Although the state of the publishing industry has looked dark and gloomy as of late, one consistently bright spot has been in the area of graphic novels. Figures from industry website ICv2 report that sales of graphic novels have increased at least 5 percent every year since 2001, while countless indie (American Splendor, Persepolis) and mainstream (Hellboy, Watchmen) movies are mining the genre left and right. Even television is reaching for its cut, as zombie comics fans recently learned that The Walking Dead will be a series on cable TV network AMC.
What makes the form so continually engaging and relevant is the flexibility and variety of its storytelling approaches. Three new graphic novels — Tim Hamilton's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Josh Neufeld's A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, and David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp — are prime examples.
Of the three, Hamilton's adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 hews closest to the storytelling style of serialized comic books. For an adaptation of Bradbury's beloved sci-fi classic novel of dystopian censorship, that's probably a good thing. While this critic has never read 451, and therefore can't comment on the faithfulness of the adaptation, fears should be allayed by the fact that Bradbury authorized the adaptation and even calls it a "further rejuvenation" of the story.
Faithful or not, the intellectually and viscerally engaging story is quite effective in graphic form. Hamilton's consistently muted color palette of blacks, blues, and grays sustains the overarching brooding mood and renders the bright flashes of red and orange flames all the more startling in contrast. Fans of 451 should find this version illuminating, and those who haven't read the original novel may seek it out after reading this fine adaptation.
A.D. goes off in another direction entirely, taking a potent Studs Terkel-style oral history/memoir approach to Hurricane Katrina. Deeply inspired by a stint as a disaster response volunteer for the Red Cross after the storm — and simultaneously frustrated with inaccurate mainstream media coverage — Josh Neufeld put on his journalist's cap to seek out people who experienced the disaster in New Orleans firsthand.
Based on in-person interviews with seven survivors, Neufeld weaves their stories together over 11 days of the storm and its aftermath. With each day delineated by a different color palette and timestamps marking significant events, the sense of impending doom is palpable as the storm passes through, the levees break, the city floods, and those remaining are left to pick up the pieces. By putting human faces to these stories, Neufeld makes it impossible for the reader to be anything but totally emotionally embedded in the story. A.D. is a terrifying but poignant read.
David Mazzucchelli is known for his work in serial superhero comics (Daredevil and Batman: Year One, a collaboration with Frank Miller) and a graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's novel City of Glass. His first solo graphic novel, Asterios Polyp, is already being hailed as a classic of the genre, and, truthfully, there's no reason to dispute the chorus of giddy critical pronouncements.
The sympathetic title character Asterios is a charismatic and brilliant architect and aesthete. He's also a cocky, chauvinistic asshole. The story time-trips back and forth to tell the ups and downs of his relationship with a talented Japanese-American sculptor named Hana, while mixing in musings on the philosophy of art and love along the way. In the wrong hands this material could be overwrought and pretentious, but Mazzucchelli's work here is, by turns, both funny and touching.
Asterios is a brilliant bit of storytelling, but it's the way the jaw-droppingly gorgeous illustrations interact with the text — rather than just illustrating the text — that really makes the book so enthralling and justifies its reputation. This is, no doubt, one you'll come back to again and again.