Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.
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Comic books bridge continents. Superman spin-offs are a hit in China; Japanese manga trickled into American culture through Frank Miller’s Ronin and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Adventures of Tintin was translated from French into more than 50 languages. Alongside the superhero franchises and funny pages, a thriving genre of nonfiction comics has created new audiences and new appreciation for everything from war reporting to memoir. Here are five modern classics whose intricate illustrations have shaped the form.
The Fixer is a war story set in peacetime. In 2001, Joe Sacco traveled to Sarajevo, hoping to find the interpreter who’d helped him during the Yugoslav Wars. By this time, correspondents had cleared out and soldiers had become civilians. Memories of atrocity were starting to slip beneath the surface—but Sacco’s book excavates them. During one flashback, Sacco portrays his wartime arrival to Sarajevo, and it’s styled like film noir: hulking architecture, empty streets, long shadows. In a surreal scene at the Holiday Inn, the concierge points to the hotel on a city map. “This is the front line,” she says. “Don’t ever walk here.” Then, in the lobby, Sacco meets his fixer.
Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! is what you get when you mix together a few cups of fact, a spoonful of fiction, and innumerable cups of coffee. Barry says her memoir was inspired by “a hand-scroll painted by a Zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku, in 16th century Japan.” Her own colorful variant on the hand-scroll, which falls somewhere between comic and collage, tells tiny stories of growing up that are both playful and profound.
In Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf transforms six perplexing years in the Middle East into an elegant and ironic memoir. When the story begins, Sattouf—a former Charlie Hebdo contributor who now draws a column for l’Obs—is a wide-eyed toddler. His mother is French and his father is Syrian. “In 1980, I was two years old, and I was perfect,” Sattouf declares.
Through a child’s eyes, Sattouf builds a backdrop for the Arab world we know today. In Syria, where young men style their hairs like characters in Grease, Sattouf writes: “Using their hands, the women began to eat the remains of the meal eaten by the men in the next room.” In Tripoli, houses belong to whomever moves in, but families have to wait in food lines for baked beans and green bananas. After the disappointments of the Arab Spring, it’s easy to be cynical about the history of the Middle East. But Sattouf chooses the more challenging approach—to look for hope and humor where there’s not much to be found.
Maus helped nonfiction comics go mainstream when, in 1992, it became the first graphic novel to with the Pulitzer Prize. In simple black-and-white strips that were serialized for more than a decade, Spiegelman tries to make sense of his Jewish father’s memories of the Holocaust. He wryly casts Jews as mice and Germans as cats, as if World War II were a horrifying version of Tom and Jerry. As Spiegelman alternates between his present and his father’s past, he sketches out his own complex relationship to his roots.
As a girl in Iran, Marjane Satrapi saw herself as a prophet and a revolutionary. “The revolution is like a bicycle,” she tells her friends in her memoir Persepolis. “When the wheels don’t turn, it falls.” In the next frame, we see dozens of people trying to pedal an unwieldy five-wheeled contraption. Needless to say, it’s not going anywhere.
Satrapi’s simple black-and-white illustrations capture a turbulent history with surprising depth. In one historical panel, British colonial rulers—embodied by a bald man sipping liqueur and a greasy man smoking a pipe—plot the takeover of Iran. In another panel, after the execution of one of her heroes, Satrapi argues bitterly with God. She can forsake her faith, but for most of her childhood, she can’t escape her home. And since she can’t leave, she starts to love Iran. “This old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism,” she writes in her introduction. Persepolis changes that.