Comics go mainstream


Friday, March 21
BELLOWS FALLS -- Steve Bissette was living in Marlboro in the 1980's when he created serial stories about superheroes for DC Comics. Back then, this now-booming sector of the literature industry was a lot different than it is today.

"I was of the generation before this generation of graphic novels," said the author of the now-legendary comic "Saga of the Swamp Thing."

He remembered when, "comics were always criticized as kids stuff. It was something that was frowned upon, or a guilty pleasure."

Today, comics -- and their longer, more traditionally literary cousins, the graphic novel -- are perceived by the public much differently than that.

"There was a sea change in the industry," he said. "For the first time, comics don't have that stigma anymore. There is a real wave sweeping not just the area, but the whole country."

Libraries and book stores now devote entire sections to graphic novels. Both Everyone's Books and the Book Cellar in Brattleboro devote entire sections of their stores for them.

And Bissette now teaches a class, called Survey of the Drawn Story, at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction.

On Friday, at 6 p.m. in the Rockingham Library in Bellows Falls, he will give a talk on the history of comics and graphic novels.

"It's an art form in and of itself," Bissette said. "There are things you can do with comics that you can't do in other mediums. People are finding it's a very rich experience."

So pervasive is this new era in comic history that the Rockingham Library is hosting a month-long tribute to graphic novels, where many selections will be on display through March 29.

Sam Maskell, the youth services librarian there, said graphic novels are one of the more popular kinds of books kids are checking out these days.

"It's now being treated as a viable form of literature," she said, noting that her library has almost 500 graphic novel titles available. "The format is perfectly suited for kids used to the Internet."

Although Maskell said they are most popular with younger readers, both her and Bissette said comics aren't just for kids anymore. Artists doing autobiographical, historical and journalistic graphic novels.

For Bissette, two movements in the industry came together to create this new phenomenon.

First there were a number of comic creators who started making a product for an adult audience. The first breakthrough artist was Robert Crum, who told stories about adult sexuality through comics, in the late 1960's. Then, in the 1980's, Art Spiegelman had a mega-hit with his comic "Maus: A Survivor's Tale." Maus told Spiegelman's parent's story of living in Nazi Germany. He used mice to represent Jews and cats to represent the Nazis; Americans were represented as dogs. Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the project.

"That was arguably the turning point," Bissette said. "Maus was the first graphic novel the critics paid any attention to."

Both Spiegelman and Crum went on to work for the New Yorker, solidifying their places in the annals of fine literature.

The other movement that helped to revive, and eventually replenish, the comic art form was the rediscovery of the super hero in popular culture.

Bissette said the roots of this rediscovery can be traced to artists who hail from this area. First, he said, there was the creation of the "Dark Knight" version of Batman in the late 1980's by Montpelier native Frank Miller.

"That led to the Tim Burton "Batman" movie," he said.

At the same time, Kevin Eastman, from Maine, and Peter Laird, of Massachusetts, created the blockbuster super heroes the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Bissette said, "That was the beginning of the major change. That changed everything."

He immediately noticed that comics were being treated differently.

"I started getting cold calls from parents asking if I would tutor their kids," he said. "For the first time in my life, parents were being supportive of comics."

Now that institutions such as the Rockingham Library are celebrating comics and graphic novels might mean they have finally become mainstream.

"They aren't just schlock for the brain anymore," Maskell, Rockingham's youth librarian, said.

Robert Plain can be reached at or 802-254-2311 ext. 271.


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