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Seven Books for When Words Aren’t Enough

Seven Books for When Words Aren’t Enough
Seven Books for When Words Aren’t Enough

The very first stories humans ever recorded were built not of words, but of images: drawn in caves, mapped out in constellations, rendered through sculpture. Even after the development of written language, storytelling with images remained crucial. This focus on the visual can be seen in the early days of bookmaking, for example, in illuminated manuscripts and ornately painted religious texts. Today’s graphic novels look back to this early lineage. They create a dialogue between text and image; in the best examples, the mediums cooperate and overlap to create a fuller, richer work.

Many modern illustrated books, such as mainstream superhero comics and manga, are created in partnerships and teams, with the story and drawings done by different people. But here I’ve focused on books that come from a single mind and hand, which is to me where the form is most exciting. The seven books below represent a wide range of writing and art styles—outlandish caricature and precise, realistic line work; satirical prose and devastating narratives; fiction and nonfiction. But each depends on a unique artist’s holistic vision, demonstrating how expertly words and pictures can blend together to convey one voice.

Drawn and Quarterly

Wendy, Master of Art, by Walter Scott

If you’ve ever been nauseated—or even vaguely annoyed—by art-world pretension, you’ll find Scott’s Wendy series hilariously familiar. The books follow a messy young woman named Wendy and her rise to industry acclaim as she stumbles through late, sloppy nights; bad critiques with M.F.A. nemeses; scathing reviews; and cringey performances. Informed by Scott’s own experience in the fine arts, later books show Wendy attending graduate school in rural Ontario at the University of Hell, where her classmates are interested in the “semiotics of pissing” and “really long string.” She parties with a friend named Screamo whose head resembles the subject of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, envies a successful artist who’s drawn as an alien with glamorous wavy hair, and ricochets around professional events in a questionably tiny strapless dress. Scott’s drawings drip with physical comedy: His characters turn noodle-limbed when they’re high, run with giant sweat droplets when they’re nervous, and prance around with black-holed eye sockets when they’re sleep-deprived. I can’t imagine a funnier series of comics than this one, part coming-of-age chronicle and part critique of creatives, populated by people who loathe and terrify one another, all clamoring for fame, approval, and love.

Drawn and Quarterly

Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso

In this utterly terrifying and unsettling book about the mystery surrounding the disappearance and murder of a woman named Sabrina, a tragedy gives birth to conspiracy theories from rabid online strangers who claim to be after “the truth.” The action begins largely after Sabrina is already gone, and mostly follows Teddy, her boyfriend, muddling through his grief. He takes up residence in the house of his old friend Calvin, an Air Force soldier whose declining mental health is tracked rather brilliantly throughout the graphic novel via the medical-evaluation forms he’s required to fill out each morning when he arrives at work. Their conversations are vacant and banal, and Teddy spends most of his time flat on the bare mattress in Calvin’s spare room, listening to a broadcast that begins foretelling daily apocalypses. Characters’ faces are drawn with a deceptive lack of expression, their mouths inked on like Lego figurines’ smiles, even as the characters themselves rot in their grief and their lives are threatened, which lends an even spookier tone to an already forbidding story. As Teddy and Calvin spiral further away from reality, the novel coalesces into a masterful exploration of fake news, talk-radio derangement, and the relentless 24-hour news cycle.

One Story

One Story, by Gipi

One Story chronicles the lives of Silvano Landi, a middle-aged writer whose family has abandoned him, and Landi’s great-grandfather, a traumatized World War I soldier grappling with PTSD. When Landi turns 50, he has a psychotic break and becomes transfixed with his progenitor’s war diary; as Landi struggles with aging, he delivers genuine, painful soliloquies on the delusions that allow us to accept our weakening bodies. The beauty of One Story is that its dual timelines don’t intertwine in any obvious climax—they’re tied together by emotion, and a family legacy of mental illness, rather than by any literal event. The style is wildly varied: Gipi’s large-format pages move from bright, watercolor-washed wartime to frenetic line art of ravaged faces presented uncomfortably close. One Story is a relentless yet empathetic book that readers can frequently return to; each sitting offers another chance to puzzle through the corridors of, and connections between, two complicated lives.

Drawn and Quarterly

Grass, by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

Using breathless, inky brushstrokes, Gendry-Kim’s Grass tells the true story of Granny Lee Ok-sun, one of tens of thousands of Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during the 1930s and ’40s. Lee was relinquished by her impoverished family, then adopted by a couple who promised to send her to school, but put her to work instead before selling her as a teenager to a brothel. Her biography gets more gruesome when she is sent to a Japanese-military “comfort station.” Gendry-Kim expertly handles the woman’s trauma in a narrative that alternates between her brutal childhood and her present, where she is reluctantly telling Gendry-Kim her story in the nursing home where she now lives. Gendry-Kim inserts a plethora of wordless pages amid the account, and these gestural, stark landscapes are some of the book’s most beautiful drawings. At times, she is even more minimalist: After recounting Lee’s first assault, Gendry-Kim draws empty, charcoal-black panels, creating a heartbreaking pause in a relentlessly painful book and life.

Someone Please Have Sex With Me
Gina Wynbrandt

Someone Please Have Sex With Me, by Gina Wynbrandt

Comics have long been a place where men ogle women, leering at chesty femme fatales and anatomically improbable superheroes. Wynbrandt flips that script as she details her own sexual desires in this short, hilarious volume. She is a master of expression, and she’s never shy about depicting herself in a compromised or grotesque manner. Her self-portraits drool, slobber, and gyrate during her sometimes-humiliating attempts to garner male attention. On each spread, Wynbrandt moves through knowingly juvenile fantasies: Kim Kardashian appears as a fairy godmother and gives Wynbrandt a makeover; she wins a contest to meet Justin Bieber, and he falls in love with her after he sees how quickly she can eat a slice of pizza. The author’s playfully executed, fantastical narratives suggest that she’s having fun as she draws, providing a good time for the reader too.

Rosalie Lightning
St. Martin’s

Rosalie Lightning, by Tom Hart

Hart’s absolutely gutting book about the sudden death of his toddler daughter, Rosalie, is an aching memoir that recounts her tragically short life; explores the grief he and his wife, the cartoonist Leela Corman, share as they try to reconcile themselves to a future without their child; and imagines the future Rosalie never got to have. Rosalie Lightning’s power comes from the fact that it doesn’t try to make sense of a tragedy that lacks logic. Hart renders what happened in a bare, humane style, one that gently takes the reader’s hand and ushers them forward rather than allowing them to turn away. The result is a gorgeous capsule of love and pain that demonstrates how art permits us to keep marching on.

Killing and Dying
Drawn and Quarterly

Killing and Dying, by Adrian Tomine

A collection of six stories illustrated in color palettes that shift from candy-coated pastels to muted hues to soft black and white, Killing and Dying is a gloriously sure-footed book full of people consumed with self-doubt. Its male characters take up more page space and deliver more dialogue than their female counterparts, but Tomine is conscious of this: Much of his work narrows in on the lacuna between how the men he draws perceive themselves and what they actually offer to those around them. Meanwhile, one of my favorite stories in the book, “Amber Sweet,” concerns a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to a porn star with the title’s name. Here, we see Tomine really play with the comics form; the narrator reports that she accidentally stumbled across videos of Amber Sweet on her boyfriend’s computer, while the image that bears the caption shows her intentionally snooping in his search history. The contradiction in the panel and its text is both somewhat crushing and wildly funny.

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