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'Tirzeh' by Wallis Eates from his graphic novel, 'Like An Orange'

Summer reading: graphic novels

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Summer recommendations | 8 minute read
From strippers to suffragettes, Nick Drnaso, Lucy Sullivan and Wallis Eates pick their favourite works of all time in the first part of our summer reading series

NICK DRNASO, author of Man Booker Prize longlisted graphic novel ‘Sabrina’ (Granta)

Melody by Sylvie Rancourt

A fictionalised account of the artist’s experience as a stripper in Montreal during the 1980’s. Rancourt deals with situations that might be pegged as bleak or horrifying in a way that is so endearingly sincere and sweet that after reading Melody I felt an unexpected love for humanity, warts and all.

Band for Life by Anya Davidson

On its surface, a candy-colored comic about a motley crew of mutants, monsters, and social outcasts trying to keep their lives and their band intact. Read deeper, and this book is rich with astute character studies and compelling, even tragic, dilemmas, all just beneath the jokes and the hijinks. I’m consistently amazed at Davidson’s ability to create something deeply human and resonant out of scenarios that are sometimes wild and fantastical. That must be hard to do, or it’s just who she is and how her brain works.

Sunburning by Keiler Roberts

Vignettes about motherhood, aging, family, mental health and everything in between, perfectly curated and interestingly arranged. There are moments of “comics-editing” so inspired it makes me wonder how much Roberts is even aware of her juxtapositions. I think those decisions can’t be an accident and are the result of careful consideration, but it really doesn’t matter either way. The effect is as subtle as it is exciting.

The Property by Rutu Modan

I would actually put all of Modan’s work on an equal level, but this book is as good a place as any to start. Just incredible cartooning, I don’t know what else to say! Sometimes a personality shines right through a piece of art – I don’t know how to put it more elegantly – but there’s some kind of recognition of a shared worldview or communion. I would put any of the artists I listed in this camp, but it feels especially strong with Modan.

Perfect Example by John Porcellino

As with Rutu Modan, I could read any of Porcellino’s work on any given day, but Perfect Example is usually the “entry point” I recommend to the unaware. He’s figured out some kind of magical alchemy to create a feeling in his comics that no one else has been able to mimic. I think his simplified drawings invite you to transpose your own life experiences, friends and family into his stories. It’s like Peanuts.

‘Sabrina’ by Nick Drnaso

LUCY SULLIVAN, author of ‘Barking’ (Unbound)

Laika by Nick Abadzis

Laika melds fact & fiction to tell the story of the famous Cosmonaut canine. This evocative tale told through the viewpoint of the scientists, dog handler & the eponymous dog herself lands you right in the heart of the Soviet Space Programme as preparations are underway for her famous journey. The pagination and atmosphere of Laika are so expertly created that even though her fate is well documented Abadzis resolves the tale in a poignant and inspiring way that shows just how powerful a medium comics can be. Nick Abadzis is not only a stalwart of the UK Comic scene but a generous and encouraging creator to whom many of us owe our starts in the industry.

Domu: A Child’s Dream by Katsuhiro Otomo

Otomo is renowned for his epic genre defining Manga ‘Akira’. The collected series of Domu is a more subtle tale but with Otomo’s trademark magical realism and astonishing draftsmanship. Set in the grounds of a Tokyo Housing Estate the story follows the detectives called in to investigate an outbreak of suicides. Being adults they apply fact & reason to solve the crimes but the local children know exactly who the culprit is and Etsuko, a gifted young girl may be the only one who can help. Otomo’s stories often centre on misfits and revolve around ideas of how powerful a young mind can be without the constraints of adulthood. He uses extraordinary motifs to make this point with insightful social commentary about modern Japanese culture and unforgettable characters.

How to be Happy by Eleanor Davis

This compilation of short stories and vignettes perfectly capture what a master of the craft Davis is. Sweeping through exotic jungle cultures to futuristic societies with a scattering of perfectly observed moments all centred around our pursuit of happiness. Through a variety of styles and mediums each beautifully rendered and eloquently told. As a collection the reader can dip in and out, savouring each story or devour it in one go as I did. Davis’s latest work ‘Why Art?’ is top of my wish list and is a creator whose work I’m always excited to read.

When David Lost his Voice by Judith Vanistendael

When David receives his cancer diagnosis the lives of everyone around him are utterly changed. The story follows his wife and daughter as they adapt to their stark new reality. Vanistendael depicts the quiet reflection and grieving of the living that comes with cancer and guides the reader through the many hospital visits, precious memories and terrifying futures. Her gorgeous painterly manner with a dramatic use of light and colour eases the reader through the experience. A moving autobiographical graphic novel that was part of my research and inspiration for ‘Barking’ alongside Nicola Streeten’s ‘Billy, Me & You’. Both are heartbreaking in their honesty but utterly engaging and ultimately up-lifting.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

We breeze into the life of Skim, or Kimberly Keiko Cameron as her teacher’s know her, just as the winds of change are blowing. Life at her private girls school is thrown into dramatic relief with the suicide of a classmates boyfriend. As Skim and her best friend Lisa navigate the social complexities of a school in grief, life becomes further complicated when Skim falls in love with her enigmatic English teacher Ms. Archer. The combination of sensitively observed dialogue from Markio Tamaki with the exquisite drawings of Jillian Tamaki make this a quietly powerful tale of the universal experience of growing up.

‘Barking’ by Lucy Sullivan

WALLIS EATES, author of ‘Like An Orange‘ (Unbound)

The Inflatable Woman by Rachael Ball

This magic-realism account of Iris who discovers she has breast cancer, while flirting and lying quite a lot in an online romance, is a sumptuous read. Written by Ball as semi-autobiography, it gets across the existential weirdness of having a serious illness through song, animals, blobby panels, and conversations with uncanny characters in hinter-settings. Rendered in beautifully crafted pencil drawings, the perspectives make you feel dizzy, whilst being in a really good author’s hands. A bit like being on a ghost train.

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot

Given we’re celebrating 100 years suffrage, this book should be on your list. Sally (who I swear is based on my fave suffragette, Annie Kenney, but I don’t have this confirmed!) is a fictional character who gets involved in this historical movement. It’s fairly straightforwardly told but the story of the suffrage movement is immensely interesting and of course important, so what better way to soak it all in than through reams of drawings that make you feel as if you’re actually there?

The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis

When I first read this book, I tweeted something along the lines of, ‘It’s like Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men but more street’. Rob then ‘liked’ it and followed me back, I was well chuffed! Now I’m wondering what I actually meant, and I think this might be because the wonder of this book is how much it mind-warps you. You’re constantly working out how this backward Universe works – complete with parents who are household appliances made by their human kids, everyone knowing their death day, rain of knives, some weird god-telly that you kind of know – while enjoying a kind of retro Grange Hill feel. You will enjoy chasing its cleverness.

Becoming Unbecoming by Una

Una’s twitter handle used to be ‘Not funny’ – I presume referring to the fact that comics and cartoons are often thought to be just that. Well, summer isn’t always for light reading either. Sometimes its good to use the time to immerse yourself in some of life’s heavier subjects, at least you can stop for a lolly half way through! ‘Becoming Unbecoming’ is an autobiographical account of living in Yorkshire during the time of the Ripper through the eyes of a young woman going through adolescents. Contextualising personal experience with newspaper reports at the time, it sheds shocking light on institutionalised and widespread cultural mysogyny. Una hits just the right tone as she gathers evidence and presents facts without losing sensitivity towards the heart of the matter – and that is the real people who lived through this horrific time, or indeed, didn’t.

The Great North Wood by Tim Bird

I’m a big fan of Small Press, and I was very lucky to get a sneak peak at Tim Bird’s ‘The Great North Wood’ due out on June 23rd through Avery Hill. Bird has made his research on the topography of various areas around south London, and presented stories of local legends, the histories of place names, and the ebbs and flows of human settlement upon the land in a series of studies. Each clearly told and beautifully drawn with a lovely subtle colour palette, we are lead through space and time alongside a fox, representing perfectly the intersection between rural history and urban life today. If you can’t get away this summer, this will provide a good substitute.

Saving Grace by Grace Wilson

Life post university can be a shock to the system. Read Wilson’s graphic memoir of her struggle and drunkeness to remember exactly what it was like, and laugh, cringe and get infuriated on her behalf. If you’re a bit older now, like me, it serves as a nice reminder that these kinds of chapters in our lives, no matter how difficult they seem at the time, are always destined to become likeable nostalgia pieces, enlivened as they are with weird people and bizarre events that were all so new back then.