Science Comics: Cars: Engines That Move You. By Dan Zettwoch. Edited by Dave Roman; designed by Zettwoch and Rob Steen. ISBN 978-1626728226 (softcover). 128 pages. $12.99. First Second, May 2019.
This one came out in 2019, but I missed it. As much as I dig publisher First Second, I’ve skipped over Science Comics, their didactic middle-grade nonfiction series on topics ranging from dinosaurs to robots, rockets to trees. I should have been paying attention, since the series, launched in 2016, has yielded nineteen books (and counting) and looks like a solid hit. Under editors Casey Gonzalez and (now just?) Dave Roman, Science Comics has welcomed diverse artists and writers, yet the books are strongly branded, sharing a common dress and size (128 pages). Collectively, the series is quite an editorial achievement, as opposed to the creator-driven work First Second usually champions. I suppose that’s one reason I’ve stayed away — but also, I admit, I share the general distrust of children’s informational nonfiction, a critically unloved genre despite outstanding work by creators like David Macaulay (and despite how much time my family and I have spent poring over DK Eyewitness Books). Expository nonfiction for young readers is often slighted as functional, utilitarian stuff, and it’s true that nonfiction books of the Baby Professor type — mechanical and unlovely — are everywhere. I tend to look askance at books that ignore or instrumentalize the pleasures of character and plot. So it took a great cartoonist to get me to try, at last, Science Comics: Dan Zettwoch.
I first read Zettwoch in the avant-comix anthology Kramer’s Ergot, then followed him to his first graphic novel, the neglected Birdseye Bristoe (2012), and to Amazing Facts and Beyond (2013), a bundle of mock-didactic, believe-it-or-not strips in collaboration with Kevin Huizenga. Zettwoch’s work is distinctive and, for me, always a draw. He is the master of the cutaway diagram, the cartoon schematic, the absurd yet precise infographic: a successor to both Rube Goldberg and Robert Ripley. Somehow, he manages to be meticulous and loopy at the same time. What’s more, his work often pays tribute to bygone technologies by showing just how they worked. Zettwoch’s cartooning peers into the mechanics of things, rendering them with clarity and joy — so an informational comic about cars would seem like a natural for him. It is.
While Science Comics: Cars boasts a few recurring characters who age over the course of the book, it’s not a character-driven narrative; unlike, say, a Magic School Bus adventure, or (I gather) some other Science Comics, it’s not framed as an individual or group journey. The recurrent figures are reminders of the book’s historical through-line, but mainly Cars is a workout for Zettwoch the diagrammer. Though automotive history gives the book an arc and shape, Cars comes closer to encyclopedic Eyewitness style than to a graphic novel. It’s a reminder that comics do not always need traditional strong “storytelling” in order to engage us the way stories do. The book may be organized thematically but coheres graphically.
Zettwoch divides the book into four chapters, or “strokes,” named for the modern internal combustion engine’s four-stoke cycle: Intake, Compression, Power, Exhaust. Within these, he repeats certain graphic elements that together lend a sense of order; that is, the book finds its form by braiding and varying key images, layouts, and design conceits. For example, the first two chapters both begin with accounts of historic automobile rides that serve to establish phrases and layouts that recur later. At the same time, Zettwoch throws in, unpredictably, myriad diagrams, charts, and sly jokes, and this graphic playfulness turns Cars into a series of discrete spreads that almost stand by themselves, poster-like. The book demonstrates comics’ diagrammatic nature and the power of design to cluster and clarify big gobs of information — but it also gets a bit drunk on the sheer pleasures of the page.
Cars is densely informative, and a feat of design. It excels at the engineering history of autos — but less so, alas, at the social. The book wants stronger thematizing: some social and political threads that would make it, in the end, more than a compendium of wonders. The final chapter, Exhaust, hints at deeper themes, discussing fossil fuels and noxious emissions; belatedly, it suggests the damage automobiles have done to the environment (the globe is shown wreathed by auto exhaust). I figured I was being set up for a reflection on the harm as well as advantages bred by cars — but, no, Zettwoch skitters in other directions, devoting four pages to an insanely detailed chart of trucks, another spread to “Weird Cars,” and then other pages to the histories of car horns, car stereos, etc. A final section covers electric cars and the possibility of driverless cars but gives no sobering sense of the challenges posed by car culture and our reliance on personal vehicles, no sense of ecological or social consequence. Nor does the book deal in detail with automotive safety. It’s as if it can’t face up to harder issues. Instead, it’s a blithe valentine to cars that any gear monkey could love. I get a sense of failed follow-through and of implications left unexplored — that is, I found the book’s finale disappointing.
To his credit, Zettwoch’s version of car history is fairly inclusive, honoring women as engineers and innovators and spotlighting non-white figures as well. The book offers a bright, affirming view of a shared car culture. Yet Cars does not come to terms with what the overabundance of autos might mean for our common future. Zettwoch’s love of automotive engineering comes through, but the “science” part of the project feels incomplete without reckoning on the environmental impact of automobiles. Road not taken? Opportunity lost, I'd say.
That said, Cars remains a dazzling exercise in show-and-tell, a master class in comics as diagramming and design. Though it may not quite add up, it overflows with ingenuity and pleasure. As it turns out, Science Comics can be interesting comics indeed. I’ll read more, with hope.
Update, June 29, 2020: Due to a technical or information-security problem, the Eisner Award voting has been restarted from scratch on a new online platform, and the new deadline for votes extended until tomorrow, Tuesday, June 30, at 11:59pm Pacific. Reportedly, voters who previously cast a ballot have been sent emails inviting them to vote again. I'm voting again at this very moment!
Voting for this year’s Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards (the Eisners for short) will soon end, so file this post under "belated." Sigh. Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 lockdown and related stresses have slowed me down, so this comes late.
But: onward. This year’s list of Eisner nominees (announced on June 4) is another extraordinary snapshot of a (as ever) divided field that encompasses multiple, sometimes divergent, communities, a field that often feels like many fields at once. Having been an Eisner judge (2013), I can attest to what a joy and challenge it is to access, read, and debate so many different kinds of comics with other judges assembled from several different disciplines. If the final results of the Eisner voting are often an index of popularity, or simply of the kinds of comics that get noticed readily in shops, the ballot is less predictable and more expansive, reflecting the painstaking efforts of longtime Eisner Award Administrator Jackie Estrada and the diverse, carefully-selected judging panels she recruits. Those panels are typically balanced to include comics creators, retailers, journalists, critics, and scholars, and, once recruited, are fully autonomous and, in my experience, absolutely honest about what they like and don’t. It’s a great, once-in-a-lifetime gig.
In my case, I spent a long weekend in a San Diego hotel conferring with my fellow judges. This year’s panel, however, has had to judge remotely, connecting via social media and Zoom (I can’t imagine). The process reportedly took two months longer than usual. But the panel sounds like it was an amazing group: journalist and scholar Jamie Coville; graphic novel reviewer Martha Cornog; my friend, scholar/teacher/designer Michael Dooley; comics writer and novelist Alex Grecian; podcaster and Comic-Con volunteer Simon Jimenez; and retailer and festival organizer Laura O’Meara. Michael has some telling comments and reflections on this year’s process, and his own values and priorities as a judge, in a PRINT magazine interviewer with Steven Heller that came out last week (worth a look). I agree with Michael that the list of nominees is the important thing, “the news that readers can most usefully use”; like him, I didn’t particularly care about who won the final voting, but loved taking part in the crafting of the ballot. This year’s list is an excellent and illuminating guide to this particular moment in comics.
As I said, the comics community often feels like several disparate communities: different, even conflicting, publics and aesthetic formations. The Eisners, unlike guild awards such as the Oscars or Tonys, are voted on by a wide, dispersed group not held together by membership in a professional body, and the judging and voting processes reflect that. Jackie Estrada has deliberately set out to recruit diverse judges that can represent some of the many publics that make up the comics field and yet can also dialogue across boundaries and bring some focus to the awards. The continuing excellence of the yearly ballots bears out the wisdom of her efforts – congratulations, once again, to the judges and Jackie for a job well done!
Of particular interest to KinderComics are the nominees in the young readers’ categories, and this year they’re terrific:
Best Publication for Early Readers
Best Publication for Kids
(I confess to some disappointment here. Where is Luke Pearson's Hilda and the Mountain King? Where's Jen Wang's superb Stargazing?)
Best Publication for Teens
I also want to note that Lois Lowry’s classic dystopia for young readers, The Giver, has been adapted by P. Craig Russell into a graphic novel nominated in the category Best Adaptation from Another Medium. In addition, children’s and YA comics creators were nominated in several other categories:
A few more observations:
All told, there are some 180 Eisner nominees this year, spread over thirty-one categories (again, the full list is here). This year’s judges have moved even farther afield that usual, testifying to the increasing impact of not only children’s and YA comics but also digital comics, native webcomics, and other sectors beyond the traditional comic book shop. The ballot strays off the usual beaten paths and is an education in itself. While there are a number of categories in which I do not have a strong opinion (teaching through the pandemic has curtailed my comics reading these past few months), I’m greatly impressed by the lists for Best Short Story, Best Webcomic, Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips, Best Graphic Album—New, and the three journalistic and scholarly categories: Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism, Best Comics-Related Book, and Best Academic/Scholarly Work.
In fact, I just have to list the nominees in the following three categories, which are incredible:
Best Academic/Scholarly Work
(This is a great year for comics studies titles. Dig the diversity of topics and publishers!)
(As soon as the ballot came out, I went and read or re-read all the nominees, Wow!)
Best Short Story
(Again, a rich, revelatory list!)
Finally, I commend the judges for inducting artists Nell Brinkley and E. Simms Campbell into the Eisner Hall of Fame, and for nominating fourteen others, out of which four will be inducted by the voters: Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Moto Hagio, Don Heck, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Francoise Mouly, Keiji Nakazawa, Thomas Nast, Lily Renée Peter Phillips, Stan Sakai, Louise Simonson, Don and Maggie Thompson, James Warren, and Bill Watterson. (That’s a hard list to choose from!)
A final note: The Eisner winners were to be have been announced at the usual gala ceremony on Friday night (July 24) during the San Diego Comic-Con; now, however, they will be announced online instead, sometime in July I hear, most likely as part of Comic-Con@Home. Details TBA.
The Runaway Princess. By Johan Troianowski. Translated by Anne and Owen Smith; designed by Patrick Crotty. RH Graphic, ISBN 978-0593118405 (softcover), $12.99. 272 pages. January 2020.
The Runaway Princess, a giddy, self-aware romp, celebrates doodling, play, and spontaneous worldbuilding. Its title and cover may suggest a feminist fractured fairy tale of the Princess Smartypants variety, but it’s really a Baron Munchhausen sort of yarn, a happy riot whose main lesson is pleasure. Not so much a deliberate novel as a spree, it showcases author Johan Troianowski’s freewheeling cartooning while riffing on familiar stuff.
The first release under RH Graphic, Random House’s new comics imprint, The Runaway Princess translates Troianowski’s French series Rouge (2009-2017). The Rouge of the original becomes Robin here; she’s a wayward young adventuress with a touch of Little Red Riding Hood but also Pippi Longstocking. The world she travels is a vehicle for exuberant drawing and vivid, crayon-and-ink coloring. It’s also chockablock with drive-by homages to children’s literature, from classic fairy tales to Alice to The Wind and the Willows.
Essentially, The Runaway Princess collects three rambling quests that consist of hide-and-seek, maze-walking, and casual discovery. In the first, Robin traverses a dark and threatening wood, where she befriends four lost kids, all boys, whom she leads out of the wood, to a strange city and festival. There some of the kids get lost again and have be found. In the second tale, Robin and the boys discover an underground world, where Robin befriends a witch, until the tale takes a darker, Hansel and Gretel-like turn; more hiding and chasing ensue. In the third, Robin and boys are cast away on an island, where a benevolent explorer introduces them to the culture of the Doodlers: small creatures who make art. Treasure-hungry pirates attack, and again the plot affords plenty of frantic running around.
Notably, the book includes self-reflexive, interactive pages that invite the reader not just to read but to do things: solve mazes, shake the book, etc. That is, The Runaway Princess is a game of sorts; the book knows that it’s a book, and invites us to have fun with that fact. If Troianowski’s loose, scribbly style recalls Joann Sfar or Lewis Trondheim, his metatextual play recalls Fred’s classic Philemon series: as the plot bounces from one craziness to another, there’s little sense of danger or poignancy, more a benign, Fred-like absurdism and self-awareness. Troianowski excels at weird places—City of Water, Island of Doodlers—and favors graphic playfulness over tight logic, but it’s the direct appeals to the reader that make it work.
Though The Runaway Princess would be at home alongside Philemon, or, say, Sfar’s Little Vampire, it lacks the philosophical weight of Fred and odd tenderness of Sfar, and sometimes reproduces Eurocentric, colonialist clichés (as in the ethnological Doodlers plot). Yet the book fizzes like a rocket, and cheerfully celebrates creativity (in this, it resembles, say, Liniers’s Written and Drawn by Henrietta). In sum, it’s is a breezy, inventive launchpoint for RH Graphic, and recommended.
Dragon Hoops. By Gene Luen Yang. Color by Lark Pien. First Second. ISBN 978-1626720794 (hardcover), $24.99. 448 pages. March 2020.
Recently Gene Yang has been out touring in support of his newest graphic novel, the just-released Dragon Hoops. But of course he hasn't been touring in the flesh; the COVID-19 pandemic has had him—like so many of us—holed up at home, trying to find creative new ways to engage with both his family and his public. Happily, he hit upon the idea of a virtual book tour: that is, promoting Dragon Hoops through a series of Instagram comic strips in which he responds to readers’ questions. These quick comics are formulaic, but the formulas are clever and engaging: Yang repeats shots and gags across the series, making it feel much like whistle stops before a loving audience that tends to ask the same few questions again and again. Of course, these comics are self-deprecating—more than anyone else, Yang is the object of his own jokes. He makes an excellent comic strip character.
Humorous self-deprecation is one of Yang’s constants. He used to self-publish under the imprint Humble Comics, and if you’ve seen him speak you know that he excels at genial self-mockery. Yang plays humble the way Liszt played the piano—it’s his instrument. But don’t let him fool you: he is a gutsy and ambitious narrative artist whose work walks a tightrope between charming accessibility and willed difficulty. Yang takes chances. In particular, his solo graphic novels (as opposed to his many collaborative works) are fearsome high-wire performances. Dragon Hoops is no exception.
Yang’s comics tend to be structurally tricky, thematically bold, and psychologically sharp. His breakout book, American Born Chinese (2006), semi-autobiographical yet fantastical at once, interweaves three stories in three different genres, until a startling moment that turns those three tales into one. The novel oscillates between ingratiating humor and terrible pain (in fact, those two tones are co-present throughout). Mixing myth fantasy, earthbound middle-grade school story, and arch sitcom, American Born Chinese is great comics, capitalizing on the form’s stable-unstable, multimodal heterogeneity to tell an immigrants’ son’s story, one of divided identity or fractured self. At bottom, it’s a story about internalized racism and self-hatred. A nervy book, it freely adapts China’s legendary Journey to the West, while at the same time insinuating a Christian allegory and riffing on Transformer/mecha pop culture. Moreover, it dares a form of grotesque satire, in which hateful, grossly racist anti-Chinese stereotypes reflect the protagonist’s self-loathing (a strategy as impious and risky as Art Spiegelman's notorious animal metaphor in Maus). In sum, American Born Chinese revealed Yang’s propensity for large-scale structural conceits that enact his own ambivalence and complex sense of identity. It was, is, daring.
Yang’s follow-up project, Boxers & Saints, goes one better. A two-volume novel about China’s Boxer Rebellion, it’s a magic-realist historical fantasy in which the twin volumes represent, in a kind of tense counterpoint, both Chinese nationalist (Boxers) and Europeanized missionary (Saints) perspectives. Pitting the story of a young man who is an anti-colonial revolutionary against that of a young woman who is a Christian convert, Boxers & Saints balances Yang’s Catholicism against his pained awareness of Western imperialism and racism, while also critiquing strands of misogyny in traditional Chinese culture. The resulting two-headed novel, rather shockingly violent for Yang, represents a dramatic argument: a psychomachia in which different facets of Yang contend with each other, bitterly. Boxers completes Saints, and vice versa, and both volumes sting. This project shows, again, Yang’s penchant for teasing out self-conflict by counterposing different plots (in this case, different books!) and engineering complex structures. Identity in his books is as tricky as the plots: dynamic and never settled, an anxious balancing act. Yang's ingenious plotting, and an overall sense of high personal stakes, of storytelling wrung from pain, transform what could be flatly didactic into harrowing stuff.
Dragon Hoops aims for this quality too, though it lacks the big structural conceits of the three-part American Born Chinese or two-part Boxers & Saints. It differs in another important way too: this time the tale is not historic, mythic, or crypto-autobiographical, but instead a literal memoir, an account of a year in Yang’s life as a teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High, a Catholic school in the Bay Area. Dragon Hoops is the longest overtly autobiographical work Yang has done. Yet it’s really about (huh?) basketball: on one level, Bishop O’Dowd’s varsity men’s basketball team, the Dragons, hungry for a state championship, but more broadly the entire history of the sport and how it intersects with race, class, and even Catholic schooling. In short, Dragon Hoops takes on basketball as a social force. This is something that the book’s version of Gene, archetypally geeky and sports-averse, has to struggle to understand. The story follows Gene from standoffish sideline observer (he is, at first, simply a storyteller looking for a new story) to ardent booster of the school’s basketball squad. At the same time, it charts a major shakeup in Yang’s own life, and offers multiple stories of struggle and vindication if not redemption. Further, it explores ethical issues involved in coaching, mentoring young people, and even Yang’s own storytelling. In fact, Yang worries on the page about what he is doing on the page. Here the book seems boldest--or perhaps most vulnerable?
Dragon Hoops is long and complex (at about a hundred pages longer than Boxers, it is Yang’s heftiest single volume). Somewhere between intimate memoir, journalism, and oral history, it profiles the players on Bishop O’Dowd’s team, observes the complex social dynamics of their lives, and sets us up for, yes, a nail-biting climax on the court, at the longed-for championship game. Simultaneously, though, it recounts the creation and democratization, or broadening, of basketball, in a series of historical vignettes—while also depicting a transformative moment in Gene’s uncertain career in comics. That career comes to a sort of fortunate crisis when Gene, startled and uncertain, is offered a chance to write, of all things, Superman. Yang thus parallels the team’s story with a node of decision in his own life. In this way, the book explains why he is no longer at Bishop O’Dowd, and becomes a bittersweet valedictory to his seventeen-year stretch there (and perhaps a way of prolonging his connection to the school?). There’s a great deal happening in Dragon Hoops, then—the book’s seemingly straightforward structure conceals yet another gutsy high-wire act.
This book is jammed full. Starting from a prologue in which Gene, reticent and awkward, seeks out Dragons coach Lou Richie, the story shuttles between present-day profiles and historical background, while also packing in loads of on-court basketball action. The team’s season, and Gene’s growing relationship with “Coach Lou,” are the spine of the book, but Yang freely intermixes other elements, with special attention to particular Dragons and how their team collectively embodies diversity. Chapters depicting important games alternate with chapters devoted to key players (in this sense, the book’s structure is very deliberate). Yang uses the players’ backstories both to celebrate basketball as an inclusive and egalitarian sport but also to point out various problems, notably racism and sexism, in the history and culture of the game. One chapter is devoted to a pair of siblings, Oderah, star of O’Dowd’s championship women’s basketball team, and her younger brother, Arinze, now part of the men’s varsity squad; the two are constant rivals, yet fiercely loyal to each other. Another chapter profiles Qianjun (“Alex”) Zhao, a Chinese exchange student on the Dragons’ team. Another focuses on Jeevin Sandhu, a Punjabi student of the Sikh faith—and here Yang focuses on the challenges of assimilation, while also providing, in effect, a brief introduction to Sikhism.
There’s more. Dragon Hoops depicts James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891; Marques Haynes and his fellow Harlem Globetrotters, who helped integrate the game; Senda Berenson, who launched women’s basketball; Yao Ming, the first star of Chinese basketball to thrive in the NBA; and other notables in the game’s history. Yang smartly interweaves present and past: the chapter on Jeevin also recounts the rise of Catholic schooling and the career of early NBA star George Mikan, a Croatian American player from a Catholic seminary; Yang then acknowledges that Jeevin, as a Sikh, is an outlier in Bishop O’Dowd’s Catholic culture (a scene of Jeevin reciting the Mul Mantar, a Sikh prayer, complements other scenes of praying in the book). Similarly, the chapter on Oderah and Arinzes weaves in Berenson’s story and the rise of the women’s game, including a historic dunk by pioneering college player Georgeann Wells. You can feel Yang matching up elements from past and present to build a tight, cohesive book.
Visually, Dragon Hoops is likewise purposeful and designing. Breathless scenes of action on the court, sometimes parsed down to the split second, recall the sort of intense basketball manga popularized by Takehiko Inoue (Slam Dunk, Buzzer Beater, Real). These scenes attain an energy and forcefulness that exceed Yang’s previous work (even the martial violence of Boxers & Saints). There are sequences that fairly set my pulse racing. What makes these explosions of action thrilling is the way the book as a whole carefully measures out its storytelling, and uses the very controlled braiding of repeated imagery to reinforce its themes. Yang recycles and repurposes the same signal images over and over, to point up thematic parallels between past and present, among the different players, and between the Dragons’ quest for the championship and his own concern about going “all in on comics” as a career. Dragon Hoops is a library of key images, reworked and re-inflected (indeed, it could take the place of the vaunted Watchmen when it comes to classroom lessons about braiding!). In fact, it’s a brilliant sustained feat of cartooning for the graphic novel form; the book echoes back and forth, as Yang plays the long game.
There’s a kind of nervousness, though, behind Yang’s cleverness. Dragon Hoops is an anxious, self-conscious work. Like Spiegelman’s Maus—and a great many other graphic memoirs since—it reveals and worries over its own stratagems. The authorial notes in the book’s back matter frankly discuss Yang’s sourcing and his occasional resort to artistic license. Said notes relate to the main story dialectically and at times critically (reminding me of the disarming notes in several books by Chester Brown). In particular, Yang admits that he has cast his wife Theresa as, essentially, his sounding board and proverbial better half: wise and practical, humorously tolerant of his anxieties, and full of advice and encouragement (or reasonable doubts about his judgment, as the occasion demands). Talking to Theresa becomes a means of registering Gene’s doubts about his own project, and the sometimes choppy ethical waters that the project gets him into. Though Theresa makes an impression, she does not really emerge as a full-blown character (and the same could be said of Theresa and Gene’s children). Yang notes that he took “particular liberty” with her dialogue: “I figured I could because, y’know, we’re married.” His notes are full of revealing asides like these, which invite a closer look at Dragon Hoops as a performance and a made thing, not just an artless recording of real-life events.
Yang’s self-reflexive disclosure of his artistic feints happens not only in the back matter but also in the main story. Dig these two successive panels, on either side of a page turn:
In particular, Yang depicts himself worrying over a single compromising plot point: a deeply troubling element of real life that threatens his desired “feel-good” story but that he feels he cannot omit. That ethical sore point is seeded about a third of the way into the book, after which Gene frets and frets over it—until a moment about four-fifths in, when Gene, or rather the book, enacts its moment of decision:
Readers of Maus may be reminded of Art’s insistence that “reality is too complex for comics"—which Yang echoes here, stating that comics are “essentially lies.” (Spiegelman too sometimes casts his wife, Françoise Mouly, as a sounding board whose dialogue makes his work’s ethical complications clearer.) In the case of Dragon Hoops, this sort of self-reflexive gambit becomes a fundamental plot element, in fact a suspense generator, long before Yang reveals precisely why. We spend a good part of the book wondering what he is hiding, and how he will reveal it (of course, this plot tease makes it obvious that at some point he will). This isn’t a terribly original move—graphic memoirs have been depicting the rigors of their own making since at least Justin Green—but here it feels almost like a forced move, as if Yang was compelled to it by unnerving real-world details that he could not wish away. Anxiety over this point fundamentally shapes the book’s narrative structure.
Dragon Hoops, then, perhaps seeks to inoculate itself against criticism. That is, Yang’s self-critical gambits (there are many) may be meant to deflect charges that his expert storytelling massages the truth a bit too much. I’m not sure that such charges would be fair—but I confess I don’t think Dragon Hoops is Yang’s most convincing graphic novel. Whereas American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints continue to hint at mixed feelings even as they aim for conclusiveness and wholeness, this book wants to feel emphatically resolved. Yang’s trademark ambivalence yields to a sort of boosterism. At times, Dragon Hoops seems to apply the “underdog” template of most sports stories rather uncritically; for example, the book registers some complicated thoughts about sports, coaching, and Catholic education that its final pages don’t so much resolve as hush. Me, I would have liked to see more critical engagement of what it means to turn young athletes into media stars. I would have liked to see more of Coach Lou’s self-questioning. Dragon Hoops is smart and honest enough to acknowledge problems in the culture of sports, but still wants us to cheer at the final buzzer. Maybe it’s an ironic tribute to Yang’s storytelling that, in the end, I wasn’t quite there. In any case, the book’s reigning structural parallel—how the courage and tenacity of the Dragons empowers Yang to go “all in” himself, as an artist—feels a bit rigged alongside the terrible dilemmas depicted in his previous novels.
But, man, it's hard to begrudge Yang the effort, because so much good stuff happens along the way. Dragon Hoops captures a culture, community, and season vividly, and is the very definition of what we should want from a major artist: a step in a new direction, and a dare-to-self that plays out in complex ways. No one could accuse Yang of making things easy on himself. And the book has taught me a lot. As my wife Mich and I take our daily break from isolation, walking the quiet neighborhoods around us, waving (distantly) at passers-by, we see a lot of basketball hoops on driveways and in yards. In fact, a couple of days ago, as we walked uphill through another neighborhood, we heard the sounds of shooting hoops before we came upon the sight: a quick dribble, a silence, a thudding backboard, then more of the same. Sure enough: someone was practicing basketball, solo, in a rear driveway, just barely visible above a tall gate. I had this book on my mind, and had to smile.
New Kid. By Jerry Craft. Color by Jim Callahan. Harper. ISBN 978-0062691194 (softcover), $12.99; ISBN 978-0062691200 (hardcover), $21.99. 256 pages.
A month ago, Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid became the first comic to win the coveted Newbery Medal for children’s literature. I came to New Kid late, and KinderComics readers may remember that I did not include it among my faves of 2019. I wish I had. I confess I put off reading New Kid because I did not love its graphic style, which struck me as cobbled together digitally, with elements seemingly cloned, rescaled, and reused across its pages. At first the work looked patchy to me, compositionally choppy, and too tech-dependent for my tastes. I didn’t see the visual flow or elegance of design that I tend to crave. So, I was closed-mind about this one, I have to say.
(This would not be the first time my aesthetic preferences blocked me from recognizing good work. For instance, I recently read Maggie Thrash’s fine comics memoir Honor Girl, done in a seemingly naive watercolor style, and realized that I had been avoiding that one also. I had sold it short.)
New Kid deserves better from me. It’s an excellent school story, not only smartly written but visually clever and insinuating throughout. Craft, with exceeding sharpness, depicts African American scholarship boy Jordan Banks and his private school mates at awkward intersections of race, class, and gender. Indeed New Kid, with miraculously high spirits, examines the effects of racism and classism without ever actually breathing those words. Craft is astute and at times can be blunt, but is also endlessly subtle; his touch is marvelously light, yet telling. New Kid manages to be hopeful and often funny, even while acknowledging racism as both systemic feature and stubborn habit.
The story of one school year, New Kid gently critiques the class aspirations of private school parents, the casual racist carelessness of teachers, and the blunders of overcompensatory liberal tone-deafness, all while painting Jordan and his fellow students as canny survivors. The book abounds with sly, knowing recognitions, unexplained but pointed, including many gags that show Jordan trying to deal quietly with racial and class-based awkwardness. A middle-class Black boy in a (to him) new school that defines the very notion of privilege, Jordan is alive to the implications of every social move. Craft’s approach is at once realistic, worldly, amused, jaded even, and yet guardedly optimistic; he is properly impatient with ingrained prejudice, yet fatalistically aware that, well, young people have to get on in this broken world. New Kid humorously acknowledges the ways young people of color are too often seen, or rather mis-recognized, and fences smartly with the usual stereotypes about young urban Blackness.
The school kids mostly come out well here: they see and deal with social inequality and the willed blindness of adults while upholding their sense of humor and camaraderie. Running gags and droll in-jokes are everywhere: a kind of code and coping mechanism among the kids. For example, Jordan and his classmate Drew call each other mistaken names throughout, mimicking the cluelessness of their white teacher who cannot distinguish one Black student from another. The jokes in New Kid are not just funny, but insightful—as are the young people who tell them.
One of the best things in New Kid is a self-reflexive spoof of children’s and young adult publishing that mocks the narrowness of Black depictions in the field. This spread made me laugh out loud (please forgive my crummy scan):
If, as Philip Nel argues in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, the cordoning off of genres marks a de facto line of segregation (Genre Is the New Jim Crow, in Nel’s phrasing), then Craft gets this exactly, and takes the whole publishing field to task. Indeed, the sight of a “gritty” novel for Black teen readers becomes a repeated joke in New Kid, one that stings with its insight but is also downright hilarious. Bravo! This is a supremely wise and charming book that jousts with, and defeats, a thousand cliches.
Foreword: As a teacher, I'm often asked to recommend graphic novels, or to explain where the graphic novel genre has "come from." What follows is a list I've used in order to field those questions, one copied, pasted, and adapted from a webpage I've maintained for various classes. Basically, the original aim of this list was to inform students briefly about much talked-about graphic books that we were not covering in class. It was designed to be a changeable document, a resource that could keep shifting and growing, and of course it by no means ever captured all the good and worthy books in the field; it's always been out of date, in fact. Lately I've begun to wonder if this list doesn't need to be drastically revised or perhaps this entire endeavor rethought, but I present it here as, perhaps, a first, rough guide. (Note that this list is not confined to children's and young adult comics.)
Below are thirty-three especially noteworthy book-length comics in English. This is not a history of the graphic novel, but a sampling for convenience's sake.
In assembling this “cheat sheet,” I've been guided not only by my own taste but also by the amount of scholarship and criticism these works have inspired. For the most part, the books listed here are touchstones for creators and critics; they represent genres or trends that are important in the field, as well as creators who have influenced others. That is, this list consists mostly of landmarks to which other graphic novels are often compared, and which have changed the way we talk about book-length comics. (That said, my own tastes and biases remain a factor, of course.)
A bouquet of caveats: This list does not constitute a properly inclusive comics "canon." It is biased toward the self-contained literary graphic novel as practiced in anglophone North America, particularly the US. As such, it neglects a lot of important and delightful stuff — most of the comics world, in fact. I certainly don't claim that these are the only important comics out there, or even that these are the "most" important ones (actually, most great comics IMO are not graphic novels, but that's an argument for another day). Moreover, this list does not capture the present moment, that is, does not represent the range and diversity of comics these days (the newest books here are some three years old). Nor does this list do the important work of advocating for greater inclusivity in comics studies (a principle that informs my syllabi). But if you want to join conversations about the literary graphic novel as currently understood in English-language criticism, this list can give you a head start, a brief breakdown of some keystone titles. Just think of it as one possible point of entry, time-stamped 2020...
PS. Clicking on a book's title will take you to an informational page maintained by its publisher.
100 Demons, by Lynda Barry (2002)
Barry is one of the greatest writers in comics, and hugely influential. Whether writing, cartooning, or illustrating, she insists on composing everything by hand, and invites her readers into the process of composition — bodily, messy, human. This volume collects strips Barry did for Salon.com, and adds layers of collage and commentary; the result is an evocative storytelling scrapbook. Funny, haunting, troubling, these are memories of childhood and adolescence, transformed into what Barry calls “autobifictionalography.” Gender, culture, growing up, feeling different — all are reflected in Barry’s wonderfully loose, quirky style and intimate voice. An essential book in alternative and feminist comix.
Alec: "The Years Have Pants", by Eddie Campbell (2009)
Scots cartoonist Campbell found fame in the 1980s British small press with these autobiographical stories, thinly veiled by his use of an alter ego, “Alec MacGarry.” The Alec tales capture Campbell’s relationships and career over a span of decades, with a loose, gestural style and incisive, ironic, sometimes self-damning wit. From love, sex, and family life to Campbell’s take on the ever-changing comics world, these stories evoke the life and times of a brilliant artist and raconteur. They even chronicle Campbell’s work on From Hell (see below). The Years Have Pants gathers thirty years of Alec into one 640-page brick.
American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang (2006)
This acclaimed and influential book — a key example of the graphic novel for young readers — has an unusual structure consisting of three ostensibly separate stories in different genres: fantasy, sitcom, and realistic, semi-autobiographical fiction. The interaction of these stories yields a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and speaks to issues of divided identity, as hinted by the title. Yang brings it all together unexpectedly, ingeniously, in ways that capture the dilemma of immigrants' children caught between cultures, desperate to transform and “fit in.” His accessible, cartoony, clear-line style evokes idealized childhood, belying the book’s darkness and complexity.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, by Sonny Liew (2015)
Chan Hock Chye is Singapore’s greatest comics artist, and this book an exhibition of his works, interspersed with his biography, told in comics form. It’s also the history of Singapore itself, from decolonization (i.e. independence from Britain), to its separation from Malaysia, to the present. Here’s the catch: Chan Hock Chye is fictional, while his artistic influences — British, American, Japanese — are real-life landmarks of 20th century comic art. In this tour de force, Malaysian-born Singaporean artist Liew recasts the history of his nation as comics’ history, interweaving fact and fiction and probing the form’s colonial heritage. Provocative, brilliantly executed, mind-boggling.
Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli (2009)
This graphic novel by former Daredevil and Batman artist Mazzucchelli shows what can be done when every resource of the medium — layout, drawing style, colors, letterforms, balloons, everything — is deliberately varied to match different characters and shifting points of view. The story concerns architect Asterios — arrogant, out of touch — and his wife Hannah, and how their lives are transformed by circumstance. Mazzucchelli, one of the most electrifying talents in mainstream comic books in the 1980s, retreated from the limelight to explore alternative comics, then spent years crafting this layered masterpiece of form. Almost too clever, but also moving and beautiful.
Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa (1973-1987; translation completed in 2009)
Gen, a semi-autobiographical tale, recounts Nakazawa's life as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima — in ten volumes. It's a fierce, emotionally raw, yet deliberately crafted work: an intimate epic. Nakazawa depicts war, more particularly the Bomb, with brutal honesty, unquenchable anger, and a wounded heart. Gen makes a powerful dramatic argument for pacifism and anti-militarism, yet brims with violence, from large scale to small. A furious indictment of imperialism and warmongering (including Japan’s), this is searing, melodramatic, nakedly political storytelling — yet oddly hopeful too. A hugely influential autobiographical comic, and the first book of manga translated into English.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley (1986)
An aged, PTSD-haunted Batman comes out of retirement to save a dystopian Gotham; turns out he’s a righteous lunatic who insists on seeing the world in stark, uncompromising terms. This seminal Bat-story has influenced every Bat-movie and TV show made since the eighties, but it’s really in dialogue with the history of superhero comics and the comic book industry. Brash, brutal, Miller’s story runs roughshod over the DC Universe, bending the genre to personal and satirical purposes. Miller is unafraid to draw ugly to get the kind of intensity he wants — the result is an expressionistic nightmare. Forget the pointless sequels.
The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui (2017)
Like several other books here, this memoir inhabits a genre made habitable by Spiegelman's Maus: the multigenerational family memoir woven out of war, atrocity, and trauma, informed by the author’s ambivalence toward her parents. Bui chronicles five generations of her family, first in Vietnam, then the US, all while examining her own resentments, fears, and complex, divided identity. Rigorously self-critical, artfully braided, and beautifully drawn in a fluid, brush-inking style, this book imparts a library’s worth of history, but also subtle, tangled feelings. Though familiar in its approach, it remains tonally and aesthetically distinct. A brilliant, gorgeous, revelatory autobiography.
Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, by Justin Green (1972)
Binky stands in for author Green, and this comic recounts Binky/Green’s struggles with religious guilt and what he now recognizes as obsessive-compulsive disorder. An embarrassing, even harrowing memoir that reveals the author’s darkest secrets, this is also a beautifully crafted and hilarious high-water mark in the underground comix movement. It inspired Spiegelman’s Maus and the whole autobiographical comics genre. Weird, disturbing, and poignant, this comic still makes me laugh — and cringe with guilt every time I do. Green’s obsessive renderings, imaginative flights, and ironic humor about his own struggles have influenced comics ever since. Not for the fainthearted, but great.
Blankets, by Craig Thompson (2003)
Inspired by French artists, Thompson has a voluptuous, sensual style that carries readers away. Blankets is his breakout book, a memoir of adolescence, sexual awakening, and strict religious upbringing. Some readers find the heart of the book in its depictions of love and longing; I find it in Thompson’s rebellion against fundamentalism. This is not a memoir in the same vein as Green’s Binky; its images are more beautiful, its perspective less ironic, more Romantic, for some readers even mawkish. But read it to see how graphic memoir has been mainstreamed, and for a lovely example of the book as art object.
Bone, by Jeff Smith (2004)
Originally self-published, then republished by Scholastic, and now translated worldwide, Bone is a 1300-page epic (serialized over thirteen years). Smith has described it as Looney Tunes meets The Lord of the Rings, and his animation background comes out in the work, which combines Disneyesque charm and childlike heroes with unexpected depths. Smith’s style, influenced by Walt Kelly (Pogo), mixes slapstick cartooning with elegant brushwork and lush landscapes. His comic timing is terrific. The usual tropes of fantasy are here (princesses, dragons, dark lord, prophecy), but freshly redone for comics. Smith’s influence, particularly on children’s comics, would be hard to overstate.
Building Stories, by Chris Ware (2012)
The formalist comics achievement of the 21st century, so far? Depending on your POV, Building Stories either perfectly fulfills or violates the notion of “graphic novels.” It consists of a large box that recalls board games like Monopoly but contains fourteen different “Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets” that can be read in any order (I don’t know any two readers who’ve read it the same way). The drama — poignant, sometimes heartbreaking — centers on a Chicago apartment building and a lonely, unnamed woman as she grows up and has a family. Ware captures sensations I never expected comics to capture.
A Contract with God, by Will Eisner (1978)
Veteran artist Eisner, a comics pioneer since the 1930s, launched his career’s last great phase with this “graphic novel” — actually four short stories about working-class Jewish lives, rooted in a common locale, a Bronx neighborhood remembered from Eisner’s youth. These stories mix social realism and melodrama. Here Eisner put his mature style — loose, rumpled, gritty — to new use, adopting a literary aesthetic and book format that lent legitimacy to the emerging graphic novel genre. Most impressive is the semi-autobiographical title story, a fable inspired by the death of Eisner’s daughter. Often wrongly called the “first” graphic novel, yet still seminal.
Epileptic, by David B. (1996-2003, complete English trans. 2005)
Another memoir whose brutal candor recalls Maus, Epileptic recounts the author’s family’s struggle to heal his brother’s severe epilepsy, which gradually isolates the brother and chokes off any chance of autonomous living. The family seeks cures in pseudoscience and mysticism, but is thwarted time and again, and haunted by its powerlessness. Concurrently, the book unfolds a history of postwar France, and 20th century atrocities generally, as the author-protagonist processes the world through a filter of rage and his art fearfully evokes an epileptic’s loss of control. Dark, hallucinatory, symbolically dense, swirling with hypnotic detail—a troubling masterpiece of graphic expressionism.
From Hell, by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell (1999)
A fair candidate for Moore’s “other” great graphic novel (after Watchmen): a dense, paranoid retelling of the “Jack the Ripper” killings in London circa 1888, here treated as part of an occult conspiracy and an indictment of Victorian misogyny and classism. This project took a decade to complete, and shows not only Moore’s obsessiveness but also artist Campbell’s sense of period. Architecture, medicine, politics, freemasonry — it all gets caught up in their web. Campbell’s inky, scratchy, black-on-white pages, influenced by penny dreadfuls, are far from Watchmen's slickness. Magisterial, sinister, frightening, with alarming violence and butchery, and brutal commentary on gender.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (2006)
Bechdel, known for her strip Dykes to Watch Out for, shifted gears with this memoir, which quickly became one of the US’s most-analyzed comics. Fun Home explores the relationship between Alison (an out lesbian) and her father Bruce (gay, closeted), whose death shortly after her coming-out may have been a suicide. The learned Bechdels often communicated through reading and writing rather than face to face, so Fun Home deploys myriad literary references (Joyce, Proust, Wilde, Colette, Fitzgerald) to weave an ambivalent portrait — precise, detailed, self-reflexive, darkly funny — of a complex, difficult man. After Maus, the most academically influential graphic book.
Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes (1997)
Drawn from Clowes’s comic book Eightball, Ghost World epitomizes mid-nineties alternative comics. A fiction with veiled autobiographical elements, it tracks the relationship between two young women, Enid and Becky, and what happens when they discover that their hip air of contempt for the world is not enough to carry them over the threshold to adulthood. Clowes’s satirical, deadpan humor runs throughout — the book is at times hilarious — but is matched by tacit emotional undercurrents. Beneath a chill, almost antiseptic style (emphasized by cold blue-green shading), Ghost World hints at psychological unease and turmoil, and ultimately tells a moving coming-of-age story.
The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S., by Jaime Hernandez (2007)
The Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets (1981-) is arguably the most groundbreaking US comic book series of the past forty years. It defined alternative comics with its diverse cast, Latina/o and LGBTQ characters, punk rock/DIY ethos, mixture of underground and mainstream aesthetics, and experiments in form. Jaime’s “Locas” serial, based in Hoppers, a barrio inspired by his childhood in Oxnard, follows the lives and loves of Maggie Chascarillo and her circle, and is still going strong today. This volume captures Jaime’s amazing artistic growth in the mid-eighties, and boasts fluent, elegant cartooning, vivid, indelible characters, and searching, deeply moving stories.
Heartbreak Soup, by Gilbert Hernandez (2007)
While Jaime Hernandez was doing “Locas,” brother Gilbert created the other acclaimed serial in Love and Rockets: the stories of Palomar, a mythical Central American village populated by families, friends, lovers, and rivals. Gilbert’s style, broader and more grotesque than Jaime’s elegant naturalism, perfectly fits this magic-realist chronicle of love, loss, jealousy, psychological trauma, and social and political upheaval. This is bold work, exploring queer identities and sexualities, fearlessly depicting childhood and the traumas of growing up, and reflecting on art’s role in the world. This volume collects an extraordinary mid-80s run that shows Gilbert growing by leaps and bounds.
Hicksville, by Dylan Horrocks (1998)
Hicksville is a bucolic New Zealand town where everyone lives and breathes comics: a utopia for comics lovers. But what happens when a journalist comes to town determined to unearth the secret of a millionaire artist from Hicksville, a hometown boy turned pariah? Horrocks’ love letter to comic art is also a lament for the history of the comics business, one that has treated its artists like dirt. This funny yet melancholy meta-comic epitomizes alternative comics, and reflects on artistry-versus-commerce, the very nature of the comics form, and New Zealand's colonial history. Brilliantly cartooned: crisp yet scruffy, lively, organic.
I Never Liked You, by Chester Brown (1994)
A guilt-haunted memoir of adolescence, this book treats the ordinary stuff of high school relationships with a seriousness and graphic austerity that make it emotionally wrenching. Chester, a severely repressed young man, cannot seem to perform masculinity in the expected way, and his social relationships are punctuated by moments of almost-autistic withdrawal. His relationship with his mother is particularly fraught, and leads to a shattering climax. Beautifully drawn, with a fragile, minimalist line and dreamlike emotional reserve. A seminal example of graphic memoir from early-nineties comic books, and a key work of Canadian alternative comics from a restless, controversial creator.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware (2000)
Ware may be the most acclaimed cartoonist of the 21st century. He is famed for his command of, and willingness to push, the comics form; his dense, blueprint-like pages; his unerring, diagram-like style; the bleak honesty of his stories; and his focus on sad, isolated characters. He is comics’ poet laureate of loneliness. Some find Ware’s work unlovable, but others find in it a poignancy that few comics have reached. Jimmy Corrigan, his breakout novel, is a multi-generational chronicle of the screwed-up Corrigan family, and a devastating portrayal of failed, self-deluding White masculinity. Quiet, heartrending, epic, anticipating Ware's Building Stories.
Kindred, by Damian Duffy and John Jennings (2017)
Octavia Butler’s time-travel novel Kindred (1979) transports a modern African American woman to Maryland in the early 1800s, during slavery’s reign, where she must try to save the lives of her ancestors, both Black and White. Butler evokes the culture and psychology of slavery with horrific clarity. Duffy and Jennings wrestle with this challenging classic in an adaptation that favors frenzied expressionism over naturalistic detail, while seeking to preserve the original’s pacing and depth. The results show signs of struggle and inspiration, and intense feeling. A watershed in the contemporary Black comics movement, this has opened doors to new work.
March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (three volumes, 2013-2016)
Adapted from the memoirs of Civil Rights activist John Lewis (Freedom Rider, onetime chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and longtime Congressman), this trilogy is a testament: a personal window onto a history at once traumatic and exhilarating. While unfolding Lewis’s personal story, the book shows, clearly and unblinkingly, the politics and process of nonviolent Civil Rights protest. Powell’s organic drawing sets the rhythms, conjures a full, believable world, and brings the pages to life with an assured naturalism and graphic fluency that recall (without mimicking) Will Eisner. An autobiographical American epic, and an eye-opening work of comics historiography.
Maus, by Art Spiegelman (two volumes, 1986 and 1991)
Maus evokes the Holocaust from one survivor’s perspective—and that of his son, cartoonist Spiegelman, who works to get his father’s memories down on paper. It contains stories inside of stories, tracing the Shoah from prewar Poland to its still-traumatic aftereffects today, all while exploring the antagonism between father and son. Oddly, it exploits the so-called funny animal tradition: Jewish people appear as mice, Nazis as cats: a startling, sacrilegious device. Academically and critically, Maus has become America’s most talked-about book of comics ever: a generative project that inspired other books on this list. Its influence is hard to overstate.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris (2017)
Karen, a lonesome queer girl who envisions herself as a monster, investigates the death of an neighbor in her Chicago apartment building. That neighbor turns out to have been a Holocaust survivor with a knotted, complicated past. Karen's detective work brings her to dark places, and Ferris renders her quest in stunning art, lovingly detailed, obsessively dense, drawn almost entirely with a ballpoint pen in a series of spiral school notebooks (Karen's journals). Atmospheric, laced with references to high art and monster movies, suspenseful, and affecting, this staggering book does things with a comics page that I hadn’t seen before.
Palestine, by Joe Sacco (1996)
Journalist Joe Sacco makes comics about war zones and contested places in the world: Bosnia, Chechnya, the Middle East. These comics draw from his travels and investigative reporting. Influenced by underground comix, Sacco at first favored satire and grotesque exaggeration, but with Palestine, his foray into the Occupied Territories, he began shifting toward hyper-detailed realism, as he pursued his subjects with greater journalistic seriousness. Palestine advocates the Palestinian cause, giving an unabashedly political, while also scrupulous, unflinching, and human, perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sacco’s work has earned praise as both reportage and literature and fueled the graphic journalism movement.
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003, English trans. 2003-2004)
Persepolis, an Iranian autobiography first published in France, joins Maus and Fun Home as one of the most acclaimed graphic memoirs. Satrapi, born into a progressive Persian family, grew up during the Iranian Revolution and ensuing Iran-Iraq War. Her family, opposed to the Shah, welcomed revolution, but found the new fundamentalist regime even more oppressive. Satrapi left Iran for France. Using a stark, pared-down style, and an ironic voice that filters politics and violence through a child’s perspective, Persepolis explores traumatic memories and the bitterness of exile, while countering anti-Iranian stereotypes. Widely translated; adapted to film (2007) by Satrapi herself.
Smile, by Raina Telgemeier (2010)
Telgemeier, America’s best-selling graphic novelist, has legions of readers, especially girls aged 8 to 12. In 2019, her new graphic novel Guts (her ninth) got a million-copy print run. She started in self-published minicomics, but hit big with Scholastic, for whom she adapted four of Ann Martin’s Baby-sitters Club novels (2006-2008) before undertaking original GNs, starting with this memoir of girlhood, growth, and, um, dentistry. Phenomenally successful, Smile opened the door to further books by Telgemeier, both autobiographical (Sisters, 2014; Guts) and fictional (Drama, 2012; Ghosts, 2016). Accessible, energetic, crystal-clear, her work has become THE template for middle-grade GNs.
Soldier's Heart, by Carol Tyler (2015)
First published as a trilogy titled You’ll Never Know (2009-2012), Soldier’s Heart is now available in a single, revised volume. It tells the story of WW2 veteran Chuck Tyler and of his daughter Carol’s efforts to understand the War’s impact on his psyche. Working in the tradition of Maus, this intergenerational memoir digs into repressed wartime memories in order to understand and pay homage to a distant, sometimes irascible man whose hard exterior hides the aftereffects of trauma. Exquisitely illustrated in flowing, textured drawings and ravishing washes of color, this is a gorgeous, moving, heartfelt exploration of family (and) history.
This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (2014)
In this acclaimed Young Adult graphic novel, a girl, Rose, spends summer at the beach with her parents and her friend Windy. Rose’s mother, depressed, bears a secret that weighs on the family, Rose’s parents are at odds, and Rose blames her mom for the conflict. Windy and her family provide contrast. Rose, seeing through eyes clouded with mistrust and jealousy, tries to understand what’s expected of her as a woman, and what’s wrong with mom. A subtle exploration of girlhood and gender expectations, poetic in its rhythms and imagery. Transporting, haunting, a benchmark for its genre, though often unfairly maligned as "not for children."
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud (1993)
A book of theory presented in comics form, Understanding Comics may be the most-cited textbook in the field — but no textbook should be this much fun to read. Using his own cartooning as evidence, McCloud strives to build a grand theory that encompasses nearly everything about comic form: drawing style, breakdown/transitions, image/text interplay, line, color, on and on. It’s a terrific, insanely ambitious performance, one that has influenced comics studies ever since. To be honest, it changed my life, though nowadays I find myself arguing with it! The best candidate for a “primer” in comics studies. (We'll sample in class.)
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1987)
This most acclaimed of superhero comics asks, what would superheroes be like in the real world? Set in an alternate 1985, it’s a dystopian philosophical novel about the Cold War, empire, surveillance, paranoia, and fate. Obsessively detailed, Watchmen epitomizes the idea of the graphic novel as a system: dense, complex, full of echoes. Gibbons’s meticulous art perfectly captures scriptwriter Moore’s thirst for order. This book persuaded many that a superhero story could be Literature. (Forget the comic book spinoffs and movie, and take the 2019 TV series on its own terms; Watchmen’s meaning resides in its readability and book form.)
Well, it seems to be a time for reckoning. Best-of-the-decade lists by comics critics and fans have popped up all over these past couple of months. I'll repeat what has already become a truism: that for comics in North America, the 2010s were a decade of real change and outward expansion. For a number of overlapping reasons, I think—including the explosive growth of original graphic novels for children and young adults, the vitality of webcomics, the overdue recognition of marginalized readers and creators, the continuing ripples of the early-century manga boom, the visibility of comics adaptations in the wider culture, and the further flowering of small-press art comics and comics by interdisciplinary artists—the comics field has blown wide open, in a very encouraging way. It's dizzying for this longtime observer, but delightful too. The future has become hard to predict, and that's good. (See this piece by Rob Salkowitz on comics industry trends of the past decade.)
The best-of-decade lists I've found most interesting and useful are:
All of the above are worth bookmarking in perpetuity; I'll be using them as guides for a long time. My own list, consisting of fifty beloved comics from the past decade, is below. I tried designating a Top Ten here, but cripes that’s hard—so, fifty. Sorry!
Reflections: Best-of lists are a troublesome genre. They tend to be driven this way and that by competing if not contradictory agendas, including social, aesthetic, and industrial ones. There's a tendency to spotlight books for their influence on comics publishing, their sheer popularity, and the representational milestones they represent as well as sheer artistic quality. That's unavoidable, and also not bad; it's good to see comics highlighted for those reasons. For example, no accounting of the past decade in comics would be complete without recognition of Raina Telgemeier, who has been rightly dubbed the US comics industry person of these past ten years. My own list here is of course quirky, a mashup of popular and critical successes as well as left-of-field personal choices. Many (more than a dozen) are books I've taught, since my teaching constantly intertwines with my private comics-reading. Some are books that I expect will have great influence, going forward. I should admit that only about a quarter of them hit KinderComics’ sweet spot, that is, comics aimed at children or young adults. I like reading all sorts of comics, and I like putting young readers' comics in that larger context.
One caveat, regarding the narrowness of my choices. Though I read translated manga fairly often, and increasingly I'm reading and teaching webcomics, those fields are either unrepresented or badly under-represented here. I used to think that I knew translated manga well, but that was many years ago; I am somewhat out of touch, and struggling to get back up to speed (thanks to my daughter Nami for helping with that). The sheer volume of manga to choose from has been daunting! As for webcomics, I've long resisted reading for pleasure onscreen for more than a few minutes at a time, but I've been working to change that. This past year I've learned a lot about webcomics, thanks to my teaching, but I must admit I don't yet feel expert in that area. All this is to say that my bullseye continues to be long-form comics storytelling in print, with a bias toward work originally published in English. Art-comics readers may detect my resistance to comix brut, primitivism, and deskilled comics (though see what Kim Jooha has to say about that); I suppose I tend to favor accessible storying delivered with high levels of obvious craft. But come back in a year and see what I have to say about all this! :)
The books below are alphabetized by title. Clicking on a book's image will take you to its publisher's site. I wish I could do a write-up on each one of these excellent comics, but alas the new semester has started, and I have to leapfrog into other business. Happy reading! We are indeed living in a golden age of independent, artistically aspiring, aesthetically diverse comics, and that gives me joy.
Graphic novels for children and young adults continue to make inroads. Read on!
This past Monday, Jan. 27, the American Library Association (at its Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia) announced the winners of its Youth Media Awards for 2020. These include the fabled Newbery Medal, the US's oldest literary prize for children's literature (awarded since 1922), the Caldecott Medal, the US's top prize for picture book art (1938-), the Coretta Scott King Book Awards for African American-focused literature (1969-), the Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature (2000-), and numerous other prizes.
This year, for the first time, a comic has won the Newbery: Jerry Craft's graphic novel New Kid (HarperCollins), which also won the Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award (and had already won a 2019 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature). The reception of New Kid, as New York Times reporter Concepción de León puts it, "reflects changing attitudes about the literary merits of graphic novels" (though interestingly, some others, such as NPR's Colin Dwyer, have not even remarked that New Kid is a comic).
Besides New Kid, a number of other comics were recognized with awards or honors this year by the ALA and its affiliate organizations. I've identified them below. Readers, please forgive me for concentrating on just comics and comics-adjacent titles here; I of course urge you to check out the ALA's full list of winners, which is long, rich, revealing, and encouraging!
This year's recipients of the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish-themed children's and young adult literature (awarded since 1968 by the Association of Jewish Libraries) included Middle Grade winner White Bird: A Wonder Story, a graphic novel by R. J. Palacio, with finishes by Kevin Czap (Knopf).
This year's Asian/Pacific American Award for Children's Literature (awarded by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association since 2001) went to the superb graphic novel Stargazing, by Jen Wang (First Second).
This year's Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature (also awarded by the APALA, of course) went to the graphic history/memoir They Called Us Enemy, written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott and drawn by Harmony Becker (Top Shelf/IDW).
This year's Alex Awards for the ten best adult books "that have special appeal to young adults" (awarded since 1998 by the Young Adult Library Services Association) included both Maia Kobabe's graphic memoir Gender Queer (Lion Forge/Oni Press) and AJ Dungo's graphic memoir/history In Waves (Nobrow).
Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell's graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second) won a Michael L. Printz Honor.
Cece (El Deafo) Bell won a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor for her graphic early reader Chick and Brain: Smell My Foot! (Candlewick Press). (The ALA established the Geisel Award for outstanding American book for beginning readers in 2004.)
The American Indian Youth Literature Award (awarded by the American Indian Library Association since 2006) this year recognized as a Young Adult Honor book the graphic novel Surviving the City, Vol. One (Highwater Press), written by Tasha Spillett (Nehiyaw-Trinidadian) and drawn by Natasha Donovan (Métis Nation British Columbia).
I also want to single out a title Honored by the American Indian Youth Literature Award in the Picture Book category, At the Mountain’s Base (Kokila/Penguin), written by Traci Sorell (Cherokee) and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva/Scots-Gaelic). This book does remarkable things to the design of page and opening, using drawn threads to separate some spreads into sequences of panels. It's a captivating picture book:
I've always thought of picture books as part of this blog's focus. Let me briefly mention some comics-adjacent picture books honored this year:
Artist Duncan Tonatiuh has created a number of graphic books in a distinctive style inspired and informed by Mixtec codices, among them the accordion-fold Undocumented: A Worker's Fight (Abrams, 2018). Without presuming to claim Tonatiuh's work for "comics," I'd say that his books fascinate me as (distinct from yet undeniably) related to the young reader's graphic novel. The Pura Belpré Medal for outstanding Latinx work for young readers (awarded since 1996 by the Association for Library Service to Children and by REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) has often honored his work. This year Tonatiuh earned Honors for Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War (Abrams).
Also recognized as a Belpré Honor Book this year was ¡Vamos! Let's Go to the Market, a picture book by artist Raúl The Third, known for his comics work, particularly the Lowriders graphic novel series (with writer Cathy Camper).
I see many connections among this year's honorees. ¡Vamos! is part of the Versify imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt curated by poet Kwame Alexander, author of The Crossover and related verse novels, which have had a terrific impact. Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson's picture book The Undefeated, also part of Versify, joins New Kids as one of the most celebrated books of this year's ALA awards, winning the Caldecott Medal as well as the Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award and a Newbery Honor. Alexander seems to have an infinity for comics, by the way: The Crossover has been adapted into a graphic novel with artist Dawud Anyabwile, who also provided comics sequences for Alexander's Rebound (Anyabwile is known for Brotherman and the comics adaptation of Walter Dean Myers's Monster, among other projects). Graphic novels, viewed within children's and YA publishing, are part of a larger trend of formal experimentation that also includes, for example, verse novels and verse memoirs, a movement that of course includes Alexander and continues with this year's honorees Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (Balzer + Bray), a Newbery Honor Book, and Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir by Nikki Grimes (Wordsong), which received Honors from both the Printz and the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award (given by the Association for Library Service to Children since 2001).
My CSUN colleague Dr. Krystal Howard, expert in the verse novel, Künstlerroman, and comics, is the person I need to talk to about all this!
On the matter of formal innovation and multimodal storytelling, I have to mention artist Ashley Bryan's multimedia visual memoir Infinite Hope (Atheneum), which earned a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. Collaging together photography, painting, drawing, and historical artifacts, Infinite Hope is a transporting, visually rich evocation of the artist's life and times. (This would be another great book to discuss with Krystal!)
I note one other (by me) unexpected comics connection among this year's awards: the Odyssey Award for best audiobook for young people went to the audio adaptation of Jarrett Krosoczka's graphic memoir Hey, Kiddo (2018). And I see that there are also audio adaptations of Palacio's White Bird and Craft's New Kid. In all cases, these are audio performances by a full cast, not just a narrator. This is a trend I need to look into! Here's a sample of Hey, Kiddo in audio:
All in all, the ALA Youth Media Awards for 2020 affirm how embedded graphic novels are in the children's and young adult publishing world, and how dramatically they have engaged the challenge of boosting inclusivity, diversity, and meaningful representation in that world. This continues to be a dizzying, promise-filled time for young readers' comics!
One last note: comics-related or not, there are a few other honorees this year whom I must mention:
This week my wife Mich and I are bound for the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Seattle, an outsize academic gathering that's been going on yearly in various cities since, oh, 1883. It's a professional whirlwind and a bit of a madhouse: the kind of event that requires making plans well in advance (even social plans take effort: you can hardly have lunch or coffee with a colleague without making arrangements way ahead of time). After all, the MLA is one of the largest, oldest, and best-known organizations in the profession, and now boasts some 25,000 members in a hundred countries.
Why are we going? Well, I have two presentations to give. Both concern comics. Information below!
Professionally, I'm most interested in the MLA's Forum for Comics and Graphic Narratives, a group founded by Hillary Chute in 2009 that has sponsored panels and other events annually since 2011 (I served on the forum's inaugural executive committee between 2010 and 2014). This is one of the more than 150 forums (organized by discipline, subject matter, period, and theory) that make up the MLA. I'm also invested in the MLA's Forum for Children's and Young Adult Literature, a long-lived community that I first experienced back in 1997 that has played a vital role in children's literature and childhood studies (and that has included many colleagues and friends of mine).
This year the Forum for Comics and Graphic Narratives (whose current executive committee includes my colleagues Lan Dong, Margaret Galvan, Aaron Kashtan, Susan Kirtley, and Leah Misemer) is sponsoring two panels, one of which I am lucky enough to take part in:
325. Webcomics and/as Digital Culture
1:45-3:00pm, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, Sheraton Grand Seattle, Willow A
1: Webcomics in India: Dissenting Voices at the Time of Hypernationalism
Debanjana Nayek, Presidency U
2: Player versus Player? Redefining Gamer Identity through Thirty Years of Webcomics
Anastasia Salter, U of Central Florida
3: Stonetossingjuice: Iterability, the Alt-Right, and the Webcomics of Online Culture War
Bren Ram, Rice U
4: Connecting Queerly: Queer Webcomics and the Alternate Archive
Misha Grifka-Wander, Ohio State U, Columbus
Presider: Leah Misemer, U of Wisconsin, Madison
587. A Decade in Comics
3:30–4:45pm, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, Sheraton Grand Seattle, Willow A
Description: On the tenth anniversary of panels sponsored by the MLA Forum for Comics and Graphic Narratives, established and emerging scholars reflect on the history, the present, and the future of the field of comics studies.
In addition, on Saturday evening, Jan. 11, starting at 7pm, the Comics and Graphic Narratives forum will be sponsoring an outside social event at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, a hub of Seattle's independent comics culture, located in the Georgetown neighborhood (1201 S Vale St., Seattle, WA 98108). The event will include a signing by cartoonist Natalie Dupille, and refreshments will be served. Not to be missed if you're a comics lover anywhere near Seattle that Saturday night!
Besides all this, I have the good fortune to be presenting in a special session outside of the Comics and Graphic Narratives forum:
500. Humanities in Five
12:00–1:15pm, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, Washington State Convention Center, 4C-4
Description: Scholars from different fields present their research in five minutes, aiming to do justice to the complexity of the research and at the same time to make its significance clear to a nonspecialist audience.
(I'll be calling my talk "Making Reading Strange Again, or, Thinking about Comics Literacy.")
KinderComics readers may wish to know about all the work on this year's MLA program that relates to comics, children's literature, and/or childhood studies, not just within specific forums but across the convention as a whole. To that end, I recommend both the helpful list of comics-related presentations at the Comics and Graphic Narrative forum's website and the annual list of all children's literature, childhood studies, and comics-related activity at my colleague Philip Nel's website (compiled by Ramona Caponegro, Phil's colleague in the Children's and YA Literature forum). Since the MLA is a vast organization that does not usually publicize its proceedings outside of academia, it takes some sleuthing to find out what's going on within, but it's worth the effort!
If you're interested in how comics studies have been received within this particular corner of academia, consider that, since its founding, the MLA Forum for Comics and Graphic Narratives has sponsored some twenty-five panels (not including this year's) and collaborated with various other MLA forums: Children's Literature; Age Studies; Autobiography, Biography, and Life Writing; Literature and Other Arts; European Literary Relations; 20th- and 21st-Century Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies; Speculative Fiction; Global Arab and Arab American Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies; and Medical Humanities and Health Studies. During that same period, the amount of comics studies activity at the MLA convention has varied, with somewhere between two and ten comics-focused panels occurring outside of the forum (in some cases sponsored by other forums, and in some cases organized as independent special panels outside of any forum). By my count, this year there will be five comics studies panels outside the Comics and Graphic Narratives forum. (Peak years of comics-themed activity outside the forum have included Seattle in 2012, with ten outside panels, Philadelphia in 2017, with seven, NYC in 2018, with six, and Chicago in 2019, with eight.)
To put all this in perspective, this year's total MLA program includes almost 800 official events. It's huge. During this century, the convention has drawn, on average, some 7000 attendees or more, although the numbers have dipped in the past handful of years (peak attendance, circa 1992 to 2002, sometimes hit 10,000 to 12,000; last year's reportedly dipped below 5,000). This year, more than 3000 people are listed as officially participating in the convention program (and there will probably be many attendees not on the program). Within that context, comics studies may seem like a small thing, but in truth the MLA's Comics and Graphic Narratives forum has been an important beachhead for comics scholarship, as well as the first venue or launch point for a great deal of subsequently published research.
I’m late to this party, I know. By now, I’ve been arguing with best-of-year and best-of-decade lists for weeks. I gotta admit, keeping up with new comics (both those I choose to cover on KinderComics and many others) is a full-time gig that I don’t quite have “full time” for. Truth to tell, I’m still catching up with many talked-about books from this past year (e.g. work by Ebony Flowers, Molly Knox Ostertag, Frank Santoro, and Chris Ware).
The patchiness of my reading matches the patchiness of this blog over the past year. Due to academic scheduling pressures, I published nothing substantial here between my best-of list for 2018 and late July. That was painful. I finally got in a few posts in the late summer, then returned more decisively in October, finishing out the year with a string of reviews that made me feel better. I had thought that I might need to shutter KinderComics entirely, but the sprint I was able to do late in the year has convinced me that I should stick around. Thank goodness. I love doing this work.
Below (in alphabetical order by title) are the new English-language books of comics that made the strongest impressions on me in 2019. Some I’ve reviewed on this blog. I’ve kept this list narrow, excluding translations, webcomics, reprints, and most periodical comics for the sake of expediency. As usual, the list reflects my split identity as both a children’s comics advocate and a lover of alternative and art comics and small-press work (not everything here is meant for young readers). I hope to follow this post soon with a best-of-decade list and some reflections.
The 5 Worlds series, a planet-hopping space opera for young readers, at last finds its rhythm and delivers a fairly transparent but still affecting allegory about how to maintain hope in dark times. This has always been a wildly ambitious series whose reach exceeds its grasp, but The Red Maze won me over. I reviewed this here on KinderComics at the end of July.
A beautiful, mystifying graphic novel in which two young women, fugitives, drive through a fantastical version of West Texas, pursued by shadowy figures and their own traumas and losses. Perhaps not Walden's strongest story, but a transporting experience, gorgeously drawn and colored. I reviewed this here in early November.
Razor-sharp satire and oozy body horror collide in a wickedly funny fable about gentrification. I reviewed a beta version of this novel on the Comics Studies Society's Extra Inks blog way back in Feb. 2018. So glad to see it out in the world now.
Seth's long-simmering novel of failed ambition, social withdrawal, and psychological isolation, now collected. Chilling, in the end. I expressed ambivalence about this book in my contribution to the Comics Journal roundtable, back in June, but, damn, it is a monumental, haunting work.
Reviewed here very recently. What a resource!
An anthology of wrenching work, and a project of real artistic courage. Inevitably uneven in terms of professional finish, but so, so powerful. So many very strong emotions have been funneled into this book, and so many different ways of delivering hard truths. Far from despairing, the book is, as promised, a power source -- and a timely, necessary intervention.
James Romberger's biographical fiction about the great Jack Kirby: an understated yet moving comic book, short but full, light years away from the usual thoughtless evocations of Kirby as "king." Great cartooning and real insight. I reviewed this on my Kirby studies blog in October.
I'll join the chorus of voices hailing Davis as the cartoonist of the decade. I'm not sure what to think of this dystopian near-future fable, but I can tell you that I literally shook while reading it, and stared at its final pages, stunned.
I so want to write more about this series and its creator here on KinderComics. The latest and most complex of the Hilda albums, and a perfect capper for everything that has come so far. Breathlessly exciting, as usual; also sensitive, subtly moral, and an unexpected broadening of Pearson's world. This has been my favorite new children's series of the decade.
Finding the first issue (#0) of this, Ronald Wimberly's et al.'s annual broadsheet anthology, was one of the highlights of my CALA 2018 experience. A year later, finding the second issue (oddly, it's called #4) was one of the highlights of CALA 2019. A brilliant, troubling collection of giant-sized comics (Wimberly, Hellen Jo, Emily Carroll, Richie Pope, Ben Passmore, etc.) and provocative essays and arguments. This particular issue concerns environmental catastrophe, necropolitics, and horror.
I came late to this, at year's end. I wish I had reviewed it. A matter-of-factly queer YA story of high school romance, friendship, and the struggle for moral agency, this novel is distinguished by a thousand grace notes of observation and expression. A bodily and culturally diverse cast of characters dances a complicated social dance, courtesy of nuanced dialogue and cartooning that makes them feel wholly real.
Wise as well as useful, Beautiful as well as strange. Try it on for size; it might change the way you feel about your own ability to create. See my event report from mid-October.
I happened to run into Kevin Huizenga at CALA 2019, and stood there like a tongue-tied idiot, trying to think of novel ways to gush. I love the thoughtfulness and rigor of his cartooning, and the formalist inventiveness too. Those qualities come through in this philosophical novel about an insomniac's sleepless night of contemplation and mental journeying. It feels like a super-dense lesson in thinking about thinking. Or simply a lesson in living?
I reviewed this here in early December. It's a graceful and moving evocation of friendship among two outwardly mismatched but deeply bonded Chinese American schoolgirls. A fresh new approach to what is rapidly becoming a familiar type of graphic novel, delivered by one of America's best comics artists and storytellers.
Lovely and rather terrifying: a ripe, rapturous erotic horror story in a deluxe package, formally daring, disorienting, and like no one else's work. NSFW, but to hell with safe.
Another CALA 2019 discovery: cartoonist Cristian Castelo and his colleagues in the Bay Area comic artists' collective Freak Comics. They had so many good things at their table, I could hardly decide what to get, but I settled on the above book: an oversized, riso-printed beauty that collects and revises the first three chapters of Castelo's ongoing series Wild, a period fantasy about mid-1970s high-school roller derby girls. It's drawn in a voluptuous style that for me recalls both Paul Pope and Los Bros Hernandez. Castelo's outsized characters fill the pages and demand attention; this is gutsy cartooning, full of sensuous, heroic figures. And the coloring and production are enough to make me swoon. I can't wait to read more from Castelo and his Freak colleagues.
PS. For the record, the new comic book serials that I found most interesting in 2019 were Walker, Brown, and Greene's Bitter Root and Wilson and Ward's Invisible Kingdom. The corporate superhero comics I enjoyed most were Bendis, Derington, and Stewart's six-issue romp Batman: Universe and Ewing and García's cosmically posthuman Immortal Hulk #25. I also dug Tradd Moore's trippy art on Silver Surfer: Black, though I wasn't won over by the book's writing. Among serials, I am currently interested in Craig Thompson's autobiographical Ginseng Roots and John Allison's droll comedy about religion, witchcraft, and community, Steeple. I am behind on faves like Saga, Paper Girls, and Monstress, but determined to catch up...