GUIDE TO GRAPHIC NOVELS
A few summers ago, I went off the grid to a place of black-and-white panels where an emotionally unavailable hipster, a bass player for the band Sex Bob-Omb, went all emo-love for a blue-haired inline skater.
She had all these exes, see, and this hoodie vessel had a six-book series to try to best them all.
So, I donned the uniform of the comic book aficionado (tank top, undies) and collapsed into the signature pose (sprawl), subsisted on the requisite diet (bag o’ crunch) and spent a weekend with Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” series.
I came up for air only long enough to toss a finished book across the room and break the binding of the next.
It was the gateway series into a world of books with pictures.
Since then, I’ve read gut-punch memoirs, short story-style comedy and fiction in which the shades of blue and red say as much as the words.
Here are a few graphic novels that fall outside the Crash! Bang! Pow! super-tights, mega-capes and utility belts of the standard comic book world.
‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ Alison Bechdel
This is the coming-of-age story for Bechdel, the cartoonist behind the longtime syndicated strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
Bechdel was raised in an old mansion by parents who leaned Henry James (mom) and Gatsby (dad). Two weeks after sending her parents a letter from college revealing that she is gay, her father dies in a man v. truck accident that probably isn’t accidental.
Turns out her father has had a series of flings with teenaged boys, Bechdel’s mother tells her, information that the artist returns to again and again in the memoir that considers her past with fresh eyes.
This book is so well-written and so well-drawn that it could stand alone as a novel or as a series of illustrations.
Note: Alison Bechdel is the Bechdel behind The Bechdel Test, which holds movies to the following standard: the work must have two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. Pass: “Divergent”; Fail: “The Hangover Part III.”
‘The Voyeurs’ Gabrielle Bell
Back in the early 2000s, there was this dizzying realization that a person could now, suddenly, confess her deepest and darkest to a limitless audience located on the other side of the Internet.
So, a bunch of personal blogs popped up and oversharing crimes were committed and then Facebook happened and suddenly no one gave enough of a dang to leave The Social Network long enough to follow the minutia of one woman’s tale at whatever dot blogspot dot com.
Gabrielle Bell, though, is the quintessential old-school confessional blogger — as cartoonist. She collects through-the-peephole like experiences and filters them through her unique perspective. While her work is generally of the dear-diary ilk, sometimes, her outcomes take on an imaginary supernatural outcome.
Note: This collection was published by Minneapolis-based Uncivilized Books.
‘Scott Pilgrim’ series Bryan Lee O’Malley
OK, this kind of falls into the Crash! Bang! Pow! files as Scott Pilgrim works his way through Ramona Flowers’ past love interests — but it’s more video game-y than good v. evil caped crusader. Pilgrim’s victories, for instance, result in extra coins.
This slacker tale is set in Toronto where our hero shares the double bed in an efficiency apartment with a friend. He’s in an under-achieving rock band and has an aggressively agreeable girlfriend who is still in high school.
Everything gets wonky when Flowers inline-skates into his dreams.
Pilgrim and friends have a dry humor and there are plenty of pokes at scene-sters, including Demon Hipster Chicks and fellow rock ‘n’ roller Todd Ingram, who is vegan.
The star of the six-book series got Michael Cera treatment in the 2010 movie directed by Edgar White.
Note: O’Malley recently released a new full-color book “Seconds,” which stars a 29-year-old chef on the cusp of opening her own restaurant. There are definite shades of “Pilgrim”-style sci-fi and humor in the story about magic mushrooms and rewriting history.
‘Asterios Polyp’ David Mazzucchelli
When this fictional story opens, the title character’s Manhattan apartment is on fire. Asterios Polyp grabs three things — his lighter, pocket knife and watch — and sets out for a new life.
He pulls the enviable wad-of-cash, how-far-will-this-take-me move.
Polyp lands in a small town where he takes a job as a mechanic’s assistant, all while flashing back to his old life which included instances like holding court at a faculty dinner party and wooing a quiet art professor.
This story is charming, clever, smart, and the art is fantastic, with each character having its own style and dotted lines to convey the suggestion of a presence.
‘The Complete Maus’ Art Spiegelman
This Holocaust-themed story is the graphic novel most-likely to appear on the shelves of a literary purist who believes that illustrations-plus-words equal redundancy.
“The Complete Maus” is the story of artist Art Spiegelman extracting his Jewish father’s World War II tale of survival.
Vladek Spiegelman tells of his life before the Germans, meeting his wife and building his career. He’s first forced from his home, then into hiding, then lands in a concentration camp where he makes his way with a mix of luck and resourcefulness.
Art Spiegelman captures it all using cats and mice in the starring roles and adding autobiographical elements about working with his father, with whom he isn’t close, to extract these memories.
This is a touching and transparent tribute filled with chilling imagery.
‘The Complete Persepolis’ Marjane Satrapi
This black-and-white memoir is a coming of age story set in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. What this means for Marjane, a school-aged girl, is that she must now wear a veil and attend a gender segregated school. It means that when her mom is photographed by a news agency demonstrating in the streets, she must dye her hair and wear sunglasses to avoid retribution.
It means that when her father is late returning from work, the worst-case scenario is the one most likely.
A family member is executed. Grocery shelves are stripped bare. And Marjane, who is loudly anti-authority, is sent to Vienna when she is 14 to continue her education.
There is a lot of familiarity in this coming-of-age tale, but set in a scene that is horrifying and heartbreaking.
‘Drinking at the Movies’ Julia Wertz
The black-eyed and bob cut at the center of Wertz’s autobiographical work comes into consciousness at 3 a.m. on her 25th birthday at a laundromat in Brooklyn. She’s got Cracker Jacks in a death grip, and she’s wearing plaid pajama pants.
From this view of the public driers, she flashes back on the past year, during which she moved from San Francisco to New York City. She covers bad days punctuated with “reply all” miscues and a homeless man with a hook hand. She writes about her brother’s relapse, minimum wage and her own alcoholism. She has Lupus, but no health insurance.
Except, it’s funny.
Wertz has a dry wit that includes lines like:
“I bet my spirit animal is something … like a root hog,” she thinks during a fit of insomnia.
Wertz got her start as with the comic Fart Party. These days, she has turned her attention to urban exploring, which she writes about at adventurebibleschool.com.