Brain Pickings

Comic Books for Grown-Ups: 10 Masterpieces of Graphic Nonfiction

By:

Seeing the world in six-panel strips, or what Allen Ginsberg has to do with the wonders of zygotes.

Who doesn’t love comic books? While infographics may be trendy today (and photography perennially sexy), there’s just something special about the work of the human hand. Good old-fashioned manual labor, literally, brings a unique richness to storytelling where words alone sometimes fall flat. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite graphic non-fiction, excluding Maus-style memoirs — perhaps another time — since narrowing down to ten picks was tough enough. These hybrid works combine the best elements of art, journalism, and scholarship to command our attention and gratify our curiosity.

THE BEATS

We’ve long loved authors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, so we were thrilled to discover The Beats: A Graphic History, an anthology that mashes up biography, criticism, and literary readings from the seminal creative movement. Comic art legend Harvey Pekar presides over the enterprise with a boldness befitting the Beatniks’ sensibility, along with graphic geniuses Peter Kuper (of Mad magazine fame), Ed Piskor, and other big names in the medium.

The Beats invokes the immediacy of 1940s and 50s art, music, and writing; even better, it provides political context and introduced us to an entire panoply of artists whose contributions to the era are lesser known. From painting sessions in Jay DeFeo’s flat to strains of mental illness throughout the movement, The Beats is an invaluable addition to our picture of a charged moment in creative history.

EDIBLE SECRETS

How do you make 500,000 declassified documents yield up their stories? Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified U.S. History pulls it off with a combination of stellar journalism and informative, witty illustration. Scholar Mia Partlow, graphic designer Michael Hoerger, and illustrator Nate Powell collaborated to create what started out as a serialized zine on the relationship between food and politics in America, and the highly confidential government coverups of these strange bedfellows’ intersection.

Upton Sinclair-style muckraking for our modern era, Edible Secrets covers the CIA’s milkshake assassination plot of Fidel Castro, popcorn mind-control schemes, and how a box of Jello led to two death sentences during the 1950s Communist red scare. Like a graphic interpretation of Wikileaks, the slim but delectable volume investigates the down-and-dirty ways in which the U.S. government altered history using the most common of comestibles.

Whether you’re an activist, foodie, or history buff, Edible Secrets is a fascinating and fun creation about acts of agriculture — something each one of us, consciously or not, commits every day.

A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE

Cartoonist Josh Neufeld accomplishes the nearly impossible in his award-winning A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, namely, taking a subject as tragic and media-saturated as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and making a page-turner out of its retelling and aftermath. Neufeld shows the story through five (real-life) New Orleans residents to whom we became completely attached, which is precisely the point. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge demonstrates what the comic medium does best — namely, completely immerse the reader-viewer in another world by engaging multiple cognitive functions — and offers a fascinating parallel to last week’s Hurricane Story.

Through the parallax narratives of Neufeld’s five characters, we came away with a fittingly complex perspective of the human experience of this news story.

THE 14TH DALAI LAMA

The history of modern Tibet gets told via one man’s life in The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography. Llhamo Döndrub was the two-year-old child of a peasant family in northeast Tibet when he was named the new spiritual leader of a people; traditional Japanese manga style and first-person perspective bring intimacy to the sweeping story that unfolds from that watershed moment. It’s easy to see why the Dalai Lama authorized this life story, an imminently human treatment of large-scale historical narrative. We live vicariously through Tibet’s takeover by communist China under Mao Zedong, and the Dalai Lama’s decision to live exiled in India in an effort to save his people’s culture.

The 14th Dalai Lama is a quick read that still does justice to its spiritual subject matter.

THE STUFF OF LIFE

If only all biology textbooks were as cool as The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA. The great news is that it’s never too late for continuing education, and The Stuff of Life‘s pictorial approach is much more fun — and conceptually sticky — than we remember science being in school. The book starts with the mind-boggling story of how an inchoate mass of chemical elements formed into life over five billion years ago, and then drills down to the cellular level before getting into applied genetics (even Dolly the Sheep makes an appearance). With the help of friendly black-and-white cartoon panels, A,T,C, and G molecules cohere into a narrative beyond alphabet soup and the double helix, and we’re proud to be able to explain the difference between phenotypes and polypeptides again.

SMARTERCOMICS BUSINESS BOOKS

A new series of books by SmarterComics is harnessing the human tendency toward what’s known as the pictorial superiority effect, and adapting popular business and strategy books by iconic thought-leaders into visually-driven narratives. Among the series so far: Wired editor Chris Anderson‘s The Long Tail, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, and the Sun Tzu classic The Art of War. Great graphics illustrate Anderson’s argument around the death of “common culture,” Hill’s endorsement of the practical power of positive thinking, and entrepreneur Robert Renteria‘s rise from gang violence to civic leadership.

Read our full review of the SmarterComics series here.

THE INFLUENCING MACHINE

One of the coolest and most charming book releases of this year, The Influencing Machine is a graphic novel about the media, its history, and its many maladies — think The Information meets The Medium is the Massage meets Everything Explained Through Flowcharts.

Written by Brooke Gladstone, longtime host of NPR’s excellent On the Media, and illustrated by cartoonist Josh Neufeld (yup, he of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge fame), The Influencing Machine takes a refreshingly alternative approach to the age-old issue of why we disparage and distrust the news. And as the book quickly makes clear, it has always been thus.

Read our recent full review here.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Melding a graphic novel, photo essay, and travelogue, The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders tells the story of photographer Didier Lefèvre’s 1986 journey through Afghanistan with the international non-profit organization Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Lefèvre documented the group’s harrowing covert tour from Pakistan into a nation gripped by violence in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. While a few of his 4,000-plus images were published upon his return to France, years passed before Lefèvre was approached by his friend, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, about collaborating on a book that would finally tell his remarkable story. The resulting effort, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier, is a seamless tour de force of reportage.

Read our full review here.

BURMA CHRONICLES

The lovely Burma Chronicles is another fortuitous creative byproduct of Doctors Without Borders. Comic book artist Guy Delisle travels around the world with his wife Nadège, an MSF doctor, tours which previously resulted in two other gorgeous works of graphic nonfiction — Shenzen: A Travelogue from China, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Delisle lives the atypical life of an NGO house husband-cum-cartoonist, alternating between inking panels and daily perambulations near Nobel Prize winner’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi‘s home, where the opposition figure was still under house arrest at the time he was in the country.

What makes Burma Chronicles so charming is its balance of quotidian domestic life and international affairs. Delisle’s growing knowledge of the country’s culture plays off the constant development of his infant son, lending the whole work (and the world) refreshing perspective.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED

If anyone could make grammar fun, it’s Maira Kalman. An update of William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White‘s definitive reference text on composition and form, The Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman’s signature whimsy with the indispensable styleguide to create an instant classic. The original Elements of Style was first published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use, and became canon after a 1959 reprint. We’re all for achieving “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English,” as White — who had studied under Strunk in college — described their collaboration; and the goal is made appropriately joyful in this new edition. In other words, we’d much rather be schooled in the basics of language usage by Kalman’s vibrant work than the old black-and-white Strunk & White.

A must-have for art lovers and the editorially exact alike, essays by White and fellow New Yorker contributor (and his stepson) Roger Angell put The Elements of Style Illustrated into historical context.

* * *

We hope you had as much fun as we did with this short survey of masterworks in a medium that doesn’t often get its due. Graphic nonfiction provides a clever solution to a perpetual problem — how to make audiences care about new or challenging material. These 10 books bring a childlike sense of wonder to their subjects, something that comes in part from the cross-disciplinary collaborations between artists, designers and writers that yielded the work in the first place. And they’re proof that you’re never too old to pick up a comic book.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

In The Plex: How Google Changed Our Lives and Everything Else

By:

What red gym balls have to do with censorship, privacy and organizing all the world’s information.

Earlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what beloved technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

For a taste, here’s Levy on what Google does and doesn’t know about you:

(For a more worrisome take, see Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

James Gleick writes in the New York Review of Books:

Most people have already forgotten how dark and unsignposted the Internet once was. A user in 1996, when the Web comprised hundreds of thousands of ‘sites’ with millions of ‘pages,’ did not expect to be able to search for ‘Olympics’ and automatically find the official site of the Atlanta games. That was too hard a problem. And what was a search supposed to produce for a word like ‘university’? AltaVista, then the leading search engine, offered up a seemingly unordered list of academic institutions, topped by the Oregon Center for Optics.” ~ James Gleick

(Gleick should know — he is the author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, easily the most important book on media history and information theory to come by in decades.)

More than an ambitious — and often entertaining — profile of one of today’s most powerful companies, In The Plex captures a priceless piece of cultural history, one that has shaped and continues to shape how we interact with information, the world and each other.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Where Children Sleep: James Mollison’s Poignant Photographs

By:

What the Amazon rainforest has to do with the Kaisut Desert and Fifth Avenue luxury.

On the heels of this morning’s homage to where children read and learn comes a curious look at where they sleep. That’s exactly what Kenyan-born, English-raised, Venice-based documentary photographer James Mollison explores in Where Children Sleep — a remarkable series capturing the diversity of and, often, disparity between children’s lives around the world through portraits of their bedrooms. The project began on a brief to engage with children’s rights and morphed into a thoughtful meditation on poverty and privilege, its 56 images spanning from the stone quarries of Nepal to the farming provinces of China to the silver spoons of Fifth Avenue.

From the start, I didn’t want it just to be about ‘needy children’ in the developing world, but rather something more inclusive, about children from all types of situations. It seemed to make sense to photograph the children themselves, too, but separately from their bedrooms, using a neutral background.” ~ James Mollison

Perhaps most interestingly, the book was written and designed as an empathy tool for 9-to-13-year-olds to better understand the lives of other children around the world, but it is also very much a poignant photographic essay on human rights for the adult reader.

7-year-old Indira works at a granite quarry and lives in a one-room house near Katmandu, Nepal, with her parents, brother and sister.

4-year-old Jasmine has participated in over 100 child beauty pageants and lives in a large house in the Kentucky countryside.

4-year-old Romanian boy who shares a mattress with his family in the outskirts of Rome.

8-year-old Justin plays football, basketball and baseball. He lives in a four-bedroom house in New Jersey.

Alyssa lives in a small wooden house with her family in Appalachia.

8-year-old Ahkohxet belongs to the Kraho tribe and lives in Brazil's Amazon basin.

9-year-old Dong shares a room with his parents, sister and grandfather, growing rice and sugar cane in China's Yunnan Province.

9-year-old Delanie aspires to be a fashion designer and lives with her parents and younger siblings in a large house in New Jersey.

9-year-old Tsvika and his siblings share a bedroom in an apartment in the West Bank, in a gated Orthodox Jewish community known as Beitar Illit.

9-year-old Jamie shares a top-floor apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue with his parents and three siblings. The family's two other homes are in Spain and the Hamptons.

10-year-old Ryuta is a champion sumo-wrestler living in Tokyo with his family.

12-year-old Lamine sleeps in a room shared with several other boys in the Koranic school in their Senegalese village.

11-year-old Joey, who killed his first deer when he was seven, lives in Kentucky with his family.

14-year-old Irkena is a member of the semi-nomadic Rendille tribe in Kenya and lives with his mother in a temporary homestead in the Kaisut Desert.

14-year-old Prena is a domestic worker in Nepal and lives in a cell-like room in the attic of the house where she works in Katmandu.

14-year-old Erien slept on the floor of her favela abode in Rio de Janeiro until the late stages of her pregnancy.

15-year-old Risa is training to be a geisha and shares a teahouse with 13 women in Kyoto, Japan.

Mollisey is represented by MAP and Flatland Gallery, and published by Chris Boot.

Where Children Sleep is reminiscent of Peter Menzels’s voyeuristic tours of the world through people’s diets and possessions, and JeongMee Yoon’s look at the conditioning of children’s gender identity through the color schemes of their bedrooms. The book’s glow-in-the-dark cover, a-la Radioactive, is a wonderfully playful cherry on top.

All images courtesy of James Mollison via The New York Times

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.