Drawing On The Dark Side

Comic books have gotten a lot less comic over the years. Today's typical readers -- skateboard adolescents and some Gen-Xers -- are interested in mesomorphic superheroes and fur-clad warlocks. Now comic books are taking a more serious step away from funny-ha-ha toward funny-peculiar. Neon Lit, an imprint of Avon Books founded by poet Bob Callahan, has just come out with a comic-book version of Paul Auster's sinisterly minimalist novel City of Glass (138 pages. $12). Comic books -- or "graphic novels," as they're called when aimed at readers who aren't kids -- have taken on literary fiction before. But those were the pictorial Cliffs Notes called Classics Illustrated. This is the first time the form has tried to interpret serious contemporary literature.

Auster's Bret-Easton-Ellis-with-brains darkness and stripped-down narrative lend themselves superbly to graphic interpretation. Under art director Art Spiegelman (Pulitzer Prize-winning author/artist of the graphic novel "Maus"), artist David Mazzucchelli (illustrator of "Batman: Year One") and writer Paul Karasik have given Auster's metaphysical detective story a spare, almost crude adaptation. The drawing is brushy and blunt, the verbatim selections from the text are flinty and the layout is a metaphor for the progressive collapse of the protagonist's mind. It works -- though perhaps not as elegantly as the original novel. Which is to say you're just about as depressed and mystified as when you finish the all-text version.

Neon Lit has other books underway in the series: Barry Gifford's "Perdita Durango" (a sequel to "Wild at Heart") and William Lindsay Gresham's "Nightmare Alley." The imprint also wants to tackle such authors as Albert Camus, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. Can these remain as faithful to their sources as "City" is to Auster's book? Avon Editor in Chief Bob Mecoy enthuses about the graphic-novel form: "It's like hearing Ella Fitzgerald take on a Cole Porter tune. This is the jazz version."

Nonsense, says critic Sven Birkerts, who's written about Auster's fiction. He describes Neon Lit's project as "absurd." "If you took a particular movement of Mozart and got the basic melody and did it as Muzak, you could argue that the melody was all there . . . But it's still Muzak." Or, as some suggest, "MTV literature" and "paper movies." But Auster, who received about $4,000 as an advance and had the right of approval, is no snob. He says Neon Lit's "City of Glass" goes beyond a "cinematic approach [into] something that can only be done through drawing." With just a hunch about Yup-pie tastes, and no market research, Neon Lit is hoping that particular something has commercial potential. The first printing is 16,000 copies -- more than for many literary novels. Meanwhile, DC Comics (home of Superman) is planning its own graphic novels: a Paradox Press original mystery line with such well-known crime writers as John Wagner and Jerome Charyn, and some original serious fiction. One book is about a young gay man growing up in the South during the civil-rights movement.

Neon Lit's project may offend some critics, but it's an almost inevitable development. Our democratic culture keeps itself vital neither through the erecting of impenetrable walls between high art and low art, nor the willy-nilly erasing of standards and boundaries. It triumphs with inventive hybrids like jazz, movies and modern dance. The serious graphic novel may become one of them. Did somebody say "Spiderman's Remembrances of Things Past"?