More than any other genre, comics delving into non-fiction – memoirs, histories, and the like – succeed in enchanting both regular comic readers and comics neophytes. Frequently published by traditional book publishers and written by folks outside of the insular comic business, these books exist without the weight of continuity or well-worn characters and tropes. These stories, often intensely personal, explore the potential of sequential storytelling. In years past, books like Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home have caught the attention of readers at large.
2012 was a strong year for comics and graphic novels across the board, and non-fiction is no exception. Stephanie McMillan and Chris Hedges put out books offering some of the best reporting of the year. Alt-comic stalwarts R Crumb and Alison Bechdel returned with stellar memoirs. History (pop and otherwise) and biography had strong showings as well. Here are the Best Non-Fiction Comics of a strong class of 2012.
10. My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf
Published by Abrams ComicArts
Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer first popped onto my radar in 2008, when an iFanboy Mini highlighted the 24-page, self-published version of the story. That single issue was the middle chapter in the history of a story that started as a short story and a failed graphic novel pitch, and ended with the 200+ page book that came out this year. In My Friend Dahmer, Derf details his real-life friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer as an Ohio high school student. It’s a chilling story that paints a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Dahmer, a neglected and bullied “weird kid” who grew to become a notorious serial killer. The black and white comic’s trippy, acid-soaked art is appropriate for both the bizarre subject and the 70s-set story.
by R. and A. Crumb
Published by Liveright
Even casual comic fans are likely familiar with Robert “R Crumb,” a pioneer in the world of underground comix who contributed to books like Zap and Arcade and created Fritz the Cat. Perhaps less familiar is Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Robert’s wife and a comic artist in her own right. The two have been frequent collaborators since meeting in the 1970s, and Drawn Together collects from four decades of co-mingled work. This includes works that are literally drawn together, with Aline and R rendering themselves in coauthored panels in their radically different styles. The warts-and-all memoir covers 40 years of an often turbulent relationship, and is a must-read for anyone interested in Crumb and his muse.
by Joseph Lambert
Published by Disney / Hyperion
Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller, written by Joseph Lambert, is the latest in a series of comic biographies produced by a partnership between Disney and the Center for Cartoon Studies. In telling the story of Annie and Helen (a tale already shown countless times in movies, books and on stage), Lambert uses the language of comics to unique effect. The artist attempts to show how Helen experienced the world, starting with a blurry figure on a black background and adding sophistication as Keller’s understanding of her surroundings increased. Don’t let the fact it’s aimed at younger audiences scare you off – this is a great book for any age. Lambert’s mastery of telling stories through art is reason enough to recommend this book.
by Stephanie McMillan
Published by Seven Stories Press
September 17, 2011 marked the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street protest in the US, a controversial and sometimes contradictory movement that continues to this day. Stephanie McMillan, a cartoonist and activist, chronicles the birth, growth and evolution of the protest movement in The Beginning of the American Fall. By combining art, interviews, dialogue, reportage and personal reflections, McMillan creates a book that reads like an oral history of the Occupy movement. It’s one of the first substantial histories of Occupy, and it will stand as an important chronicle of the burgeoning movement for years to come.
by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
Published by Nation Books
It’s hard to come up with a sure thing in comics, but you can bet that putting a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and an Eisner-winning artist together will make for a damn good book. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt doesn’t disappoint. Billed as an examination of “sacrifice zones,” the book examines places in the US that have been offered up to corporations for profit and technology – think strip mines, communities built on the backs of illegal immigrants, and ill-served reservations. Hedges’ top-notch writing and Sacco’s incredible art make for a masterful book that sheds light on some parts of the American experience we’d prefer to know nothing about. In his review of the book, Peter Liu said that the book did nothing less than make him “question what it means to be human.” I couldn’t agree more.
by Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant
Published by Top Shelf
There are few creators as tied up with their hometown as Harvey Pekar is with Cleveland, Ohio. Written by the late Pekar and illustrated by comics newcomer Joseph Remnant (and with intro from Alan Moore), Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a fitting tribute to both the writer and the Forest City. Starting with a broad history of Cleveland before focusing in on Pekar’s more autobiographical work, the book paints a rich portrait of both that isn’t explicitly positive or negative. It just is. Remnant’s style, strongly reminiscent of Pekar’s sometimes-collaborator R Crumb, jives perfectly with the book’s quiet, realistic tone. There are hints that this won’t be Pekar’s last published work, but if it is it’s a fitting final act that captures what we love about Harvey’s stories.
by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Published by Hill and Wang
Trinity, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s history of the development of the atomic bomb, is one of those fantastic books that provides a clear, concise snapshot of a historical moment while illuminating its larger context. The focus of Trinity is the Manhattan Project, but the author uses this starting point to explore nuclear physics, the history of scientific pioneers like Marie Curie, and the Cold War arms race that followed WWII. It’s a surprisingly fitting companion piece to Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects. While that book is unquestionably fiction, it’s amazing how well both Hickman and Fetter-Vorm captured the personalities of idiosyncratic geniuses like Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves and Einstein.
by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey
Published by IDW Publishing
This year, IDW collected Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s self-published miniseries Comic Book Comics as The Comic Book History of Comics. Just as Scott McCloud used sequential art to uniquely teach about the form of comics, Van Lente and Dunlavey use comics to tell an imaginative history of comics. It’s amazing just how much history the pair packed into six issues, running from the 1500s to today. It stands as perhaps the best primer on comics in any medium.
Read Conor’s Book of the Month review for a deeper look at The Comic Book History of Comics.
by Ellen Forney
Published by Gotham
In Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me, cartoonist Ellen Forney recounts her decades-long battle with bipolar disorder and depression. Forney set out to write a book that fired on three cylinders; one that told her own story, included profiles of other artists that dealt with disorders, and dug into how the mental disorders and creativity were linked. The end result is a book that stands out as a brave, singular work in the crowded field of memoirs about depression. By deftly combining flowing cartooning, a well-told personal tale, and reams of research, Forney paints as accurate a portrait of depression and mania as I’ve ever read.
by Alison Bechdel
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
For whatever reason, I never fell in love with Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home. Call it a character flaw, and I’d be inclined to agree; after all, literally every other person I’ve talked with about the book liked, loved or adored it. That meant I went into Alison’s new memoir Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama with no small amount of trepidation. Would I miss the mark again? Did I just not get these books?
As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. I ended up loving Are You My Mother?, which stands as my favorite non-fiction comic of the year. After exploring her relationship with her father (and her own coming-of-age) in Fun Home, Bechdel looks at her adulthood and relationship with her mother in her new book. Five years out from Fun Home, the creator is much more confident as both a cartoonist and storyteller.
After spending 300 pages with Alison and her mother, you have as much of an understanding of their complex relationship as if you’d lived with them. Bechdel radically expands the scope in this book compared to her last, expanding a personal narrative to explore (among other things) feminism, literature, family dynamics, the history of psychology, and storytelling. One of my favorite pieces of this sort-of sequel is the meta element that runs throughout – in Are You My Mother?, many pages are devoted to scenes of Alison working on Are You My Mother?
As we finish out 2012, I find myself flipped from Bechdel outlier to Bechdel advocate. While everyone and their sister read Fun Home, the comics community has been mostly quiet about Are You My Mother? I hope people take the occasion of the end of the year to lose themselves in one of the best books of the year.