drooker, another WWIII contributor and former East Villager, thought that there was still some way to go in really making a living off of graphic novels.

“It’s like the visual art world, you hear about the famous artists who are successful and making a living,” he said.

He said success stories like Spiegelman’s “Maus” or Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” are few and far between compared to the amount of work being produced.

And while breakout hits like these did raise awareness of the artform, Lasko-Gross said these are always treated like “isolated incidents,” taken from bookstores’ graphic novel sections and put on the shelves with literature or nonfiction, as if to immunize them from the medium to which they belong.

Kyle Baker, another East Village comic-book artist, sidestepped many of the more severe economic quandaries of his peers by working for Marvel, DC, Hollywood and TV, appreciating the better pay in return for sacrificing control. It’s a compromise he doesn’t seem to regret, though he concluded that self-published work was a much more viable option now with the advent of the Internet.

Baker’s most recent graphic novel, “Nat Turner,” is an illustrated version of Turner’s confessed account of his rebellion against his slave masters. Interspersed with excerpts from Turner’s eloquent diction, the story grows from a kidnaping scene in Africa up to the final, bloody confrontation that leads to his recapture.

Baker first self-published the work before garnering so much success that a publisher picked it up for reprinting. It’s a kind of success he’s achieved by consciously avoiding the comic-book shops.

“If you’re hanging out there,” Baker said, “you’re only interested in Batman and Spider-Man” — in other words, the wrong audience for the account of a 19th-century slave rebellion.

However, he said even DC and Marvel have shifted away from the age group on which they once thrived. Baker said the focus has moved to the “nostalgia market,” those who grew up reading Batman and Spider-Man, now in middle age. Selling nostalgia, collectability is the new moneymaker for comics now.

“That’s because it’s easier to sell a grown-up a $40 book,” Baker offered.

He went on to note that the risk in selling a few thousand, high-priced collections compared to a hundred thousand single issues really had taken the emphasis away from children or new readers.

“For them, it’s all about milking Super-Man and Wonder Woman,” the artist said.

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that someone could compete with Marvel and DC, I would have said, no way,” Baker said. But now, with the children’s market waning, he thought the giants had lost touch or lost interest in the younger market. Now, as Baker said, “There’s no competition.”

Baker’s philosophy is that scarcity breeds success.

“Something like WWIII,” he said, “there’s not a lot of places you can go to see something like that,” a quality that has kept up the work’s vitality. At a suggestion that Baker return to the more mainstream outlet, he seemed disinclined.

“I did a couple more books with DC, but they’ve just… . The market is really changing, sometimes those big companies just move a little too slow.”