Recommended Reading: Comics and Graphic Novels

As some of you may know, I am a cartoonist and graphic novel fan in addition to my regular duties blogging here at FWD. While I don’t get the “HEY ANNAHAM WHAT COMICS AND STUFF DO YOU LIKE TO READ?” query too often, I thought it might be useful to give an overview of graphic work that I think FWD readers and commenters might enjoy. Many of my recs have to do with illness and disability; a few, however, don’t. I’m always working on a new cartoon of some sort (mostly single-panel or multiple pages), and want to share the fruits of my research with folks who may want to read graphic novels, but have no clue where to start. Alternatively, some of these might make useful gifts for the holidays, either for the comics fan in your life or for yourself!

Lynda Barry: This woman is pretty much my hero. Although Barry has a background in art, her work shows that you don’t have to draw comics “realistically” for them to have an impact, or for the artwork to be strikingly beautiful. I probably would have stopped drawing autobiographical cartoons long ago were it not for her work; I do not have much artistic training to speak of, and there seems to be a widespread misconception that only “trained” artists can draw cartoons worth reading! While Barry does not address disability in her cartoons, many of her colorful slice-of-life strips bring readers back to the confusing and bizarre world of childhood and adolescence. If you were — or are — a “weird kid,” you will absolutely connect with Barry’s comics. Her 2008 creativity manual-slash-collage dreamworld What It Is may be particularly useful for the artists (or wannabe-artists), or indeed anyone who needs a push to start writing and creating; a follow-up, The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, was recently released. For those not familiar with her work, I recommend The Greatest of Marlys (a compilation of her long-running alternative comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek) and the autobiographical collection One! Hundred! Demons! to start, followed by What It Is; for those of you who like darker material involving (fictional) teenaged misadventures, drug use, and general weirdness, her illustrated novel Cruddy is a must-read.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (2006): Known primarily as the writer and illustrator of the alternative comic Dykes to Watch Out For (also worth checking out!), Bechdel really hits her stride with this lengthier autobiographical tale of family drama, the tensions between appearances and reality, destructive secrets, and sexual awakening. I could provide a synopsis, such as “This is a story about the writer’s complex relationship with her father,” but it is so much more than that. This is one of those books that I want to recommend to everyone who enjoys reading; it’s a work that rewards the time put into it tenfold. I get something new out of it every time I re-read it. The way that Bechdel draws facial expressions is nothing short of priceless, and the narrative as a whole is consistently amazing, complex, and intense.

Al Davison, The Spiral Cage (1989): This one can be sort of hard to track down, but: it’s very much worth the effort. Davison has spina bifida, and this graphic novel chronicles his life with both that condition and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/M.E. The result — with its many nods to surrealism, and interesting explorations of masculinity and disability, as well as spirituality — is an honest, beatifully written and illustrated look at life with multiple disabilities.

Rantz Hoseley (editor) et al., Comic Book Tattoo (2008): Do you like (or love) Tori Amos’ music? Do you enjoy comics? If so, this is probably an anthology that you will get lost in for a couple of days. I was way, way into Tori’s music before I discovered comics and graphic novels, and the amazing range of this anthology — a collection of short graphic works and interpretations inspired by the singer’s massive back-catalog — makes it worth a look. For a compendium with such a huge variety of artistic styles and song interpretations, this collection has very few duds, and the overall quality of the stories included makes it worth the $30 price tag. This is not an anthology that you will read only once and then shove it onto the bookshelf to collect dust, in other words.

Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner (with illustrations by Frank Stack), Our Cancer Year (1994): Comics writer Harvey Pekar (he died earlier this year) was known as the cranky protagonist of American Splendor, but this collaboration with his wife, peace activist and journalist Joyce Brabner, brings illness and disability into the mix, and the result is positively great. Although the Pekar-Brabner-Stack team do not gloss over the realities of cancer at all — there are ample panels, and pages, that show the gruesome, life-altering effects of testicular cancer and its harsh treatment protocol — one does not get the sense that showing the worst aspects of this disease is for shock value. As Pekar and Brabner assert at the start of Our Cancer Year, this graphic novel is not just about cancer — it is also about partnership, the everyday (or not-so-everyday), and life.

David Small, Stitches (2009): For a full-length graphic work that doesn’t use much text or dialogue, this is certainly an astonishing piece. Small, who is a children’s book illustrator, utilizes his unique artistic style for this memoir, which tells the affecting tale of his battle against cancer — and near-fatal family secrets — starting when he was 11 years old. Small’s success at creating an overarching mood in this book is difficult to describe; all of the seemingly small choices that he makes as an author and illustrator here add up to a memoir that is both harrowing and ultimately life-affirming. In a review of Stitches for PopMatters, writer Sean Ferrell comments that “[the] book does not exemplify rising above, it exemplifies the continuing, life-long struggle to release the toxic histories we drag around with us.” It is truly to Small’s credit that he has used such painful past experiences to create an unforgettable work.

Commenters, what are some of your favorite comics and graphic works?

5 Comments

  1. I recently read Fun Home, due to my love for Bechdel’s previous DTWOF work. I think I actually like FH even more, since it’s such a nuanced, thoughtful interpretation of her relationship with her father. It doesn’t go for easy answers, which I loved about it.

    I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Black Hole. From its Amazon page: “The setting is Seattle during the early ’70s. A sexually transmitted disease, the ‘bug,’ is spreading among teenagers. Those who get it develop bizarre mutations—sometimes subtle, like a tiny mouth at the base of one boy’s neck, and sometimes obvious and grotesque. The most visibly deformed victims end up living as homeless campers in the woods, venturing into the streets only when they have to, shunned by normal society. The story follows two teens, Keith and Chris, as they get the bug. Their dreams and hallucinations—made of deeply disturbing symbolism merging sexuality and sickness—are a key part of the tale. The AIDS metaphor is obvious, but the bug also amplifies already existing teen emotions and the wrenching changes of puberty.” It’s a complicated, sometimes problematic book, but I found myself thinking about it at odd moments afterward, which I think is a mark of a graphic novel’s success.

    I had more problems with David B.’s Epileptic, but I still want to mention it. The narrator (it’s autobiographical, but I’ll call him a character) has a brother who is epileptic and who acts out. The story is about his brother, but only through the narrator’s eyes, which means that there are some intensely irritating moments in the representation. At the same time, I was intrigued by what a lot of people comment on about this book: the narrator’s art is viscerally shaped by his encounters with his brother’s illness. I don’t know that I would buy this one sight unseen (unlike Fun Home, which I would urge anyone to pick up today), but it’s worth it to flip through.

  2. I really love the Berlin series, by Jason Lutes, and adore Castle Waiting by Linda Medley.

  3. I really like webcomics and manga with some love for newspaper comics and graphic novels as well. Unfortunately most of the ones I read don’t really depict disability. I could be forgetting some, but the four main ones that do come to mind regarding disability are Last Res0rt, Beyond the Veil, Fullmetal Alchemist and Riot Nrrd. All of the first three are potentially triggery at least on violence and the first also has rape in the backstory. Last Res0rt has a main character with a prostic leg and autism*, and another character who is a “light child” with schitzophenic sounding symptoms. He hasn’t yet had much development yet, but its pretty strongly implied that he’s meant as a major character and will get more spotlight time eventually. So far their disablities have been fairly well handled** and its a really great comic so I’d suggest checking it out if you don’t have problems with the trigger warnings or accessibility issues from the facts that the page has a very small amount of movement on it(an animated mascot that sometimes wiggles her ears, blink …) and no transcripts.
    Unfortunately it’s geting late here but I can try to post stuff about the other comics tomorrow if anyone is actually interested in them.
    *its implied that she might actually be a “light child” with autistic symptoms but lets not go there
    **at least as far as I can tell which might not be saying much
    **phlemtonuim

  4. On the webcomics front, I have been reading Questionable Content for years. It’s not a perfect series (among other things, using ablist terms like “crazy” is common), but there are two (maybe three, depending on how to define it) characters with major psychological/emotional disabilities who are full characters beyond their disabilities.

    You can see a more comprehensive review of QC and disability by RMJ here.

  5. I used to have a Lynda Barry calendar. On one of the days, it said, “At 2:00, open your front door and yell real loud!” You better believe I did.