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The second coming of graphic novels

This time around, the revolution has not been televised.

Back in the 1980s some of us believed (for a week or two) that graphic novels were going to be the new rock'n'roll. The success of Art Spiegelman's Maus and grown-up superhero comics like The Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns had sparked a small media storm with magazine features, pop singles (anyone else remember Pop Will Eat Itself's paean to Alan Moore, Can U Dig It?) and, yes, the odd TV spot.

Some of us were wrong, of course. Turned out comedians, not comics, were the new rock'n'roll when it became clear that Maus and The Watchmen turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. Three decades on, though, and you could be forgiven for thinking we have finally arrived at the promised land. The graphic novel has for the last few years reached new heights of cultural penetration.

Thanks to both mainstream publishers (most notably Cape) and bespoke comic specialists such as Blank Slate, No Brown and Self Made Hero, there are more titles published and a much wider range of cartoons and cartoonists available to the general public, none of them superhero-related.

"I do feel that the attitude to graphic novels has shifted," believes Emma Hayley, of Self Made Hero. "There seems to be less snobbery, and people have begun to accept the medium as literature."

There are a number of reasons for this. Print costs have come down, meaning a lower entry point for small publishers. The internet and social media allow a comic-loving community to talk to each other. Art-school kids have discovered the form and, perhaps most importantly, there are now, quite simply, enough books of a suitable quality to prove that the graphic novel is an art form.

"Maybe it is the fact that this adult audience for graphic novels grew up with comics and they have finally reached a critical mass," suggests Hayley.

Does that make this a golden age? Well, possibly. But no one really wants to make that claim just yet. Sales are patchy, some areas don't sell (humour for one) and the ones that do get some traction all seem to be graphic memoirs, the descendants of Spiegelman's Maus. For that reason Kenny Penman of Blank Slate believes we've seen "the Hampsteadisation of comics", with a concentration on issue-based cartoons.

"The audience is receptive to certain material heading more towards the biographical end of the comics spectrum," he says, "which I find slightly disappointing because my conception of a grown-up comics audience is one that can read any form of comic." (Then again, the memoristic strand – including titles such as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis – is attracting female readers who were never really catered for in the 1980s.)

Penman was one of the founders of Forbidden Planet and still runs the company. He started Blank Slate in 2008 and since then he's published books by the likes of Oli East, Darryl Cunningham and last year's excellent portmanteau graphic novel Nelson. Blank Slate doesn't make money, he says, but that was never the point.

It's this enthusiasm that is key. Dan Franklin at Cape is also a huge enthusiast for the medium. He's been publishing graphic novels since the late 1990s. "It wasn't planned. Our children's department rang me up and said we have Raymond Briggs's new book and we don't think it's a kids' book. Would you be interested? I read Ernest And Ethel and I thought 'this is a stone-dead masterpiece'. It sold 200,000 copies which gave one a completely wrong impression of what might happen."

Since then Franklin has published American superstars (the term is relative, I know) Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, as well as publishing British cartoonists such as David Hughes and Joff Winterhart. "I think the writing is getting better and better." Good enough to enter for prizes, like the Booker? "We never have done it. We put them forward for certain prizes and they don't usually get shortlisted." It would be a risk to put one forward, he says.

So not quite a golden age then. But unlike 30 years ago, there is now a huge range of good work available in all forms and genres. And there are dedicated publishers keen to give us more. Maybe it's not getting on TV, but that just gives you more time to go out and find it.

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