Dominion of New York

Art & Entertainment

June 19, 2012

12 Excellent Graphic Novels to Read This Summer

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Written by: Joshua Bloodworth
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ummer reading used to mean cracking open that important literary novel from you missed in high school or delving into the publishing world’s current ‘it’ book.  Tackling The Invisible Man or the Art of Fielding are admirable goals.  However, if you are looking for something just as edifying, but with fewer words, pick up one or more of the twelve graphic novels recommended below.  When people think of comics, and by extension graphic novels, they think of men in tights swinging from buildings on homemade webs.  Superhero comics are included on the list, but so are works of historical fiction and magical realism on par with the novels of Madison Smart Bell and Gloria Naylor.  The authors and artists below cover the epic of the Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States in inventive and imaginative ways.

  1. Captain America: Truth by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker:  Riffing on the Tuskegee Experiment, this 2004 graphic novel follows the lives of several African-American men who are given a prototype of the drug which eventually turned Brooklyn born Steve Roger’s into Captain America.  Kyle Baker, one of the deans of African-American comic book artists, lends his superb visual talents to make this one of the most important works Marvel has ever published.
  2. Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix:  On Christmas night 1895, Lee Shelton (African-American) shot and killed William “Billy” Lyons (Caucasian) in St. Louis.  Lee instantly became a folk hero and the subject of many legends immortalized in song.  The 2006 graphic novel presents several of these tales, demonstrating how both history and memory are malleable depending on the needs of the community.
  3. King: A Comics Biography, Special Edition by Ho Che Anderson:  Over a decade in the making and first published in 2005 with the special edition coming out in 2010, King highlights the major themes and events in the life of one of America’s, and the 20th century’s, greatest leaders.  While the writing is excellent, it is the art that sets this graphic novel apart.  As Publisher’s Weekly rightly noted, “In order to capture the complexity of King’s life and times, Anderson employs a uniquely multifaceted and multilayered graphic and narrative technique that falls somewhere between cartooning, painting, collage and documentary photograph.”
  4. Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece:  Novelist Mat Johnson, who has written comics for the Vertigo series Hellblazer, turns to historical fiction in this 2008 graphic novel.  Using Zen Pinchback, a reporter for a Harlem newspaper who is fair enough to pass for white, Johnson explores the horror of lynching in Depression era America, and the inherent messiness of what it means to be “black” or “white” in the United States.
  5. Nat Turner by Kyle Baker:  This 2008 graphic novel, written and illustrated by Kyle Baker, delves into the life and legend of the leader of the United States’ most successful slave uprising.  Baker’s brutally honest illustrations convey the imagined hopes and disappointments of the rebels better than the words of most novelists.
  6. ’85 by Danny Simmons and Floyd Hughes:  Based on the novel Three Days as the Crow Flies by Danny Simmons, brother of Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons and a respected artist in his own right, this 2008 graphic novel follows the fortune of a con man whose quest for drugs and sex in 1980s New York leads him into the multi-million dollar art world populated by hedonist that can give him a run for his money.  Floyd Hughes’ art perfectly captures the mood of New York during the Reagan era.
  7. Me and the Devil Blues  volume 1: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson by Akira Hiramoto:  This 2008 stunning black and white manga follows the imagined intertwining lives of Blues inventor Roberto Johnson and bank robber Clyde Barrow before he meets Bonnie.  This picaresque buddy comedy/novel-of-the-road insightfully depicts the challenges faced by African-Americans in the 1930s and the beauty of the United States even in its darkest time.  It is to graphic novels what O Brother Where art Thou is to film.
  8. Chico & Rita by Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba:  Based on the acclaimed animated movie, this graphic novel touches on race, immigration and imperialism.  At its heart, however, Chico & Rita is a love story between a pianist and a singer as well as artists and their craft.  Beautifully drawn, the illustrator and author take us from Cuba of the present back to pre-Castro Havana, New York and Paris.  It is a wonderful glimpse into the life of postwar jazz musicians in the new world and the old.
  9. Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie:  This graphic novel by a husband and wife team follows the lives of Aya and her friends in the Ivory Coast of the 1970s.  While most comics and graphic novels dealing with post-colonial Africa focus on famine or war scaring the continent (Josh Dysart’s Unknown Soldier for Vertigo being an excellent example), Aya deals with the everyday challenges faced by citizens living in the city.  The focus on family, romance and careers gives the novel a universal feel while presenting Africa as a place with more than child soldiers, bloated belly toddlers’ and HIV orphans.
  10. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Deluxe Edition by Denny O’Neill and Neil Adams: First released in 1978 and then expanded and re-released in 2010, this graphic novel pits DC Comics’ greatest superhero against the world’s greatest heavyweight boxing champion.   As with all great team-ups, our protagonists fight each other before joining forces to stave off an invasion of earth by ruthless space aliens.  The art is beautiful, and the Champ’s dialogue reminds the reader why Muhammad Ali became a superstar so quickly and has remained one to this day.
  11. Bayou. Vol. 1 by Jeremy Love:  This beautiful fairytale set in Depression era Mississippi tells the story of a young black girl who must travel through a mystical land to find her lost white friends in order to save her father who has been accused of kidnapping.  Beautifully drawn with a host of interesting characters, Bayou puts Jeremy Love on the map as a rare talent able to explore the United States’ dark and troubled history with truth and eloquence.
  12. The American Way by John Ridley, Georges Jeanty and Karl Story:  Set during the Kennedy Administration when the United States is being remade domestically by the Civil Rights Movement and challenged internationally at every corner—even in space—by the Soviet Union, this graphic novel explores how those pressures lead to the creation and dissolution of a superhuman team meant to demonstrate the American way to a world still choosing between democracy and communism.  The time period and subject matter has been mined elsewhere, most famously in the Movie X-Men: First Class.  The American Way, however, does it in a more inclusive manner to greater effect.

About the Author

Joshua Bloodworth
Joshua Bloodworth received his J.D. from Harvard University in 2003 and his B.A. in History and African-American Studies from Harvard University in 1997. He has written for the "Source" and "Beat Down."


Melissa Harris Perry. Photo courtesy of MSNBC.