These are strange days for the graphic novel. Grant Morrison makes this observation in Supergods, his new meditation on the state of the comic book: “Comics were no longer some last-chance hotel for fantasy-prone mavericks who found other entertainment outlets too tame or too restrictive for their visions. They were now a respectable stepping-stone to Hollywood and big money. Cleaned up, hair cut, prepped for a settled life in the suburbs. No more noise, no more corrupting the kids or making them think about stuff they shouldn’t. At least for now.”
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That may be true, especially in this ultimate summer of superhero movies. But that doesn’t mean there’s no more room left for the dangerous, the mad, the iconoclasts and the groundbreaking revolutionaries who broke through walls that we’re only beginning to understand today. These graphic novels represent some of the best of that DIY spirit, telling tales that still inspire shock, delight and awe in even the most jaded of comic-book aficionados.
Underrated writer and illustrator Paul Hornschemeier (The Three Paradoxes, 2006, etc.) does his best work ever in relating this lonesome, caustically funny story of a young woman suffering through her wilderness years in the Midwest. “The first ideas for the story came about while I was sitting Central Park in New York in November 2001,” says the author. “I was in my mid-20s and I had just moved to Chicago, where I knew no one. I was in New York visiting a past girlfriend with whom I was still occasionally romantically involved.
"All of those things acting in concert bred this overall sense of uneasiness and uncertainty. I think wanting to cling on to your current state of being, even if it's really rocky, is something that's endemic of being in your mid-20s, and it felt like my environment, the entire country, was in a state of uncertainty.” His protagonist, Amy, suffers through miserable jobs and worse relationships while punctuating her humdrum life with episodes of a surrealistic television show. “The extent to which you're willing to look at yourself and be honest with what you really want, that's the big challenge,” Hornschemeier says. “I think that's what Amy's staring into, and running from at various points, in the book.”
Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick
There has never been a scientist quite like this freewheeling, acerbic, iconoclastic American physicist who has reached that pinnacle of notoriety. He’s one of those few people instantly identifiable by his last name: Feynman. Creators Jim Ottaviani (T:Minus: The Race to the Moon, 2009, etc.) and Leland Myrick (Missouri Boy, 2006, etc.) delve into Feynman’s brilliance, his involvement in projects ranging from the development of the A-bomb to the Challenger investigation, all while capturing Richard Feynman’s unique sense of humor.
“Most people, when handed the Menu For Life, choose only a single entrée,” Ottaviani says. “Maybe they'll pick a side dish, too, and try to save a little room for dessert, but that's about it. Richard Feynman looked at the Menu and said ‘I'll have one of everything!’ And then he went back for seconds.” Meanwhile, artist Myrick faced his own challenges. “Feynman was like nothing else I’ve ever worked on,” he says. “It was an adventure from the very first page to the last, trying to convey in pictures this amazing life he led. It was also incredibly challenging. When I read the script, and I realized a typical panel description from Jim read something like, ‘It’s 1940 and Feynman goes down the stairs to the Princeton basement and enters the room to find two guys working on an early version of the cyclotron,’ I knew I was in deep, and I loved it!”
The Complete Wendel
During much of the 1980s, Howard Cruse’s comic strip Wendel had a regular home in the biweekly gay newsmagazine The Advocate. Now compiled in its entirety in The Complete Wendel, Cruse’s feature was an episodic chronicle of life as experienced by young Wendel Trupstock, his lover Ollie and their friends, who collectively represented a particular slice of the American LGBT demographic during a particularly stressful period in recent history, when the afterglow of gay liberation collided with the AIDS epidemic and the ascendancy of Moral Majority-fueled homophobia.
Simultaneously a mirror of the days’ new events and a comedic portrayal of everyday queer life, drawing Wendel required, to put it mildly, what the cartoonist calls an “elasticity of tone,” balancing lightheartedness with pain, erotic mischief with mundane follies. “That’s the way life was for my friends and me,” Cruse says. “We were constantly under attack and had to keep our wits about us without losing our senses of humor.” Or as he puts it in his book’s preface, “we learned how to cry foul loudly and in large numbers. Then, after the crowds had dispersed, we trudged home to the mildew that waited to be scrubbed from our bathroom tiles.”
Sometimes it’s worth looking at the great science fiction creators from a different angle. While Paul Malmont’s (Jack London in Paradise, 2009, etc.) new novel sticks to the medium of traditional prose, its knockout scenario packs as hard a punch as the new Doc Savage comics the author has been penning for DC Comics. The book opens in the fall of 1943, as a secret military lab housed at the Philadelphia Naval Yard sweats to combat a Nazi technical triumph. This “Kamakaze Group” includes such luminaries as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard, and is tasked to co-opt the most fantastic technology to win this incredible race.
“As much as it’s a great WWII adventure that develops into the mysteries of Tesla and the Philadelphia Experiment, it’s also an account of the genre of science fiction from its humble beginnings in the pulps, and how one man, L. Ron Hubbard, began to see there was something more powerful in that movement to create a future that he could exploit,” Malmont says. “The book was incredibly fun to write because the era is so rich in adventure and the stakes were so high for every man, woman and child.”
The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti
After getting into the viscera of Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden for his treasury of Victorian Murder, the legendary Rick Geary (The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans, 2010, etc.) continues his modern streak for his Treasury of 20th Century Murder series with the story of America’s most famous anarchists, Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
“The story of Sacco and Vanzetti seemed like a natural progression, since their case was a huge controversy during the early decades of the century, but is largely forgotten today,” Geary says. “The two were Italian immigrants and ardent anarchists who were accused of a cold-blooded robbery and murder in South Braintree, Mass., in 1920. They were convicted and, seven years later, put to death. But their trial, colored by the ‘Red Scare’ hysteria of the day, was thought by many to be a miscarriage of justice. My book examinees all of the evidence and puts it in the context of the era.” Chalk one more up for the history books, and another great contribution to the country’s wealth of graphic lit.
Award-winning illustrator, graphic designer and type designer Seymour Chwast (Dante’s Divine Comedy, 2010, etc.) has influenced generations of artists with his left-handed style, earning praise both for his commercial design at the NYC-based Pushpin Group and for his unique excursions into children’s literature. Next, readers will get to see Chwast apply his pen-and-ink mastery to the bawdy satire of one Geoffrey Chaucer, covering the pilgrims’ progress from “The Knight’s Tale,” all the way to “The Parson’s Tale,” and ending with Chaucer’s famously unfathomable retraction.
“I loved doing The Canterbury Tales because the plot brought together every possible medieval type,” Chwast says. “They proved that people haven’t changed in 400 years. They are a collection of lovers, saints and rascals in allegories and broad comedy with a special emphasis on the corruption of the church.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that readers should take Chwast’s take with any more seriousness than Chaucer intended in the first place. “I had these pilgrims travel to Canterbury Cathedral on motorcycles rather than horses for esthetic reasons,” he says. “Besides, my drawings of the former are better than those of the latter.”
Illustrated by Fabio Celoni and Mirka Andolfo
Make no mistake about multimillion-selling novelist Khaled Hosseini’s (A Thousand Splendid Suns, 2007, etc.) first foray into the world of graphic literature. This version is both boldly and delicately illustrated by Italian illustrator Fabio Celoni, famous for his work with Walt Disney’s Italian comics, and colorist Mirka Andolfo. Although Hosseini’s beloved first novel has been adapted for film in 2007 by director Marc Forster and for the stage by playwright Matthew Spangler, the author feels that his tale of Amir and Hassan, two boys growing up amid violence and strife in Afghanistan, translates beautifully into the artistic wonderland of graphic art.
“First and foremost, I am a comic book fan,” Hosseini says. “I grew up reading Marvel and DC comics. When the idea was brought to me to adapt The Kite Runner into a graphic novel, I was intrigued, because I believed The Kite Runner, as an inherently dramatic and visual story, would lend itself well to a graphic novel adaptation. Indeed, having seen Fabio Celoni’s beautiful work, I can say that his pen vividly brings to life not only the mountains, the bazaars, the city of Kabul and its kite-dotted skies, but also the many struggles, conflicts, and emotional highs and lows of Amir’s journey.”
Alan Moore: Storyteller
Gary Spencer Millidge
Writer. Musician. Pornographer. Publisher. Anarchist. These labels and more have all been applied to legendary Alan Moore (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 2011, etc.) But behind the hair, the incredible work, and the reputation, there remains the man. No slouch in the comics world himself, Strangehaven creator Gary Spencer Millidge edited other creators’ thoughts on Moore in Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman. His latest gains extraordinary insight into Moore’s work and character from the ultimate source.
“Obviously, there’s been a fair few books written on Moore, or partly on Moore, but I don’t believe any are competition for Storyteller’s depth, breadth and accuracy,” Millidge says. “Thanks to the generosity of some of Alan’s collaborators and most specifically Alan himself, the book features an absolute treasure trove of rare and unseen materials, including his earliest fanzine work, intimate family photographs, reproduction of working notes and thumbnails from Alan’s personal notebooks, the fabled Big Numbers chart, an unseen V for Vendetta script and much more.”
The 320-page glossy hardcover even includes a CD with 19 rare tracks from Moore’s audio projects. And of Moore’s memorable opinions about the industry? “Alan is invariably a warm, friendly, affable interviewee,” Millidge says. “Of course he has strong, idiosyncratic opinions of the comics industry and some personalities within it. I think a lot of his dry ironic wit can be misinterpreted in cold text, but he certainly doesn’t hold back when he has a grievance. For what he’s given the comics industry, he’s earned the occasional rant against it.”
Demo Vol. 2
Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan
There is magic to be made when comics creators Brian Wood (DMZ) and Becky Cloonan (American Virgin) collide. Their first collaboration on an episode of Wood’s series Channel Zero put them on the map, while their 12-issue miniseries Demo was nominated for two Eisner Awards. Fans were overjoyed when the duo returned to these powerful black-and-white stories of alienation, empowerment and relationships.
Fans will hopefully see another collaboration between Wood and Cloonan on the recently finished three-arc story, “The Girl in the Ice,” in Wood’s recently cancelled Vikings series Northlanders. After that, we’ll see what happens when the creators come up for air. But some of the most powerful creators in the business are keeping their eye on their eye-catching work. “If you’re not already paying attention to the work of Becky Cloonan, you should be,” says no less than Warren Ellis (Crooked Little Vein, 2007, etc.).
Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey
For those who share a homeland that they no longer occupy, the sense of belonging can often seem so very far away. Whether it’s the fiction of Ha Jin or Amy Tan or even bolder experiments like this ambitious, artful graphic novel, these stories often help to understand people universally as much as they help us understand A People. “I think every kid reaches an age when better understanding themselves means better understanding their parents—for better or worse,” Gia-Bao “GB” Tran says. “Vietnamerica is me getting to that point before it was too late. It’s an exploration of family legacy as I discover my future by preserving my family’s past.”
For this well-respected Brooklyn cartoonist, the medium was nearly as important as the message. “Having been entertained, educated, and enriched by comics since I was a kid, I really wanted to tell a story that respects and takes advantage of the medium's unique narrative, structural and formal potential,” Tran says. “The fact that I was able to do so with a project preserving my family's journey of sacrifices and triumphs is a dream come true.”
Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation
This mind-blowing collection of the work of one of America’s most creative animators starts with the story of Bill Plympton and Disney—a match, for those familiar with Plympton’s bizarre and innovative drawings and cartoons, that might seem to be made in hell. But the collection reveals that when Plympton was a boy, he actually wrote to Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and mailed off his best drawings of mice and men to the factory.
Decades later, it was inevitable, Plympton says, that the Disney Co. came to the animator in the wake of his Oscar-nominated film The Tune and offered him a gig. He turned them down. To find out why Plympton is his own man, readers could do far worse than delve into the massive, career-spanning collection of Independently Animated. Featuring sketches, stories, anecdotes and advice to young filmmakers, the book is a mind-expanding exposure to a creator who puts the “graphic” back in graphic arts.
Marzi: A Memoir
Marzena Sowa with Sylvain Savoia
“If someone asked me what my specialty was, a while ago, I would have said that I’m a burner of bridges. Marzi is the first bridge I haven’t destroyed,” writes Polish émigré Marzena Sowa of her rich and fascinating autobiographical graphic novel. The book captures the sea change of the fall of communism through the eyes of a little girl, Marzi, born a decade before the end of communism in her native Poland.
“At first, it was only for me, for Sylvain, maybe one day for our children, and we even joked that maybe also for our grandchildren to whom I'd read my writings one day: ‘and that is how granny Marzi tried to feed the poor carp swimming in the bathtub.’ ” Sowa says. Marzi captures the harshness of the Russian empire (“Communism doesn’t kill your appetite,” one sequence advises), the fear of constant monitoring, and the confusion that arises in the wake of the spectacular fall of a century-old, but failing doctrine. Now 32, and living in Paris with her creative partner Savoia, Sowa captures both the enthusiasm of youth and the devastation of history with her beautifully crafted and unique personal history.
Sweet Tooth Vol. 3: Animal Armies
Coming off the success of the Essex County series, one might expect Canadian creator Jeff Lemire to take on something a little less out there. Guess again. He’s already on the third volume of his post-apocalyptic parable, and this Vertigo Comics series is as unusual as ever. Starring an antler-equipped hybrid named Gus, the story plays out in the wastelands of Nebraska. “I wanted to take tropes of the format and play with them a bit,” Lemire says. “The first year of the book was really me figuring out how to tell stories in those 22-page chunks, but as I enter the third year of Sweet Tooth, it’s now become much more about twisting those things around and really experimenting with format and storytelling and hopefully pushing myself and my readers into new territory each month.”
Initially planned for as many as 30 issues, the series’ success largely depends on trade sales and the continuing inspiration of its creator. “I think the thing that makes it all possible is the constant focus on character over plot,” Lemire says. “As long as I don't lose sight of the core concept of the book, and as long as Gus and Jepperd's character's continue to grow and evolve, I think I can continue to experiment and play with expectations of the book a bit.”