America has a habit of "discovering" those extended comic books known as graphic novels every few years. It happened when Art Spiegelman published his shattering Holocaust comic Maus (and won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for it). It happened again in 2000, with the movie of Daniel Clowes' alienation epic Ghost World. And now we're coming back to the graphic novel yet again thanks to the film American Splendor, which is based on the autobiographical comic book by Harvey Pekar, who writes about life as a hard-luck, sad-sack, hospital file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. He's no superhero: the only flying he does is under the radar.
It's easy to underestimate graphic novels--after all, they look just like their less evolved forebears, comic books, and if that's not bad enough, they have been saddled with that awkward name. (Maybe it would help if we called them tragic books?) They get sold in comic-book stores or shelved in that corner of Barnes & Noble that buzzes with preteen X-Men fans, a place where self-respecting adult readers fear to tread. No wonder Pekar wrote American Splendor for 27 years before mainstream America finally took notice. The graphic-novel business is reportedly worth about $100 million a year, but it still has no honor in the country that invented it. Yet some of the most interesting, most daring, most heartbreaking art being created right now, of both the verbal and the visual varieties, is being published in graphic novels. These books take on memory, alienation, film noir, child abuse, life in postrevolutionary Iran and, of course, love, and they hit all the harder because we don't expect wisdom and truth from characters who talk in speech bubbles. So go ahead. Read on, and discover the graphic novel all over again. --By Lev Grossman