When we were kids (assuming everyone is over 40, because it makes me feel better) we read the comics and grown ups went to the pictures. Sure, we queued for Star Wars and Jaws, but flat images of impossibly ripped blokes and pneumatic ladies in lycra, fighting threats to the cosmos were the preserve of young lads. Now Hollywood has decided sequels, horror remakes and talking dogs are the cutting edge, the movies are strictly for the youngsters. But there is still a place for adults to find visual thrills, exciting concepts and compelling storytelling - the graphic novel.
One only has to look at various caves and pyramids across the world to know mankind has been telling tales and communicating thoughts and ideas through pictures for millennia. But it wasn't until 1842 that the first major cartoon was published: The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck by Rodolphe Toffler. It told the tale of a young man and his girlfriend using captioned pictures in a strip. Then The Yellow Kid was printed in 1895 and quickly made its name as the first properly merchandised comic strip character, increasing sales for the papers in which it appeared. When the Hearst Syndicate released the Yellow Kid cartoons in a book they could hardly have realised they were creating the very first graphic novel, but they certainly enjoyed the financial rewards.
It was quite a wait, but in 1938 everything exploded thanks to the publication of Action Comics and their star: Superman.
This was the golden age of the comic book and a huge family of costumed heroes, detectives and cowboys followed Supes to the newsagent. The boom only tailed off with the introduction of affordable TV sets in the 50s and really, for almost 20 years, the form was widely ignored and consigned to the bedroom cupboards of snotty kids (myself included). Comics in this era were no less imaginitive but they were less popular, possibly because the cinema was basking in a period of never repeated brilliance. Apocalypse Now, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Godfather, The Sting, The Exorcist, The Omen, Last Tango In Paris and Dirty Harry - were all released between 1969 and 1979. With standards this high, we can forgive the public for turning their heads from the floppy pages of The Amazing Spiderman.
Although out of favour, comics didn't stand still. While Disney continued to churn out Goofy and Donald, DC and Marvel (homes to most of the superheroes) adopted some darker and more underground themes. Batman, for instance, was no longer the Zap! Pow! adventurer of the past, now dealing with anger, death, sex and revenge. Marvel even re-launched Dracula as a 20th Century anti-hero. And it was here the seeds of the modern graphic novel were sown. Comic publishers also began to sell to specialist stores which opened the door for graphic books with weighty themes and a more sophisticated target audience.
So 1978 saw Marvel Comics produce the first mass-market paperback graphic novel, The Silver Surfer, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Other major graphic novels like A Contract With God by Will Eisner and Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini appeared around this time and started to gain popularity. In contrast, cinema was becoming less original and experimental - 1985 brought us the release of Top Gun and Rambo - but in the world of comics, it was time for the publication of DC's The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This was the first graphic novel to stem from a new concept called the limited series, telling a complete story over a finite run of issues. Frank Miller added to this format, re-inventing Batman once more for the ground-breaking The Dark Knight Returns. By the mid-80s, reading a graphic novel in a single sitting delivered more plot twists, character development, spectacular settings and emotional trials than almost any contemporary motion picture.
Today, graphic novels are increasingly important in the comic book industry. Many of today's comics are produced in the limited series format, essentially, they are ready made graphic novels and are hugely successful - Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, has sales of over one million copies in America alone. But the quality and creativity remains enormously impressive. Of course, some of these books are translated into films (in the case of Watchmen, outstandingly well) but while the wait for a movie as invigorating as Toy Story 3 often seems interminable, there are truly wonderful graphic novels published every week and often for less than the price of a single cinema ticket.
Magnus Shaw - copywriter and blogger
Thanks to Stan Tychinski for invaluable information