2015-05-06 18:30:02.069572

These graphic novels changed everything

A timeline leading up to today's wildly popular format

David Silverberg

The rise and sprawl of graphic novels can be attributed to a mouse, a Metis leader and a slacker named Pilgrim. 

So says Peter Birkemoe, owner of comics store The Beguiling and a TCAF co-founder, whom we asked to identify the seminal moments in graphic novel history. 

Look, he says, at how Art Spiegelman's Holocaust drama Maus lifted those panels and talk bubbles from the dusty corners of bookstores to worldwide acclaim. Serialized from 1980 to 91 in Raw before appearing in book form, it framed the Holocaust in a way never seen before. "After people read Maus," Birkemoe recalls, "they asked 'Okay, what else can I check out?'"

A big break for serious comics in Canada was the 2004 publication of Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. The illustrated history of the Metis leader was a watershed moment for Canadian graphic novels, Birkemoe says, because it quickly topped bestseller lists side by side with venerable names in CanLit. Brown was soon known as one of the form's finest Canadian practitioners, with an impressive range: his follow-up book in 2011 chronicled his frequent solicitation of Toronto prostitutes.

Finally, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series welcomed a new generation of graphic novel readers. 

"Not only was it influenced by manga in Japan," Birkemoe says, "but Pilgrim shared with readers the world of net culture and gaming references, and no one had done that before." 

Birkemoe remembers a jaw-dropping lineup of 2,000 people outside the Beguiling when Markham Street was blocked off for the release of the final Scott Pilgrim book. It was something out of a rock concert. 

As for the future of the graphic novel, he says it couldn't be rosier. Sales are up year after year at his store, and a new demographic is being drawn to the form: female readers. 

"Superhero comics aren't just the domain of adolescent males or guys who still want to remain adolescent," he says. Women are also inspired by female authors like Alison Bechdel and Mariko Tamaki.    

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