Nearly 30 years ago, legendary cartoonist Will Eisner published a long-form comic book and called it a "graphic novel." The literary world hasn't been quite the same since.

More than 200 pages long, Eisner's 1978 book,

A Contract With God

, stands as a landmark tome in a genre that today is eclipsing traditional comics and making serious inroads into mainstream publishing - not to mention attracting the deep-pocketed attention of Hollywood.

Excerpts from

A Contract With God

- an account of the artist's gritty boyhood in the Bronx - anchor a captivating exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Although the exhibit reaches all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, "LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel" shows how things took a major turn in the 1960s, when counterculture artists, fed up with the corporate, sanitized adventures of Batman and Archie, began crafting graphic novels that were edgy, racy and often confrontational.

Part general introduction and part mini-survey, "LitGraphic" contains more than 146 works by 24 artists. Curators of the show, which runs through May 26, describe it as one of the most comprehensive looks at the booming genre to date.

Although the elements of graphic novels have existed in various forms as far back as the 19th century, there has never been such a distinct wave of success as in the last 20 years.

A band of fiercely independent illustrators has literally transformed it into a bona fide arts movement.

"The numbers of artists working in the genre, the depth and sophistication of what's being created, along with   rising popularity - particularly in the last 10 years - all have prompted us to organize the show as fine art in a museum setting," said Martin Mahoney, a Rockwell Museum curator.

A graphic novel is generally defined as a work of so-called sequential art that has a lengthy story line with many interwoven story arcs. They can be issued in series form, but they are ultimately bound together in an omnibus edition.

The most prominent names in the field are represented in "LitGraphic," including Brian Fies, Mark Wheatley, Peter Kuper, Barron Storey, Dave Sim and Frank Miller. But many of the forebears of the movement, such as R. Crumb, whose stories rarely run beyond the length of the average old-fashioned comic book, are highlighted because of their contributions in spirit, if not exactly in form.

These tales can be dark and political or mystical and outright humorous. Nothing is out of bounds: Sexual orientation, racism, feminism, fascism, violence, war, famine and health care fuel intricate narratives and stirring graphics.

And forget about square-jawed Clark Kent: The protagonists of these graphic novels have little in common with the squeaky-clean superheroes of days gone by.

If anything, works such as Miller's

Sin City

, Terry Moore's

Come On, Smart Guy

and Sim's

Cerebus

feature antiheroes trying to survive the day-to-day drudgery of a complex world where good and evil are shaded by convoluted ethics.

In these stories, super powers come with plenty of baggage: Chase Darrow, the beautiful but deadly main character in

Breathtaker

, finds her powers are more like uncontrollable liabilities than tools to use for good works. Darrow sucks the life out of everybody she seduces, yet she can't help falling in love - especially when it keeps her one step ahead of The Man, the world's first superhuman.

"They have such multilayered and nuanced meanings in the plots, the characters and design; a certain attitude and tone that makes them stand out," Mahoney said. "They aren't exactly comics, but they aren't exactly books, either. They are really this whole different world."

The genre's success has carved out new bookshelf space in bookstores, and caused Hollywood to come calling: In addition to Miller's

Sin City

and

300

, recent movies such as

V for Vendetta

,

Road to Perdition

, and

A History of Violence

began as graphic novels. The holiday season brings the animated film version of Marjane Satrapi's

Persepolis

, about girlhood in Iran after the fall of the shah; Satrapi served as codirector.

Satrapi lives in France, a nation where graphic novels have been a respected form for decades. In Japan, the bulky comics known as manga are read by businessmen on the subway. In many ways, America has embraced its graphic novelists a little late.

Even so, the genre's success is due to its global appeal, Mahoney said. Graphics with straightforward dialogue enable the medium to simplify complex issues and cut through language and cultural barriers at the lightning speed of the Internet.

"Their time has come," Mahoney said. "We live in a visual culture that more and more wants information quickly and presented in an interesting and different way."