The intersection of visual art and language in a graphic novel tilts the reading experience. The reader has no choice but to slide into the author's more specifically defined — and designed — world. The hallmarks of great literature are the same, regardless the form, but the way a reader absorbs the work is inherently different — and depending on the work, exhilarating.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Earlier this month, Publishers Weekly ran a story called "How graphic novels became the hottest section in the library." It cited statistics about the growth of graphic novel collections as well as circulation rates that sometimes outpaced traditional best-sellers and — in the case of one Ohio library — accounted for a disproportionate share of circulation. Growth in graphic novel collections for children and young adults outpaced the general adult collections. Why? One reason cited: Some librarians said they weren't sure where to find good information on individual titles for adults.
We suspect that may be true for some of our readers, too, so we asked an eclectic group of authors, editors and bookstore owners to recommend two graphic novels: a good starting point for those who are new to the form and a favorite or an essential that should be in everyone's library. Here are their edited responses.
— Jennifer Day, editor of Printers Row Journal
Chris Ware, author of "Building Stories"
There's only one: "Maus" (by Art Spiegelman), and that suits both categories. It will likely never be bettered, at least in my opinion (and probably lifetime).
Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker
Where to start: McSweeney's 13, edited by Chris Ware, with a preface by Ira Glass and an introduction by Ware. It has all that makes the medium thrilling: the different voices of Ware, (Daniel) Clowes, (R.) Crumb, Lynda Barry, so many more — Joe Sacco, Richard McGuire, Julie Doucet, Milt Gross, (Rodolphe) Töpffer and John Updike. Not just one style or one approach or one way of telling a story with words and pictures, but many different voices, each a unique window on that creator's way of seeing the world. Published in 2004, it remains a masterpiece that defines what's exciting today.
An essential: I have to assume that most everyone will have heard of my husband's Pulitzer-Prize winning "Maus, A Survivor's Tale," so I'd pick Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" as another essential work. Marjane's wise, funny, and heartbreaking memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution tells the story of a little girl in Tehran during the overthrow of the Shah's regime and the triumph of the Islamic Revolution. It also follows teenage Marjane in Europe, exiled away from her family. It is a stunning reminder of the human cost of war and political repression but it shows how the brave among us carry on, through laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity.
Tavi Gevinson, founder and editor-in-chief of Rookie
Where to start: Acme Novelty Library #18, like many of Chris Ware's books, commands attention to the kind of neighbor you wouldn't normally think twice about. (It) finds beauty in the mundane daily details of being a person, instead of transporting you to some kind of superhero planet (which is also fun, but a more traditional entry). It is an example of perfect storytelling.
An essential: I have read "Ghost World" by Daniel Clowes about 30 times and keep an extra copy solely for the purpose of lending it out. Depending on one's mood, (it) can offer either life lessons or just something to relate to. Perfect for both cynicism and optimism.
Daniel Handler, the author aka Lemony Snicket
Where to start: Kyle Baker's "Why I Hate Saturn" is great for beginners. It has a twisty-but-linear story that feels like a smart, weird HBO series — the kind you rewatch just to catch all the surprises.
An essential: Dan Clowes' "The Death-Ray" is everything a graphic novel should be: The story is colored like an old comic but sinks in like a book, and its fragmentary technique moves the story so speedily so that you might not notice that its structural inventiveness would have bagged a Pulitzer had it been entirely textual. It's often overlooked, although that might be because Clowes has given us at least four other essential graphic novels.
Hillary Chute, University of Chicago assistant professor of English and organizer of last year's "Comics: Philosophy & Practice" conference
Where to start: "The Complete Maus" by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, new edition 2011). "Maus" is, perhaps, the most famous graphic narrative in the world — and for excellent reason. Bringing readers to Poland in the 1930s and '40s — and inside concentration camps — "Maus" presents a story that no one could fail to be compelled by: father Vladek Spiegelman's riveting experience of surviving the Holocaust. Yet it hits on another story: the cartoonist son's struggles, both aesthetic and personal, to document his father's life. Spiegelman's black and white pages are brilliantly constructed, weaving past and present together in a way only comics can.
An essential: "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel is a memoir about a gay girl growing up in rural Pennsylvania with a mercurial, closeted father who is both an English teacher and a funeral home director (hence the title). "Fun Home" is beautifully crafted — its lovely black line drawings are set off by a gray-green ink wash throughout, and its non-linear structure is both intricate and economical. It is one of the most moving books I have ever read.
Jeffrey Brown, author of "Vader's Little Princess"