This critical study is written for people who take comics seriously. Hatfield, an assistant professor of English at California State University, successfully establishes a historical and theoretical framework in which graphic novels can be considered "literature." He begins with the 1960s comix movement, when people began creating graphic fiction that improvised on personal and social themes, and he shows how that artistic impulse has continued to develop. Along the way, he confronts the kind of serious questions that accompany the birth of a new genre of literature, examining Gilbert Hernandez's use of extreme temporal and thematic shifts in Love & Rockets and Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman's use of exaggerated cartoons to present tragic real-life experiences. Insights into these issues emerge from a sometimes exhausting survey of critical theory and an invigorating close reading of important comics. Hatfield recognizes the real-world limitations of alternative comics and graphic novels, but he also sees their potential for stimulating readers' appreciation of life. It's hard to imagine anyone coming away from this book without new insights, a deeper respect for comics as a challenging artistic form and sharper reading skills to use when enjoying new comics.
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An outgrowth from the underground comics of the 1960s, alternative comics took shape in the 1980s in such serial publications as the Hernandez brothers' Love and Rockets and the anthology raw, edited by Art Spiegelman, whose Maus later ratified comics as a literary form. Hatfield shows how the movement rejected mainstream comics by snubbing old genres; developing such new ones as autobiography, history, and journalism; employing a wider range of graphic styles; and incorporating international influences. After an overview of the movement, Hatfield focuses on some seminal works in detailed, lucid readings of such milestones as Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar and Justin Green's Binky Brown, as well as autobiographical comics by Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, and others. Knowledgeable and erudite, Hatfield makes a compelling case for at least the comics he examines as worthy of serious attention. If his jargon occasionally makes hard slogging for nonacademics (such as when he discusses theories anent the comics-reading process), anyone interested in investigating comics as a serious literary form could find no better starting place. Gordon Flagg
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