Let’s Get Graphic: Creating Comics in Novel Ways | The Reader’s Shelf

Just because comics are usually designed in tiers of panels meant to be read left to right and steadily down the page doesn’t mean they have to be. Many innovative creators have experimented with combining words and pictures in amazing ways, as these selections illustrate.


Chris Ware was already known for his inventive, meticulous illustration style before releasing Building Stories (Pantheon. 2012. ISBN 9780375424335. $50), but as it turns out his previous works were just a preamble. This graphic novel plays with format and presentation in surprising and delightful ways, telling the stories of the inhabitants of a single apartment building in multiple forms, shapes, and sizes. In one piece, echoing the shape of a small children’s book, the trials of a bumblebee in the building’s courtyard are explored. In another, large dioramas relate the ways architecture influences interaction. In a third, a long pamphlet examines a couple’s romantic travails.

Choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream has incredible consequences in ­Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (Amulet. 2010. ISBN 9780810984233. $15.95), which boasts 3,856 different story lines readers can follow as they move through Shiga’s inventive and exciting graphic novel with the help of an intuitive tab system. Do you want to hop in a time machine, read minds, or experiment with the ominous Killitron 3000? Your choice may result in mind-bending paradoxes or the destruction of all life on Earth! Shiga’s illustrations seem simple at first but lend a lighthearted tone that complements the formal playfulness and spirit of adventure in the story—or stories.

Readers familiar with Lisa Hanawalt’s illustrations from Slate and the New York Times may be surprised by My Dirty Dumb Eyes (Drawn & Quarterly. 2013. ISBN 9781770461161. pap. $22.95), a collection unencumbered by editorial decree or restrictions on content. Hanawalt’s beautiful drawings are offset by her irreverent and absurd sense of humor, and she employs a range of styles and formats—from sketchbook images to illustrated movie reviews to single-panel gag strips.

Richard Stark’s (i.e., Donald Westlake) Parker novels had been adapted for film and television before writer/illustrator ­Darwyn Cooke transformed them into comics. His Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (Idea & Design Works. 2012. ISBN 9781613773994. pap. $17.99) turned out to be not just the most faithful adaptation of Stark’s crime thriller ever achieved but also a landmark work that emphasizes the “novel” in the “graphic novel” like few others. Instead of softening the edges around Stark’s tough thug protagonist, Cooke sticks close, combining pen-and-brush illustrations that range effortlessly between cinematic noir and more cartoony sequences with selections of Stark’s inimitable prose to capture the glitz and grime of the 1960s underworld. The resulting hybrid of text and image deserves to be counted as a new standard.

In Ben Katchor’s latest release, Hand-­Drying in America: And Other Stories (Pantheon. 2013. ISBN 9780307906908. $29.95), the author makes good use of its large scale, filling each page with surreal detail and color in his distinctive scratchy style. Katchor walks readers through an imagined world that explores topics ranging from a study of men addicted to the texture of stair bannisters to the story of a skyscraper constructed spontaneously by city dwellers looking for a place to dump their refuse. Katchor overlays text and image, often running captions across the top of each panel as a counterpoint to the action being illustrated. The effect can be dizzying but creates a sense of displacement that draws readers deeper into Katchor’s singular vision of the world.

Jeff Zwirek’s Burning Building Comics (Imperial. 2012. ISBN 9780985875138. $19.95) flips the normal comics presentation on its head, opening lengthwise like a reporter’s notebook (so that it resembles the titular building) and taking advantage of the typical tier-of-panels layout so that each tier is a single floor of an apartment building following a different set of characters struggling to escape a raging inferno. With the cartoony look of an early Peanuts comic strip, Zwirek’s playful illustration conveys an attention to detail that gives each character’s race to escape a visceral ­immediacy.

Is it autobiography? Collage? An inspirational workbook? A how-to guide? Maybe a little of each? Lynda Barry has been one of this country’s top underground cartoonists since the early 1980s but waited until 2008 to release her masterpiece, What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly. 2008. ISBN 9781897299357. $24.95). Barry combines text, photography, watercolor, and more in a book that asks serious questions about art, self, and the creative impulse. Flipping through, readers will be overcome by images and ideas presented in novel ways that challenge assumptions about narrative and communication.

This column was contributed by Richmond-based Tom Batten, who received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2012 from Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ‘s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to the Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net

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Annalisa Pesek (apesek@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor, LJ Book Review
[photograph by John Sarsgard]