100 great graphic novels

The following is a list of 100 ‘sequential art narratives’ that I highly recommend. There may well be superior works out there, but if there are I haven’t yet read them. The list will develop over time. Without wanting to get into the whole nomenclature issue of whether these should be called graphic novels or comics, I’ll point out that some of these are ongoing series and some of them are one-off publications. Unlike my novelist lists of living and dead authors I have not restricted myself to one work per author. They are arranged alphabetically by title. In most cases I have listed just the writer, but in some I have listed writer and illustrator.

100%, Paul Pope

Set in a gritty near-future, 100% juggles three separate but interconnected stories that revolve around a downtown Manhattan nightclub catering to demimonde habitues including artists, erotic dancers (whose internal organs are projected onto viewscreens for the ultimate voyeuristic kick), prizefighters, barmaids, and busboys. The meandering story line isn’t particularly plot-heavy, but Pope more than makes up for any narrative slackness by skillfully using the comics medium to convince, rather than simply tell, us about this slightly futuristic, highly recognizable world. In the end, 100% is like a William Gibson novel filmed by Wong Kar-wai to a punk-rock soundtrack. Pope’s gray-toned drawings, aided by his expressive brushwork, are highly detailed but remarkably clear; visual complexity never gets in the way of impressive storytelling. Pope is one of the few American artists–if not the only one–to have drawn manga for Japanese publishers and show the strong influence of Eurocomics, too. His globalized approach and emphasis on style over substance, which mirrors trends in other media, perhaps point to the future of the comics medium. (Booklist review)

A.L.I.E.E.E.N., Lewis Trondheim

The latest offering from the prolific French cartooning sensation winkingly purports to be an extraterrestrial comic book found by the cartoonist while on vacation in the Catskills. Trondheim fills the stories with “alien” dialogue, which naturally can be read without the help of any words, filled as they are with Trondheim’s trademark silent comedy. Creatures stroll through psychedelic landscapes and have adventures in miniature. They are eaten, operated on and transformed, all in just a few short pages. Like a Pokémon story gone horribly, and hilariously, wrong, these cute little aliens are always being tortured or haplessly having their eyes poked out; one even floods an entire city with an endless stream of extra-dimensional poop. The artwork represents a departure for Trondheim, as its alien “source” results in its appearing to be old: pages are yellowed, and subtle but gorgeous dot-screens fill in the lines. Adult comics aficionados who appreciate Trondheim’s work will find this book quite enjoyable. Older children should also be amused by the violent but delightful whimsy found within. (Publishers Weekly review)

ACME Novelty Library, Chris Ware

With all his literary accolades and awards, it’s easy to forget Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) is one of the warmest, funniest cartoonists in America. The Acme Novelty Library collects a few issues of Ware’s comic book series by the same name and adds plenty of new pages and visual delights. It is, like all of his work, an utterly immersive experience. You’re not just reading his comics, you’re inhabiting his world: from fake ads to diagrams for paper models to a lengthy and very funny fictional history of the Acme Novelty Company. These strips combine complex and beautiful visuals with the humor of hapless, often sad characters in ridiculous predicaments. “Rusty Brown”, a series of strips based around an obsessive collector who will be the subject of Ware’s next graphic novel, is particularly strong. These comics showcase Ware’s unusual sensitivity towards his characters, building an incisive, multi-dimensional portrait of Brown and his friend Chalky White. On top of all of these riches there is Ware’s own personal “history of art” in cartoon form, and a multi-page story about a naked superhero. Combining surreal humor, cutting satire, stunning visuals, and empathic characters, Ware’s latest is a wondrous journey into the universe of a master cartoonist in peak form. (Amazon.com review)

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Josh Neufeld

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is a masterful portrait of a city under siege. Cartoonist Josh Neufeld depicts seven extraordinary true stories of survival in the days leading up to and following Hurricane Katrina. Here we meet Denise, a counselor and social worker, and a sixth-generation New Orleanian; “The Doctor,” a proud fixture of the French Quarter; Abbas and Darnell, two friends who face the storm from Abbas’ s family-run market; Kwame, a pastor’s son just entering his senior year of high school; and the young couple Leo and Michelle, who both grew up in the city. Each is forced to confront the same wrenching decision–whether to stay or to flee. As beautiful as it is poignant, A.D. presents a city in chaos and shines a bright, profoundly human light on the tragedies and triumphs that took place within it. (Publisher’s description)

Adventures of Luther Arkwright, The, Bryan Talbot

Across a multitude of parallel universes, dark forces operate in the shadows, manipulating mankind’s histories throughout countless timelines. The agents of these Disruptors all work with a single purposethe recovery and activation of Firefrost, a longhidden doomsday device whose unspeakable power is capable of consuming the galaxy in all its incarnations. Standing in the way of the Disruptors is Luther Arkwright, a human anomaly who exists only in a single universe, a man of vast psychic powers and capable of travelling between the parallel realities to counter the Disruptor’s malign influence. But the Disruptors are aware of Arkwright and his abilities, and while Arkwright searches the myriad Earths for the location of Firefrost, the agents of darkness race to destroy Arkwright . . . and to ensure their unthinkable ends. This long-overdue collection proves both Bryan Talbot’s mastery of his craft and his understanding of what makes a truly great comic book: an intriguing story, characters with genuine resonance, and artwork whose illustrative excellence lies in perfect balance with clear and precise storytelling. (Publisher’s description)

Age of Bronze, Eric Shanower

Shanower won 2001′s Will Eisner Comics Industry Award for Best Writer/Artist for this extraordinary project: the first part of a seven-volume graphic novel about the Trojan War. He has researched every imaginable source about the war, from ancient legends to medieval romances to contemporary scholarship, and synthesized them into a fantastically rich narrative. He’s also delved deep into the architectural history of Mycenaean Greece, so that the dress and settings in the book look like Bronze Age artifacts, rather than the Classical Greek styles normally associated with the story. The book begins with the story of Paris, the milk-white bull and the kidnapping of Helen, and goes up to the start of the war. He treats the material as historical fiction rather than mythology, as a tale of people, not of gods, though the supernatural aspects of the story are worked in through dreams and visions. Shanower subtly alters his visual style for every flashback sequence: when Priam relates the story of Herakles, the images are cartoonish and the characters larger than life. But the story also has many amazing scenes for an artist (the erotic entanglement of Achilles and Deidamia, the feigned madness of Odysseus, the launching of the thousand ships to rescue Helen and lay waste to Troy) and Shanower makes the most of them, with a fine-lined style in black and white drawings evoking woodcuts and classical paintings. (Publisher’s Weekly review)

Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot

Talbot’s freewheeling, metafictional magnum opus is a map of the curious and delightful territory of its cartoonist’s mind, starring himself in multiple roles. The starting point is the history of his hometown, the northeast English city of Sunderland, along with his lifelong fascination with the myths and realities behind Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland — potentially dry material, but Talbot pulls out all the stops to keep it entertaining. He veers off on one fascinating tangent after another. The book encompasses dead-on parodies of EC horror comics, British boys’ comics and Hergé’s Tintin, walk-ons by local heroes like Sidney James, extensive analysis of a couple of William Hogarth prints, a cameo appearance by the Venerable Scott McComics-Expert and even a song-and-dance number, drawing a three-dimensional web of coincidences and connections between all. It’s also a showcase for the explosive verve of Talbot’s protean illustrative style, with digital collages of multiple media on almost every page: pen-and-ink drawings in a striking variety of styles, photographs, painting, computer modeling, and all manner of found images. (Publishers Weekly review)

Almost Silent, Jason

Almost Silent packages four original Jason graphic novels — three of them out of print since mid-2008 — into one compact, hardcover omnibus collection. (As the title indicates, this volume favors Jason’s pantomime works.) You Can’t Get There From Here, the longest story of the book (and the only one to be printed in color — well, a color), tells the tale of a love triangle involving Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Monster’s Bride: Jason cleverly alternates between totally silent sequences involving the three characters and scenes in which Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant discusses the day’s events with a fellow hunchbacked assistant to another mad scientist. (You didn’t know they had a union?) Tell Me Something is a brisk (271 panels), near-totally-silent (just a few intertitles) graphic novelette about love lost and found again, told with a tricky mixture of forward- and back-flashing narrative. Meow, Baby! is a collection of Jason’s short stories and gags, and finally, The Living and the Dead is a hilariously deadpan (and gory) take on the traditional Romero-style zombie thriller. All of these yarns star Jason’s patented cast of tight-lipped (or -beaked) bird-, dog-, cat- and wolf-people, and show off his compassion and wry wit. Almost Silent is a perfect starting point for a new reader wanting to know what the fuss is all about, and a handsome, handy, inexpensive collection for the committed Jason fan. (Booklist review)

American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang

This is a tour-de-force new work by rising indie comics star Gene Yang. American Born Chinese maps the adolescent Chinese-American experience through three separate but interwoven stories. One story centres on Jin Wang, a Chinese-American student at an all-white California high school. Jin is plagued by jocks and bullies, so when another Chinese student transfers to the school, Jin wants nothing to do with him. Next is a comic update of the legendary story of the Monkey King, an ancient Chinese morality tale. Finally, there’s the gross and surreal stereotype of Chin-Kee, the ultimate negative Chinese cliche, complete with a sitcom-style “laugh track”. These three apparently unrelated tales come together in an astonishing climax — all with a mighty blast of humour, surprising poignancy and skilled artistry. (Publisher’s description)

American Splendor, Harvey Pekar

The stories in American Splendor concern the everyday life of Pekar in Cleveland, Ohio. Situations covered include Pekar’s job as a file clerk at a Veteran’s Administration hospital and his relations with work colleagues and patients there. There are also stories about Pekar and his relations with friends and family, including his third wife Joyce Brabner and their adopted daughter Danielle. Other stories concern everyday situations such as Pekar’s troubles with his car, money, his health, and his concerns and anxieties in general. Several issues (#14, #13, #18) give accounts of Pekar’s becoming a recurring guest on the NBC television show Late Night with David Letterman, including a 1987 interview segment in which Pekar criticized Letterman for ducking criticism of General Electric, the parent company of NBC. American Splendor sometimes departs from Pekar’s own life, with stories about jazz musicians (#23), the artists for his comics (#25), and a three-issue miniseries American Splendor: Unsung Hero (#29–31), which chronicles the Vietnam experience of Pekar’s African-American co-worker Robert McNeill. (Wikipedia)

Arrival, The, Shaun Tan

Tan captures the displacement and awe with which immigrants respond to their new surroundings in this wordless graphic novel. It depicts the journey of one man, threatened by dark shapes that cast shadows on his family’s life, to a new country. The only writing is in an invented alphabet, which creates the sensation immigrants must feel when they encounter a strange new language and way of life. A wide variety of ethnicities is represented in Tan’s hyper-realistic style, and the sense of warmth and caring for others, regardless of race, age, or background, is present on nearly every page. Young readers will be fascinated by the strange new world the artist creates, complete with floating elevators and unusual creatures, but may not realize the depth of meaning or understand what the man’s journey symbolizes. More sophisticated readers, however, will grasp the sense of strangeness and find themselves participating in the man’s experiences. They will linger over the details in the beautiful sepia pictures and will likely pick up the book to pore over it again and again. (School Library Journal review)

Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli

For decades, Mazzucchelli has been a master without a masterpiece. Now he has one. His long-awaited graphic novel is a huge, knotty marvel, the comics equivalent of a Pynchon or Gaddis novel, and radically different from anything he’s done before. Asterios Polyp, its arrogant, prickly protagonist, is an award-winning architect who’s never built an actual building, and a pedant in the midst of a spiritual crisis. After the structure of his own life falls apart, he runs away to try to rebuild it into something new. There are fascinating digressions on aesthetic philosophy, as well as some very broad satire, but the core of the book is Mazzucchelli’s odyssey of style — every major character in the book is associated with a specific drawing style and visual motifs, and the design, color scheme and formal techniques of every page change to reinforce whatever’s happening in the story. Although Mazzucchelli stacks the deck — few characters besides Polyp and his inamorata, the impossibly good-hearted sculptor Hana, are more than caricatures — the book’s bravado and mastery make it riveting even when it’s frustrating, and provide a powerful example of how comics use visual information to illustrate complex, interconnected topics. (Publishers Weekly review)

Astro City, Kurt Busiek

The comic book adventures of costumed superheroes represent a specialized genre of literature that has been around for decades. Every so often a new work comes around that truly represents a new high point in the field. Such a work is Kurt Busiek’s Astro City: Life in the Big City, an intelligently written and spectacularly illustrated volume that tells the story of a remarkable group of superheroes. Life is actually a collection of six interrelated stories, each of which stands on its own as a fine piece of comic book art. Together the six tales present a stunning portrait of the fictional Astro City, a postmodern metropolis teeming with costumed superheroes, sinister supervillains and other memorable characters. Among the many heroes we meet are Samaritan, the almost godlike caped hero with a tragic past; Winged Victory, a flying superwoman with a feminist twist; the Hanged Man, a mysterious figure who maintains a silent protective vigil; and Jack-in-the-Box, a demonic-looking clown with a number of high-tech tricks up his sleeve. But just as compelling are the “ordinary” citizens of Astro City: veteran reporter Elliot Mills, legal clerk Marta, and the other working folks whose lives are lived in the shadow of the supermen. (Amazon.com review)

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller

If any comic has a claim to have truly reinvigorated the genre, then The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller–known also for his excellent Sin City series and his superb rendering of the blind superhero Daredevil–is probably the top contender. Batman represented all that was wrong in comics and Miller set himself a tough task taking on the camp crusader and turning this laughable, innocuous children’s cartoon character into a hero for our times. The great Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, the arguably peerless Watchmen) argued that only someone of Miller’s stature could have done this. Batman is a character known well beyond the confines of the comic world (as are his retinue) and so reinventing him, while keeping his limiting core essentials intact, was a huge task. Miller went far beyond the call of duty. The Dark Knight is a success on every level. Firstly it does keep the core elements of the Batman myth intact, with Robin, Alfred the butler, Commissioner Gordon, and the old roster of villains, present yet brilliantly subverted. Secondly the artwork is fantastic–detailed, sometimes claustrophobic, psychotic. Lastly it’s a great story: Gotham City is a hell on earth, street gangs roam but there are no heroes. Decay is ubiquitous. Where is a hero to save Gotham? It is 10 years since the last recorded sighting of the Batman. And things have got worse than ever. Bruce Wayne is close to being a broken man but something is keeping him sane: the need to see change and the belief that he can orchestrate some of that change. Batman is back. The Dark Knight has returned. Awesome. (Amazon.com review)

Berlin: City of Stones, Jason Lutes

It’s difficult to think of a story with a greater sense of elegant, nuanced foreboding than Jason Lutes’s Berlin, Book One: City of Stones. Set in the Weimar Republic-era of German history, Lutes’s story takes an unimaginably large and historically important time and observes it through the small lives of a band of sympathetic protagonists. The author spends the most time with his main characters, Kurt Severing and Marthe Müller, but the quality of Berlin is such that the reader cares emphatically about the fate of the rest of the cast: the lovelorn dyke art student, the recently separated single mother, even fleeting characters like the street policeman or the overworked newspaper editor. Using the graphic novel form to tackle an issue like the rise of Nazi Germany is fraught with traps, not least of which are comparisons to other works, such as Maus, as well as literary criticism for minimizing such an important topic. Lutes navigates these hazards well, creating sparse black-and-white sketches that often render a mood wordlessly. Whole pages go without text, and it serves the story well. The story itself has a rambling and philosophical feel, focused on details that become all the more poignant for their insignificance. One segment–where Lutes shows Marthe’s walk onto a newly snow-covered street–tells us everything we need to know about this character, without much actual action occurring. Lutes doesn’t use moments of transcendence to make a point or add sentimentality; instead, he firmly grounds us in this time and place. (Amazon.com review)

Black Diamond Detective Agency, The, Eddie Campbell

Campbell, who secured his hold on graphic-novel immortality in the Jack the Ripper epic From Hell (2000), created with writer Alan Moore, continues to produce an eclectic and arresting body of work. In this story of detection and revenge, based on a screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell, he uses a pale palette to create a portrait of a turn-of-the-last-century America that is both thrilled by its technological innovation and terrified by the extreme changes that come with it. The Black Diamond Detective Agency, a fictional stand-in for the Pinkerton Agency, hunts down the culprits behind a lethal train bombing, even as a man in black with a more personal agenda seeks the same men. Cursing, brief nudity, and an implied sexual encounter suggest an older teen audience, who will best appreciate this complex visual experience that weaves in interesting historical supposition, such as the use of forensic sketch artists as nineteenth-century CSI agents, and highlights the staccato bursts of violence (including an exciting, well-choreographed gunfight in a train station) with stinging red accents. (Booklist review)

Black Hole, Charles Burns

The prodigiously talented Burns hit the comics scene in the ’80s via Raw magazine, wielding razor-sharp, ironic-retro graphics. Over the years his work has developed a horrific subtext perpetually lurking beneath the mundane suburban surface. In the dense, unnerving Black Hole, Burns combines realism — never a concern for him before — and an almost convulsive surrealism. The setting is Seattle during the early ’70s. A sexually transmitted disease, the “bug,” is spreading among teenagers. Those who get it develop bizarre mutations — sometimes subtle, like a tiny mouth at the base of one boy’s neck, and sometimes obvious and grotesque. The most visibly deformed victims end up living as homeless campers in the woods, venturing into the streets only when they have to, shunned by normal society. The story follows two teens, Keith and Chris, as they get the bug. Their dreams and hallucinations — made of deeply disturbing symbolism merging sexuality and sickness — are a key part of the tale. The AIDS metaphor is obvious, but the bug also amplifies already existing teen emotions and the wrenching changes of puberty. Burns’s art is inhumanly precise, and he makes ordinary scenes as creepy as his nightmare visions of a world where intimacy means a life worse than death. (Publishers Weekly review)

Blankets, Craig Thompson

Revisiting the themes of deep friendship and separation Thompson surveyed in Goodbye Chunky Rice, his acclaimed and touching debut, this sensitive memoir recreates the confusion, emotional pain and isolation of the author’s rigidly fundamentalist Christian upbringing, along with the trepidation of growing into maturity. Skinny, naive and spiritually vulnerable, Thompson and his younger brother manage to survive their parents’ overbearing discipline (the brothers are sometimes forced to sleep in “the cubby-hole,” a forbidding and claustrophobic storage chamber) through flights of childhood fancy and a mutual love of drawing. But escapist reveries can’t protect them from the cruel schoolmates who make their lives miserable. Thompson’s grimly pious parents and religious community dismiss his budding talent for drawing; they view his creative efforts as sinful and relentlessly hector the boys about scripture. Thompson manages to explore adolescent social yearnings, the power of young love and the complexities of sexual attraction with a rare combination of sincerity, pictorial lyricism and taste. His exceptional b&w drawings balance representational precision with a bold and wonderfully expressive line for pages of ingenious, inventively composed and poignant imagery. (Publishers Weekly review)

Blue, Pat Grant

This book is a fantastic debut by the Australian artist and author Pat Grant. The story is about three young and impressionable children who ditch school to surf. However, the waves prove to be too choppy and the truants slowly make their way to the site of a fatal accident. Although the children pretend to be interested in seeing the remains of the dead body (which was struck by a train), none of them are too eager about seeing the grizzly scene. The victim is a member of some blue alien race, ostensibly. Clearly the creature is a foreigner, an immigrant, whom the children and the rest of the “natives” of Bolton, Australia (all the main characters are white immigrants) see as invaders; detrimental to the survival of a town that is already crumbling. The journey to see the dead body is filled with xenophobia, instilled into the children by the town’s adults. The children, meanwhile, only see the dead body as a testament to the aliens simply being another living creature, deserving of pity not a barbaric curiosity. This is not to say that the author Pat Grant completely condones those afraid of the blue immigrants. Instead, he offers a balanced opinion. He demonstrates the immigrants’ humanity, even the things that make humanity a character trait capable of both good and not good (shown by the narrator whose job — in the future — is to tirelessly like a modern-day Sisyphus clean off the Blue graffiti from the city’s walls). (Amazon.com review)

Bone, Jeff Smith

Mere months after publishing the final installment of the long-running fantasy saga Bone, Smith collects all 13 years’ worth of it in a single, massive volume. As many comics fans know, the series chronicles the adventures of the Bone cousins–plucky Fone Bone, scheming Phony Bone, and easygoing Smiley Bone– who leave their home of Boneville and are swept up in a Tolkienesque epic of royalty, dragons, and unspeakable evil forces out to conquer humankind. The compilation makes it evident how fully formed Smith’s vision was from the very beginning–although the early chapters emphasized comedy, as do the final pages, the tale quickly found its dramatic bearings. His remarkably accomplished drawing style, in the manner of such comics masters as Walt Kelly and Carl Barks, was fully formed from the start, too. (Booklist review)

Buddha, Osamu Tezuka

Tezuka, the master of Japanese comics, mixes his own characters with history as deftly as he transfers the most profound, complex emotions onto extremely cartoony characters, and his work defies easy categorization. In Buddha, originally serialized in the 1970s and one of his last works, he lavishly retells the life of Siddhartha, who isn’t even born until page 268. Instead, Tezuka introduces Chapra, a slave who attempts to escape his fate by posing as the son of a general; Tatta, a crazed wild child pariah who communes with animals; Chapra’s slave mother, who stands by him no matter what; and Naradatta, a monk attempting to discover the meaning of strange portents of the Buddha’s birth. Throughout the book, the characters engage in fresh and unexpected adventures, escapes and reverses, as they play out Tezuka’s philosophical concern with overcoming fate and the uselessness of violence. Despite episodes of extreme brutality and broad humor, the core of the story revolves around various set pieces, as when Tatta sacrifices himself to a snake to save Naradatta and Chapra’s mom. After a moment of intense emotion, the scene is upended by the arrival of a bandit who mocks their attempts at keeping their karmic slates clean. “Why were you all fussing over some stupid trade? Why not just kill the snake and eat it?” The answer unfolds over succeeding volumes. Heavily influenced by Walt Disney, Tezuka’s often cute characters may take some getting used to, but his storytelling is strong and clean. Appearing in handsome packages designed by Chip Kidd, this is a stunning achievement. (Publishers Weekly review)

Can’t Get No, Rick Veitch

Within this oddly shaped book lies one of the most remarkable achievements in recent comics history. Veitch (Maximortal; Swamp Thing) has given the graphic novel medium what may just be its first long-form poem. The drawings tell the story of corporate drone Chad Roe, who is given a new outlook when a weekend bender leaves him tattooed on every inch of his body. His life is further upended when the World Trade Center, where his office is located, is destroyed. This book’s distinct style shines through with the narrative captions that accompany Veitch’s remarkable art. They don’t contain the main character’s inner monologue or a narrator’s comments on the actions. Instead they present a satirical yet lyrical commentary on the modern American life Roe was very much a part of, but is suddenly removed from now that he is a walking piece of abstract art. It’s a biting evisceration of the comfortable place many Americans convinced themselves they had, a conviction that was challenged on 9/11. The words and pictures move in and out of synch with each other, sometimes exemplifying the power and possibilities of comics. When they seem to be telling two different stories, it goes even further to show how several ideas can be communicated at once. Fortunately, Veitch’s ideas are strong enough to justify the treatment. (Publishers Weekly review)

Castle Waiting, Linda Medley

With its quiet blend of fantasy, folktales, and character-driven storytelling, this charming collection brings the first 12 issues of an Eisner Award-winning comic-book series to a wider audience. It opens with The Brambly Hedge, which gives the origin of the castle itself. In a comic retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a medieval castle and its loving inhabitants are abandoned when the princess wakes up, finds her Prince Charming, and rides off into the sunset with him. The castle transforms into an outpost of sorts for the unusual, the unwanted, and those just needing a place to hide from the world. Talking chivalrous horses, pregnant mothers on the run, and nuns who were once bearded ladies in the circus are just a few of the colourful inhabitants whose stories fill the remainder of the volume. Medley’s storytelling becomes more assured and complex as the series progresses, and she uses flashbacks and stories-within-stories in a manner that creates a rhythm that is both fun and gripping. Hard-edged lines with simple forms create black-and-white artwork that melds nicely with the fairy-tale feel of the stories. This volume is accessible for younger readers but filled with enough layers and depth to satisfy those looking for a bit more sophistication. (School Library Journal review)

Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi

The question of what makes a life worth living has rarely been posed with as much poignancy and ambition as it is in Satrapi’s dazzling new effort. Satrapi’s talent for distilling complex personal histories into richly evocative vignettes made Persepolis a bestseller. Here she presents us with the story of her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, one of Iran’s most revered musicians, who takes to bed after realizing that he’ll never be able to find an instrument to replace his beloved, broken tar. Eight days later, he’s dead. These final eight days, which we’re taken through one by one, make up the bulk of this slim volume. While waiting for death, Nasser Ali is visited by family, memories and hallucinations. Because everything is being filtered through Satrapi’s formidable imagination, we are also treated to classical Persian poetry, bits of history, folk stories, as well as an occasional flash forward into lives Nasser Ali will never have a chance to see. Each episode is illustrated with Satrapi’s characteristic, almost childlike drawings, which take on the stark expressiveness of block prints. Clear and emotive, they bring surprising force and humor to this stunning tribute to a life whose worth can be measured in the questions it leaves. (Publishers Weekly review)

City of Glass, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli

Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s 1994 comics adaptation of Auster’s existentialist mystery novel, reprinted here with an introduction by Art Spiegelman, has been a cult classic for years. The Comics Journal named it one of the 100 best comics of the century. Miraculously, it deepens the darkness and power of its source. Auster’s novel (about a novelist named Quinn who’s mistaken for a detective named Paul Auster and loses his mind and identity in the course of a meaningless case) zooms around in metafictional spirals, but it doesn’t have a lot of visual content. In fact, it’s mostly about the breakdown of the idea of representation and the widening chasm between signifier and signified. So the artists, perversely and brilliantly, play fast and loose with the text. Mazzucchelli draws everything in a bluntly sketched, bold-lined style, and having set up a suitably film noir mood at the beginning, he substitutes literal depictions of what’s happening for symbolic or iconic images wherever possible. One character’s monologue about the loss of meaning in his speech is drawn as a long zoom down his throat, followed by Charon arising from a void, a cave drawing, a series of holes and symbols of muteness and finally a broken marionette at the bottom of a well. This reflected, shattered Glass introduces a whole new set of resonances to Auster’s story, about the things images can and can’t represent when language fails. (Publishers Weekly review)

Concrete, Paul Chadwick

Possessed of the mind of a mild-mannered mensch in a gigantic, superstrong, rocklike body, Concrete was an early star of the independent comics movement, appearing intermittently since 1986. The character’s outlandish origin–he was fashioned by aliens who were never again seen in the series–serves as an improbable but effective device for exploring human nature. Trapped in his granite shell, unable to feel sensual pleasures but graced with heightened senses, Concrete seeks new experiences that only he can attempt, such as a hike across the ocean’s floor. Although he occasionally undertakes standard superhero exploits, such as rescuing miners trapped underground, he also engages in decidedly nontraditional jobs, like serving as bodyguard to a dotty, Prince-like rock star. Chadwick accentuates the stories’ humanistic bent in his graceful, carefully wrought, black-and-white art. This collection begins a series that reprints Concrete’s early appearances and previously uncollected stories by Chadwick, such as the autobiographical “Vagabond” in this volume; recalling a cross-country hitchhiking trip, it hints at how much the creator’s character informs that of the creation. (Booklist review)

Contract with God, A, Will Eisner

It’s fair to say that Will Eisner invented modern comic art. A Contract with God has been called the first graphic novel, and its divergence from traditional comics themes and forms highlights Eisner’s foresight and brilliance. Dealing with stories and memories from his childhood in a Bronx tenement, he explores the brutality, fragility, and tenderness possible among people living in close quarters close to the poverty line. The four stories here are tough but funny, deep but finely detailed, much like the traditional Jewish stories he drew upon to flavor his own work. Ending reflectively (and perhaps autobiographically), A Contract with God shows us a young man peering out into his city as he decides whether and how to face adulthood. You won’t see that in the funny papers. Wizard magazine named Eisner “the most influential comic artist of all time.” Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is based in good part on Eisner. In 2002, Eisner received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Federation for Jewish Culture, only the second such honor in the organization’s history, presented by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman.(Amazon.com review)

Cravan, Mike Richardson and Rick Geary

It’s not known what became of Arthur Cravan — boxer, poet, adventurer, hoaxer and Oscar Wilde’s nephew — after he disappeared while sailing to Mexico in 1918. This graphic novel biography presents the larger-than-life incidents from his life, including various daring escapes, schemes and a scam involving boxing matches with Jack Johnson. Along the way, Cravan runs into such figures as Leon Trotsky and marries poet Mina Loy. Richardson even adds to the mystery by speculating that Cravan was also reclusive B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Geary, creator of the outstanding Treasury of Victorian Murder series, is an excellent choice to illustrate and co-write this historical overview. His distinctive pen-and-ink style captures the reality of the times, especially when it comes to establishing settings like cluttered sitting rooms or angry groups of men in striped suits. Cravan embarrasses his family but claims it’s all for experience to become a writer. Their good advice — ”If you want to write, sit down and write” — is ignored in favor of more sensation seeking. The result is a life of violence and dada, a colorful footnote to the history of the era. (Publishers Weekly review)

Daytripper, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

A stunning, moving story about one man’s life and all the possibilities to be realized or lost along the way. Brothers Bá and Moon take readers through the life of a man named Brás de Oliva Domingos, selecting a series of individual events of great significance to Brás, showing each as if it could be the day Brás dies, and in so doing creating an examination of family, friendship, love, art, life, and death that urges the reader to turn the same careful inspection on their own life. Central is the relationship between Brás, who is first seen as a disgruntled writer stuck in a job writing obituaries, and his father, Benedito de Oliva Domingos, a famous author. Although each section can be years apart, themes all beautifully tie in throughout the work; characters develop as more is learned about them as the story jumps back and forth in time; and moments of Brás’ life take on entirely new meanings as events from his possible pasts or futures cast them into new lights. Moon and Bá’s artwork is as impressive as their writing, and aided by colorist Dave Stewart the artists/writers render gorgeous cities and landscapes from Brazil across several decades, adding in touches of the surreal when the story calls for it. This is an intense work that promises to bring the reader along on a personal and rewarding journey. (Publishers Weekly review)

Death-Ray, The, Daniel Clowes

Teen outcast Andy is an orphaned nobody with only one friend, the obnoxious — but loyal — Louie. They roam school halls and city streets, invisible to everyone but bullies and tormentors, until the glorious day when Andy takes his first puff on a cigarette. That night he wakes, heart pounding, soaked in sweat, and finds himself suddenly overcome with the peculiar notion that he can do anything. Indeed, he can, and as he learns the extent of his new powers, he discovers a terrible and seductive gadget — a hideous compliment to his seething rage — that forever changes everything. The Death-Ray utilizes the classic staples of the superhero genre — origin, costume, ray gun, sidekick, fight scene — and reconfigures them in a story that is anything but morally simplistic. With subtle comedy, deft mastery, and an obvious affection for the bold pop-art exuberance of comic book design, Daniel Clowes delivers a contemporary meditation on the darkness of the human psyche. (Publisher‘s description’)

DMZ, Brian Wood

A near-future America is torn by war between the Free Armies, who control New Jersey and the inland, and the United States, ensconced in New York City’s boroughs. In the war-torn DMZ of Manhattan, Matty Roth, hired as a phototech intern to a famous battlefield journalist, is stranded when the rest of his crew is killed. Overcoming initial panic, he decides to remain as the sole embedded journalist in the devastated, largely depopulated city. It’s a career-making assignment–if it doesn’t get him killed. Befriended by former med student Zee, who runs a clinic, Matty discovers a society struggling to survive amid skirmishes and snipers (appropriate soundtrack music: Talking Heads’ “Life during Wartime”). Of the DMZ issues collected here, the first three establish its premise. In the succeeding two, Matty discovers the “Ghosts of Central Park”–paramilitaries who defend the now-deforested preserve and its zoo animals–and chases a robber who steals his press badge. Wood’s writing does justice to the intriguing concept, and Burchielli’s jagged artwork effectively conveys the characters’ desperation. (Booklist review)

Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison

Before writing such critically acclaimed cult comics as The Invisibles, Morrison made his name in 1988 by updating Animal Man, a third-rate 1960s costumed crimefighter. The next year he similarly resuscitated the Doom Patrol, a band of misfit superheroes whose strange powers made society fear and hate them (compare Marvel’s X-Men, who debuted at the same time). Morrison’s Animal Man drew praise for daring experimentation, but his “World’s Strangest Superheroes” raised the stakes by replacing many original cast members with the likes of Crazy Jane, a schizophrenic whose multiple personalities each has its own superpower, and Dorothy Spinner, an ape-faced girl with the ability to distort reality. Morrison’s outrageously inventive takes on superheroes, which manage to be both smart and silly, may be off-putting to tradition-minded fans. The compensation is that his sensibility draws readers who usually prefer alternative comics. (Booklist review)

Drama, Raina Telgemeier

Callie loves the theater, even if she can’t sing well enough to perform in her beloved musicals. But when drama and romance — both onstage and off — cause problems, Callie finds that set design may be the easiest part of putting on a play. Telgemeier is prodigiously talented at telling cheerful stories with realistic portrayals of middle-school characters. Callie is likable, hardworking, and enthusiastic, but she is as confused about relationships and love as any young teen, and she flits from crush to crush in a believable fashion. Nonactors will love having a spotlight shine on the backstage action, but even those who shun the stage will identify with this roller-coaster ride through young teen emotions. In addressing issues such as homosexuality, Drama is more teen oriented than Telgemeier’s elementary-school-friendly Smile (2010). Her deceptively simple art may seem cartoonish, but it is grounded in a firm sense of style and washed in warm colors to give the story an open, welcoming feel. In this realistic and sympathetic story, feelings and thoughts leap off the page, revealing Telgemeier’s keen eye for young teen life. (Booklist review)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky

Mattotti and his longtime collaborator Kramsky return to the comix world with an interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of gothic horror. While the story is set in Victorian England, Mattotti’s artwork evokes the masterful expressionism of Berlin of the 1930s and such influences as Max Beckman, George Grosz and Giorgio de Chirico. Dr. Jekyll’s obsession with the duality of the human personality-the good and evil that reside within-leads him to concoct the potion that brings out his purely evil side. Depicting this transformation, Mattotti’s art becomes even more expressive, reminiscent of the later paintings of Francis Bacon. Jekyll’s assertion that with his potion “Life would be relieved of all that is horrible” proves wrong. Indeed, he has distilled life’s horrors in the person of the brutal Mr. Hyde, who haunts the nightclubs, parties, darkened streets and brothels of London, a perfect vehicle for Mattotti’s masterful command of color, composition and mood. An accomplished colorist, Mattotti saturates the book’s pages with a rich palette, and each panel is beautiful and expressive. Kramsky’s adept condensation of Stevenson’s book appropriates snatches of the original text verbatim, maintaining the power of Stevenson’s prose while using a minimum amount of text. This is an impressive and vivid interpretation of Stevenson’s timeless tale of the human spirit. (Publishers Weekly review)

Dungeon, Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim

This first volume of the Dungeon graphic novel series follows the misadventures of Herbert the Duck. As a result of some unfortunate accidents, Herbert, usually a lowly messenger in the great Dungeon, is called upon to defend it from all manner of beasties. In his endeavors to become a warrior, he is helped by his friend Marvin the vegetarian dragon and by the Dungeon Keeper. Although there’s a solid dose of cartoon-style violence and gore, teens will appreciate Herbert’s pseudo-slacker attitude, which turns him into an accidental hero time and time again. They’ll also like the tongue-in-cheek storytelling, rife with screwball humor that is so bad it’s hilarious. The art is offbeat and fun, too, with detailed backgrounds that are often as over the top as the action. A great change of pace from mainstream comics. (Booklist review)

Elfquest, Wendy and Richard Pini

This near-definitive edition collects the Pinis’ classic tale of elves struggling to survive in a hostile world. Exploding off the page in lurid, Technicolor splendor, the art should enthrall a new generation of pixie lovers. Originally published in the 1970s, ElfQuest chronicles the adventures of a forest-dwelling tribe of elves forced from their homes by evil humans. After encountering some duplicitous trolls, the band of refugees makes its way across the wilderness and finds another, previously unknown tribe of elves. The perils of the trip and the integration of the two tribes make for all sorts of dramatic tableaux. The woodland elves, who are hunters, ride wolves and court danger, while the desert elves are civilized townsfolk with elaborate social customs. The conflict is embodied in Cutter (a wolf rider) and Leetah (a desert healer); it isn’t surprising that the two are destined to be together. Perhaps more unexpected is the irrepressible sexuality of these elves. Every elf female has the figure of a petite Playboy playmate, while the elfin males resemble diminutive body builders. With such fabulous looks, it’s no shocker that they enjoy scampering into each other’s beds at every opportunity, although this is hardly the tale’s central point. Rather, the Pinis focus on how their elven archetypes — the dreamer, the hero, the earth mother — interact and change as their world faces upheaval. Subtle it ain’t, but it’s fun, and the series has captured a loyal following in its 25-year history. (Publishers Weekly review)

Epileptic, David B.

David B. is one of the founders of the French experimental comics collective L’Association, and this hallucinatory work (the first of two volumes) is a sort of refracted story of his childhood when he was known as Pierre-Francois. On a literal level, it’s a fascinating memoir of how his brother’s epilepsy became the driving force of his family’s life in the 1960s and ’70s. Desperate to find a cure for his brother’s condition, his parents turn to ascetic macrobiotic cults, deeply esoteric spiritualists and more in search of something that might help him. They encounter all manner of cruelty and quackery but occasionally find something that helps. B.’s own fascination with history and war seems to protect him from the despair that perpetually surrounds the family. His visual retelling of their suffering is a masterpiece of surrealistic cartooning and fantastic imagery. Readers see B. as a child; as his mind blurs the distinction between reality, metaphor and fiction, so does his art. He draws a macrobiotic healer as a cartoon tiger, and fills the book with iconic metaphors for disease (epilepsy is like a demon from a cave drawing). His has a fascination with Swedenborgian mysticism and Samurai warriors, who are vehicles for gorgeously stylized b&w illustrations of warfare and bloodletting. The narrative thread peels aside for digressions to depict young Pierre-Francois’ dreams or to carefully denote the family’s endless efforts to find relief for their son and ultimately for themselves. Almost every panel is a graphic balancing act between representation and psychological distortion. This is truly a remarkable and powerful piece of comics narration. (Publishers Weekly review)

Essex County, Jeff Lemire

Where does a young boy turn when his whole world suddenly disappears? What turns two brothers from an unstoppable team into a pair of bitterly estranged loners? How does the simple-hearted care of one middle-aged nurse reveal the scars of an entire community, and can anything heal the wounds caused by a century of deception? Award-winning cartoonist Jeff Lemire pays tribute to his roots with Essex County, an award-winning trilogy of graphic novels set in an imaginary version of his hometown, the eccentric farming community of Essex County, Ontario, Canada. In Essex County, Lemire crafts an intimate study of one community through the years, and a tender meditation on family, memory, grief, secrets, and reconciliation. With the lush, expressive inking of a young artist at the height of his powers, Lemire draws us in and sets us free. (Publisher’s description)

Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan

Tel Aviv-–based Modan gives American comics readers a sharp sense of Israeli life in this brilliant and moving graphic novel. The story follows Koby Franco, a young taxi driver and lost soul, as he searches for his missing father, a man who long ago left the family and may or may not have been killed in a suicide bomb attack. Assisting and prodding him is Nuni, a young soldier who was romantically involved with the missing father. Modan takes her characters across Israel and through a variety of different Israeli social strata as the search progresses. Along the way it becomes clear that Koby’s father’s identity is in flux — he leaves all those that he loves, but touches on everything it means to be an Israeli: family man, soldier, religious practitioner and, perhaps, victim. Modan is a deft and subtle storyteller, and her meditation on Israeli identity and the possibilities of love and trust (between father and son, woman and man) are finely wrought. Her loose, expressive drawing is both tremendously evocative and precise — always enhancing the plot. The stellar combination makes this one of the major graphic novels of 2007. (Publishers Weekly review)

Ex Machina, Brian K. Vaughan

Set somewhere between The West Wing and an alternative future, this taleasks the question: What if the mayor of New York was a superhero? Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and Harris (Starman) answer with intelligence and dash. In classic superhero origin, Mitchell Hundred is just another civil engineer until an encounter with a glowing light under the Brooklyn Bridge gives him the power to talk to machines. Fast forward three years: after a famed stint as a superhero, Hundred has just been elected mayor of New York and must deal with not only the colorful cast of characters that make up his staff but also a host of crises: a PR disaster set off by an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum; a crippling blizzard; and, most worryingly, a serial killer who’s bumping off the city’s snow plow drivers. Vaughan cleverly adapts real news stories — New York mayoral politics, the Sensations art scandal — and plausibly fits them into a world where superheroes exist, but are forbidden by the NSA to talk about their powers, while adding surprising twists and turns. Harris’s gritty, charismatic characters give the story further appeal. (Publishers Weekly review)

Fables, Bill Willingham

This elaborate fantasy series begins as a whodunit, but quickly unfurls into a much larger story about Fabletown, a place where fairy tale legends live alongside regular New Yorkers. Years ago, fables and fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella “were a thousand separate kingdoms spread over a hundred magic worlds,” until they were invaded and driven into hiding and, eventually, into modern-day Gotham. And so, on the city streets we find Beauty and the Beast in trouble with the law and Prince Charming reduced to a broke cad auctioning off his royal title, while his ex-wife, Snow White, rules over the de facto kingdom the fables created. When Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, disappears from a blood-soaked apartment, the Wolf, reformed and now the kingdom’s house detective, is assigned to the case. Willingham uses the Wolf’s investigation to introduce readers to Fabletown’s dissolute, hard-luck inhabitants, and he is at his best here, relishing one-liners and spinning funky background information of a world where fairy tale characters spend their time fretting about money and thinking up get-rich schemes. The mystery seems mostly an excuse to delineate Willingham’s world, as the caper is easily resolved-in true fairy tale fashion-during a massive ballroom celebration. Willingham’s dialogue is humorous, his characterizations are sharp and his plot encompasses a tremendous amount of information with no strain at all. The art, mostly by Medina and Leialoha, is well drawn and serviceable, if somewhat unremarkable, with occasional flares of decorative invention. But it’s Willingham’s script that carries the tale. (Publishers Weekly review)

Fate of the Artist, The, Eddie Campbell

Campbell, best known for his work on From Hell and his autobiographical Alec comics, has come up with a marvelous sui generis oddity: a meta-memoir about his own disappearance that’s a kind of intently controlled nervous breakdown on paper. It’s a nonlinear, mixed-media collage of a book — there are typeset prose passages, painted comics about his family, old-fashioned newspaper strips, photos with typeset word balloons, a child’s crayon scrawl representing God and, near the end, an illustrated adaptation of O. Henry’s story “The Confessions of a Humorist,” which concerns how habitually turning life into art can make life unbearable. Campbell’s always been interested in the curious nooks of history, and there’s a running thread about artistic also-rans like Johann Schobert and the Greek sculptor Phidias; there’s also an ongoing gag about Campbell replacing himself with an imaginary actor named Richard Siegrist. The tone is whimsical and playful, but there’s a deep despair beneath it — about drinking, burnout and what happens to an artist “when his imaginary friends [stop] calling” — that overwhelms and takes the place of the plot. What pulls the whole thing together is Campbell’s stunningly protean visual technique: fierce blotches of watercolor, scraggly pen-and-ink work and whiplash stylistic shifts from impressionistic caricatures to exquisitely rendered painterly miniatures. (Publishers Weekly review)

From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

The mad, shaggy genius of the comics world dips deeply into the well of history and pulls up a cup filled with blood in From Hell. Alan Moore did a couple of Ph.D.’s worth of research into the Whitechapel murders for this copiously annotated collection of the independently published series. The web of facts, opinion, hearsay, and imaginative invention draws the reader in from the first page. Eddie Campbell’s scratchy ink drawings evoke a dark and dirty Victorian London and help to humanize characters that have been caricatured into obscurity for decades. Moore, having decided that the evidence best fits the theory of a Masonic conspiracy to cover up a scandal involving Victoria’s grandson, goes to work telling the story with relish from the point of view of the victims, the chief inspector, and the killer–the Queen’s physician. His characterization is just as vibrant as Campbell’s; even the minor characters feel fully real. Looking more deeply than most, the author finds in the “great work” of the Ripper a ritual magic working intended to give birth to the 20th century in all its horrid glory. Maps, characters, and settings are all as accurate as possible, and while the reader might not ultimately agree with Moore and Campbell’s thesis, From Hell is still a great work of literature. (Amazon.com review)

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

This autobiography by the author of the long-running strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, deals with her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and proprietor of the local funeral parlor (the former allowed him access to teen boys). Fun Home refers both to the funeral parlor, where he put makeup on the corpses and arranged the flowers, and the family’s meticulously restored gothic revival house, filled with gilt and lace, where he liked to imagine himself a 19th-century aristocrat. The art has greater depth and sophistication than Dykes; Bechdel’s talent for intimacy and banter gains gravitas when used to describe a family in which a man’s secrets make his wife a tired husk and overshadow his daughter’s burgeoning womanhood and homosexuality. His court trial over his dealings with a young boy pushes aside the importance of her early teen years. Her coming out is pushed aside by his death, probably a suicide. The recursively told story, which revisits the sites of tragic desperation again and again, hits notes that resemble Jeanette Winterson at her best. Bechdel presents her childhood as a “still life with children” that her father created, and meditates on how prolonged untruth can become its own reality. She’s made a story that’s quiet, dignified and not easy to put down. (Publishers Weekly review)

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

Dan Clowes described the story in Ghost World as the examination of “the lives of two recent high school graduates from the advantaged perch of a constant and (mostly) undetectable eavesdropper, with the shaky detachment of a scientist who has grown fond of the prize microbes in his petri dish.” From this perch comes a revelation about adolescence that is both subtle and coolly beautiful. Critics have pointed out Clowes’s cynicism and vicious social commentary, but if you concentrate on those aspects, you’ll miss the exquisite whole that Clowes has captured. Each chapter ends with melancholia that builds towards the amazing, detached, ghostlike ending. (Amazon.com review)

Golem’s Mighty Swing, The, James Sturm

The barnstorming baseball teams of the 1920s are the grist for this graphic novel that follows a Jewish team, the Stars of David, through the Midwest in a broken-down bus, using the gimmick of exotic ethnicity to draw small-towners to their games. At this level, baseball is as much showbiz as sport, so to boost attendance, the team’s sole black player, billed as a “member of the lost tribe,” poses as a golem, a creature made of clay and brought to life by a rabbinical incantation. The scheme goes terribly awry, however, when the massive crowd it draws, inflamed by anti-Semitism, storms the field. Like its legendary model, this golem damages its creators. Sturm is a master of nuance, whose economical drawings effectively evoke the era, while his thoughtful compositions impressively capture action and atmosphere. He uses the national pastime to examine such equally American traits as racism and media hype. But mostly, this a particularly insightful take on the theme of immigrants caught between their traditions and the ways of a new land. (Booklist review)

Goliath, Tom Gauld

Goliath of Gath isn’t much of a fighter. Given half a choice, he would pick admin work over patrolling in a heartbeat, to say nothing of his distaste for engaging in combat. Nonetheless, at the behest of the king he finds himself issuing a twice-daily challenge to the Israelites: “Choose a man. Let him come to me that we may fight. If he be able to kill me then we shall be your servants. But if I kill him, then you shall be our servants.” Day after day he reluctantly repeats his speech, and the isolation of this duty gives him the chance to banter with his shield-bearer and reflect on the beauty of his surroundings. This is the story of David and Goliath as seen from Goliath’s side of the Valley of Elah. Quiet moments in Goliath’s life as a soldier are accentuated by Tom Gauld s drawing style, which contrasts minimalist scenery and near-geometric humans with densely crosshatched detail reminiscent of Edward Gorey. Goliath’s battle is simultaneously tragic and bleakly funny, as bureaucracy pervades even this most mythic of figures. (Publisher’s description)

Goon, The, Eric Powell

If at first Powell’s square-jawed and square-headed, hypermuscular hero, the Goon, looks like some kind of Hellboy rip-off, look again. The Goon and his milieu are retro in appearance and allusions, and making a movie of them wouldn’t need as big an FX budget as Mike Mignola’s demon-gone-good required. Oh, sure, the Goon tangles with the supernatural, but supernatural isn’t paranormal, like Hellboy’s antagonists. The Goon just has to stomp zombies now and then. His other foes include regular, or at least real, humans, such as cops, and a mad scientist who’s turned his flesh into gold, and those plug-uglies with tails, the Mud brothers, and a redneck werewolf. Just regular guys. The Goon is an old-style enforcer for reclusive mobster Labrazio in a seemingly Depression-era seaside burg, where the talk’s like the scripts for the Dead End Kids, and the Goon must have a sidekick like Franky, a pint-size palooka with pupil-less peepers right out of Little Orphan Annie. Franky’s eyes aren’t Powell’s only tip of the hat to comics tradition. He draws one extended flashback in a style reminiscent of graphic-novel elder statesman Will Eisner and another to resemble early Mad stalwart Bill Elder’s work, and he frames one of the flashbacks with fumetti starring his nine-ish-looking son. Another Mad ace, Wally Wood, exerts a more pervasive influence on Powell, yet he is always very much his own man, a fearless parodist of even the most shopworn tough-guy cliches. (Booklist review)

Great Gatsby, The, Nicki Greenberg

‘No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.’ Nicki Greenberg’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is breathtaking — a wonderful homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-age classic that brings to life the glitter, the melancholy and the grand and crumpled dreams of Fitzgerald’s unforgettable characters. In the exquisitely realised setting of 1920s New York, a throng of fantastical creatures play out the drama, the wry humour and the tragedy of the novel. (Publisher’s description)

Hamlet, Nicki Greenberg

Denmark is in turmoil. The palace is seething with treachery, suspicion and intrigue. On a mission to avenge his father’s murder, Prince Hamlet tries to claw free of the moral decay all around him. But in the ever-deepening nest of plots, of plays within plays, nothing is what it seems. Doubt and betrayal torment the Prince until he is propelled into a spiral of unstoppable violence. In this sumptuous staging of Shakespeare’s enigmatic play on the page, Nicki Greenberg has created an extraordinary visual feast that sweeps up all in its path as the drama intensifies both on stage and off. An astounding work — unique, gripping and, as ever, tragic. (Publisher’s description)

Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks

One of the first contemporary graphic novels is now back in print with a new cover and introduction. Considered to be a classic by many, Hicksville was named a “Book of the Year” by The Comics Journal and received nominations for two Ignatz Awards, a Harvey Award and two Alph’Art Awards (Best Album and the Critics’ Prize). World-famous cartoonist Dick Burger has earned millions and become the most powerful man in the comics industry. However, behind his rapid rise to success, there lies a dark and terrible secret, as biographer Leonard Batts discovers when he visits Burger’s hometown of Hicksville in remote New Zealand. Hicksville is where the locals treasure comics and the library stocks Action Comics #1. (Publisher’s description)

The Hollow Grounds, François Schuiten and Luc Schuiten

In the 1980s, Francois Schuiten collaborated with his brother, Luc, who had introduced him to comics in his childhood, on a graphic-novel trilogy set on hollow planets that contain different societies on concentric outer surfaces. Upper- and lower-level societies interact only accidentally, as when an upper-level inhabitant breaks through her world’s floor and the lower level’s ceiling in part two, “Zara,” although winged humanoids, separate from all wingless societies, travel between planets as well as levels, at least in part one, “Carapace.” The six stories of “Carapace” and the single stories “Zara” and “Nogegon” are all concerned with sexual desire, because Francois draws slender young women so beautifully as well as because there is strict sexual segregation on some planets. Francois’ delight in architecture, perspective, and flight is also highly evident. While the long stories are in Francois’ technically impeccably drawn comics style, those of “Carapace” show him experimenting with softer delineation and painterly color effects. If Dali had done comics, they may have looked like this. Exquisite. (Booklist review)

I Kill Giants, Joe Kelly

Barbara Thorson, bullied and friendless, will not back down. She is smart, angry, won’t follow the rules, won’t let anyone close, and sees things no one else does. In short, she is a very disturbed girl, and the power of I Kill Giants is its ability to convey the reality of a frightened little girl’s pain along with the wonder of her apparent fantasies. Kelly’s portrayal of the material is nothing short of literary, echoing the similarly combined elements in Roald Dahl’s Mathilda (1988), just as the giants that Barbara describes to her tentative new friend Sophia recall Quentin Blake’s illustrations in The BFG (1982). Nimura’s line work also retains the jittery quality of the British illustrator’s style, creating a world of sharp tension. As Barbara begins to let people in, her insistence that the giants are coming threatens these intensely longed-for relationships. Whether or not they exist, the metaphor of giants to symbolize the vast terrors of a person’s inner life has never been better realized. Along with Storm in the Barn (the 2009 Booklist Top of the List winner for Youth Fiction), this is graphic storytelling at its zenith: employing fantasy to offer profound insight and take readers on a deeply emotional journey. (Booklist review)

Ice Haven, Daniel Clowes

Clowes (Ghost World) casts a harsh spotlight on the misfit dreamers who inhabit the small town of Ice Haven in this riveting graphic novel. Originally published in a somewhat different form as part of Clowes’s occasional comic book Eightball, this piecefinds Clowes moving beyond the withering satire of his earlier works to a more nuanced style. Readers will wince even as they feel sympathy for the self-deluded characters who reside in Ice Haven. Take narrator Random Wilder, writer of doggerel poetry. One would think it’d be easy to be the best poet in a place like Ice Haven, but Wilder has a rival: Ida Wentz, an old woman who likes to bake cookies. Wilder spends his spare time plotting against her. Ida’s visiting granddaughter, Vida, also has literary yearnings, despite having sold zero copies of her fanzine. These and other oddballs play out their stories against the mysterious disappearance of a little boy named David Goldberg, whose possible murder recalls the Leopold and Loeb case. Clowes unfolds the multifaceted story as a series of brief comics, some drawn in a wildly cartoony style, others in his well-known mid–20th-century look. Masterfully blending fact and fiction, this is a funny, sad, chilling and absurd work. (Publishers Weekly review)

In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman

Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Spiegelman’s new work is an inventive and vividly graphic work of nonfiction. It’s an artful rant focused on the events of 9/11 and afterward by a world-class pessimist (“after all, disaster is my muse”). The artist, who lives in downtown Manhattan, believes the world really ended on Sept. 11, 2001 — it’s merely a technicality that some people continue to go about their daily lives. He provides a hair-raising and wry account of his family’s frantic efforts to locate one another on September 11 as well as a morbidly funny survey of his trademark sense of existential doom. “I’m not even sure I’ll live long enough,” says a chain-smoking, post-9/11 cartoon-mouse Spiegelman, “for cigarettes to kill me.” The book is a visceral tirade against the Bush administration (“brigands suffering from war fever”) and, when least expected, an erudite meditation on the history of the American newspaper comic strip, born during the fierce circulation wars of the 1890s right near the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. This beautifully designed, oversized book (each page is heavy board stock) opens vertically to offer large, colorful pages with Spiegelman’s contemporary lamentations along with wonderful reproductions of 19th-century broadsheet comic strips like Richard Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley and Rudolf Dirk’s Katzenjammer Kids. Old comics, Spiegelman (Maus) writes, saved his sanity. “Unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century… they were just right for an end-of-the world moment.” This is a powerful and quirky work of visual storytelling by a master comics artist. (Publishers Weekly review)

Invisibles, The, Grant Morrison

What will inevitably be considered a masterwork ten years ahead of its time, Grant Morrison’s Invisibles gets to a start with this book at equal times fascinating and frustrating. Invisibles is the story of Order and Chaos, split into two armies that have been fighting since the beginning of time for control of Everything, and the initiation of young Dane McGowan as the newest member of one Invisibles cell lead by the charismatic, atavistic King Mob. Dane may or may not be the new incarnation of the Buddah. The first half of the book is the story of Dane’s initiation into the strange shadow world that the Invisibles occupy, his indoctrination into the War For Everything brewing just below the surface of the world. From juvenile delinquent full of rage and pluck to wide-eyed neophyte, Dane and the reader are introduced hard and fast to Morrison’s pre-millennial milieu. The second half, collecting the arc called Arcadia is a time-hopping and genre defying piece of historical weirdness as the Invisibles go back in time to swipe the Marquis de Sade and bring his particularly bent talents to bear in the modern era. A disjointed and dense story, Arcadia is a hard bit to get through when read side by side with the manic verve of the first part. Morrison himself admits that making Arcadia the second story was probably near-fatal for the book as a whole. Inventive, ostentatious, complex and visionary, Invisibles is one of the most startlingly dense and rich works ever released by a major comics publisher. Unfairly maligned as impenetrable by readers too lazy to let the book teach them how to read it, Invisibles is Morrison’s magnum opus and worth any head scratching it may provoke. Stick with it; believe it or not, it all makes a perfect, essential sense by the end. (artbomb.net commentary by Matt Fraction)

It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi

World War I, that awful, gaping wound in the history of Europe, has long been an obsession of Jacques Tardi’s. (His very first — rejected — comics story dealt with the subject, as does his most recent work, the two-volume Putain de Guerre.) But It Was the War of the Trenches is Tardi’s defining, masterful statement on the subject, a graphic novel that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Tardi is not interested in the national politics, the strategies, or the battles. Like Remarque, he focuses on the day to day of the grunts in the trenches, and, with icy, controlled fury and disgust, with sardonic yet deeply sympathetic narration, he brings that existence alive as no one has before or since. Yet he also delves deeply into the underlying causes of the war, the madness, the cynical political exploitation of patriotism. And in a final, heartbreaking coda, Tardi grimly itemizes the ghastly human cost of the war, and lays out the future 20th century conflicts, all of which seem to spring from this global burst of insanity. Trenches features some of Tardi’s most stunning artwork. Rendered in an inhabitually lush illustrative style, inspired both by abundant photographic documentation and classic American war comics, augmented by a sophisticated, gorgeous use of Craftint tones, Trenches is somehow simultaneously atypical and a perfect encapsulation of Tardi’s mature style. It is the indisputable centerpiece of Tardi’s oeuvre. (Publisher’s description)

It’s a Bird…, Steven T. Seagle

A quarter-century after Harvey Pekar began American Splendor, autobiographical comics are more a cliche than a novelty, unless they come from a mainstream comic-book publisher and depict a superhero-comics creator’s life. When Seagle was offered the chance to write Superman, his surprising response was to reject the plum assignment, contending that he couldn’t relate to the unbelievable character. But the refusal coincided with other crises: his father’s disappearance, his girlfriend’s desire to have children, and, looming over all, the grim prospect of developing Huntington’s disease, which had struck other family members. Kristiansen’s expert illustration in a variety of styles adds a polish that smooths over the awkward passages in Seagle’s sometimes overearnest script. Hardcore alternative-comics devotees may find this effort too slick and self-indulgent; superhero fans probably won’t even bother to pick it up. Comics readers with a foot in both camps, however, will recognize Seagle as facing, albeit more urgently than most others, the kinds of questions every grown-up, including those still open to the adolescent charms of superheroes, confronts. (Booklist review)

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware

Ware’s hero is a doughy, middle-aged loser who retreats into fantasies that he is “The Smartest Kid on Earth.” The minimal plot involves Jimmy’s tragicomic reunion with the father who abandoned him in childhood. In abruptly juxtaposed flashbacks, Ware depicts previous generations of Corrigan males, revealing how their similar histories of rejection and abandonment culminated in Jimmy’s hapless state. What makes the slight story remarkable is Ware’s command of the comics medium. His crisp, painstaking draftsmanship, which sets cartoonish figures in meticulously detailed architectural settings, is matched by his formal brilliance. Ware effectively uses tiny, repetitive panels to convey Jimmy’s limited existence, then suddenly bursts a page open with expansive, breathtaking vistas. His complex, postmodern approach incorporates such antiquated influences as Windsor McCay’s pioneering Little Nemo strips and turn-of-the-century advertising, transforming them into something new, evocative, and affecting. His daunting skill transforms a simple tale into a pocket epic and makes Jimmy’s melancholy story the stuff of cartoon tragedy. (Booklist review)

Laika, Nick Abadzis

Nick Abadzis masterfully blends fiction and fact in the intertwined stories of three compelling lives. Along with Laika, there is Korolev, once a political prisoner, now a driven engineer at the top of the Soviet space program, and Yelena, the lab technician responsible for Laika’s health and life. This intense triangle is rendered with the pitch-perfect emotionality of classics like Because of Winn Dixie, Shiloh, and Old Yeller. Abadzis gives life to a pivotal moment in modern history, casting light on the hidden moments of deep humanity behind history. Laika’s story will speak straight to your heart. (Publisher’s Description)

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The, Alan Moore

Acclaimed comics author Moore (Watchmen) has combined his love of 19th-century adventure literature with an imaginative mastery of its 20th-century corollary, the superhero comic book. This delightful work features a grand collection of signature 19th-century fictional adventurers, covertly brought together to defend the empire. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comprises such characters as Minna Murray (formerly Harker), from Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll (and his monstrous alter ego, Mr. Hyde); and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, restored to the dark, grim-visaged Sikh Verne originally intended. There’s also Hawley Griffin, the imperceptible hero of H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man, and Allan Quatermain, the daring adventurer of King Solomon’s Mines and other classic yarns by H. Rider Haggard. It’s 1898, and these troubled adventurers are spread around the globe, in the midst of one pickle or another. Quatermain is found near death, delirious in a Cairo opium den; the perverse Griffin is captured terrorizing an all-girls school (leaving behind a series of mysterious pregnancies); and the gruesome Mr. Hyde is rescued from the mob set to kill him at the end of Stevenson’s classic novel. This collection of flawed and gloomy heroes is recruited to fight a criminal mastermind (a notorious 19th-century literary villain) intent on firebombing the East End of London. The book also includes “Allan and the Sundered Veil,” a rip-snorting, prose time-travel story starring Quatermain and written in the manner of the 19th-century “penny dreadful.” Moore and O’Neill have created a Victorian era Fantastic Four, a beautifully illustrated reprise of 19th-century literary derring-do packed with period detail, great humor and rousing adventure. (Publishers Weekly review)

Life With Mr. Dangerous, Paul Hornschemeier

Somewhere in the Midwest, Amy Breis is going nowhere. Amy has a job she hates, a creep boyfriend she’s just dumped, and a best friend she can’t reach on the phone. But at least her (often painfully passive-aggressive) mother bought her a pink unicorn sweatshirt for her birthday. Pink. Unicorn. For her twenty-seventh birthday. Gliding through the daydreams and realities of a young woman searching for definition, Life with Mr. Dangerous showcases acclaimed cartoonist Paul Hornschemeier’s gift for deadpan humor and dead-on insight with a droll aftertaste — an unlikely but welcome marriage of the bleak and the hopeful. (Publisher’s description)

Local, Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Megan McKeenan, a very young woman, sits at the heart of these 12 interconnected stories that are pulled together in the final two chapters into a well-worked, cohesive novel. Each story is set in a very specific North American place, from Portland, Oregon, to Richmond, Virginia, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Austin, Texas. In them, Megan is engaged in the multifaceted journey of finding herself as well as in the physical journey so many stops involve. Through them, Wood explores how she reworks her role from scene to scene and in her developing life again and again: practicing identities, shifting reasoning to protect ego, daring to remember and re-engage the past. Kelly’s black-and-white art bursts with details that make each place as well as more immediate spaces, such as Megan’s car, vibrant and multidimensional. Combining road saga, bildungsroman, and existentialism, Local has something to suit the tastes of readers who already like Capote, or Kerouac, or Albertine Sarrazin, and has the potential for leading others to explore such more traditional, equally nuanced storytellers. (Booklist review)

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna

This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal–to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics–continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity. (Amazon.com review)

Marvels, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

Ten years ago, Marvels was the breakthrough work for both of its creators: a worm’s-eye view of the spectacle of Marvel comics history — 35 years of glorious superheroes and terrifying super-disasters, told from the perspective of Phil Sheldon, a newspaper photographer who’s experienced “the marvels” from ground level. Renowned artist Ross’s rich, lush, nearly photorealistic style (he painted all the major characters from photographs of models) made his reputation — and the book — a landmark. The story, too, suggests a sort of grandeur that had largely slipped away from superhero comics by the early ’90s, even as it describes the helplessness that normal people might feel in the presence of angel-winged mutants and rapacious gods from outer space. There are plenty of Easter eggs in Marvels for longtime comics buffs, although the book is structured so that new readers won’t be lost, either. The level of detail goes much deeper than what’s visible on the page, but its creators’ command of that unseen background gives the story itself force and resilience. (Publishers Weekly review)

Maus, Art Spiegelman

Here is the definitive edition of the book acclaimed as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” (Wall Street Journal) and “the first masterpiece in comic book history” (The New Yorker). It now appears as it was originally envisioned by the author: The Complete Maus. It is the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times). Maus 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. (Publisher’s description)

Mess of Everything, A, Miss Lasko-Gross

A Mess of Everything is the second volume in Miss Lasko-Gross’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, picking up where the first volume, Escape from “Special,” left off: self-effacing non-conformist Melissa is now in high school, where the stakes are higher as she copes with an anxiety-induced drug habit and an anorexic best friend. Melissa finds herself negotiating the kinds of everyday problems facing young adults today — such as alienating her friends with her uncomfortable honesty and accidentally breaking her best guy friend’s heart. Eventually, her woes cause her to nearly flunk out of school, and by the end of the book Melissa faces the choice that we all do at some point: to take the risk and pursue her dreams or settle for a safer, more secure routine. The unsentimental truthfulness that is the hallmark of Lasko-Gross’s work is coupled with a raw but increasingly refined visual vocabulary. A Mess of Everything is an intense, honest, and funny memoir that holds appeal for anyone who is navigating, or who has ever grappled with, these issues. She expresses the awkward naiveté and inexperience of a young girl with the keen insights of a mature artist. (Booklist review)

Metamorphosis, The, Peter Kuper

Kuper has adapted short works by Kafka into comics before, but here he tackles the most famous one of all: the jet-black comedy that ensues after the luckless Gregor Samsa turns into a gigantic bug. The story loses a bit in translation (and the typeset text looks awkward in the context of Kuper’s distinctly handmade drawings). A lot of the humor in the original comes from the way Kafka plays the story’s absurdities absolutely deadpan, and the visuals oversell the joke, especially since Kuper draws all the human characters as broad caricatures. Even so, he works up a suitably creepy frisson, mostly thanks to his drawing style. Executed on scratchboard, it’s a jittery, woodcut-inspired mass of sharp angles that owes a debt to both Frans Masereel (a Belgian woodcut artist who worked around Kafka’s time) and MAD magazine’s Will Elder. The knotty walls and floors of the Samsas’ house look like they’re about to dissolve into dust. In the book’s best moments, Kuper lets his unerring design sense and command of visual shorthand carry the story. The jagged forms on the huge insect’s belly are mirrored by folds in business clothes; thinking about the debt his parents owe his employer, Gregor imagines his insectoid body turning into money slipping through an hourglass. Every thing and person in this Metamorphosis seems silhouetted and carved, an effect that meshes neatly with Kafka’s sense of nightmarish unreality. (Publishers Weekly review)

Murder Mysteries, Neil Gaiman

Celebrated comics creators Gaiman (Sandman) and Russell (The Ring of the Nibelung) have teamed up to produce a story of deception and vengeance involving the first betrayal, the first heartbreak and the first crime in God’s own city of angels. Raguel is a lost angel, a ragged drifter on the streets of Los Angeles, who tells this story to the narrator, a young Brit stranded on his way back to England. In Raguel’s former world, the one in which he had wings, he served as the agent of the Lord’s vengeance. When an angel was found murdered, Raguel was assigned to find the killer and his motives. Like an unearthly detective, Raguel questioned his fellow angels until he discovered the murderer and then delivered the Lord’s terrible punishment. But upon wreaking God’s vengeance, Raguel began to realize it was God himself who set up this murder. Using sharp, crystalline drawings of the eternal city and ribbons of color that suggest creation’s simultaneous plasticity and solidity, Russell conveys a bright, illuminated world of purity and divine experimentation. His crisp and vividly rendered drawings capture the haunting sense of loss and isolation Gaiman expresses in this mythic tale of love and jealousy. (Publishers Weekly review)

Orbiter, Warren Ellis

Ten years after its mysterious disappearance, the space shuttle Venture returns to Earth covered in organic material, rewired with alien technology and missing all but one of its crew members. The dust in its wheel tracks indicates it has been on Mars and possibly other planets as well. The United States government drafts an ex-astronaut biologist, a brash young propulsion expert and a washed-out psychiatrist to piece together what happened to the Venture. Ellis has crafted a scientific mystery similar in structure to an issue of his acclaimed series Planetary. However, where the protagonists of that series are detached observers of the fantastic, here Ellis gives each character a personal stake in the investigation. Ellis has struck gold: his old talents for mad ideas and nuanced tough talk melds with a new optimism, giving this story an emotional depth far beyond that of typical sci-fi. Doran’s art serves his story well, as she handles cataclysmic disaster scenes, detailed technical exposition and tender human moments with equal deftness. (Publishers Weekly review)

Other Side, The, Jason Aaron

The Other Side demonstrates that war comics, out of favor for decades, retain substantial viability. It follows two farm boys, one from rural Alabama, the other from a village near Hanoi, approaching one another in Vietnam. While Private Bill Everette and his fellow grunts come to hate the country to which they’ve been sent, naively idealistic Vo Binh Dai voluntarily marches to the south to join the revolution. Both endure unspeakable horrors, including the ghosts of fallen soldiers, on their grueling treks to eventual confrontation at the besieged Khe Sanh combat base. Aaron, decades too young to remember the Vietnam era, has been inspired by his cousin Gustav Hasford, who wrote the novel Stanley Kubrick filmed as Full Metal Jacket. Despite its surreal aspects, his grisly account of the harrowing experiences of both sides rings lamentably true. Rather than taking a gritty, realistic illustrative approach, Stewart, best known for superhero work, employs his slightly cartoony style to bring just the right touch of exaggeration to the story’s grotesque elements. (Booklist review)

Palestine, Joe Sacco

Based on several months of research and an extended visit to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1990s (where he conducted over 100 interviews with Palestinians and Jews), Palestine was the first major comics work of political and historical nonfiction by Sacco, who has often been called the first comic book journalist. Sacco’s insightful reportage takes place at the front lines, where busy marketplaces are spoiled by shootings and tear gas, soldiers beat civilians with reckless abandon, and roadblocks go up before reporters can leave. Sacco interviewed and encountered prisoners, refugees, protesters, wounded children, farmers who had lost their land, and families who had been torn apart by the Palestinian conflict. In 1996, the Before Columbus Foundation awarded Palestine the seventeenth annual American Book Award, stating that the author should be recognized for his “outstanding contribution to American literature,” while his publisher, Fantagraphics, is “to be honored for their commitment to quality and their willingness to take risks that accompany publishing outstanding books and authors that may not prove ‘cost-effective’ in the short run.” (Publisher’s description)

Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories, Gilbert Hernandez

In 1983, Hernandez started writing and drawing short stories in Love and Rockets about a little central American town called Palomar and the interconnected lives of its inhabitants. The “Heartbreak Soup” stories, as they were called, established his reputation, and this mammoth, hugely compelling book collects the first 13 years’ worth of them. 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, like the harrowing “Human Diastrophism” and “Luba Conquers the World,” Hernandez’s style is entirely his own: brutally telegraphic (he can capture an entire emotionally complex scene in a single panel, then imply even more by abruptly cutting to the middle of a later scene), loaded with insight about the bumpy terrain of familial and sexual relationships, swinging wildly in tone between suffocating darkness and sunny charm. His characters have enormous, tangled family trees, and he gradually unfolds their histories: there are some plot developments he sets up a decade or more in advance. And for all the bold roughness of his drawing style, Hernandez is a master of facial expression and body language. He tracks dozens of characters across decades of their lives, and their ages and their distant family resemblances are instantly recognizable, as are their all too human dreams and failings. This is a superb introduction to the work of an extraordinary, eccentric and very literary cartoonist. (Publishers Weekly review)

Peanutbutter & Jeremy’s Best Book Ever, James Kochalka

Peanutbutter, a cat who wears a tie and fedora, likes to pretend she’s a businessman. She plays at working on files and needing her morning coffee, although she pounces on the paperwork when she’s not napping on it. She sets out to buy tape with a dollar she found under the bed, only to be rooked by Jeremy. The crow is greedy, selfish, mean, cranky, and violent. He encourages the confused cat to kill squirrels, but Peanutbutter just wants to go home and keep working. Both of them have a fondness for hats. On casual day, Peanutbutter wears a baseball cap, while Jeremy keeps trying to steal her headwear. The stories have a fable-like structure but deal with elements of modern life. At times, the cat seems to be acting like a typical wage slave, then she’s completely cat-like. The contrast makes for giggles. Jeremy, on the other hand, is only out for himself, calling Peanutbutter names and stealing from her. Kochalka’s simple cat shape captures the grace and flexible motion of the animal, and the primitive art style makes for very easy reading. (Comics Worth Reading Review)

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

Satrapi’s autobiography is a timely and timeless story of a young girl’s life under the Islamic Revolution. Descended from the last Emperor of Iran, Satrapi is nine when fundamentalist rebels overthrow the Shah. While Satrapi’s radical parents and their community initially welcome the ouster, they soon learn a new brand of totalitarianism is taking over. Satrapi’s art is minimal and stark yet often charming and humorous as it depicts the madness around her. She idolizes those who were imprisoned by the Shah, fascinated by their tales of torture, and bonds with her Uncle Anoosh, only to see the new regime imprison and eventually kill him. Thanks to the Iran-Iraq war, neighbors’ homes are bombed, playmates are killed and parties are forbidden. Satrapi’s parents, who once lived in luxury despite their politics, struggle to educate their daughter. Her father briefly considers fleeing to America, only to realize the price would be too great. “I can become a taxi driver and you a cleaning lady?” he asks his wife. Iron Maiden, Nikes and Michael Jackson become precious symbols of freedom, and eventually Satrapi’s rebellious streak puts her in danger, as even educated women are threatened with beatings for improper attire. Despite the grimness, Satrapi never lapses into sensationalism or sentimentality. Skillfully presenting a child’s view of war and her own shifting ideals, she also shows quotidian life in Tehran and her family’s pride and love for their country despite the tumultuous times. Powerfully understated, this work joins other memoirs — Spiegelman’s Maus and Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde — that use comics to make the unthinkable familiar. (Publishers Weekly review)

Photographer, The, Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Fréderic Lemercier

In 1986, Afghanistan was torn apart by a war with the Soviet Union. This graphic novel/photo-journal is a record of one reporter’s arduous and dangerous journey through Afghanistan, accompanying the Doctors Without Borders. Didier Lefevre’s photography, paired with the art of Emmanuel Guibert, tells the powerful story of a mission undertaken by men and women dedicated to mending the wounds of war. (Publisher’s description)

Pride of Baghdad, Brian K. Vaughan

A heartbreaking look at what it’s like to live in a war zone. Inspired by true events, this story tells of four lions that escape from the Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in 2003 and encounter other animals that offer unique perspectives, such as a tortoise that survived World War I. They begin to question the nature of freedom. Can it be achieved without being earned? What is its price? What do the lions owe the zookeepers who took care of them at the cost of keeping them in captivity? Where should they go? What should they eat? The four lions soon realize that a desert city is nothing like the grassy savannas of their memories. Their experiences mirror those of the Iraqi citizens displaced by the conflict. The book succeeds as a graphic novel and as an account of the current crisis. Henrichon’s full palette emphasizes browns and grays that evoke the sands of the country, while his long brushstrokes and careful attention to detail reflect the precise and minimalist dialogue that Vaughan uses. An allegorical tale with compelling and believable characters, Baghdad makes it clear that without self-determination, there can be no freedom. (School Library Journal review)

Quitter, The, Harvey Pekar

Pekar’s work, memorialized in the movie American Splendor, is an ongoing chronicle of his life in all its quotidian glory. Until now, he’s only written nonfiction vignettes of his life as a jazz-loving slacker. The strength of Pekar’s work is in his depiction of moments, but you have to read a great deal of it to understand the overall arc. This autobiographical full-length comic amends that problem, providing the missing overview: a searingly honest memoir of a smart but troubled boy who depends on quitting any time he might fail — a strategy that eventually leads to a near-nervous breakdown after he joins the navy. But Pekar doesn’t dwell on his anxiety with the look-at-me tantrums of Philip Roth or Woody Allen — he’s not that indulgent. Pekar’s frequent artistic collaborator Haspiel provides the square-jawed, nebbishy characters, drawn with a fat, ’60s line, giving a sharp-edged sense of the frustration and tension of an immigrant midcentury boyhood. This book is full of the deeply flawed but sympathetic characters that populate Pekar’s work: his hard-working but oblivious parents, an overrated tough guy Pekar beats up, the jazz writer who gives him an outlet away from being a street tough. Pekar’s work dignifies the struggle of the average man, and this book shows how that dignity is earned. (Publishers Weekly review)

Rabbi’s Cat, The, Joann Sfar

Sfar, the French cartoonist behind the Little Vampire children’s books, has come up with a hilarious and wildly original graphic novel for adults. The nameless, scraggly-looking alley cat who narrates the story belongs to an Algerian rabbi in the ’30s. When the cat eats a parrot, he gains the power of speech and tries to convince his master to teach him the Torah, raising the question of whether the appropriate age for his bar mitzvah should be in human years or cat years. Of course, being a cat, he has plenty of impertinent opinions about Judaism. That’s a delicious setup on its own, but it gets better when the cat loses his speech again halfway through, and the story becomes a broader, more bittersweet comedy about the rabbi’s family and the intersection of Jewish, Arab and French culture. The rabbi’s daughter Zlabya marries a young man from a nonobservant family in France. The Algerian family’s visit with their Parisian in-laws is the subject of the final and funniest section of the book. Sfar’s artwork looks as mangy and unkempt as the cat, with contorted figures and scribbly lines everywhere, but there’s a poetic magic to it that perfectly captures this cat’s-eye view of human culture and faith. (Publishers Weekly review)

RASL, Jeff Smith

When Rasl, a thief and ex-military engineer, discovers the lost journals of Nikola Tesla, he bridges the gap between modern physics and history’s most notorious scientist. But his breakthrough comes at a price. In this twisting tale of violence, intrigue, and betrayal, Rasl finds himself in possession of humankind’s greatest and most dangerous secret. New York Times Bestselling author Jeff Smith’s follow up to his epic fantasy Bone, is a gritty, hard-boiled tale of an inter-dimensional art thief caught between dark government forces and the mysterious powers of the universe itself. (Publisher’s description)

R. Crumb’s Kafka, Robert Crumb

Part illustrated biography, part comics adaptation, R. Crumb’s Kafka is a vibrant biography that examines this Czech writer and his works in a way that a bland textbook never could! R. Crumb’s Kafka is a work of art in its own right, a very rare example of what happens when one very idiosyncratic artist absorbs another into his world view without obliterating the individuality of the absorbed one. Crumb’s art is filled with Kafka’s insurmountable neuroses. They are all there: Gregor Samsa’s sister, the luscious Milena Jesenska, the Advocate’s ‘nurse’ Leni, Olda and Frieda, and the ravishing Dora Diamant–drawn in that mixture of self-command, tantalizing knowingness and sly sexuality–that Amazonian randiness and thick-limbed physicality that is Crumb. (Publisher’s description)

Ring of the Nibelung, The, P. Craig Russell

The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie comprises Volume One of Russell’s adaptation of the Ring Cycle by German composer Richard Wagner. Wotan has exhausted himself and his godly resources to have a mighty fortress built with the labor of the giants, Fasolt and Fafnir. But in his bargaining with them, he has promised the fair Freia, keeper of the golden apple tree whose fruit gives power and immortality to the gods. The giants come to collect their pay, and only Logé, the trickster god, can find something to offer the giants in exchange: the Rhinegold. The only problem is, Wotan doesn’t have the Rhinegold yet! The ultimate adaptation of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle concludes with these elaborate and faithful renditions of Siegfried and Gotterdammerung: The Twilight of the Gods. Siegfried is separated from his love, the Valkyrie Brunhilde, and even the All-Father himself cannot make things right. In the stunning conclusion, all of creation hangs in the balance because of gods meddling in the affairs of man — all over the gold of the Rhinemaids. In this massive undertaking, P. Craig Russell has created a living, breathing version of the Ring Cycle that Richard Wagner could only have dreamed of executing in his day. (Publisher’s description)

Sacrifice, The, Bruce Mutard

As the world spins out of control into World War II, Robert and his family each deal differently with the challenges it presents. Robert offers his apartment to German-Jewish refugees who have been cast out by the community, Artie intends to join up as soon as the fighting breaks out, their mother despairs that a second world war will lead only to more death in her family, and Robert’s communist sweetheart Elsa answers the call of capitalism. When Robert befriends Mata, the precocious young refugee with a yen for men in uniform, it is only the beginning of his long journey; a soul-searching journey with an uncertain ending. Set in World War II Melbourne, this evocative, compelling novel draws parallels between Australia then and now, and explores questions of courage, masculinity, tolerance and national identity that will resonate long after the book is read. (Publisher’s description)

Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco

Safe Area Gorazde is Joe Sacco’s 240-page opus about the war in the former Yugoslavia. Sacco spent four months in Bosnia in 1995–1996, immersing himself in the human side of life during wartime, researching stories rarely found in conventional news coverage. The book focuses on the Muslim enclave of Gorazde, which was besieged by Bosnian Serbs during the war. Sacco spent four weeks in Gorazde, entering before the Muslims trapped inside had access to the outside world, electricity or running water. The hardcover edition of Safe Area Gorazde put Sacco on the map as one of the pre-eminent journalists of his time, and the softcover edition will present his work to a wider audience. (Publisher’s description)

Sandman, The, Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, written by New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman, was the most acclaimed comic book title of the 1990s. A rich blend of modern myth and dark fantasy in which contemporary fiction,historical drama and legend are seamlessly interwoven, The Sandman is also widely considered one of the most original and artistically ambitious series of the modern age. By the time it concluded in 1996, it had made significant contributions to the artistic maturity of comic books and had become a pop culture phenomenon in its own right. (Publisher’s description)

Sleepwalk and Other Stories, Adrian Tomine

Collecting the first four issues of Adrian Tomine’s acclaimed comic series optic nerve, this book offers sixteen concise, haunting tales of modern life. The characters here appear to be well-adjusted on the surface, but Tomine takes us deeper into their lives, subtly examining their struggle to connect with friends and lovers. (Publisher’s description)

Sloth, Gilbert Hernandez

The much heralded Love & Rockets cartoonist turns in his first original graphic novel and it showcases a creator still making vital work after two decades. The story is of young people too creative, too smart and too passionate for the constraints of suburbia. Miguel Serra wakes up from a yearlong coma, slower physically but not mentally. He is literally out of step with the rest of the world, a perfectly disaffected youth. Miguel, his friend Romeo and girlfriend Lita use rock ‘n’ roll, urban legends and sex to feel alive. It leads to a love triangle that complicates things nicely. Hernandez takes a big gamble in the middle of the book by having everyone change roles in the story. It’s unclear at first whether it pays off, but eventually the reader sees the characters from different angles, making the humanity in the story stronger as our sympathies are challenged. Hernandez has been compared to García Márquez, and uses heavy symbolism, in this case the image of a lemon orchard, which represents both the unconscious and how plant life makes the rest of the world look artificial. Sloth packs a lot of emotion and complicated storytelling into an unusual tale. (Publishers Weekly review)

Top 10, Alan Moore

Continuing his exploration of superhero comics, Moore speculates on what would happen if an expansion in the number of people who are able to develop their desires into super powers led to the creation of Neopolis. His world is populated by superbeings: people (and animals, space aliens, robots, etc.) who have extraordinary abilities and secret identities. Basic human nature leads to an urban society resembling today’s, including the need to maintain law and order among the sometimes barely controllable superbeings. Based on that premise, overlapping, intertwined stories create a kind of skewed Hill Street Blues for the cops of Top 10, the police station in Neopolis. Sometimes their cases work out farcically, but sometimes very seriously. After all, Moore asks, if you could do almost anything, what limits would you accept? What kind of responsibility would you take for others? Most comics series are intended to be endless, so nothing changes much from issue to issue. That’s not so in this case; Book One is necessary reading before picking up Book Two. The art helps this purpose. Much of today’s manga-influenced comics art is designed to convey excitement, using motion at the expense of detail. The artwork here reverts to an older tradition of elaborate pen and ink text illustration (like Joseph Clement Coll’s work), slowing readers down just enough to make them alert to the elegant details of the world Moore has created. Anyone interested in comics should be paying attention to Moore and this outstanding example of his recent thinking. (Publishers Weekly review)

Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis

There’s a trick in getting people to actually think about the terrible world we live in and the cretinous beasts we usually choose to run it; it’s a hallmark of science fiction from Verne to Asimov, Serling to Ellison. See, no one wants a lecture, no one wants to read notes on social and political injustices — especially if it’s force-fed to them under the guise of entertainment which somehow makes the Message all the more disingenuous. We are a people sick and tired of Very Special Episodes. However, the wily writer may employ from his bag of tricks allusion, and talk of one thing while really talking about another. Transmetropolitan is social commentary disguised as science fiction, which the most potent science fiction usually is. On its surface, Transmetropolitan is about Spider Jerusalem, a rogue journalist of the Hunter S. Thompson ilk rampaging through an orgiastic nightmare of the future trying to get at the truth for the benefit of his hopelessly fucked fellow man. Forced to return to The City (the techno-hellscape which serves as Transmetropolitan’s backdrop), Spider finds himself a journalist once again neck-deep in a world full of sheep yet run by wolves. And, as he gleefully tells us in ‘Back on the Street’, “Journalism is just a gun… Aim it right and you can blow the kneecap off the world.” Self-made alien half-breeds, riot cops with blood-caked truncheons and carte blanche orders to use them, government-compromised news outlets, drug-addicted computers and a zombified, media-obsessed populace are the backbone upon which Ellis and Robertson stitch their dystopic parable. Infused with righteous anger and acid-sharp observations (as well a pitch-black sense of humor), Transmetropolitan is a shout, a scream against imaginary and savage tyrannies, so strange and so horrifying that they must certainly be true. (artbomb.net commentary by Matt Fraction)

Uncle Sam, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross

This truly subversive graphic novel, more explicitly radical than anything else from DC Comics in recent memory, almost makes up for the years of muscular patriotism and jingoistic violence that have long defined most of the company’s product. Alex Ross, who recently provided the lush paintings for Superman: Peace on Earth, here flexes his illustrative skills in the service of Darnall’s stunning text, a damning account of American political history that also affirms basic democratic ideals. From the first full-page illustration of Uncle Sam as a derelict reaching out to the reader, the visually rich narrative makes its overarching point: the spirit of everything great in American history is down on its luck. Uncle Sam, whose image here derives largely from James Montgomery Flagg’s famous I Want You poster, stumbles through a dreamy landscape. In the foreground, he’s an old nut, a psycho in the ER who spouts sound bites from presidential history and pop culture. Periodically, he finds himself elsewhere in time: preparing to fight the Revolutionary War; in Kennedy’s Dallas limo; at the Blackhawk Massacre of 1832; at Andersonville Prison; and at a labor protest in 1932; at a Louisiana lynching. Scenes blend into one another, demonstrating the continuity of American history; bedraggled present-day Sam interrupts a political rally exploiting his alter ego. The pictorial narrative here is so smart that political speeches are illustrated with voice-over balloons explicating the truth behind the double-talk. Supplemented with a fine essay on the iconography and legend of Uncle Sam, this portrait of a down-and-out American hero quotes visually from both fine art (e.g., Vermeer) and classic illustration; the spirit of N.C.Wyeth is very much alive here. Among the most captivating examples of left-wing agitprop since the days of the Popular Front: Darnall and Ross’s populist message comes draped in red, white, and true-blue. (Kirkus Reviews)

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud

A comic book about comic books. McCloud, in an incredibly accessible style, explains the details of how comics work: how they’re composed, read and understood. More than just a book about comics, this gets to the heart of how we deal with visual languages in general. “The potential of comics is limitless and exciting!” writes McCloud. This should be required reading for every school teacher. Pulitzer Prize-winner Art Spiegelman says, “The most intelligent comics I’ve seen in a long time.” (Amazon.com review)

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore

V for Vendetta is, like its author’s later Watchmen, a landmark in comic-book writing. Alan Moore has led the field in intelligent, politically astute (if slightly paranoid), complex adult comic-book writing since the early 1980s. He began V back in 1981 and it constituted one of his first attempts (along with the criminally neglected but equally superb Miracleman) at writing an ongoing series. It is 1998 (which was the future back then!) and a Fascist government has taken over the U.K. The only blot on its particular landscape is a lone terrorist who is systematically killing all the government personnel associated with a now destroyed secret concentration camp. Codename V is out for vengeance … and an awful lot more. V feels slightly dated like all past premonitions do. The original series was black and white and that added to the grittiness of the feel while the coloring here in the graphic novel sometimes blurs David Lloyd’s fine drawing. But these are small concerns. Skillfully plotted, V is an essential read for all those who love comics and the freedom, as a medium, they allow a writer as skilled as Moore. (Amazon.com)

Vampire Loves, Joann Sfar

Ferdinand is a vampire who lives in Lithuania, wears three-piece suits and receives regular visits from an adoptive “grandmother” witch who looks after his Siamese cat when he’s off on trips to Paris. But none of this is any protection against the more mundane realities of being a newly single guy stuck forever in that period of new adulthood when hormones meet emotions and confusion results. Ferdinand’s exploits, as detailed by award-winning French artist Sfar (Little Vampire Goes to School, The Rabbi’s Cat), read like a classic slacker tale — when he isn’t sleeping in his coffin, Ferdinand carries his favorite records around in a messenger bag. Ferdinand’s adventures and companions are at once otherworldly and oddly familiar. A tree-man has a crush on Ferdinand’s ex-girlfriend, Lani, a girl/plant who cheated on Ferdinand with his best friend. Ferdinand alternately longs for and is angry at Lani, finds himself the object of a teenage vampire crush and cruises bars in search of new love. Just when the troubled relationships begin to seem too commonplace, Sfar slips in a magical detail about a golem or a crying tree. As usual, Sfar’s artwork is effortlessly charming, filled with classically stylish ink hatching and lettering, for a story that is funny and unpredictable. (Publishers Weekly review)

Violent Cases, Neil Gaiman

An exploration of the trappings of violence and the failings of memory, Violent Cases marks the beginning of the astonishing and award-winning collaboration between author Neil Gaiman and the artist Dave McKean. Set only in the memory of its author, this brilliant short story meanders through levels of recollection surrounding a childhood injury. After dislocating his arm, a young boy is taken to see a doctor — an aged osteopath who was once the doctor of legendary gangster Al Capone. Through studied observations and painstaking attempts at truthful recall, the author reconstructs his tattered memories of the events surrounding his meeting with the doctor, and delves into the psychological complexities that emerged from the doctor’s bizarre tales of Capone’s life of crime. Gorgeously illustrated in mixed media by Dave McKean, Violent Cases is a sensuous and thought-provoking meditation on our memories. (Publisher’s description)

Waste Land, The, Martin Rowson

Rowson recasts TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ in terms of the narrative and visual conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir (Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep). He narrativizes The Waste Land by “translating” it into the narrative “language” of the hardboiled detective genre, and realizes it graphically it by supplying imagery culled from the visual vocabulary of film noir. (Publisher’s description)

Watchmen, Alan Moore

Has any comic been as acclaimed as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen? Possibly only Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but Watchmen remains the critics’ favorite. Why? Because Moore is a better writer, and Watchmen a more complex and dark and literate creation than Miller’s fantastic, subversive take on the Batman myth. Moore, renowned for many other of the genre’s finest creations (Saga of the Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and From Hell, with Eddie Campbell) first put out Watchmen in 12 issues for DC in 1986–87. It won a comic award at the time (the 1987 Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards for Best Writer/Artist combination) and has continued to gather praise since. The story concerns a group called the Crimebusters and a plot to kill and discredit them. Moore’s characterization is as sophisticated as any novel’s. Importantly the costumes do not get in the way of the storytelling; rather they allow Moore to investigate issues of power and control–indeed it was Watchmen, and to a lesser extent Dark Knight, that propelled the comic genre forward, making “adult” comics a reality. The artwork of Gibbons (best known for 2000AD’s Rogue Trooper and DC’s Green Lantern) is very fine too, echoing Moore’s paranoid mood perfectly throughout. Packed with symbolism, some of the overlying themes (arms control, nuclear threat, vigilantes) have dated but the intelligent social and political commentary, the structure of the story itself, its intertextuality (chapters appended with excerpts from other “works” and “studies” on Moore’s characters, or with excerpts from another comic book being read by a child within the story), the fine pace of the writing and its humanity mean that Watchmen more than stands up–it keeps its crown as the best the genre has yet produced. (Amazon.com review)

Waterloo Sunset, Andrew Stephenson and Trevor Goring

Waterloo Sunset is set in a future London but it’s oddly medieval in that something happens about 30 years ago to suddenly deprive London of power, fuel supplies, decent medicine. You can imagine what that would lead to. And now, 30 years later, things have more or less stabilized. They’ve got a very odd social structure and power structure in which there’s a group called the Cartel that wield absolute power through terror. There’s sort of a representative of political control in the Lord Mayor of London. Then there’s a guy called Esau the Hunter. He’s nominally Vermin Control, he has a gun and he goes out shooting beasts. He nominally works for the Cartel and nominallly cooperates with the Mayor. The Mayor would very much like to see him dead because he considers him a menace. But Hunter, well he’s a bit of an enigma. He has stuff that he shouldn’t have, really, when you consider that everyone else has no electric power, no medicine. He’s got a gun that allows voice control for example, a little alien beastie that serves as his observation platform. Entirely biological, there are no implants. Stuff like that. And there are aliens, and there’s supertechnology. But the guiding principle is that it’s hard SF. (Author’s description)

We Are On Our Own, Miriam Katin

This moving WWII memoir is the debut graphic novel from Katin, an animator for Disney and MTV. It tells the story of toddler Katin — here called Lisa — and her mother, Esther Levy, Hungarian Jews who must flee Nazi persecution. With her husband off fighting in the Hungarian army, Esther is forced to abandon all their belongings and take on the identity of a servant girl with a bastard child. She survives however she can — whether making alterations on the bloodstained uniforms of dead soldiers or surrendering her body to an adulterous German officer. Katin shows Esther’s harrowing experiences with an objective eye, but her own experience of the time is the fragmented memory of a child; unable to understand the vast tragedy unfolding around her, she focuses on the loss of a pet dog. The story flashes forward to the ’70s and even later to show the long-term effects on Katin and her family’s faith. Katin’s art is an impressionistic swirl; early scenes in sophisticated Budapest recall the elegance of Helen Hokinson, while the chaos of war is captured in dark, chaotic compositions reminiscent of Kathe Kollwitz. This book is a powerful reminder of the lingering price of survival. (Publishers Weekly review)

Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughan

A mysterious plague has killed every man on earth except Yorick Brown, who was somehow spared. Thatis the provocative premise of the comics series whose first five issues make up this book. The sole Y-chromosomed survivor is an amiable, headstrong young man, the son of a U.S. congresswoman and, as it happens, an amateur escape artist. He spends most of the story on the run from a tribe of self-styled Amazons bent on eliminating the last vestige of patriarchy. He is also trying, with a bioengineer who may be responsible for the worldwide “gendercide,” to figure out why he survived; hoping to reach his girlfriend in Australia; and, of course, contemplating the repopulation of the planet. Rather pedestrian artwork doesn’t do much to liven the story, though its straightforwardness imparts deadpan believability to such ramifications as the female secretary of agriculture ascending to the presidency. Fast-paced anyway, the yarn introduces a large number of intriguing characters and plotlines as it lays the groundwork for what promises to be a compelling series. (Booklist review)

Yossel, Joe Kubert

Kubert explores what might have been in this gripping account of WWII’s Warsaw ghetto uprising. In the text introduction, Kubert recalls how his Polish family attempted to emigrate to the U.S. in 1926, but they were denied because his mother was pregnant with him. Luckily, they succeeded a few months later, and Kubert went on to become one of the most honored artists in comics history. But what if his family hadn’t gotten away? In an immediate, sketchy pencil style, Kubert imagines an alternate version of his family history. Yossel is a teenaged boy with a gift for art. Uprooted and stripped of their possessions, the family is sent to the Warsaw ghetto with other Jews and undesirables, where conditions deteriorate as the Final Solution is put into action. Yossel’s gift for artwork amuses the German guards and they give him special favors. Thus, when his family is sent off to a concentration camp, he is spared. He joins other young men in the underground resistance, however, including Mordechai, based on real-life ringleader Mordechai Anielewicz. An escapee from one of the camps makes his way to the ghetto and tells of the unimaginable horrors taking place, leading the resistance to stand up against the Nazis in an ultimately futile but memorable uprising. Kubert’s loose pencil art excels at catching character and setting in a few lines, although the layouts are sometimes plain. A straightforward take on the events of the Holocaust, Yossel tells its tragic story with both emotion and dignity. (Publishers Weekly review)

Zero Girl, Sam Kieth

Zero Girl is a five-issue comic book written and illustrated by Sam Kieth, published by Homage Comics. The plot concerns high school student Amy Smootster, and her attempts to start a relationship with her guidance counselor Tim. Another plot thread follows her relationship with circles and squares — it seems that circular objects tend to help or defend her, while squares try to hurt her. All of this has something to do with her feet producing copious but never-defined fluid when she feels shame. (Publisher’s description)

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