The OF Blog: 2008 in Review: Graphic Novels

Saturday, December 27, 2008

2008 in Review: Graphic Novels

Before this year, my only exposure to the graphic novel form had been the first four volumes of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and (unfortunately) some Jack Chick tracts. Needless to say (overlooking the tackiness of the last), I had virtually no experience in reading the graphic novel form. This year, I managed to read 15 graphic novels, 13 of them published this year (the other two being Alan Moore's classic Watchmen, which I highly recommend, by the way, and the graphic adaptation of some of horror writer Thomas Ligotti's tales, The Nightmare Factory: Volume I), thanks in equal measure to various publishing firms sending me unsolicited copies and to Jeff VanderMeer, whose generosity helped expose me to some talented storytellers whose works I would never have heard of, much less read, if he hadn't sent me a few spare copies of work he had received.

If the YA books I mentioned in my previous column seemed to be a bit eclectic in tone, theme, and writing style, that is nothing compared to the diversity of this group, united solely on the basis of drawn art being as much a part of the storytelling process as any words appearing on their pages. No less than 5 out of the 12 are histories, biographies, and autobiographies told with the use of comic-style illustrations (Howard Zinn, A People's History of American Empire; Alissa Torres, American Widow; Rick Geary, J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography; Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History; and Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, After 9/11: America's War on Terror (2001 - )), plus another (Appollo and Lewis Trondheim's Bourbon island 1730) that is largely historical in nature.

Since it is very difficult for me to talk at length about graphic novels, since I am not well-trained enough to say more than "Hey, this group of stories is great!" or "Hey, the artwork is cool!," I am going to take a more general approach there than I will for the other categories in my 2008 in Review series. Considering the non-fiction entries I've mentioned above, what I first noticed is how vivid the authors use the visual media form to reinforce their stories. While I certainly wouldn't consider the Zinn, Pekar/Dumm, Geary, or Jacobson/Colón books to be masterpieces of research and insight, their sometimes incendiary commentary, when matched with equally controversial drawings, serve to create texts that argue their points forcefully and with such power that whether one agrees with them or not (I only did to a point, sympathetic to Leftist causes as I may be), the reader's attention is grabbed immediately. These were excellent introductions to their chosen topics and despite wearing their Left-leaning biases on their sleeves proudly, these works are well worth the effort to read them.

Alissa Torres' autobiography, American Widow, takes the sad tale of a 9/11 widow (one who was pregnant with her first child when her husband died in the attacks on the World Trade Center) and personalizes it even more with the illustrations. The reader experiences not just Torres' hassles with the Red Cross and other relief organizations through her own words, but the illustrations serve to convey the alternating senses of grief, confusion, despair, anger, and forlorn hope in a way that words alone would struggle to accomplish. It was reading her tale that I began to understand better how graphic novels can carry an emotional resonance that traditional novels do not carry.

If the first five books represent historical events drawn in a realistic fashion, then Appollo and Lewis Trondheim's Bourbon Island 1730 presents a historical situation (the settlement of the Indian Ocean island formerly known as Bourbon Island during the 17th and 18th century) via the use of animals to stand in place of the various human ethnic groups who either chose or were forced to stay on that isolated isle. While the blurbs claim this book is told in the tradition of Watership Down, it might be more honest to note that symbolicly, the characters are more akin to Spiegelman's Maus than anything else. It is a tale of yearning and of freedom and the comic style suits the narrative well. While it doesn't contain the deep personal nature of Spiegelman's classic, Appollo and Trondheim do manage to show the humanity of the disparate ethnic groups involved in mutual (albeit antagonistic at times toward each other) struggles for survival on a new island precisely by drawing these groups as animals rather than as human beings.

There were two outstanding graphic anthologies included in my readings this year, the collaboratively-edited Out of Picture Volume 2 and the Kazu Kibuishi-edited Flight: Volume 5. In each of these anthologies, a wide cast of very talented illustrators, many of whom have worked for major animation studios, have drawn short sketches, some of which are almost entirely wordless stories. The vignettes are very colorful, striking not just in their visual appearance, but also in the depth of humanity that can be conveyed in the images. There is a wide range of styles employed in both anthologies and I cannot choose a favorite, either from one of the selections in each anthology, or between the anthologies themselves.

David Petersen's Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 has already garnered two Eisner Award wins for Best Publication for Kids and for Best Graphic Album - Reprint (it originally appeared as a set of comics, before being bound together in book form). The story is a clever one involving a set of brave mice who seek to protect their homes in the face of predatory threats, as well as from traitors in their midst. Petersen's illustrations are gorgeous and the story unfolds beautifully. It is in turns amusing and sad, with ever darker tones as the tale progresses to a close. Petersen is currently working on a second related series called Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 and when it is available in book form, I plan on purchasing it.

I had heard of Jim Butcher's urban fantasy/detective series The Dresden Files before, but until I received a finished version of his first graphic novel, Welcome to the Jungle (illustrated by the Dabel Brothers), I had never bothered reading any of his fiction. This graphic novel is a prequel to his series and it introduces one of wizard Harry Dresden's first cases. While the artwork is stunning (the colors in particular are very well-done), the story was merely adequate; it moved from plot point to plot point and served its purpose of providing something around which the illustrators could work. It was adequate to good, but in terms of story, it was the weakest of the graphic fictions I read this year.

The adaptation of several of Thomas Ligotti's horror stories in The Nightmare Factory: Volume Two, however, went much smoother. Not only did the adapters do a very good job in capturing much of Ligotti's tone and pacing (inevitably, there were some losses in effect, but much of this was made up in the illustrations), but the images (which varied from story to story) fit the story descriptions very well, creating a creepy, unsettling effect for most of the tales. A highlight for me was the adaptation of "The Clown Puppet," with its chilling conclusion being matched by the illustrator's drawings, while "The Chymist" is even more terrifying with the way the characters are drawn. Hopefully, there will be future adaptations of Ligotti's work in the near future.

Cyril Pedrosa's Three Shadows is a very poignantly-written (and drawn) tale of a family trying to avoid a nasty, shadowy threat, and the love that unites father, mother, and young son. Pedrosa does a good job in using his illustrations to underscore the story, rather than letting the story be overwhelmed with the visual images. The ending was very touching, perhaps the second-most moving out of the books listed here, with the exception of the final book to be discussed.

Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole is the tale of two suburban kids in a blended family who struggle with incipient schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, while their parents and they struggle with the grandmother's slow decline into dementia and death. Powell has some well-drawn images and the pauses in the dialogue speaks volumes about the characters' conflicts and their attempts to fit in despite the mental illnesses they bear. As a high school teacher who has had students suffer through similar conditions, Swallow Me Whole was at times very uncomfortable to read, as it felt so personal. It is this sense of the real that makes Powell's story such a compelling one to read.

Hopefully, 2009 will lead to more graphic novel discoveries, as with one exception already noted, the fiction pieces were outstanding and the non-fiction not too shabby as well. Anyone else have any graphic novels from 2008 that they think ought to be considered among the year's best?

Next up will be a brief look at the debut authors/novelists I read this year, followed perhaps by a discussion of foreign fiction, translated and untranslated alike, that I enjoyed this year.


Eileen said...

Thanks for this. Having read quite a few manga, (I strongly recommend Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell), I've been wanting to get into American graphic novels. I got The Watchmen for Christmas (hardcover!) and it is absolutely amazing. Cannot WAIT for that movie!

Maus was awesome too.

Joe said...

Very interesting list. I'm only starting to read more graphic novels, too, so I don't know what's out there.

So, I used this list to place a bunch of holds at the library.


Hey, have you read Shooting War from Anthony Lappe? VanderMeer recommended it earlier this year and it was outstanding.

Lsrry said...


Will look into it in the near future, although I might take a slight break in book buying, after ordering a few hundred dollars' worth of books in the past couple of weeks!


No, I haven't, but considering Jeff is one of the few people whose recs I'll take without reservation, I'll look into it in a month or so, when I will permit myself to buy more books. And if you want to know which ones Jeff sent me, they were the Zinn, Powell, Pedrosa, and Appollo/Trondheim ones. The rest I received from Farrar, Straus, & Giraux, Villard, and I think Del Rey. Unsolicited, I ought to add, but appreciated nonetheless!

ediFanoB said...

I also started to discover the world of graphic novels within this year. My first read was THE SANDMAN PRELUDES and NOCTURNES by Neil Gaiman.
Next one I read: WATCHMEN by Alan Moore
which left me dumbfounded.
I look forward to watch the movie:

MOUSEGARD:1152 and more SANDMAN books are on my list for 2009.

Anwy I would like to add:

Apocalypse Suite: v. 1 (Umbrella Academy) by Gerard Way

I got the first volume of a fantastic graphic novel/manga series on Christmas which I recommend:

Lone Wolf and Cub Volume 1: The Assassin's Road: 1 by Kazuo Koike

Anyway I look forward to read more about your discoveries in the world of graphic novels.

Anonymous said...

Does my heart good to see one of the reviewers I follow engaging with the comics. Er. Graphic novels. Right. You *might* enjoy Ultra (do you have any idea how hard it is to recommend stuff to you? I hate you so much), the first issue (1/8 of the print) of which can be read free here:

Boom Studios and Image also have Free Samples on Teh Intarwebs: (heard some good things about this one but haven't gotten around to reading it myself) (Age of Bronze and A Distant Soil might be your sort of thing. Maybe.)

I really need to get around to reading the Flight anthologies.

Anonymous said...

Oops. I think you should check out The Nightly News on the Image page as well. Yay double posting.

Lsrry said...

Backwards Bona Fide,

Seems as though we both have quite a few more graphic novels to discover in the coming year, no? :D


I'll try to keep those recs in mind in the next month or so, when I resume book buying.

Mark Newton said...

A bit late commenting on this, Larry - but did you pick up a copy of Jonathan Lethem's "Omega the Unknown" at all? That was a very fine and fun piece that came out this year.

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