DURHAM — These days, comics are serious business. A medium that started a century or so ago as single-frame amusements in newspapers back pages has matured into a form with million-dollar collectibles, graphic novels about AIDS, alienation and war, and even academic appreciation.
It encompasses a whole universe now that has nothing to do with funny, said Will Hansen, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Duke University.
Hansen was on a scholarly panel talking about comics or, as he put it, narrative sequential art at the Durham County Librarys Southwest Branch on Sunday afternoon. It was the closing event of a two-day Comics Fest that included workshops on creating comics for kids and grownups, a talk by a best-selling author of graphic novels and the panel on which Duke and UNC scholars discussed comics evolution and their recognition as cultural products deserving serious attention.
There is a lot bigger range (of comics) that is available than there was 10, 20 years ago, said Patrick Holt, a Comics Fest organizer who writes a newsletter on comics for the librarys website (nextreads.com). Now, there are lots of different kinds of stories in a medium once dominated by superheroes such as Batman and Superman, he said.
Its not just comics changing, its peoples attitudes about comics, said Amy Godfrey, a childrens librarian at the Southwest Branch and one of the Comics Fest organizers.
There are certain formats and certain genres academic libraries traditionally did not collect, said Kirill Tolpygo, UNC librarian for Slavic and East European Resources. Something like comics or childrens books were not in the purview, and thats changed a lot.
For one thing, the comics have been established as objects of value, Hansen said: First editions of Spiderman and Superman go for $1 million.
For another, comics have evolved. From newspaper funny pages, publishers expanded the form into a superhero boom with serial booklets on newsprint in the 1930s, said Ben Boling, a UNC graduate student. Those spun off other comic genres such as westerns and science fiction.
Sara Appel, a Duke graduate student, said comics represent a kind of working-class literature ... always associated with kids and sort of lowbrow. But, delving into comic books, she found women writers used the form to address feminist issues in the 1970s.
Appel said shes particularly interested in present-day upward mobility stories told in comic form, such as a graphic novel about a teenage single mother trying to get into a community college.
You dont have to have any formal education or training to create or engage with this literature, she said. Its such an accessible medium.
In an earlier program Sunday, cartoonist Nate Powell talked about his own career. Powell has written or illustrated several books that have sold heavily and won critical acclaim, such as Swallow Me Whole, about a mentally ill teenager, The Silence of Our Friends, about a black youngster growing up in 1960s Texas, and Any Empire, about nationalism and military violence ... and the way its woven itself into our culture.
The characters in his books are kids, he said, but the things I write and draw are for adults.