I wasn’t much of a comic book reader until I started this graphic novel collection in the public library I used to work at. (For those who of you who aren’t in the know, a graphic novel is a collection of serial comic books bound together in a hardier cover, or an original one-time longer story in a stronger cover) All of the sudden, I discovered how cool GN’s were and I was hooked. As in addicted, man. I devoured most of Sandman, and a handful of other titles, most of which you’ll find below. The only thing you’ll probably never find here is manga–I’ve never been able to understand the appeal, but I know lots of teen folk LOVE it. Unfortunately, you’ll just have to get your big-eyed fix somewhere else. Get into graphics, they’re just fantastic! And for more great graphic novel suggestions, visit Robin Brenner’s excellent No Flying, No Tights
I have been absolutely smitten with Lucy Knisley since reading her graphic travel memoir French Milk right before I went to Paris for the first time. That’s why I was thrilled to get my oven mitts on her new foodie autobio, Relish. In it, Knisley shares the luscious narratives of her upbringing (complete with to-die-for illustrated recipes) in a gritty 1970’s & 80’s New York City and rustic upstate Rhinebeck. Her stories of eating oysters at her uncle’s knee, running away from vindictive geese and chowing down French fries on the sly so as not to offend her gourmet parents are hilarious and delicious. But my two hands down favorite stories are when she chronicles eating her way through Mexico with her mom and best guy friend Drew while getting her first period at the most awkward of times, and the day when she helped her mom cater an event at DIA Beacon as a college student and came face to face with Richard Serra’s massive iron sculptures. By herself with the sculpture while the party goes on in another room, Knisley feels surprisingly blessed to be a waiter. “I could be alone, touching the cool metal of a famous and affecting work of art, a gift gained through circumstance. I thought of all the builders and guards and custodians who have had similar moments, and felt lucky to be a server.” (I’ve seen and been inside those sculptures and they are indeed awe inspiring.) And then there are the RECIPES. For perfect chocolate chip cookies, homemade pesto and my personal favorite, sautéed mushrooms. And those are just a very few mouthwatering examples. While it’s hard to know where to shelve Relish (living room bookcase or kitchen cupboard?) it’s not hard to enjoy each and every one of Knisley’s tasty anecdotes. Whether you’re a foodie or just a sucker for a good coming of age story, you’re going to savor every page of this yummy graphic memoir.
It’s hard work fighting evil. Just ask Superhero Girl, the under-appreciated star of Faith Erin Hick‘s tongue-in-cheek graphic novel. Superhero Girl has grown up in the caped shadow of her older brother Kevin, also a crusader for good. But needing to establish her own brand, Superhero Girl moves to a new city, finds a laid back roommate who takes her superheroing in stride and proceeds to get her crime fighting on. No job is too large or too small–Superhero Girl beats up baddies from outer space AND rescues little kitties from trees. But although her calling is fulfilling, being a super hero isn’t always rewarding. Vigilantism doesn’t pay the rent, and so like every other twenty something on her own, Superhero Girl must look for a REAL job. She also finds her dating life hindered by her secret identity. And when a wave of peace comes over the nighborhood she is sworn to defend, Superhero Girl finds herself taking up knitting (with disastrous results.) This snort-out-loud GN is charm on a stick. Hicks takes the superhero mythology we know so well from multiplex hours spent in the company of bat and spider men and turns it on its ear, to hugely hilarious affect. I couldn’t stop chuckling to myself, especially when Superhero Girl is accused of beating up an innocent looking hipster and no one will come to his defense because they “hate his stupid little weather-inappropriate scarf.” Hee hee! (Oh, hipster-bashing. I just can’t quit you.) Superhero Girl started life as a webcomic, which you can read here, but I heartily recommend getting the gorgeous full color GN from your local library, bookstore or comic book shop.
It totally sucks being the new kid in high school. So Sadie comes up with a fool-proof plan to win friends and influence people: pretend she has a peanut allergy. After all, what makes a better lunch time conversation starter than a life-threatening medical condition? The plan goes swimmingly at first. Sadie orders a medic-alert bracelet as visible proof of her peanut-free status and soon has a new circle of concerned friends willing to throw themselves on legumes for her if necessary. But things get complicated fast. She is afraid to invite people over for fear that her mom will accidentally rat her out. Her friends keep snatching stuff out of her hands when she forgets to check the list of ingredients on food packages for peanut oil. Worst of all, the school nurse gets wind of the fact that she has an allergy and wants her to get an Epi-pen–which you can’t get without a prescription. Now it’s just a matter of time before she puts the wrong thing in her mouth and the truth of her fictional affliction comes out. If her lie comes to light, will Sadie’s new friends stick by her? Or will they peel away like dried up peanut butter? This charming little graphic novel about going to extremes when it comes to fitting in will feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to break into a new table in the cafeteria. While I found Paul Hoppe‘s whimsical style a little young looking for a high school audience, I thought Ayun Halliday‘s dialogue and depiction of adolescent relationships was achingly realistic and adored the character of Zoo, Sadie’s techno-phobic new boyfriend. No one could possibly be allergic to this delicious and down to earth Peanut.
Turn of the century riverboat captain Elijah Twain is a righteous dude: upstanding, responsible and totally devoted to his lovely wife Pearl, who waits patiently for him at home while he sails the Hudson saving up for the expensive medical treatments required to free her from her wheelchair. He looks down his nose a bit at the riverboat’s owner, a flashy playboy named Lafayette who seems to take ladies to bed as a hobby. But Captain Twain finds his high and mighty morals sorely tested when he makes a surprising discovery one dark night. A wounded mermaid has pulled herself up on the deck of his boat and passed out. Shocked and more than a little intrigued, Twain hides her in his room and gradually nurses her back to health. The mermaid’s very presence soothes him and seems to inspire his writing, which had lately taken a back seat to his riverboat work. Soon Twain feels torn between his trusting wife and the otherworldly beauty who has become his muse. Meanwhile, Lafayette has developed an intense interest in mermaids, even inviting an eccentric author of Hudson Valley folklore on board to discuss the topic with him. Guilt-ridden Twain becomes very worried—does Lafayette know his secret? When the mermaid disappears with Twain’s pocket watch, and Lafayette seduces his seventh simultaneous romantic conquest, the captain and his roguish friend are drawn into fantastical nautical mystery that is both whimsical and terrifying, and more than a little naughty. (Let’s just say that mermaids are traditionally topless and Lafayette gets caught with his pants down more than once) This marvelous blend of mythology, morality, love and obsession kept me up all night, as I couldn’t resist turning just one…more…page. And the charcoal artwork, which ranged from softly shaded to deep and vibrant was so stunning that I didn’t even miss the color. All my high school peeps who love historical fiction and fantasy are going to want to own this resplendent graphic novel in hardcover. Because as much as I want to recommend this gor-ge-o-so volume to friends and students, I’m having a hard time parting with my pretty copy. (And if you’d like to take a look for yourself, you can start reading here)
Chester Kates is a hardscrabble teenage orphan who lives on whiskey, pancakes and fistfights in a desolate corner of the Old West. It’s not much of a life, so when a shady railroad exec offers him 40 bucks to burn down a ghost town called Whale that sits in the railroad’s future path, Chester jumps at the chance. But when he gets there, he finds that Whale is not entirely deserted. It is still home to a few souls who were fortunate enough to have survived the mysterious fatal plague that laid waste to Whale’s meager population. Chester teams up with Caroline, the pretty daughter of a crazy miner named Whitley Barber who may or may not have hidden a valuable treasure somewhere in Whale. Together they try to convince Barber to uncover his loot and leave the doomed township before Chester burns it to the ground. But the old miner won’t budge, and when Chester discovers the evil reason why, he is forced to make a terrible decision between love and justice. This imaginative graphic novel is a bone-chilling blend of horror, mystery and Western that will keep you guessing until the very last page. JT Petty’s dark story has more twists and turns than a bucking bronco, while Hilary Florido’s sketchy manga-light artwork conveys the inhospitable bleakness of home on the range–which is quickly shown to be the opposite of the cozy cowboy song. If you find your appetite whetted for more menacing Old West/horror mash-ups, try The Sixth Gun or American Vampire.
High school freshman Maggie rules as the only girl in a house full of dudes. Her father is the local police chief and he has his hands full with Maggie and her three raucous siblings—eldest brother theater geek Daniel and squabbling twins Zander and Lloyd. Up until this year, Maggie had been home-schooled by her mom. But her mom has recently abandoned the family, and along with being super sad about THAT, Maggie also has to deal with attending public school for the first time. School would be scary enough on it’s own, but Maggie has one more horror to manage—a ghost. Yep, Maggie’s been followed around by a silent, see-thru woman since she was a tot, and the aggravating thing is, she has no idea why. The ghost either can’t or won’t say what her problem is, so all Maggie can do is hope and pray no one else can see her. Just when she thinks she’ll never fit in, Maggie meets Lucy and Alistair, a sister and brother duo who don’t seem to care what anyone thinks of them. Bolstered by their combined confidence, Maggie finally starts to relax in the hallowed halls of grade nine. But Alistair is not who he seems, and soon Maggie is caught up in the high school politics of hard choices, painful secrets and elusive popularity. And surprisingly, her ghost just might have something to say about that…this insightful, smart GN by the illustrator of Brain Camp does a great job of not only telling the real deal about high school but also sensitively exploring the interesting dynamics of sibling relationships and how brothers and sisters can be your best friends—if you let them. FWB started out as a web comic, so click here to check out Faith Erin Hicks quirky cool art and get a little taste, but I highly recommend nabbing on the paper version and reading the whole thing in one go!
Dogs have always been known as man’s best friend, but maybe they’re more like men (and women) than we thought! That’s the premise of this hilarious graphic novel that reads like a canine version of The Office by Glenn Eichler, a current writer on the Cobert Report and former producer of one of my fav old animated series, Daria. Dolly is the lead dog of a group of neurotic sled dogs who live with a reclusive trapper and his wife somewhere in the far, far North. Lately she’s been questioning what it actually means to lead, and starts to wonder if she really wants the responsibility of keeping everyone on track. This causes jealous Guy to start angling for Dolly’s job by growling rumors and lies to the other dogs. Meanwhile, dim-witted Buddy keeps trying to have a ‘relationship’ with sleek Venus just because they were mated a few times. Venus couldn’t be less interested, and decides she is NOT going to just be a puppy making machine for the rest of her life. Purebred Winston puts on airs which drives everyone nuts, while sly Fiddler keeps the pack guessing who’s side he’s really on. It all comes to a head when Guy finally challenges Dolly for the lead, and the humans, who are having some serious issues of their own, have to get involved. When it comes to resolving conflict, we can be just like dogs–or maybe dogs are just like us. Joe Infurnari’s sketchy artwork is quirky and expressive–each dog looks and sounds suspiciously like someone you might know, while the often pastel color palette sets readers right down into a cold Northern lanscape with pink and blue sunsets and snow covered pine trees. Surprisingly philosophical, this witty GN uses a rag tag pack of quarreling sled dogs to demonstrate how utterly wacky, banal and complex the human race can be.
It’s already hard enough for Russian American Anya to fit in at her preppy private school with a last name no one can pronounce (“Borzakovskaya”), a clueless mom and a booty that makes her regulation plaid skit a bit too snug. But after she takes a tumble down an abandoned well and discovers the skeleton of a long dead girl, life gets even more complicated. When Anya is finally rescued, she finds that she has brought home a little souvenir of her accident—Emily, the skeleton’s lonely ghost. At first Anya is annoyed with having to explain the modern world to Emily, who died ninety years ago. But soon she sees how having an invisible friend helps when it comes to cheating on tests or sneaking a smoke on school grounds. However, Emily begins wanting more and more of Anya’s attention, and Anya realizes that if she actually wants to make some living, breathing friends, Emily’s got to go. Except Emily has other plans… This gray-scale graphic novel is the kind of creepy treat I revere—a genuinely scary ghost story with a minimum of gore, a few well-placed frights and a bit of humor that turns gasps into giggles. Debut author and illustrator Vera Brosgol’s crisply drawn details convey Anya’s mood and characterization perfectly—down to the Belle and Sebastian and Weezer posters in moody, sarcastic Anya’s room. Besides being a classic ghost yarn and a realistic portrayal of the horror of high school, this is also a terrific story of being true to yourself and your culture while learning how to fit in on your own terms. After whetting your goulish appetite with Anya, try Hope Larson’s Mercury for more good ghostly, teen angst fun.
One of my favorite books of all time is Craig Thompson’s transcendent adolescent love story Blankets. I feel as though I have preached the gospel of that gorgeous graphic novel to thousands of friends, colleagues and students–probably until they were sick of hearing about it! Thompson’s latest opus is also about love, a fervent love between a girl and a boy that morphs several times during their lifetimes. When Dodola and Zam first meet in a slave market as children in a fantastical Middle Eastern world that includes both oil pipelines and medieval camel caravans, they are lost and afraid. After escaping the slavers and fleeing to the desert, they lead a charmed but lonely existence on a boat that has been mysteriously beached on miles of sand, where Dodola entertains Zam with stories of queens, heroes and warriors from the Quran and the Bible. At first Dodola acts as a mother to toddler Zam, though she is little more than a child herself. But as Zam grows, their relationship becomes more like that of squabbling siblings. Until the day that Zam witnesses the terrible thing that Dodola must trade away in exchange for their food from the brutish men in the caravans. He cannot forget what he has seen, and soon his feelings for Dodola begin to change into something lustful and wild that he doesn’t understand. So he runs away to the bustling city, searching for a way to relieve his forbidden thoughts, while Dodola is left frantically searching for him before she is stolen away by bandits and forced to become a member of the Sultan’s harem. Through their mutual trials and struggles, they never forget their life on the little boat and never stop looking for each other in the faces of strangers that pass by. It is many years before they meet again, and they each have been drastically changed by their circumstances. Will their hearts recognize each other? Is there a possibility that their love can survive under the harsh laws of a judgmental society that condemns them both? This lushly illustrated and deeply felt graphic novel is both hard to read and hard to stop reading. Thompson is clearly in love with Arabic script and design, which dance sinuously through the panels, and his interweaving of Christian and Arabic mythology, showing their ultimate similarities instead of their often harped upon differences is masterful. The story and art took Thompson six years to complete, and it shows on every dazzlingly detailed page. But while it is a beautifully rendered story of love, faith and perseverance, it is also a sad story of sexual abuse, dominance, misogyny and guilt that is probably best for older teens and the adults in their lives. Extraordinary.