Graphic Novel Panel Explores Expanding Market

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It had to be a cultural milestone in the mainstream acceptance of graphic novels.

The in-store book group at the unquestionably mature Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, Washington, recently chose as its featured discussion title Chris Ware's Guardian Prize-winning graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon).

"When they announced it, people applauded," said Paul Constant, who three years ago started the "graphica" section at Elliott Bay, to showcase the burgeoning genre of bound comics and graphic books.

"Graphica" is now estimated to be a $100 million market, one which encompasses an eye-boggling array of books: from works like Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction work of family history, Maus (Pantheon), through all manner of Japanese manga (comic books); from new stories with classic Disney characters, to the comic-book series American Splendor, a movie version of which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

Movies, TV series, and cartoon-animation shows are all cross-pollinating with graphica, from America to Europe to Asia. "If we see something on the Cartoon Network and there's a manga on it, we know it's going to be a hot title," said Mike Roberson, sales representative for San Francisco publisher Viz, who was on the panel of a well-attended graphic-novel event, "Shelling & Selling Graphic Novels," at the recent BookExpoAmerica.

As the graphics market has expanded, so has its audience. "The traditional assumption was that comics buyers were teenage boys," said Rory Root, longtime proprietor of Berkeley's Comic Relief store. "But the average-age buyer now is 27.5 years old. We get everyone from people who are preliterate, to some who've been buying from us for 30 years. There are teenage girls, manga addicts, who camp out at our store after school. When they're going home for dinner, the college kids are coming in. When they leave, mom and dad are arriving. It's gratifying to see we can reach such a different demographic."

Reaching the "mature" bookbuyer -- the sort of reader most likely to buy a Book Sense 76 fiction title, say -- is still a challenge for booksellers who themselves are still learning the ins and outs of graphic novels.

"A few key titles, starting with Maus, and Palestine by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics), led the way" in readers' and retailers' awareness of the possibilities in this new literature, said Chris Oliveros, Drawn & Quarterly publisher. "Stores have seen those have been big titles, and they look to see if there's more out there. And they find there's quite a bit."

Specialty houses like Viz, Dark Horse, and a host of others are in the vanguard of graphic-novel publishing now. "I think down the road, we're going to see more general publishers doing this," said the panel moderator Calvin Reid, Publishers Weekly news editor. "For now, it's spotty, with a couple (mainstream) houses like Norton bringing out well-done and well-marketed titles."

Elliott Bay's Constant also thinks the day will come when graphic novels are no longer a novelty but "just another way of publishing." Until then, Constant urged his bookseller colleagues: "Just treat them like any other book -- not like a disabled stepchild." -- Tom Nolan