So you want to know more about graphic novels because you've read about Christopher Ware in The New Yorker, or you noticed that Alan Moore's labyrinthine Watchmen just made Time Magazine's 100 best books in the English language list. But you also wish to avoid stores with names like "Forbidden Planet" and "The Dragon's Den?" You want to know what's good and what's bad. What's hot, what's indie, what's superhero, what's art, what's funny, what's dramatic, or simply what's going to be the next basis for a film? What follows is a highly condensed and thoroughly unfair portrait of a burgeoning genre with the briefest of glimpses at only a few representatives. It's only a start.
Let's look at Watchmen first. One of the reasons it's been proclaimed great by such disparate crowds as Time Magazine readers and comic book nerds alike is that it manages to spin so much depth into a medium that had been undervalued as a literary resource for so long. In other words, it surprised the hell out of everyone. This is a superhero comic book but Batman it ain't. Released in 1986 and 1987 in individual issues and then collected into a single volume (as is typical of most graphic novels) Watchmen's superheroes are going through some existential angst as they reach their forties and they start to feel a little reticent about running around fighting crime in costume. Officially banned from public servitude, costumed superheroes are trying to get on with their lives after having been forbidden to wear their tights and underwear and utility belts. You'll recognize the skeleton of this plot as having been co-opted in various forms since Watchmen's release, most notably in films like Batman Begins, where the notion of a costumed vigilante is treated in realistic terms, and also in The Incredibles.
Where Moore and artist Dave Gibbons take you is much bigger than that, though. Watchmen spans the 20th century in a world where Superman was released by DC comics and instead of spawning an industry it inspired otherwise normal people to create alternate identities for themselves and band together to fight crime. One of their partners in crime-fighting, The Comedian, is murdered at the beginning and as each of the former band of Watchmen reflect on their histories as superheroes we see their influence on world events, from the end of World War II through Vietnam onto the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK's assassination and up to the book's own bizarre twist of an ending to the century.
Moore and Gibbons opened the door through which the comic book and graphic novel (also referred to occasionally as linear art or novel-length comics) would eventually enter the world of respected literature. However, it's doubtful that Watchmen would have made Time's list in 1987. A lot has happened since then to pull Watchmen back into the forefront of Time's consciousness. Artists working in varying forms of the medium have turned illustration into an art form in its own right and have done much to bridge the gap between literature and visual art.
Charles Burns, who has been doing commercial illustration since the mid-80's (and who has, incidentally, done a cover or two for Time), has also been hard at work on a graphic novel about a group of teens in the 1970's who are falling victim to an unexplained disease that changes their physical appearance. His bold and iconic artwork can be spotted on every cover of the literary magazine The Believer as portraiture of the different authors interviewed in each issue. Burns was made prominent through his association with Art Spiegelman who himself is best known for the great graphic-novel-to-mainstream-literature jumper Maus, about his father's experience in a concentration camp told in the guise of cats and mice.