The first graphic novel I read was assigned to me in a freshman literature class. It's called Persepolis, and it is the autobiographical account of author Marjane Satrapi's childhood in Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. And even though comic book nerds will tell you that it doesn't live up to the hype, it's a wonderful book heavy on themes of violence, religion, and growth. It was also made into an excellent movie that won a Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Fest.
Another popular starting point might be Maus, which may very well be the most celebrated graphic novel of all time. Author Art Spiegelman's portrayal of his father's tale of survival in Nazi concentration camps, led to the same Pulitzer Prize Dr. Seuss, Carl Sandburg, and the guy who wrote Roots received.
Now Persepolis and Maus are exceptionally well-written graphic novels. Side-by-side, they even look pretty darn similar (something Dave immediately noticed). Both are black and white, mostly non-fictional, biographical accounts of rather important wars. And both authors utilize their "low" art form to tactfully relate grave stories (just one strength of comics). But ultimately these books have a great deal of history mixed in with the narrative, and will therefore appeal most to those interested in the historical events they portray.
There are many other "essential" graphic novels which I might recommend to a first (or second, or third) timer. For many, Watchmen is the medium's seminal work. Perhaps you saw the trailer for it before the new Batman movie? The book has been dissected and praised to death, all of it deserved, including a spot on Time magazine's Top 100 novels from 1923 to the present. The book is a spin on the classic superhero comic but is thick with political undertones and apocalyptic symbolism. Like much of history's best literature, the reader has to invest a great deal to soak it all in. It's an excellent book in nearly every regard, but like Persepolis and Maus, Watchmen's just probably not for everyone.
So what's the best place to begin? Of the handful I've read, one definitely stands out. It's called Bone, and it's readership is primarily composed of little kids. Author Jeff Smith began the 55 issue collection in 1991, and it took him more than a decade to complete. The individual comic books have since been grouped and reissued in nine volumes, first in their original black and white form by Cartoon Books, and more recently, in beautifully colored versions by Scholastic. You can also buy the one-volume "brick" version for between 30 and 40 bucks at your local bookstore. Smith has won an impressive number of awards for Bone, including ten Eisner Awards, the comic book equivalent to the Academy Awards.
Beginning with the simplistic Out from Boneville, Smith tells the story of three bone-like cousins (though even Smith acknowledges he doesn't really know what they are), named Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. The Bone cousins are kicked out of their home town and find a mysterious map before being separated by a swarm of locusts. In an effort to reunite with Phoney and Smiley, our protagonist Fone Bone follows a trail of Smiley Bone's cigar butts. They lead him to the valley, a mystical place populated by hot humans, dragons, and the evil though often comical "rat creatures."
The first couple of books are definitely a bit on the juvenile side, and I recall feeling a tad "unchallenged" by their content. But Smith is as clever as writers come, and has a knack for pacing. He draws the reader in with impressive character development that will have anyone with half a heart rooting for his protagonist. Fone Bone's a Moby Dick fanboy, he falls in love with the first pretty girl he meets, and he tries with all his might to write poetry that will win her over. He's goddamn cute.
In my last post, I recommended Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a fascinating and in depth look at the art form. For me, one point of interest was McCloud's explanation of the choice of detail an artist chooses to employ for his characters. Roughly summarized, he describes how the more simplistic a cartoon character is drawn, the more likely the reader is to connect and relate. Simply put, it's far easier to see yourself (no matter who you are) in a character drawn like this, than in one drawn like this (unless of course you're a sharp jawed power lifter). This helps explain Fone Bone's immediate appeal.
But Smith is an exceptionally good illustrator, evidenced by both his meticulously drawn scenery and his ability to draw complex emotions in the faces and hands of even the simplest characters. This is just one more strength on a rather long list.
The beauty of Bone might not become apparent until book three or four. What begins as a family-fun romp chock full of endearing cartoon friends, gradually transforms into an epic story with layer upon layer of sub-plots, subtly introduced but powerful themes (including corruption, love, even Communism), and a detailed history of the valley. It's a lot like a Pixar movie, actually, the way its happy, cute characters appeal to kids, but much of its content is made with adults in mind.
The best (and most often made) comparison to Bone is The Lord of the Rings. Both exist in an expansive, pre-technological landscape; both lead to apocalyptic battles between good and evil; hell, Smith even includes a grandiose map of the valley à la Tolkien's. And what makes Bone most impressive, like LOTR, is the massive ambition and thought that went into creating and completing a story of such enormous scope. There's wonderful humor, heart-warming romance, nail biting cliff hangers, and just plain cool story lines. But with the first book in mind, you'll be shocked to see how far Smith is able to take a seemingly simple tale about three white blobs.
I loved reading Bone, and in my estimation, it'd be near impossible not to.