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Graphic Novel Shopping at Comic-Con

Above: Panel from graphic novelist Seth.

Comic-Con is once again upon us (40 years and going strong), and one way I like to prepare is to make a shopping list. Like most conventioneers, I enjoy wandering among the booths on the 500,000 square foot exhibition floor, but after about an hour I get dizzy if I don’t have some focus. So, assuming that most people are as easily distractible as I am, I’ve come up with a list of ten (actually eleven, but more on that below) graphic novels that are well worth tracking down at this year’s convention. This is not necessarily a list of the ten best graphic novels I could think of; rather, it’s a list of books that are intriguing and diverse, and whose writers and/or artists—or, at least some of them—are going to be featured at this year’s event.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Gene Yang, "American Born Chinese"

Yang's book is a thoughtful examination of self-hatred, denial, and racial stereotypes—in this case, stereotypes of Chinese and Chinese-Americans. This book was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People, but don’t let the qualifier fool you: this is a title that all ages can enjoy. Yang will be featured in several panels at this year’s Comic-con, including “Spotlight on Gene Yang,” which is scheduled for Thursday at 2:30 in Room 4.

Charles Burns, "Black Hole"

Set in the early-1970s Pacific Northwest, this book unites two of Burns's favorite themes: teen alienation and disease. A black-and-white visual feast of evocative Freudian imagery, this book follows a group of teens who have contracted an oddly disfiguring, sexually transmitted virus. In Burns' hands, the setting and situation become a way to examine the volatility and horrors of youth.

Jaime Hernandez, "The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S."

For over twenty-five years now, Jaime Hernandez (along with his brother Gilbert) has been creating deeply felt stories in the comic books series "Love and Rockets." Jaime's stories follow the lives (from teens to middle-age) of a varied cast of characters living in a fictional town based on Oxnard (the Hernandezes’ home town), and "The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S." represents a great starting point for anyone who wants to explore what Rolling Stone calls “American fiction’s best kept secret.”

Alison Bechdel, "Fun Home"

Selected by Time magazine as the best book of 2006, "Fun Home" is a brilliant, moving account of Bechdel’s relationship with her father, a closeted homosexual, as well as the story of her own coming out. What's most effective and moving about Bechdel's story is that she doesn't attempt to provide answers to the complex relationships she presents; her story is much more about the search and the ambiguity that the search reveals.

Panel from Electra: Assassin

Above: Panel from Electra: Assassin

Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, "Electra: Assassin"

Forget the horrible 2005 film starring Jennifer Garner, and go straight to the source. The story of this unconventional Marvel heroine—a deadly, ninja-trained assassin and occasional love interest of Daredevil—was a creation of comics legend Frank Miller ("The Dark Knight Returns"), but the real star of this graphic novel is the trippy, surreal artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz, who has been putting his unique artistic touch on comics for many years. Sienkiewicz will have his own “Spotlight on” session on Thursday at 2:00 in Room 2.

Lynda Barry, "The! Greatest! of! Marlys!"

Barry is the supreme chronicler of childhood; very few writers have captured the language, moods, humor, and difficulties as truthfully as she has. Like any great writer, she has an eye for just the right detail to make her world come alive. "The! Greatest! of! Marlys!" collects the best strips featuring her adolescent alter-ego Marlys and her band of friends.

Seth, "It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken"

"It's a Good Life" is a fluid, understated story of Seth's quest to track down information about an old, obscure artist named Kalo. Seth tells his story in a gorgeous two-color format, giving the book an antiquated look that perfectly complements the writer/narrator's obsession with the past. Seth is one of the most interesting and gifted graphic novelists working today, and he’ll be featured in a “Spotlight on” session scheduled for Saturday at 3:00 in Room 8.

Adrian Tomine, "Sleepwalk and Other Stories"

Tomine’s long-running comic book series, "Optic Nerve," often features stories about rudderless, angst-ridden young people. His collection "Sleepwalk" features some of the best of these stories, and in them he depicts characters, situations, and conflicts with a clarity and minimalism reminiscent of Raymond Carver's early fiction. A gifted writer and artist, Tomine experiments with both his narrative and artistic style in this particular collection.

Bill Willingham, "1001 Nights of Snowfall"

Willingham is one of the hottest writers in comics right now, his main title being "Vertigo’s Fables," which follows the intrigues of the fables we all know and love, living secretly among us. "1001 Nights" is a collection of fables-related stories that take place outside of the regular comic series. Featuring a stellar cast of artists, these stories can be enjoyed by both readers and non-readers of "Fables." Willingham will be participating in several DC-related panels at Comic-Con, and he’ll have a “Spotlight on” session on Sunday at 12:00 in Room 2.

Alan Moore, "Batman: The Killing Joke" and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"

No list would be complete without Alan Moore, whose graphic novel "Watchmen" is widely considered to be the pinnacle of the graphic novel format. Rather than go with the obvious, however, I thought I’d pick two smaller books that focus on iconic characters. "The Killing Joke" (drawn by Watchman artist Dave Gibbons) is a gripping analysis of the Batman-Joker dynamic that ends in a completely unpredictable way. "Man of Tomorrow" (drawn by longtime "Superman" artist Curtis Swan) takes place ten years after Superman's “death” and explains how the Man of Steel met his end. It's a marvelous story in which Moore pays tribute to the various characters in the Superman universe.

Whatever your tastes, you’re going to find something good to read at the Con. Enjoy your time there, and don’t be afraid to take a chance on a graphic novel.

-Rocco Versaci teaches English Literature at Palomar College. He's the author of "This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature." This is his 13th year attending Comic-Con.

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