Three Excellent Graphic Novels

I've been reading a lot of graphic novels recently, getting a mini-crash course in this genre.  Here are three that stood out, both for their compelling stories and their outstanding art:

For Kids/All Ages:

Return of the Dapper Men, written by Jim McCann and illustrated by Janet Lee (Archaia Comics 2010). In this steampunk fantasy, robots live above ground, children live below ground, and time has stopped, robbing the purpose and meaning of life from the land of Anorev (Verona, spelled backward: yes, there is a subtle Romeo and Juliet subplot between the two protagonists, the boy Ayden and the girl robot Zoe).  One day, 314 Dapper Men fall from the sky, all identical with their green bowler hats, pinstriped suits, and old fashioned black umbrellas.  They set in motion a series of events and decisions by Ayden and Zoe that lead to the restoration of time, change, and progress.  The ending is wise, beautiful, and poignant.

art note:  At the end, the author describes Ms. Lee's unique process of creating each page.  She draws and colors the panels, paints background colors and textures on pieces of lumber; cuts out parts of the panels where she wants the background to show; and then uses Mod Podge (the popular 1970s decoupage medium that is basically white glue) to glue the layers to the board.  The results are rich, organic, and beautifully layered images.  You can visit Ms. Lee's website to see some of her art.

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga (Abrams, 2010), is the ultimate, mind-boggling choose-your-own-adventure book, with every page and almost every panel providing multiple choices for the reader.  A boy who visits an ice cream shop and is soon embroiled in a mad scientist's three inventions, a time machine, a thought-reader, and a world-ending "killitron" machine.  Using a finger to follow little tubes that branch from one panel to another, and to different pages, the reader can explore 3,856 story possibilities, with most ending in doom and destruction.  Meanwhile was entertaining for my kids for the first few readings (each of which involved reading multiple story lines), but we were ultimately frustrated by repeatedly coming to our doom or looping back to where we started.  Definitely worth a look, if only to admire the sheer complexity and ingenuity of the story.

art note:  The author notes that the book started out as series of seven flowcharts.  In order to transfer the flowcharts into book form, the author, who graduated with a degree in pure mathematics, developed his own algorithm to solve the layout problem.

For Teens/Adults:

A Drifting Life, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009).  Not often do I read an 800+ page book in a few days, but this fascinating autobiography of one of Japan's leading manga author/artists riveted me.  Tatsumi tells the story of his early adolescence and career as a comic artist in post-war Japan, chronicling the rise and evolution of manga from short, gag-filled comics, to the longer, more psychologically interesting stories he helped develop.  A Drifting Life is a sprawling work that covers a lot - key political and cultural moments in post-war Japan until the 1960s; the artist's early struggles and successes; his rivalries and experiences with collaborators - and all of it is told in a clearly drawn and accessible style.

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