There is absolutely nothing wrong with stories featuring grown men and women in tights who fly around and beat the snot out of one another. With writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Margaret Atwood working within the genre, the superhero comic has even developed a veneer of literary cred in recent years. If, however, the graphic-novel fan on your to-buy-for list is hoping to step outside the caped-crusader sphere, here are some titles to consider, all published within the past 12 months.
By Charles Burns. Fantagraphics
Free Shit collects the first 25 issues of Charles Burns’s self-published eight-page zines, which he started making circa 2000 in response to demand for, well, free shit. There’s no story here, just page after page of wild drawings of pretty girls and hideously twisted beasts, snippets of works in progress, and other ephemera. Given the uncannily precise brushwork that characterizes Burns’s finished work, it’s revelatory to see the unfussy looseness of his pencil sketches, and fans will have fun picking out characters and images that would later turn up in Black Hole, Last Look, and elsewhere.
By Chris Ware. Pantheon
On the face of it, a small private school in Nebraska might seem like the most mundane of settings, but its very blandness makes it the perfect backdrop for Chris Ware to examine the lives of perfectly ordinary people in devastating detail. Each character in Rusty Brown is connected to the unnamed institution in some way: Rusty himself is a pupil, and his father teaches there. So does Joanne Cole, who bears her life’s various indignities—watching her sister surpass her while she cares for her aged mother, being the only black teacher in a predominantly white town—with quiet resolve. She also carries the weight of a secret that eventually cracks her reserved façade. At over 350 pages, this book is only the first half of the story. Given that Bill Clinton was president of the U.S. when Ware began creating it, it could be a very long time before the second half is completed. It will be worth the wait.
The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt
By Andrea Wulf and Lillian Melcher. Pantheon
Alexander von Humboldt is not exactly a household name—unlike Charles Darwin or Henry David Thoreau, who were among those influenced by the Prussian naturalist and explorer’s work. Andrea Wulf seems to be on a one-woman mission to change that. This is her second book about him, after the best-selling The Invention of Nature (2015). Humboldt died 160 years ago, but his work helped frame much of our contemporary discourse. He was the first person, for example, to write about human activity as a driver of climate change. This is a beautiful piece of work, with historical maps and pages from Humboldt’s own manuscripts interspersed with drawings by Lillian Melcher. Amazingly, it happens to be Melcher’s first book.
By Seth. Drawn & Quarterly
Seth’s magnum opus, some 20 years in the making, gives epic scale to what is essentially a small, simple story of two brothers and the very different paths they chose after their father walked out and stuck them with the family fan business. As I wrote back in April: “Simon is reclusive and philosophical, Abe is brash and garrulous, and each is miserable in his own unique way.” Told through Seth’s singularly striking midcentury-inspired art and enriched by his poetically observational style of storytelling, Clyde Fans is a moving examination of the ways our choices in life can either trap us or set us free.