The State of the Graphic Novel

A conversation with writer Robert Kirkman on the resurgence and future of comics


Image Comics

The past decade has seen a remarkable reintroduction of the comic book into popular culture. The X-Men, Iron Man, Spider-man, Batman, and Superman have garnered millions of dollars at the box office, and planned blockbusters like Green Lantern and Thor are on the horizon.

But while Americans have flocked to theaters to catch these comic classics, they've also been introduced to an unfamiliar cast of characters, most without moral compasses or spandex. Films like Watchmen, Persepolis, From Hell, A History of Violence, and Sin City all had their origins in "graphic novels," a middle ground between the conventional comic book and the full-on novel. Comics, it turns out, were never just for kids.

So with the more sophisticated tone and darker themes of the graphic novel gaining increasing traction with mainstream American audiences, what can we expect from the genre? I spoke with Robert Kirkman, partner at Image Comics and creator of the popular series The Walking Dead, an adaptation of which will air on AMC this fall.

If I were to ask a stranger for the definition of a graphic novel, they'd probably tell me that it's simply a comic book. Is there a clear distinction between the graphic novel and the conventional comic book?

I'm of the mind that comic book and graphic novel are interchangeable terms for the same thing these days. A graphic novel is a comic book which was simply intended to be read as one book and published as such. That definition would actually knock renowned graphic novels like Watchmen out of the running, since Watchmen began as a serialized monthly book that was eventually collected into a bound novel. Some people do "original graphic novels" that are one complete book. There are purists who say that Watchmen isn't an original graphic novel.

But yes, the term graphic novel is something that has risen in the public psyche as a better definition of a longer bundle of comic books. "Comic books" as we know them were originally based on comic strips from newspapers collected into books. But the graphic novel in the public mind is something a little different. We're doing novel-like stories that continue, a lot of books like "Wanted," a story with a beginning middle and end. I think. But then again, my book, The Walking Dead, is a monthly comic book series. This whole "trekkie/trekker" term is sort of senseless. I have friends who get annoyed when "The Walking Dead" is referred to as a graphic novel.

But apart from format, isn't there a thematic distinction between comic books and graphic novels? I know noteworthy graphic novels like Maus, Persepolis, and Black Hole by Charles Burns are lauded because of their focus on darker, more mature themes. Even Watchmen, despite its superhero tint, gets placed apart from publications like Batman and Superman.

Yes, comic books as a genre are typically associated with superheroes. An unfortunate side effect of the Fredric Wertham case in the '50s was they that Congress essentially killed horror and crime comics. It allowed superheroes to take hold as the core of comics. It's unfortunate.

[Author's note: Fredric Wertham was an adolescent psychologist and often known among fanboys as the chief villain of the comic book community. In his 1954 book, The Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham argued that comic books would lead to sexual deviancy and delinquency among American youths. His testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 led to the adoption of the Comics Code by comic publishers, a self-regulating code which prohibited most types of comics. Only superheroes survived.]

However, what we have now with the recent resurgence of darker, more sophisticated comic compilations is that people are becoming more and more accepting of other types stories being told in a comic book format. This is building into a bigger and bigger trend as Hollywood gets involved with producing films based on graphic novels: despite the superhero tint of the industry, you can always find films like A History Of Violence. There are always different themes that aren't superheros based, and I hope that eventually graphic novels can continue to grow into something that is a viable form of entertainment like TV, novels, and movies. There are really no restrictions on what genres and what stories we can tell.

But because of the light-hearted nature of hero comics, don't they appeal to a broader audience? Comic sales took a nosedive after a speculation bubble in the 1990s. How to economics factor into the decision to publish safe rags like Superman and Batman or move into graphic novels?

I can say right now that Image Comics, the publisher where I'm a partner, less than 50 percent of our books center on superheroes. More than half are detective comics and non-superhero themes. At the same time, we're off the beaten path from bigger publishers like Marvel or DC. Image has grown by leaps and bounds. We have more books every month, and our titles launch newer and higher.

Marvel and DC haven't followed suit?

As the industry struggles, people will latch onto mainstream comic books. But DC and Marvel will appeal to a wider audience; it's just an issue of finding new ways of reaching the wider audience. The main way to get comics is through stores, usually through specialty comic stores (although bookstores like Barnes and Nobel will carry compilations or what the public considers graphic novels.) As more and more people start getting comics in their living room, on their iPad, or whatever device, there'll be less demand for Marvel and DC 60- year old superhero characters doing the same thing month in and month out, and we'll be more into trying out original ideas. I'm very excited about the future because of that.

What would comics look like in a digital format? Plenty of iPad-ready magazines have special features. I'm almost imaging moving panels...

No moving panels. That's like having a novel with words read to goes against what the medium is. As we move into the digital age, comics will hopefully stay the same, but I'm sure there'll be added features. Image is trying to figure out different kind of things that can be done through digital that can't be done through print. There are a lot of exciting ideas out there, and the future will hold a lot of possibilities.

It seems as though Image, being a smaller publisher without any legacy publications, is best suited to publish graphic novels about zombies, detectives, and everything else.

I think Image is perfectly suited for this sort of thing. Image is the equivalent of an avante garde, independent movie studio that allows creators to do what they want and succeed and fail based on these ideas. A creator can come in and say "I have an idea and this is what it is" and the publisher and partners will decided whether we want to go through with it, but we'll never come back and say "can you do this instead of this?" or "can you make your main character this?" What you get from Image is the creators vision, unheeded by corporate interest...Image is a vibrant breeding ground for new ideas.

What's the most successful independent book, in your mind? Which ones take the genre to new limits?

Hellboy. Mike Mignola as artists took everything he liked to draw and created this world which provided him a playground that he liked to draw within. And he can pretty much do anything. It's been a huge success. When it gets down to it, that's something one guy decided to do and it worked. There are a lot of things new coming out of image. A new book called Chew is one of the most original ideas I've ever come across. The main character's a detective who can get psychic impressions off of things he eats. Basically, he has to get impressions by eating evidence. Sometimes its a severed finger, sometimes it's not. It's a unique take on a well-worn genre. It really impresses me to see someone do something with a cop story that's vastly unique and really entertaining and engaging...but still a cop story. That's been a fairly strong financial success. Maybe the two go hand in hand...maybe people find the good books and they end up being successful.

Films have had success in introducing the public to the idea of the comic as a more textured work, mainly through projects like Watchmen, Sin City, Persepolis, and maybe even From Hell (not "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," which was, well cartoonish.) Are there concerns about these works losing their thematic luster in translation to the big screen?

This comes down to the basic question of which is better: the novel or the movie. Most people realize that the novel is better. I think people have learned over time that when things are adapted, it loses something. I don't think anyone sees Watchmen and thinks that they won't seek out the book. I don't think that's skewed in any way, and I actually think that movie in particular is actually kind of cool. I will say this though; one of the great things about the graphic novel is you decide the pacing. When it's adapted, it's hard to adapt the same experience.

Do you have any thoughts on Y: The Last Man? The series ended a few years ago, and I know it made quite an impression on many people in Hollywood.

[Authors note: Y: The Last Man is an award-winning series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra published by Vertigo beginning in 2002. about the only man to survive the apparent simultaneous death of every male mammal (barring the same man's pet monkey) on Earth. The film rights were acquired by New Line Cinema in 2007; David S. Goyer is set to produce]

The final issue of Y: The Last Man is one of the reasons I never want to end The Walking Dead. I don't think I'll ever be able to do one as good. I'll keep my thing going until nobody cares in the end.

Is finality good? Sometimes I think certain characters get changed up so much just to keep a series fresh after so many years that there's no coherence anymore. I used to read Spider-Man and I feel like Peter Parker is a totally different person now.

The X-Men and Spider-man follow the story structure of Days Of Our Lives. It's like those old soap operas that started as radio shows and became TV shows and continued for decades and decades with partly the same cast, with lead characters coming back who people have forgotten, storylines changing so much that characters are totally different, and old characters coming back when newer audiences don't remember them. If you sit down and watch 70 years, its not really going to make much sense in one story. That's what comics are in the conventional superhero genre. There are so many different writers and artists who have altered it that it doesn't really read like one story, because its not. Its' a continuing cycle of people trying to keep it exciting and vibrant.

So here's a big the distinction, then, between a comic and graphic novel.

Sure. Y had an ending, and it was written by Brian K Vaughn the whole way through. The Walking Dead is a really long'll always be written by ME. If I die before it's over, sorry about your luck. Walking Dead has a beginning, middle, and end...I just haven't got to the middle yet. Y will be infinitely shorter, but it has a beginning, middle , and end. I don't know if Cerberus was one of the first stories to do this: Dave Sims set out to do 300 issue. When you read 300 issues of Spider-man, there's no beginning and no end, you don't feel like there's any progress or your like you accomplished anything. You're sort of left hanging.

I think its going to neat if The Walking Dead runs for 300 issues or more. You'll be able to go back and start and see how the characters grow, change, and evolve, and how the long progression of time has affected.

Sort of like For Better or For Worse vs. Calvin and Hobbes if we're talking about newspaper strips. The characters in the former age and face the issues associated with growing up, while Calvin and Hobbes are sort of frozen in time.

That's a way of looking at it.

We've established an idea of the graphic novel and how it's become successful in the past few years. So the obvious question: what's in store for the future?

We're going to continue to see more good, unique ideas. That's what comics are good at, and that's why Hollywood is coming to us in a big way, adapting more material for the movies. There are an insane number of talented people working in comics, and we're going to see more and more new ideas making in onto a screen and expanding the medium. I see more of what we've seen in the past few years, just bigger and better. I have very high hopes for the industry that has an enormous amounts of untapped potential that we'll be tapping into very soon. It'll get to the point where you go to visit your grandmother and there's a graphic novel on her nightstand. I think that's what were working towards, and by God I think we'll make it there.

After all, what novel couldn't be made better by adding pictures?