Comic Books as Journalism: 10 Masterpieces of Graphic Nonfiction

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An unusual summer reading roundup of books that blend meaty subject matter with engaging visual storytelling

Who doesn't love comic books? While infographics may be trendy today (and photography perennially sexy), there's just something special about the work of the human hand. Good old-fashioned manual labor, literally, brings a unique richness to storytelling where words alone sometimes fall flat. I've put together a list of some of my favorite graphic non-fiction. These hybrid works combine the best elements of art, journalism, and scholarship, and provide the perfect way to mix some visual magic into your summer reading list.

1. THE BEATS

I've long loved authors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, so I was thrilled to discover The Beats: A Graphic History, an anthology that mashes up biography, criticism, and literary readings from the seminal creative movement. Comic art legend Harvey Pekar presides over the enterprise with a boldness befitting the Beatniks' sensibility, along with graphic geniuses Peter Kuper (of Mad magazine fame), Ed Piskor, and other big names in the medium.

The Beats invokes the immediacy of 1940s and '50s art, music, and writing; even better, it provides political context and introduced us to an entire panoply of artists whose contributions to the era are lesser known. From painting sessions in Jay DeFeo's flat to strains of mental illness throughout the movement, The Beats is an invaluable addition to our picture of a charged moment in creative history.


2. EDIBLE SECRETS

How do you make 500,000 declassified documents yield their stories? Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified U.S. History pulls it off with a combination of stellar journalism and informative, witty illustration. Scholar Mia Partlow, graphic designer Michael Hoerger, and illustrator Nate Powell collaborated to create what started out as a serialized zine on the relationship between food and politics in America, and the highly confidential government coverups of these strange bedfellows' intersection.

Upton Sinclair-style muckraking for our modern era, Edible Secrets covers the CIA's milkshake assassination plot of Fidel Castro, popcorn mind-control schemes, and how a box of Jell-O led to two death sentences during the 1950s Communist red scare. Like a graphic interpretation of Wikileaks, the slim but delectable volume investigates the down-and-dirty ways in which the U.S. government altered history using the most common of comestibles.

Whether you're an activist, foodie, or history buff, Edible Secrets is a fascinating and fun creation about acts of agriculture -- something each one of us, consciously or not, commits every day.


3. A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE

Cartoonist Josh Neufeld accomplishes the nearly impossible in his award-winning A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, namely, taking a subject as tragic and media-saturated as 2005′s Hurricane Katrina and making a page-turner out of its retelling and aftermath. Neufeld shows the story through five (real-life) New Orleans residents to whom we became completely attached, which is precisely the point. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge demonstrates what the comic medium does best -- namely, completely immerse the reader-viewer in another world by engaging multiple cognitive functions -- and offers a fascinating parallel to Hurricane Story.

Through the parallax narratives of Neufeld's five characters, we come away with a fittingly complex perspective of the human experience of this news story.


4. THE 14TH DALAI LAMA

The history of modern Tibet gets told via one man's life in The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography. Llhamo Döndrub was the two-year-old child of a peasant family in northeast Tibet when he was named the new spiritual leader of a people; traditional Japanese manga style and first-person perspective bring intimacy to the sweeping story that unfolds from that watershed moment. It's easy to see why the Dalai Lama authorized this life story, an imminently human treatment of large-scale historical narrative. We live vicariously through Tibet's takeover by communist China under Mao Zedong, and the Dalai Lama's decision to live exiled in India in an effort to save his people's culture.

The 14th Dalai Lama is a quick read that still does justice to its spiritual subject matter.


5. THE STUFF OF LIFE

If only all biology textbooks were as cool as The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA. The great news is that it's never too late for continuing education, and The Stuff of Life's pictorial approach is much more fun -- and conceptually sticky -- than I remember science being in school. The book starts with the mind-boggling story of how an inchoate mass of chemical elements formed into life over five billion years ago, and then drills down to the cellular level before getting into applied genetics (even Dolly the Sheep makes an appearance). With the help of friendly black-and-white cartoon panels, A,T,C, and G molecules cohere into a narrative beyond alphabet soup and the double helix, and I'm proud to be able to explain the difference between phenotypes and polypeptides again.


6. SMARTERCOMICS BUSINESS BOOKS

A new series of books by SmarterComics is harnessing the human tendency toward what's known as the pictorial superiority effect, and adapting popular business and strategy books by iconic thought-leaders into visually-driven narratives. Among the series so far: Wired editor Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, and the Sun Tzu classic The Art of War. Great graphics illustrate Anderson's argument around the death of "common culture," Hill's endorsement of the practical power of positive thinking, and entrepreneur Robert Renteria's rise from gang violence to civic leadership.

Read Maria Popova's full review of the SmarterComics series here.


7. THE INFLUENCING MACHINE

One of the coolest and most charming book releases of this year, The Influencing Machine is a graphic novel about the media, its history, and its many maladies -- think The Information meetsThe Medium is the Massage meets Everything Explained Through Flowcharts.

Written by Brooke Gladstone, longtime host of NPR's excellent On the Media, and illustrated by cartoonist Josh Neufeld (yup, he of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge fame), The Influencing Machine takes a refreshingly alternative approach to the age-old issue of why we disparage and distrust the news. And as the book quickly makes clear, it has always been thus.

Read my recent full review here.


8. THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Melding a graphic novel, photo essay, and travelogue, The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders tells the story of photographer Didier Lefèvre's 1986 journey through Afghanistan with the international non-profit organization Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Lefèvre documented the group's harrowing covert tour from Pakistan into a nation gripped by violence in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. While a few of his 4,000-plus images were published upon his return to France, years passed before Lefèvre was approached by his friend, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, about collaborating on a book that would finally tell his remarkable story. The resulting effort, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier, is a seamless tour de force of reportage.

Read my full review here.


9. BURMA CHRONICLES

The lovely Burma Chronicles is another fortuitous creative byproduct of Doctors Without Borders. Comic book artist Guy Delisle travels around the world with his wife, Nadège, an MSF doctor, tours which previously resulted in two other gorgeous works of graphic nonfiction -- Shenzen: A Travelogue from China, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Delisle lives the atypical life of an NGO house husband-cum-cartoonist, alternating between inking panels and daily perambulations near Nobel Prize winner's Aung Sang Suu Kyi's home, where the opposition figure was still under house arrest at the time he was in the country.

What makes Burma Chronicles so charming is its balance of quotidian domestic life and international affairs. Delisle's growing knowledge of the country's culture plays off the constant development of his infant son, lending the whole work (and the world) refreshing perspective.


10. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED

If anyone could make grammar fun, it's Maira Kalman. An update of William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White's definitive reference text on composition and form, The Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman's signature whimsy with the indispensable styleguide to create an instant classic. The original Elements of Style was first published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use, and became canon after a 1959 reprint. We're all for achieving "cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English," as White -- who had studied under Strunk in college -- described their collaboration; and the goal is made appropriately joyful in this new edition. In other words, we'd much rather be schooled in the basics of language usage by Kalman's vibrant work than the old black-and-white Strunk & White.

A must-have for art lovers and the editorially exact alike, essays by White and fellow New Yorker contributor (and his stepson) Roger Angell put The Elements of Style Illustrated into historical context.

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I hope you had as much fun as I did with this short survey of masterworks in a medium that doesn't often get its due. Graphic nonfiction provides a clever solution to a perpetual problem -- how to make audiences care about new or challenging material. These 10 books bring a childlike sense of wonder to their subjects, something that comes in part from the cross-disciplinary collaborations between artists, designers, and writers that yielded the work in the first place. And they're proof that you're never too old to pick up a comic book.



This post also appears on Brain Pickings.

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Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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