If printed volumes are to survive the avalanche of e-books and other screen-based literary media, their rescuers may well be graphic novels. Visually rich, physically substantial, and tactilely satisfying, graphic novels and their nonfiction cousins deliver a powerful counterpunch to the tyranny of pixels. Subtleties of color, tone, line work, and the interplay of ink on high-quality paper offer a visual experience that gets lost in digital reproduction. Here is a small sampling of the diverse offerings from 2012 that might delight someone on your holiday list and help keep printing presses humming.
The standout work of the year is Chris Ware’s breathtaking treasure chest, “Building Stories.” It is a sumptuous box containing 14 beautiful books of varying sizes, formats, and lengths. They include small pamphlets, a newspaper-size broadsheet, a folding board suggestive of a Monopoly game, and several bound books, including one designed to pay homage to children’s Little Golden Books. There is no suggested sequence, and the reader is enlisted in “building stories” by choosing where to start. The books share a setting (postwar Chicago), a main character (and her relationships or lack thereof over several decades), and a mood (intimate and introspective).
The concept of “building stories” radiates further. Many of the tales take place in a three-story townhouse — a structure with consciousness, a memory and, like all the characters in the collected stories, a gnawing insecurity. Several detailed cutaways of the 1902 building, drawn in the architectural orthogonal perspective that Ware favors, enumerate things the house remembers over its life. They include 301 tenants, 5 wars, 231 drain clogs, 178 trysts, 21,779 toenail clippings, 6 suicide notes, and 4 prostheses.
One of the prostheses belongs to the main character, who lost her lower left leg in a childhood accident. The loss presages others as she lives and relives her search for love and purpose. Ware paints a portrait of contemporary middle-class anxiety and longing that is convincing and moving. The dialogue of misaligned relationships is as precise and evocative as Ware’s rendering of place, form, and especially gesture. He explains in introductory notes on the box that these are stories that speak to a sense of disappointment “whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else.”
The interweaving existential struggles of the characters extend all the way to a bee that is attracted to the building’s flowers. In two of the books, Ware plumbs the anguished thoughts of “Branford – The Best Bee in the World.” Branford, a sensitive and self-critical worker bee, loves his wife and family but is tormented by feverish fantasies of fertilizing the hive’s queen. It’s very funny and poignant. The bee books have a more stylized look than the others, but all are visually rich, full color, and powerfully drawn. On the last page of one book, Ware uses 33 wordless panels to depict the townhouse’s elderly landlady in her kitchen taking a bite of a sandwich and a sip of water. Cutting from her hands, to her plate, to the view out her window, it is spare, masterful, and cinematic, with the added pleasure that the reader can slow the movie down and give the character, the setting, and the commanding artwork their due. (A word of caution: Not for those with poor vision — some of the lettering is small and intricate.)
For the music lover or American history buff, try “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song.’’ It’s not a novel but reads like one. Written by Frank Young and drawn by David Lasky, it recounts the history of the famed country music family from their roots in Poor Valley, Va., to their national radio and recording fame. Young uses dialogue in the dialect of the time and region to recreate the rocky road to stardom the family traveled between the early 20th century and their disbanding as a group in 1943. Their legacy continued long after in the music of The Carter Sisters, in the collaboration of June Carter with her third husband, singer Johnny Cash, and in a host of country musicians who followed them.
The Carters faced hunger, tuberculosis, religious strictures, bigotry against black musicians they worked with, and interpersonal betrayals as they made their way out of sawmills and tobacco fields to recording studios and regular radio appearances. Lasky’s carefully rendered, colored-ink drawings capture the feeling of both rural life and teeming cities of the 1920s and ’30s. The book is handsomely designed and printed and comes with a CD featuring 11 songs culled from the family’s radio recordings.
For the lefty on your list consider Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” Hedges is a former New York Times reporter, and Sacco is an on-the-scene cartoonist/reporter. Together they chronicle what they term the “sacrifice zones” of contemporary American capitalism. From the ravaged neighborhoods of Camden, N.J., to a Native American reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., to the coal town of Welch, W.Va., they document the political and personal destruction of the free market’s dark corners. Hedges writes; Sacco draws; and the combined picture is bleak and disturbing. They find some hope in the self-organizing efforts of farmworkers in Immokalee, Fla., and in the final chapter, Hedges points to the Occupy movement as a nascent force for a more just society. Sacco’s powerful drawings from conflict zones overseas were also collected and published this year in a volume titled, “Journalism.”
Looking for something more personal? Alison Bechdel documents her interior travels in her complex and rewarding graphic memoir, “Are You My Mother?” In a sequel to her remembrance of her closeted father, his suicide, and her own coming out as a lesbian in “Fun Home,” the new work seeks to understand and revive the bond between herself and her emotionally distant mother. The memoir is both the record of her quest and a tool in her search, and it opens the reader to Bechdel’s therapy, self-deprecating sense of humor, and sense of herself as an artist. She compulsively transcribes her interactions with her mother, exposes them to the bright light of psychoanalytic theory, and ultimately finds a path to accepting herself and her family. The drawings are appropriately personal, quirky, and engaging.
If you want to play against type and give a completely nonholiday gift for the holidays, wrap up a copy of Charles Burns’s “The Hive.” It’s a creepy tour de force, weaving together layers of paranoid nightmares, and a sequel to Burns’s “X’ed Out.’’ It’s as though the tenants of Ware’s townhouse all dropped bad acid at the same time, and Burns’s drawing delivers the horror in full-color, palm-sweating detail, complete with armies of maggots, sadistic lovers, and desolate underground factories patrolled by foul-mouthed alien overlords. Not a stocking stuffer for the little ones.
Can’t decide on one book? Give a delicious Whitman sampler of American graphic offerings. “The Best American Comics 2012’’ showcases the work of 29 artists, with a half dozen offerings especially for children. This year’s editor is Françoise Mouly, art director of The New Yorker and the cofounder of RAW magazine with her cartoonist husband, Art Spiegelman. It’s the seventh year of the series and the strongest to date. The series editors are cartoonists Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, who have a 2012 book of their own — “Mastering Comics: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures Continued.’’ Give it to the aspiring comic artist on your list. It’s a sequel to their 2008 “Drawing Words & Writing Pictures,’’ which is a terrific, in-depth course on brainstorming and producing graphic, sequential art. The new volume contains a chapter worthy of one of Burns’ tales of terror: “The Horror of the Blank Page.”
Whether fiction or nonfiction, bound by covers or unbound in a box, all of these works create meaning through the dance of visual image and word. The rich intellectual and imaginative pleasures they offer can’t be divorced from the physical experience of the book. This year, give someone a comic book. No batteries required, and you’ll set a good example for the kids.
By Chris Ware
Pantheon, 260 pp., $50
THE CARTER FAMILY: Don’t Forget This Song
By Frank M. Young and David Lasky
Abrams ComicArts, 192 pp., $24.95
DAYS OF DESTRUCTION, DAYS OF REVOLT
By Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
Nation, 320 pp., $28
By Joe Sacco
Metropolitan, 208 pp., $29
ARE YOU MY MOTHER?: A Comic Drama
By Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $22
By Charles Burns
Pantheon, 56 pp., $21.95
THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2012
Edited by Françoise Mouly
Series edited by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pp., $25
MASTERING COMICS: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures Continued
By Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
First Second, 336 pp., $34.99