Artist Zeina Abirached grew up in a Beirut neighborhood terrorized by snipers.

Years after the civil war in Lebanon ended, she decided to publish a personal account of growing up in the war-torn city. But Abirached made an unusual choice: She told her story in a comic book. Black-and-white drawings combined with snippets of text, she thought, would give A Game for Swallows a haunting visual aura and more visceral appeal.

Abirached and other artists are using the comic book form to tell personal stories and to explore serious political and social issues. In doing so, they have transformed a genre that was once the exclusive niche of action heroes and their adolescent fans. Some of these new comic books, now called graphic novels, have become bestsellers; others have found niche adult audiences. It’s a surprising development for a genre with roots in cheap entertainment for kids.

Newspapers have published comic strips — sequences of drawings juxtaposed with text in boxes that tell a story — since the late 1800s. In the 1930s, superheroes such as Captain America, Buck Rogers and Superman entered the comics universe and became popular with children.

The Uncanny X-Men began battling villains such as Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in 1963. (Courtesy photo)

American superhero comics inspired illustrators in France, Belgium, Japan and other countries to create comic characters rooted in their own cultures. In the late 1970s, comics started to appear in a book-length format and to reach broader audiences. As they still aimed to entertain, comics usually avoided politics, and mostly ignored or stereotyped social groups and issues. Then Maus arrived, and comics moved in new and more challenging directions.

The Maus that roared

In 1991, American cartoonist Art Spiegelman published Maus, a graphic novel for adult readers on the gravest of subjects — the Holocaust. Maus recounts the World War II experiences of the artist’s Jewish parents in Poland. In the book, Nazis are depicted as cats, Jews as mice, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs. Maus stirred controversy, but gained acclaim — and a worldwide audience. Many date the birth of the nonfiction graphic novel to the arrival of Maus.

The cover of Maus (© Art Spiegelman)

As readers consume more content on the Internet, many prefer, and expect, tighter integration of images with text. This has boosted graphic novels’ popularity.

“The whole mediascape — the Web, ads, icons — is moving … towards the inclusion of images,” says Matthew Smith, a professor of communication at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.

The spread of mobile devices has reinforced the demand for image-driven entertainment, he adds.

From niche to mainstream

While graphic nonfiction at first reached only a niche audience, its techniques now are increasingly common in popular science, history, practical advice, biographies, financial literacy and other genres. Encouraged by falling production costs, publishers have added graphic elements to materials on subjects from teen pregnancy and Hurricane Katrina to the U.S. civil rights movement and ethnic conflicts.

From March (© John Lewis and Andrew Aydin)

Since the late 1980s, U.S. sales of graphic novels have grown steadily to $415 million in 2013, compared with $502 million in sales of traditional print books in the same year, according to Publishers Weekly magazine. And public libraries report graphic books are among their most popular items.

At first, publishers of graphic novels considered boys their primary audience, but today, says the publisher of comics app ComiXology, women and girls are major consumers of graphic titles. One result: more focus on female protagonists and subjects of special interest to female readers. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, about the early feminist movement in England, was a bestseller in the U.S. and the U.K. Marvel Comics’ bestselling digital title of 2014 starred a Muslim girl living in New Jersey.

Just draw it

Some artists and writers believe the graphic novel format lets them convey characters’ experiences and feelings more deeply.

“Because comics require readers to actively engage with the text, the pictures and the implied action that goes on BETWEEN the panels, this really brings stories to life in their imagination,” says Josh Neufeld. In 2009, he published A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Because comics can delve right into the heart of the action, he says, “I was able to bring readers directly into the moment as the real-life characters struggle with hurricane winds and rain, rising flood waters, and the trauma of coming back to destroyed homes and communities.”

From A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge (© Josh Neufeld)

Also, as the popular saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. “You don’t need to spend pages and pages to describe a landscape; you just draw it,” graphic journalist Gianluca Costantini told Global Comment online magazine.

The format allows creators to go beyond a direct reporting experience. “I can depict the past, which is hard to do if you’re a photographer or [documentary] filmmaker,” Joe Sacco told Mother Jones magazine. Sacco, considered a pioneer of graphic journalism, produced Palestine, a graphic novel about the plight of the Palestinians, and Safe Area Gorazde about the 1992–1995 civil war in Bosnia.

In Palestine, Joe Sacco himself is a narrator. (© Joe Sacco)

The graphic novel form can be especially effective for memoirs and personal accounts. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, an autobiographical account of growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution, paved the way for personal stories as diverse as Abirached’s A Game for Swallows; March, about Congressman John Lewis’ involvement with the civil rights movement; and Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters. Telgemeier’s story about the author’s relationship with her younger sister in their parents’ house in suburban America sold more than a million copies.

Shakespeare in pictures

Pointing to graphic books on finance, the media, genetics and other complex, abstract subjects, Professor Smith believes there are no limits to the subjects that can be explored in graphic book format.

In a course on media law, he uses a graphic adaptation of the U.S. Constitution. Smith believes this format brings the Constitution to life for students as no lengthy, text-heavy theoretical book can.

Teachers increasingly use comics and graphic novels to promote literacy and to engage recent immigrants still mastering English, children with learning disorders, and others for whom text-only might not be the best approach. For more advanced students, comic interpretations of literary classics can provide a bridge to their textual counterparts.

“Comics are great for so many different areas in which people have struggled with literacy issues,” teacher-librarian Diane Maliszewski told the online magazine This. “They’re the great equalizer.”