Three Graphic Books Worth a Look

Three Graphic Books Worth a Look

I promised to return with more book reviews in March, so let’s begin with three graphic books worth a look. The category name might make someone unfamiliar with it to worry about explicit sexual content or extreme violence, but don’t worry. They’re not that kind of “graphic.”

And let’s dispense with the notion that they’re “comic books” right off the top. They are not. Today’s selections cover a range of graphic works – that is, books that are heavily illustrated, if not told primarily via pictures. Today’s selections include two graphic novels – fiction – and one historical work.

As an artist, as well as a writer, I am deeply interested in graphic books. I always loved books with interior illustrations, even long after I “graduated” to reading what we called “chapter books.” For a long time during the 20th century, production costs grew more and more prohibitive for publishing illustrated longer works. But thanks to contemporary methods, graphic books are making a comeback.

On a square red, white, and black background, a red book cover has a black line frame with ornate corner curlicues. It centers on a line drawing of a young woman with mid-length black hair and fangs, wearing a slinky, long black gown with a stylized bat-wing-like wrap. The words say, “FANGS. Sarah Andersen author of Sarah’s Scribbles.”
Book cover courtesy of Amazon.

A Fresh Look at an Old Story

Okay, I did say that these three graphic books are not comics. And they’re not. But our first selection is a variation from her norm for author/artist Sarah Andersen. She is best known as a cartoonist, the demented brain behind the popular “Sarah’s Scribbles” comics and books. These use a consciously simple style, long on punchlines and extremely short on detailed drawings. She also creates the “Cryptid Club” in a similar style.

Her book Fangs is a different story, both literally and in terms of drawing style. The description on her website describes it this way: “First featured as a webcomic series, Fangs chronicles the humor, sweetness, and awkwardness of meeting someone perfectly suited to you but also vastly different.” It’s about a vampire (Elsie) and a werewolf (Jimmy), and yes – it’s funny. But also beautiful and moving. Here’s my short review.

Sarah Andersen takes an entertaining side-trip from her usual topic and art style (yes, she really can draw very well). This is a funny, wise, and ultimately lovely take on the oft-trod story line of a vampire and a werewolf who fall in love, and then encounter a whole new realm of complications. Mere humans will relate – and we can laugh with them through the voyages of mutual discovery and relationship-building. Highly recommended!

A square background of pale blue, gray-blue, black, and pale peach is comminated by a book cover. It shows a man sitting at a small table covered with a white cloth and a stack of books. All around him loom impossibly tall shelves filled with books and further stacks of books to either side of him in the foreground. Light from a window floods part of the bookshelves and a corner of his table. The words say, “THE BOOK TOUR Andi Watson.”
Book cover courtesy of Amazon.

Interesting Idea, Well Drawn, Faltering Plot

Cartoonist Andi Watson also is known for simpler, more lighthearted fare than The Book Tour, the second of the three graphic books I’ve set out to highlight in this post. It’s an apparent deviation from his more frequent fare, such as Punycorn, Distressed Beeping, and Kerry and the Knight of the Forest.

The most frequent descriptor I’ve seen for The Book Tour is “Kafkaesque.” To some extent, nearly every writer knows what a fraught adventure it can be, to go to book-signing after book-signing, when you’re very far from a household name. This tale takes an understated approach to the tribulations and humiliations of one G. H. Fretwell, “a minor English writer,” who does his best to promote his latest book . . . even as he wanders unwittingly into a more and more bizarre coil of complications.

Yet at the end I ran into a maddening problem I sometimes encounter in graphic stories. Here’s my review:

I was intrigued by the idea, and I enjoyed the artwork. Andi Watson is an accomplished artist, but a less accomplished storyteller. There were several crucial points where I wanted more information. The actions and the sparse dialogue didn’t quite tell me enough for me to totally follow what happened. I kinda could, but the “why” (and on one occasion, the “what”) wasn’t clear. It blunted my enjoyment and muddied the ending.

A red, wine, blue-gray, and yellow square background displays a book cover at its center. The red, blue-gray, black, white and yellow cover shows a group of Black women standing on a high place with an Art Deco eagle on the cornice. They overlook an American colonial-era town. The words on the cover from top to bottom say, “’With its remarkable blend of passion and fact, action and reflection, WAKE sets a new standard for illustrating history.’ – NPR. WAKE: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. Rebecca Hall. Illustrated by Hugo Martínez.”
Book cover courtesy of Amazon.

Recovering and Telling History as an Act of Resistance

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts is a very different book from the other two. Of all the three graphic books in this post, this one is the outlier: a much more serious topic, nonfiction, and produced not by an artist/writer, but by a team. Lawyer-turned-historian Rebecca Hall teamed up with illustrator Hugo Martínez to create a fascinating take on a nonfiction book of history. Martínez’s bold, brush-heavy drawings also provide a contrast with the more restrained line work of either Anderson or Watson. Here’s my review:

This book is in itself an act of resistance. As Rebecca Hall writes early in the book, “History written by the victors always erases resistance. And those of us who live in the wake/ruins learn that we were inferior and needed to be conquered and enslaved. This is the afterlife of slavery that the victors need us to inhabit. One in which we have already lost . . .” Hall went looking for historical accounts of women-led slave revolts. She eventually started finding them, “but only if I read between the lines.”
Through the vivid artwork of Hugo Martínez, she tells the story of her own quest to find this hidden history. She also tells of various stories, or partial stories, she managed to unearth. Her research took her to New York, London, and Liverpool. She often faced stiff resistance to her access from the keepers of archives and security personnel.
But everywhere she looked, she found slaves resisting their intended fates – and many times they were led or co-led by women. Considered “less of a threat” than the men and allowed more freedom so they’d be sexually available, slavers made sometimes-fatal mistakes. Hall was able to piece together a few of these desperate rebels’ stories. Tragic? Yes, every one. But the indomitable spirit of those often-nameless slaves shines through to inspire us today.

On a square black cover with a pale peach center, the book covers for “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” “The Book Tour,” and “Fangs” span the center, slightly offset from each other.
Book covers courtesy of Amazon.

I Hope You Give Graphic Books a Closer Look

These three graphic books cover a wide range of subjects and approaches. I hope they demonstrate how very much graphic books do not inevitably have to be “just comic books” – or intellectually simple. I hope you’ve enjoyed this survey of the potential that lies in the idea of a graphic book. And I hope the next time you run across one you’ll give it extra consideration.

About the Author

Article author Jan S. Gephardt is an artist as well as an author, and she’s always been fascinated by illustrated books. She started early in her childhood by producing her own, but soon discovered she had more skill as a book designer than as an illustrator.

These days, in between writing the XK9 books, she’s started work on an ambitious, four-volume illustrated book project for Weird Sisters Publishing, a reissue of Warren C. Norwood’s vintage science fiction Windhover Tetralogy. As the project takes shape, watch for updates on this blog!

More immediately, her novel Bone of Contention, the third novel of the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, is set for release this fall, on September 24, 2024.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Amazon for the cover images of each of these books. See individual listings above for the URLs. Montage designs by Jan S. Gephardt.

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