Graphic Novels Are Comic Books, But Gentrified

In the age of gentrification, a financial logic shapes cultural products just as much as the neighborhoods we live in. The rise of graphic novels is a case of aesthetic gentrification — the transformation of comic books into a glossier product marked by high prices and middle-class values.

Two boys reading reading comics at a newsstand, circa 1955, United States. FPG / Hulton Archive / Getty

Walk into almost any bookstore today and you’ll find an aisle dedicated to a peculiar hybrid — the graphic novel. Combining fantasy with fine art, highbrow concepts with lowbrow caricature, graphic novels are neither literary novels, nor do they necessarily contain any graphic content. While they sometimes rival their literary forebears for length and seriousness, many of them don’t even tell fictional stories — take the example of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir Maus or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Put simply, graphic novels are comic books — or, more precisely, ‘what comics have become in an age of gentrification.

This formerly popular medium now wins Pulitzer Prizes and American Book Awards, is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and adapted into arthouse films that include the animated Persepolis and the Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color. As the example of the graphic novel shows, gentrification has become increasingly entwined with culture as it continues to spread across urban neighborhoods and seeps into rural enclaves.

When the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in 1964, she was describing how Victorian properties that served as boarding houses for the poor were being converted into representative apartments for London’s bourgeoisie. Today, we are as likely to associate it with the yoga studios and specialty coffee shops now transforming areas which were long home to large working-class and ethnic-minority populations.

The construction of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao is commonly identified as the moment that convinced urban planners worldwide that their regional hub needed its own contemporary art gallery. Paired with punitive laws against loitering, this injection of culture promised to attract college-educated professionals, delivering the increased property values investors craved and displacing unwanted social elements — the classic logic of gentrification.

Aesthetic Gentrification

Yet important to understand, here, is the fact that more grassroots changes often preceded neoliberal policy measures. In the 1980s, recent arrivals to Sydney’s inner-city neighborhoods began to paint their newly acquired houses in pastel colors as a mark of distinction. What might be called aesthetic gentrification was not lost on cultural sociologists.

In 1996, Richard Peterson and Roger Kern compared the first two National Surveys on Public Participation in the Arts, which had been conducted some years earlier in the United States. The authors noted that America’s middle classes were engaging with cultural practices and goods that their parents and grandparents usually looked down upon.

Where an older bourgeoisie distanced itself from working-class entertainment, the dominant strategy was now to “gentrify elements of popular culture and incorporate them into the dominant status group.” Since then, attendance at prestigious art events, like theater and opera, has declined further, alongside the number of Americans who read literature. As the appeal of elite culture decreases, cultural commodities including television, comic books, and science fiction have flourished. Indeed, their transformation bears the distinct characteristics of gentrification.

The rise of so-called quality television has occasioned sufficient commentary and need not be reiterated here. For its part, science fiction now competes for major literary prizes under the guise of speculative fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, shared winner of the 2019 Booker prize, is one recent example and surely a candidate for a prestigious TV adaptation after the success of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Gentrifying Comics

The transformation of comic books may seem rather less remarked upon, until we remember that they now sell under a more prestigious moniker — graphic novels. Where land gentrification spreads tentacles into poor neighborhoods, its aesthetic sibling affects popular genres long associated with working-class or juvenile audiences.

The underlying strategy remains the same, and has been termed the “rent gap.” In land gentrification, the rent gap articulates the disparity between the current value of real estate that was neglected due to deindustrialization and suburban flight and its potential valuation in the future. A similar form of speculation defines aesthetic gentrification.

Cultural products that are marketed to less affluent audiences generally command lower prices. Thus, science-fiction novels were traditionally sold as magazine stories or cheap paperbacks, often at newsstands alongside other pulp literature, including comic books. Starting after World War II, these formats came under growing competition from television, impacting their long-term profitability. Television, in turn, has now come under similar pressure.

What began with the multiplication of niche networks continues today with the movement of advertising revenues online. The promotion of supposedly high-quality content placed behind paywalls constitutes an attempt to close this particular rent gap at a time when rentier capitalism has taken hold of contemporary culture.

The wider appeal of television notwithstanding, the graphic novel may constitute the clearest instance of aesthetic gentrification. Many of the best-known graphic artists today, from Alison Bechdel to Art Spiegelman, grew up with comic strips and magazines and retain strong emotional ties to the medium. Unlike their parents or grandparents, the generations that came of age during or after the 1960s did not reject youth culture as adults. Rather, they set about transforming what they had grown to love.

A similar nostalgia characterizes land gentrification, which thrives on the preservation of historical heritage, whether in the conversion of factory buildings into lofts, or the recapture of Victorian townhouses. In both variants of gentrification, artists play a crucial role.

In contrast to their more working-class predecessors, artists often possess plenty of cultural capital that may be converted into economic profit with the right endurance and innovation. Where earlier comics creators toiled under quasi-industrial divisions of labor — visual artists, writers, letterers, and colorists worked under the supervision of powerful editors — today’s graphic novelists have accrued the status of brilliant auteurs.

Repackaged Products

The transformation of comic books cannot be understood without considering the term “graphic novel.” Originating in 1960s fan zines, during the following decade the epithet began to adorn comics narratives that went beyond the usual page length of serial magazines.

In 1978, Will Eisner marketed a volume of loosely connected short stories, titled A Contract with God, as a graphic novel in order to encourage sales in bookshops. Marvel and DC Comics took heed, hiring industry professionals to pen longer stories or repackaging existing tales as single volumes — at a significantly higher price, of course. Translations of Japanese manga also started to enter foreign markets, providing a steady stream of paperbacks and attracting a more diverse readership.

The early years of the graphic novel do contain many underappreciated gems, including wonderful work by female artists such as Julie Doucet and Debbie Drechsler. Yet the format’s breakthrough into the literary market heavily rests on two famous titles. Awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Spiegelman’s Maus transformed the genre’s public perception and firmly established comics on high school and college reading lists.

Similarly important was the success of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, an evocation of Chicago history as seen by its lonely and eponymous protagonist. Published by Knopf under its Pantheon imprint, Jimmy Corrigan marked the arrival of leading literary publishers. Their distribution networks ensured increased sales, attracted a new generation of authors, and guaranteed regular reviews in the mainstream media.

Chris Oliveros, founder of Montreal’s alternative comics press Drawn & Quarterly, has described Jimmy Corrigan as a sea-change that led to a wave of more literary graphic novels, including Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Bechdel’s Fun Home, and demonstrated their mainstream marketability. Ware’s finely crafted aesthetic and education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago proved another point — that graphic novels could add the status of visual art to their literary credentials. Publishers such as Pantheon and Drawn & Quarterly have since gone on exploit this artistic cachet through elaborate hardcover editions priced on par with expensive coffee-table books.

Middle-Class Concerns

It might come as a surprise that artists like Spiegelman and Alan Moore regularly express ambivalence about the term graphic novel. But this gesture mirrors those early gentrifiers who bemoan the further evolution of a process they helped set in motion. Spiegelman and Moore’s repeated description of the term graphic novel as a marketing ploy is doubly misleading.

For one, it denies their own role in establishing the graphic novel as the standard format of contemporary comics, both in English-speaking countries and in much of Latin America and Europe. In the early 2000s, Spiegelman even lobbied the US publishing industry to introduce a new shelf category for graphic novels in mass-market bookstores. College professors have shown no such hesitation in their embrace of the form.

The term’s literary claims have finally secured institutional backing for an area of study that was once taken about as seriously as comics themselves. Today, academic journals and professional associations devoted to comics and graphic novels are founded with increasing regularity. Expertise in graphic novels may even secure that hallowed and, increasingly elusive, aim of the humanities scholar — a tenure-track job.

As in the middle-class colonization of neighborhoods, aesthetic gentrification goes beyond novel terms and glossy packaging. The fact that pastel colors have spread through the pages of graphic novels as widely as they did through central Sydney and London may be read as a sign of greater changes. With prices aimed at bourgeois audiences have come middle-class concerns.

Nonetheless, nostalgia for the good old times of superhero, horror, and adventure comics should be avoided — indeed, it is nostalgia that animates gentrification in the first place. In truth, a good deal of comics production throughout the twentieth century was instantly forgettable, frequently sexist, and sometimes outright racist. Yet, despite their shortcomings, serial comics often gave expression to working-class concerns: a dogged depiction of unequal and unending power struggles and an anarchic subversion of everyday life.

In contrast, scholars of the graphic novel tend to celebrate the graphic memoir, a subgenre that accords with their own middle-class values. Then again, the obsession with personal identity and a constitutive blindness to the issue of class have long been hallmarks of gentrification, whether in graphic novels or in the neighborhoods in which they are most often read.