Reading — Graphic Novels

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Here at MW, we’ve discussed in numerous posts the value of reading in and out of your genre.  One area that often gets overlooked is graphic novels.  Graphic novels have matured a lot over the last few decades, moving way beyond superheroes (not that there’s anything wrong with superheroes) towards providing every bit of the full reading experience that we get from novels.  And even the superhero tales have matured significantly, offering deep and deeply flawed characters.  The best are gems of storytelling, character development, and an audacity of ideas.  Here are some recommendations:

  • The Sandman by Neil Gaiman — Okay, I figured I start with an easy one for fantasy lovers.  You already know the author.  Originally a monthly comic, The Sandman has been compiled into a multi-volume series well worth your time.  You get all of Gaiman’s storytelling and imagination as he follows the twisted family of Dream personified.
  • Buddha by Osamu Tezuka — Considered the godfather of manga, Tezuka’s eight-volume tour de force is a re-telling of the life of the Buddha from his early youth up to his enlightenment (and a bit beyond).  The story blends detailed drawings with cartoonish silliness, the author’s imagination with religious belief, and the mystical with the profound.  A highly entertaining and fascinating read that can show a writer just how to blend seemingly opposite styles.
  • MAUS by Art Spiegelman — Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, this two-volume powerhouse looks at the Holocaust through the eyes of Art’s father as he tells of his experiences.  Just as genre uses magic and aliens to distance readers from a sensitive topic in order to see it clearer, Spiegelman anthropomorphizes the Jews into mice and the Germans into cats to put some distance between the reader and the images of horror.  It’s still hard to stomach the atrocity but you’ll never be so moved by talking animals.
  • Sin City by Frank Miller — Another multi-volume compilation of a monthly comic, this is the material that was used for the film of the same name.  More in-depth than the film, the book follows numerous story lines that tend to intersect in violent ways.  It is a mixture of noir, pulp fiction, and “underground” comics, dealing with the nastier, more violent side of life.  You want hard-boiled, sparse, powerful writing?  Look no further.  But be warned — this is by far the most R-rated of the bunch.  Not for the highly-sensitive or easily-offended.
  • The Dylan Dog Case Files by Tiziano Sclavi — This one is genre but so what?  Dylan is your basic PI who slays zombies, vampires, and other baddies.  A bestseller in Italy, the people at Dark Horse comics snatched it up, translated it, and released it in the US last year.  Besides being entertaining, it’s of great value to a writer to see how another culture presents a story.  I’m a big fan of foreign films and foreign authors because the stories always has a different focus, a different sensibility of what’s important, than I have.  It’s fresh to me and has had a great influence on improving my own writing.  Dylan Dog serves this purpose well.  His actions and thoughts, coupled with what Italians find funny, acceptable, scary, etc — it all adds up to entertainment and education.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi This two-parter garnered a slew of attention when it came out, especially after an animated film version was released.  It is Marjane’s autobiography following the changes in her life growing up in Iran before and after the shift toward a fundamentalist theocracy.  Both historical piece and coming-of-age story, the work is powerful and well-told.
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson — This is a love story and a coming-of-age story.  There’s a religious element to it which is handled so well that it doesn’t become didactic and ruin the story.  In fact, I fell in love with this tale because it is courageously honest about being a teenage boy, about the discoveries of love and heartbreak, and about the difficulties of friendship.  The most non-genre, straight-forward graphic novel I’ve ever read.
  • Anything by Alan Moore — Picking any one tale by Alan Moore is impossible.  Watchmen is an incredible look at superhero myths and real world problems told through alternate realities and story-within-story.  V for Vendetta is a great reminder of how a government should be made to fear its people, not the other way around.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is steampunk mixed with fantasy in which a superhero team is formed of great literary characters.  The list could go on and on.  Alan Moore brings a true writer’s talent to the pictorial method of story telling like no other.  Note: these three titles along with several others have been made into films with varying degrees of success.  But like film adaptations of novels, these graphic novels far exceed the film versions.

If you’ve never read a comic book, manga, or graphic novel before, don’t be intimidated.  Don’t assume it’s kid-stuff.  And don’t worry what others will think if they catch you with a “comic” in your hands.  The best of these can be a valuable asset to your never-ending growth and education as a writer.

No doubt, many of you dear readers will have other favorites to add to this list.  Please do.  I need some suggestions for my next graphic novel purchase!

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17 comments to Reading — Graphic Novels

  • Stuart,

    Excellent post! I haven’t read The Dylan Dog Case Files, but it sounds intriguing. I heartily concur with checking out anything by Alan Moore.

    I find myself riveted by the storylines and the books become page turners–except that the art engages and if you’re not careful it’s easy to get mesmerized by it.

    However, one cannot live without the other in a graphic novel so it’s an interesting blend of novel/movie.

  • Stuart, I was in love with comics as a kid, and my parents wouldn’t let me read them. I kept them hidden my bedroom. Seriously. So, I’ve been itching to try the new graphic novels, and figured I’d start with Gaiman. Now I have a whole new list to pursue. Thank you!

  • Alistair — Nothing wrong with soaking up the details in a good drawing. Some of my favorite artists pack so much into each frame, you have to slow down to really appreciate everything.

    Faith — There’s a great non-fiction book called The 10-Cent Plague that looks at how there has been a “red scare”-level paranoia concerning comic books on and off throughout the mediums history leading many parents to wrongly force children to hide comics. So, you’re not alone. As for starting with Gaiman — The Sandman series is a perfect jumping off point with great art and master-level writing. Enjoy it!

  • Stuart,
    this is an area of literature that I know NOTHING about, so I’m really grateful for the reading list as a starting point. Just as soon as my desk clears…

  • I’m with A.J. I have no experience with graphic novels at all, and was never really a comic book kid. (Where I grew up, kids spent their money on comics or baseball cards, but usually not on both — I was a baseball card kid.) So thanks for this. I love Gaiman’s work, and so, like Faith, will start there.

  • Stuart> I like graphic novels and actually taught the Midsummer Night’s Dream story (I can’t remember the name of the comic) by Gaiman in one of my classes. I had a prof who’d been shown it (she taught Shakespeare) and she thought it was stupid. I was unimpressed with her lack of vision… I’ve also had success teaching MAUS, though I find it difficult to teach from my own emotional standpoint.

    One I picked up recently (thanks to a bf who works at Barns and Noble and loves graphic novels!) is THE WALKING DEAD. They’re making a television show of it on AMC this year (starts in October). It is about a cop who gets shot, wakes up in the hospital a bit later, and the world has been overtaken by zombies. He can’t find his family or anything. The first one was remarkably touching–violent, scary, thoughtful… and of course the humans are worse than the zombies. Mindful killing is a bit more scary than meaningless animals.

  • The Walking Dead is pretty good. I’m very behind on it though. Can’t wait to see the TV adaptation. The scenes in the trailer look dead bang on.

    I’m also getting into the season continuations of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer (official season 8) and Angel (Angel: After the Fall official season 6). If I can’t find them from the local comic shop I get ’em from Things From Another World:
    Things From Another World

    Another I’ve always loved is GRENDEL: DEVIL’S LEGACY from Matt Wagner. It’s about a woman who is the descendant of the vigilante known as Grendel. When she runs afoul of a supernatural evil that steals her son she takes up her father’s gear and Grendel identity and goes a-hunting. It’s set in sort of an ultra-modernish backdrop. GRENDEL: DEVIL BY THE DEED is supposed to be pretty good as well, but I never managed to pick those up. Wiki has a good article on the entire series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grendel_%28comics%29#Issues_1-12:_Devil.27s_Legacy

    Recently picked up the first GN of a series called The Sword by The Luna Brothers. The first one (Volume 1: Fire) was pretty good. Haven’t picked up more yet as I’m getting them as back issue graphic novels. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sword_%28comics%29

    Any fan of Serenity/Firefly should pick up the various Serenity comics out there. There’s at least a couple official Whedon tales out there (Those Left Behind, Better Days, and The Shepherd’s Tale)

    And of course, there’s some Anita Blake graphic novels out now for those interested.

  • Ryl

    Dig up “Hamlet on a Rooftop”, words by William Shakespeare and sequential art by Will Eisner,… just *wow*. Here’s where I also confess I was originally drawn [heh] to the Sandman comics by the gorgeous art of Dave McKean.

  • AJ and David — I often recommend Gaimen’s Sandman series to newcomers who read genre because you already are comfortable with half of what you’re going to get (the words) and thus only have to come to terms with the other half (the art).

    Pea Faerie — I didn’t know that show was based on a comic. Thanks for the recommendation. Reminds me that one I completely forgot to include in my recommendations was Lone Wolf and Cub — a long series (28 volumes) set in feudal Japan about a Ronin and his 3 yr old son bent on revenge. Fantastic art, great action-packed samurai storyline, and thoroughly engrossing. I have the complete set and have read through it all twice now — and I almost never re-read anything.

    Ryl — Eisner’s, of course, a huge name in the field but one that I’ve not read (knowingly) that much of. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Daniel — I’ve been reading the Buffy Season 8 comic but haven’t been blown away by it. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good stuff and fully Buffy. But it just doesn’t capture Buffy enough for me to be all “I’ve gotta read this” about it. Still, since we are deprived of any more seasons on tv, I’ll take what I can get.

  • Still, since we are deprived of any more seasons on tv, I’ll take what I can get.

    No doubt. :(

  • Young_Writer

    I remember in third grade I ran out of Nancy Drew novels. The only one I had left was a N.D. graphic novel. I thought it would be a picture book, and once you outgrow something, it’s posionius for the next few years. Even so, I didn’t have anything else to read. I can still remember every picture .I love that book.

  • When I was a kid, my daddy gave me his complete collection of Classics Illustrated. They were novels and plays done as comic books, and I loved them. I read all of them, and many of them led me to read the real novel afterward. Green Mansions, Hamlet, A Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables…all books I probably wouldn’t have attempted without the exposure from the Classics Illustrated first.

  • Misty and YW — Both your comments brought to mind how other story mediums have been transformed into graphic novels. As a teen or even younger, the graphic novel versions can often resonate more (just as film can) because they hit upon more senses. And though a graphic novel does paint the picture for your brain instead of letting you imagine it all yourself, you still bring the voices, the acting, the literal motion of the story to life.

  • Young_Writer

    Misty, you need to tell me where to get Les Miz, I literally listen to that every night. It’s my lullaby. Too bad they took it off Broadway, I love Terrance Mann. Sorry if I spellled his name wrong.

  • Sorry, hon, but they stopped publishing the Classics Illustrated in the 70’s (which tells you how ancient I am!) I suppose you could search eBay or maybe used bookstores.

  • Young_Writer

    It’s okay :) Thanks you, anyways!