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Getting Graphic: Graphic novels are hot (and cool)
By Scott Nicholson

Kids of all ages are discovering the joys of reading in one of the most popular print formats of the twenty-first century, and this kind comes with pictures.

Graphic novels have gained in popularity over the last decade for several reasons, according to Erin Guffey, manager of Plan 9 Comics in Boone, NC. He said in the same way that comic books grew out of collections in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when comic strips were collected in books, comic publishers found they could expand their market by collecting a number of comic books in a single trade paperback book.

Early graphic novels were usually vehicles for collectors to read early issues of comics that sometimes had increased in value beyond their budgets. One of the ironies of the new boom is that it grew out of the crash of the collector’s market, when investors entered comic-book collecting and bought multiple copies as investments.

“Marvel and DC (the two largest comics publishers) nearly went bankrupt in the 1990s,” Guffey said. “The industry had to come back from that. Trade paperbacks helped them have something other than periodicals. If a single comics issue tanks or does well, there’s no way to change that, and reprints are rare. A graphic novel is essentially a book that stores can carry that wouldn’t normally carry comic books.”

While comic collectors have embraced trade paperbacks, the surprise has come in their popularity to those who don’t collect comics. That’s been helped by comics adaptations of such popular fiction works as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, vampire hunter, series.

“People who never cared about comics are picking them up,” Guffey said. “The industry in general has broadened.”

Adding to the success story is Hollywood’s growing love affair with graphic novels and comics as the source for movies. “V for Vendetta” came from an obscure comic series, and the coming anticipated horror flick “30 Days of Night” was first published by Top Shelf, a small publisher in Georgia. Its creator, Steve Niles, is now one of the hottest names in both comics and film.

“Steve was a guy who carried his project around for nine years as a movie script,” Guffey said. “Nobody wanted it, so he went to this little press that nobody had ever heard of. Once the graphic novel came out, then they wanted to turn it into a movie.”

While established superhero properties like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and the X-Men are getting big-budget treatment, more of the projects are closely tied to graphic novels. The new Batman movie is being adapted directly from a graphic story, and Guffey said savvy collectors are snapping up that issue. “From Hell” was a limited-run book that spawned an international hit starring Johnny Depp. Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" and Alan Moore's work in Batman, Watchmen, and Lost Girls make them among the most successful writers in any format.

The comics industry took a hit when investors bailed and many collector prices fell, but Guffey said in a way the cleansing was beneficial. “What the ‘90’s did was really made people who cared about comics read them because they enjoyed them,” he said. “It brought the industry back from just about collapsing.”

While trade paperbacks still make up only 10 to 20 percent of all comics business, they are reaching book outlets and have much longer shelf lives than individual comic books. With a variety of formats and prices, people are more willing to give them a try. The rise of manga, a Japanese style that relies on black-and-white art, allows publishers to print books at lower prices by saving on ink.

Mandy Maness, 15, was selecting graphic novels at Plan 9 Saturday. She became interested in manga from watching cartoon shows and from hearing about it from friends at school.

“It gave me a lot of ideas,” she said. “I want to be a cartoonist and branch into new stuff.”

She characterizes her favorites as being grittier and with more fighting than the typical superhero comic. Some styles of manga are more flexible about blending elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction and superheroes, leading to more crossover audiences. Graphic novels typically range in price from $7 to $15, though there are limited-edition collectible issues that are more expensive or increase in value on the secondary market. For the most part, speculators are far outnumbered by readers, though.

Maness acknowledged her parents teased her and asked, “When are you going to grow up?” but became supportive when they saw how serious she was about her art.

Guffey said comics are no longer the sole domain of nerds, a term he dislikes but accepts as a generic label for the closet comics fan.

Guffey said while classic themes still existed, his interest in comics coincided with the expansion of titles and the explosion of small publishers tackling a range of subject matter. “There’s absolutely nothing you can’t do in comics,” he said. “There are a great deal more all-ages comics than you’d think.”

Graphic novels are also a popular staple of libraries, and the Watauga County Public Library has a prominent display of graphic novels and keeps up with new titles.

“This helps people get excited about reading,” Guffey said. “It makes it more fun to get into, and once you develop a hunger to learn new things, comics won’t be enough.”

While the spate of Hollywood properties dealing with comics have raised interest in comics and trade paperbacks, that doesn’t immediately translate into millions of new comics readers. Still, Guffey sees a steady stream of people who remember having read comics in their youth who are surprised to learn how large the modern market is.

“People got a lot more educated about comics because of the movies,” Guffey said. “Comics aren’t just the home of nerds and shut-ins anymore.”

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