Stand Up, Comics

Getting the hang of graphic novels

Even these two titles aren't the only graphic novels about cancer. Harvey Pekar (of American Splendorfame) and his wife, Joyce Brabner, wrote Our Cancer Year in 1994 (illustrated by Frank Stack). The wicked, outrageous Cancer Vixen: A True Story by Marisa Acocella Marchetto of New York, came out just this week. (Engelberg says her publisher pushed the release of her book up to beat Cancer Vixen: "Just because you have cancer doesn't mean you're noble; you're still doing marketing.") And I'm sure there are even more books along these lines.

But rather than continue in the direction of disease memoirs, I decided to educate myself more broadly: I picked up a copy of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life by London's Paul Gravett, which came out last November. Whether you're new to the genre or an old hand, you'll appreciate his sensible, visual, enthusiastic take on the past, present, and future of the form. I came away from it wanting to read about 10 other graphic novels, and that's more than I can say for, hell, The New York Times Book Review.

The frustrating thing about being a graphic novel newbie is that I haven't had anyone to lead me into the field. Reviews are scanty unless you look for them in unconventional places. Booksellers don't seem to push outstanding graphic titles the way they do even mediocre novels (The Kite Runner, anyone?). An e-mail to a well-known comics critic, Heidi MacDonald — whose blog, "The Beat," is now part of Publishers Weekly — netted some good suggestions (including Gravett's book), as well as a push to visit a couple of local comics stores. But this girl isn't quite ready for that. For now, I'm just going to read what's next on the list: Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi, the author of Persepolis. Maybe I haven't come that far after all.

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