How Smile Transformed the Comics Industry

Seemingly overnight, semi-autobiographical graphic novels for children have become a hit genre, dominating New York Times bestseller lists, winning industry awards, and garnering significant praise and accolades. Leading the way is Raina Telgemeier, whose fun, incredibly relatable, and heartfelt graphic novels have become must-haves on school and library shelves and been the target of would-be censors across the United States.

The A.V. Club discusses this new trend and how Telgemeier’s success with her award-winning graphic novel Smile not only helped reshape storytelling within the comics industry and legitimize the medium in the mainstream, but also helped foster and grow a future generation of comics and graphic novel readers. “Smile has inarguably changed the way many people look at comics, and the way the industry itself approaches audiences,” notes Caitlin Rosberg. “It’s not that there was no one else writing graphic novels for young women when Smile came onto the scene in 2010, but Telgemeier’s incredible success legitimizes comics as suitable for YA literature and YA literature as suitable for comics.”

Although comics geared towards young readers have been around since the industry’s inception, those were often very clearly made by adults with subjects that clearly fixated on what adults thought children should be reading. From friendly ghosts to funny animals, those comics were so much grounded in the fantastic, that the ability for children to personally relate to any of the material was virtually non-existent. It wasn’t until comics like Archie came around that the newly emergent teen age group finally had a story they could see themselves in. But even then, younger comics readers were often left to leaving their heads in the fantastic clouds.

Since 2010, though, we are experiencing a renaissance of the genre in which the books being produced now might be being written and drawn by adults, but the subject matter is so wholly about and relatable to young readers that new generations of comics readers are flooding to their local bookstores and online to pick up stories like Telgemeier’s Smile and Drama. “Comics are being pushed as legitimate reading for kids,” notes Oliver Sava. “There are several million Telgemeier books in print, and these are the kinds of books that are cultivating a new generation of comics readers.”

More than just a change in narrative and audience, graphic novels like Telgemeier’s are reshaping the model for storytelling. Although single issue comics still dominate the direct market, the adoption of 6″ x 9″ graphic novels more suitable for libraries and school shelves is quickly becoming an alternative format that is allowing creators and publishers a new form of freedom when it comes to producing books. “Companies like Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and BOOM! are devoting more attention to comics targeted to kids, teens, women, and LGBTQ readers and are making sure they get collections and graphic novels in bookstores,” writes Sava. “Then there are the comics divisions of major book publishers like Macmillan (First Second) and Scholastic (Graphix), which are introducing a huge number of young readers to comics by getting these books in libraries, classrooms, and book fairs.”

Although, Raina Telgemeier’s works are not novel in their approach, without a doubt they have stuck a national nerve and sparked a rippling change both within and without the comics industry. With modern classics like Drama, This One Summer, and Bone being introduced into the market each year, new readers are getting their hands on comics, schools and libraries are more frequently adopting graphic novels for their classrooms and shelves, and creators are being given the freedom to push the boundaries of comics storytelling. Not since the birth of the comics industry are there more mainstream eyes on comics and semi-autobiographical graphic novels for young readers — a true formula for success.

To read the A.V. Club’s full article, click here. And don’t forget to check out all of CBLDF’s resources and tools to learn more about these great books, how we’ve helped defend them against censorship, and how you can incorporate them into your libraries and classrooms.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!