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April 3, 2009

OP-ED: Jeffrey Brown's Thought Bubble


A few years ago, the talk of the graphic novel bubble started. Or maybe the graphic novel bubble itself started; it’s hard to tell. Maybe the bubble actually started much earlier, but people didn’t realize it was a bubble at first. Whatever the case, Chris Ware and Dan Clowes had books come out from Pantheon, the same publisher that had put out Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and their books started getting a lot of critical acclaim and attention from the mainstream press. Marjane Satrapi followed with her critical and commercial success, Persepolis,and Harvey Pekar’s long-running autobiographical comic American Splendor was adapted into a fairly successful film. At least, I think it was fairly successful. Then Craig Thompson worked for five years on his graphic novel Blankets for Top Shelf, and it was a critical and commercial success, both in the United States and internationally. Craig then signed a book deal with Pantheon, and suddenly it seemed like every alternative/indie cartoonist was dreaming of signing the big book deal with a mainstream publisher, and literary agents were looking to sign up the top graphic novel talent, and there seemed to be an unreal amount of opportunities for cartoonists whose previous publishing dreams involved printing somewhere other than the local copy shop.

I signed up with a literary agent back in 2006. I happened to draw a commission for someone, who put up a copy of it in her cubicle, where it was subsequently spotted by Marc Gerald, who signed me up, and helped me get a two-book deal with Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. So I had my big book deal with a big publisher, and my name was added to the list of cartoonists who were now graphic novelists, thanks to their big book deals with big publishers. It’s been a great experience, and the second of those two books will be coming out a few days after I’m writing this. Somewhere in the back of my mind, though, is that worry about the graphic novel bubble.
In a period of incredible growth for the graphic novel form—in terms of market, media coverage, and critical respect—there’s always the fear that it’s all too much and all happening too fast. Publishers will realize not every cartoonist is going to sell as well as the Alison Bechdels of the world, and not all of their work will stand the test of time as well as Maus. Then there’ll be the inevitable backlash, with graphic novels remaindered and cartoonists returning to their day jobs, and people finding something else to read. Comics has been through the bubble effect before, after all, in the early ’90s, when variant covers and special collector’s-item first issues were so overprinted they’re worth less than what it cost to print them at this point. Actually, that’s probably not true; I’m exaggerating a bit and too lazy to back up my rambling thoughts with actual statistics or cite sources, but the fact remains that that bubble burst and suddenly publishers like Marvel were filing for bankruptcy and comic shops were going out of business.
Still, 15 or 20 years later, there’s still comics being made, and maybe more quality work than ever before. People are still buying graphic novels, and still reading them, and occasionally turning them into movies. Reviews show up in places like People magazine and USA Today, and the authors get features in places like The New York Times and GQ. There’s now a Best American Comic series to go along with the Best American Short Stories and Fiction and Poetry, etc. There’s even comics classes offered at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and comics art shows at the Louvre. So if it is a bubble, it’s a pretty big one. Which I suppose should be even more worrisome, since if it pops, it’ll be pretty bad, I guess. But for some reason, the more I think about it, the more the worry dissipates for me.
What it all comes down to, I think, is content. A good story is a good story, a meaningful work of art is worthwhile, and these are things people will always be interested in. Comics has established itself as a form more than capable of expressing important and meaningful ideas, and whatever involvement markets and media want to have—or someday not have—won’t change that comics is a form artists and authors may use to make powerful works of art. It’s nice that making comics can be a day job, but whatever impact the graphic novel bubble and its potential bursting may have, it won’t change that cartoonists can still make great work, and at least some will continue to, and I have no doubts that there will be great graphic novels written in our future. Even if it means heading back to the local copy shop to print them up.