(I wrote this for my graphic novels lit class professor, who admitted to me that he knew very little about comics when he was asked to teach this course. Short of asking him directly to let me teach it instead I'm sending him this and hoping that the next time he teaches this course there will at least be some women artists on the reading list. Colors just show books I'd put together, if I were to assign them.)
Really awesome comics/ graphic novels (as suggested by Anjali, in no particular order):
Binky Brown Meets the Virgin Mary- Justin Green
-Justin Green is considered the father of autobiographical comics, and Binky Brown was a breakthrough not only in content but also in style—leaving in pencil lines and white-out to show process was a major break with the assembly-line production of traditional comics.
You’ll Never Know- Carol Tyler (volumes I and II are out, volume III pending)
-Her scrapbook layout and delicate coloring are quite unique in the world of underground comics, especially considering that among Carol Tyler’s contemporaries are Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar. While the content is reminiscent of Speigelman’s Maus, in that it is the story of her father’s involvement with WWII, that’s where the similarities end. This is as much her story as it is his.
A Contract with God- Eisner
-A long, intricate story about a religious, Jewish man who makes a contract with God (which God, it seems, does not keep). Eisner’s art is more traditional but transcends the genre in its storytelling capacity.
Skim- Jillian Tamaki
-A coming-of-age story with some of the loveliest artwork I’ve ever seen (reminiscent of ukiyo-e prints but with a clear sense of the artist’s hand). If I were to put it in a course, I would pair this reading with anything by Nate Powell, Stitches by David Small or Ghost World by Daniel Clowes.
Ghost World- Daniel Clowes
-Also a coming-of-age story, though with a slightly less linear narrative than Skim. The movie adaptation is one of the best comic-to-movie adaptations I have ever seen, possibly because the comic artist himself was active in the creation of the film.
It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken- Seth
-Seth’s dark storytelling is countered by his friendly lines and cartoony style. Of all the people on the list, his point of view is the one I identify with most strongly.
Hark! A Vagrant- Kate Beaton
-This originated as a webcomic (and can still be found online). The subject matter varies from history to literature to talking to one’s past self. There is no narrative but there is general hilarity and very poignant points wrapped in wit.
Fun Home- Alison Bechdel
-The best autobiographical comic I’ve read: a parallel story of her own coming out and her father’s death. It takes several reads to absorb everything—the language is scholarly and the references to literature numerous.
Dykes to Watch Out For- Alison Bechdel
-Bechdel’s long-running comic strip (which has been collected into The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For) about a group of queer women (and later, men) which spans from the late 80s to 2008 and grows, changes and revises itself to follow the times. Bechdel’s art style is fun to follow, too, from less-confident pen work to really masterful brush drawings. The 9/11 comic is more poignant than any news montage, in my opinion.
Anything done by Lynda Barry
-Lynda Barry pulls elements of decorative collage into her comics. Her writing is masterful and her book on how to write is one of the best collections of writing exercises I’ve ever seen. Recommended also: any lectures by her.
MW- Osamu Tezuka
-A massive volume, about a serial killer and a priest, entangled in a toxic, convoluted relationship. This particular manga is interesting because it is quite unlike much of Tezuka’s more-recognized work. It is much more adult, and very grim. (Ode to Kirihito is another like this.)
Swallow Me Whole- Nate Powell
-Nate Powell’s art style makes me nervous to ever pick up a brush and ink ever again. Swallow Me Whole is about childhood, schizophrenia, and the tenuous connections we make to a world that may or may not be real. It’s haunting and beautiful.
Stitches- David Small
-One more coming-of-age story (I feel like people who do autobiographical comics use it as a form of therapy), this time about a boy and his mother. Again, hauntingly lovely brushwork and washes, but with interludes of more cartoony dark humor.
Moomin- Tove Jansson
-There are many iterations of this series now—I grew up with the TV show by Japanese animators, and I read the novels. But Tove Jansson’s Moomin comic strips are available as collections, and those are the basis for all the other things. There are some that other artists continued after her death, but the ones she drew are the best.
A Drifting Life- Yoshihiro Tatsumi
-While this manga (also a massive volume) is autobiographical, it is also the story of manga—about the development of the genre and the people who brought it to where it is today. Might be a little difficult for people who are not very familiar with Japanese traditions, colloquialisms and customs, but then again, how better to learn?
Asterios Polyp- Mazzuchini
-This one would suit itself very well to a literature course, I think. Characterization is not only represented in character development and language, but by stylistic differences in the way the characters are drawn (and in choices of color). A basic plot summary would be: a famous architect has the chance to start from scratch, and does, sort of.
Funny Misshapen Body- Jeffrey Brown
-Very simple drawings, straightforward depictions and storytelling. The simplistic drawing style belies Brown’s artistic ability. Clumsy is his first book, which might be a better place to start, but this one is a little better at distilling the story into its essential panels.
Ichigo Mashimaro (Strawberry Marshmallow)
-A manga series. It’s wonderfully absurd, though the subject matter is just a group of Japanese girls around 11-16. There are only 6 volumes out which is too bad because the mix of non-sequitur, Japanese cultural cues and slice-of-life storytelling is quite captivating. The art is quite typical of shoujo manga (though that is not quite what this is) and there is a really nice attention to detail in clothes and surroundings.
-Another manga series. The storytelling here is fantastic. Like Ichigo Mashimaro there’s a great mix of day-to-day happenings, humor and colloquial culture. Moreover, the world seen through the eyes of a five-year-old (Yotsuba, the main character) is quite convincing. I think part of this series’ success is the translation, which is very well done.