If you think you've got the hang of the high and low culture issue, why not try this simple test. Get out a graphic novel - any one will do - on a rush-hour train. How do you feel? Just the tiniest bit self-conscious? Maybe you would not consider reading such a thing in the first place. For despite all the press hype in the late 80s about the emergence of the comic book, and in particular the graphic novel, as a fully adult genre, nothing much has changed. In Britain, the most typical reader is still the young male comics fan and the subject matter of many of these books, however 'revisionist' in approach, is the usual tedious superhero stuff. As the promised graphic novel buyers failed to materialise, bookshops rapidly reassigned shelf space, publishers rethought ambitious launch plans and media interest fizzled out.
In many ways, the comic book industry has only itself to blame. Its products lacked the diversity of ordinary novels. The new readership was assumed rather than adequately courted. It was never going to be easy to overcome a deeply ingrained British resistance and persuade us to consume comic books with the avidity of the Japanese, Europeans, or even Americans. And yet I, for one, find it hard to give up on the medium. The comic book achieves an expressive integration of word and image in the service of narrative with a directness, complexity and, in the best examples, a sophistication that gives film a run for its money and has important lessons for the emerging multimedia.
Three recent books suggest that, with or without the hype, the comic continues to evolve. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (HarperCollins), is a brilliantly conceived treatise on the medium, produced in the form of a graphic novel, with the comic book artist/author iconically present as roving lecturer. Beginning by defining comics, clumsily but completely, as 'juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence,' McCloud moves on to dissect their vocabulary (words, pictures, other icons); their grammar (identified as the 'closure' that separates one panel from the next); their treatment of time (which must be rendered spatially); issues of line and colour; and the fundamental comic book problem of when and what to show and tell. One of the pleasures of the book, though it has a didactic purpose, is the effortlessness with which it integrates a wide range of fine art references into the comic book idiom - from The Tortures of Saint Erasmus (c.1460) to Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté (1934). 'There's a big gaping hole in the official history of art,' complains McCloud with comic book peevishness, 'and it's high time somebody filled it!'
In one of many illuminating passages, McCloud considers the nature of transitions between panels, concluding broadly that there are six main types: moment-to-moment, action-to-action, subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene, aspect-to-aspect (where the artist singles out atmospheric details within a scene) and the non-sequitur. He then analyses the proportion of each type in a random sample of American comics, including Marvel's X-Men, the Hernandez brothers' Heartbreak Soup and Art Spiegelman's Maus. Action-to-action is by far the most common type of transition, while subject-to-subject and scene-to-scene form the remainder, in equal proportions, the three other types being unrepresented. A comparative analysis of several Japanese manga reveals significant cultural differences. Moment-to-moment transitions are used in a high proportion of examples, giving the imagery a cinematic intensity, and there are a substantial number of aspect-to-aspect transitions, which encourage the reader to assemble a single moment from scattered fragments. 'In Japan, more than anywhere else,' McCloud concludes, 'comics is an art...of intervals.'
Western interest in manga seems likely to ensure that these and other Japanese techniques will become increasingly important to the graphic novel. Two recent examples, British and American, feature a high proportion of moment-to-moment transitions, while also pushing at the boundaries in other ways. In The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch (Victor Gollancz) established stars of the medium Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean use the violence of the Punch & Judy show as a backdrop for a tale of childhood innocence and adult betrayal. McKean mixes photography (of his own model puppets and three-dimensional assemblages) with collage, drawing and painted elements and ties his densely worked panels together with a threatening tar-black frame. Visually a tour de force. the book possibly even justifies its publisher's claim that it is the most beautiful graphic novel ever to be published in Britain. But this degree of visual ambition puts the writing under pressure either to compete or to hang back, and the book feels, ultimately, too novelistic. Gaiman's captions are wordy and stilted, their rhythms erratically balanced against the lush technicolour flow of images.
City of Glass, an adaptation of a story from Paul Auster's New York Trilogy by writer Paul Karasik and artist David Mazzucchelli (Avon), is superficially less impressive - at a quick glance it looks like an ordinary black and white comic. But its unabashed readiness to refashion highbrow literature for a lowbrow medium makes it a landmark - 'an almost inevitable development', according to Newsweek, which devoted a page to it. Karasik and Mazzucchelli have made a remarkable job of condensing Auster's already hard-boiled prose, dividing it up into panels without any loss of momentum or sense of strain, and have found convincing comic book correlatives for the narrative disjunctions and mood of unease that pervades the metaphysical thriller. In one virtuoso sequence, Mazzucchelli, faced with the problem of making visual a lengthy monologue from a man confined to a dark room as a child, combines moment-to-moment symbolism with an aptly disorientating use of the non-sequitur - McCloud's rarely employed sixth type of transition. At moments like this it becomes clear that comics have an artistic potential - could we finally abandon our prejudices - that is only just beginning to be explored.