Guy Delisle in the Ottawa Citizen

“The comic side of life” / The Ottawa Citizen / Alexandra Zabjek / January 17, 2007

Graphic novels are grabbing more and more shelf space in mainstream bookstores, much to the relief of illustrators who say their time has come at last

When cartoonist Guy Delisle first published his graphic novel Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China in France six years ago, he was thrilled with initial sales. His account of life in a monotonously gritty, Chinese city sold just 2,000 copies.

At the time, he says, his work was considered relatively "under-ground" and was distributed by what was then a small French publishing house.

Last September, Delisle released an English-language version of Shenzhen. This time around, the book earned at least two nods from reviewers at The New York Times.

It's a big change for a cartoonist like Delisle who couldn't always find a market for comics that didn't include superheroes and bright splashes of colour.

"Cartoonists are now doing what they always dreamed of doing when they were young but there wasn't anyplace to publish (these books)," said the Quebec-born, France-based Delisle, about the current appetite for graphic novels.

In Shenzhen, Delisle chronicles in comic-book format his three month stay in the Chinese special economic zone where his animation company has outsourced drawing work.

The book is part personal diary, part cultural portraiture: Delisle draws the ubiquitous concrete apartment blocks that dominate the landscape in industrial China; the repetitive but frustrating conversations that westerners have with Chinese who speak just a few English words; the billboards featuring snapshots of Chinese criminals, some marked with a red cross to signal they have been executed.

Cartoonists who blend art, journalism and narrative story-telling are now accustomed to seeing their works dissected in major newspapers and literary websites. The sheer volume of high-profile graphic novels cannot be ignored. Last fall's release of Shenzhen was accompanied by the publication of other weighty titles such as The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon's interpretation of the bipartisan investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There was also Cancer Vixen, New York cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto's chronicles of her battle with breast cancer.

Long-time comic-book fans may bristle at the notion their passion is part of a new trend. Most point to classics such as Art Spiegelman's 1986 Maus: A Survivor's Tale -- considered the granddaddy of "serious" comic books for its depiction of the Holocaust through the story of Spiegelman's father in Second World War Europe -- as evidence of the genre's rich history. Maus was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Still, many admit that Spiegelman's masterpiece was a relative anomaly at the time, joined by only a few other big titles in the ranks of serious-themed comics. In recent years, however, graphic novels that delve into touchy, often political, subjects have become so numerous they are the focus of university courses, and often merit their own sections in local libraries or mainstream bookstores.

"Now you would go broke before we'd run out of things to recommend to you," says Chris Butcher, manager at The Beguiling, a comic-books store in Toronto. "Once comics have got their hooks into people, there's a thousand other books out there for them to read. It's not just three mainstays anymore. No one can get bored, there's just not enough hours in the day to read everything that comes out."

Butcher describes how comics have become widely accepted as a suitable medium for telling serious stories. He recounts attending a meeting of the Association of Jewish Libraries in Canada a few years ago; librarians at the event discussed a number of graphic novels with Jewish themes, including Joe Sacco's Palestine, a disturbing account of life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

"(Palestine) was discussed in terms of it being a contentious book and about how it approached the subject, but it didn't have anything to do with whether it was prose or comics, it was just about the message," remembers Butcher. "That's the first time I realized that people are willing to engage graphic novels and comics based on the stories they tell rather than the format."

The much-respected Sacco interviewed dozens of Palestinians and Israelis over the course of several months for his book, which is also set in the West Bank. He engaged in similar journalism for Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-1995, which depicts the aftermath of ethnic cleansing in a Bosnian enclave.

Despite the difficult subjects tackled by Sacco, the artist has insisted his books are indeed comics, not graphic novels as many are now apt to classify comics that deal with serious subject matter.

"I have no problem with the term 'comics,' but now we're saddled with the term 'graphic novel' and what I do I don't see as a novel," Sacco told The Guardian newspaper in 2003.

Butcher, from The Beguiling, admits the name "comic books" is often associated with newspaper funny pages, causing an "issue problem" for the art form.

"We've always called them comics because people who really get the medium understand that it can be about more than just one genre," says Butcher, who uses the terms "comics" and "graphic novels" interchangeably.

Still others use the term "comics" to refer to short, serialized works, while reserving the term "graphic novel" for standalone comic books.

For Delisle, the distinction between being called a comic book artist and a graphic novelist has never been a particularly pressing issue. What has made him more uncomfortable is the crossover he's had to make between artist and journalist.

When Delisle arrived in Shenzhen, China, he started writing notes and doing quick sketches about his daily encounters in the city, not thinking they would eventually form the foundation for a book. He would employ a similar technique a few years later when his animation company sent him to Pyongyang, North Korea to oversee another drawing project. That experience resulted in the publication of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, which looks at life in a hermit state that has been largely closed off to foreigners.

"Now, if I did something again like Shenzhen I would talk more about the country and how it is structured and how it's working, or what we know about the economic situation and more about the political situation I would talk more about the contrasts between the poor and the rich," he says. "At that time, I didn't feel confident enough to ... talk to about that. I want to talk about it without being boring, which is very hard to do."

Delisle is currently working on a graphic novel about the year he spent in Burma with his wife and young son. He still seems somewhat surprised that there is a market for such a book.

"Now big publishers are asking me, 'Why don't you do something like Pyongyang or Shenzhen for us?'" he says. "That would have been impossible 15 years ago. They wouldn't have printed it 15 years ago."

Alexandra Zabjek writes for the Citizen.

Graphically ...

The top 10 of 2006

(The best -- and most popular -- graphic novels/comic books, as chosen by the staff of The Beguiling comic book store in Toronto)

Abandon The Old In Tokyo, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly).

Absolute DC: The New Frontier, by Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics).

All Star Superman #1-5, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (DC Comics).

Curses and Ganges #1, by Kevin Huizenga (Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics).

Dragon Head Vol 1-5, by Minetaro Mochizuki (Tokyopop).

Drifiting Classroom Vol 1-3, by Kazuo Umezu (Viz LLC).

Get a Life and Maybe Later, by Dupuy & Berberian (Drawn & Quarterly).

The Left Bank Gang, by Jason (Fantagraphics).

Ode to Kirihito, by Osamu Tezuka (Vertical Inc).

Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughn and Nico Henrichon (DC Comics/Vertigo).

Further reading for 'funnies' fans

For further reading on the specifically "comic" side of graphic novels, consider Ottawa archivist John Bell's just-published book profiling Canada's comic-book geniuses. Invaders from the North (Dundurn, $40), looks at this country's remarkable involvement with the "funnies" -- both past and present comic masters -- and at how Canada "vaulted to the forefront of international comic art."

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