The Best Graphic Novels and Graphic Nonfiction of 2012
From music history to war trials by way of Hunter S. Thompson and Steve Jobs, with a side of Ancient China.
By Maria Popova
Following this year’s best science books, art books, design books, philosophy and psychology books, children’s books, and history books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s finest graphic novels and best additions to these 10 favorite masterworks of graphic nonfiction.
GRAPHIC CANON VOL. 2
Earlier this year, Russ Kick gave us the the first installment of his Graphic Canon trilogy, which culls illustrated adaptations of 190 classic literary works from more than 130 contemporary graphic artists. This season, he followed up with The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray (UK; public library), which covers a remarkable spectrum of literature since 1800 and spans everything from “the bad boys of Romanticism” — Keats, Byron, and Shelley — to cornerstones of science and philosophy like Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to prior favorites like Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick illustrations. The tome is the best thing in literary comics since Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and a fine complement to the best graphic nonfiction of the past few years.
Of particular fascination and delight to me, as a hopeless Lewis Carroll fan, are the gorgeous takes on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, “Jabberwocky,” and “The Hunting of the Snark.”
Originally featured in October.
Building Stories (UK; public library) is a remarkable storytelling artifact by cartoonist Chris Ware, more than a decade in the making — a giant box containing fourteen individual print ephemera (books, booklets, comic strips, magazines, and even a gold-rimmed hardcover and a board game), each telling the interlocking tales of different residents of the same three-story Chicago brownstone, from the couple caught in a loveless relationship on the second floor, to the elderly spinster grappling with her own aging, to the bee trapped in the basement. Somewhere between Paula Scher’s vintage children’s book The Brownstone, the Cold-War-era experimental Polish short film Blok, and artist Yasmine Chatila’s Stolen Moments series, the project — which I hesitate to call a “book,” since it’s a lavish deal more — is at once voyeuristic and deeply intimate, exploring the boundless complexities of inner worlds, relationships, and the hopeful hopelessness of being human.
Image via The Telegraph
Who hasn’t tried when passing by a building, or a home, at night to peer past half-closed shades and blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse into the private lies of its inhabitants. Anything… the briefest blossom of a movement… maybe a head, bobbing up… a bit of hair… a mysterious shadow… or a flash of flesh… seems somehow more revealing than any generous greeting or calculated cordiality. … Even the disappointing diffusion of a sheer curtain can suggest the most colorful bouquet of unspeakable secrets.
The stories and stories-within-stories are all told through the perspective of one character, the female amputee on the third floor, deliberately left unnamed. In fact, part of what makes Ware’s feat so remarkable is that he manages to explore the intricacies of gender, and of women’s everyday psychoemotional turmoils, with a remarkable blend of rawness and sensitivity, without any of the cumbersome self-righteousness and forced political correctness typical of writing that is about gender.
On a recent episode of Design Matters, the inimitable Debbie Millman (♥ ♥) talks to Ware about being influenced by Charles Schulz and Art Spiegelman, about his ethos and sensibility, and about the fascinating, layered narratives and characters in Building Stories. Here are a few favorite excerpts from the interview:
On giving shape to the human experience:
When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, ‘Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes’… And that seems ridiculous to me — I mean, that’s what writing is about. It’s about trying to understand other people.
On the relationship between storytelling and empathy:
On the characters in Building Stories, the role of sadness, and what writing is really about:
On the building itself as a character:
On destiny, sexuality, the essence of literature, and the tragedy of our unlived lives — including one of the most beautiful phrases ever uttered, “veering towards happiness”:
When people’s paths cross, is there some higher plan to it all? Do all of these frozen moments just represent accidents, or genuine missed opportunities?
Do yourself a favor and listen to Design Matters in its entirety (or, better yet, subscribe in iTunes), then do yourself a second favor and grab your very own copy of Building Stories. You’ll never look at a city block, or a dimly lit window, or a bee the same way again.
Originally featured in October.
THE CARTER FAMILY
The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (UK; public library) by writer Frank Young and illustrator David Lasky tells the colorful story of the first true country music superband, among whose hundreds of recordings were such classics as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower.” More than a mere chronicle of the family’s rise to success, this beautifully illustrated graphic and tenderly told story explores everything from the nature of creativity to civil rights to the frictions between poverty and wealth — and, above all, the boundless power of love, music, and the love of music. The book comes with a CD of original Carter Family music.
BONUS: Complement with this fantastic Carter Family tribute album, featuring such icons as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson.
The past few years have given us some stellar graphic nonfiction, lending the comic book genre to “grown-up” storytelling ranging from photojournalism to media history to biography. Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson (UK; public library) offers exactly what it says on the tin, and does so brilliantly — an uncommon biography of legendary iconoclastic author (and garden fence expert) Hunter S. Thompson, revered as the father of Gonzo journalism and reviled as an addict, a bum, a liar, a thief, a sociopath, a hedonistic outlaw. In bold black-and-white graphics and a few well-chosen words, author Will Bingley and illustrator Anthony Hope-Smith tell the story of how a disillusioned troublemaker kid from Louisville became a global literary icon, exploring in the process the most uncomfortable nooks and crannies of social order, individual liberty, and American culture.
Hope-Smith tells The Wall Street Journal:
Visually, the trick was to not shy away from the ‘Fear and Loathing Hunter.’ Rather we could have fun playing with him but then be ready to dial it right back in order to show his humanity through subtlety of expression and body language. We tried to create a balance between the man and his performance.
Originally featured in May.
CITIZENS OF NO PLACE
In Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel (UK; public library), designer Jimenez Lai blends the ethos of urbanism with the sensibility of manga to deliver a stunning black-and-white manifesto for place, public space, and the function of the imaginary and the implausible in architectural theory and criticism.
John McMorrough writes in the introductory essay on architecture and utopias:
In tellings stories of twelve-kilometer-high towers, or rooms without gravity or orientation, or of taking the possibility of teleportation seriously and envisioning the instantaneous transfer of goods globally (an internet of things indeed), Lai sets his architectural imagination to just the other side of plausibility. The desirability of these proposals is yet to be determined, and that’s precisely the point: these cartoon architectures act as test cases for architecture’s capacity to organize existence.
A WRINKLE IN TIME
Half a century ago, Madeleine L’Engle introduced Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, Calvin O’Keefe, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit — to the world. And what more fantastic way to celebrate the iconic fantasy novel’s 50th anniversary than with Hope Larson’s illustrated adaptation, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel (UK; public library)? The expressive black-white-and-blue illustrations, reminiscent of Seth’s recent collaboration with Lemony Snicket on Who Could It Be At This Hour?, pay homage to the original cover and tell L’Engle’s timeless story with equal parts heart, intelligence, and sensitivity.
A SECRET HISTORY OF COFFEE, COCA & COLA
From Ricardo Cortés, the illustrator behind the irreverent modern classic Go The Fuck To Sleep, comes A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola (UK; public library) — a fascinating and beautifully illustrated piece of visual journalism, six years in the making, tracing the little-known interwoven histories of coffee, the coca leaf and kola nut, Coca-Cola, caffeine, and cocaine, with a lens towards the broader role of prohibition in contemporary culture.
Like most recreational drugs, cocaine got its start as a medical aid, and like many modern psychological fixations, it goes back to Freud. Cortés explores its cultural evolution and the eventual synthesis of coke into Coke:
At first, experiments with cocaine were confined to medical practice.
In 1884, Sigmund Freud began to use it as a treatment for depression. He was enthralled by the ‘magical substance’ and enthusiastically introduced it to colleagues and friends, including an oculist named Carl Koller. By then, cocaine’s numbing effect had been observed on the tongue. Koller tested cocaine as a regional anesthetic; first on the eyes of animals and then his own. His discovery was a medical revolution.
Previously, surgeries were performed with general anesthesia or none at all. Ether and chloroform allowed severe operations without pain, although with significant risks from inducing unconsciousness. As the first true local anesthetic, cocaine opened the practice of surgery to previously impossible procedures.
Cocaine’s popularity spread to other branches of therapy, and its use quickly grew beyond anesthesia and melancholia.
Cocaine eased toothaches and labor pains. It was said to cure fatigue, nervousness, impotence, even addiction to the opium poppy’s alkaloid morphine. ‘Coke’ could be purchased in asthma medicines, snuffs, and tonics like Coca-Cola — ‘The Brain Workers’ Panacea,’ touted to relieve mental and physical exhaustion, was first sold in
But as a lover of letters, I find the most fascinating part of the book to be the prolific correspondence between legendary Bureau of Prohibition anti-drug kingpin Harry J. Anslinger, who spent 42 years pioneering and enforcing anti-narcotic policies in America, and Coca-Cola executive Ralph Hayes, which Cortés uncovered in the course of his research. These documents, spanning several decades of friendly exchange, reveal Anslinger’s instrumental role in helping Coke not only to import coca leaves legally, an activity otherwise illegal in the US, but also to do so with exclusive rights.
The book is partly a response, but mostly a stubborn yet thoughtful retort to critical reactions to Cortés’s 2005 science picture-book It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story of Marijuana and sarcastic comments about whether teaching kids about cocaine would be next.
Cortés ends with a wonderful throw-back to an obscure Bach cantata about coffee, displaying the composer’s uncommon sense of humor:
The cat won’t stop catching mice,
and young ladies will hold to their coffee. Mother loves her coffee,
Grandmother drinks it, too.
Who, in the end, would scold the daughters?
“Although I caught a buzz last year as the illustrator of Go The Fuck To Sleep,” Cortés tells me, “my real interest is studying the evolution of legal and cultural taboos against inebriates (especially biota).” And, indeed, it shows — A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola is as thoroughly researched and absorbingly narrated as it is charmingly illustrated.
Originally featured earlier this month.
THE ART OF WAR
Some two thousand years ago, Chinese general Sun Tzu penned The Art of War — an ancient military treatise that went on to become one of the most timeless and revered strategy books of all time, its insights extending beyond the military and into just about every domain of tactical intelligence. In The Art of War: A Graphic Novel (UK; public library), writer Kelly Roman and illustrator Michael DeWeese adapt the classic to a futuristic world where wars are waged on a militarized Wall Street, China is the dominant global superpower, and Sun Tzu’s ancient teachings unfold in a dystopian interplay between corporate greed and the undying human capacity for empathy.
Though exceedingly gory and lacking the edutainment value of graphic novels as serious nonfiction, The Art of War: A Graphic Novel peels away the many layers of what heroism means, what it can be and should be, to paint a portrait of a world that might be around the corner if we don’t align our corporate strategies with our cultural and human values.
Originally featured in July.
A decade after his seminal masterpiece of journalism in comic form, Palestine, Maltese-American comics artist and journalist Joe Sacco, whom Christopher Hitchens once termed “our moral draughtsman,” brings us Journalism (UK; public library — a magnificent master-collection of Sacco’s finest graphic reporting, spanning more than a decade of work and covering politics and human rights across such pressing subjects as the fate of Saharan refugees, the Iraq war, the Hague trial of Bosnian tyrant Milan Kovacevic, the Abu Ghraib torture scandals, and more, all the while peeling away at the most resonant generalities of the human condition with his darkly humorous and wry visual reportage on specific situations and historical events.
THE BEATLES IN COMICS
The Beatles were only together for a decade, yet they remain the most massive and enduring phenomenon in music culture some four decades after their breakup. Shortly after the recent discovery of the Fab Four’s final photo shoot comes Beatles in Comic Strips (UK; public library), edited by journalist and music critic Enzo Gentile — a grown-up Beatle geek’s counterpart to the lovely vintage children’s book We Love You Beatles, collecting more than 200 rare cartoon strips dedicated to John, Paul, George, and Ringo to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their first single, “Love Me Do.”
Originally featured in August.
BONUS: THE ZEN OF STEVE JOBS
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs have been one of 2011’s best biographies, but it severely skirts a significant aspect of Jobs’ life. The Zen of Steve Jobs (UK; public library), produced by Forbes and data visualization studio JESS3, is a graphic novella that explores the period of Jobs’s life when he was fired from Apple in the mid-80s and how he dealt with it — by turning to Buddhism and reconnecting with a friend he had met nearly a decade earlier, Zen-Buddhist priest and designer Kobun Chino Otogawa (1938-2002), who not only taught Jobs the elements of Zen practice but also shared his passion for sophisticated design and aesthetic rigor. Though most of the book is speculative, reimagining a narrative based on sparse background facts from a relationship that took place mostly in private, it is unexpectedly rich in its graphic simplicity.
A lot of these ideas of simplicity, sophistication, beauty, control came out of this Zen period. The way that we thought about this period in Steve Jobs’s life is kind of like ‘the lost years’ — it is not only the moment when he is the hero, and goes away, and comes back, and does all these triumphant things, but it’s also a period of his life that we maybe haven’t seen.”
Originally featured in January.
Published December 17, 2012