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How Comics Became Literature for Adults

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Maybe you think of yourself as being not so much a "graphic novel" kind of person. But then you watch a movie based on Watchmen or Persepolis or V for Vendetta and you're told that the source material is even better, so you pick one up. Or a friend presses a book by Carla Speed McNeil or Jaime Hernandez or Joe Sacco into your hands, saying, "No, really, I think this is something you'd be into."

However it happens, you start reading, and you realize before long that you're in the presence of something really special -- these plotlines are taking you places of an entirely different scope than those visited by mainstream prose fiction. And you consider: These are nothing like the comic books I read as a kid.

And they truly aren't. Thanks to accidents of economics, flashes of artistic inspiration, and flukes of both government and culture, comics have really "grown up."

The comic book was originally conceived of and executed as entertainment for children. If it aspired to be art, that was fine, as long as those aspirations didn't interfere with the holy trinity of quick, cheap, and strong. They were ten-cent blurts of low-brow bliss, and they had to compete for space on newsstands with the pulps and glossy magazines marketed to adults, so they had to push really hard to fire up kids' imaginations

Over the course of the '40s and early '50s, American comics pretty much stuck to their niche: kid stuff. But then came the blood-spattered comic book series "Crime Does Not Pay". Here's when America freaked out.

Spurred on by a book titled Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth, a national moral panic arose over the idea that comics were leading to feral teenagers running wild in the streets.

In 1954, the U.S. Senate held a series of hearings about comic books and juvenile delinquency. To save itself, the comics business created its own censoring agency, the Comics Code Authority. Cops and judges had to be represented positively and other clauses banned vampires and werewolves, "suggestive posture," unusually concealed weapons, the words "horror" and "terror" in titles, and "depravity" in general. Pretty lame, right?

And so it happened that the American branch of the comics medium, going through a difficult but promising adolescence, was marched straight back to its childhood room, sedated and infantilized. Imagine if every movie released in the U.S. between 1954 and, say, 1985 had to be rated G, and you'll see the problem.

Even so, American comics kept evolving; there were a handful of gifted, prolific writers and artists who were happy to work within that G-rated framework. The era when the Comics Code was at its peak of power was also the era when Spider-Man, The X-Men, and Iron Man first appeared and when Jack Kirby unleashed the spectacular visions of his "Fourth World" stories.

By the mid-1960s, however, countercultural waves infiltrated all of American society. The first issue of Robert Crumb's hilariously obscene Zap Comix had a little Code-shaped seal on its cover that read "Approved by the Ghost Writers in the Sky." This new generation of comic book authors simply didn't care about "respectability" or newsstand sales.

Soon the Comics Code turned out to be an option rather than an obligation. The artists associated with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's art-comics magazine RAW got a toe-hold in the fine art world, which had previously always treated comics as kitschy raw material at best. The legendary cartoonist Will Eisner popularized the term "graphic novel" with books like A Contract with God. And soon, independent comic companies bypassed newsstands altogether, selling their serials directly to stores that specialized in comic books.

By the end of the '80s, the Comics Code was pretty much vestigial. Its seal of quality had effectively become a seal of mediocrity. Gradually, one publisher after another abandoned it. This past January, when DC Comics and Archie Comics both gave it up, the Code officially died.

While there are still comic books that cater to children - such as Bone or Naruto or Diary of a Wimpy Kid -- the ones that have really made their marks on the literary world and greater society at large are those that were written for the really big kids. Who would say that Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Sin City, Ghost World, and American Splendor aren't exquisite works of literature?