Lit, Illustrated: Five Fantastic Graphic Novels

An illustrator works on a graphic novel.
Harriet Russell

This year, some of the biggest names in cartooning offered major releases in genres ranging from alternative science fiction to historical fiction to memoir. Through a masterful blending of words and images, these five titles reveal the vast storytelling possibilities of the graphic-novel medium. Each book is created by a singular writer/artist, and offers a wholly unique point of view in both narrative and illustration.

Great entry points to the world of graphic storytelling and must-haves for longtime fans of the form, these picks are a tonic — and the perfect summer-reading adventure.

King City

King City

by Brandon Graham

Paperback, 424 pages, Image Comics, $19.99, published March 6 2012 | purchase

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King City
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Brandon Graham

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An alternative to this season's big-screen blockbusters, Brandon Graham's kung-fu sci-fi epic combines the widescreen action of Michael Bay with the sincere slacker comedy of Judd Apatow. The result is a heartfelt, lightning-paced story, lusciously realized through Graham's Moebius-meets-Miyazaki art style — to see what that looks like, click here. Following a thief and his superpowered cat as they make their way through a meticulously detailed futuristic city, the plot takes relatable problems like post-breakup depression and drug abuse, and adds an element of the fantastic. The depression is caused by an alien that has been sold to the mob, and the drug turns the users into the chalky substance they ingest. Graham quickly establishes King City as a place where anything can happen, and that unpredictability makes each page-turn a thrilling new reveal. It's also an amazing value for the price ($19.99), containing a wealth of backup material from Graham, along with short stories written and drawn by other independent creators.

Unterzakhn

Unterzakhn

by Leela Corman

Hardcover, 203 pages, Schocken, $24.95, published April 3 2012 | purchase

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Unterzakhn
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Leela Corman

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When those summer storm clouds come rolling in, reach for Leela Corman's tale of two sisters in early-1900s New York, a story that reminds you that no matter how bad the forecast looks, it can't be worse than what these women have to endure. Unterzakhn (Yiddish for "underthings") is a bleak yet touching look at twins who take distinctly different roads in life, but can't prevent their paths from intersecting. Spanning decades, the plot traces Esther and Fanya's growth from early adolescence to adulthood, with a brief flashback to their father's life in the old country. Corman's style, inspired by Russian folk art, has a crudeness that highlights the gritty urban environment, but the fluid line-work of her characters adds a touch of delicacy and grace to the proceedings. (In this excerpt, young Fanya is sent off through the city in search of "the lady doctor.") That contrast in the artwork perfectly represents the differences between the two sisters: Esther leads a life of glamour and indulgence, while Fanya pursues a more virtuous, and ultimately depressing, existence.

The Art of Daniel Clowes

The Art of Daniel Clowes

Modern Cartoonist

by Alvin Buenaventura

Hardcover, 224 pages, Harry N Abrams Inc, $40, published April 1 2012 | purchase

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The Art of Daniel Clowes
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Modern Cartoonist
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Alvin Buenaventura

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Daniel Clowes' stark depictions of human despair have made him one of the most prominent cartoonists in the industry, and his extensive body of work — Ghost World (1997), David Boring (2000), The Death-Ray (2011), among many others — is spotlighted in this beautiful monograph. Containing previously unpublished material like holiday cards and childhood sketches, and original artwork from his difficult-to-find early work and later masterpieces, Modern Cartoonist shows Clowes' impressive evolution since his beginnings as a gross-out comix artist in the vein of R. Crumb. An extensive interview with Clowes highlights the major moments in his life and career, while also providing insight into his opinions on the human mind, Hollywood and technology. Chris Ware, Chip Kidd and others contribute essays discussing Clowes' influence, and having these pieces side by side with the artwork makes his contributions to the graphic-novel medium all the clearer. If you're unfamiliar with Clowes' work, editor Alvin Buenaventura has created a perfect introduction to the auteur that will have you seeking out more.

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother?

A Comic Drama

by Alison Bechdel

Hardcover, 286 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22, published May 1 2012 | purchase

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Are You My Mother?
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A Comic Drama
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Alison Bechdel

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When it was released in 2006, the sophisticated, deeply personal memoir Fun Home established Alison Bechdel as among the most honest and fearless of contemporary cartoonists. For her follow-up graphic novel, Bechdel switches the focus from her dad to her mom, and the predictably complex and explosive mother/daughter dynamic amplifies nearly every aspect of her work. Using the works — and, in some cases, the actual texts — of Virginia Woolf and child psychologist Donald Winnicott as her literary guide, Bechdel examines her relationship with her mother from childhood to the present day. She has a unique talent for pairing narrative through-lines that stir the intellect with imagery that goes for the gut. (Click here to see her story, told in red-and-gray hues.) Bechdel's past 25 years of therapy and her subsequent obsession with psychoanalysis have given her the ability to craft a loving tribute to her mother without shying away from the scarier aspects of their relationship. It's a heartwarming but never schmaltzy read that will make you appreciate your own parents' sacrifices.

Jim Henson's Tale of Sand

Jim Henson's Tale of Sand

by Ramon K. Perez

Hardcover, 1 v. (unpaged), Pgw, $29.95, published January 31 2012 | purchase

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Jim Henson's Tale of Sand
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Ramon K. Perez

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With its sturdy binding, thick paper stock and Moleskine-like elastic bookmark, Tale of Sand is the perfect book to take to the beach. Ramon Perez's stunning adaptation of an unproduced screenplay by Muppets mogul Jim Henson and his writing partner Jerry Juhl has garnered five Eisner Award nominations this year, and they're well deserved. With little plot or dialogue, Henson and Juhl's script is an abstract journey through the American Southwest, following an unnamed man as he crosses the desert toward an unknown destination, and encountering exceedingly random obstacles along the way. The story is more about atmosphere than character development, and Perez pulls the reader into the world with gorgeous landscapes that are almost too big for the graphic novel's oversized format. There's a heavy animation influence in his artwork, making it an ideal fit for a narrative that is essentially a Wile E. Coyote short on acid (click here to see what I mean.) With minimal text, there's very little reading involved with Tale of Sand, but it's a remarkable example of the type of visual stimulation that only graphic novels can achieve.

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