Perhaps you’ve heard all the hubbub about comics and graphic novels, but you’re not quite sure where to start. Or maybe you’ve got a nerdy friend you’d like to surprise with just the right gift. Well, you’ve come to the right place...
Our annual survey of great graphic novels runs the gamut from superhero comics to deeply personal biographies. There’s something here for absolutely everyone.
It’s never surprising to find that Marvel and DC Comics, the Big Two of American comics publishing, are in competition for comics fandom’s attention. This time that competition is in the form of two visual reference works that celebrate separate but formidable anniversaries. DK is releasing two big boxed hardcover works. Marvel Comics: 75 Years Cover Art by Alan Cowsill is a super collection of covers from 75 years of the company, featuring heroes like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, drawn by iconic artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Matthew K. Manning’s Batman: A Visual History does the same for the 75th anniversary of the Dark Knight, a seminal character from the beginnings of the superhero genre in the late 1930s who continues to be a major figure in the current DC Comics Universe, as well as on film.
Batman: A Visual History by Matthew K. Manning (DK, $50)
Marvel Comics: 75 Years of Cover Art by Alan Cowsill (DK, $50)
Fiction: Life on the Page
This year’s fiction list contains a crop of works that bring human relations vividly to life. There’s a procession of sullen, awkwardly erotic students in Jamie Coe’s Art Schooled. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer is a wan, beautifully depicted story of idyllic preteen friendship and parental sorrow, 85-year-old iconic American cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s Kill My Mother is a lively fictional tribute to the 1940s noir films of his youth, full of snappy dialogue and plot twists done in a rich upgrade of his signature loose drawing style. Superstar manga artist Moyoco Anno delivers In Clothes Called Fat, a bracing melodrama about female body image, while Archie Comics manages to keep the beloved red-haired teenager relevant to a new generation of fans by killing him off (!) in The Death of Archie: A Life Celebrated by Paul Kupperberg, Pat Kennedy, Tim Kennedy, and Fernando Ruiz. Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley’s bestselling graphic novel Seconds is a hip and funny supernatural tale about a restaurant, a driven female chef, and the gift—or is it a curse?—of magically undoing one’s worst decisions. Rendered in compelling deep shadows and stark bright light, Michael Cho’s impressive debut graphic novel, Shoplifter, is a stylishly drawn profile of a contemporary, emotionally dissatisfied young woman.
Art Schooled by Jamie Coe (NoBrow, $22.95)
In Clothes Called Fat by Moyoco Anno (Vertical, $16.95)
The Death of Archie: A Life Celebrated by Kupperberg et al. (Archie, $14.99)
Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer (Norton/Liveright, $27.95)
Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Ballantine, $25)
Shoplifter by Michael Cho (Pantheon, $19.95)
This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (Roaring Brook/First Second, $17.99)
Some stories can blow your mind with ferociously imaginative artwork and otherworldly narratives. Take Charles Burns’s Sugar Skull, the last volume of a series that began with X’ed Out and The Hive. It’s a masterful reimagination of Hergé’s Tintin that brings the classic Euro-comics series into a bleak and skull-lined nightmare world. Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies is a majestic metacomic set in a grim netherworld full of wacky technology. The inhabitants are oppressed by demonic spirits and eventually saved by an oddball group of charmingly thoughtful superheroes. Paul Pope has created a new full-color version of his 1999 black-and-white work, Escapo, the tale of a circus escape artist and a dazzling love-driven bet with Death personified; this edition includes 50 pages of new content. The Leaning Girl by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten, part of their acclaimed Obscure Cities graphic novel series, is the strange tale of a teen girl who wakes up to discover she can only walk at a severe angle to the ground; long out of print, the book returns in trade paperback from a new publisher and with a new English translation. Hubert and Kerascoët’s Beauty, an elegantly illustrated fable about a rough peasant girl magically transformed into a village beauty, rounds out the list.
Beauty by Hubert and Kerascoët (NBM, $27.99)
Escapo by Paul Pope (Z2, $24.99)
The Leaning Girl by François Schuiten and
Benoît Peeters (Alaxis, $29.99)
Sugar Skull by Charles Burns (Pantheon, $23)
The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple (Roaring Brook/First Second, $19.99)
It’s a Love Thing
Dean Haspiel offers his metaphorical take on the complexities of love and relationships in Fear My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience, the newest episode in the action-packed lives of Billy Dogma and Jane Legit, two zany and poetic superheroes of love. For even more operatic relationship drama, pick up Superman/Wonder Woman: Power Couple, Vol. 1 by Charles Soule and Tony S. Daniel, a superpowered hookup between DC’s biggest stars in the form of an epic romance novel. In The Love Bunglers, Jaime Hernandez delivers the latest moving iteration of the life of his enduring heroine, Maggie, as she reunites with her on-again, off-again lover, Ray Dominguez.
Fear My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience by Dean Haspiel (Z2, $19.99)
The Love Bunglers by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics, $19.99)
Superman/Wonder Woman: Power Couple, Vol. 1 by Charles Soule and Tony S. Daniel (DC, $24.99)
This year sees two classic prose works interpreted and transformed by comics artists into fascinating graphic stories. Régis Loisel’s Peter Pan is a gloomy, Dickensian version of J.M. Barrie’s classic fairy tale that portrays Peter Pan before Neverland. In Loisel’s version, Pan is an urchin on the miserable streets of 19th-century London, and Tinkerbell is stacked like a pin-up bombshell. Legendary Montreal cartoonist Réal Godbout has adapted Amerika, Franz Kafka’s great absurdist novel, recreating in pictures the young immigrant Karl Rossman’s surreal exile to the magical land of opportunity and adventure called America.
Amerika by Franz Kafka, adapted by Réal Godbout (Conundrum, $20)
Peter Pan by Régis Loisel (Soaring Penguin, $49.95)
The Comics Field, Yesterday and Today
Before the 1960s underground comics movement existed, there was Harvey Kurtzman, a brilliant humorist, comics artist and creator of Mad magazine, and a huge influence on comics movements to come. Originally published in 1958, Kurtzman’s Jungle Book is a masterful, long out-of-print satire of 1950s media clichés and an early example of the “graphic novel,” or book format comic. The new deluxe hardcover edition includes introductions by cartoonists Gilbert Shelton and Art Spiegelman. You can make the case that American underground comics didn’t exist before the first issue of Zap Comix in 1968. Zap founder R. Crumb contributes an introductory essay to The Complete Zap Comix, a six-volume, hardcover boxed set collecting every issue of the groundbreaking series. It includes works by Spain Rodriguez, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton, and many more of the pioneers who transformed American comics in the 1960s. Go back even further into cartooning history and you’ll find Puck magazine, a political humor magazine founded in 1877, whose cartoons could lift or swamp a politician’s career. What Fools These Mortals Be, edited by Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West, collects more than 280 color cartoons from the magazine’s earliest years, including a 1914 cartoon by Rube Goldberg. The creative legacy of modern comics is celebrated in The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio, a giant collection of more than 350 carefully photographed original comics pages (with blue lines, white-out corrections, and paste-up patches intact) by artists from the legendary studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, edited and with an introduction by Mark Evanier as well as an afterword by Simon’s son. Immersing yourself in all this history will add nuance to your appreciation of Best American Comics 2014, edited by renowned comics artist Scott McCloud. Working with series editor Bill Kartalopoulos, McCloud has selected works by well-known artists such as Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez, as well as comics newcomers like Congressman John Lewis (March: Book One) and Allie Brosh (Hyperbole and a Half).
Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book by Harvey Kurtzman (Dark Horse/Kitchen Sink, $24.99)
The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio, edited by Mark Evanier (Abrams ComicArts, $60)
The Best American Comics 2014, edited by Scott McCloud and Bill Kartalopoulos (HMH, $25)
The Complete Zap Comix (Fantagraphics, $500)
What Fools These Mortals Be: The Story of Puck, America’s First and Most Influential Magazine of Color Political Cartoons by Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West (IDW, $59.99)
The Intimate Details of Complicated Lives
Biographical and autobiographical comics get more vivid, beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking every year. John Porcellino, best known for his poetic, simply drawn mini-comics, has created something of a personal epic in The Hospital Suite, wherein he details his physical and mental health struggles—an almost overwhelming litany of severe allergic reactions, grueling surgery, and full-blown OCD—and his emergence, relatively intact, from years of debilitating illness. Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction, is a comic and moving story about caring for her aging, difficult, and wildly entertaining parents in the last years of their lives. Lucy Knisley’s An Age of License: A Travelogue recalls a book tour through Europe, a love affair along the way, and the ways that both experiences transformed her perspective on life and maturity. Karl Marx, a villain to capitalists and revolutionary teacher for the working class, is transformed into a superhero (complete with a cape and spandex costume) in Corinne Maier and Anne Simon’s Marx, a humorous and gracefully quirky cartoon biography of the great political philosopher.
An Age of License: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley (Fantagraphics, $19.99)
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury, $28)
The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino (D&Q, $22.95)
Marx by Corinne Maier and Anne Simon (NoBrow, $19.95)
Cool Stuff for Cool Kids
A terrifying winter visitor and the ghostly singing of a disassembled corpse are just two of the creepy, vividly drawn elements in Emily Carroll’s book of spooky short stories, Through the Woods. George O’Connor’s The Olympians is a six-volume boxed set (with a bonus poster) that retells the origin stories of Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Athena, and the rest of the Greek gods, this time captured in the form of action-packed and well-researched comics adventure stories. Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters, a delightful look at her childhood, is packaged with its companion memoir, Smile, to make a boxed set of stories about growing up in a warm and sometimes precarious middle-class family. And to celebrate the 40th anniversary of adorable cartoon and global phenomenon Hello Kitty, Traci Todd and Elizabeth Kawasaki have edited Hello Kitty Hello 40, a big hardcover anthology of ridiculously cute Hello Kitty stories created by a devoted group of artists.
Hello Kitty Hello 40: A Celebration in 40 Stories, edited by Traci Todd and Elizabeth Kawasaki (Viz, $29.99)
The Olympians by George O’Connor (Roaring Brook/First Second, $59.99)
Sisters/Smile by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic/Graphix, $21.98)
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (S&S, $22)
Nonfiction, History, and How-To
Bestselling author Max Brooks switches his attention from the zombie apocalypse to the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment of Harlem N.Y., joining with artist Canaan White to depict the horror of WWI trench warfare—and a racist U.S. Army bureaucracy, which caused the heroic black regiment even more trouble than the Germans did—in Harlem Hellfighters. Mexican-American academic and essayist Ilan Stavans reframes American history from his perspective as a naturalized citizen and son of immigrant parents in A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States. Lalo Alcaraz illustrates this witty, left-leaning view of U.S. history from Jamestown to the death of Trayvon Martin. And finally, comics meets the DIY movement in Howtoons: Weapons of Mass Construction, a collection of stories by Saul Griffith and Nick Dragotta that teaches kids (and adults) how to transform their homes and neighborhoods into hands-on laboratories for creating fun, cutting-edge and low-tech gadgets of all kinds.
Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and Canaan White (Broadway, $16.95)
Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction by Saul Griffith and Nick Dragotta (Image Comics, $17.99)
A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States[/em] by Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz (Basic, $26.99)