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Graphic novels, all grown up

Art form's influence rises, and broadens. A look at three of the genre's stars.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2008

Pen man: Self-portrait of graphic novelist Jason Lutes, the creator of 'Berlin: City of Smoke.'

Courtesy of drawn & quarterly

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New York

In 1969, the American writer John Updike famously declared, "I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece."

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The statement was immediately ridiculed by literary traditionalists, who disparaged comics as a "low" medium unworthy of serious critical attention. But it became a rallying cry among comic book creators, long second-class citizens in the art world.

Forty years has proved their prescience. Graphic novels – usually defined as extended-length illustrated books with mature literary themes – have risen to widespread prominence, spurred on by the work of respected talents such as Art Spiegelman ("Maus: A Survivor's Tale") and Will Eisner ("A Contract With God").

Graphic novel sales in Canada and the United States hit $375 million in 2007, five times the figure reported in 2001, according to ICv2, a pop culture site. "Jimmy Corrigan," a book by Chris Ware, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies alone; "Persepolis," originally a graphic novel by Marjane Sartrapi, picked up an Oscar for best animated film in February.

A happy problem, then: How to pick and choose among the annual flood of titles? There's no easy rubric – this year alone has seen the rise of several young talents, each with a distinctive literary and artistic style. But a reader interested in immersing in the genre could not go wrong with any of these three books, which span the globe, from World War II-era Germany, to the closed-doors of Burmese society to quotidian existence in an alternate-universe America.

Dash Shaw – 'Bottomless Belly Button'

Writing a book can be a lonely affair. One man, one idea, and days upon days penned up in a home office, hacking over words and phrases. For the graphic novelist, things are more complex still: the book must simultaneously come alive in two dimensions. The art has to breathe, and so does the dialogue, and then the two have to complement each other, each panel building off the last.

Such was the task of 20-something artist Dash Shaw, who began penning "Bottomless Belly Button" a few years ago in Virginia, where he was attending the School of Visual Arts. He finished some 700 pages later, the proud author of a kaleidoscopic chronicle of the Loony family, population five. Most of the writing he did in his room, behind closed doors, letting his imagination spill messily onto the page.

"I wanted to do a story that was about characters," Mr. Shaw says, over lunch in New York, where he now lives. "With family stories, you don't have a lot to establish, in terms of background. These are people forced into a situation – forced into one space."