October 24, 2023
The best graphic fiction and nonfiction of fall 2023
The illustrations set both the scene and the tone in these thoughtful graphic novels and memoirs, plus a fascinating graphic biography.
Like many little boys, Darrin Bell wanted a water gun when he was 6 years old. Unlike the white boys in his neighborhood with slick black water guns, he received a bright green one, accompanied by “The Talk” from his mom. She explained that “the world is… different for you and your brother. White people won’t see you or treat you the way they do little white boys.” It’s The Talk that parents of Black children are all too familiar with in America.
Bell is a Pulitzer Prize winner known for his editorial cartoons and for being the first Black cartoonist to have his comic strips, Candorville and Ruby Park, nationally syndicated. The Talk, Bell’s striking debut graphic memoir, utilizes wit and emotional openness to chronicle the ways in which racism has shaped his life, from a police officer terrorizing a young Bell over his green water gun to protests in 2020 over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Most of the book is illustrated in shades of blue, with flashbacks that come on suddenly and disjointedly—like real memories do—in yellows reminiscent of sepia photographs. Flashes of red are often used during intense moments, and one particularly philosophical page uses a purple that only appears again during the climax. Hyperrealistic pop culture items placed throughout both unsettle the illustrations and ground the reader within the timeline of Bell’s life, from the early 1980s until present day. At the end, Bell even includes some of his most iconic editorial cartoons.
This book is heavy, both emotionally and physically. The size allows Bell to use graphic conventions unlike those he’s usually confined to in a four-panel newspaper comic strip, frequently doing full-page illustrations or removing the panels all together. But during several important conversations, including The Talk between Darrin and his mother, as well as The Talk he has with his own son, Bell returns to an even grid of panels that hearken back to his old format and emphasize how important each moment is.
The deeply honest conversation Bell is able to have with his son is especially compelling when presented in contrast with a much more limited conversation about racism he had with his father, shown through a flashback. Witnessing their generational growth filled me both with empathy for Bell’s father and with hope for what Bell’s radical truth-telling can bring.
On a quiet street in postwar Naples, two young girls embark on a complex friendship that will encompass decades of strife, jealousy, bitterness and fierce devotion. Since early childhood, Lenu and Lila have been each other’s protectors and confidantes. Lenu lives in fear of her domineering mother, while Lila is expected to put work and family first, with her education being a low priority.
Lenu worships the enigmatic Lila, believing her to be smarter, more beautiful and more interesting than herself. But Lila’s shifting moods are inscrutable, giving way to unpredictable bouts of anger, irritability and depression. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Lenu sticks by Lila’s side. As Lenu and Lila age, they are pulled in opposite directions—but they remain fixed points in each other’s orbits, for better or for worse.
Chiara Lagani and Mara Cerri’s adaptation of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel, is a brief and impressionistic rendition of the original. Lagani’s spare text (through Ann Goldstein’s translation) provides broad vignettes of the novel’s pivotal moments while Cerri’s artwork brings to life the often grim setting of Lila and Lenu’s neighborhood.
Ferrante’s original is a dense book, spanning years of childhood and adolescence over more than 300 pages. Rather than cover each event in detail, the graphic novel pinpoints the most life altering events for Lenu and Lila. The artwork is the true star of this adaptation. Using pencil, charcoal and pastels on coarse, off-white paper, Cerri reflects the harsh reality of postwar Italy—its grit, its violence and its fear. The panels are large and without straight lines as Cerri alternates between aerial views and intimate, uncomfortable moments. Similarly, the color palettes range from hyper-pigmented to washed out. The materials used imbue the book with an aged appearance, as though Lenu herself had crafted it as a diary—Cerri often leaves original pencil sketches in place, and the reader can see exactly where the drawing was altered.
It’s difficult to say if My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel can stand on its own; most of its readers will likely be those who have read the original, and it’s unclear whether there are plans to adapt the rest of Ferrante’s quartet. That said, it is a unique and evocative tribute to a modern classic.
It’s spring break in 2009. Childhood best friends Dani and Zoe are freshmen in college, and are finally spending a week in New York City like they’ve always dreamed. Accompanying Dani is her classmate Fiona, a cigarette-smoking, tragically hip art student whose uninhibited and self-possessed attitude attracts Zoe immediately.
Dani wants to do classic tourist things: eat pizza and see Coney Island, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. But Fiona, who has been to New York many times, scoffs at the mere mention of tourism, instead suggesting they see “real” neighborhoods. Zoe, caught in the middle but unable to deny Fiona’s magnetic coolness, agrees. As the trio navigates a late-aughts New York with spotty cell service and tenuous personal connections, they will each have to reckon with something—whether it’s each other or something within themselves.
Roaming, cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s first graphic novel collaboration for an adult audience, is a slice-of-life story about growing up and growing apart, being on the cusp of adulthood and exploring an unfamiliar city. The characters and their experiences hit hard because of how incredibly real they feel; despite the intrinsic brevity of the format, Dani, Fiona and Zoe are fully fleshed out.
As a duo, the Tamakis possess a talent for crafting stories of immense substance out of small, zoomed-in moments. Because of their specificity, these micro-stories speak to a much broader macro-story: Almost everyone knows a Fiona, has been a Zoe or has become frustrated with the hesitance of the Dani in their life.
Jillian’s color palettes are typically spare and minimal, relying on thick black lines and one or two pastels—for This One Summer, a light, muted indigo; for Roaming, swaths of periwinkle, peach and white. The palette places a gauzy haze over the story’s heaviness, much like the function of memory itself.
Roaming is about young adults, new to being on their own and easy to see as naive. But the magic of the book is that it will speak to the 18-year-old in every reader—whether they’re just out of college or at retirement age. Some things, no matter how much time has passed, never change.
In 2016, New Yorker cartoonist Navied Mahdavian and his wife needed a change, so they packed up their lives and fled—with their dog—from San Francisco to a cabin in rural Idaho. Despite not knowing what wood best keeps houses warm in frigid winters or how to stop a car from freezing during snowstorms, Mahdavian couldn’t help but want his version of the millennial American dream: living off the land in a house you own while building a career as an artist.
Most of Mahdavian’s debut graphic memoir This Country: Searching for Home in (Very) Rural America takes place on the six acres around his family’s cabin. There, Mahdavian wanders with his dog, tends to the garden and learns the history of the land—both the stories maintained by his white neighbors and the deeper Indigenous history. Mahdavian’s minimalist illustrations convey how large and rural Idaho can be, and they make it hard not to fall in love with that sort of hopeful landscape. Swaths of blank pages are populated by only the horizon and the plants and animals Mahdavian loves. If Idaho were simply gooseberries and black-billed magpies, it would be impossible to leave.
As Mahdavian settles into his cabin and tries to revel in the slow day to day of his life, he begins to fall in love with the natural world around him, even as his gun-toting neighbors remind him that people like Mahdavian—who is Iranian American—are considered outsiders. Beneath the big blue sky, Mahdavian struggles with their small-minded thinking and wonders if this place he loves can become home–and what choosing to make this place home really means.
It’s the surrounding people that leave Mahdavian feeling disconnected from the land whose history he seeks to understand. Mahdavian’s candid anecdotes showcase neighbors who welcome him and help during crises—even while slinging racial slurs and perpetuating stereotypes. Despite the serious and occasionally threatening nature of these exchanges, Mahdavian’s humor and thoughtfulness honors the kindness contained in these strange relationships while refusing to gloss over the harm that such insular thinking can cause.
Both poetic and personal, This Country meditates beautifully on what it means to create a home in the pockets of America where not everybody is wanted, due to their race or other aspects of identity. This Country is a must for fans of graphic memoirs like Kate Beaton’s Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, and it’s not one to miss for anybody interested in insightful explorations of America’s heartland.
Biographies can intrigue and educate with subject matter alone, but some of the most interesting give both the story of a life and the reason behind the author’s fascination. Washington’s Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben tells the story of the titular war general, who rose from Prussian obscurity in the 1700s to become a once legendary yet now forgotten leader, and why Eisner Award-winning author Josh Trujillo found his life so interesting.
Ambitious and idealistic, Baron von Steuben quickly rose through the ranks of the Prussian Army through a combination of genius, white lies and good old flirting. However, relationships with Prussian royalty and a reputation as a leader in the army weren’t enough to keep him safe from charges of impropriety, and von Steuben found himself fleeing his home country.
After arriving in America, Benjamin Franklin recruited him to help the Americans organize their untrained rebel army. With the help of young men, some of whom were his lovers, von Steuben shared Prussian army techniques with George Washington, eventually writing the Blue Book guide that laid the foundation for training American soldiers. Yet because of his romantic partners and his immigrant status, it was always a challenge for von Steuben to form a legacy that would be remembered.
Thoughts from Trujillo (and, occasionally, illustrator Levi Hastings) stitch together the gaps in the available information on von Steuben’s life by weaving in compelling modern conversations on queer identity and queer history. They don’t shy away from darkness: The book discusses the fact that von Steuben enslaved people and highlights how his relative wealth and status protected him from what poorer, less powerful queer folk faced.
Hastings ditches the more colorful artwork found in his children’s books in favor of a classy triad color scheme of black, white and blue–quietly patriotic, much like von Steuben himself. The most beautiful piece of art comes at the very end of the book: a single-page spread of von Steuben’s beloved hound, curled up asleep in a bed made of von Steuben’s coat and hat.
Washington’s Gay General examines the same questions of ideology and legacy that permeate the Broadway show Hamilton, and fans of the production will certainly find much to enjoy. For those who are less interested in early American history and simply want to connect with their queer roots, Washington’s Gay General offers an accessible introduction to the life of Baron von Steuben and, through him, the queer people throughout history who have been hiding in plain sight.
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