BOOK REVIEW / Stripped and ready for action: Roger Sabin reflects on the high hopes for the graphic novel this year

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The Independent Culture
1992 was heralded as the time when graphic novels would finally attain respectability, with mainstream publishers committing themselves to the field. But it never happened. Apart from Art Spiegelman's magnificent Maus II (Penguin, pounds 8.99), there was only a stream of glossy, pretentious albums that tried to imitate other art-forms, notably films. Some publishers seem not to understand that comics work best as a medium in their own right.

That is why the best albums of the year have come from established comics publishers, and have kept to tried and trusted genres. R Crumb Draws the Blues (Knockabout pounds 6.99) was a marvellously funny collection of strips from 1970-91 on a theme of blues and jazz. Crumb is clearly in love with his subject, and instead of peppering the strips with wisecracks, allows the humour to emerge from the characters. His biographies of Charlie Patton and Jelly Roll Morton, for example, temper the tragedies of their lives with a sympathetic wit, and are among the best work he has ever produced. Crumb is often dismissed as an outdated wild man from the 1960s underground. Don't believe it: this collection is proof of greater maturity, and shows the volcano is still active.

Horror, always a comics staple, has had a good year. Taboo (Tundra, pounds 9.95) is an outstanding quarterly anthology which aims to bring the genre up to date with developments in cinema and fiction. This inevitably means there is lots of gore and sex; but it is never gratuitous, and rarely overpowers the often genuinely creepy stories. Thrillers also fared well; Sin City (Titan Books, pounds 7.99) marked a scorching return to form for Frank Miller, the creator of the 1986 blockbuster Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. The hard- boiled narrative (involving murder, conspiracy theories and a corrupt police force) has a barrelling momentum that is stoked up by Miller's pared-down dialogue and superb black-and-white chiaroscuro artwork. This is schlock with a smile; Sin City was never likely to win converts to the 'comics as serious literature' brigade, but is enormous fun all the same.

This year also saw the emergence of serious studies on the subject of comics. Two in particular have been outstanding. Maria Reidelbach's Completely MAD (Little, Brown pounds 14.99) is an engrossing history of America's most famous comic magazine, which suggests that at its peak, in the 1950s, it was considered not just satirical but positively subversive. The book is a fitting tribute to its co-founder and publisher Willian Gaines, who died in March. Richard Reynold's Superheroes (Batsford pounds 9.99) presents a semiotic take on the men in tights, and stylishly demonstrates the continuity behind their mythology. It offers a welcome perspective on DC Comics' latest move to 'kill off Superman', and points it up for the cynical money-making venture it surely is.