2012 In Review: 4 Great Graphic Novels We Haven't Told You About Yet Glen Weldon wraps up his 2012 review with four graphic novels that cover territory from kids with secrets to ghosts in graveyards to a difficult experience in the art world.
NPR logo 2012 In Review: 4 Great Graphic Novels We Haven't Told You About Yet

2012 In Review: 4 Great Graphic Novels We Haven't Told You About Yet

The cover of Wandering Son.

Ok, same drill as last Friday's post about my favorite ongoing comics series of 2012: We've highlighted a lot of great graphic novels over the past year, many of which belong on "Best of 2012" lists. But instead of ginning up new ways to tell you those books are good, I'll simply link you back to what we've said before about Building Stories, Sailor Twain, The Underwater Welder, The Hypo, Marbles, Are You My Mother, God and Science: The Return of the Ti-Girls, and Drama, Crackle of the Frost, Little White Duck, and Gloriana.

So I figured I'd use this space, as the last hours of 2012 tick down to midnight, to play catch-up and highlight four of this year's great graphic novels that we haven't gotten around to covering. This, like last Friday's list of ongoing series, consists of more personal choices - the books I found myself pressing into friends' hands over and over again.

2012 In Review: 4 Great Graphic Novels We Haven't Told You About Yet

  • The Making Of

    The cover of THE MAKING OF.

    In his 2010 graphic novel The Wrong Place, Belgian artist Brecht Evans used vibrantly colorful ink washes to convey the chaotic scrum of urban life. We followed his main character through a cityscape in which every dance club, art gallery, wine bar and apartment building offered up cut-away-views of the figures who joylessly toiled and rutted within.

    In The Making Of, Evans uses similar techniques to expose and satirize the pretentions and preposterousness of the art world. Struggling artist Petersen travels to a small village for its first biennial, only to find to his horror that the local art community is much less sophisticated than he imagines himself to be. As he rallies them behind his grand project, all the while offering condescending lectures on the nature of art, tensions mount. Evens playfully underscores Petersen's obtuseness by repeatedly arranging the book's characters and landscapes in tableaux that evoke familiar works by Picasso, Chagall, Van Gogh and others, only to have Petersen completely ignore them. A funny, smart and gorgeously rendered book.

  • Heads or Tails

    The cover of HEADS OR TAILS.

    To describe the plots of Lilli Carré's short stories, which combine steel-trap plotting with the emotional logic of dreams, might make them sound formulaic. A critic awakes from an accident to find he has been robbed of his powers of discernment. A woman finds a doppelganger is taking over her life. A girl hears a phantom marching band in her head and longs for it to stop – until the day it suddenly does.

    But these aren't the steel-trap ironic twists of Serling and O. Henry. Carre offers up her characters and situations with a detached, non-judgmental and entirely un-ironic deftness. Her artwork is elegant, deceptively simple, and not a little bit creepy, filled with discomfiting undercurrents that carry storylines down weird and twisty turns.

    "These hot winds," muses one character, moments after dropping her child off at school, "what a bother. I suppose I could give in just for a minute or two...." and promptly, unceremoniously, allows herself to be lifted into the air. The whole collection has the feel of a dream in which remembering how to fly is as simple as forgetting that you can't.

  • Wandering Son, Volume Two

    The cover of Wandering Son.

    In the first volume of Shimura Takako's Wandering Son, we met fifth-grader Shuichi, a boy who wants to be a girl, and his friend Yoshino, a girl who wants to be a boy. In that first book, their secret was shared by only one mutual friend, and the world in which they could be themselves was small and relatively safe.

    In Volume Two, however, the outside world begins to intrude, and the stakes rise considerably. The events depicted are the familiar, everyday traumas of school life –locker room taunts, inappropriate crushes, etc. – but in Shimura's quiet, closely observed telling, we feel how much Shuichi and Yoshino's secret adds layers of tension, confusion and dread. Translator Matt Thorn reminds us in a brief essay that Wandering Son is not the kind of manga in which a happy ending is guaranteed, and that transgendered children in Japan face very different cultural challenges than those in the West. You'll thus be grateful for the moments of realistic, untempered joy Shimura allows her two protagonists here, as you wait with nervous anticipations for the travails that lie ahead for them in subsequent volumes.

  • Friends With Boys

    The cover of Friends With Boys.

    Maggie is a smart, self-assured tomboy whose world is in flux. Her mother has disappeared. After years of being homeschooled, she's entering high school, where, she soon learns, her three older brothers have lives of their own. Plus there's that whole thing with the ghost she keeps seeing in the town's graveyard.

    Faith Erin Hicks has a knack for finding affinities between the familiar reality of high school, with its tribulations that bedevil many a YA protagonist, and the supernatural world, which exists on the level of symbols and metaphor (she showed as much in the sharp-eyed and clever The War at Ellsmere in 2008). Her latest graphic novel finds Hicks exerting even greater control of her gifts; here, the parallels she draws do more than simply advance the plot, they show us something crucial about Maggie. The lesson she learns by novel's end isn't a particularly tidy one, because the world is a good deal more complex than she realized. That's what makes Friends With Boys my favorite coming-of-age tale of the year.