The Passing of Pow! and Blam!

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You may still recognize him. He remains solid for a guy of advancing middle age, even if there is a little thickening around the middle, some slackening under the firm jawline. Sartorially, as ever, his daywear is conservative, the evening wear outrageous: long flowing cape, high midnight-blue boots, tights that fit closer than epidermis and, across his chest, the shadow of a black bat, ascendant.

Batman may look the same, but he has never acted quite this way before. Grimly going after wrongdoers, he is part avenger and part vigilante. While some citizens cheer, others denounce him as the Bernhard Goetz of Gotham City, and the police commissioner issues a warrant for his arrest. He is not only a hero for a more cynical time, but the standard-bearer of a fresh form of imaginative fiction. In 1986, when Writer-Artist Frank Miller created his formidable Batman epic The Dark Knight Returns (Warner; 188 pages; $12.95), he conceived the adventure as a single narrative flow. Pictures went with the story, which was told like a movie in panels on paper. By strictest definition, that made The Dark Knight Returns a comic book, but that term, with its unfortunate suggestions of arrested adolescent development, did not accommodate either the breadth of Miller's story or the height of his ambition.

Something was stirring, all right, not only in the Batcave but also on the fringes of cultural experimentation. There another writer-artist, Art Spiegelman, brought forth Maus, a black-and-white line-drawn memoir of Hitler's Germany, where the Nazis are cats and the Jews are mice. Like The Dark Knight Returns, Maus (Pantheon; 159 pages; $8.95) came out in 1986. Warner has 80,000 copies of Knight in print. Pantheon reports that Maus, after eight printings totaling more than 100,000 copies, still sells an average of 1,000 a week. Spiegelman's tale is a hellish metaphor for history; Miller's is an evocation of pop apocalypse. Spiegelman draws simply, with calculated primitivism, while Miller is a boisterous stylist whose pictures dazzle, pummel, streak past the eye. The books have nothing in common except their success and a term that has been coined to describe them and others that are breaking off the newsstands and comic specialty shops and invading bookstores: graphic novels.

"That's just a sexy handle," says Pantheon Senior Editor Tom Engelhardt. "You take a little from a TV mini-series, a little film noir and a little Burroughs and call it a graphic novel." Call it commercial too. In Europe graphic novels command 10% of the book market. At Waldenbooks, the nation's largest bookseller, they are being given prominent display. Says Margaret Ross, manager of Waldenbooks' magazine department: "We thought they could bring in people we wouldn't usually see -- from early 20s to early 30s, science-fiction and comic collectors, well educated." Writer Alan Moore, author of Watchmen (Warner; 384 pages; $14.95) and Saga of the Swamp Thing (Warner; 161 pages; $10.95), puts the age range higher. From the nine- to * 13-year-old audience he began with in the early '80s, he says, he has shifted to 13 through 40. "People," he observes, "are beginning to take comics seriously."

This has created a heady climate of creative liberation. Spiegelman's New York City-based Raw magazine publishes some of the more outre work in graphic narrative, including the psychotic and hilarious misadventures of a couple of pen-and-ink Easter Island profiles named Amy and Jordan, chronicled by Mark Beyer. Pantheon has just issued a collection of their tribulations in book form, aptly titled Agony (173 pages; $7.95). Out on the West Coast, the work of the brothers Gilbert, Jaime and Mario Hernandez appears in books bearing the title of the comic in which they originated, Love and Rockets (Fantagraphics; $10.95 each). Los Bros Hernandez, as they sometimes bill themselves, share a fluid style embracing both the extravagances of pulp epic and the flat-light simplicity of vintage Archie comics. Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer (Eclipse; 70 pages; $19.95), set in the '30s, teems with robust adventure and romantic misalliance, all drawn in the scrumptious Sunday- funnies style of Milton Caniff. And the three volumes titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (First Publishing; $9.95 each) sport with the whole genre, portraying a quartet of Testudinatas, trained by a wise rat in the refinements of Japanese martial arts, as they swing through various U.S. metropolitan areas righting wrongs and creating mischief.

Graphic novels use, as the comics have for some time now, a whole battery of movie techniques. An artist like Miller or Dave Gibbons, who worked on Watchmen with Moore, can storyboard a zoom, a cross-fade, a jump cut or a lap dissolve with a deft immediacy that would beat many directors at their own game. Indeed, for anyone used to working the controls on a Laserdisc or VCR, freezing the frame or strobing the action, the expansive technique of graphic novels will seem comfortable and accessible.

Too often, as Critic Mikal Gilmore points out, graphic novels still tend to be "overblown bad comics, using fancy paper to do bad stories." But a work like Watchmen -- by common assent the best of breed -- is a superlative feat of imagination, combining sci-fi, political satire, knowing evocations of comics past and bold reworkings of current graphic formats into a dysutopian mystery story. It is as engagingly knotty and self-referential as The Name of the Rose, but instead of monks doubting their faith, here are superheroes weighed down by their creed, caught in a world they never made but that is remaking them, and showing no mercy. Watchmen has been attracting some heavy Hollywood attention. But a book of this scope can only be scaled down and confined on a screen, no matter how lavishly it is adapted. Graphic novels are cinema for the page, but they are already outsizing the medium they have learned so much from.