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Graphic Novels: The Cream of the Crop

August 10, 2009

Here are my top FIVE graphic novel authors.  First,  a definition. Graphic novels aren’t syndicated comics, nor are they a collection of comics. They’re novels, in a graphic format. Why do I like them?

I believe they perform a function not unlike photojournalism of the mind- the artist/writer wants to put across a very specific vision which, while hinted at in literature, is more fully expressed through the medium of comics. The old cliché that ‘ a picture is worth a thousand words’ is nowhere truer than in the medium of the graphic novel. Here, we can see the world through the artists’ eyes as he or she shows us what they want us to see.  It’s as close as you can get to living their life while looking over their shoulder.  For this reason the graphic novel is curiously suited to geopolitical novels, travelogues and historical comment. Here are my top authors in the genre, in no particular order:

Guy Delisle, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman and, to throw in something fun for good measure, Simone Lia.

Guy Delisle

Delisle is a French-Canadian animator who travels to Asia for work, either his own or that of his wife. His novels are fascinating in their mix between showing daily life in Asia, showing his experiences as a foreigner in a strange land, the customs and practices in the cities he visits and some thoughtful comments on the governmental regimes, particularly in ‘Pyongyang’.

Delisle has written novels from Shenzhen, Pyongyang and, most recently, Myanmar (Burma).

Joe Sacco

Sacco’s work is centred on modern warzones- Bosnia and Palestine. His work is extraordinary because he actually goes out there himself, talks to the people he meets there and records everything in the graphic novel format. You see what he sees and you can go where the cameras can’t.

Needless to say, it makes for a fascinating read, particularly for these of you who are interested in current events anyway.

Sacco’s select bibliography includes Palestine and Safe Area Goražde.

Marjane Satrapi

Author of  ‘Persepolis’- her autobiography of growing up in Persia (Iran).

You’ve seen the movie, have you? What a waste of time. Go get the novel instead. It’s a thousand times better. The movie does not do it justice in the least.

The novel begins in a relatively peaceful Iran and chronicles its devolution into the maelstrom we know today.   Satrapi moves from Iran to Switzerland where she feels homesick for her homeland and ends up walking the streets, then we follow her home to Iran, where she feels detached and uncertain, having grown up between two cultures and unsure which she prefers. The regime shapes her life, even down to having her theme park proposals rejected because the goddesses are unveiled.  Her adolescence is marked by having seen death at a young age and she grows up quickly, not having anyone to confide in.  We see her tuberculosis in Vienna and her marriage back in Iran and the progress of the ‘revolution’ in Iran continually in the background.  Readers come away understanding the culture and the regime in Iran much more having seen them through Satrapi’s eyes.

Simone Lia

Lia is an upcoming author, publishing quirky books which, while not having the same tone as the others in this list, are definitely a fun and fast read if you have a spare hour or so.

Her first novel, ‘Fluffy’ follows a bachelor who has a ‘son’ Fluffy, who happens to be a rabbit. He’s about three years old and the novel shows him finally understanding that he’s a rabbit (not a human). While it sounds like the stuff of candyfloss, it provides a front to explain his ‘daddy’s’ complex personal life as he goes  to visit his parents in Sicily.

The characters are so true to life, it makes Fluffy’s existence as a rabbit absurd and wonderful in a rather surreal way, which is as it should be. While this is a bit of a wild card on this list, I had a lot of fun reading it.

Art Spiegelman

Spiegelman inhabits a bit of a grey area: probably the best known of the authors here, his books are the most hard-hitting, dealing as they do with the holocaust through the eyes of Spiegelman’s father.

Growing up as the son of a Holocaust survivor, Spiegelman lived with the ghosts of the concentration camps and, as an adult, turned on the tape recorder to tell his father’s story through his pen. His book ‘MAUS’ is  divided into two, 1986 (“My Father Bleeds History”) and the second in 1991 (“And Here My Troubles Began”).

It’s hard to describe the impact of the novel.  Written as it is in a graphic format, we see the horrors first hand and in a much more personal way than through Hollywood films, which have been passed down hand by hand, until it doesn’t resemble the original much.  Spiegelman’s novel is straight from the horse’s mouth.

His curious decision to represent the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, non-Nazi Germans as pigs (which can be either on your side or against, depending on the situation and the individual), beside the obvious meanings, also somewhat depersonalizes the story. This allows you to enter the shoes of the authors and live the story through the novel.  While horrifying at times and somewhat sentimental at others, it never fails to hold your interest until the very end.

Spiegelman is widely regarded as the Dickens of the graphic novel world and has won the Pulitzer prize for MAUS.  If you’re going to read it (and I recommend you do), get the 2 in 1 anthology.


There ends my round up of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. There are many, many more out there, but these are by far my favourites. If you have any recommendations for more, please share them!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2009 4:33 pm

    yes certainly Satrapi opens the door on that country that we don’t know much about. Reading Persepolis really blew apart my ideas on what Iran might be like!

  2. Marly permalink
    November 20, 2009 2:05 pm

    Thanks for this interesting review. One little correction:
    The pigs in Maus aren’t non-Nazi Germans, they are Poles! The Americans are dogs, and the French are frogs. Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

  3. Dan Leopard permalink
    April 24, 2010 1:05 pm

    I’ve read Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang and Burma Chronicles. I’m not usually a non-fiction comic-book reader, but I find Delisle’s work really funny and interesting. Birmania and North Korea are two countries we don’t know much about, under authoritary regimes, which is hard to imagine for capitalist citizens.
    Thanks for this great post!

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