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Popping the Word Balloon: Graphic Novels for Adults

For me, the season of summer reading brings with it an opportunity to try new things, to read out of my comfort zone.  Speculative fiction is already out of a lot of readers' comfort zones.  When I tell someone I read speculative fiction, the most common response I get (after "What's that?") is "I'm not really into those sorts of books."  (The most entertaining reaction by far was a horrified "But... you're a librarian!")  I'm used to taking flak for what I read (hey, I read romance, too), but it still bothers me.  Speculative fiction encompasses such a broad panoply of styles, themes, philosophies, and yes, talents, that it's utterly unfair to dismiss the entire genre out of hand.  But there's a whole medium of literature on our library shelves that carries an even deeper stigma: comic books.

Thirty or forty years ago, I could have understood the bias against comics.  When I was growing up, mainstream comic books were limited mostly to spandex-clad superheroes and spinoffs from the Sunday funnies, and they weren't for everyone; teenagers and college kids probably made up most of their audience.  (For awhile, my parents despaired of my awful comic book habit, and I had to sneak them into the house to disguise how much I was reading.  Yes, I'll say that again-- as a kid, I was scolded for reading too much.)  A generation before that, in the "Golden Age" of comic books, superheroes were just one of many different genres written for the graphic medium-- there were romance comics, horror comics, western comics, crime comics, classic lit comics, jungle comics, sci fi comics, and, well, comic comics-- but little (if any) of it was considered fine literature.

Starting around the 1980s, though, comics got blown wide open by a new breed of talented writers who wanted to use the medium to tell other kinds of stories. Authors like Will Eisner (after whom the Eisner Award is named), Dave Sim, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, Jeff Smith, and others started writing speculative fiction, history, biography, noir fiction, and more in the comic book format.  Publishers began to use the "graphic novel" label in an attempt to distinguish these books, with their more sophisticated themes and self-contained story arcs, from the stigmatized "comic books." (Ironically, the authors themselves generally felt the term "graphic novel" was too pretentious.  They were fine with calling themselves "comic book writers," although they agreed that there was a difference between their longer-format work and the open-ended serial format standard to "comic books.")  These books quickly achieved cult status within comics fandom, and then people outside of the industry started reading them and liking what they saw.  Wider recognition arrived in 1991 when an issue of Neil Gaiman's popular Sandman series, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," won the World Fantasy Award-- not in a "specialty" category, but for Best Short Story.

Today, there's nothing funny about the size and breadth of the comics industry, yet a disappointing number of grown-up readers continue to turn their noses up at books with pictures in them.  The books I'm talking about aren't for children (although we have those, too-- the library has three graphic novel collections spanning different age groups).  Graphic novels are different, yes; they're often quicker reads, but the storylines are no less complex or thoughtful than those of their text-only counterparts. The art isn't a camouflage for poor writing, but a complement to writing that could easily sit on the shelf beside-- or above-- many text-only titles.  For that matter, I've read some near-wordless graphic novels that are brilliant stories in themselves.  There's some truly stellar SF being produced in the comic book medium today, and anyone who's not reading it solely because of its format is missing out.

This summer, I want you to puncture your fear of the word balloon!  If you need further encouragement, I invite you to join the library's SF book club "In Other Worlds..." this coming Wednesday, when we'll be reading Jeff Lemire's The Nobody, followed over the next two months by Neil Gaiman's Preludes & Nocturnes (the first volume of his Sandman series) and Alan Moore's Watchmen.  If you're ready to strike out on your own, I've assembled a few lists below to help.  You're going to see a lot of familiar names here, as an increasing number of celebrated authors are getting into graphic fiction.  Please trust me when I say there are a lot more names here you'll want to know before the end of the summer.

Ladies and gentlemen... it's time to get graphic.

Horror

Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, and Warren Pleece (741.5973 Abel)
Pixu by Gabriel Ba, et al. (741.5973 Ba)
Heathentown by Corinna Sara Bechko and Gabriel Hardman (741.5973 Bechk)
Zombie Tales: This Bites by Boom! Studios (741.5973 Zombi)
The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks by Max Brooks and Ibraim Roberson (741.5973 Brook)
Dracula: The Company of Monsters by Kurt Busiek, Daryl Gregory, et al. (New 741.5973 Busie)
High Moon by David Gallaher, Steve Ellis, and Scott O. Brown (741.5973 Galla)
Tag by Keith Giffen, Kody Chaimberlain, and Chee (741.5973 Giffe)
Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton, Stacie M. Ritchie, and Brett Booth (741.5973 Ritch)
Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (741.5973 Hill)
The Living and the Dead by Jason (741.5944 Jason)
The Nightmare Factory: Based on the Stories of Thomas Ligotti by Stuart Moore, et al. (741.5 Moore)
Hellboy: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola and John Byrne (741.5 Mig)
Zombies vs. Robots Aventure by Chris Ryall, Menton Matthews III, et al. (New 741.5973 Matt)
Dead, She Said by Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson (741.5973 Niles)
Midnight Nation by J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank (741.5 Str)
American Vampire by Scott Snyder, Stephen King, and Rafael Albuquerque (741.5973 Snyde)
Wormwood, Gentleman Corpse by Ben Templesmith (741.5994 Templ)
Awakening by Nick Tapalansky, Alex Eckman-Lawn, et al. (741.5973 Tapal)
The Unknown by Mark Waid and Minck Oosterveer (New 741.5973 Waid)

SF

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation by Ray Bradbury and Tim Hamilton (741.5973 Hamil)
24 Seven by Ivan Brandon, ed. (741.5973 Twe)
Halo: Helljumper by Peter David and Eric Nguyen (741.5973 David)
Scarlet Traces by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli (YA GN Edginton)
Ocean by Warren Ellis, Chris Sprouse, and Karl Story (741.5 Sto)
Rocketo by Frank Espinosa and Marie Taylor (741.5973 Espin)
Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne & the Beetleburg Clank by Phil & Kaja Foglio (YA GN Girl Genius)
Tribes: The Dog Years by Michael Geszel and Inaki Miranda (YA GN Geszel)
The Broadcast by Eric Hobbs and Noel Tuazon (New 741.5973 Hobbs)
The Wasteland by Antony Johnston, Chris Mitten, Ben Templesmith, et al. (741.5942 Johns)
The Nobody by Jeff Lemire (741.5971 Lemir)
Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit by Motoro Mase (741.5952 Mase)
Stuart Moore's Para by Stuart Moore, et al. (741.5973 Moore)
We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (YA GN Morrison)
Second Wave by Michael Alan Nelson and Chee (741.5973 Sec)
Orbital by Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pelle (741.5944 Runb)
Appleseed by Masamune Shirow (741.5952 Shiro)
Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan (741.5973 Vau)
Serenity: Those Left Behind by Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews (YA GN Whedon)
DMZ by Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, et al. (741.5973 Wood)

Fantasy

Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter by Kurt Busiek, Cary Nord, et al. (741.5973 Busie)
Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle by Jim Butcher and Ardian Syaf (741.5973 Butch)
Far Arden by Kevin Cannon (741.5973 Canno)
The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross (741.5973 Carey)
Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson (New 741.5973 Dorki)
Groo: The Hogs of Horder by Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones (New 741.5973 Arago)
Sandman by Neil Gaiman et al. (741.5973 Gaima)
Stardust: Being a Romance within the Realms of Faerie by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess (YA GN Stardust)
Okko: The Cycle of Earth by Hub with Edward Gauvin, trans. (741.5944 Hub)
Flight by Kazu Kibuishi, ed. (YA GN Flight and 741.5 Flight)
Some New Kind of Slaughter by A. David Lewis and mpMann (741.5973 Lewis)
Finder by Carla Speed McNeil (New 741.5973 McNei)
Castle Waiting by Linda Medley (741.597 Med)
Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (New 741.5981 Moon)
Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen (741.5 Pet)
The Discworld Graphic Novels by Terry Pratchett, Scott Rockwell, and Steven Ross (741.5941 Pratt)
Dungeon: The Early Years by Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, and Christophe Blain (741.5944 Sfar)
The Light Brigade by Peter Tomasi and Peter Snejberg (741.5973 Tom)
Fables by Bill Willingham, et al. (741.5973 Willi)
Air by G. Willow Wilson and M. K. Perker (741.5973 Wilso)

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Thanks for the

Thanks for the recommendations.  I've always enjoyed comic books in my youth, but haven't kept up to date with what's worth reading as an adult.  I'm looking forward to going down this list.