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Road to Acceptance

Are comics finally being embraced in the US as a mainstream medium?

By Arnold T. Blumberg     July 29, 2002

In many other venues, as well as this one, I've often railed against the ingrained American sensibilities that relegate comics to one of the seedier alleys of the multimedia universe. While in Japan, Europe and elsewhere, comics are as respected a storytelling artform as anything else - enthralling adults as well as children with its unique blend of words and pictures - here in the States we have continually pigeon-holed comics as "funny books" and "kid stuff." Thanks to the overwhelming hegemony of the brightly-colored superhero genre, comics in this country have been hemmed in, categorized, and dismissed as unworthy of the same level of respect or critical acclaim as so-called "classic" literature. Hell, even movies and television get more respect than comics!

GHOST WORLD

Lately, however, we've seen a growing trend in which comics and other media have meshed to form exciting new avenues for entertainment. And yes, a great deal of this new energy, this new - dare I say it - acceptance, has a lot to do with superheroes. Over the years we've seen folks like Batman and Superman take to the screen and prove through huge box office totals that a far larger audience does indeed enjoy the same sort of storytelling that can be found in the comic book world. True, the comic book source material has usually been distorted or altered in order to "translate" the subject matter for the discerning film audience - or the great unwashed as the case may be - and the results have sometimes been less than appealing, at least to comic book fans who know where it all came from. Still, there's a level of satisfaction that comes with seeing a favorite comic book hero brought to life on the big screen. And that's pretty much been the extent of it.

THORA BIRCH stars in United Artists Films' dark comedy GHOST WORLD.

But recently, a phenomenal new chapter has begun, one that may finally shatter all previous expectations and point the way to a brighter future for comics and their devoted adherents. Yes, the time may at last be upon us when comics are seen as merely another entertainment choice, a medium with just as much potential and value as any other. I speak of course about the recent opening a major feature film - a multimillion dollar production with top talent, superb art direction, and a willingness to adapt original comic book material with respect and some degree of inventiveness in order to make the story suit its new cinematic home. It's drawn critical praise, been compared favorable to its comic book source, and singled out a strong Oscar contender on many levels. Yes fans, of course I'm talking about ROAD TO PERDITION.

Bet you thought I was going to name something a bit more spidery, didn't you?

Many journalists are claiming that a new perceived "growth" in wider recognition of comics has something to do with graphic novels - an offshoot of comics that boast longer stories, more literate subject matter, and draw the attention of more mainstream booksellers and retailers. Evidently they haven't seen THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL or the hundreds of other superhero-based graphic novels that have littered the shelves for decades. But never mind - it is indeed true that graphic novels tend to spawn more of the classics of the medium when it comes to self-contained novelistic epics. Take, for example, Art Spiegelman's MAUS, Judd Winick's PEDRO AND ME, Joe Sacco's GORAZDE: WAR IN EASTERN BOSNIA 1992-1995, and, naturally, ROAD TO PERDITION.

Tom Hanks and Paul Newman star in ROAD TO PERDITION

Written by Max Allan Collins - writer of the daily DICK TRACY newspaper strip for 15 years - and illustrated in fiercely realistic detail by UK artist Richard Piers Rayner, the highly regarded graphic novel has now served as the basis for this summer's film release, starring no less talents than Hollywood luminaries and Oscar-winners Paul Newman and Tom Hanks. High praise indeed that a lowly comic should be afforded this degree of regard from the movie elite. But when a film based on a simple superhero like Spider-Man breaks almost all box office records and becomes a blockbuster hit that redefines the meaning of the term, it's time to look at comics in a different way. We've always known that: now it's time for the rest of America to notice as well.

Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in SPIDER-MAN

As other sources have noted, even large publishing companies have turned their attention to producing graphic novels. Book stores are stocking comic albums alongside other books and no longer relegating all comic book material to rusty racks tucked in tiny corners. Perhaps the revolution has truly begun. If Tom Hanks can star in a movie based on a comic book - forget the name "graphic novel," it's only a pretentious label - then there might be hope for us all. We've gone from SUPERMAN and BATMAN to the critical accolades for Daniel Clowes' GHOST WORLD - also based on a graphic novel, in case you've forgotten - and now to ROAD TO PERDITION, a major film adaptation with A-list casting and not a cape or pair of tights in sight. So maybe things are on the way up for comics. We can only hope.

But please, TIME and NEWSWEEK - no more articles about how comics aren't just for kids anymore. I'd like to think we're past that level of naivete...aren't we?

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