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Find more Using Graphic Novels in Book Clubs
As graphic novels carry out their manifest destiny, swallowing up the real estate of library shelves and, more slowly, classroom curricula, the final frontier of acceptance may be the book group. The broad themes and splashy visuals often associated with comics might seem innately at odds with the intimate, personal discussions engendered in book clubs, so the challenge for the format is to prove it can fulfill the specific needs of the diversifying book-group market by promoting discussion and fostering social opportunity. How?
If graphic novels can offer the intellectual and social engagement that traditional books can, what do they offer that a standard novel or memoir does not?
American Born Chinese. By Gene Luen Yang. Illus. by the author. 2006. First Second, paper, $17.95 (9781596431522).
In three apparently unrelated tales, Jin faces the casual racism of other schoolkids and its consequences upon his own self-image; Danny endures a visit from his cousin Chin-Kee, a living conglomeration of hideous stereotypes; and the Monkey King of Chinese folklore battles the other gods to attain higher status. The first graphic novel ever nominated for the National Book Award and winner of the 2007 Printz Award, its twisting narrative, ironic tone, classical page composition, and deep, human insights stand alone but could also make an excellent contrast for the straight narrative, epic sweep, experimental art, and deep, human insights of another graphic novel that explores themes of immigration, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2007).
Asterios Polyp. By David Mazzucchelli. Illus. by the author. 2009. Pantheon, $29.95 (9780307377326).
Mazzucchelli delivers an incomparable piece of design, with meticulous attention to every sculptural face and individual font chosen for each character’s speech. Polyp is an academic and architect whose genius reaches its limits the moment he must consider anyone but himself. No other graphic novel communicates the mundane but riveting course of a life so well.
Black Hole. By Charles Burns. Illus. by the author. 2005. Pantheon, $29.95 (9780375423802).
In a pitch-black story of a sexually transmitted “bug” that causes severe mutations in a group of small-town teens, the heightened tensions of adolescence are charged with elements of nightmare exemplified by the highly stylized, drenched-in-shadow atmosphere of Burns’ unique visuals.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. By Alison Bechdel. Illus. by the author. 2006. Houghton, $19.95 (9780618477944).
Bechdel recalls coming to terms with her sexual orientation, a process intensified by her emotionally distant father’s tortured struggle with his own sexual identity.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. By Chris Ware. Illus. by the author. 2000. Pantheon, $35 (9780375404535).
Jimmy trundles through a life of middle-aged desperation and disappointment, until his estranged father appears, which doesn’t improve things. Ware’s compact, hypercontrolled composition and astonishingly precise art lend an air of inescapability to the most depressing graphic novel ever produced (no kidding).
Lost Girls. By Alan Moore. Illus. by Melinda Gebbie. 2006. Top Shelf, $75 (9781891830747).
Alice, Dorothy Gale, and Wendy Darling come together in later life and retell their adventures the way they really happened: as glorious (and occasionally disturbing) sexual explorations of the most explicit sort. Moore’s literary sensibility and Gebbie’s art (evoking the literary world from which these characters sprang) raise the bar for pornographic comics sky high. Adventurous book groups looking for something daring could do no better than this.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. By Marjane Satrapi. Illus. by the author. 2003. Pantheon, $19.95 (9780375422300)
Satrapi’s account of the trials of growing up in Iran—including religious oppression, the allure of Western culture, and the Iran-Iraq War—is visualized with art that conveys nuance even as its deceptively simple strokes suggest the perspective of a child. Pair this with Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), another stunning achievement in sequential art that combines personal memoir with the details of a foreign culture during wartime.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. By Scott McCloud. Illus. by the author. 1994. HarperCollins, paper, $22.99 (9780060976255).
Science, history, and art all in one, McCloud’s seminal work of comics theory defines the nature and execution of sequential art . . . in sequential art form. Follow it up with the flawless narrative and artistic restraint of Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn (2009) to see a prime example of what McCloud is talking about.
Watchmen. By Alan Moore. Illus. by Dave Gibbons. 1995. DC Comics, paper, $19.99 (9780930289232).
What would a real person be like in order to put on a costume and fight crime? Moore’s answer is as virtuoso a work as the format has to offer, filled with political intrigue, psychological nuance, and innate truths. At the same time, Gibbons’ art redefines the potential of the superhero genre, as (to choose but one example) in chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry,” where the first half is an exact compositional and color reflection of the second half.
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