Drawing on Reality: Graphic Nonfiction from Bechdel to Zinn | Collection Development

By Bonnie Brzozowski

Over the past several years, the graphic format for nonfiction has gained steady acceptance within the mainstream. Titles such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis have received acclaim from national and international publications and have been adopted by public libraries as annual book club selections or as one book, one city picks.

While graphic fictional works are better known, memoirs often capture critical attention and shine a spotlight on the power of graphics to tell a story, particularly a true one. As a result, it is through graphic nonfiction that many are introduced to the format and grow to love it. A graphic nonfiction collection is a gateway to an understanding and appreciation of the comics art.

An experience with a great graphic work is unparalleled. It is almost cinematic, but there is a literary component as well that when combined with the graphic element sets these titles apart. While absorbing complex ideas, one can also take in artwork that clarifies, supplements, or adds a new layer. A personal story can become a visual sensation imparting an emotional depth only found in the best literature. The best graphic nonfiction puts the strengths of the format on full display and proves that comics will never die.

Major subject coverage

Memoir is the giant of graphic nonfiction. The use of both words and images to produce a highly affecting and compelling personal story has been demonstrated repeatedly. Memoirs of war, often told secondhand rather than by the actual survivors, are common, though the number of memoirs regarding health issues and illness is also high: witness the Graphic Medicine website (see Web Resources, below) and a third Comics & Medicine conference next July in Toronto. Autobiographies and family histories are also prevalent.

The remainder of graphic nonfiction touches on a broad range of subjects and often serves to educate and/or instruct in a highly entertaining, highly accessible format. Indeed, it is the accessibility of the format that helps memoir, and graphic nonfiction as a whole, stand as an excellent primer on a number of historical events, complex subjects, and social issues.

Keep in mind that while the recommendations below are appropriate for all types of libraries, there are other graphic nonfiction subjects not included that may be very appropriate for your specific library and/or specific patron base. For example, Ilan Stavans’s Latino USA: A Cartoon History is an acclaimed title that may be an important purchase for libraries with a significant Latino patron base. Be sure to consider special subjects you may want your graphic nonfiction collection to cover, and check to see if quality titles have been published in those areas.

Issues in collection building

One of the most significant challenges to creating a graphic nonfiction collection is the large number of titles that are nearly nonfiction. Many titles proclaim themselves to be semiautobiographical, based on a true story, or dramatizations of historical events and may be more appropriate for your graphic fiction collection, depending on how your library classifies and shelves it. For example, some libraries place all graphic titles together, regardless of status as fiction or nonfiction, and organize by title and/or author, making the distinction less important; others may choose to shelve all of the graphic fiction separately, while graphic nonfiction is interfiled with the general nonfiction works. The latter approach puts more emphasis on understanding what is truly non fiction within this format. For this article, all titles can be safely considered nonfiction, with few to no fictional elements, and could easily be shelved with your nonfiction holdings.

Your readers

These recommendations were selected with an adult readership in mind. Some titles may be appropriate for teens, but a thorough exploration of YA-appropriate titles warrants separate treatment. YA graphic titles may also draw strong appreciation from adults. While those who have not yet read anything in the graphic format may see comics as most appropriate for kids and young people, many of the titles listed below explore mature themes, use mature language, and may contain sexual references and/or depict sexual activity.

Beyond the mature themes, the appeal of graphic nonfiction for adults is much the same as it is for younger audiences: the combination of words and pictures is a highly effective and engaging storytelling tool. Adults who read comics or who read comics as kids, those looking for simplified lighter treatments of complex subjects, people who have read a well-known graphic memoir and enjoyed the format, and teachers or parents looking for potent, instructive stories will all be attracted to a graphic nonfiction collection.

Many readers who don’t have experience with the format will seek out specific titles because of reviews and popularity, while others may discover your collection through catalog searches or browsing‚ particularly if your graphic nonfiction is interfiled with regular nonfiction.

Collection maintenance

Currency, accuracy, critical acclaim, circulation statistics, and physical condition should be the primary factors in weeding a graphic nonfiction collection. As with any nonfiction collection, currency and accuracy should be examined and considered. Critical acclaim will also be important. Those graphic nonfiction titles that continually appear on best of lists or are referred to as classics are usually important to keep, as patrons will regularly seek them out. Circulation data is an obvious weeding measure but an important one for any graphic collection. Titles that rarely or never circulate and don’t hold a special place in the graphic canon can be easily let go. Finally, the condition of the book is of particular importance, as sometimes bindings do not hold up well to repeated use, and they are not always offered in hardcover or library-bound editions. Hardcover or library binding, when available, is highly recommended and indicated below. High circulating titles may require repeated replacement.

More information on the graphic novel form can be found in Stephen Weiner’s Beyond Superheroes: Comics Get Serious, LJ 2/1/02, p. 55.

Core purchases are designated with a star [starred review star].


starred review star Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2007. 232p. ISBN 9780618871711. pap. $13.95.

Bechdel, author of the long-running comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, has produced a brilliant memoir of her childhood with her closeted gay father. She describes the triumphs and many tragedies of growing up with a grace and intimacy that draws the reader in immediately. Her use of her childhood diaries, writings, and illustrations make this almost an archival work of her family’s story and reveals the emotional torment Bechdel endured. (LJ 7/06)

Briggs, Raymond. Ethel & Ernest: A True Story. Pantheon. 2001. 104p. ISBN 9780375714474. pap. $15.

Briggs, a children’s author, tells the story of his parents in this affecting memoir. Though his parents led simple lives, the adept illustrations and loving portrayal is heartrending and beautiful. A frequent favorite on critics’ best graphic novels lists.

Canada, Geoffrey (text) & Jamar Nicholas (illus.). Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence. Beacon, dist. by Houghton Harcourt. 2010. 192p. ISBN 9780807044612. pap. $14.

This is a graphic adaptation of famous activist and educator Canada’s work of the same name. It explores his Bronx, NY, childhood and foray into increasingly violent activity. The use of violence as self-protection in a rough neighborhood and the introduction of guns into the mix make for a profound reflection on inner-city violence. (LJ 11/15/10)

starred review star Green, Justin. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. McSweeney’s. 2009. 64p. ISBN 9781934781555. $29.

This classic underground title paved the way for many other graphic memoirs. It reveals a boy with burgeoning obsessive-compulsive disorder dealing with Catholic fears and sexual guilt. Green infuses his memoir with wit and humor. (BookSmack! 5/19/11)

starred review star Pekar, Harvey & others. American Splendor and More American Splendor: The Life & Times of Harvey Pekar. Ballantine. 2003. 320p. ISBN 9780345468307. $20.

Pekar is notorious for presenting the ordinary and mundane in life in a captivating, humorous way. His work life, personal connections, and relationship with himself are all fair game, and his hilarious take on all of it will both entertain and touch the heart.

starred review star Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon. 2007. 341p. ISBN 9780375714832. pap.$24.95.

Originally appearing in two volumes, this essential work depicts Satrapi’s childhood in Iran during the 1979 revolution. She was a spirited and intelligent young girl, and while the memoir focuses on her life first in Iran and later in France, it also details the experience of living in Iran under a strict regime. The black-and-white illustrations are simple, yet capable of portraying great emotion. This title will likely be asked for by name.

starred review star Small, David. Stitches. Norton. 2009. 336p. ISBN 9780393068573. $27.95.

This acclaimed memoir by an award- winning children’s book illustrator delves into Small’s difficult childhood in which his father subjected him to repeated X-rays. He eventually developed cancer and lost his voice following surgery. Unable to speak, Small is further isolated and alienated from his unhappy family. A deeply emotional and haunting story, with gorgeous illustrations. This book was nominated for the National Book Award in the youth category, but the subject matter is rather dark; appropriate for older teens and up. (LJ 7/09)

starred review star Thompson, Craig. Blankets. 2d ed. Top Shelf. 2011. 592p. ISBN 9781603090964. $39.95.

An undisputed classic, this beautiful memoir is about Thompson’s upbringing in a strict Christian household and his first experiences with love and acceptance. The emotional and poignant black-and-white illustrations bring to life the challenges of being an outsider, surviving a difficult childhood, and welcoming the joys of young love. A hardcover re issue. (LJ 7/03)

Tran, GB. Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey. Villard. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9780345508720. $30.

Tran’s parents and older siblings left Vietnam in 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon, and Tran was born soon after. Tran finds himself between generations, with no firsthand knowledge of his homeland, so familiar to his immediate family. He seeks to discover more about Vietnam and his family’s history. What results is a lovely memoir about reconciling the past with the future and a thoughtful meditation on the immigrant experience. (LJ 1/11)


starred review star B., David. Epileptic. Pantheon. 2005. 368p. ISBN 9780375423185. $28.95.

David B.’s acclaimed memoir centers on his brother’s epilepsy and the family’s struggle through numerous medical procedures and lifestyle changes to try to heal him. The artwork is moody and often intricate, reflecting the anguish caused by the illness and the wedge the disease creates between the brothers. (LJ 3/15/05)

Marchetto, Marisa Acocella. Cancer Vixen: A True Story. Knopf. 2006. 224p. ISBN 9780307263575. $22.

A hip, young New Yorker has everything going well in life until shortly before her wedding, when she finds out she has breast cancer. Her story is about dealing with cancer, while acknowledging her amazing support system. A highly relatable, addictive read. (LJ 7/06)


Guibert, Emmanuel & Didier Lefèvre. The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. First Second. 2009. 288p. ISBN 9781596433755. pap. $29.95.

Guibert documents Lefèvre’s 1986 trip with Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Afghanistan. Guibert combines Lefèvre’s photographs with his own comics-style drawings for an interesting and highly original journalistic effect. The dangers and issues faced in a country repeatedly torn by war and conflict are depicted honestly and emotionally. (LJ 5/15/09)

starred review star Nakazawa, Keiji. Barefoot Gen. Vol. 1. Last Gasp. 2004. 284p. ISBN 9780867196023. pap. $14.95.

This is a ten-volume autobiographical manga series in which Nakazawa’s alter-ego, Gen, and his family experience the bombing of Hiroshima at the close of World War II. The pain and suffering Gen must endure during the aftermath of the atomic bombing is honest and unflinching. Volume 1 will be enough for most small and medium-sized libraries, but large libraries should consider purchasing the entire series. (LJ 8/04)

starred review star Sacco, Joe. Palestine. Fantagraphics. 2002. 288p. ISBN 9781560974321. pap. $24.95.

Sacco reports on his time spent in Israeli-occupied territories in 1991 and 1992 in this landmark work of comics journalism. He describes the political and social landscape using interviews with both Palestinians and Jews, offering an intimate picture of this region rarely portrayed in mainstream news.

starred review star Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Pantheon. 1996. 296p. ISBN 9780679406419. $35.

An undisputed classic and award-winning title (including a Pulitzer Prize in 1992) in which renowned cartoonist Spiegelman depicts his father’s experiences as a World War II Nazi concentration camp survivor. The memoir is also a chronicle of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father as we witness their visits and disagreements. The black-and-white drawings are straightforward, but with an interesting twist: all of the Jews are depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats. (Prepub Alert, 6/1/11)

Tardi, Jacques. It Was the War of the Trenches. Fantagraphics. 2010. 120p. ISBN 9781606993538. $24.99.

Tardi is an acclaimed French comics artist, and this masterpiece was only recently published in English. Tardi depicts trench warfare during World War I with all its heartbreak and hardship. Based on stories of the front lines told to him by his grandfather, this series of vignettes brings to light the horrors and triumphs of war with dark, moody, black-and-white drawings. (LJ 5/15/10)


Duin, Steve (text) & Shannon Wheeler (illus.). Oil and Water. Fantagraphics. 2011. 120p. ISBN 9781606994924. $19.99.

Duin, a columnist for the Oregonian, and Wheeler depict a trip they and several other Oregonians took to the Gulf Coast in August 2010 to see for themselves the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. What they find infuriates and humbles them, while their understanding and appreciation of the region and its people grow. (BookSmack! 5/19/11)

Gladstone, Brooke (text) & Josh Neufeld (illus.). The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media. Norton. 2011. 192p. ISBN 9780393077797. $23.95.

Gladstone’s astute analysis of the media is presented in an entertaining, reader-friendly way that will appeal to many. She ultimately discusses what it means to be a good citizen and smart media consumer. (LJ 9/15/11)

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix. PM Pr. 2008. 104p. ed. by Lois Ahrens. ISBN 9781604860344. pap. $14.95.

This title collects three shorter comics and provides a wealth of factual information on prisons and the prison population. Each author details how prisons shape our communities and the political, social, and economic factors involved. (LJ 5/15/10)


starred review star Gonick, Larry. Cartoon History of the Universe 1. Parts 1‚ 7. Three Rivers: Crown. 1997. 368p. ISBN 9780385265201. pap. $22.95.

This funny, whirlwind history covers everything from the Big Bang Theory to the evolution of man. Gonick is the master of graphic nonfiction guides such as this one, and he produces them with humor and wit, which will engage and entertain all readers.

Hennessey, Jonathan (text) & Aaron McConnell (illus.). The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation. Hill & Wang: Farrar. 2008. 160p. ISBN 9780809094707. pap.$16.95.

An educational and a very entertaining look at legislative history and the development of the Constitution that will surprise and delight. The illustrations are well executed, creative, and often humorous. (LJ 11/15/08)

Zinn, Howard & others. A People’s History of American Empire. Metropolitan: Holt. 2008. 288p. ISBN 9780805077797. $30.

This adaptation of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States chronicles the underside of American history‚ from the massacre at Wounded Knee to the Iraq war‚ in a personal and engaging way. An excellent supplement to general history texts that is politically charged and thought-provoking. (BookSmack! 6/23/09)


starred review star Ayers, William (text) & Ryan Alexander-Tanner (illus.). To Teach: The Journey, in Comics. Teachers Coll. 2010. 144p. ISBN 9780807750629. pap. $15.95.

A teacher and famous activist uses fictional examples to demonstrate how common it is for educators to label students without considering their other strengths and personality traits. Ayers provides examples for how to open children up to learning without relying on labels and offers many well-reasoned critiques of the current education system. An inspirational read.


starred review star Anderson, Ho Che. King: A Comics Biography. special ed. Fantagraphics. 2010. 288p. ISBN 9781606993101. $34.99.

Anderson’s classic comics biography delves into the life and political struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. honestly and without idolizing this famous figure. (LJ 8/04)

Baker, Kyle. Nat Turner. Abrams. 2008. 208p. ISBN 9780810972278. pap. $14.95.

A gripping, well-researched account of Nat Turner’s short life and the slave rebellion he began in the 1830s. The violence and suffering depicted reflect the horrors of slavery adeptly and poignantly. (BookSmack! 5/22/07)

Kleist, Reinhard. Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness. Abrams ComicArts. 2009. 224p. ISBN 9780810984639. pap. $17.95.

This riveting biography covers the Man in Black’s early life and career, coupled with stark black-and-white drawings. (LJ 11/15/09)

Ottaviani, Jim (text) & Leland Myrick (illus.). Feynman. First Second. 2011. 272p. ISBN 9781596432598. $29.99.

Ottaviani is well known for fusing science and comics in several previous works, but this newer title truly stands out as an excellent biography of physicist Richard Feynman. An intimate and absorbing portrait of this well-regarded and brilliant scientist. (LJ 5/15/11)


Keller, Michael (text) & Nicolle Rager Fuller (illus.). Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation. Rodale. 2009. 192p. ISBN 9781605296975. $19.99.

This wonderful explanation of Darwin’s theory, as well as a bit of a biography, is accompanied by detailed drawings illuminating the sometimes complex ideas presented in this beautiful book. (LJ 3/1/10)


starred review star McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Morrow. 1994. 224p. ISBN 9780060976255. pap. $22.99.

McCloud’s intelligent tome on the importance of comics and the language of the medium is required reading for any comics aficionado or anyone new to the format.


Barry, Lynda. What It Is. Drawn & Quarterly. 2008. 209p. ISBN 9781897299357. $24.95.

Barry’s whimsical drawings and knack for collage come together in this half memoir, half how-to book. A colorful exploration meant to instruct and inspire all people to reconnect with their inner artist and inner child. (LJ 5/15/09)


The Comics Journal


This long-standing, respected resource is also available as a print journal published by Fantagraphics. It includes comics news, regular columns, special features, and reviews. TCJ reviews single-issue comic books (the short, glossy-paper, stapled-together kind), as well as graphic novels (longer comics that are published in hardcover or paperback and collections of single issues).

Graphic Medicine


A comprehensive website maintained by Ian Williams, M.D., a general practitioner in Wales who wrote his medical humanities master’s dissertation on medical narrative in graphic novels. He writes about the site, I list and briefly review all the graphic novels and comic books that I have found to be relevant. He also maintains a Graphic Medicine page on Facebook, which functions as a blog for news.

Graphic Novel Reporter


An excellent resource for libraries and booksellers alike, this site is updated regularly with new reviews, comics news, author and illustrator interviews, and a list of forthcoming titles. It provides lists of the hottest upcoming fall and summer titles and often has articles that are written by and for librarians. Subscribe to the email newsletter.

New York Times Graphic Bestsellers

artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/ graphic-books-best-seller-lists

The New York Times publishes weekly best sellers lists for hardcover graphic books, paperback graphic books, and manga. A great resource for keeping up with popular graphic books.

PW Comics World


An essential resource for publishers and booksellers, this website is updated frequently with comics news, previews of new titles, and an email newsletter with a forthcoming titles list. Publishers Weekly regularly publishes information on digital comics and the state of the comics industry.

Bonnie Brzozowski is a Reference Librarian, Corvallis‚ Benton County Public Library, OR. Formerly, she purchased graphic novels for the Austin Public Library System, TX, for three years and began and led the Graphic Novels Book Club. She is an avid comics reader who fell in love with the format somewhat late in life, thanks to an amazing collection in her local library during library school. Keep with what she’s reading at bonniesue.net

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  1. Great list! I’m looking forward to checking some of these out. Another graphic memoirist whose work I love is Guy Delisle – his books Pyongyang, Shenzhen, and Burma Chronicles are great for their insight into expat life in totalitarian countries.

  2. Katie says:

    Following up on what Kyle said, Guy Delisle is great. Pygongyang made the rounds among staff (and family) at my public library and everyone just loved it. I am not one to normally pick up graphic novels but Pygongyang really impressed me and made the story much more interesting and engaging to read because of it being in the graphic novel format. I’m going to have to look into his other books!

    • Bonnie says:

      I agree wholeheartedly, Kyle and Katie. Pyongyang was on my list for a long time, but just didn’t make the final list. That was a tough decision as he really is fantastic and Pyongyang stuck with me for a long time after reading. Thanks for reading the article and mentioning him!

  3. Thanks for covering this great genre. Three nonfiction graphic books I have recommended to friends are “Logicomix” by Doxiadis and Papadimitriou, a biography of Bertrand Russell and an attempt to explain his work bridging logic, mathematics, and philosophy. Chester Brown’s “Louis Riel” is a biography of the leader of the M√©tis resistance, a story known to all Canadians but few others. And Joyce Farmer’s “Special Exits” is a lightly fictionalized memoir of the aging and decline of her father and his wife — really one of the most moving books I’ve read.

    • Bonnie says:

      Thanks, Scott! I wanted to include Logicomix so much, but I ended up leaving it out because significant portions of it are fictionalized. Nonetheless, I learned so much about Bertrand Russell and his work that it is an educational and inspiring read regardless of any fictionalization. Special Exits was a final contender as well, but, for reasons I now cannot remember, it didn’t end up on my final list. I have actually never picked up “Louis Riel”, so thanks for the tip and I’ll be reading that one very soon!