Once upon a time, graphic novels were “those things my dorky kid brother reads”. Over the past few years, though, graphic novels have come into their own, and popular titles are being adapted to the format in an effort to reach a broader audience (or sell more books to collectors, *ahem* Twilight *ahem*). Here are a few great reads you may’ve missed the first time around.
* book may be hard to find
** best for older teens
1. THE BOOKS OF MAGIC, Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, & Paul Johnson
Considered by some to be an early Harry Potter, The Books of Magic introduce Timothy Hunter, a weedy kid with glasses and a pet owl. Timothy is introduced to the world of magic by the Trenchcoat Brigade, a quartet of fallen mystics (and familiar faces to DC readers) who are aware that the boy has the potential to be the world’s greatest magician, but that his allegiance to good or evil is undecided. They take him from the birth of the universe all the way through to its eventual death, ostensibly teaching him about the possibilities – and the price – of wielding magic before he decides whether to embrace his destiny. Along the way, Tim meets some of the DCU’s more prominent magicians and fantasy characters, whilst his allies try to protect him from the machinations of the Cult of the Cold Flame. Following his misadventures, Tim decides that the price is too high . . . only to find that everything he has learnt from his supposed mentors has made it impossible for him to turn away from magic.
2. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, Gene Luen Yang
As alienated kids go, Jin Wang is fairly run-of-the-mill: he eats lunch by himself in a corner of the schoolyard, gets picked on by bullies and jocks and develops a sweat-inducing crush on a pretty classmate. And, oh, yes, his parents are from Taiwan. This much-anticipated, affecting story about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese-American childhood; it’s a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape. The fable is filtered through some very specific cultural icons: the much-beloved Monkey King, a figure familiar to Chinese kids the world over, and a buck-toothed amalgamation of racist stereotypes named Chin-Kee. Jin’s hopes and humiliations might be mirrored in Chin-Kee’s destructive glee or the Monkey King’s struggle to come to terms with himself, but each character’s expressions and actions are always perfectly familiar. True to its origin as a Web comic, this story’s clear, concise lines and expert coloring are deceptively simple yet expressive. Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he’s depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you’ll already have reached out to others.
3. EMMA, Kaoru Mori
Meticulously researched and beautifully rendered, EMMA is a beloved, award-winning series that was adapted into an acclaimed anime series in Japan. In Victorian-era England, a young girl is rescued from a life of destitution and raised to become a proper British maid. Emma meets William, the eldest son of a wealthy family, and immediately falls in love with him. William shares her feelings, but the strict rules of their society prevent their relationship from ever coming out in the open. Traditional class distinctions and rich, historical details provide the backdrop for this appealing romance.–DC Comics
4. THE WALL: GROWING UP BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN, Peter Sis **
Born out of a question posed to Sís (Play, Mozart, Play!) by his children (Are you a settler, Dad?), the author pairs his remarkable artistry with journal entries, historical context and period photography to create a powerful account of his childhood in Cold War–era Prague. Dense, finely crosshatched black-and-white drawings of parades and red-flagged houses bear stark captions: Public displays of loyalty—compulsory. Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students. Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves. Text along the bottom margin reveals young Sís’s own experience: He didn’t question what he was being told. Then he found out there were things he wasn’t told. The secret police, with tidy suits and pig faces, intrude into every drawing, watching and listening. As Sís grows to manhood, Eastern Europe discovers the Beatles, and the Prague Spring of 1968 promises liberation and freedom. Instead, Soviet tanks roll in, returning the city to its previous restrictive climate. Sís rebels when possible, and in the book’s final spreads, depicts himself in a bicycle, born aloft by wings made from his artwork, flying toward America and freedom, as the Berlin Wall crumbles below. Although some of Sís’s other books have their source in his family’s history, this one gives the adage write what you know biting significance. Younger readers have not yet had a graphic memoir with the power of Maus or Persepolis to call their own, but they do now.–Publishers Weekly, ages 8 & up.
5. PERSEPOLIS, Marjanne Satrapi
Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up. Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom–Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today.
6. THE RABBI’S CAT, Joann Sfar **
Sfar, the French cartoonist behind the Little Vampire children’s books, has come up with a hilarious and wildly original graphic novel for adults. The nameless, scraggly-looking alley cat who narrates the story belongs to an Algerian rabbi in the ’30s. When the cat eats a parrot, he gains the power of speech and tries to convince his master to teach him the Torah, raising the question of whether the appropriate age for his bar mitzvah should be in human years or cat years. Of course, being a cat, he has plenty of impertinent opinions about Judaism. That’s a delicious setup on its own, but it gets better when the cat loses his speech again halfway through, and the story becomes a broader, more bittersweet comedy about the rabbi’s family and the intersection of Jewish, Arab and French culture. The rabbi’s daughter Zlabya marries a young man from a nonobservant family in France. The Algerian family’s visit with their Parisian in-laws is the subject of the final and funniest section of the book. Sfar’s artwork looks as mangy and unkempt as the cat, with contorted figures and scribbly lines everywhere, but there’s a poetic magic to it that perfectly captures this cat’s-eye view of human culture and faith.
7. EPILEPTIC, David B. **
The cartoonist’s memoir of growing up in a family in which his brother’s grand mal epilepsy regularly took center stage is packaged here in its entirety. Although the first part of this book appeared in English in 2002, published by L’Association, there is no demarcation within the current volume to show where that break in the story occurred–nor does there need to be. David B. reports on the childhood adventures and interests he and his siblings shared–including warrior fantasies, a fascination with World War II, and drawing–and the family’s increasing involvement in seeking help for coping with the epilepsy. The latter half of the complete work continues through adolescence and into manhood, including David B.’s education in art college and his founding of L’Association. His brother’s failure to respond for any duration to any form of treatment or to adjust to life with a chronic disease is presented with unsentimental but humane forthrightness. The heavily inked images include many hallucinatory panels, and subplots involve the grandparents’ prejudices, David’s developing relationships outside the family, and his continued interest in his family. While the final difficulties revolve around the author and his inability to become a father, most of the book is both accessible and of high interest to teens.–Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
8. THE RUNAWAYS, Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Adrian Alphona
This unusually clever, fun teen comic is based on the novel premise that parents don’t just seem evil, they actually are evil supervillains. Or so some kids find out one night while eavesdropping on a dastardly meeting they take to be a cocktail party. Although the children are each a “type” right out of sitcom land-the goth girl, the brain, the jock, the dreamboat, the shy one-they’re also fairly empathetic characters. Vaughan’s closely observed dialogue lends them authenticity and pathos as they go through the disturbing realization that their parents aren’t just jerks but actually mass-murderers. The plot builds from this initial discovery, as the kids band together, discover they, too, have superhuman powers and engage their parents in good, old-fashioned superhuman fisticuffs. The group goes on the run and discovers their parents have all of Los Angeles in their pockets-it’s enough to make a teenager feel more alienated than ever. Alphona’s dynamic, manga-influenced artwork agreeably complements Vaughan’s crisp writing. They tell the story with clarity, a dollop of drama and just enough pizzazz to hook video game-obsessed readers. Packaged in a manga-size paperback, Marvel’s attempt to tap both the manga and the young adult market nicely succeeds.–Publishers Weekly
9. 1001 NIGHTS OF SNOWFALL, Bill Willingham, illustrated by Charles Vess, Esao Andrews, & more **
Probably the smartest mainstream comic going, Fables usually concentrates on the contemporary activities of characters from children’s stories who now are living as secret refugees in New York. This collection gives glimpses of their individual backstories before the armies of the brutal Adversary drove them out of Fairyland. Readers will learn, for example, what spoiled the Big Bad Wolf’s disposition and what happened to the witch after Hansel and Gretel pushed her into the oven. It would be relatively easy to do clever, merely cynical readings of the fairy tales, but Willingham is after something much more interesting. Like Neil Gaiman and Tanith Lee, he’s reimagining the old stories, trying to see why they have survived and also to point out the aspects they somehow neglect: it’s only natural that Snow White would take revenge on the seven little rapists who abducted her, but the independent way she goes about it casts doubt on her subservient relationship to Prince Charming. Willingham reminds readers of how much they ignore in their anxiety to believe that all stories end happily ever after. Artists like Charles Vess, Mark Buckingham and Jill Thompson work up to the level of the perceptive scripts, making this a memorable, uncomfortably amusing treat.–Publishers Weekly
10. BUDDHA, VOLUME 1: KAPILAVASTU, Osamu Tezuka
Tezuka, the master of Japanese comics, mixes his own characters with history as deftly as he transfers the most profound, complex emotions onto extremely cartoony characters, and his work defies easy categorization. In Buddha, originally serialized in the 1970s and one of his last works, he lavishly retells the life of Siddhartha, who isn’t even born until page 268. Instead, Tezuka introduces Chapra, a slave who attempts to escape his fate by posing as the son of a general; Tatta, a crazed wild child pariah who communes with animals; Chapra’s slave mother, who stands by him no matter what; and Naradatta, a monk attempting to discover the meaning of strange portents of the Buddha’s birth. Throughout the book, the characters engage in fresh and unexpected adventures, escapes and reverses, as they play out Tezuka’s philosophical concern with overcoming fate and the uselessness of violence. Despite episodes of extreme brutality and broad humor, the core of the story revolves around various set pieces, as when Tatta sacrifices himself to a snake to save Naradatta and Chapra’s mom. After a moment of intense emotion, the scene is upended by the arrival of a bandit who mocks their attempts at keeping their karmic slates clean. “Why were you all fussing over some stupid trade? Why not just kill the snake and eat it?” The answer unfolds over succeeding volumes. Heavily influenced by Walt Disney, Tezuka’s often cute characters may take some getting used to, but his storytelling is strong and clean. Appearing in handsome packages designed by Chip Kidd, this is a stunning achievement.–Publishers Weekly