Drawing Power

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

NEW YORK -- I've wandered into an alternative universe, and I'm trying to decide if I want to stay. The setting is the lovely, old-fashioned library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, in midtown Manhattan. The event is a gathering called "SPLAT! A Graphic Novel Symposium." I'm here because the organizers have promised to lay out, in the course of a single day, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Graphic Novels."

What I want to know is: How did this formerly ghettoized medium became one of the rare publishing categories that's actually expanding these days?

"SPLAT!" seems a perfect place to start looking for answers.

Sponsored by the New York Center for Independent Publishing, it's crammed with influential cartoonists, editors, agents, librarians, marketing types and booksellers. There will be talk of literary comics, autobiographical comics, Web comics, kids' comics, comics in libraries, comics in schools and much, much more. By day's end, my head will be buzzing with new knowledge on subjects ranging from the distribution revolution that helped make the graphic novel boom possible to the Manga Invasion from Japan.

Above all, "SPLAT!" is filled with enthusiastic voices.

What is a graphic novel?

"It's a perfect synthesis of artwork and literature!"

When will graphic novels come into their own?

"We seem to be in a golden age of comics publishing right now!"

And yet . . .

To a lifelong Prose Guy, whose idea of a good time involves a comfortable couch and a book full of nothing but words, the graphic novel galaxy can still feel far, far away.

Yes, I know comics can be ambitious and aimed at adults. Art Spiegelman's "Maus" made this indisputable two decades ago, and there has been plenty of impressive work done since. But I can't help wondering, even as I begin to explore the rise of what's sometimes called "sequential art," if I can ever overcome my personal bias toward prose.

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