Graphic Novels That Flew Under The Radar In 2012

Dec 24, 2012
Originally published on December 25, 2012 11:20 am

In 2012, several high-profile comics creators added landmark works to their already impressive legacies. With Building Stories, Chris Ware offered 14 volumes of comics, each with its own meticulous, anagrammatic take on despair, and stuffed them into a box. Alison Bechdel followed up her much-lauded 2006 memoir, Fun Home, with Are You My Mother?, another deep dive into the turbid waters of the parent-child bond. The result was messier and less finished, but profoundly personal — and vividly real.

Jeff Lemire's Underwater Welder told a gorgeous, haunting — and haunted — tale of grief and redemption. And, in God and Science, the Hernandez Brothers dosed their skillful characterizations with a hit of superheroic whimsy.

These volumes are destined for many "Best Comics of 2012" lists, and rightly so. But some other, less familiar names produced outstanding works that haven't gotten the column inches they deserve. Here are just a few of the intriguing, hilarious and/or enlightening titles you might have missed.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. And this week, we're hearing about the ones that got away - notable music, television and books that we didn't get a chance to report on this year, until now. Today, Glen Weldon highlights three graphic novels, starting with one called "Drama" by Raina Telgemeier.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: "Drama" is a young adult graphic novel about a middle school girl named Callie, who is a complete theater nerd.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DRAMA")

WELDON: And she wants to be part of her middle school play, which is a musical, but she doesn't want to be the star. What she wants is to be the stage manager. She's the set designer. There's a scene toward the center of the book where she auditions for the show, even though she knows she doesn't want to be the star. She doesn't want to be in the show, she wants to help run the show.

But she clambers up on stage and proceeds to audition and sings her guts out, can't sing, blows it completely and then the next day, she's looking at the list in the hallway and, of course, she doesn't get the part. And when mean girls attack her for being a terrible singer...

(SOUNDBITE OF "DRAMA")

WELDON: She upbraids them by saying, you know, this is supposed to be fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DRAMA")

WELDON: What I love about the book is that it comes with the typical YA trappings of, you know, she crushes on the wrong guy and she gets in a fight with her friends. But the really great thing about this is that this girl knows who she is and she is completely unselfconscious.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DRAMA")

WELDON: If somebody handed this book to me in seventh grade, I still would have been the same self-conscious jerk I am, but it would have helped. It would have helped so much. And another book I brought in was "Crackle Of The Frost."

(SOUNDBITE OF "CRACKLE OF THE FROST")

WELDON: "Crackle Of The Frost" is much different, much more adult, much more oblique and slightly sinister. This book is about a guy who has spent his life fleeing from responsibility, who slowly comes to terms with responsibility over the course of the book. His ex-girlfriend informs him that she has had a child and he goes to visit her and that's the story of the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CRACKLE OF THE FROST")

WELDON: The prose of the book is very German, very restrained, very coolly intellectual, yet the art is what makes this book sing. The art is lushly, vividly colored with all these gorgeous pastels working on a level of dream logic, purely emotion. So there's a scene, for example, where the sound of his girlfriends voice become, in his mind, this flock of shadow birds that chase him through the corridors of his mind in a very creepy way.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CRACKLE OF THE FROST")

WELDON: There's a scene where, as he's traveling on the bus to meet his girlfriend, the bus stops because there's a forest fire in the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CRACKLE OF THE FROST")

WELDON: And there's another scene toward the end of the book where he's attending to his father in the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CRACKLE OF THE FROST")

WELDON: So the prose works on a very cool intellectual level, sort of Thomas Mann or Kazuo Ishiguro, yet the art is pure Kafka and Murakami. It's really grabbing you and it's not letting you go. It's great. And lastly, "Little White Duck: A Childhood in China" is by Na Liu, with art by her husband, Andres Vera Martinez. So this is a memoir of Liu's childhood, very young childhood, in Wuhan, a central Chinese city in the late '70s.

This book takes place at the very end of the Cultural Revolution. The thing that starts off the book is the death of Chairman Mao. And what Liu and Martinez really capture is that there's a conflation of cultural mythology with political mythology. So on one page you have this very young girl trying to live up to the ideal of this propaganda figure called Lei Feng.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LITTLE WHITE DUCK: A CHILDHOOD IN CHINA")

WELDON: And on the very next page, you see this amazing spread of Nian, the lion monster, who comes into town every New Year's to gobble up young children.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LITTLE WHITE DUCK: A CHILDHOOD IN CHINA")

WELDON: They are equally real in her mind, just as, as she's growing up, she thinks of Chairman Mao as her grandfather. The book begins with this image of her and her sister flying over the city on the back of a giant bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LITTLE WHITE DUCK: A CHILDHOOD IN CHINA")

WELDON: What Martinez is doing with the art is very subtle because the book ends four years later, five years later with a very similar image. But what's happened in between in those four years is that the city's becoming more and more industrialized. What Liu and Martinez are excellent at capturing is how that looks through a child's eye, a really interesting layered effect there that I really love.

SIEGEL: That was Glen Weldon, author of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." He was talking about three graphic novels that came out this year, "Little White Duck," "The Crackle Of The Frost," and "Drama." You can find more of Glen Weldon's recommendations at NPR.org/bestbooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.