The day has come when you don’t have to be a prepubescent boy to profess your love of comics, or “graphic novels” as the erudite among us now call them. Whether thanks to shorter attention spans, dominance of visual media, or other changes in literary taste, writing with pictures and text holds growing allure for modern readers. Gone are the days of capped crusaders dominating the comic-book pages. Although heroes and villains still hold prominent ground in the comic market, today’s graphic novels are just as likely to explore realistic fiction, memoir, and other creative narratives as their prose counterparts.
The authors on my unofficial list, in no particular order, are certainly not alone in their contribution to the explosion of literary merit in comics. These are some of my favorites. I’d love to hear yours.
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. 1993. Before you read another comic, read Scott McCloud’s comic about comics. He traces the evolution of what Will Eisner first called “sequential art” and breaks down the operation of the form. Also check out Making Comics and Reinventing Comics if you are interested in technique and process.
Watchmen by Alan Moore illustrated by Dave Gibbons. 1986/87. Alan Moore is unequivocally one of the comic book world’s most well-known and untamed geniuses. Most of you have probably seen the movie. The book is better. This epic about a gang of real-word superheroes successfully blends realistic fiction with classic comic book fantasy and relevant and nuanced meditations on war, nuclear power, technology, and metaphysics. Also, Alan Moore believes in magic and worships a snake deity. My other favorites from him include V for Vendetta, and From Hell.
Maus by Art Spiegelman. 1986/1991. Nothing revolutionized the form more than this two-part memoir about Spiegelman’s father’s time in Auschwitz. The narrative, which features anthropomorphized mice as a commentary on Jewish identity in Nazi Europe, is as much about the process of recreating the survival story as it is about the story itself. This meta-narrative technique caught the attention of the literary world. They’ve made more room for comics in bookstore windows ever since.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. 2000. Another two-part memoir, Satrapi illustrates her experience growing up in Iran and her adolescence in Europe during the Iranian Revolution with minimalist drawings. The pairing of illustrations that mimic a child’s perspective with the realities of war, religious fundamentalism, and the intangible quality of traumatic stress make this work particularly compelling. Also check out the animated movie based on the book.
Blankets by Craig Thompson. 2003. In this autobiographical novel, Thompson tells the story of growing up in an Evangelical Christian family, finding his first love, and his subsequent coming-of-age. The book is an epic declaration of revised faith. Thompson also recently published Habibi, an Islamic fairy tale love story that explores the shared origins of Islam and Christianity.
The Rabbi’s Cat by Johan Sfar. 2007/2008. This series, published in two parts by the French comic artist, features a Jewish cat who acquires the ability to talk after swallowing a parrot. There is nothing not to like about this scenario.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. 1995-2000. This story features a lonely loser-type who meets his father for the first time. Employing flashbacks, parallel story lines, and fantasies, Ware’s style features complex diagrams, limited text, and leitmotifs that create a unique and emotionally evocative visual world.
One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry. 2002. Barry is a well-known cartoonist who publically explores form and technique, often teaching readers how to create their own comics as she creates hers. Each chapter of this book, which she terms “autobiofictionalography,” is a reflection on something from her life that haunts her.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. 2006. Probably my favorite book ever written, Fun Home is Bechdel’s memoir about growing up with her father, an English teacher who is hit by a truck when the author is a young adult. The memoir seamlessly weaves Bechdel’s exploration of her sexual orientation with suspicions about her father’s closeted homosexuality and how literature helps guide her through this process of understanding. If you like Bechdel you should also follow her popular comic strip online, “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons