Graphic Gems: Novels, Story Collections, and Memoirs for Adults

While I’m addicted to various manga series (click here and here for some of my favorites), I’ve also discovered the satisfaction of single-volume graphic titles offering that perfect balance of fascinating narrative and gorgeously complementary, enhancing art. From goofy to haunting, comforting to challenging, and so much more, don’t miss these recent(-ish) standouts.

Boundless, by Jillian Tamaki Boundless

Artist extraordinaire Tamaki (she received a Caldecott Honor for This One Summer) applies her formidable imagination to the decades-after effects of an sf cult film, a pyramid scheme for the ultimate skin-care system, an alternative life on Facebook, an incredibly shrinking woman, a porn sitcom’s rediscovery, a professor and her bedbugs, a mysterious musical download that heightens emotions, and a “boundless” aerial life cut short. Cleverly eschewing labels, Tamaki’s graphic collection is as unpredictable as it is unputdownable.

Cat Person, by Seo KimCat Person

Canadian Korean cartoonist Seo Kim, currently Los Angeles–domiciled and storyboarding for Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, makes her comic(al) debut with a collection evidencing that she is forever devoted to her kitty Jimmy. If you’re in cat-love, you’ll absolutely recognize yourself, from your inexplicable wonder at every little thing your cuddly bundle does, to losing your seat every time you get up to grab that next cup of caffeine, to the fur that invades everything (including your dinner and even your toothbrush).

The Divine, by Boaz Lavie, illustrated by Asaf The DivineHanuka and Tomer Hanuka

Mark leaves his pregnant wife to join longtime buddy Jason on a lucrative mission to southeast Asia for “lava tube denuding,” which requires a posse of well-armed men to hike in remote places with dangerous explosives. As the job ends, Mark spots a small boy in the distance, injured and alone. Despite Jason’s vehement protestations, Mark insists on helping the child. Lavie’s hypnotic story of colonialism, stolen childhoods, injustice, environmental devastation, haves versus have-nots, and moral collapse, is enhanced by the Hanuka brothers’ riveting graphics. As for the final page, that vivid color photograph of two 12-year-old twins will floor you. Just when you thought the shattering adventure was over . . .

The Garden of WordsThe Garden of Words, by Makoto Shinkai, illustrated by Midori Motohashi and translated by Maya Rosewood

Rainy mornings give designer-wannabe Takao permission to skip high school to work on his shoe sketches at a nearby park pavilion. Two months into the new school year, he sees a young woman already seated in his peaceful shelter. Takao wonders aloud if they’ve met before, but her answer is ambivalent. A tenuous connection begins, creating a garden of words à deux that promises much more to come.

Guardians of the Louvre, by Jirô Taniguchi, Guardians of the Louvre
translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

A Japanese manga artist, who’s just arrived in Paris after attending an international comics festival in Spain, lies feverish in a hotel bed. By morning, he’s improved enough to head to the Louvre. The dense crowds make him dizzy again. He drifts off and awakens alone except for his personal guardian and guide, who enables him to get otherworldly, up-close-and-personal access to the many masterpieces. Taniguchi’s addition in the NBM Louvre Collection of graphic titles—stories commissioned from prominent international artists and inspired by the renowned museum—is a visual spectacle of intricate details and stupendous imagery.

henshinHenshin, by Ken Niimura, edited by Yumetaro Toyoda and translated by Ivy Yukiko Ishihara Oldford

Winner of the International Manga Award, Niimura moves easily between quirky humor and jarring distress in this idiosyncratic 13-story collection, now available for the first time in English. The first and last stories serve as the perfect bookends to showcase his chameleon-like skills: He opens with a chilling, shocking narrative that morphs by the final pages into something fuzzy, playful, and eager to face the future. In Niimura’s offbeat world, phones ring, boys fart, writers write (and rewrite some more), and mistreated immigrants easily become mad monsters.

Imagine Wanting Only This
Imagine Wanting Only This, by Kristen Radtke

Radtke, the managing editor of indie press Sarabande Books, makes her graphic debut in what is both a memorial to impermanence and a search for a sense of belonging. Unsettled by her beloved uncle’s death while she was still in college, Radtke’s sudden loss disconnected her from the familiar—including loved ones—and propelled her around the world as both observer and wannabe participant. In these stark, raw, and penetrating pages, Radtke imagines the lives around her as she figures out how she might live her own.

 

I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You,I Think I Am in Friend-Love With You by Yumi Sakugawa

“I have a confession to make.” No worries, the news is wonderfully touching: “I think I am in friend-love with you.” No weirdness or discomfort, please. “I just so desperately want for you to think that I am this super-awesome person because I think you are a super-awesome person and I want to spend a lot of time hanging out with you.” From after-midnight Facebook chats to @replies to each other’s tweets to Tumblr reblogs, artist Sakugawa reveals the modern logistics of platonic twenty-first-century romance.

Just So Happens, by Fumio ObataJust So Happens

As a young woman, Yumiko moved to the other side of the world and “managed to create [her] own little space.” She defines herself as Japanese, but her home is most definitely London. Her return to Japan to her extended family when her father dies becomes a bittersweet, transformative rite of passage—artistically, spiritually, and of course, emotionally. Tokyo-born, British-trained Obata’s gorgeous panels prove especially expressive.

Mike’s Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Mike's PlaceTerror in Tel Aviv, by Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem, illustrated by Koren Shadmi

Filmmaker Baxter arrives in Tel Aviv in 2003 to make a film that never comes together. Just before his return to New York, he stumbles upon a crowded beach bar: “You should do a film about Mike’s Place,” encourages bartender/owner Gal: “Israel is more than conflict and politics. Mike’s Place is the real Israel.” Jack realizes Gal isn’t exaggerating; within minutes, plans are made and a crew is assembled. The film practically makes itself . . .  until two British nationals arrive with a bomb. Miraculously, the Mike’s Place family recovers as “a society of music, of love.” The resulting 2004 film is Blues by the Beach; more than a decade after the tragedy, it’s the basis for this resonant graphic adaptation.

The Story of My Tits, by Jennifer HaydenThe Story of My Tits

Hayden’s “no tits” adolescence lasted through young adulthood, as she remained all arms and legs (and flat chest) until almost the end of college. Then she fell in love for the third time and began to require the underwire bras she always admired. Meanwhile, cancer looms: Her mother, then mother-in-law, and finally her own two “tits” fall victim to the malignant disease. She regrets what she didn’t do for her mother and mourns the years cut short with her mother-in-law, yet rejoices in her ability to survive, vowing, “I sure as sh*t wasn’t going to screw this up.”

The War Bride’s Scrapbook: A Novel in Pictures, by Caroline PrestonThe War Bride's Scrapbook

In her sophomore scrapbook presentation—comprising vintage photos, drawings, clippings, advertisements, and all manner of contextual tidbits—Preston explores the left-behind experiences of a 1940s war bride. While Lila graduates magna cum laude from Sweet Briar with notable interest (and talent) in architecture, she disappoints her mother by coming home without the expected “high-society girlfriends or fiancé.” Then war changes everything: By November 1943, she’s married to an enlisted man she’s known for just three weeks. After an almost two-year separation, their real challenges begin with their reunion. Preston deftly explores changing gender and societal expectations, pre-diagnosis PTSD, the morality of the atomic bomb, even the racism of Japanese American imprisonment, turning what could have been a pedestrian wartime romance into an immersive graphic experience.

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About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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