Comics 101- What Is A Graphic Novel, Anyway?
Short answer: it's a comic book. That might even be my final answer too. I think the only reason the term "graphic novel" was coined was to distance it from its lowly cousin, the $0.75 newsprint monthly floppy starring superheroes that no self-respecting adult would be caught dead reading. Paradigm Lost! This is no longer true at all, and really never was. I find that it's a useful term so long as it's all-encompassing, but not if it's meant to be exclusionary. In practical terms, the differences mainly seem to be a matter of formatting and marketing. Graphic novels tend to be released as one self-contained story, typically in softcover (not paperback) and occasionally hardcover, rather than in monthly installments like a Batman comic. But then every six months or so all the individual Batmans and Spider-Mans and what-have-yous are collected up and released in a single edition which some people call a graphic novel. Call it what you want, the underlying artform is the same- sequential art.
Having said all that, here are some graphic novel recommendations! AKA some comic books that I really liked that I think you might like as well. I am not as versed in this world as I am in the weekly Marvel/DC/Image releases so many of these are stolen from Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (and Monkeysee blog) or from friends on Twitter. I’m going to assume you already know about Maus and Persepolis and the other “famous” ones.
One company I've found that puts out consistently awesome graphic novels is called First Second. I have yet to read a bad book put out by these guys. Just last night I read and loved Danica Novgorodoff's The Undertaking of Lily Chen. Set in modern-day China, it's about the old tradition of burying unmarried sons with female corpses so he will have someone to give companionship in the afterlife. The story by itself is fantastic but what makes this book shine is the marriage of traditional Chinese painting with modern cartoon figures. Neither of which died too young or is an exhumed corpse.
Speaking of China, I'm a huge fan of Gene Luen Yang, who wrote American Born Chinese and Level Up, and most recently the gorgeous two-book companion set called Boxers and Saints. Boxers being one book, Saints being the other. It's about the Boxer Uprising of the early 1900s. Even if you have no interest in Chinese history this set still works as a great story. All the history books I've read on the Boxers (The Righteous and Harmonious Fists) are from the POV of Westerners so this is a very welcome addition to the canon.
Another favorite is Raina Telgemeier, who has produced two excellent all-ages graphic novels with a third on the way shortly. Smile is about her own youth when she fell and knocked some teeth into her gums. It’s very good. Drama is less autobiographical but also a teenage, well, drama about being in the drama club. The forthcoming book is called Sisters, and is more of a companion to Smile. Looking forward to it!
In a similar vein, I'd like to recommend Peanut, by Ayun Halliday (illustrated by Paul Hoppe). It took me awhile to find this on google, being so close in name to Peanuts and also peanuts, and when I finally did, it was kind of spoilery. Just read it and don’t ruin the minor but fun surprise.
One of the many things at my local comic shop that I drool over before ultimately choosing fiscal responsibility is a copy of Ursula Vernon's Digger Omnibus. Digger started life as a webcomic, one of the best, even won some Eisners and a Hugo I believe. Plus I have a soft spot for Vernon as I even have one of her original paintings hanging in my living room. Digger is about a wombat and Ganesh and . . . it's just really good. You should buy it for me!
I should probably include a Canadian on this list, eh? There are many to choose from, such as Faith Erin Hicks and Kate Beaton. But I will align myself with Sara Quin and choose Jeff Lemire. (Sara once defended Lemire’s Essex County in our national book contest, Canada Reads.) Lemire’s art may not be for everyone, but it does grow on you. I promise! His writing is quiet, soulful and often heartbreaking, so hopefully that will encourage you to check out Essex County or Underwater Welder or the collected Sweet Tooth. All excellent. His website is here.
Finally, I want to share my love for Hopeless Savages, by Jen Van Meter. This is a series about punk rock and rebellion and family. It’s really uplifting and smart. My only complaint? She’s not making more at the moment. We demand more!
Alright that’s all I have room for. Apologies to all the fine graphic novelists I didn’t mention, that list is staggeringly large. Tweet me or comment below your own recs if you like!
Enjoy all these fine comic books! Or graphic novels or whatever you want to call them.
- Nathan Waddell