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Like a Bullet: Stephen Weiner on the Last Decade of Comics Growth

Later this year, Stephen Weiner will release a revised edition of his popular book Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel. It’s been nearly a decade since Weiner first released the book, which detailed the phenomenal growth of the format around the turn of the century. But are things still expanding in the industry? We talked to Weinger about his updated book and how it reflects the graphic novel business at large.

 

What’s changed since in the graphic novel industry since you published the first edition of your book? Do you still see the market as rising?
 
There have been a few big changes since the earlier edition was published in 2003.  One, we've seen the ascent and to some degree the descent of Manga. One of the things manga's popularity indicated was that American teenagers were interested in stories aside from superhero stories.  Two, the development of graphic novel imprints by trade publishers: This is another indicator that general readers are interested in comics but not necessarily in superhero or genre stories. Three, Hollywood's infatuation with superheroes.
 
The interest in comics from parts of the entertainment industry outside of comics tells me that graphic novels are more mainstream than ever and that they haven't peaked yet.
 
What events have changed the landscape of graphic novel publishing since you published the first edition?
 
The biggest change is that almost every trade publisher now has a graphic novel imprint. In 2002–3, only Pantheon did.  The other major change is that now publishers release lines of books utilizing the cartoon format to convey information or tell stories that bear very little similarity to the superhero story.  Previously, publishers did bring out a few graphic novels conveying information—Larry Gonick's  Cartoon Histories come to mind—but these were exceptions.  Now these are nonfiction imprints using the cartoon format.
 
What new books are included in this update?
 
Persepolis, Black Hole, Fun home, and  The Complete Essex County, to name a few.
 
 
In your research of comics history, is there an aspect that remains little-known but fascinates you?
 
I'm not sure that it’s little known, but the period of 1952–1958 interests me very much.  The whole Wertham period, where comics were tremendously popular but were also under such extreme attacks.  I'm impressed that the comics industry could survive these charges, reinvent itself as primarily a superhero genre, and then flourish.
 
How is the history of comics tied into other cultural or historical events in this country? Is there a parallel between comics history and what was going on in the country at the same time?
 
We've become a more visual society over the last 30 years, so it makes sense that more people would be drawn to graphic novels.   Also, we've compressed time in the last few decades, we multitask more, feature films are shorter, and the comics form is right in line with that.  Finally, we now look for completion in our story lines: Most TV seasons have fewer episodes and tie up more handily at the end of each season, while leaving the possibility for a wider ongoing story, very much like the limited series in comics.
 
Which new or up-and-coming creators do you see as having an impact on the future of graphic novels? Are there any creators in particular you expect will change things in a way that will influence how a third edition of this book would be told?
 
To me, Jeff Lemire is the most exciting cartoonist to come out of the comics field.  He may be the next Mike Mignola, in the sense that he can create strong genre work and also do great independent stuff.  I think Alison Bechdel has and will continue to have a great impact on the field.  She's not a new creator, yet she is new in the sense that now so many readers have access to her work.
 
After updating this book, do you feel more passionate, more excited about the graphic novel industry than you did the first time around?
 
I don't know if I feel more passionate.  I do feel more secure that graphic novels are here to stay because of their wide support network.  I was at a conference sponsored by Baker & Taylor in 2004 and Michael Martins, VP at Dark Horse, made a presentation supposing that graphic novels were successfully moving into the realm of accepted forms of entertainment.  I think he was on to something.
 
Tell us a little about your library’s graphic novel collection. Is it extensive? What are currently the most popular circulating titles?
 
I'm very proud of our graphic novel collection, which has about 1,300 volumes. The library has approximately 58,000 prose books. Our graphic novels collections are divided into Juvenile, Young Adult, and Adult, and then subdivided into fiction and nonfiction.   A patron recently donated about 100 books in the Marvel Masterworks series.   The collection grows about 7% each year.  As you'd imagine, the more popular books circulate best.
 
Bone by Jeff Smith is one of our most popular items.  We have the black-and-white editions Cartoon Books put out, the color versions published by Scholastic, and two copies of the one-volume Bone; that makes 20 books altogether. Sometimes all 20 are out at the same time.