Five Graphic Novels Worth The Name (And Your Time)

With Wondercon just around the corner here in the Bay Area, Badmouth’s thoughts are turning toward comics. All right, easily a third of Badmouth’s regular thoughts are about comics, but nonetheless, we’re going to try to get some fresh comics content posted in the runup to the con.

In addition to reviewing all the summer comic-derived movies as they’ve assaulted the senses, we’ve run the occasional tie-in, such as our intro to Hellboy and Fantastic Four/Silver Surfer, um, rant. But what about the grown-up comics, the “graphic novels” that aren’t about oddly dressed adventurers and serialized over an indefinite number of volumes? We’ve got those, too. Among the better books released in the last year or two, we think these books contain something that should please any literary palate.

1. Tamara Drewe, by Posy Simonds. Widely praised as the best graphic novel released in 2008, this is a book dense with character that still reads breezily. Simonds masters the combination of classic comics storytelling with extended prose monologues from her characters, allowing the best of two worlds—the visual storytelling of pure comics, and the greater depth of character and thought to be found in pure prose.

The story is simple—a beautiful woman, neither excessively shallow nor deeply self-aware, wanders through a small town and its modest writers’ colony and everyone reacts to her. It’s a fascinating look at contemporary social mores, covering middle-aged angst, serial adultery, and teenage mischief and longing. Maybe it tries a little too hard to come to an exciting climax, but it does, and the absolutely dazzling execution is not to be missed.

It’s like Friends, but without a joke a minute, Bridget Jones without being shallow and stupid, Sex & The City without being so goddamned (and undeservedly) pleased with itself. It’s like all those Jane Austen adaptations, without all the period settings. And more sex. It’s damned good stuff.

2. Exit Wounds, by Ruta Modan. Widely praised as the best graphic novel released in 2007. Set in Tel Aviv, a young man learns that his estranged father may have been the victim of a suicide bomber. He and the old man’s unlikely lover try to solve the sad mystery, and we watch a halting relationship blossom between them. The art is deceptively simple, the characters disarmingly real. It’s a window into daily life in another society. Unless you’re, like, Israeli, in which case it’s, um, a mirror held up to, ah … you. It’s assured storytelling that skirts the edges of loneliness and pain without becoming mired in it.

It’s like a good foreign film that explores relationships in a direct, near-documentary style with such easy grace that you wonder why the hell Hollywood can’t ever pull this off.

3. Laika, by Nick Abadzis. Another top-flight piece of work from ’07, Laika is the story of the little dog the Soviets shot into space in 1957. The first animal in space is the thread by which Abadzis explores the history of the Sputnik era and the lives—in a blend of fact and fiction—of the humans behind Russia’s pioneering space efforts. The book is dreamy at times, and sentimental, while plainly matter-of-fact about the tensions and internal politics of the Soviet space program at others. The art is both rough and detailed at once, with great flow and a lot packed onto each page. It’s suitable for kids but perhaps more of interest, in its political and historical perspective, to an adult reader. It might seem like a strange mix—or a bait-and-switch—to use the travails of a cute, doomed puppy to explore as potentially dry a subject as the details of the early space race, but it works, hitting emotional and intellectual and dramatic notes in turn.

4. Vampire Loves, by Joann Sfar. A nebbishy vampire tries to make his love life work with a collection of strange female creatures. It has all the daily misadventures of any romantic comedy, but with a setting and art style that’s like a rougher, less hyperkinetic Nightmare Before Christmas, maybe. I’m not usually one to want to just read about people screwing up their love lives (despite how much I liked Tamara Drewe), yet the charming fantasy elements throw the relationship stuff into a new light and make it more fun. I mean, two lovers talking about privacy boundaries is, generally, boring. Two lovers having that conversation who are a floating vampire and some kind of forest nymph or wood elemental who looks like a walking tree, that’s jackpot baby.

5. Incognegro, by Mat Johnson & Warren Pleece. This came out last year, a stark black and white book drawn in very realistic style, set in the 1930s. It’s the story of a crusading journalist who, though black, is so light-skinned he can pass as white, and does so to expose lynchings throughout the South. It combines politics and the personal story between two friends, and the family story between the journalist and his brother, who is so not passing that he’s in a southern jail cell only days away from the noose himself. Tense, dramatic, and a compelling portrait of an ugly piece of American history, it’s tapping the kind of vein Clint Eastwood was aiming for with The Changeling.