Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All , Coverage

All Graphic Memoirs Coverage

Review by

Punk rock has Black origins. This fact is at the heart of James Spooner’s 2003 documentary, Afro-Punk, which fostered a global movement of punk youth from Black and minority backgrounds. In Spooner’s graphic memoir, The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere., he recounts his first encounter with 1990s punk culture in Apple Valley, a dusty, rural town in Southern California. As the angsty biracial skateboarding son of a white single mom, Spooner discovered that the alternative scene could be for kids like him, and this punk community offered him a refuge from his troubled home life and Apple Valley’s widespread racism.

Although Spooner first saw punk as a commodified style, amounting to nothing more than the latest records and edgy leather jackets, he came to recognize how this aesthetic functioned as an armor to conceal his own vulnerabilities: “This was more than a haircut; it was a way to take control over the teasing and slurs, all of which I internalized. Punk rock helped to set me apart from all the things I hated.” As Spooner met more people from the punk community, his understanding of punk likewise developed in more productive directions. He learned that punk doesn’t have to be limited to cynicism, nihilism and self-destructiveness. Rather, the energy of punk can be directed toward political resistance, community building and intersectionality. 

Throughout The High Desert, the voice of an older Spooner punctuates the narrative through analeptic black text boxes, offering historical context and a sophisticated political perspective (which Spooner’s younger self lacks) while acknowledging the authenticity of his teenage self’s frustration and isolation. Characters’ racist language isn’t censored; instead, Spooner’s older voice comments on it, imbuing The High Desert with important self-critical realism.

The High Desert reclaims punk on behalf of Blackness and does so with electric style. Lyrics intermittently zigzag across the panels, the background is always dynamic with life, and the characters’ facial expressions are riven with wrinkles, frowns and shadows. Spooner’s unorthodox coming-of-age story is a visual and musical achievement.

The High Desert reclaims punk on behalf of Blackness and does so with electric style.
Review by

Comics artist Kate Beaton, creator of the award-winning satirical webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant,” demonstrates her remarkable range and storytelling prowess with her debut graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. With strong prose and striking art, she captures the complexities of a place often defined by stark binaries: the Alberta oil sands, one of the world’s largest deposits of crude oil.

In 2005, 21-year-old Beaton’s goal is to pay off the student loans for her arts degree, so she leaves her beloved home on Cape Breton, a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, for a job in oil mining. Over the next several years, she works as a warehouse attendant in the town of Fort McMurray, as well as at various temporary work camps owned by several oil companies.

Beaton recounts her experiences—often harrowing, sometimes poignant—with dazzling clarity. She’s one of only a few women in an industry dominated by men, and misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual violence occur nearly every day. In scene after scene, she depicts men laughing over sexist jokes and demeaning the women they work with, and bosses dismissing her concerns.

And yet, without once making excuses for any of this behavior, Beaton honors the humanity of the oil workers. She illuminates the larger contexts of work camps, including labor exploitation and corporate greed, toxic masculinity and a lack of mental health resources. She puts everything, good and bad, into the book: moments of connection with men from the eastern provinces, bleak humor, environmental destruction, stark natural beauty, her own feelings of complicity and homesickness, and the oil companies’ blatant disregard for the Indigenous communities in which they operate.

Beaton’s art conveys the inherent strangeness of living and working in such isolated places, giving Ducks a sense of loneliness that words alone can’t express. Her talent for drawing people, and especially facial expressions, adds layers of emotional depth to every scene. She depicts her own face, and the faces of her many co-workers, in moments of fear, pain, anger, exhaustion, despair, pride and laughter. Meanwhile, her illustrations of massive mining machinery make these people seem small and insignificant.

It is no small task to convey the messy truth of a place in words and drawings, to tell a story that is at once intimate and sweeping, and to resist simplification. “You can’t just paint one picture,” Beaton tells a female co-worker during a moving conversation about the impossibility of summing up the oil sands for an online article. In Ducks, she paints a thousand pictures. It’s a powerful account of the ongoing harm of patriarchal violence, and an equally powerful testament to what is possible when we pay attention, seek out each other’s humanity and honor the hard truths alongside the beautiful.

Illustration © 2022 by Kate Beaton. Reproduced by permission of Drawn & Quarterly.

Kate Beaton's graphic memoir is a powerful account of the ongoing harm of patriarchal violence, and an equally powerful testament to what is possible when we pay attention, seek out each other's humanity and honor the hard truths alongside the beautiful.
Interview by

In 2005, in order to pay off her student loans, Kate Beaton left her home in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to work on the Alberta oil sands, a vast region in Canada that contains one of the largest deposits of crude oil in the world. During this time, Beaton began writing “Hark! A Vagrant,” a witty, irreverent webcomic about history, literary figures and her own life. The beloved series has been collected into two bestselling books, Hark! A Vagrant and Step Aside, Pops

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Beaton’s first full-length graphic memoir, is a beautiful and nuanced account of her time working in the town of Fort McMurray, as well as at various temporary work camps owned by several oil companies. It directly addresses the sexual harassment and violence that she and others experienced in the oil sands, as well as the toxic masculinity that permeates the work camps. 

We talked with Beaton about the difficulties of capturing the sometimes contradictory realities of such a complicated place.


You started posting “Hark! A Vagrant” 15 years ago. How have you changed as a writer and artist since then?
I’ve changed a lot. I was only 23 when I started making things that would be “Hark! A Vagrant.” I had gone through a lot in some ways, but I was very young and inexperienced, and I look at some of my old work and cringe at it, but this is the same for almost anyone making things in the public eye. Everyone is a young fool for a while, and the world changes around you, and you get older and hopefully not more foolish but the other way around.

Right now I’m 38, and it has been a long time since I was a fresh face on the comics scene. I’m more like the wallpaper or a worn-out chair, but I like being that. No one is surprised I’m here.

How did writing those comics affect your life in the work camps? Did you have any sense of how your career would unfold?
After I had comics in my life, working in the camps got easier, because I had this thing that was just for me. Before I had that, I lost myself. It was just work and people chipping away at you in a certain way. Then I had comics and I’d go home to my little camp room after work and draw them and put them online, and here I was in a work camp in the oil sands, very alone in many ways, and I was connecting to people who saw me for who I was through my work. I felt like myself. And I didn’t want to give that up or lose that.

As the book begins, you write about the tension between loving your home in Cape Breton and needing to leave it to find work. During your time in the oil sands, some of the most poignant, powerful moments—both good and bad—are the interactions you have with people from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Talk to me about how you feel about these places. Do you see this memoir as being about Cape Breton as well as about Alberta?
It makes sense that it is. Cape Breton has always exported workers. They leave for where the work is, and they leave together. To Boston, Sudbury, Windsor, Alberta—not always, but often you see it. And when they do, there is a shared history and a connection that is always happening. 

My grandfather went out on harvest trains in the 1930s, from Nova Scotia to the prairies. There were 1,200 people on the train, he said, and there was one car for schoolteachers. Women. Along the way, the men smashed up the train and looted. “They were full of the devil,” he said. How do you think that car of women felt with those 1,200 men? I know how they felt. 

You think your story is new, you think you have something new to say, but really it is all something you are born into. My mother’s family all went to work in the car factories of Windsor, and they would come visit in the summer. And I would watch my aunts go crying into the car to go back and Grandma go silently back into the house with her private sorrow, and I would know that’s going to be me someday—or rather, that this is the choice I will have to make, to stay or to go wherever the work is.

When it really was time for me to go, Alberta was where the work was, and I went. I thought nothing of it at all. And I had no idea, none at all, what I was doing. Then you come home and talk to your relatives about what happened when they left, and they all say the same thing: “We had no idea what we were doing.” “I’ve never been so cold.” “I’ve never been so lonely.” “Thank god I knew this other person from home.”

“Everyone is a young fool for a while, and the world changes around you, and you get older and hopefully not more foolish but the other way around.”

One of the many remarkable things about your memoir is its nuance: You write so honestly about a complicated place. As many readers will likely not have given oil mining much thought beyond “necessary jobs” or “climate destruction,” what do you hope they take away from reading Ducks?
Nuance is not a bad thing to take away. I think it is a book about empathy—however you want to take that, and whomever or whatever you think that comment is about. Then that is what it is about.

You convey so much emotion through your characters” facial expressions, images of massive equipment and views of the surrounding landscape, both natural and human. What’s your drawing process like when bringing scenes from your memory to the page?
Oh, I had a lot of visual references. I can’t just draw an excavator from memory! But I knew what I was looking for in references—that was memory. You see those images again, and you can really smell it and feel it, being out there. I just wanted people to feel like they were there.

There are so many people in the book—by my count, over 40 named characters! What are the challenges or joys of drawing so many different people?
The challenge was that I drew a lot of people the same! And my editors made me go back and change some of them because people were getting confused—haha! But when you have a bunch of guys in hard hats, safety glasses and safety vests, they do start looking alike. So that was challenging for sure. I was mostly concerned that I didn’t mess up on any of them and make people confused. 

Ducks illustration

Illustration from ‘Ducks’ © 2022 by Kate Beaton. Reproduced by permission of Drawn & Quarterly.

Since your time in Alberta, you’ve lived all over Canada, as well as in New York. Now that you’re back in Cape Breton, how does it feel to be home? 
It feels natural. I liked being away in those places. I think it was a healthy thing. I learned a lot from being in cities like Toronto and New York. But I always felt like a peg on a board there too, like a thing that didn’t fit in the picture. Here, I feel like part of the painting.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self who has just arrived in Alberta? What would you say to other young women thinking about working in the oil sands?
My advice would be that you can actually ask for better money or apply for a better job. Someone told me that I wasn’t allowed to do either in the first year that I was there, and I believed them. And even the second year that I was there, I didn’t challenge the money that I was being paid, and I was in one of the lowest-paid tiers of people on site. I just didn’t know any better. And we are not really raised to know better or to ask for more when other people have no problem doing that.

Photo of Kate Beaton by Stephen Rankin Photography.

The award-winning comics artist solidifies her reputation for storytelling prowess and remarkable range.
Behind the Book by

Thi Bui’s debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, is a deeply affecting look at her Vietnamese family’s complex journey to the very country that inflicted a lion’s share of the destruction to their home region during the Vietnam War. Bui’s story ranges through many time periods: the present, her childhood in California, her parents’ extensive and exhausting process of attaining refugee status and their tumultuous time in Vietnam. Bui’s prose is carefully crafted, and her brushstrokes are similarly spare and simple, rendered in a muted palette of black, white and burgundy. The effect is immediate: Readers will be drawn into each and every frame. Bui’s minimalist approach ensures readers can’t gloss over the harsh realities of her family’s immigrant experience, but it also forces us to recognize the universal struggles and triumphs that all families experience. Fans of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis will not want to miss this incredibly relevant work. 

Bui reflects on the current political climate and encourages Americans to listen to the incredible stories of refugee families like her own.


The idea that people come to this country to steal from it is a crazy one.

As the poet Warsan Shire has attested, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.”

Running for safety is one of the most basic, primal instincts we humans have. It is natural, and human, to migrate in search of security, shelter, food and a better future, perhaps a place to raise one’s children. Borders, the structures that can halt such migration, are shaped by conquest, wars and treaties, and as such are entirely man-made and unnatural.

“In my experience, people who have had a brush with death help others when they need it.”

Periodically, conflict or natural disaster—or some terrible association of the two—force large waves of people into involuntary migration. To have lived one’s entire life free of this experience is to be very lucky. To go through it, I think, peels away some layers of the veil between life and death. You realize that the stability of your world is not to be taken for granted. That things can change, and go from bad to worse very quickly, and you must be ready to grab those important to you and run, or stay and fight, and nothing is guaranteed. In The Best We Could Do, I narrate the story of my family who fled from home in a small boat in the late ’70s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In my experience, people who have had a brush with death help others when they need it. People who, perhaps because they have not had that experience, lack the empathy to extend help to refugees often say that we should be helping our own instead. But often they don’t do that either.

America, the land of such amazing contradiction that I have learned to call home, and into which I pour a significant amount of taxes, donations, labor and love, is at a crossroads. Either it succumbs to fear of “outsiders” (many of whom are just as American as anyone else) and hurts many people, or it progresses into a multicultural social experiment that will be the envy of other nations. I would like to see the latter happen, and I know that living together is a learning process. So I offer my little book, the best I could do, to put human faces and names and personal stories onto the words “immigrant” and “refugee.” And I seek out and read and listen to stories that are different from my own. It is the best way I know how to build community and understanding.

I am holding out my hand. Not to steal. Not to take. This book is an offering of peace, and a hope for understanding.

Thi Bui's debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, is a deeply affecting look at her Vietnamese family's complex journey to the very country that inflicted a lion's share of the destruction to their home region during the Vietnam War. Bui's story alternates between many time periods: the present, her childhood in California, her parents' extensive and exhausting process of attaining refugee status and their tumultuous time in Vietnam. Bui reflects on the current political climate and encourages Americans to listen to the incredible stories of refugee families like her own.

Feature by

Graphic novels continue to break new ground, with recent works that run the gamut in both style and content. Here we take a look at four of the best new releases, ranging from a colorful tale of pirates and sea monsters to a close examination of democracy in America.

A CLASSIC TALE
It took Joann Sfar’s touch to make me finally fall in love with the story of The Little Prince. Sfar’s illustrated version of the classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is more playful than precious; the combination of his captivating artwork and the pared-down prose allows the story to sneak up on you rather than blatantly yanking your heartstrings. As drawn by Sfar, the mysterious prince from a tiny, faraway planet is adorable, wise and funny, rather than simply tragic. Sfar gives him depth and attitude, with tired shadows around his big blue eyes and subtle facial changes that express feelings it would be clunky to describe in writing. Sfar tells as much of the story as he can visually, employing words only when necessary, which gives the whole thing a feeling of restraint that the original lacks. In my favorite scene, the little prince meets a wild fox who begs to be tamed (“It means creating a bond,” the fox explains). So the prince tames him, but when it’s time to leave, the fox starts to cry. “So it hasn’t been worth it,” says the prince. “Oh yes it has,” the fox replies, and suddenly whole swaths of adult life make sense. (Sfar’s fox looks a lot like the namesake of his best-known book, The Rabbi’s Cat—angular, sly and prone to curling up expressively.)

ON THE HIGH SEAS
Similar in tone and in its rich color palette, The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier is, on the surface, a rollicking tale of pirates’ adventures on the open sea. But in fact it’s a story about loyalty, honor and keeping your promises. Walker Bean’s beloved grandfather has fallen ill after being cursed by a stolen skull; it’s up to Walker to return the skull to where it belongs and end the curse. But to do that, he has to keep the skull out of the hands of a creepy octopus man, a feisty pirate girl and his own father, among others. There are also huge, menacing lobster women and a ship that turns into a planetarium. Like all young boys trying to solve grown-up problems, Walker makes mistakes, but he also makes some very helpful friends, including a pirate boy named Shiv and, eventually, tentatively, that feisty pirate girl, Gen. Renier’s drawings are vivid and expressive, full of movement and sound, and the twist at the end of the story adds an unexpectedly heartwarming touch. Walker’s adventures will continue in Volume 2 of the series.

TRY, TRY AGAIN
At the other end of the graphic-novel spectrum is Good Eggs, Phoebe Potts’ memoir of her and her husband’s struggle to get pregnant. Her spare and simple line drawings invite you into the story; it’s mostly realistic, but with occasional flights of fancy that spring from Potts’ imagination. A discussion of a soul-sucking job, for instance, includes one panel showing a row of new college graduates on an assembly line, a “PhD factory,” as she puts it. And when she meets her future husband, something he says makes her draw herself being held aloft by little doves (who then drop her to the floor when he mentions having a girlfriend). It’s sweet, and effective. The writing is also excellent: sharp, clever, realistic dialogue with no wasted words. Potts grew up in Brooklyn, and her characters talk the way people talk in Brooklyn—always entertaining, and usually hilarious, even when the subject matter is serious. The story centers on her desire for a child, but it’s all the other things she discovers—about her own life, her priorities and values—while pursuing this desire that make the book so rewarding.

AN AMERICAN JOURNEY
Taking the search for fulfillment from the personal to the political is Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, an investigation into the roots of democracy in America and how it has changed throughout our history. Kalman was inspired by the 2008 elections, and on inauguration day she went to Washington, D.C., to begin a sort of political-science travelogue. She gets a crush on Abe Lincoln, discovers you can patent a peach, chats with farmers and meets diplomats. The sketches and collages she uses to illustrate what she learns are placed opposite pages of her hand-written observations, which are spirited and funny, keeping the material from ever seeming dull. On the very early origins of America, for instance, she says, “Growing tired of the ocean, creatures migrated onto the land. Then came dinosaurs and motorcycles.” Which sounds about right. A few pages later, we learn, “Then came Commerce and Greed.” It’s a fast-paced tour, hitting all the highlights and the lowlights, and enhanced with Kalman’s sketches and paintings as well as archival photos, postcards, pages from old books and diaries, etc. There’s a lot to learn from this book, but reading it never feels like hard work.

Graphic novels continue to break new ground, with recent works that run the gamut in both style and content. Here we take a look at four of the best new releases, ranging from a colorful tale of pirates and sea monsters to a close examination of democracy in America. A CLASSIC TALEIt took Joann Sfar’s […]
Feature by

These three graphic novels might not seem to have anything in common, but in a sense they do: All three are written from the perspective of a lone explorer making his or her way through an unfamiliar landscape. One involves a woman tracing her heritage in an Israel that bears little resemblance to the country she’d imagined; in another, the child of Vietnamese immigrants digs into his parents’ past; and in the third a miserably single American man navigates the terrifying world of dating.

SEEKING TRUTH IN THE HOLY LAND
In her graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden runs the emotional gamut, from stubborn to weepy to giddy to furious and all the way back around. The book records a “Birthright Israel” trip she took several years ago; the Birthright fund pays for trips that give non-Israeli Jews their first introduction to Israel. Sarah went intending to “discover the truth behind this whole mess once and for all,” meaning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Packing her suitcase, she tells her boyfriend, “It’ll all be crystal clear by the time I come back.” But of course everything turns out to be more complicated than she expected. Between touring cultural sites and hearing wise counsel from various perspectives, Sarah finds that her convictions are shaken but her understanding deepened through her engagement with Israel. Given the complex material and the fairly text-heavy panels, Glidden’s clear and simply drawn illustrations, painted in watercolor, add just the right amount of emotional impact to the story.

A VIVID FAMILY HISTORY
GB Tran takes a much more impressionistic approach to memoir in his Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey. The book, appealing enough in its black-and-white version but stunning in full color, describes Tran’s parents’ decision to leave Vietnam for America in 1975. In flashbacks and retold stories, Tran learns about what life was like for his mother and father when they were young children, what their parents were like, and how much they left behind when circumstances forced them to abandon the lives they had made and start from scratch. Tran is 30 when he returns with his parents to Vietnam for a visit shortly after the death of his last two grandparents. The combination of the young American’s disorientation and the many disjointed recollections he hears from various family members can be confusing if you try to follow the story in strict linear fashion; the key is to relax and let the gorgeous images wash over you. The wild, vivid pages here work the way oft-told and half-remembered family stories from long ago normally do; they’re more about conveying emotion than information.

HOPE AMONG THE RUINS
Daniel Clowes is great at many things, not least of which is leaving readers with a sense of alienation and vague disgust for humanity. But in Mister Wonderful he does something unusual: He transcends his customary gloom and despair to find hope. The story follows a guy named Marshall on a blind date. Marshall is divorced, unemployed and severely lacking in confidence. His scathing internal monologue as he sits at a coffee shop waiting for his date is painful to behold. Told in Clowes’ characteristically tidy style, with its neat rows of panels and straightforwardly drawn characters in plain, blocky urban settings, the story veers often into miniature fantasies, illustrated by miniature versions of the characters. When Marshall’s date, Natalie, appears and is charming, he can’t decide whether to be thrilled or to embrace the miserable certainty that she’s out of his league. But it turns out Natalie is equally fragile. Their delicate emotional parrying, complete with awkward misunderstandings, large and small faux pas and even a mugging, makes for a suspenseful and affecting read. The fact that the story comes down on the side of cautious optimism only increases its impact.

These three graphic novels might not seem to have anything in common, but in a sense they do: All three are written from the perspective of a lone explorer making his or her way through an unfamiliar landscape. One involves a woman tracing her heritage in an Israel that bears little resemblance to the country […]
Feature by

Four new graphic novels address the appeal of running away and the impossibility of escaping your past, for good or ill.

TRIUMPHANT RETURN
If you’re even vaguely interested in graphic novels, you’re probably aware that Craig Thompson has a new book coming out. Thompson’s 2003 graphic novel Blankets told an autobiographical coming-of-age story and floored everyone who read it, winning all kinds of awards and making a star of its author. His long-anticipated follow-up, the utterly engrossing Habibi, is at least as gut-wrenching and even more substantial in size and scope.

Just to be clear, this book is not for the faint of heart. In the first few panels, our nine-year-old heroine, Dodola, is sold into marriage by desperate parents whose village is suffering from drought. Dodola’s new husband is no brute, but even so . . . she’s nine years old. Thus begins her journey through the world as a headstrong and beautiful Arab girl. Fortunately for Dodola (and us), her husband is a scholar, and he teaches her to read and write. She learns the stories of the Qur’an, the work of the great poets, the Thousand and One Nights. Then, abruptly, marauding thieves kill her husband and kidnap the girl. She’s brought to a slave market, where she finds and rescues a three-year-old orphan boy, Zam. From then on their fates are linked. They escape and live for a while on a ship marooned in the desert, but their need for food and water leads them to be discovered and separated. Each of them endures years of torment, accumulating scars, grieving and longing for each other. It’s pretty brutal.

But it’s also beautiful. Dodola’s and Zam’s stories are interwoven with the stories they learned as children, the underpinnings of Islam. This lends not only beauty and texture but also meaning and redemption to their suffering, and Thompson’s handling of the religious elements—something that might have been awkward or controversial—is restrained and graceful. His black-and-white drawings, often incorporating Arabic script, are at times floaty and feverish but always perfectly clear. He breaks up dreamy exposition with tightly structured action sequences, and the pages couldn’t be prettier. As always, his economical writing is deeply moving. Habibi is a book not to be missed.

A CHILD’S-EYE VIEW
Another story of a childhood spent in hostile surroundings, Marzi by Marzena Sowa, takes the opposite tack. Marzi’s story, especially at first, seems like it could be happening almost anywhere. In fact it’s set in Poland during the 1980s, as the country was rebelling against communism. It’s only as Marzi grows up and gains understanding that the impact of the political situation starts to become clear. For most of the book she’s a wide-eyed, innocent daddy’s girl with completely typical attitude problems, arguments with her friends, difficulty eating her vegetables, fights with cousins and so on. It’s fascinating and often hilarious to see huge world-changing events like the Chernobyl explosion and factory-workers’ strikes from the point of view of a regular little girl absorbed in her own life.

A FINE ROMANCE
Entirely different but equally charming is The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston, a fictional memoir told in gorgeous full-color collages. With postcards, news clippings, ticket stubs, receipts, catalog pages and drawings that look like illustrations from vintage fashion magazines, Preston tells the coming-of-age story of Frankie, a bright young girl who graduates from high school in 1920 and goes to Vassar on scholarship after her father dies. She gets herself into numerous romantic entanglements, all of them ill-advised, and seems constantly on the verge of abandoning her dream of becoming a novelist. But Frankie is stubborn and scrappy, and she manages to take care of herself in a world where most girls like her just want to be taken care of. The happy ending is a little sudden, but it’s a pleasure to watch Frankie develop and learn to trust her nobler instincts until they pay off.

MERRIMENT ON MOTORBIKES
And finally, an idea I’m surprised hasn’t been tried before: a graphic novel adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—on motorcycles. This retelling is done by Seymour Chwast, one of the founders of the influential Push Pin Studios who has already adapted Dante’s Divine Comedy. His irreverent humor makes him an even better fit for Chaucer, who never left a good fart joke untold. And nothing goes better with fart jokes than motorcycle touring. (It’s not entirely clear just why the pilgrims are riding hogs, but that doesn’t matter.) Most everyone in these 24 travelers’ tales ends up being thoroughly mocked, both in the smartypants dialogue and in the simplified but pointed drawings. The book works either as an introduction to Chaucer’s original text or as an alternate take for those who’ve read it many times already.

Four new graphic novels address the appeal of running away and the impossibility of escaping your past, for good or ill. TRIUMPHANT RETURNIf you’re even vaguely interested in graphic novels, you’re probably aware that Craig Thompson has a new book coming out. Thompson’s 2003 graphic novel Blankets told an autobiographical coming-of-age story and floored everyone […]
Feature by

The world of comics and graphic novels may hold stigma as a male-centric genre, but these four new books explore the pains of growing up, moving on and embracing the messy parts of life—all from the female point of view.

Cartoonist and writer Mimi Pond is best known for writing the very first episode of “The Simpsons,” but her foray into the world of graphic novels may quickly overshadow her career’s early years—perhaps deservedly so. In her fictionalized memoir, Over Easy, Pond reflects on the oft-misunderstood 1970s and her waitressing years at Mama’s Royal Café (referred to here as the Imperial Café), which served as a beacon for burgeoning punks and the last wave of bohemians in Oakland, California. Pond’s alter ego is Margaret, an art school dropout itching to supplement her education with some honest, blue-collar life experience. Cue -Lazlo, the messianic manager of the café, who offers her a spot among his mouthy, ragtag staff. The job is grueling, but she toughs it out and taps into a well of self-reliance, eventually making waitress and earning the nickname “Madge.” With casual prose and dreamy aqua watercolor, Pond gets to the heart of the restaurant’s curious allure: hilarious banter between staff and customers, cheap and hearty food, recreational drug use in the back office, the steady stream of staff hookups and hastily organized poetry nights. If the ’70s usually conjures up thoughts of disco, gold chains and general excess, then Pond offers a refreshingly different side of the story.


Illustration from Over Easy, © 2014 by Mimi Pond

LATE BLOOMER
From a different perspective on the coming-of-age tale, we move to the story of a 30-something’s struggle for identity. Anya Ulinich follows up her debut novel, Petropolis, with a text-heavy graphic work, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel. After her marriage, “a 15-year-long war,” finally reaches its end, Lena Finkle finds herself attempting to make sense of sex and dating as a 37-year-old single mom in New York. What constitutes a flirty text message? Is it wrong to wear the same dress on every date? Can she have a one-night stand? These and other questions swirl in her head as she struggles to stay afloat in the world of online dating. Her trial by fire comes in her relationship with “the Orphan”—a seemingly modest craftsman with a secret inheritance he is loath to rely on. His easy detachment soon clashes with Lena’s desire for dependability and love. She finds herself nursing a year-long heartbreak, during which Ulinich, with equal parts poignant and comic effect, portrays Lena as a tiny, helpless duckling. With a Shteyngart-esque eye for humorously conveying the Russian immigrant experience, especially in her interspersed snapshot comics—“The Glorious People’s Sex Education” and “The USSR ’80s”—Ulinich captures a woman’s earnest search for self between two cultures.

MILLENNIAL ANGST
Similarly understated and a bit bleak is Michael Cho’s debut, Shoplifter (Pantheon, $19.95, 96 pages, ISBN 9780307911735). After getting a degree in English, Corrina Park moves to the big city with stars in her eyes, convinced she’s on track to chase her dream of writing highbrow literature. Instead, she lands a job at a soul-sucking ad agency where she’s been grinding out copy for the past five years. She still doesn’t have any friends outside of work, and it’s all fumbles on her nights out, so she mainly keeps company with her grumpy rescue cat. Her main thrill comes from the occasional bout of shoplifting at her nearest corner store—which is increasingly depressing in the context of Corrina’s self-conscious, kind-hearted demeanor. She’s toeing the line of resigning to this life, until she snaps. During a brainstorming meeting for a perfume aimed at preteens, she realizes the reliable paycheck isn’t worth it anymore, and this whole treading water routine—waiting for her big moment to wander by—isn’t going to work. With lovely two-tone illustrations throughout, this debut nails the feeling of millennial uncertainly and the quest for answers to those questions that arise on sleepless nights.


Illustration from Seconds, © 2014 by Bryan Lee O'Malley

A ROCK STAR’S RETURN
Bryan Lee O’Malley has been an absolute rock star in the comic world since his Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, stuffed to the gills with wit, whimsy and pop culture references, garnered cultish reverence after they debuted in 2004. Now, five years after the series conclusion and a big-budget film adaptation, O’Malley treads similar, yet more grounded territory with Seconds (Ballantine, $25, ISBN 9780345529374). Weighing in at 300-plus pages and with some of the most gorgeous color work in recent memory, Seconds is a titan standalone in the graphic world. Katie, a 29-year-old, scrappy, self-made chef and restaurateur, is preparing to open her very own restaurant. Her talent and charisma have earned her top marks in the city’s dining scene, and she’s the envy of her younger protégé, but her drive often serves as a distraction from her regrets and lost love. When exactly, did she take these wrong turns, and how did she end up having to face this version of reality? After a particularly terrible day unfolds, Katie discovers a single red mushroom that can alter the course of time, and, of course, all hell breaks loose. Katie’s type-A personality can’t handle the power, and she begins an obsessive pursuit of perfection. But the consequences start to creep in, and the restaurant soon becomes the home of a dark and threatening spirit. O’Malley fans won’t be disappointed with this existential fable; he successfully tackles the quarter-life crisis with just enough blunt honesty and self-deprecating wit, and there’s even a “Buffy” reference or two to keep things from getting too heavy.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The world of comics and graphic novels may hold stigma as a male-centric genre, but these four new books explore the pains of growing up, moving on and embracing the messy parts of life—all from the female point of view.
Feature by

Fall is a busy season in the publishing world, which means plenty of new arrivals are hitting the shelves! For readers looking for a little change of pace—and a more visual reading experience—we've rounded up our favorite graphic novels and memoirs that will bring a little color into these increasingly gray days. 

ADVICE FROM YOUR BETTER SELF
From The New Yorker cartoonist and author of the graphic memoir Cancer Vixen comes this satirical send-up of the New York media world. Self-serving Ann Tenna runs a celebrity gossip site that would make writers at TMZ blush, but a fateful car crash on her birthday leaves her unconscious and clinging to life. In a Christmas Carol-style chain of events, Ann leaves her body and comes face-to-face with her higher self, who takes her on a reflective journey through her most cringe-worthy life choices. Marchetto's laugh-out-loud and out-there tale is filled to the brim with pop culture references and lush artwork, making this one cosmic trip worth taking.

THROUGH THE LENS OF CHILDHOOD 
French author Riad Sattouf chronicles his childhood as the son of a French mother and Syrian father in his playful yet brutally honest graphic memoir. Sattouf was adored and doted on by his father, an academic and firm believer in pan-Arabism and the importance of education for the Arab people. Years living in Gaddafi's Libya—where each citizen was guaranteed housing, but squatters frequently took claim of the Sattouf's various residences and a later stint in Assad's Syria—take a toll on the family's bright-eyed idealism. At first called a little angel for his flowing gold locks, Sattouf is later insulted for his "ugly yellow Jewish hair," and he must come to terms with his feelings of being an outsider in a part of the world his father so badly wants to make theirs.

SUPER STAN
It's almost impossible to have a conversation about the evolution of graphic storytelling without dropping Stan Lee's name at least a few times. One of the most influential creators in the comic world (Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X-Men, to name a few) tells his own story in the unmistakably zippy style he's known for in his new autobiography. Starting from his childhood in a Depression-hit Manhattan, Lee chronicles his first meetings with collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but his moments of pride are balanced by shocking, painful recollections of his personal losses and family struggles. For fans of the Marvel brand and the wide world of superheroes, this is a well-executed autobiography that should not be missed.

RACING TOWARD SHAMBALA
This innovative hybrid is a captivating tale that weaves sections of prose alongside pages of comic panels for an action-packed story. Set during World War I, this immersive read will satisfy fans of classic good vs. evil adventure stories. The globe-trotting action follows an underground group of explorers sworn to seek out and solve the world's greatest mysteries, and in this volume, the Guild must travel to the golden city of Shambala from Buddhist mythology. If you're a fan of Indiana Jones, then this book will satisfy your desire for a little nostalgic fun. 

CLOWNING AROUND
Peruvian-born and acclaimed author Daniel Alarcón is known for his gorgeously rendered prose that draws frequent comparisons to Steinbeck, Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño. In his first graphic novel, he expands upon his short story, first published in The New Yorker in 2003, which follows a young Peruvian journalist in the wake of his father's death. After discovering his father's secret second family at his funeral, Chino is sent on a strange, almost absurd reporting assignment: write a feature on Lima's street clowns. What follows is Chino's tender recollections of his early childhood, interspersed alongside his increasingly sad observations of the poor working clowns. Stark visuals from Sheila Alvarado make this forelorn, moving work of literary fiction come to vivid life. 

Fall is a busy season in the publishing world, which means plenty of new arrivals are hitting the shelves! For readers looking for a little change of pace—and a more visual reading experience—we've rounded up our favorite graphic novels and memoirs that will bring a little color into these increasingly gray days.
Feature by

Father’s Day comes but once a year, and boy are we lucky for that. With ties going out of style thanks to tech billionaires (they’re all wearing hoodies now), the gift choices are slimmer than ever. Fortunately, as is so often the case, books can come to the rescue.

FOR THE SPORTS FAN
When it comes to sports, the “what-if” possibilities are endless. Mike Pesca has assembled 31 of them in Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History. His list might not match yours, but it’s still a fun exercise and a highly readable departure from traditional sports literature. Pesca, host of the Slate podcast “The Gist,” keeps his readers on their toes with a different author for each scenario, so an earnest “What If the National League Had the DH?” is followed by a whimsical “What If Nixon Had Been Good at Football?” (The verdict: still a president, but no Watergate.) Other authors bolster their arguments with charts (“What If Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991?”) or, in the case of “What If Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton’s Pass Hadn’t Gone Awry?,” 38 footnotes. The contributors are a multitalented lot, including actor Jesse Eisenberg, radio host Robert Siegel and journalist/historian Louisa Thomas. The contributors are a multitalented lot but each one embraces the task with gusto, inspiring readers to come up with some “what-ifs” of their own.

FOR THE BIG READER
You probably know Michael Chabon as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, but he’s also an acclaimed essayist. His first collection, Manhood for Amateurs (2009), was subtitled “The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.” This time around, with Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, he’s produced seven essays, all dad-oriented. The centerpiece, “Little Man,” recounts a trip to Paris Fashion Week with his youngest and most individualistic child, Abe. (Chabon was on assignment for GQ, where the essay originally appeared.) The essay is not about finding common ground, as is often the case in such essays where father and son are poles apart, but rather Chabon’s happiness that his son has finally found “your people.” The remaining essays are shorter and peppered with humorous insights, particularly “Adventures in Euphemism,” which has Chabon trying to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to his children without uttering a certain word. Chabon’s relationship with his own father, of course, does not go unexamined, and again he zigs where others zag, taking care not to be overly sentimental.

FOR THE MOVIE BUFF
A cute gopher popping out of his hole adorns the cover of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story. This is ironic, because the makers of the film hated the last-minute addition of the animatronic gopher that bedeviled Bill Murray in the 1980 film. They saw it as an example of the Hollywood studio system destroying their masterwork. But gopher or no gopher, Caddyshack, a slobs-versus-snobs tale set at a country club golf course, became a cult classic, rife with quotable lines and fondly remembered scenes. Film critic Chris Nashawaty tells the behind-the-scenes story in an entertaining fashion, starting at the very beginning with the founding of the National Lampoon, which served as a springboard for Doug Kenney, who co-wrote the classic Animal House and co-wrote and produced Caddyshack. In fact, Nashawaty doesn’t start recounting the actual filming of the movie until well past halfway through the book. No worries though, as readers will enjoy the backstories of writing, casting and the cocaine-fueled shenanigans of Murray and his pals, including Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield and Kenney, the real star of the book if not the movie.

FOR THE COMIC-BOOK FAN
The genre of graphic literature has grown past just comic books and the newspaper funny pages, and Michael Kupperman, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and Marvel comics, is deadly serious in All the Answers. This black-and-white graphic memoir is perfect for dads who grew up reading comic books and are looking for something with a bit more weight to it. It tells the story of the author’s father, Joel Kupperman, who became famous as one of the stars of the 1940s and ’50s radio and television show “Quiz Kids.” The elder Kupperman subsequently became an author and professor of philosophy, but he retreated from public life as an adult. Spurred by his father’s diagnosis with dementia, Michael coaxes him into talking about his experiences in the public eye and how they shaped his life as an adult. In the process, father and son have some frank exchanges. The son learns how to be a better father as a result of the failings of his own dad, who was perfect in math, perhaps, but not so perfect in the challenges of marriage and family life. Kupperman’s simple, stark drawings add to the somber mood of the book and enhance readers’ understanding of its haunting story.

FOR THE JOKESTER
So Dad thinks he’s funny, eh? He likely has nothing on Tom Papa, whose Your Dad Stole My Rake: And Other Family Dilemmas is a collection of essays with laughs on every page. The aptly named Papa, a father and head writer for the radio variety show “Live From Here” (formerly known as “A Prairie Home Companion with Chris Thile”), has a one-liner for every family situation, from Facebook (“a class reunion every day”) to owning a cat (“like dating a supermodel”). The book is organized by topics (wives, grandparents and so on), so skip around if you like, or simply read straight through for an extended look at Papa’s twisted but ultimately sunny (well, no more than partly cloudy) vision of family life. If you’re lucky, it lines up with your own.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Father’s Day comes but once a year, and boy are we lucky for that. With ties going out of style thanks to tech billionaires (they’re all wearing hoodies now), the gift choices are slimmer than ever. Fortunately, as is so often the case, books can come to the rescue.

We reach for graphic novels and memoirs because we treasure the experience of art plus story, of exploring a world of finely crafted illustrations that convey multitudes. Each of these four new comic books is a treat for the eye and balm for the brain, thanks to a heady mix of perspectives and representations of life in all its scary, funny, illuminating, weird, joyful glory.

Fans of Nicole J. Georges’ Lambda Award-winning graphic memoir, Calling Dr. Laura, will be thrilled she’s returned to form with Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home. The book opens with a pooch’s 15th birthday party, where the dog lunges at two children. Initially, it seems “bad dog” is an accurate moniker, but as Georges winds back through time, it’s clear there’s more to the story.

Teenage Georges adopted Beija as a gift for her then-boyfriend. When he left, the dog stayed, and Beija remains the author’s companion into adulthood. Their relationship is not without its (many) challenges: Beija is fearful and reactionary, and she gets in fights at the dog park. But then again, Georges chooses homes filled with noisy strangers and lets Beija off-leash at said park. Via flashbacks, Georges introduces her loving but neglectful mother and macho stepfather, and as loneliness and anger become the author’s constant cohorts, the impetus for dubious choices becomes clearer. Happily, as a young adult, Georges finds her queer feminist vegan identity, learns to practice self-expression through art and thus becomes a better pack leader for Beija.

Fetch does have the occasional crowded page and inelegant transition, which can make for a bumpy read. But overall, the art is wonderful, and the story is engaging and heartwarming. It’s a moving chronicle of triumph over difficult beginnings and the struggle to find people, a place and pets that feel like home.

From Fetch. © Nicole J. Georges. Reproduced by permission of HMH.

SURREALISM IN THE SKY
Julian Hanshaw’s Cloud Hotel is a beautifully rendered and engrossingly weird work of autobiographical fiction inspired by the UFO that Hanshaw and his family encountered when he was a boy in Hertfordshire, England. Hanshaw’s titular hotel, a colossal, light-beaming rectangle with lots of rooms inside, is a place for kids who have gone missing in the woods.

Remco is one of the lucky ones: Upon his return from his first journey to the sky, his beloved grandfather finds him in the woods. As pages turn and the hotel shifts and changes, Remco discovers he’s the only child who can move between the hotel and his regular life. Readers will wonder whether that’s a good thing as Hanshaw masterfully builds suspense and foreboding, prompting questions like: Where and when is the hotel? Who are the children? Is any of this real?

Curious readers who like a trippy, absorbing story with touching family moments and a wondrous depiction of another reality will enjoy Cloud Hotel. And fans of Hanshaw’s previous work—like Tim Ginger, which was short-listed for the British Comics Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize—will be ready to check right in.

DARK OBSESSION
History and mystery, horror and grief, ghosts and memories all collide in Idle Days, a darkly dramatic, occasionally explosive tale written by Thomas Desaulniers-Brousseau and illustrated by Simon Leclerc.

In Canada during World War II, Jerome is a military deserter hiding at his grandfather Maurice’s remote forest cabin. Jerome is angry about the war, restless in his isolation—and soon he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the people who lived in the cabin before his grandfather. Rumors of murder and suicide capture his attention as battlefield bloodshed haunts his dreams. He’s also mourning the recent death of his father and striving to elude capture, but “Wanted” posters and radio broadcasts ensure the war cannot be ignored.

Leclerc’s liberal use of black, red and orange evokes fiery warmth, while his skillfully drawn, violent tableaux convey the horror and fear in Jerome’s memory and imagination. Idle Days’ title plays on the aphorism, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings,” and to be sure, such days build to Jerome’s reckoning with the past, acceptance of the present and a hint of what might lie in the future. It’s an absorbing amalgam of imagery and story that’s far from wordy, as illustration-only pages leave many aspects of the story open to readers’ imaginations. It’s scary stuff.

MOVING MADCAPPERY
About Betty’s Boob by Vero Cazot and Julie Rocheleau is a nearly wordless sequential narrative, but Betty’s voice surges off the page. When we first meet Betty, she howls with post-op fear and rage as she demands to be given back her just-removed left breast. She attempts to return to life as usual, gift-boxed synthetic breast in hand, but is frustrated at every turn—by a boss who insists all employees have two breasts (it’s in the contract!), a boyfriend who rejects her and a woman who tries to bite the apple that serves as a poignant yet functional prosthetic. This surreal story has cleverness and wit sprinkled throughout, like the store that sells “luxury breasts since 1973,” some of which cost “8008” euros. Ultimately, Betty strikes out on her own, and through a sequence of delightfully wild events featuring dancing, costumes, wigs and a dazzling array of pasties, she finds acceptance and a new identity within a boisterous burlesque troupe.

The artwork is vibrant and kinetic, and its depiction of goings-on both fantastical and reality-bound is detailed and eminently appealing. About Betty’s Boob is an inspiring, entertaining story of pain and grief transformed into joyful self-acceptance—societal expectations be damned.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

We reach for graphic novels and memoirs because we treasure the experience of art plus story, of exploring a world of finely crafted illustrations that convey multitudes. Each of these four new comic books is a treat for the eye and balm for the brain, thanks to a heady mix of perspectives and representations of life in all its scary, funny, illuminating, weird, joyful glory.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

Author Interviews

Recent Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!