I’ve always been drawn to graphic novels. Like so many, it probably started with comic strips and comic books and Mad Magazine and things like that. My grandfather rented an office in his building on W. 59th St. in NYC to a DC comics distributor and there was always some awesome swag to be had when I visited him there… the latest issues of Superman and Batman. Every summer when I was a kid, we’d rent some little cottage for a week down the shore in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island and one year I struck gold when I found a big pile of DC and Marvel comics (which opened up whole new worlds for me) just waiting to be devoured. But comics and the graphic novels they evolved into grew up along with me, and they’ve matured to become such a compelling and effective medium. The blend of the written with the visual can enhance the narrative experience and add depth and nuance that one without the other just can’t achieve. Here are just a few of my favorites and must-reads to get you started:
The Teenie Weenies was probably the first book that alerted me to the notion that an alternate fully-realized world could exist. Created, written and illustrated by the amazing William Donahey, the Teenie Weenies was a whole universe about the lives of many 2″ tall characters that lived beneath a rose bush with “real world” full-sized objects like hats, teapots, jugs, and old boots. The first feature appeared in black and white on June 14, 1912 and color was added in 1923 when the comic feature moved to the regular Sunday comics section. The stories were okay, but the artwork and characters and backgrounds were so compelling drawn and detailed and evocative you couldn’t help but be pulled into his world. They’re not really graphic novels of course, just beautifully illustrated stories but interestingly similar to graphic novels in the way the illustrations enrich the stories and give them an expanded depth and reality.
A Passionate Journey, or My Book of Hours (French: Mon livre d’heures), is a wordless novel of 1919 by Flemish artist Frans Masereel. This small and amazing book of wordless woodcuts story is told in 167 caption-less prints, and was the longest and best-selling of the wordless novels Masereel made. It tells of the experiences of an early 20th-century everyman in a modern city. The subtlety and depth of the emotional tale it relates is not diminished by the lack of words, and its influence on the modern graphic novel genre that evolved is indisputable.
Will Eisner’s The Contract with God Trilogy is arguably the book that introduced the term “graphic novel”. Eisner’s story cycle follows a host of Jewish characters trying to negotiate life in a Bronx tenement. The writer-artist was already something of a legend for his work on the era-defining strip The Spirit in the forties and fifties, all but inventing much of adventure comics visual grammar. But Eisner considered this collected quartet of tales his masterwork, a sepia-toned literary fiction in the tradition of Bernard Malamud and I.J. Singer. Equally worth exploring are any other of Eisner’s masterpieces: Fagin the Jew, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of Zion, Will Eisner’s New York: Life in the Big City, Life in Pictures, To the Heart of the Storm and more.
The Watchman is Alan Moore’s first and last word of superhero revisionism. with illustrations by Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins. The Watchmen is a perfect blend of story and art and has received critical acclaim both in the comics and mainstream press. It is frequently considered by several critics and reviewers as comics’ greatest series and graphic novel.
And look out for any of Alan Moore’s other amazing books including, V for Vendetta, Jack the Ripper, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and many, many others.
Maus – A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History & Maus II – A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman If The Watchmen opened people’s eyes to what you could do with superheroes, Spiegelman’s memoir recalibrated what people expected from comics entirely. The son of a holocaust survivor, Spiegelman’s graphic memoir tells the story of Vladek, his father. In Maus the Jews are mice and the Nazis are cats, a subversion of Nazi propaganda. This Pulitzer Prize winner is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.
Persepolis – In 1995, Marjane Satrapi was given a copy of Maus as a birthday present. She had no idea that you could tell stories in this way. And so she decided to tell hers. The result is this memoir of a punky, sarky girl in a veil in post-revolutionary Iran. It uses minimalist, at times childlike art to reveal a world – Tehran in the Khomeini years – most of us don’t know much about, in all its complexity. “Probably the first comic I read and, like a lot of girls, it was the one that really got me into comics,” says cartoonist Isabel Greenberg. If you haven’t read a graphic novel before, start here. And follow up with Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
Berlin by Jason Lutes was irregularly published since 199. Berlin is Lutes’ long-in-production, multi-volume story of Weimar Berlin from 1928 to the dawn of the Nazi era. It was originally slated for 24 issues; by issue 18, its slow march toward some sort of conclusion felt damn near interminable. Then you pick up one of the two collections published to date — and suddenly, this interweaving tale of politics and problems seems worth the wait.
Darwyn Cooke’s Parker series – In Cooke’s first outing, The Hunter, he transformed the first volume of the late Donald Westlake’s long-running Parker series (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark), about an indomitable outlaw, into a smashing graphic novel, making its ferocious mood and retro aesthetics the stars of the show. The Outfit is the second in the series and Slayground, the third entry is coming soon.
I could really go on and on, but if you haven’t discovered, or considered, graphic novels give one a try – we have a pretty good collection here at the library to browse through. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. Here are just a few other personal favorites you can explore:
- American Widow by Alissa Torres
- The Rabbi’s Cat by Joan Sfar
- What Ever Happened to the World of Tomorrow by Brian Fies
- The Photographer by Emmanuel Gulbert
- Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
- Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Boy on Earth by Chris Ware
- Anything by the prolific Harvey Pekar — Our Cancer Year, The Quitter, American Splendor, The Beats: A Graphic History, Harvey Pekar’s Cleavland, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, and so many more.
- Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
And if all of this appeals to you, then you have to check out a few other items that shed more light and provide insight on the whole nature of graphic novels:
- Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud an some of his later offerings, Making Comics, and Reinventing Comics.
- And be sure to seek out Edward Tufte’s amazing groundbreaking treatises: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and his most recent, Beautiful Evidence. Tufte is an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University, noted for his writings on information design and as a pioneer in the field of data visualization – all of which speaks elegantly to the idea of stories in graphic form.
Here are some good lists for further exploration:
- 50 of the Best Graphic Novels from forbiddenplanet.com
- Good Reads’ Graphic Novel Lists
- The 50 greatest graphic novels of all time from the Scotland Herald
- Drawn Out: The 50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels: Disaffected hipsters, cyberpunk dystopias, cranky ducks and boy geniuses: here are the greatest comic-story collections that don’t feature caped crusaders
- The 50 greatest graphic novels of all time from the Scotland Herald