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Picture books grow up: Graphic novels find an adult audience

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Graphic novels are becoming popular with adults of all ages (Photo by Lisa Cupido) (Lisa Cupido)

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Graphic novels incorporate artwork and literature (Photo by Lisa Cupido)

On most weekends, Rebecca Yankes can be found poring over the latest picture books at a Borders bookstore cafe in Beverly, Mass. Her drink of choice is an espresso and her “picture books” are as likely to encompass issues such as the Palestinian conflict and the Asian American experience as they are Spider-Man battling the Green Lantern.

In the past decade, a growing number of adults who grew up cherishing Pokémon, Japanese manga and comic strip classics like “Calvin and Hobbes” have found they don’t have to cut off their comic ties once they reach voting age. A genre of literature called graphic novels that incorporates both elements of literature and artwork is experiencing a boom among adults of all ages.

While some critics still consider them comics, others think of graphic novels as an up-and-coming genre of literature that can do it all.

“Most of the popular graphic novels from the past 10 years have been ‘grown up,’” said Yankes, 19, an illustration and sculpture major at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass. “They express situations and emotions though the comic medium that are deeper than most children can understand.”

As a manga fan at age 12, Yankes followed her curiosity into the then minuscule graphic novel section at her Nashua, N.H., library. In a matter of weeks, she had devoured all of Neil Gaiman’s illustrious The Sandman series, a popular collection of fantasy books published by DC Comics. She said she had suddenly matured into a graphic novel enthusiast, accumulating both older and newer titles from all over the world. Her favorite graphic novels include “Epileptic,” by David B., and Craig Thompson’s “Blankets,” books that she says all seem to echo events taking place in her own life.

“A graphic novel that doesn’t move me is very hard to find,” she said.

Graphic novels didn’t receive an official identity until 1978 when Will Eisner, an American artist and entrepreneur, wrote “A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories,” according to Katie Monnin, a professor of literacy at the University of North Florida. Monnin has used graphic novels to help adults learn to read.

Eisner was tired of comics being thought of as juvenile, she says, and used the term “graphic novel” to fit his unorthodox format, one that dealt with themes like immigration and tenement life in 1930s New York.

“Graphic novels can work on the same level as ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘The Scarlet Letter,’” Monnin said. “They embrace all the multidimensional aspects of classical literature.”

The genre didn’t really generate a following outside of the comic world until about 10 years ago, and Monnin says the events of 9/11 helped transform the nation into an image-dominated society. The graphic novel soon took off, catching the attention of bookworms and comic enthusiasts alike.

Still, the genre hasn’t reached the level of popularity that some wish for. When Rebecca Aranda, 19, told her high school English teachers that she was thinking about writing graphic novels after college, her excitement was met with blank stares.

“Like those unabridged classics?” she recalled one teacher asking. “Like taking something by Charles Dickens and then making it into a comic book so kids can read it?”

The English and drama major at University of California, Irvine, said she struggled to explain the misunderstood genre, even name-dropping the movie adaptation of ‘‘American Splendor’’ as an example.

A year ago, Aranda, a fan of Dan Clowes’ “Ice Haven” and Jessica Abel’s “Perdida,” a graphic novel tale of a young girl’s quest to discover her Mexican roots, started a Facebook group for graphic novel fans, which has since grown to include almost 1,000 members.

“It was really depressing. I searched for ‘comics’ or ‘graphic novels,’ and all I got was pages of groups for the then-upcoming movie ‘300,’” she said. “I wish there could be some larger validation of what we love other than a Facebook group and an annual ComicCon here or there.”

One reason for the lack of attention given to graphic novels in popular culture could be its confusing relationship with traditional comic books, like Spider-Man and the X-Men series.

Susan Schuetze, 38, a bookstore employee from Whittier, Calif., and a student at Fullerton College, is new to the genre, having read her first graphic novel only last year. She studied Art Spiegleman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” in an English class and was quickly hooked. She considers comic books the terrain of superheroes, while graphic novels incorporate a stronger literature component and more serious themes.

Her newly developed interest in the books has garnered criticism from friends, the same reaction Schuetze admits to having had before reading one.

“They find it strange that someone my age would be into them,” she said. “I guess people think of comics or graphic novels as children’s cartoon books.”

But not every fan resents being grouped in with the comic genre.

As a librarian at Greene County Public Library in Ohio, Steven Raiteri remembers spending less than $1,000 for his branch’s first set of graphic novels in 1996. These days, he spends more than $10,000 on the small county’s developing collection. Like Yankes, he speaks highly of the graphic novel “Epileptic,” by David B., an autobiography about growing up with an epileptic brother. But Raiteri, 42, also loves The Sandmen series and his superhero comics and sees no real difference between the two genres.

“There’s been this snobbish view that people have taken that literary graphic novels are better than comics,” he said. “There are people that just don’t respond to fantasy. I’m one of the ones who find them compelling.”

Raiteri, who reviews graphic novels for the Library Journal, says publishers and fans have recently taken the term to include any book that falls under books that incorporate illustrations, including Westerns, romances, and even trade paperback collections of X-Men comics. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to narrow down the genre to one specific kind of story.

“I don’t have anything against people who are trying to elevate the form,” he said. “I just think the term is broader than that. Both literary and fantasy books can excel as graphic novels.”