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Industry offers up lighter fare

John Mark Eberhart The Kansas City Star

News flash: Books are fun again.

Last year, with a presidential election looming, summer and fall books were dominated by national politics. The year before that, it was the war in Iraq. The year before that, it was the grim aftermath of terrorism.

This year publishers are dreaming up more titles to delight instead of disquiet. The economy still stinks, but with the new “Harry Potter” and the “Batman Begins” movie tie-ins, escapism will be easy.

News flash No. 2: The gap between high and low culture is narrowing.

Umberto Eco, master of lofty literary works such as “Foucault’s Pendulum,” has written a graphic novel, “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” shot through with photos, cartoons and comic strips.

And other mainstream presses such as Pantheon and Grove/Atlantic are getting into the graphic-novel game with “Black Hole” and “Dragon Slippers,” respectively.

All that emerged earlier this month in New York City at BookExpo America, the annual publishing convention.

Thousands of independent booksellers listened to sometimes overwrought pitches from hundreds of publishing houses, each of which thinks it has not just one but several specimens of that sought-after breed: the book you’re dying to read.

These days some readers aren’t just dying to read; they want tasty artwork, too.

Sounds like a job for … DC Comics!

Yes, DC still produces the pure, word-ballooned Superman and Batman comics many of us grew up with, and it won’t waste the chance to tie new books such as “The Art of Batman Begins” to the movie.

But DC also is striving to hook folks who have a tolerance for a few more words along with their pictures.

“Right now there really is a tremendous amount of energy around the graphic novel industry in general,” said DC publicity director David Hyde.

Among his favorites for the fall: Harvey Pekar’s “The Quitter,” a graphic novel that will be published in October under the auspices of Vertigo, DC’s “For Mature Readers” imprint.

Pekar, the crabby comic-book writer played by Paul Giamatti in the film “American Splendor,” draws on his childhood in this story about fear of failure.

The phrases “Umberto Eco” and “graphic novel” may jar fans who revere “The Name of the Rose” as a monument of erudite fiction. But in an interview at BookExpo, Eco expressed frustration with the high art/low art divide.

“Our lives are made by both,” he said. “If you (spend your life) drinking beer in front of your TV screen, you are a victim of lower culture. If you are too much an intellectual, you are a victim of your ivory tower.

“It’s impossible to conceive of a person who has lived only by reading Shakespeare and Goethe. They would be intellectually mutilated.”

Eco’s “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” (Harcourt, 480 pages, $27), in stores now, is a high-concept graphic novel about a man who loses his “personal” memory but retains his cultural memory – books he has read, comics he has perused.

He tries to reconstruct his life by connecting with memorabilia he has saved, from Flash Gordon comics to Bing Crosby movie stills, all of which are reproduced in Eco’s novel.

Other mainstream publishers are going graphic. Pantheon in October will publish “Black Hole,” a horror yarn by Philadelphia artist Charles Burns about a “hideously grotesque” plague that affects teenagers.

Speaking of teens, this will be yet another summer in which it will be impossible to avoid Harry Potter – not that any sane bookseller will try.

Beginning July 16, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth in J.K. Rowling’s series, will bring millions of buyers and their parents (they carry the money) into stores.

Not every publisher can be Scholastic. But the feel-good nature of the Potter books hasn’t been lost on Scholastic’s competitors – nor has the fact that adults buy the Harry books, too.

Even some high-end publishers are offering amusements for grown-ups this year. Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s plans for October include “Waterloo,” a first novel by Texas Monthly writer Karen Olsson that mixes corrupt politics and “the slackers, rockers, hustlers, hacks and hangers-on who populate Austin, Texas.”

And no one these days can accuse Alfred A. Knopf of being staid. In August the august house will publish wrestler Mick Foley’s second novel, “Scooter,” and in September will offer “Remains Silent,” a thriller by Michael Baden, host of the HBO show “Autopsy,” and his wife, Court TV commentator Linda Kenney.

Readers still want to know what’s going on, but they appear to want diversion, too, said Jeff Seroy, a publicist for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

“I don’t think we’re moving away from topical books at all; readers are still looking for more information about the world we live in,” he said. “But I do think fiction is coming back strongly.”

Even nonfiction is showing a little light.

In “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman,” coming from publisher Andrews McMeel, author Jamie Reidy recalls the absurd but unsettling things he saw when he worked for Pfizer.

One of Random House’s September titles is “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, and Other Things I’ve Learned,” a memoir by “M*A*S*H” funnyman and “West Wing” politico Alan Alda.

And Random House imprint Villard has November plans for Jeff Foxworthy’s “Redneck Dictionary: The Words You Need to Know.”

But if you can’t stop reading about politics, don’t worry.

With the recent revelations about W. Mark Felt being Watergate source Deep Throat, Simon & Schuster has rushed into print Bob Woodward’s “The Secret Man.” Look for it in stores now.

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