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.

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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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