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
Failin, Oregon, like every small town, has as many secrets as people. When lonely teens Anne and Lewis strike up an unlikely friendship, they have no idea that their innocent romance will end up bringing so many of the town’s secrets to light. Secrets about hoarder moms and absent dads. Secrets about lost belongings and found treasures. Secrets of past misunderstandings and future relationships. Each person in this intricate character-driven graphic novel will feel familiar as someone you know or love, and each one will lodge deeply in your heart. It’s hard to explain exactly how without giving it all away, but I can say that it reminded me of one of my favorite classics. Sara Ryan has always excelled at crafting fully rounded characters, and her first graphic novel is no exception. Her words are aided by the spot-on, realistically drawn art by Carla Speed McNeil. A well-told and astutely drawn story of fate and forgiveness.
Tina’s tired of everyone constantly asking her what she IS, when she’s still figuring it out herself. It’s annoying that just because she’s Indian, people think she’s going to end up in an arranged marriage meditating on sacred cows with a dot on her forehead. She happens to BE a lot of things, and not all of them have to do with where her family is from. So she’s pretty excited when her English teacher Mr. Moosewood creates an elective called Existential Philosophy, which is all about learning how to BE. And not anything in particular, either–just yourself. Tina thinks she can handle that, especially after her best friend dumps her and she develops a crush on the cutest boy at her private school. Her world is suddenly shifting. If she can learn to answer the big life questions posed by her existential philosopher hero Jean-Paul Sartre, maybe everything will fall back into place. Including her first kiss, which is the big life question Tina is most interested in answering. Forget the meaning of her existence! What actually matters most is if she ever plants a juicy one on skater boy Neil Strumminger, will he kiss her back? And if so, will they be boyfriend/girlfriend? Mari Araki‘s sketchy black and white drawings that look like they would be right at home on the cover of your favorite notebook perfectly compliment Keshni Kashap’s angsty text. This witty graphic novel about a smart, funny Indian girl seeking the meaning of life in high school hallways and family dance parties will ring true for anyone who’s ever tried to peel off society’s slapped on labels.
There are two sides to every story, and stupendously talented author/artist Gene Luen Yang elevates that saying to a whole new level with Boxers & Saints. In this double volume, graphic novel masterpiece, two teenagers become caught up in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1898 on opposite sides, fighting to retain their identity and hold on to their hard won religious values.
Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a motherless family of farmers from a poor village. When a Catholic missionary priest smashes the statue of one of his village’s gods in front of him, he is devastated, especially since the opera stories he sees during the spring fairs make him feel as though the ancient gods are his close friends and allies. As he grows into adulthood, he begins training with a kung fu master in order to join the rebellion against these foreigners who have their own army and refuse to respect the native Chinese ways. Soon he is heading up his own small army, each member fueled by the angry spirits of the old gods. But as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist” marches closer and closer to the capital of Peking to “eradicate the foreign devils” once and for all, Little Bao begins to question his rock solid faith as the number of bodies of innocent people build in his violent wake.
Saints tells the story of Four-Girl, a lonely child who is considered a bad luck devil by her family no matter how much she tries to win their approval. The only person who shows her kindness is the village acupuncturist, who is also a Christian. He tells her Bible stories that fire up her imagination, and she begins having recurring visions of Joan of Arc. Soon she decides to become baptized and join the church. She gets a new name, Vibiana, and leaves home to work at a Catholic orphanage, followed by her visions of Joan. When Little Bao’s army comes to her village’s doorstep, Vibiana decides that God is calling on her to be His warrior maiden like Joan of Arc. The tragic, unpredictable result of Little Bao and Vibiana’s final meeting will haunt you long after you close the covers on Saints.
The earthy/monotone palate of both volumes perfectly conveys the rural landscape and hardscrabble life of the peasants, only exploding into vibrant color when Little Bao’s pantheon of Chinese gods arrive on the scene, with their rainbow robes and elaborate masks, or Four-Girl’s golden vision of Joan of Arc shimmers between the trees outside her home. While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.
Revenge of the Nerds meets Mean Girls in this high-sterically funny GN drawn by the author of The Adventures of Superhero Girl and Friends with Boys. Charlie is a basketball jock. Nate is a robotics nerd. But somehow they manage to be best friends–until Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Holly proposes using school funds earmarked for the robotics team to instead finance her cheerleading squad’s new uniforms. Furious, Nate decides to try and take over the student council by any means necessary so he can have some say in how the funds are allocated. This incites an all out war between the nerds and the cheerleaders that involves everything from a hijacked scoreboard to copious amounts of weed killer and places Charlie unhappily in the middle. And while it’s not fun being pulled between the two factions, at least it helps distract Charlie from the fact that his divorced parents are making him miserable. But when Nate discovers an original way to solve both funding problems (two words: Robot Rumble) Charlie finds himself in the unlikely role of peacemaker between his best friend and his ex-best girl. Can he find a way to broker peace between his parents as well? This story of high school high jinks crackles with energy fueled by Faith Erin Hicks‘ bold, blocky artwork and Prudence Shen’s chuckle making dialogue. The trash-talking alone at the Robot Rumble had me snorting in my subway seat. You’ll want to throw this in your beach bag pronto. (Want a sneak peek at the panels? Read the webcomic version here.)
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.