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Real World in Four Colors

Movie, comic book fans find a world of entertainment in graphic novels.

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‘Maus: A Survivor’s Tale’ by Art Spiegelman

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‘Ghost World’ By Daniel Clowes

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‘The Spirit Archives’ by Will Eisner

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'Watchmen' by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

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‘Bone #1: Out from Boneville’ by Jeff Smith

Judging from the success of blockbuster films like “Iron Man,” “The Hulk” and “Dark Knight,” moviegoers have developed a taste for comic book movies. Will that taste, however, extend to a movie based on a comic book series that deconstructs the comic book myth? Is the public ready for “Watchmen?”

Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, “Watchmen” was first published in 1986 as a 12-issue comic book series. DC Comics subsequently collected it into a graphic novel, which went on to become a New York Times’ bestseller and one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.

“I have a hard time believe that they’re making a ‘Watchmen’ movie,” said Mike Rhode, an Arlington resident who runs a blog about everything comics [http://comicsdc.blogspot.com/].

The story centers around a group of superheroes on an alternate Earth in which Richard Nixon is still president. Moore and Gibbons took the superhero myth and extrapolated how it would function in the real world.

“The real world with superheroes would be very disturbing,” said Rhode. “‘Watchmen’ has a character called Dr. Manhattan who goes in and single-handedly ends the Vietnam War. What would America be like if they could do whatever they liked to the rest of the world? It wouldn’t be pretty.”

Fairfax artist Matt Dembicki is also a fan of the “Watchmen” graphic novel. “It’s just a wonderful piece of work,” he said. “Wonderful storing telling, wonderful artwork, great pacing.”

Dembicki runs the Three Crows Press blog [threecrowspress.blogspot.com] and also participates in the dcconspiracy.com., which promotes self-published comic book writers and artists in the Washington, D.C. area. “My gut feeling is that people are going to realize that it’s a superhero movie, but that they may not realize that it was a comic book first.”

According to Rhode, “Watchmen” won’t be the first comic book to fly under the radar. “Something like ‘Ghost World’ is invisible as a comic book,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter. And ‘From Hell,’ these were comic books and it doesn’t really matter.”

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THE RISE</b> in the number of comic book-based movies, overt or not, has paralleled the rise of the graphic novel as a popular medium. Originally collections of previously published comic books, graphic novels have evolved into standalone pieces of fiction or non-fiction.

“Will Eisner [creator of the Spirit comics of the 1940s] came up with the term ‘graphic novel’ as a marketing technique, when he was trying to sell a series of stories aimed at adults to a publisher,” said Rhode. Even though it was a series of short stories, he called it a graphic novel.”

What Rhode likes about comic books and graphic novels is the medium’s flexibility. “You can tell any type of story,” he said. While his tastes have grown over the years, he can still enjoy the melding of pictures and words.

“You move from Archie or Richie Rich comics to superhero comics and maybe you decide you like biographical comics like Harvey Pekar,” Rhode said. “They is something you find through the medium. You don’t have to give up on it just because you’ve grown up.”

As an artist, Dembicki finds that it’s relaxing to draw comics. “I like the fact that I can tell a story,” he said. “On one page, I can have several pieces of art. Each panel has it’s own piece of art. … The storytelling is just as important as the art.”

Jared Smith, owner of Big Planet Comics in Vienna, has been interested in comics since he was 3. “That’s how I learned to read,” he said.

According to Smith, these days, it’s difficult to say who the typical comic book reader is. “There are so many comic books out there and the audience is still very, very small, it’s a genre, niche market, but it has spread out to the point that people walk in and say ‘I want an action story’ or ‘I want a really touching, dramatic story.”

At the end of the 1990s, Smith began to see a shift in the comic book markets as the number of graphic novels sold rose. “Now it’s about a third of our sales are sold in graphic novels,”

To demonstrate how that shift has changed the way Smith has done business, he pointed out that three of the four walls in his Vienna shop are devoted to graphic novels. “The space that we devote to it is much larger,” he said. “We carry a much larger selection of it.”

Another trend that Smith has seen is the rise of the comic book writer over the artist. “Even 10 years ago, people were very interested in who the hot new artist drawing my favorite character?,” he said. “Now, it’s who’s the great writer writing the books I like? What else has he done? … Once we find out what people like, we’d say, ‘Do you like “Watchmen” by Alan Moore the writer? Here are 40 other books that Alan Moore has written,’ and they’d like them as well.”

Moore isn’t writing many comic books these days. However, this summer will see the release of a new sequel to the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” another of his works that was adapted into a film.

Other popular comic book writers include Geoff Johns, Warren Ellis, Brian Michael Bendis, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Brian K. Vaughn.

“Usually, we try to find out what they like, what their backgrounds are,” said Smith. “We say, ‘What kind of movies do you like? What kind of fiction do you like? We find that there is almost a comic book out there for everyone now.”