Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: More Non-Fiction Comics

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reading these comics by clicking here.

This is the last of the batch!!! I’ll be posting my picks for Top Ten next week… what would yours be?

Also: HAPPY 3RD ANNIVERSARY, Crunchings & Munchings! Rebecca registered us on WordPress 3 years ago.


Masterful Marks. Cartoonists Who Changed the World – 16 Graphic Biographies

Monte Beauchamp, editor

Simon & Schuster

Anticipation/expectation level: Picking up the book and flipping through it made me anticipate the act of reading it, because of the wonderful variety of drawing styles, many of them in the style of the artist that they are profiling. But an email discussion about the book pointed out some issues that I hoped wouldn’t be so prominent (spoiler alert: they were).

My Reality: Beauchamp has selected 16 figures who he thinks influenced comics history. The biographies are drawn by a wide range of artists and written by Beauchamp and others. I’m going to quote the publisher’s copy about the book to give you a better idea of the idea:

In a first-of-its-kind collection, award-winning illustrators celebrate the lives of the visionary artists who created the world of comic art and altered pop culture forever.

Sixteen Graphic Novel Biographies of:
• Walt Disney • Dr. Seuss • Charles Schulz • The Creators of Superman • R. Crumb • Jack Kirby • Winsor McCay • Hergé • Osamu Tezuka • MAD creator, Harvey Kurtzman • Al Hirschfeld • Edward Gorey • Chas Addams • Rodolphe Töpffer • Lynd Ward • Hugh Hefner

The story of cartoons—the multibillion-dollar industry that has affected all corners of our culture, from high to low—is ultimately the story of the visionary icons who pioneered the form.
But no one has told the story of comic art in its own medium—until now.

In Masterful Marks, top illustrators—including Drew Friedman, Nora Krug, Denis Kitchen, and Peter Kuper—reveal how sixteen visionary cartoonists overcame massive financial, political, and personal challenges to create a new form of art that now defines our world.

So, according to that, these are the figures that created comics – obviously not true. This is also not the first book that tells comics history in the comics form – there’s the Comic Book History of Comics,  comicbookhistorywhich is longer and more expansive, and might even include women! Actually, I’m not sure about that. But Masterful Marks definitely does not include women. It does manage to include Hugh Hefner, who was an amateur cartoonist and a publisher of comics artist. But it does not not an actual woman who creates comics or publishes comics. No Francoise Mouly. No Lynda Barry or Trina Robbins or Alison Bechdel or Tove Jansson or Jackie Ormes. Masterful Marks is narrowly focused because its editor is narrowly focused.

The comics themselves are lovely. But they are short. There is a lot of information to get into 16 pages or whatever, and so many of them have panels that are too crowded with narration, or panels that just have the biographical figure listing facts about themselves with no arc to the comic. The Walt Disney comic is just 2 anthropomorphic animals roaming the countryside – there is no point to that one being a comic at all.

Some of them are really great! Drew Friedman draws a personal story about how he knows Harvey Kurtzman, and because it has a personal connection that frames the story, it works. It doesn’t try to encompass the man’s entire life.

But not enough of them are great to make this book work. I would love to see full length, even 48 page comic biographies using this conceit, but the collection isn’t coherent enough to be even a rough history of comics, and the comics themselves are hamstrung by the length limitation.

Will teens like it?: I can see teens missing out on a lot of information trying to use this as a resource for a paper.

Is it “great” for teens?: No.

Art Taste:




dreamless dead

Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics.

Chris Duffy, editor

First Second

Anticipation/expectation level: Chris Duffy puts together some really excellent collections of comics adaptations of prose works for First Second, so I figured this had a good chance of being great.

My Reality: The poems and the art in this collection work so, so well together, better than I ever thought they would. The panels of the comics let the reader slow down and not rush through the poetry. It’s a treat to see how each artist tackles and interprets the pieces they have chosen/are assigned. Above the Dreamless Dead is a wonderful book to think about history, visual literacy, and poetry. And a great companion to read with Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood! The artists include Luke Pearson, Eddie Campbell, Anders Nilsen, Danica Novgorodoff and Hannah Berry, among others.

Will teens like it?: They’d be lucky to come across this book.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

dreamlessdead1 dreamlessdead2 dreamlessdead3 dreamlessdead4


A Treasury of XXth Century Murder:  Madison Square Tragedy – The Murder of Stanford White  

Rick Geary, writer and artist

NBM ComicsLit

Anticipation/expectation level: I like Rick Geary’s historical murder books. They are usually well-researched, with a well-balanced structure of plot, art, and historical context/facts.

My Reality: I was especially interested to read this because of the Pittsburgh connection – the murderer was Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh. As this book shows, he was a real jerk and suffered from a combination of mental illness and wealth that allowed him to shoot a man in the face, beat and emotionally abuse his wife, and feel like it was his right to do so, and suffer barely any consequences for it. Stanford White sounds like a creep, too, but that doesn’t mean he should have been shot in the face. And poor Evelyn Nesbit. This is really her story, and it’s not a happy one.

I think a good comic book about history gives a full story and makes the reader want to dive more into the subject, and Madison Square Tragedy had exactly that effect on me. I closed the book and started looking up Thaw’s home in Pittsburgh, hoping it was still standing (it’s not – but the carriage house was on the market for over a million dollars a couple years back, and that’s a Pittsburgh valuation, which means it would sell for much more in any other city). I did find articles about Thaw’s home and his trial in the New York Times database, and they were fascinating. And I want to know more about Evelyn.

Will teens like it?: I always wonder if the “old timey” stylization of Geary’s art is a barrier for teens – I think that teens who are into true crime stories could get past it, but I don’t think these books, however worthy, are ever going to be shelf-jumpers in the teen section (I just made that term up).

Is it “great” for teens?: I still think it’s great.

Art Taste:



Strange Fruit – Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History

Joel Christian Gill, writer and artist

Fulcrum Publishing

Anticipation/expectation level: The title certainly got me interested!

My Reality: As Gill’s first collection of comics, it shows a progression from competent to assured – you can see him relying on a similar format for story and panels for the first couple stories, then starting to branch out and become more comfortable with using his writing with his art. Consequently, the book gets more powerful as it goes along. Gill starts out with Henry “Box” Brown – the slave who shipped himself to freedom. That is the most well-known of Gill’s subjects – as promised, these are heretofore uncelebrated narratives in Black history, and I love that he has found them and started the celebration.

Will teens like it?: Yes, especially teens looking for subjects for their Black History Month projects.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:


colonial comics

Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750

Jason Rodriguez, editor

Fulcrum Publishing

I’m still on hold for this, wah waaah. The cover has such lovely colors!


Sharing Our Snacks: The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston


Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Rebecca recommended this book to me with no explanation as to why.  She just knows I like pictures of internal organs, I guess.  Check out our other shared snacks here.

You can recommend books to us, too—contact us!



The Freak Observer
Blythe Woolston
Carolrhoda Lab, 2010

review by Tessa

Loa Lindgren: has a lot on her plate, and even more on her mind
Corey: Loa’s absent friend, in more ways than one.
Esther: Loa’s accidentally (?) dead friend
Asta: Loa’s formerly ill, now dead sister
Jack: successfully friendly with Loa, has found therapy in the ceramics department.
The Bony Guy: Death. Haunts Loa.

What does it feel like before things gets better? That’s where Loa Lindgren is now. Luckily for us, her inner narrative is bleakly funny and sprinkled with observant details, even as she wades through a swamp of grief, depression, and PTSD.


one interpretation of The Bony Guy

The Freak Observer starts with Loa’s recounting of the accident that kills her friend Esther. Esther runs out into the road along a curve and gets hit by a truck. Loa’s parents, in a cold and almost practical reaction, are mad at her for missing work because of it. Now Loa won’t get more hours at the Cozy Pines retirement home. They need the money because her father is out of work.

But this isn’t the worst of Loa’s problems.  Her sister Asta recently died from a genetic disease that left her unable to care for herself, and this is what really broke up Loa’s world.  She has terrible nightmares where Death haunts her, and crippling attacks of panic from her PTSD, but no money for therapy.

A third layer of the book concerns Corey, a boy who functioned as Loa’s friend, escape from the rest of the world, debate partner and sometime sex buddy.  He is gone, abruptly leaving for school in Europe.

Loa is left alone to trudge through each day.

What was the book’s intention? Was it achieved?
The description on The Freak Observer’s jacket simply says that it’s “about death, life, astrophysics, and finding beauty in chaos.” And that’s a smart move on their part. Because writing out all those things that are going on in Loa’s life during the course of the book make it sound like a total slog to read.  And it’s the opposite of a slog. It’s a fast ride through a tunnel, bursting out on a view of a city lit up at night.

a chicken!

Blythe Woolston has given Loa Angela Chase levels of introspection, but a darker sense of humor, and more poetic observational skills. For example, one of the first ways we learn about Esther is through a story about the first time Loa saw her as a kid, ending with this statement: “Esther is dead now. She was a defender of puppies and whacker of pigs, and now she is dead.” (4). And she watches everything in her life in that way, with a little detachment, but with care.  She takes the time to mention that “Chickens don’t always cluck…. When they are happy, they sort of hum–they chirp–they purr. The chickens are all around my mother waiting for her to make them happy. They are singing to her in their chicken way.” (19).  

Reading The Freak Observer is visceral in that it’s like looking at something’s insides.  It’s fascinating and vulnerable and bloody.  It’s for good reason that the (kickass) cover features a large photograph of a (human?) heart.  And the first person narration is used to full effect. Since Loa is narrating, the reader sees the world that Loa sees, and interprets people according to her views of them.  It also serves to stretch out terrible moments, like this one:

“…I didn’t see the rest of the picture right away.
Then I saw Esther.
My first thought was
Her heart has fallen out of her body.
I didn’t know that could happen. I didn’t know what to do. So I just froze there on the cutbank.
I don’t know how to put a heart back into a body.
It was the only thought I had, and it wasn’t very useful.
It seemed like a long time, but it wasn’t really, because Abel was right behind me, and he pushed me out of the way. I slid down the bank in the loose dirt and rocks. Then I just sat there where I fell. I watched Abel while he grabbed his sister and tried to make her be alive.
I could see that her heart hadn’t fallen out. The muscle on her arm had been torn away from the bone. It was just a lump of muscle. Her heart was safe inside her, but she was still dead.” (12-13).

Most wonderfully, this is a book about living with loneliness, done undramatically, as when Loa observes that:

“I’ve known a lot of people, grown up with people, and done stuff with people. I know what color their bedrooms are and if they like to eat a dill pickle before they go to sleep. I watched people outgrow sweatshirts. …But friendship is something more than breathing the same air or touching the same basketball.  Not much more, maybe, but something.” (74).

or when she remembers her dead dog Ket, saying: “I still miss Ket and the way he used to look at me like he wanted to know what I wanted him to know. It is the sort of look that can easily be mistaken for love.” (191).

But this isn’t a good book just because it describes those feelings and realizations so perfectly.  It’s a great book because it lets Loa grow and gives her a little relief and it does it naturally. None of the bad things about Loa’s life feel overwrought, and none of the better things feel like plot devices.That’s what good realistic fiction should be. I’m so glad that Rebecca recommended this little gem for me.


If I Stay
Gayle Forman
First person narration, heartwrenching subject matter. This one’s a little more forced in tone and execution but I didn’t care because I was too busy gulping it down and trying not to weep.  Mia narrates her days of trying to decide whether to stay in her broken body or die, after a car crash kills her parents.

Looking for Alaska
John Green
There’s something about the truthfulness of Loa’s voice that reminded me of John Green narration.  And they both have black covers with one lone photographic element. And there’s death in this one too.

Andromeda Klein
Frank Portman
I won’t lie, this book is hard to get into.  I almost stopped reading it. So in that way it’s nothing like The Freak Observer. But what it does have in common is a complex, loner girl protagonist who is rewarding to get to know and who feels real.

Disclosures & Digressions

Digression: Can I just say how impressed I was with Woolston’s dream descriptions? Usually dreams in fiction are such bald allegorical crap. Not so here.  Let me quote:

“The Bony Guy likes disguises.
I am watching a late-night show. There is a guest who tried to pay for a cruise with a  glossy photograph of the host. The host declares that it ought to be as good as money. It is a picture of him. people like him better than any of the guys on the money,don’t they? The audience applauds wildly. Then he has a quiz for all of us. Question 1: Would you watch a bunny rabbit eat some lettuce? Question 2: Would you watch a bird peck something dead by the side of the road? Question 3: would you watch dogs eat a live donkey? The audience applauds wildly.” (92-93)

Disclosure: Blythe Woolston sat at a table with me and other librarians at ALA last summer for 5 minutes to shill her books, and she was very personable.

Procured from: the library

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