When I was a kid in second grade, I read comics," says illustrator Jeff Weigel, "but these days the comic book audience skews much older than it used to. Guys my age who remember reading comics as kids are still reading them."

Weigel, who has created superhero adventures for Image Comics' Big Bang anthologies, wanted to introduce children to "a straight-arrow character" like those he loved. So he created Atomic Ace (He's Just My Dad) (Albert Whitman, Jan. 2004), about a middle-schooler whose father wears spandex and a cape to his day job. Weigel's panels, tilted angles and bold newspaper headlines allude to pulp comics layouts, but Ace is laid out in traditional hardcover picture book format.

Publishers didn't warm to Ace immediately. "It took me three years to find interest," Weigel admits. "But when I started resubmitting, I got two offers." He had tapped the industry's growing sense that American children, as well as teenagers and adult collectors, enjoy comics and graphic-novel storytelling with a picture book approach.

Graphic picture books—which feature comics conventions like panels, voice bubbles, "meanwhile..." transitions and "kaboom!" sound effects—suggest how comics and picture books are evolving and merging. These books have caught the attention of major publishers, which can improve the distribution of once-underground titles and styles. Roaring Brook Press, Scholastic and Puffin all have plans to launch graphic novel imprints to reach a potentially all-ages market.

"Comic books were kind of polar opposites from trade books," says Roaring Brook editor Neal Porter. "But now picture books and books for older readers are embracing techniques that comic books have used, and by the same token, comics are turning to the picture book format."

Where the sexy or violent content of a graphic novel can be questionable for a young audience, and picture book content can seem tame to older readers, graphic picture books merge old formulas with unpredictable, exciting results. "Is there something that could be enjoyable for a picture book reader that a teenager wouldn't be embarrassed to be reading and that an adult could find interesting, too?" asks designer and illustrator Mark Siegel, who will head a new imprint of these books for Roaring Brook (see sidebar, p. 29). With author Lisa Wheeler, Siegel created Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta (Atheneum/ Jackson, Feb. 2004) in the graphic picture book style of Hergé's Tintin books. Siegel based Seadogs on a complex play-within-a-play concept, and he loaded its elaborate pages with panels and voice bubbles.

From Spiegelman to Stamaty

Graphic picture books' developing sensibility may be best represented by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's Little Lit series, which has led the charge since its debut in 2000. "The Little Lits are wonderful," says Michael Cavanaugh of New York City's Books of Wonder, "but I don't know whether they're responsible for the trend or part of a general move [toward blending picture books and comics]. We carry them because they're a nice crossover among adults and children, and collectors like them, too."

Cavanaugh sees the graphic novel "regenerating itself into a younger format" and believes the Spiegelman/Mouly collections are symptoms of that change. In the Little Lit books (three to date), children's authors and illustrators like David Macaulay, Barbara McClintock, J. Otto Seibold and William Joyce, and alternative cartoonists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, create original work in their signature styles, blurring the boundaries between comics and children's literature. HarperCollins editor Joanna Cotler, a longtime collector of underground comics, says that Spiegelman and Mouly "wanted to do for kids what [Spiegelman's anthology] RAW did for older readers.

"My own feeling about the first couple [of Little Lits] is that the format seemed too sophisticated for the age range they were aiming at," says Knopf editor Janet Schulman, "but things are changing with picture books. Picture book artists are becoming edgier and doing art that isn't all soft and cuddly, warm and sweet."

As U.S. editor of British cartoonists Raymond Briggs (The Snowman) and Posy Simmonds (Fred), Schulman knows the comics tradition in U.K. picture books, which has been slow to catch on in America. But last year, she took a chance on reissuing Mark Alan Stamaty's hallucinatory title from 1973—Who Needs Donuts?—after a Random House publicist touted it as her boyfriend's favorite book. After much promotion, some involving Krispy Kreme doughnuts as rewards to booksellers, Stamaty's book is "holding up. We continue getting very good reorders," says Schulman. But Stamaty's pen-and-ink work, in a kaleidoscopic style worthy of R. Crumb, doesn't necessarily appeal to a traditional picture book audience, according to Schulman, who says, "There are little kids who like the book a lot, but the ones who really love it are teenagers on up."

A Range of Subjects and Styles

These days graphic picture books cover an extremely wide range of subject matter: newsworthy events, canonical literature, breezy fiction. P. Craig Russell, a contributor to Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic series, has adapted and illustrated a number of Oscar Wilde's fairy tales for NBM. Marcia Williams uses concentrated panels to retell the classics in such titles as Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!, Charles Dickens and Friends and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (all Candlewick). Robert Burleigh and illustrator Bill Wylie have published the biographical Into the Air: The Story of the Wright Brothers' First Flight and Amelia Earhart: Free in the Skies as 6"×9" paperbacks with the Silver Whistle imprint of Harcourt.

Some fictional romps provide literary or historical information as well. In Gregory Rogers's The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard (Roaring Brook/Porter, Oct.), a wordless sequence describes how a boy travels through time to Elizabethan London, accidentally enrages Shakespeare and makes an elaborate getaway with a dancing bear and fugitive baron. Rogers packs his slapsticky spreads with multiple panels and unframed illustrations. Similarly, Robin Preiss Glasser, illustrator of You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum (Dial) and two follow-ups, found that graphic panels were "the vehicle I needed to tell the story wordlessly in mime. I thought of it as a Keystone Kops silent movie, and I pulled out the frames that best told each of the events."

Like Glasser and Rogers, many creators praise the cinematic quality of graphic picture books. They use multiple panels rather than full-page images to convey movement or a long silence, and they can hand-letter characters' snappy asides or thoughts rather than being limited to mechanical type. "It's like a little movie where I have total control," says James Proimos, author of the Johnny Mutton series (Harcourt). "I'm directing, showing you what I want you to see, but you as the reader contribute the voice, and you get to hold the book." Proimos draws Johnny Mutton—an outgoing sheep who attends school with human kids—in a loose line. A similarly casual style is also reflected in books like Damon Burnard's Dave's Haircut (Dutton), which tells of a grade-schooler's almost disastrous hair day, with a notebook-doodle flair.

Graphic picture book creators emphasize their debt to animated cartoons, Sunday funnies and graphic novels alike. Cartoonist Harry Bliss emulates Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz (a "towering figure in the landscape," according to Mark Siegel). Newcomer George O'Connor fondly recalls syndicated newspaper strips. According to O'Connor, whose Kapow! (S&S, Aug.) alternates between the ordinary reality and vivid imaginations of three children playing superheroes, "Bill Watterson, who did Calvin and Hobbes, influenced me growing up. So did Berkeley Breathed, who did Bloom County. At the time I didn't understand the political stuff, but I loved the goofiness of the imagery and the wordplay."

Children's literature has long welcomed this kind of crossover innovation: Dr. Seuss famously went from ad illustrator, editorial cartoonist and WWII animator to picture book phenomenon. Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen pays homage to Winsor McCay's early—20th-century Little Nemo in Slumberland. Jules Feiffer meshes social commentary with children's literature in I'm Not Bobby! and other groundbreaking work.

Meanwhile, some well-known names in comics and picture books are expanding their repertoires. For this holiday season, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee and illustrator Tim Jessell teamed to write Superhero Christmas (HarperCollins/Tegen, Oct.), and Tomie dePaola's Guess Who's Coming to Santa's for Dinner? (Putnam, Sept.) features abundant panels and voice bubble dialogue.

Taking Risks

The desire for freshness coincides with practical and economic matters, and creators and publishers alike think that now is a promising time to explore graphic picture books.

Artists find that the book arena can provide a degree of security that comics publishing can't. "Look at Ian Falconer," says Michael Russo, manager of New York's St. Mark's Bookshop. "A lot of comics artists lust after the position he's found himself in, where he's an author and on call at the New Yorker." Russo sees comics artists seeking stability "instead of having just two choices: either you work for a big company like DC or Marvel and always do someone else's project, or you do it for love and live hand-to-mouth."

Ryan Wilson, who maintains an "All-Ages Comics" shelf at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, N.H., concurs that "comics artists are moving over to picture books, maybe because they get burnt out on doing comics and want to spend a lot of time on one project, rather than having to do a series every month." Wilson cites Moonshadow watercolorist Jon J Muth as an example of someone who turned from graphic novels to conventional picture book illustration.

In addition, Wilson sees evidence of new tastes and profitable niches. "Manga are hugely popular—that's what we sell the most of," he says. "It was disappointing for six months when I had the comics section up and all that was selling was manga, but that's starting to change." For insatiable readers, Wilson hand-sells Jeff Smith's nine-volume Bone series, which he compares to The Lord of the Rings: "It can be hard to get kids to pick it up at first, but once they read it, they devour the whole series." Coincidentally, Scholastic's new Graphix imprint will launch in January 2005 with a color reissue of the black-and-white Bone books.

Like Scholastic, many publishers and booksellers see renewed distribution of proven titles as a way to secure a ready market. "Ten, 15, 20 years ago, we saw a wave of comics like The Dark Knight and the Warner trade paper edition of Alan Moore's Watchmen," Russo says, noting that most graphic work still remains outside the mainstream. "You have to make comics a trade product."

Cavanaugh of Books of Wonder likewise finds genres and formats blurring. He meets adult comics collectors who seek graphic picture books "for the art's sake. Collectors will come in to see what's new." He also hand-sells graphic picture books to people whose children like special effects and action stories.

With the current popularity of videogames, comics, and even animated superhero semi-spoofs like The Incredibles, the overlap of older readers' comics and younger children's media now seems established. This trend might push reluctant publishers to explore a blend of the genres. "Publishers have been inhibited," adds Porter of Roaring Brook. "The library market is very important, and I think there was a knee-jerk reaction on the part of librarians against anything that smacked of comics. Now all that has changed markedly."

Porter and other American editors look to Europe and Asia, where books using comics techniques have been popular for years. Yet Siegel warns, "It's important to not think of plunking the European model into the American market. The format has to find its own voice in America." French graphic novelist Joann Sfar, author of the Little Vampire books (S&S), puts it more bluntly: "American perception of comic books is still trapped in the awful superhero stuff. American publishers [confuse] the medium and the genre. In France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Germany and Holland, comic books are seen as a cultural device. American comics writers seem more famous and more respected in Europe."

With graphic picture books introducing a range of artistry to all ages, such perceptions seem likely to change. Where older U.S. generations expected to outgrow picture books or comics or move on to the more mature material of the graphic novel or memoir, younger readers now can feed a fascination with visual storytelling. Graphic picture books, properly distributed, could present a new direction in literature for all ages. "We've got young customers interested in cutting-edge design the way they're interested in cutting-edge music," Russo says. "I'm seeing work that is formatted as a children's book, but graphically much more compelling. [Neil Gaiman collaborator] Dave McKean will do one page [in] watercolor, then the other page use a laser photocopier to deconstruct and reconstruct. I think about children looking at that, and I wonder, where is the imagination of an eight-year-old going to go with this?"

Op de Beeck, a Children's Forecasts contributor, teaches at Illinois State University.