The assumption that comic books are for children, greasy-haired science fiction geeks, or middle-aged Japanese businessmen with a penchant for mildly paedophilic pop-eyed porn, is dead. The screen has certainly helped comics become mainstream, with adaptations of Marvel's 1960s superheroes and DC's modern American urban myths, as well as the magical film Manga of Miyazaki, all proving to have widespread appeal. A stage adaptation of Tintin is perfect for a generation already learning about Macbeth and Nazism through cartoons, and the term "graphic novel" - a 60s attempt to lend edgy adult validity to serious European narratives emerging alongside the American action-hero strips - no longer has a defensive ring.
Indeed, adult comic books are securing prime Waterstones square footage, and it's not all Raymond Briggs. Last year, as Bryan Appleyard and Rachel Cooke noticed, new mainstream comics hit a seam of popular gold, as canny publishing houses combined the trend for modern tales of ordinary lives (highlighted when Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001) with the marketing magic of a feminine twist. In 2007, the Sex and the City generation had Marisa Acocella Marchetto's Cancer Vixen; their mothers, Posy Simmonds' Hardy-inspired Tamara Drewe; their art-student sisters, the indie autobiographies Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood.
But if Ware, Simmonds and co have nailed the shame-free graphic novel, other authors are producing equally original and inspiring work that can only be described as graphic poetry. A comic book nerd ever since I fell in love with Obelix aged eight, I love everything from Preacher to Maus to Robert Crumb, and have been reading more graphic novels than ever since I started blogging. However, although the narrative-heavy, tragicomic autobiography is the acceptable face of the comic for the noughties twentysomething gal, I've been increasingly drawn back to the simpler, more surreal, more child-oriented and often wordless works of authors such as David Wiesner and Shaun Tan.
Nominal heirs of Maurice Sendak (whose Where The Wild Things Are is in fact touted for a Spike Jonze-helmed film release in 2009), Tan and Wiesner produce comic books which are absolutely not just for kids. Their images, incredibly dense and haunting, immerse the reader in elliptical, subtle narratives that demand both imaginative collaboration and meticulous attention to detail. Where they do use words, they become illuminated with ambiguous but satisfying significance. Weisner's Tuesday (winner of the 1992 Caldecott medal), an eerie tale of urban Americana beset by a visitation of flying frogs, manages to be simultaneously apocalyptic and benign; Tan's The Red Tree is one of the most moving, insightful and redemptive accounts of loneliness and depression I have ever read. Indeed, much of Tan's work - including his stunning new book The Arrival, which has just arrived in the UK - is concerned with the politically provocative themes of displacement, isolation and dislocation, and speaks all the more powerfully to the adult psyche because of it's elements of weird, childlike fantasy. As they put it in the excellent Graphic Novel Review, "comic books just do things a little more strangely than other storytelling forms, and they always have."
Indeed, the more I read and write blogs, the more these graphic novels appeal. Online writing feels vividly 3D: links to further videos, images, texts and news lurk behind typed words like little mines of further illumination, explanation or exploration: a visual example of Virginia Woolf's famous assertion that "I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth." Graphic novels simulate what I believe to be the most successful writing online: fewer words, sometimes exhilaratingly strange, fronting a whole other visual and textual dimension.
The edgy adult releases that the publishers are pushing are indeed treasure troves of inspiration and I defy you not to be blown away by Paul Hornschemeier's The Three Paradoxes. However, I'd also advocate going back to basics with a graphic poem. They're not just for children - they are in fact one of the boldest, most provocative and subtle literary forms on offer right now, and feel absolutely relevant to our times.
Burgess Powers creates web sites and applications like this one