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Is there still a place for pulpy comics in the age of the "graphic novel"?

Comic books have experienced a surprising cultural ascendence in the past decade or so. Thanks in part to “serious” comic works like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), and Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012), comics have gone from a vernacular diversion to a fine art, with countless university-level courses devoted to the “graphic novel.” But in the latest issue of Public Books, Ivan Kreilkamp, professor of English at Indiana University, asks whether there is still a place for “antisocial, pulpy” comics today. The answer he gives is resounding yes, as he examines some of the most disreputable and delightful comics being published now. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

No fan of the genre can complain about such a turn of events—and yet, surely something is also always lost in this kind of upward-mobility success story. Alison Bechdel observed a few years ago that “one of the reasons I became a cartoonist was so that I could write and draw free from the kind of critical scrutiny that I was sure would wither me if I dared to enter the lists of the fine art or literary writing worlds. Comics was a dark, disreputable place … You could do what you wanted here.”

Is there a risk now that highbrow success will wither too much of the life out of comics? Is there still room for an antisocial, pulpy “comics” within the newly canonized and pro-social “graphic novel”? Amid all of the nuanced accounts of adversity, self-realization, and historical conflict in comics form, there is, fortunately, still no shortage of cruder stuff aiming for less high-minded effects. The work of cartoonist Simon Hanselmann, author of the two collections Megahex and the new Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam (and Other Stories), for example, comes to mind. Hanselmann says of his childhood in Tasmania (the island state at the bottom of Australia, which he describes as “haunted by convicts’ ghosts”),“I was raised by my bar-working mother. My biker father left her, and she raised me on her own while doing a lot of drugs … [She was] a hardcore junkie … regularly passing out in the bathroom, overdosing.” Hanselmann, who calls himself a “‘cross-dresser’/‘transvestite,’ whatever you want to call it,” with a fluid gender identity, says he fell in love with comics as a young child after reading a Spider-Man comic that he found “strangely sexual.”

Image: Page from Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam (and Other Stories). Via Public Books.