10 unforgettable graphic novels from 2013

Life, death, sex, time travel and real estate are just some of the themes in these standouts of the past year SLIDE SHOW

Topics: slideshow, Books, What to Read, Editor's Picks, Must-Do, Graphic Novels, Fiction, Memoirs,

10 unforgettable graphic novels from 2013

For the graphic novel — a misleading term that’s come to encompass nonfiction as well as fiction — the days when mainstream stories about the form always included references to caped crusaders and the risible phrase “not for just for kids anymore” are vanishing in the rearview mirror. You can now find graphic novels on virtually any subject and featuring the highest level of narrative and illustrative accomplishment. The success of Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” has led to a boom in the graphic memoir, where the visual art (with droll little labels pointing to significant elements) frequently plays an ironic counterpoint to whatever the characters are saying about themselves. But if the graphic novel is uniquely suited to telling us two contradictory things at once, it can also communicate straightforward information and unambiguous lyricism. Here are some of the best books published in 2013. Some are funny, some are enlightening, some are scary, some are exciting and some are simply beautiful. All are unforgettable.



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    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

    The Boxer Rebellion of 1898 was an anti-imperial uprising targeting foreign and Christian incursions in China. Yang portrays two sides of the conflict, both Chinese, in two volumes. Little Bao, a 9-year-old boy, has seen his father and culture trampled by the interlopers. Four-Girl is a daughter so unwanted her family never bothers to give her a real name, and who converts to Christianity under the impression that by doing so, she'll be embracing her own "devil" nature. (She at first assumes that the crucifix displayed by the local acupuncturist who proselytizes to her is an "acupuncture victim.") Both children are visited by spirits, Bao by the gods of his homeland and Four-Girl (renamed Vibiana) by Joan of Arc. A remarkably complex depiction of the conflicting pulls of nationalism, faith and personal destiny and the way war lays waste to them all.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges

    A cat-eye-specs-wearing resident of Portland, Ore., Nicole Georges has a bicycle, a job as a karaoke DJ, shiny bangs and a soft spot for animals. (She fosters abandoned chickens in a coop in her backyard.) What she doesn't have is a father, having been told by her mother and two half-sisters that he died when she was 2. This memoir describes a couple of years in Georges' life, during which she learns that her father might be alive after all, falls in love with a girl named Radar and struggles to come out of the closet to her volatile Syrian-American mom. The premise is Bechdelian, but the rendering is entire Georges' own, and despite the title mostly doesn't involve the right-wing radio advice maven. Idiosyncratic and adorable, this memoir packs a surprising emotional wallop, with an ending that, among other things, puts Dr. Laura firmly in her place.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard

    Lovecraft was never entirely happy with this tale of the scion of a venerable Providence family and how he ends up vanishing from a padded cell in an insane asylum. I've always found it somewhat hard to follow myself, since it's told from the perspective of the family physician, who comes to believe Ward has been possessed by the demonic spirit of a Revolutionary-era ancestor. There's a lot of insinuation and allusion, plus numerous fake identities involved, and Culbard's atmospheric graphic adaptation makes it both a lot more intelligible and considerably more creepy. He's able to make the blandly smiling face of the villain far more disturbing than the goriest tableau or freakiest monster.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

    Hands down the most accomplished and satisfying graphic novel of the year, Greenberg's book presents itself as a collection of folklore from a version of human history that precedes the one we know. Certain motifs -- a flood, a hubristic tower, a fratricidal first family -- resemble more familiar stories, but refracted through Greenberg's sensibility and her ravishing woodcut-like illustrations, they're reborn and refreshed. Her cosmology features a vain, capricious deity, Birdman, and his two exasperated raven offspring, Kid and Kiddo, but the linking story concerns a boy from the arctic land of Nord in search of a missing fragment of his soul, and his journeys throughout the world in search of it.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    How to Fake a Moon Landing by Darryl Cunningham

    Subtitled "Exposing the Myths of Science Denial," this nonfiction collection debunks such irrational beliefs as homeopathy, climate change denial, the MMR vaccination scare and the belief that the 1968 moon landing was faked. Perhaps the most valuable chapter, however, concerns fracking and industry-funded pseudoscientific attempts to prove that it is harmless. Cunningham is otherwise preaching to the converted (someone who doesn't believe in evolution is unlikely to pick up this book in the first place), but in many of these arguments, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    Opera Adaptations by P. Craig Russell

    Published over the past three decades in installments, this ravishing experience is now available as a clothbound set. Russell, the Maxfield Parrish, Aubrey Beardsley and Cecil B. DeMille of the comics world all rolled into one, selects the operas that best lend themselves to his lush, intricate, fantastical style: "Parsifal," "Salome," "Ariane and Bluebeard," etc. Turning these pages while listening to recordings of these works is a little like seeing a production unfettered by any earthly limits -- and liberated from the stilted acting of so many singers. Russell's visual storytelling technique is superb, with a faint touch of campiness that seems very appropriate here. Only the snootiest opera buff would turn up his nose at this marvel.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    RASL by Jeff Smith

    A former military engineer finds the lost journals of Nikola Tesla and invents a device enabling him to travel among alternate dimensions. He becomes both an art thief and a crusader against the nefarious plans of the military-industrial complex to appropriate his discoveries. But skipping from one dimension to another -- in one, Bob Dylan still goes by his given name and in another the lover who had been murdered by his pursuers still lives -- wreaks havoc on his health and sanity. There are a lot of cheesy elements here, like the hero's resemblance to Colin Farrell and the propensity for sexy babes to both swoon for him and clingingly beg for his protection. Yet this is great Saturday-matinee-style fun, like a well-executed action movie or noirish J.J. Abrams series, and a clever variation on the sort of time-travel plot that tends to dissolve into narrative dither.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    The Freddie Stories by Lynda Barry

    Yes, Barry remains the comics' greatest genius at depicting childhood, and in this collection of strips (really more of a continuous narrative), she portrays the fractured world and mind of Freddie, the younger brother of her best-known characters, Maybonne and Marlys. "It is not a rank on my brother to say he has certain mental disorders known as emotional problems," Marlys explains in her forward, and indeed it is not. Bullied at school and misunderstood or simply ignored by the kids' irascible, chain-smoking mother, Freddie nevertheless possesses an inner life of great beauty and terror, whose heights and depths Barry manages to encompass without ever abandoning the authentic voice of childhood. Much of what Freddie goes through is pretty rough, but as ever in Barry's work, the transcendent power of the imagination awaits.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    The Property by Rutu Modan

    What "The Property" most resembles is an excellent independent film, full of nuanced performances and funny lines. It depicts the visit to Warsaw of Regina Segal, who lived there before World War II, and her granddaughter, Mica. It's two months after the death of Mica's father (Regina's son), and suddenly Regina has become interested in looking into a building her Jewish family lost to the Nazi regime, property that could be reclaimed under current Polish law. Mica is mostly just along for the ride, and to keep an eye on her mercurial grandma, but then she meets a handsome tour guide and a family acquaintance keeps turning up where least expected and there turns out to be a whole lot more going on here than meets the eye. Modan's artwork is lovely and understated; it's the cleverness of her storytelling that shines brightest here.

    Unforgettable graphic novels of 2013

    When David Lost His Voice by Judith Vanistendael

    This radiant, pen-and-watercolor portrait of an unconventional family experiencing the loss of its paterfamilias ought to be depressing, but it's not. The characters are David, whose point of view closes the book, his young wife, Paula, and their little girl, Tamar, plus Miriam, David's grown daughter by an earlier marriage, who has just had her first child. The book presents scenes from their lives -- Tamar's fantasies about befriending a mermaid while on a fishing trip with her dad, Miriam's efforts to reconcile birth and death, Paula's mature grief, and the ways all three seek to express this creatively. It's full of charming, perfectly observed moments that make the domestic lives of these people acutely present, and in the process of memorializing all of it, Vanistendael achieves that rare triumph of capturing in the end of a life the wonder of every day that led up to it.

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Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

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