By Tara Kyle
MANHATTAN — Frank Miller's hyper violent, Hollywood-adapted "Sin City" series might be the most widely known of graphic novels, but the first hit story told in this format actually explored Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side.
Will Eisner, then a professor at Chelsea's School of Visual Arts, drew on his own 1930s childhood when he published "A Contract with God" in 1978. And while Eisner is generally credited with creating the term "graphic novel," he's just one of many SVA faculty and alumni who have offered major contributions to the development of this grown-up version of the comic.
This fall, SVA is celebrating four decades of that heritage with "Ink Plots: The Tradition of the Graphic Novel at SVA." The exhibit features original drawings, books, prints and animation by SVA-affiliated artists including former professor Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman's Holocaust narrative, "Maus," won a Pulitzer Prize and brought widespread attention and an expanded audience to the medium.
"If you walked into Barnes & Noble 20 years ago, there was not a graphic novel section," said Marshall Arisman, co-curator of the exhibit and chair of SVA's Illustration as Visual Essay department. "Now it's huge...It's not just 14-year-olds."
But deciding what exactly constitutes a graphic novel was a major challenge for the show's curators, who sorted through around 150 alumni submissions.
The medium includes stories originally self-published on personal websites, as well animated storyboards from major television series and motion pictures, such as Showtime's "Dexter." It places traditional superhero adventures alongside deeply personal memoirs. Just about all that's agreed upon, according to Arisman, is that children's books don't count.
"Some people say the word graphic novel is used just to elevate the intellectual level of the comic book," Arisman said.
Among the 20 current and former faculty members honored in the exhibit are MAD magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman and "Joker" creator Jerry Robinson, as well as Spiegelman and Eisner.
One of the alumni featured, 27-year-old Dash Shaw, is now collaborating on the film "The Ruined Cast" with the creator of "Hedwig and the Angry Itch." He said he began creating graphic novels as a child, working alongside his father, and hasn't stopped since.
"It's really immediate, if you just have a pen and some paper you can make it," said Shah, who has drawings from a pair of graphic novels at the exhibit. "That's different from movies, which require a lot of money."
In graduate level classes at SVA, Arisman said he is seeing more and more students like Shaw. A decade ago, students in his 20-person program were preparing for careers in editorial illustration, children's book, and in a few cases, animation or the arts. These days, Arisman said, around 40 percent produce graphic novels.
While visitors to the gallery will find plenty of poster-sized prints drawings from the novels lining the walls, some may prefer to sit down in the exhibition's special library space.
"It seemed silly to do an exhibition of graphic novels if you couldn't read them," said Arisman. "We expect people to steal them — but there seems to be no choice."
"Ink Plots: The Tradition of the Graphic Novel at SVA," will run through Nov. 6 at the Visual Arts Gallery, on the 15th Floor of 601 W. 26th St.