My Kryptonite: Biographical Comics

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

While we at the Panels take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last few months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Monday, January 5th.

This post originally ran November 5, 2014.

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I am not a nonfiction person. I might read some pop-history when I’m feeling particularly in that kind of mood, or if a book has come out that I’ve heard a lot about or if I’m familiar with the author. My husband, on the other hand, reads nonfiction almost exclusively. So when he started picking up comic memoirs and biographies, I wasn’t sure if I was really interested. But after the freak accident that started me reading comics both at work and at home, I figured I should probably try some of his. And then I would pick them up myself…though the ones he found were usually better.

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis was first. Long before I fell into the rabbit hole of comics, Hubby and I were in a game store of some sort that happened to have a small wall of comics-mostly artsy graphic novels. He picked up two sets: Maus, because he remembered reading it when he was younger, and Persepolis books 1 and 2. Marjane Satrapi had presented when he was in art school, and he had wanted to read them for awhile.

Of course, I didn’t get to it for years. But I did get to it.

Marjane Satrapi’s fun and poignant memoir of growing up in France and the Middle East was a great outlet for diving into the genre. It still very clearly told a story, and told it well enough that I was interested in finding out what was happening. (I had tried informational comics before, and they were either ridiculous or so full of scientific information that I just gave up before I got bogged down.) I learned a lot about a time and place that many Americans get little or overly negative exposure to, and I got to learn about a person–not only through her story telling, but through her artistic style as well.

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Baby’s In Black:  Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles by Arne Bellstorf

The simple art and precious story of Baby’s in Black probably would have drawn me even if my husband hadn’t handed it to me the minute he finished it. That it was based on someone’s life didn’t take away from the fact that it told a great story in a beautiful way. The black and white panels bring about a time-specific feeling of Germany in the 1960s, almost as though we’re watching a movie unfold. The story itself is both uplifting and heartbreaking, and tells a bigger story about the importance of an artist’s work, no matter the medium.

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The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and Caanan White

I was beginning to notice a trend in the history/biography section: they really loved black and white.

The Harlem Hellfighters is sort of not true history as some of the characters and situations were created by Max Brooks; however, what is true history? This graphic narrative tells an amazing story about a group of people and a time period with which a lot of us are unfamiliar, though not for a lack of interest. So we get a bit of World War I 101 alongside a look into what it was like to be a black soldier in 1919. Crazy.

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Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love by Patricia C. McKissack, Frederick L. McKissack Jr., and Randy Duburke.

Nat Love is not someone whose story is familiar to me. A man, born a slave in Tennessee, sets out during Reconstruction to make his fortune in the Wild West. Pulled heavily from his 1907 autobiography, Best Shot in the West begins with Nat the aged Pullman Porter, who sits down to write his story for a fictional friend from his days as a cattle wrangler. The story is interesting, and one that I’m glad has been brought out of the dust again. But what really makes this book is the art. The illustrations are both drawn and painted, and the contrast brings the images off the page.

There’s still a heavy black and white element, though.

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The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson, and Kyle Baker

This was yet another one my husband finished and handed straight to me. As I was clicking in my five-star rating on Goodreads an hour later, too emotionally compromised to write a review, he came back into the living room, saying “finished already” like the bookseller in Beauty and the Beast. I resisted the urge to reply “I couldn’t put it down” and just nodded enthusiastically. The brilliant art works wonders: it tells a parallel story inside and outside of Epstein’s mind, the gut-wrenching story of a man who rises in success at the cost of everything else, and the joy and fear that were the 1960s, particularly for a gay man in England.

It was only after I finished The Fifth Beatle that I noticed Kyle Baker’s name on the cover, and realized that there were parts of the styling that were familiar to me. It was at that point I told my husband I had another book he might like.

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Nat Turner by Kyle Baker

With very few words, and most of those from the original source material, Kyle Baker’s sequential image novel is as easy to follow as any prose writing. The tale of Nat Turner is familiar to most people who made it through American history, but Baker takes the story and, through blood and fire, takes us through the emotional story of Nat Turner’s life and death. The images themselves require a lot of reading, as this collection of emotional and horrifying images is a true work of art. Books like this and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival often play with a soundtrack in my head, and the images often speak for themselves.

There are so many more I want to read, starting with March: Book One and The Silence of Our Friends. What else should I read in the history/biography category?

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