Comics get a bad rap. They're generally seen as kid stuff and admittedly, some are. But these days, publishers are producing graphic novels of maturity, complexity and beauty that appeal to a wider audience. Whether they're original illustrated novels, adaptations of classic literature or collections of single-issue comics, graphic novels tend to have a heft and seriousness that mean grown-ups don't have to be embarrassed about reading them. They're also becoming more mainstream, thanks in part to the attention garnered by film versions of major works (Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning Spirited Away and the Tom Hanks vehicle Road to Perdition, for example). And there's a growing respect for artists such as Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco, who use graphic novels to tell stories as powerful and profound as any literary fiction. We've selected a handful of new titles worthy of attention even from those who don't see themselves as comic book obsessives.
Transcending the genre
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic memoir about growing up in 1970s Iran as the daughter of revolutionaries and the granddaughter of a prince-turned-communist. Satrapi's position at the crux of her country's political struggles adds a sharp, urgent edge to what would otherwise be the charming story of a precocious little girl full of dreams and questions. The author's cute, deceptively simple black-and-white drawings and warm sense of humor belie the outrage and tragedy that came with growing up amid a revolution. Widely praised in France where it was originally published, Persepolis is destined to become a classic alongside Spiegelman's Maus or Sacco's Palestine. It's vital reading, particularly given our current interest in the Middle East.
Equally moving and ambitious, but completely different in style, is beloved Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. This five-volume set, adapted from the Oscar-winning animated film, is designed to be read right-to-left in the Japanese manner; at the end of each book there's a key to the manga-style sound effects embedded in the story panels. For a less authentic (and more kid-friendly) but still gorgeous version of the epic tale of a little girl trying to rescue her parents in a strange, mystical realm, check out the Spirited Away Picture Book, which interweaves Miyazaki's luscious, painterly artwork with explanatory text.
Representing yet another type of illustration the ukiyo-e style, or images of the floating world is Patrick Atangan's brilliant debut, The Yellow Jar. This slim, elegant volume features two traditional Japanese morality tales brought vividly to life by the artist's pristine lines and rich use of color. In the first story, a fisherman marries the mysterious woman he finds floating in a beautiful yellow jar, only to lose her to a demon; in the second, two weeds that invade a monk's garden turn out to be lovely flowers, but only one is treasured, the other neglected. There's an introduction by comic-world heavyweight P. Craig Russell, famous for his herculean adaptation of The Ring of the Nibelung and the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. Russell discovered and coached the young Atangan.
Escapism, far and near
In Orbiter, the latest from Transmetropolitan writer Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), a space shuttle that vanished 10 years ago suddenly swoops back to earth piloted by the one remaining member of its crew and covered in what seems to be a living skin. As a team of NASA scientists tries to figure out where the ship has been, a long-out-of-work astronaut shrink is called in to explore the broken mind of the pilot. The book is smart, suspenseful and well written, and its tremendously detailed, realistic artwork is perfectly suited to the more-science-than-fiction plot.
Road to Perdition: Oasis is a fantastic hard-boiled crime graphic novel by Max Allan Collins with art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Josef Rubinstein. A sort of eddy in the main RTP story arc as seen in the Paul Newman/Tom Hanks film last year Oasis finds the gangster "Angel of Death" Michael O'Sullivan and his son hiding out in a farmhouse from a pair of ruthless bounty hunters while Michael Jr. recovers from scarlet fever. The artwork is lighter and much less gloomy than in the original book (or the movie), but the gangsters look so alive it's hard not to start predicting the cast of the next film.
Isolation & Illusion collects a batch of short stories spanning two decades by master illustrator P. Craig Russell. This new collection includes adaptations of stories by O.Henry and H.P. Lovecraft; a loopy, brightly illustrated fantasia by Cyrano de Bergerac; the hauntingly dark and surreal "Insomniac"; and the oddly silent, beautifully drawn title story, reminiscent of classical Italian sketches.
For escapism that's slightly closer to home, there's the star-crossed romance of Cheat by Christine Norrie (Hopeless Savages). The book, from indie publisher Oni Press, follows two young couples who start to fall apart when love fails to conquer all. The cover is an utterly gorgeous, swirling vision you'll want to hang on your wall, and the rest of the book lives up to its promise with black-and-white illustrations that blend simplicity and realism.
Batman: Deathblow, by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, a visually awesome, dark, inventive story starring our grumpiest superhero.
Skinwalker, a cool sci-fi crime foray into Native American culture.
Becky Ohlsen has been a comics geek since she plundered her brother's X-Men collection at age 7.