Graphic novels have evolved quite a bit since crawling out of the primordial ooze of superhero comics. But the genre is still heavily dominated by men — both as protagonists and authors. That's why, in honor of Women's History Month, I decided to ask some of my favorite bloggers who focus on graphic novels to contribute a title that not only has a female protagonist, but was written by a woman as well.
Their dozen selection are below and while I've only read a few of them, I'm happy to report that the list looks both wildly diverse and thoroughly compelling. I'm equally happy to report that the list is not, as some might expect, dominated by manga (...a sub-genre of graphic novel that has a much larger number of female authors.)
If you're a regular graphic novel reader I hope you're turned on to a new title or two below. If you're new to the genre, any one of these books is a worthy introduction. Enjoy.
by Marjane Satrapi
The narrator, Satrapi, uses imagery and the graphic novel format to pull the reader into her absolutely absorbing memoir about being a child during the Islamic revolution. Many elements in her story are universal to childhood, though the threat of danger and punishment for their beliefs hovers at the periphery of her family's life. Satrapi has that rare and lovely skill of being able to recreate exactly what the world looks like from a child's point of view.
by Carol Swain
An invaluable career-spanning collection of short works by one of the UK's most sharp-eyed cartoonists. Coolly styled, ferociously elliptical and zoomed in way up close, Swain's comics follow tight-lipped, often female protagonists as they traverse vividly unadorned lands and societies, evocative unto surrealism, haunted by allegory or circumstance. They are moody, but unflappable — characters and scenes alike. Assembled with love and unlike anything else.
by Fumi Yoshinaga
Imagine, for a moment, that a terrible plague kills nearly three out of four men living in Edo-era Japan. That's the premise of Fumi Yoshinaga's Ooku: The Inner Chambers, a flawed but fascinating alterna-history of the Tokugawa clan in which women run the show. The book is both a mystery — how did women assume control of the shogunate? — and a character study of Yasamune, the latest woman to fulfill the shogun's duty. Perhaps the most radical idea in Yoshinaga's story is that given the opportunity to rule, women might not do things any differently than men. Spare artwork, beautiful period costumes, and plenty of behind-the-scenes drama make "Ooku" an entertaining and thought-provoking read.
by Fumi Yoshinaga
Set in modern-day Japan, Fumi Yoshinaga's All My Darling Daughters explores not women in history, but rather women's history with each other. Yukiko, nearly thirty and still living at home, is shocked when her widowed mother announces her remarriage to a young actor she met at a host club. As she reluctantly watches own her life shifting around her, Yukiko is surprised to find herself gaining new understanding of the woman she's lived with all her life. Though the volume's five short stories examine the lives of several women who have touched Yukiko's life, from middle school through present-day, the real heart of the story is found within three generations of Yukiko's own family. Yoshinaga's thoughtful, poignant, and often humorous look at love, hurt, and the perils of good intentions is a must-read for mothers and grown-up daughters everywhere.
by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel's autobiography Fun Home may have introduced her to a wide range of new readers, but my first Bechdel recommendation is always The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. Reprinting almost all of Bechdel's soap opera comic, the stories and characters will draw you in almost instantly. If you're gay, straight, or somewhere in-between, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For tells stories that you'll empathize with and make you desperate to read more of. Fortunately, with over 400 pages of strips, you'll have plenty of good times ahead.
by Kate T. Williamson
The book, a nonfiction graphic novel (in the elastic meaning of the term; alternatively, an illustrated journalistic account) describes the period upon the author's return from Japan, during which she produced the ultimately quite successful A Year in Japan, which I have not read. Her hangout during this interval — expected to be three months, but ultimately, twenty-three — was her parents' home in Reading, Pennsylvania. Williamson's book sneaks up on you a little. The illustration — and specifically the figure drawing — is somewhat indifferent. It improves when a character requires a specific emotional signature, often amplified and focused by the text. But the directorial sensibility of the work is quite appealing. The story switches between not very dramatic scenes, illustrated states of mind, and wordless notations of seasonal change, the last of which are immersive and tranquil. Finally, Williamson’s transition satisfies. In the crowded realm of (often tedious) visualized memoirs, Williamson delivers a smart, honest, feminine take on the value and the cost of going back to the nest. I recommend it as a graduation gift — and a tonic for what’s to come.
by Fumiyo Kouno
In Town of Evening Calm, Country of Chery Blossoms, Fumiyo Kuono examines the aftermath of the atomic bomb on Japan in two separate, but connected, stories. In the first, young office lady Minami is haunted by what she remembers from the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Many years later, Minami's niece, Nanami, tails her dad on his visit to Hiroshima. This is an amazingly touching story on the lingering effect of war that everyone should read regardless of politics.
by Ariel Schrag
All of Ariel Schrag's high school memoirs are worth reading, but this is both the most ambitious and the best. Obsessed in equal parts with sex, James Joyce, homosexuality, and her own art, the book is a sprawling melange of verbal and visual styles. It's also extremely funny (Ariel's struggles with her pants are a particular high point), frequently moving, carefully structured, and filled with layers of details and insights that make the fourth or fifth read as enjoyable as the first. It's easily one of my favorite comics ever.
by Linda Medley
Medley's Castle Waiting is as funny and generous a mash-up of fairy tale and feminism was you could wish for. The titular domicile is a welcoming home to a great collection of characters from the fantasy fringes who form a sort of family of choice. At the castle, you'll meet resourceful (and pregnant) Lady Jain, fleeing the reality of "happily ever after," along with a fastidious stork, a flirtatious horse-man, a bearded nun, and other quirky charmers. Medley focuses on quiet moments that reveal character rather than constructed intersections of fairy-tale tropes. Her small observations about human (or mostly human) nature are always warm and potent, whether the castle residents are celebrating the birth of Jain's child or just sitting around coloring each others’ hair.
by Ai Yazawa
The manga industry is rich with female-centric comics, but even in a crowded field, Ai Yazawa's tale of young women trying to make it in the big city stands out. Her strength is in defining characters and forming strong relationships between them, such that readers feel like they're witnessing the travails of real-life friends, really caring about what happens to them. Throw in wonderful artwork, a great sense of fashion design, and a high-energy rock-and-roll atmosphere, and you've got a complete package that's impossible to resist.
by Posy Simmonds
Tamara Drewe, by Posy Simmonds, is an off-beat drama about a hot young newspaper columnist who stirs up the affairs of a small community in the British countryside. The story takes place over the course of four seasons at a writer's retreat, where the arrival of new neighbor Tamara Drewe and her rock star boyfriend up-ends the relatively ho-hum existence of the couple that owns the farm, their handyman, a writer who farts around in one of the guest houses, and two of the local high school girls. Everyone is captivated by Tamara, who isn't all that inclined to run away from their attentions. People sneak around, screw around, get engaged, break off engagements, and dance around wearing pilfered dresses. Simmonds does a good job of creating real, believable people, and the action flows naturally from their (often immoral) decisions. The art is also quite nice to look at, with solid drawing that perfectly conveys the emotions of the characters and creates a handsome, rural setting. It's a innocent-looking world that all these people populate, which makes all the betrayal, lying, and illicit goings-on that much more fascinating.
by Jessica Abel
La Perdida is the story of Carla Olivares, a Mexican-American young woman who exchanges her native Chicago for Mexico City, in an attempt to reconnect with her roots and discover herself. Carla wants to see, learn and understand what the lives of real Mexicans are like, and unfortunately her openness ends up turning into a real and willful blindness to the dangers that surround her. Jessica Abel's characterization is remarkable, and she manages what few do: to create a willfully naïve heroine who is not pitiful or unintelligent: her very naïveté is in part what this story is about. Add a clever examination of colonialism, cultural relativity, class issues and identity, and the result is a thoughtful and very satisfying book.
Recommending books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. more...
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