Harvey Pekar, best known for his autobiographical American Splendor, teamed up with artist Gary Dumm, editor Paul Buhle and a handful of others to create Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. Though text-heavy for a graphic novel, it's an accessible and exciting look at the roots of the most influential student activist group of the 1960s and '70s. Concentrating on the years 1960-69, and packed with dynamic black-and-white drawings, the book digs into the motivations behind SDS, the struggles over method and direction within the organization, the personalities who shaped the civil rights and peace movements, and the external forces that worked against the radical left. In addition to Pekar, other former members of SDS tell their own stories, and the last few pages illustrate attempts to revive the group in 2006.
An interesting companion piece, also from Hill & Wang, is the equally accessible history lesson of J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography by Rick Geary. Using simple, straightforward line drawings (literally—Geary's artwork is full of pinstripes), the book traces the FBI director's journey from successful young lawyer to paranoid control freak, addressing key points in U.S. history along the way.
Another side of the nation's history comes to life in Incognegro by Mat Johnson, illustrated by Warren Pleece. With shadowy black-and-white artwork and hardboiled dialogue, Pleece and Johnson deliver a pulp-detective-style tale about a black newspaper columnist in the early 20th century who "passes" as white and writes an anonymous column about his experiences. Going undercover to investigate a series of lynchings, he becomes embroiled in a murder, a jailbreak, mob violence, a case of mistaken identity and a slew of other complications. True to life, there's no happy ending, but the characters find human decency in unexpected places, and the twisty plot makes for a gripping read despite the bleak subject matter.
Also fairly bleak, yet suffused with heartwarming optimism, is Frederik Peeters' memoir Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story. The book recounts Peeters' relationship with his girlfriend, Cati, who, along with her young son, is HIV positive. The author's expressive drawings instantly telegraph his mood, whether he's anxious, exhausted, terrified, nervous, adoring or cheerful. His engagingly realistic writing includes mumbled half-sentences, lots of ellipses and occasional Socratic moments where his thoughts swirl in worried circles and nothing makes much sense. Peeters is a well-known Swiss artist; Blue Pills, his American debut, was translated by Anjali Sing, the editor responsible for bringing Persepolis to U.S. readers.
Though handled with equal seriousness, the themes in Skim, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (they're cousins), are aimed at teen readers. But that doesn't mean the book is free of emotional struggles. It opens with a broken arm and moves right along to teenage suicide, followed by possible gay crushes on teachers, best-friend betrayals and standard adolescent identity crises. The writing takes the form of a diary kept by 16-year-old Kim, nicknamed Skim ("because I'm not," she explains). The elegant illustrations call to mind traditional Japanese art but with a modern looseness; the drawings aren't always confined to panels, and key plot points are shown subtly, never exaggerated or over-explained. In other words, despite its hot topics, Skim is pretty cool.