Ink Big 

As graphic novels gain momentum, cartoons grow up.

What is it with graphic novels? Since Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 Holocaust classic, Maus, these seemingly overgrown comic books have become one of the world's fastest-growing literary categories. Are they aimed at kids and grown-up geeks still obsessed with Spider-Man, or are they cool and edgy and underground? What with hieroglyphics and Mayan codices, they've been around for ages. And these days they're about everything under the sun.

"It's just another way to tell a story," says Carson Hall, owner of Berkeley's Signal Books, which has a wide selection of graphic novels. "It's a medium, not a genre."

The first modern graphic novels were indeed comic books, bound compilations published by Marvel and DC. But recent works, with more image than text, are attracting unprecedented numbers of adult readers with tales of real-life struggles rather than superheroes in fantasy worlds. And because many of today's artists grew up reading underground comix drawn by the likes of R. Crumb and Bill Griffith, their work often explores explicit sex and extremely dark themes. Even so, major publishing houses are taking chances with these books, and the chances are starting to pay off. The political memoir Persepolis, for example, has been a surprise hit for Pantheon.

"It's not necessarily just teenagers and hipsters" who are buying graphic novels, Hall says. "I'm finding just as many Cal professors and other New York Review of Books types are asking me about these."

During the last five years, megastores such as Virgin and Borders have established sections devoted wholly to graphic novels. They've come out from the underground and broken the surface.

Originally published in French, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi, chronicles its author's life in Iran before and after the Islamic revolution of 1979. The artwork is simple and expressive -- almost as if it were drawn by the smart, insatiably curious child whose story it tells. The dialogue is easy to follow, carrying us through a young girl's adolescent struggles with her parents as well as the family's united effort against political and social persecution in a Tehran that is altered beyond recognition. There, Western ways are outlawed and bombs fall like rain. Persepolis exposes hypocrisy of all kinds while offering insight into unspeakable horrors.

In one effective scene, the narrator's mother hangs dark curtains in the front windows so that the hard-line fundamentalist neighbors cannot see into the apartment, where the family hosts parties every week -- breaking the government's ban on alcohol, music, videotapes, and even playing cards. If the partygoers were caught, they'd surely go to prison and possibly be executed.

Disturbing in a different way, and most certainly graphic, is Dave Cooper's Ripple: A Predilection for Tina. The cover depicts two sweaty, fleshy faces engaged in something that could be sex, childbirth, or amputation. The text of Ripple's introduction, written by psychosexual film director David Cronenberg, is superimposed on a rather grisly illustration of Tina, the admittedly ugly yet grotesquely sexy girl or woman (it's intentionally left unclear) who becomes the obsession of our narrator, a cartoonist named Martin who hires this unlikely creature as a model. Discovering now and then that you are reading text over one of Tina's gnarled nipples can be slightly off-putting, but something keeps you reading, simultaneously dreading and looking forward to navigating the other nipple.

Cooper's drawings are visceral, sensual, and monstrously expressive in a style reminiscent of Crumb, who admittedly fears women and whose female characters tend to be larger and more sexually potent than their male counterparts. Sexual performance -- namely Martin's tendency toward premature ejaculation -- becomes an issue in this novel. He's eventually able to overcome his problem and have great sex with Tina, but unfortunately he also devolves into a self-hating, socially inept, and fiercely jealous loser. A more complex struggle would have made this a richer read, but the story's shortcomings don't sink the book.

Tina is unpredictable and cruel, but she's exciting. She's the crude, base counterpart to Martin's educated sensibility -- the straight black coffee to his cappuccino, if you will. Yet Cooper gives clues that she's smarter than her brutish ways suggest, and you might well find yourself liking Tina despite herself, because chances are you'll stop rooting for Martin.

You won't stop rooting for Jimmy Corrigan, the focus of F.C. Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, even though the story -- and the book itself -- can aptly be described as "hard." Its full-color comics appear old-timey, à la Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, but the initial chapter delivers such an unmistakable bitch-slap of irony that you immediately know you're in the 21st century.

The book's packaging is a bit intimidating: Its first four pages are crammed with tiny type offering "general instructions for use." It's an odd shape, wider than it is tall. Continuity is elusive in the design, with numerous small panels crowded into corners around bigger areas that sometimes contain huge words. The narrative suffers from a similar malady, with dream sequences randomly thrown into what quickly becomes a confusing mass. Despite all this, Jimmy Corrigan manages to settle into a pattern and becomes quite readable.

To complicate matters, there are three Jimmy Corrigans here: a son, a father, and a grandfather. Each suffers a different form of abuse and abandonment in a different era, and each deals with it -- and with his fellow Jimmies -- in his own way. Each man is nonetheless a likable character partly because he keeps doing the best he can with what he's been dealt. Like Persepolis, this has been published by Pantheon, a big-guns New York house.

A fourth volume, The Iron Wagon, is Jimmy Corrigan's antithesis in many ways, and it goes to show how disparate graphic novels can be. Its panels vary little in size, the story is easy to follow, and the book is a quick read. Drawn by an artist known only as Jason and based on a novel by Stein Riverton, it's a murder mystery set at a rural hotel near Oslo, Norway. The characters have human bodies yet their heads are those of cats, bears, crows, and a dog.

Jason's style is simple, but he's able to convey the fear and isolation that grip the murder suspects, as well as the cunning and frightful tactics used by a visiting detective. Because it's pure fiction, this volume is not nearly as unnerving as the others described here.

Trends come and go, so only time will tell whether graphic novels are a form of literary devolution -- reading matter for adults too lazy to pore over pages packed with type -- or the stuff of a renaissance, in which words and pictures ignite each other and a new art form catches fire.

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