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GRAPHIC NOVELS: Stories To Change Your Life

A Review By: Gary Sassaman

The following review by Gary Sassaman appeared on the Innocent Bystander blog on 12 November 2005.

Just finished a long look-see into the new comics-oriented book by Paul Gravett, Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know (which, inexplicably, goes by the sub-title Stories to Change Your Life on the cover only… the spine and title page have the “real” title). It’s a fascinating new look at graphic novels, told in a way to appeal to non-comics fans and newcomers, plus those of us a tad more learned on that topic. Gravett is also the author of the Collins Design book, Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics.

It takes 30 popular GNs (ones with particular meaning to the author) and does in-depth coverage on each, with well-designed 2 page spreads. It treats each of the 30 with an “In Focus” feature and then a corresponding “Scene by Scene” page. These features are on 2-page spreads. Then it lists 4 more GNs that you may like if you liked the one you just read about in depth. For example, Watchmen takes you to Astro City, Marshal Law, Promethea and Planetary. Despite that example, the book’s focus is decidedly NOT mainstream superhero comics. That’s just ONE chapter. It focuses more on non-superhero books. The complete list of 30 - which you may or may not agree are key graphic novels - includes:

The Airtight Garage, Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, When the Wind Blows, Palomar, Watchmen, The Frank Book, My Trouble With Women, Cerebus, Scene of the Crime, The Nikopol Trilogy, A Contact With God, It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, From Hell, American Splendor, Black Hole, Palestine, Ghost World, Lost Girls, Buddha, Sin City, Strange Embrace, Barefoot Gen, Epileptic, Gemma Bovery, Corto Maltese, V For Vendetta, The Sandman, Locas and Jimmy Corrigan. Yes, some of them are multi-volume epics. Surprisingly, 2 of them, Lost Girls and Black Hole, had not been published in completed form by the time this came out. (Black Hole was published around the same time, albeit finished in it’s serial version… Lost Girls comes out next summer, supposedly).

The entire book is nicely designed, full-color throughout. Although I may not agree with all the choices, it is a well-rounded selection and certainly a great primer for the uninformed. I’ll let it to bigger minds than me to discuss the merits or lack thereof about this book, which I think, personally, is an impressive achievement in getting a basic understanding of graphic novels into the hands of the “rest” of the world. All in all, it talks about 150 GNs, and lists over a 100 more in the chapter intros of each section.

This is the third book I’ve purchased this year from Collins Design, the other ones being Manga: Masters of the Art, and Foul Play, the Art and Artists of the Notorious E.C. Comics. All 3 are vividly illustrated and crisply designed. I don’t know what they’ll be doing next, but I’ll be looking for them in bookstores. Collins Design is a division of HarperCollins, and touts themselves as publishing “stunning, visual books which capture and illuminate the latest trends in Style and Pop Culture, Architecture and Interiors, Graphic Design and Art.” With 3 major books in 1 year about comics and comic art, I’m sold. Graphic Novels may not be perfect… I’m sure a lot of people will quibble with the selections. But it’s a beautifully designed and well-conceived treasure trove of a book which brings new understanding to what is fast becoming one of the more popular sections in mainstream bookstores. While some may argue that the term “graphic novel” is making a silk purse out of what has been regarded before as just a sow’s ear, this book may help correct that misconception.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

All contents © Paul Gravett, except where noted.
All artwork © the respective copyright holders.