Who loves graphic novels? I love graphic novels!
As a kid, I didn’t read comics. Batman, Spiderman, Superman, I wasn’t interested. Still not. When a new Avengers film comes out, my wife rushes to see it. Not me. So it maybe came as somewhat of a surprise when, as I got older, I developed a serious crush on graphic novels.
I still don’t read superhero stuff, not unless Alan Moore’s involved, but when the medium works well, when the art and the words are a perfect match, then there’s no better reading experience.
The way I’ll do this blog is to start with a list of my own favourite graphic novelists, then I’ll add books and comments as I read them. I’m always looking for recommendations, so if you’ve got a graphic novel you think I’d then love please add it to the comments below!
Recommended Graphic Novelists
1. Daniel Clowes
Daniel Clowes is most famous for Ghost World, his story of teen ennui in small town America, but he’s written much more than that. Eight novels in fact, plus collections of shorter pieces.
What makes his work amazing is the sheer diversity of style between each of his books. No two are the same. From the detective noir of Ice Haven, a meta-satire about the kidnapping of a young boy, to the heartbreaking story of Wilson, an angry old man who desperately wants to connect with the world, to the brain-melting time travel science fiction in his last book, Patience. And yet, despite this diversity, they are linked by the same bittersweet, darkly funny style; his narratives are well-structured, the stories engaging, the characters memorable.
In fact, all his books are brilliant. Read them. Read them all now.
2. Posy Simmonds
Probably a bit better known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is Posy Simmonds. She even had a retrospective show on at illustrious The House of Illustration in London.
Although famous for her daily “Posy” comic strip in The Guardian, following the middle-class Weber family through middle-class Britain, it’s her novels which are especially excellent. The only shame is that it’s usually about ten years between new one. Gemma Bovery, a retelling of Madame Bovery into a biting satire of English expats in France came out in 1999, Tamara Drewe in 2008 – made into a good-natured but substandard film by Stpehen Frears – with her latest one, the excellent art-heist caper Cassandra Drake, in 2018.
Come on Posy! Pull your finger out!
3. Guy Delisle
I’m not usually a fan of travel books. I don’t want to hear about wonderful, fascinating places I’d rather be at seven in the morning, instead of where I usually am, my nose pressed into a fellow commuter’s armpit on the tube.
Thankfully, Guy Delisle doesn’t write travelogues from paradise. His amusing stories from places like China, Burma, and North Korea, where he worked for two months as an animator, always make me thankful not to be living in a totalitarian state. There’s also a fair amount about the mechanics of animation in his books, which I think is very cool.
Perhaps best of all, his last full length book, called Hostage, wasn’t about travel at all, but the true story of Doctors Without Borders administrator Christophe André, who was kidnapped by armed men. It’s an incredibly taut, exciting read, that rare kind of novel you can’t put down until you finish.
4. Alison Bechdel
Graphic novelists aren’t usually associated with the weightier end of literature (which I would actually take issue with – take Maus, for example – but that’s a rant for another day), but one writer who has broken through that barrier is Alison Bechdel.
Famous her two part memoir, Fun House, about her father’s suicide, and Are You My Mother?, which perhaps unsurprisingly deals with her *cough* complex relationship with her mother, her work is bold and challenging, mixing memoir with psychological thesis with sharp social commentary. The now famous Bechdel Test, a sideswipe about gender inequality in fiction, came from one of her early dykes to watch out for comics.
Last I heard, Fun House was even made into a musical. How often can you say that about a comic book?
Nick Drnaso is getting all the attention these days for his Booker shortlisted novel, Sabrina. Personally, I found it a little opaque to get too excited about, the story lost in the intricacy of the details (like Chris Ware on steroids). Adrian Tomine is equally subtle, but also a better storyteller.
A regular cover artist for The New Yorker, he’s most famous for his meticulous, moving short stories. Like Raymond Carver, but with pictures. But it’s not all hyper-real gloom. His characters have a wry humour, the set-ups are often amusing, the social commentary, especially around race, is sharp. How many other writers talk so openly about how Japanese men are insecure over the size of their penis?
You don’t get that in Murakami.
Reviews as I read…
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1 – Emil Ferris
Set in the 1960s, My Favourite Thing is Monsters is the diary of schoolgirl Karen Reyes, who lives hovering over poverty with her mother and older brother. When her upstairs neighbour, the enigmatic Anka Silverberg, is murdered, Karen takes it upon herself to try and solve the case.
I really wanted to like My Favourite Thing is Monsters. The diary style, complete with weird visions and horror movie posters is interesting, the artwork, especially the coloured cross-hatching is exceptional, but this is one of those books that I kept putting down and having to force myself to pick up. I just couldn’t get into the story. Or, to be more exact, one half of the story.
The family stuff, with her mother and brother, is engaging and emotional, but the dead neighbour subplot left me cold. Not only did it disrupt the main story, snapping me out of the fictive dream, but the story itself was dull. Note to writers: you can’t just stick some Nazi’s in there and expect it to be interesting. And this isn’t a short book. At nearly 400 pages it’s almost twice as long as most graphic novels. If the author had stuck to the main story, this would have been an exceptional read, but as it is, I couldn’t wait to finish it. I only really stuck with it for the artwork.
Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China – Guy Delisle
Ever since watching the superb documentary Last Train Home, about how for Chinese new year over 100 million workers trek across country to get to their family homes, I’ve been fascinated by China. The scale of the country, the complexity of the culture, the way the ruling class insist on calling themselves a ‘socialist democracy’, despite all the evidence pointing to them being an authoritarian regime, there’s really nowhere like it in the world – which makes it all the more brilliant for it to be the subject of a Guy Delisle travelogue.
For those that don’t know (to be fair, most people) Guy Delisle is a Canadian animator who has a habit of finding himself stationed in some of our most repressive societies, either as supervisor to teams of outsourced animators (China, North Korea), or as a stay-at-home dad for his wife’s Médecins Sans Frontières placements (Burma, Palestine). From these places, he tells humourous tales about his daily bumbling struggles, and Shenzen: A Travelogue from China is no exception.
This isn’t chow mein China. There are no dancing dragons or Sho Lin monks balancing spears on their eyeballs. He goes to work in an office, goes for lunch with his fellow animators, spends weekends trying and failing to find the countryside – sooner or later he always ends up on a ten-lane highway. We see first hand the madness of contradictions that comes from living in the most populous country in the world, where saving face trumps everything. It’s a fascinating insight into something we all too rarely see – real China.
Gregory Suicide – Eric Grissom
The problem with writing books about AI is that almost every situation has been done before. The robots will rise, and it’s not just our jobs they’re after. Such is the case with Gregory Suicide, a fast-paced, action movie of a graphic novel.
It’s not that GS is bad. Far from it – the artwork is crisp, the pink and brown colouring suitably dystopian, with a hint of cyber punk, the dialogue is sharp and funny and wouldn’t feel out of place in the latest SF blockbuster. The problem is it’s 90% plot. And when something is so heavily reliant on the plot it needs to do something original, surprising, or preferably both. Here’s where GS falls down.
Reading it, I had the nagging sensation that I’d seen it all before, and knew where it was going. I was never fully engaged. So, if you’re looking for a fun, frantic read, with a hard SF edge (it never backed away from delving into the tech), then you’ll probably love this. For me, while I enjoyed it in the moment, I found it too easy to put down.