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GRAPHIC NOVELS: Stories To Change Your Life

A Review By: Comic Book Galaxy

Christopher Allen has been writing about comics for six years, and is Managing Editor of the web-site Comic Book Galaxy.

Paul Gravett is a noted comics critic and lecturer, and wrote the well-received Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics. Now a Harper Collins imprint has released his guide to graphic novels and how to appreciate them.

Sporting a Dan Clowes cover - an image from his story Caricature blown up and colored, perhaps, or possibly the cover to some foreign edition of stories - and horror manga lettering, it’s clear from the start that Gravett and designer Peter Stanbury are going to offer at least a good-looking product. While droll, the opening, ‘Things To Hate About Comics’ had me skeptical, but one must remember this book is for those new to comics and graphic novels. In a concise, friendly way, Gravett explains how to read the page and the elements unique to comics, such as speech balloons.

He then begins what is really the heart of the book, which is his insightful looks at most of the notable graphic novels ever created, but again, he does this in a way that won’t overwhelm the new reader. It’s really a clever scheme: he provides thumbnail synopses of 30 diverse graphic novels - only two of them in the superhero subgenre - and then goes on to look at each book ‘In Focus’, with sample pages and analyses of the different themes, art styles and storytelling devices. Gravett then provides a ‘Following On From’ section for each graphic novel, wherein he provides thumbnail synopses of four other graphic novels with similarities in subject matter, genre and/or tone to one of the 30 main books. For example, Enki Bilal’s dystopian epic, The Nikopol Trilogy has as its peers and descendants Akira, America, American Flagg! and Y: The Last Man. If John Wagner’s and Colin MacNeil’s Judge Dredd tale America doesn’t sound familiar, well, that’s where the book is rewarding for all but the most cosmopolitan graphic novel enthusiast. Gravett could be chided for including many obscure graphic novels, or comics that aren’t even in print as graphic novels these days, such as the long-delayed Flagg!, but it seems a valid argument that it’s better to spotlight the best books and hope they’ll be back in print soon than substituting the lesser efforts just because they’re readily available.

In addition to the 150 books covered here, Gravett also includes chapter breaks with essays on various kinds of comics, such as war comics, and ends each essay with a list of another ten books. These sections are rich with enticing and appropriate images; it’s lovely to open the book and see Moebius, Bilal and Mignola across two pages. Gravett and Stanbury never forget the visual appeal of sequential art, so Gravett’s prose must be distilled for maximum effect in the spaces he’s allotted. As such, he rarely achieves great insight in anything but the 30 main books, but he is a consistently engaging, intelligent graphic novel cheerleader everywhere else.

The value of this book to the novice is unquestionable, as it presents graphic novels and comics as a vital, wide-ranging art form created all over the world, and with attractive reproduction unseen in other graphic novel guides. As someone who considered himself pretty knowledgeable on the best the form has to offer, I was pleasantly humbled to find so many interesting books I need to catch up on.

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