Graphic Novels for People Who Hate Comics

Note: This was originally posted to my personal site last spring. I’ve reposted it here following a discussion with Mark at the last writer’s group.

Kristi asked yesterday about good graphic novels for book groups. In response, here’s a list of comics that I think nearly any adult would find entertaining and interesting. Note the absence of superheroes.

The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman
The most important graphic novel yet published. Maus recounts the experiences of Spiegleman’s father as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. It won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Outstanding. A+ $22.05 from Amazon.
La Perdida by Jessica Abel
La Perdida tells the story of Carla, an aimless young American woman living in Mexico City. The ending is a little Hollywood, but overall, this is a great read. B+ $12.97 from Amazon.
Blankets or Good-Bye, Chucky Rice by Craig Thompson
Thompson is a Portland-area creator. Blankets is considered his best work to date, and it’s fine in a Tori Amos sort of way, but feels a little sophomoric at times. I prefer the more imaginative Good-Bye, Chunky Rice. Blankets: B $18.87 from Amazon. Good-Bye, Chunky rice: B+ $9.97 from Amazon.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is the autobiography of a woman who grew up in Iran during the reign of the Shah, and during the Islamic Revolution. This book has been compared (favorably) to Maus, and while it’s not quite up to that standard, it’s excellent nonetheless. Highly recommended. A- $11.67 from Amazon.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
One of the next books on my “to-read” shelf. This highly-acclaimed graphic novel is another portrait of adolescence. It combines a sexually-transmitted plague with a series of murders. Highly-regarded. Inc. $15.72 from Amazon.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in the World by Chris Ware
The story of a sad family full of sad men. I collected this in comic book form during the mid-nineties — I bought the first issue on the day my father died — but haven’t read it since. Ware is the darling of the intelligentsia.B $22.05 from Amazon.
Torso by Brian Michael Bendis
Remember Eliot Ness of Untouchables fame? After he stood up to Al Capone in Chicago, he moved to Cleveland. This true-crime graphic novel tells of his other big case, the one that ruined him: a series of gruesome killings. A- out-of-print, but available used at $12.95 from Amazon.
Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships and Age of Bronze: Sacrifice by Eric Shanower
Over the course of a planned seven volumes, Shanower is writing and drawing the history of the Trojan War using primary sources as reference. He’s dispensed with the gods and goddesses, but not their roles. When drawing the books, he relies on archaeological evidence to get the costumes, structures, and objects correct. This is great stuff. Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships: A $13.57 from Amazon. Age of Bronze: Sacrifice: Inc. $12.97 from Amazon.
Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Some of you have probably seen the film adaptation of this book. The graphic novel on which it is based is a little different, emphasizing the relationship between the two young women, and spending less time on secondary characters. This is really a series of eight short stories that hang together as a whole. Shortish. A- $9.20 from Amazon.
American Splendor by Harvey Pekar
This book contains dozens of short autobiographical bits from Pekar’s early work. Some are great, others are less impressive, but on the whole American Splendor does a great job capturing adult angst. I actually prefer the recent film, which is wonderfully post-modern and often hilarious. B+ $11.53 from Amazon.
Locas by Jaime Hernandez
Though this is a classic in the field, I haven’t read any of it yet. To quote Publishers Weekly: “These superb stories … define a world of Hispanic gang warfare, ’80s California, punk rock, women wrestlers and the subtle battle to stay true to oneself. Hernandez’s main characters are Maggie and Hopey, two adorable lesbian rockers who start out in a somewhat vague relationship.” Inc. $31.47 from Amazon.
Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez
If you enjoyed Like Water for Chocolate or One Hundred Years of Solitude, then Palomar may be for you. Publishers Weekly again: “The earliest stories in the book owe more to magical realism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez than to anything that had been done in comics before. But in later pieces … Hernandez’s style is entirely his own”. Inc. $25.17 from Amazon.
Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson
Here’s a graphic novel that I do not own and have not read. Box Office Poison gets rave reviews from every corner. From what I understand, it tracks the misadventures of a group of recent college grads. Inc. $18.87 from Amazon.

Did you notice how the good graphic novels plumbed teen angst and autobiography for material? Did you further notice how the great graphic novels covered bigger subjects: the Holocaust, the Islamic Revolution, the Trojan War? Coincidence? I don’t think so.

One other excellent book to consider is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics ($15.61 from Amazon). Understanding Comics is not a graphic novel, but a visual exploration of the comics medium: how it works, why it works, and so on. It’s brilliant in its simplicity. I actually want to choose this sometime for our book group, and then ask each member to read a graphic novel, too.

Some of you may be wondering, “Where are the great superhero graphic novels?” The short answer is that there aren’t any suitable for people who think they don’t like superhero comics. If you can’t buy into the genre, you’re not going to like the superhero stuff, no matter how good it is.

The primary exception are the products of Alan Moore. His work is imaginative and literary; I think that most open-minded adults will find it engaging. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (volume one, volume two) is clever fun. It takes fictional Victorian heroes — such as Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, and Mina Harker — and melds them into a sort of “superteam”. Every character in the book is an established character from a previous work of fiction or an ancestor of a character from modern-day fiction.

Moore’s V for Vendetta has no superheroes, though it trades on superhero comic tropes. It explores themes of freedom, identity, and fascism. I think the beginning is strong, but the ending is something of a chore.

Finally, Watchmen deals explicitly with superheroes (though largely C-list superheroes that nobody has ever heard of). Many, including myself, consider Watchmen the finest superhero comic ever published. To quote the wikipedia:

Watchmen is drama that incorporates moral philosophy, popular culture, history, art, and science. It is set in an alternative history 1980s America where costumed adventurers are real and the U.S. is close to a nuclear war with Russia. Public opinion towards the notion of vigilantism has soured and public demonstrations demand the police be reinstated as the de facto marshals of law. Meanwhile, members of The Minutemen, a defunct organization of costumed adventurers, are being murdered. Watchmen is the only graphic novel to have won a Hugo Award and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s list of “100 best novels from 1923 to present.”

That’s a lot of information, I know, but I hope this guide proves useful to someone. Comics and graphic novels are often marginalized by the well-read, and that’s too bad. I often find them just as exciting, entertaining, and educational as any other literature.

2 Comments »

  1. Hans Persson said,

    March 11th, 2007 at 3:27 am

    I can also recommend the work of Moto Hagio, who unfortunately has seen very little translation into English. Her A, A’ is excellent, though, as is the collection They Were Eleven which contains one of her stories. This is people-centric science fiction with a plenty of gender issues.

    Also have a look at Emma (seven parts) by Kaoru Mori. A lavish manga about a love story between a maid and a tradesman’s son in 1899. An impossible romance in a victorian setting. Very detailed and well researched, apart from being a good story.

  2. Nancy said,

    April 25th, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    Hi. I’m happy to see other blogs recommending Hagio’s work, first of all. By the way, I just discovered your blog today and I’ll definitely be spending some time here. Also, speaking of Hagio Moto, my Japanese husband and I just started a blog where we translate and discuss one of the classic shojo manga of hers, “Poe no Ichizoku”. It’s a complex, poignant story about a family of vampires who travel through time. Please stop by and leave comments–we’d love for this groundbreaking manga-ka to gain a much wider audience outside of Japan, and eventually want to translate as many of her works as we can (as you already mentioned, currently very little is officially published in English) Thanks again and I’ll be back!

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