Art of the Graphic Novel: A Visual Bibliography

I’m sometimes asked for graphic novel recommendations so–as a convenient response to this question–I thought I’d share the texts I’m teaching in my Art of the Graphic Novel class this Fall (2010). You can find the ten required texts at the end of this post, presented in the form of a visual bibliography.

I’ve chosen the books for a number of pedagogical reasons but, as a group, they should also serve well as a good basis for a collection of graphic novels. They were published over the last three decades–some as recently as within the last year.  Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories (1978) is routinely claimed to have been the first graphic novel. I’m not asking my students to buy this book and have instead opted to show them the sixty pages of the title story as a slide-show. (It’s fun and instructive to convert comics into a slide-show and then think about how the loss of the book format changes our experience of the work.)

Will Eisner, A Contract With God, p23

Eisner used the then relatively obscure term “graphic novel” to describe A Contract With God and to distinguish it from his earlier comics. Now, for better or worse, we’re stuck with the phrase. These books all contain graphic elements, though one (The Arrival) contains no recognizable words. Only a few might really be considered a “novel” in anything approaching the usual sense. Several are memoirs; Watchmen compiles materials originally published as twelve separate comic books; Kafka introduces a major author’s life and works; Buddha provides an epic account of a religious figure’s life; and Understanding Comics is an entertaining investigation (part critical theory, part performance) into the nature of the comics medium.

Most of our class time is devoted to discussing these book-length works, but we also read some shorter (and cheaper!) pieces. A few years ago, The New York Times resurrected the idea of the “funny pages” in its Sunday Magazine and for a while it published comics in one-page weekly installments. Most of these were then made available online, as PDF files. It was a glorious if short-lived experiment and one that provided me with some great teaching material. You can still find the contributions of Daniel Clowes, Jason, Megan Kelso, Rutu Modan, Seth and Gene Luen Yang on the NYT’s website. (Clicking on the names in the previous sentence will take you to the relevant section of the NYT’s webpage.)

Finally, we look at some online comics, a couple of Chris Ware’s remarkable animations (made for This American Life), and two wonderful films: American Splendor and excerpts from Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb.

So much GREAT material. I’m looking forward to the semester ahead.

Here’s the Visual Bibliography. (To find out something more about each work, click on the image of its cover.)