When I was young, my brother and I shared copies of Mad Magazine and Marvel comics, reading each issue over and over until they were tattered and stained. Often my mother, who worked at the East Chicago Public Library for over a half century, would be forced to defend why she let us read such stuff. Reading is reading she would reply whether it’s the classics or Alfred E. Newman.
“The thing for years was no comic books,” says Bob Mele, Branch Head at the Highland Branch of the Lake County Public Library, recalling the old fashioned conventional wisdom about comic books being bad and books good.
But that was then.
Now, with the surging popularity of graphic novels aimed at readers of all ages—the categories are adults, young adults and children—librarians recognize the positives.
“They capture the imagination and get kids and young adults reading,” says Mele, noting that reading is reading no matter what.
Considered their own genre now, Jan Kotarski, the materials coordinator for the Lake County Public, is in charge of ordering graphic novels.
“At first I was surprised about ten years ago when they started getting really popular,” says Kotarski. “Now it makes sense to me. This generation has been using computers since they were babies; they often learned to read using video games like Reader Rabbit so they’re use to busy formats. Graphic novels aren’t as appealing tome because I like organization. But I read Maus and was moved to tears.”
Kotarski is referring to the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic book Maus: A Survivor's Tale — My Father Bleeds History by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Nonfiction, the story is based upon Spiegelman’s interviews with his father, a Polish Jew, about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Except that the book is illustrated in the way comics are, there is nothing at all funny about this powerful story which definitely isn’t for young children.
How does a graphic novel differ from a comic book? Like a comic book, it tells a story through sequential art and words so there you have the graphic part and like a book, graphic novels usually tell an entire story rather than comics which usually take characters through an adventure with more on the way in the next issue. But there’s another component as well. The New York Times has a best seller list for Graphic Novels including hardcover, paperback and Manga, stylized Japanese comics popular with all ages in Japan and now very much in-style in with young adults in the U.S. Originally black and white drawings and, as would be expected, written in Japanese, now manga graphic novels come in both English and color. Though the majority of graphic novels in the U.S. are science fiction and fantasy, manga covers a wide spectrum of subjects.
“Manga is very big with teenage girls,” says Kotarski. “And they also like books on how to draw manga.”
The concept of graphic novels was just a blip in the publishing world when Louis L’Amour, considered the voice of the west, died in 1988. By then, L’Amour had written 100 novels and more than 250 short stories. As of 2010, some 320 copies of his works had sold and his writing translated into more than 10 languages.
Now his son Beau L’Amour, along with a team that includes illustrator Thomas Yeates, writer Katherine Nolan and Charles Santino, a writer and packager of comic books and graphic novels, has taken his father’s 1945 short story, Law of the Desert Born, and turned it into a graphic novel. Described as capturing the dust and blood of Louis L’Amour’s West—a world where the difference between a hero and a villain can be as wide as the gap between an act of kindness or brutality or as narrow as a misspoken word, in writing the script, L’Amour recalled conversations on adapting works with his father.
“The important thing is to find the core of the story and then let everything else go, just staying true to that,” says L’Amour “It was his vision that if you explored new values in an adaptation then your fans wouldn't get bored because they knew the story. In Law of the Desert Born the new values were the back story and emotional life of all the characters. The original story dealt a lot with the present, the mechanics of the chase and the posse, it didn't go into what caused all the various characters decisions and feelings. So in the Graphic Novel we use several flashbacks to examine that part of the narrative.”
L’Amour says he was interested in the graphic format because he always liked telling stories using pictures and also wanted to reach a new audience. But, he cautions, it isn’t a comic book.
“While I think that it has a lot of amusing aspects, it is a sophisticated story that deals with deep and inarticulate emotions and racial identity and asking questions about what is right and wrong and where things fall between the two. It's not really for children. Louis was always interested in finding new audience members, he was always interested in trying new things. This was just one thing that we really hadn't tried yet.”
Adapting a novel or short story to the graphic format isn’t just a matter of drawing pictures to go with the dialogue.
“They are very expensive to produce,” says L’Amour. “They also take a very long time to create. The script to Law of the Desert Born took about two years to get to the point where it was absolutely right. The art took another two years to produce. I have a couple of other scripts ready to go but it all takes a long time so I can't say when another book might be coming out.”