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Graphic Novel Galaxy 

click to enlarge A page from Ron Marz's _Witchblade_.
  • A page from Ron Marz's _Witchblade_.
The Golden Age of Comics arose in the 1930s with the creation of Superman, Batman, and DC Comics. Wonder Woman appeared in 1940, the year legendary graphic artist Will Eisner undertook a weekly newspaper comic series known as The Spirit, featuring a masked crime fighter. Experimenting with the medium beyond the superhero formula, by 1978 Eisner had drawn A Contract with God, four related stories about a single tenement in the Bronx. Hoping to entice a mainstream publisher for the book-length work, he called it a “graphic novel.” And thus a genre was born.
Three decades later, the term graphic novel continues to mean a longish comic book that follows a single storyline, including superhero and cosmic adventure tales. It also refers to serious “literary” picture stories aimed at intelligent readership. Often produced by a lone author who draws, writes, inks, and letters the complete work, the standard bearer is Art Spiegelman’s 1986 Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Holocaust. According to Mark Siegel, editorial director at New York City’s avant-garde comic book press First Second, “More and more styles and possibilities are now available for graphic illustrators and writers whose works blur categories and span readership. In addition to fiction of all kinds, graphic novels have expanded into nonfiction categories, such as personal memoirs, biographies, history, comics journalism, and visual essays.”
The field has increasingly opened to women as well, with notable nonfiction titles including Marjane Satrapi’s Iranian-girlhood portrait Persepolis; Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s recovery memoir Cancer Vixen; and Alison Bechdel’s familial tragicomedy Fun Home. Helping pave the way for today’s gender inclusion, High Falls actor, playwright, and comic book writer Elaine Lee can remember “a time when a comic book convention was the only place in America where there was no line in the ladies room.” Co-creator of the Marvel space opera Starstruck, which introduced Brucilla the Muscle in skin-tight outfit, Lee’s work ushered in a new era of cartoon Amazons and femme fatales. She continued to cast strong and sexy females in edgy series she scripted for DC during the 1990s.
Another pioneering comic book artist, Woodstock resident Jim Starlin, witnessed the graphic-novel big bang, having worked for DC, Marvel Comics, and others since the early 1970s. Creator of the cosmic villain Thanos, his titles include Amazing Spider-Man, Batman, and Incredible Hulk. Growing up in Detroit during the 1950s, Starlin discovered his vocation as a child. “It was not a cultural nirvana, but a bit of a wasteland,” he recalled, reached by phone in his home studio. “So I got into comics at age eight. My father was a draftsman for Chrysler and would bring home tracing paper. I started tracing comics and was self-taught.” Influenced by Golden and Silver Age (1950s and `60s) artists Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, he first turned out imitative amateur fanzines, selling a few pages to DC editor Joe Orlando in 1972. “Around that time, the industry started to boom and Marvel went from 16 to 60 titles a month,” Starlin explained. “They hired anyone who could draw straight and hold a pencil.” Though the single anatomy class he took at the Art Students League in New York City would prove helpful, he noted, “In my generation, no one went to art school. Back then, comics was the poor people’s art, largely done by poor Jewish and Italian kids coming out of Brooklyn.”

Characterized in the current issue of Comic Art as one of the genre’s first auteur artists, Starlin developed a personal aesthetic early on that departed from “house style” in reimaging a minor Lee/Kirby creation, Adam Warlock. The result is “a crazily dense, heady, philosophy-minded space opera,” according to writer Douglas Wolk. “Warlock was one of the first American metacomics—a story whose subtext had to do with the comics industry and the art of cartooning.” The meta-device remains a staple in graphic novels, artist-illustrators often depicting themselves hunched over drafting boards.
Noting another of his landmark achievements, Starlin stated, “I did the first-ever graphic novel in this country in 1982, The Death of Captain Marvel—80 pages. The French had been doing single stories for years, but there wasn’t anything that long in the United States, where you had a 17- to 22-page story until a serialized annual.”
Starlin’s Titan Thanos headlines in Marvel’s recently released, graphic novel-formatted The Infinity Gauntlet, illustrated by George Perez and Ron Lim and named for a gem-encrusted magical glove that grants the wearer power to destroy a goodly chunk of the universe with a flick of the wrist. Thanos sets about on this very mission, hoping to woo Mistress Death, which results in a gathering of superheroes—including Hulk, Spider-Man, and Wolverine—bent on reversing the Titan’s destructive course. While Starlin has also based comics around real-life themes, from cancer to incest, he admitted, “I’ve chosen to do superheroes because I like them. There’s also creativity versus the market; I need to make a living at this.”
Straddling the comic galaxy between mainstream and auteurism, Starlin’s newest graphic novel, Kid Kosmos, features 144 pages of his original story and art. Set partly in the Hudson Valley, it stars slang-talking young orphan Ray Torres, an anointed cosmic guardian who tangles with nemesis Hyperion Mors and other galactic threats, combats terrorism (President Bush and cabinet members portrayed in ironic send-ups) and prevents everyday catastrophes. In the final chapter, Kid Kosmos comes to the rescue when “a safety railin’ doesn’t live up to its promise” and a New Paltz Day School bus skids off the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge into the Hudson River.
Similar to the Cosmic Guard choosing Ray Torres as a protégé, their creator inducted real-life Ron Marz into the league of American comics writers. “It’s all Jim Starlin’s fault,” Marz quipped when asked by phone what led him to the industry. A Marist College graduate born and raised in Kingston, Marz lived in Woodstock while writing for the Kingston Daily Freeman. Meeting several Hudson Valley comic book artists rekindled a childhood interest in the genre. In the early 1990s, he co-wrote Silver Surfer storylines with mentor Starlin, who convinced Marvel to turn the series over to Ron. “It was kind of like jumping right into the major leagues without doing the minors,” said Marz. “And work has been steady ever since. I’ve danced with all the girls at the party—DC, Image, Dark Horse, and other publishers.” Additionally, he has provided expertise to film directors Guy Ritchie and John Woo.
Marz now lives in Duanesburg, outside of Albany. He recently wrapped a seven-year stint as main writer on DC’s Green Lantern. “I got to reinvent it from the ground floor,” the author said. He likewise inherited Witchblade, a formerly “girlie, pinup-type series,” turning it into a supernatural-noir vehicle featuring New York City police detective Sara Pezzini; “and the character keeps her clothes on.” Witchblade: Awakenings (issues 86-92 collected in graphic novel form by Top Cow Press) includes compelling artwork by over a dozen contributors, along with intelligent writing certain to hook traditional mystery-genre fans. Though the process of collaborative comic-book construction is different for almost every project, Marz likens it to producing a play or film. “As the writer you’re really visualizing the whole project, so that an artist can essentially draw what’s in your head,” he explained.
Crossing over into the realm of single-story graphic novels, Marz has released innovative titles for Dark Horse, including Samurai: Heaven and Earth, written in English and French and gorgeously drawn by Luke Ross, with artful, muted coloring by Jason Keith. Beginning in feudal Japan of 1704 and marching through time and space across China and Europe to the halls of King Louis XIV’s Versailles, it follows samurai warrior Shiro, who tracks the beautiful Lady Yoshiko, stolen by his enemies.
“As the graphic novel market matures, you’re going to see a whole lot of diversity in style in how you tell a story,” Marz stated.
As Samurai illustrates, globalization, both in terms of multicultural storylines and authorship, is another important development within the expanding graphic novel universe. “Comics have come so far, even in the time from when I started doing it, because of changes in production,” Marz said. In place of Xeroxed storyboard paste-ups delivered via fax or FedEx, writers and artists presently exchange work digitally and electronically. “Now nobody leaves their house,” admitted Marz, “which is how an American writer can script a story about a Japanese warrior, illustrated by a Brazilian artist [Ross].” Marz currently serves as an editor and consultant for Virgin, a comic book venture in India targeting the East Asian market.
Likewise ascendant in the global-readership stratosphere, canny editor Mark Siegel’s First Second imprint has attracted an international roster of author-artists, including Franco-Belgian comics movement luminary Joan Sfar (Vampire Loves) and Malaysian superstar cartoonist Lat (Kampung Boy). Raised in France and long accustomed to comics as broadly mainstream, Siegel observes, “It’s a perfect storm of convergence for graphic novels. There’s a worldwide pool of talent who feel this is their elected medium, this is their chosen way of expression—like music was in the 1960s: a vital form. There’s also the wave of reviews, critical coverage and visibility in popular culture and film. All this means that every major publishing house is jumping on the bandwagon. In the next couple of years there will be wave after wave of illustrated stories flooding the world.”
The world seems extremely receptive. Graphic novels have spawned recent movies (Sin City, V for Vendetta, 300) and turned up in college curricula; even the New York Times Magazine has started to serialize graphic novels in its Funny Pages. As Marz summed it up, “More and better comics are being produced today than ever before, and there’s more of an audience than ever before. Within the medium there’s a realization that you can tell any story—about the Holocaust, about someone with cancer—and that the marriage between word and image can be more powerful than prose alone.” Make that super-powerful.


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