12 Graphic Novels to Read This Spring

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If there’s one thing I love more than an art book, it’s a meticulously crafted graphic novel that manages to strike that elusive, perfect balance between words and images, articulation and silence. The tactile, pliable genre is as multifaceted as any other art medium and constantly pushes the expressive boundaries of how to tell a story.

This month, we asked our editors and contributors, among them several comics artists, to share new graphic novels and comics they’re reading this spring, running the gamut from Ai Weiwei’s memoir woven together by paper-thin line drawings and a poignant generational story by Tessa Hulls to an unearthed wealth of cartoons on lined paper by an artist whose work wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1979. We also include an older book by journalist Joe Sacco, whose message still resonates painfully with the current bombardment of Gaza. —Lakshmi Rivera Amin


Maple Terrace by Noah Van Sciver

Aspiring cartoonists: Do not read Noah Van Sciver. He belongs to that class of cartoonist who makes drawing look easy. You will see his wiggly lines, effortless jokes, and the ease he has with story and think, “How hard can it be? I can do that.”

I like all of Van Sciver’s work, but I’m especially fond of the autobiographical comics he makes about his childhood, like One Dirty Tree and the recent Maple Terrace, which was offered as a three-issue subscription from Uncivilized Press. Expensive hardback novels with polished art and literary conceits have become the norm, but Van Sciver’s deceptively loose style and embrace of the floppy format keep a scrappier version of comics-making alive.

Reading Van Sciver makes me feel the way I want to when I read comics — like I’m a dumb, happy kid who just pedaled home on my bike and I’m sitting on my bed reading the latest issue of my favorite comic, trying not to let the short time it takes to read 32 pages pass too quickly. A book collecting all three issues of Maple Terrace is due out this May. —Nathan Gelgud

Buy on Bookshop | Uncivilized Books, May 2024


Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls

An emotionally sophisticated exploration of generational trauma that doesn’t shy away from any of the different questions. This book is raw, it’s uncomfortable, it’s full of insight, and Hull uses drawing to its full potential, allowing the figures to pop and the shadowy black lines to give the story a theatrical quality. 

Hull grapples with her mother’s own “Eurasian” identity in Hong Kong, while she struggles with what that means in the United States, where the term “mixed race” has its own minefield of associations. She touches on religion, mental illness, and parental relationships in a way that feels honest and illuminating. The writing is also 🔥, for instance, she writes, “It’s hard to abandon the fiction you’ve built yourself around. But healing would require me to kill off my myth. My coping mechanisms had begun to devour the very part of me I’d wanted to protect. I was trapped by my own ruthless strength.” Wow, inject it straight into my veins. I will definitely be rereading this. —Hrag Vartanian

Buy on Bookshop | MCD Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 2024


Frank Johnson, Secret Pioneer of American Comics Vol. 1: Wally’s Gang Early Years (1928–1949) and the Bowser Boys (1946–1950)

Frank Johnson was a working stiff with a drinking problem who secretly created a decades-long comic strip better than almost anything that ran in a daily paper in the 20th century. Frank Johnson: Secret Pioneer of American Comics collects the stacks of notebooks that Johnson filled with his comics, an archive that was discovered by his family after he died in 1979. The bulk of the book is filled with two decades (1928–49) of a strip he called Wally’s Gang, which is funny and well-drawn and stupid, and makes one marvel at the kind of maniac who could do this sort of work so consistently with no deadline or paycheck, just compulsion. 

Even better are the 80 pages of Bowser Boys stories (1946–50), about a group of winos with names like Headlight and Funnelmouth who appear at temperance society meetings as “bad examples” in order to earn a buck, which they promptly spend at the liquor store. In one deadpan gag, two of the irredeemable boys get comfortable by making pillows out of dead cats. It’s so sad, grotesque, and hilariously executed that I’m at a loss to think of anything as perfectly complicated in any comic I’ve ever read. —NG

Buy on Bookshop | Fantagraphics Books, February 2024


Zodiac by Ai Weiwei, illustrated by Gianluca Costantini with Elettra Stamboulis

“A poet,” Ai Weiwei writes of his father, “told his son not to read.” So begins a tale about art, governmental oppression, and time. Divided into 12 sections designated and informed by the animals of the Zodiac — the keepers of time, in Chinese legend — Ai’s new graphic memoir tells a cross-generational story of father-and-son artists, of families sundered, of art’s ability to transcend forgetting. 

Much of the text is told to Ai’s young son, Lao, and chapters span massive skips in time and geography, from the fringe of the Gobi desert in 1967 to Beijing in 2015 to hallucinatory time-spaces in which memory and history seem to collide. Such complexity is made lucid by Gianluca Costantini’s generous and exacting fine-line drawings. He impeccably renders the arabesque details in each Zodiac; the ruffles in the fur of a white cat; the lacerating cross-hatches of darkness, which stands in for the horror and trauma of governmental suppression. Speech bubbles wind like sinuous, agentive waterways that simmer past the limits of panels, as if they can’t be contained. 
Therein lies the point. Ai’s grandfather, Ai Qing, was a poet punished for being a revolutionary, as was his father, and as is he. The artist hopes for more for his son. “Time is an ally of oblivion,” Ai tells him, and us. “Poetry is the only tool of resistance.” —Lisa Yin Zhang

Buy on Bookshop | Ten Speed Graphic, January 2024


Monica by Daniel Clowes

Few cartoonists have left quite the same impact on comics as Daniel Clowes. His most recent release, Monica, is no exception. Monica is a collection of short stories that structurally harken back to classic comics, each one echoing narrative conventions of old genre shorts, from the horrors of EC Comics to the romances of Fox Feature Syndicate. In the opening story, “Foxhole,” we are introduced to our first recurring character, Johnny. This homage to war stories you might find in Two Fisted Tales or Sgt. Rock comics focuses on a conversation between two soldiers reflecting on their need to survive under the looming threat of death, using their class as a mechanism for weighing the value of their lives. “Demonica” echoes some classic horror shorts when the titular Monica grieves the death of her grandmother by visiting her grandparents’ cottage. Realizing she can communicate with her long-dead grandfather through an old radio, she nurtures this relationship at the expense of those she had with the living. The nostalgia evoked in the world of Monica punctuates the surreal exploration of memory with many of the stories, seeming more interested in an emotional truth over literal interpretation — the strangeness of each tale made only stranger by what connects them all: Monica. —CM Campbell

Buy on Bookshop | Fantagraphics Books, October 2023


Damnation Diares by Peter Rostovsky

In Damnation Diaries, Peter Rostovsky invites us into a vividly rendered and pleasurably sardonic underworld. The titular diaries are patiently typed out by Fred Greenberg, hell’s only therapist, who is counseling inmate PKRx354, a suffering adjunct art professor. What’s the source of our hero’s chronic unhappiness? It’s not the regular flayings and saltings, nor the whirring saw blades. It’s not even his diabolical job: assembling brushed aluminum panels into endless luxury condos that topple to rubble each year. It’s something deeper — something many readers will find cruelly familiar.

Two aspects of the novel make it a work for the ages. First is the old-world draftsmanship. Rostovsky, a realist painter, hints at the musculature beneath each figure’s tortured skin (the residents of hell are naked) with exquisite hatching. His demons resemble Italian Renaissance grotteschi. When the camera pans out, it’s as if Caspar David Friedrich descended to a subterranean Alps and painted an infernal sublime.

It’s also a nuanced work of politics. Witty advertisements world-build hell’s bleak debtor capitalism that oppresses torturers and inmates alike. When the drumbeat of revolution reverberates, is anyone uncompromised enough to answer its call? Damnation Diaries is a bravely personal vision — I found it strangely comforting. —Noah Fischer

Buy on Bookshop | Uncivilized Books, September 2023


Okinawa by Susumu Higa, translated by Jocelyne Allen

This is a true masterpiece of graphic storytelling. Higa is the island of Okinawa’s best mangaka, or manga artist, and this collection brings together two books that tell the story of the archipelago’s unique history. Okinawa was only annexed by Japan in the late 19th century and has retained some of its distinct culture that Higa explores, including local spirituality. But since the end of World War II, the region has become the poorest in the country and hosts 75% of Japan’s American military bases — all of this is expertly dealt with in various ways through Higa’s art.
Sword of Sand, first published in 1995, is a close look at the horrors that the people of Okinawa went through during the war, including a moving story of a man who helped save dozens of people from certain death at the hands of terrified Japanese soldiers. Mabui (Okinawan for “spirit” or “soul”) was published in 2010 and reflects on contemporary life in the archipelago. Overall, Okinawa is a beautiful collection of short stories that offer you a glimpse into the life of a masterful talent whose clarity of line illustrates a consciousness that will entice you as much as any collection of literary tales by Hemingway, Borges, or Munroe. Pure artistry. —HV

Buy on Bookshop | Fantagraphics, August 2023


Boys Weekend by Mattie Lubchansky

It’s a pleasure to see Mattie Lubchansky, a master of the four-panel Instagram-based comic strip, expand their unique blend of dystopic sci-fi and political commentary into an ambitious graphic novel, Boy’s Weekend. In the near future, Sammie, a transfemme artist assistant, reluctantly embarks on a bachelor party weekend trip to El Campo, an anything-goes artificial pleasure island located in international waters. Sammie’s college best friend, Adam, asks them to be his “best man” and they can’t refuse. The nonstop party goes from one bro-ey activity to the next as Sammie endures sexist diatribes, microaggressions, and the indignity of being constantly misgendered.

The weekend debauchery progresses, and an even darker side of El Campo emerges. Sammie discovers their hotel is hosting a conference for a pyramid scheme-slash-cult that is slowly recruiting members of the bachelor party. The story takes an apocalyptic turn when the true eldritch nature of the cult is revealed. As all unravels, Sammie and Adam come to a reckoning and rescue comes from an unlikely source. Lubchansky satirizes sci-fi, horror, and blockbuster movies to deftly skewer toxic masculinity, grifting, and unchecked capitalism. Beneath the political and cultural critique lies a heartfelt exploration of gender, friendship, and acceptance. —Jesse Lambert

Buy on Bookshop | Pantheon Books, June 2023


Enlightened Transsexual Comix by Sam Szabo

Sam Szabo’s triumphant debut, Enlightened Transsexual Comix, is a beautiful and hilarious shock to the system. Embracing the narrative traditions of underground and alternative comics, the collection celebrates trans identity while at the same time questioning the function of identity itself in modern society. The titular Enlightened Transsexual character traverses time and space to expand her mind, wax poetic, and earn a few extra bucks if the opportunity presents itself (as she says once to Jimmy Fallon, “I’m not ‘selling out…’ I’m queering the free market.”) This bizarre meditation on modern life takes an honest and vulnerable look at the ideas and expectations of self-actualization and the labor of self-discovery, with the ambition to make the world a more “chill” place to live. —CMC

Buy on Bookshop | Silver Sprocket, May 2023


Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story by Julia Wertz

Impossible People, written and illustrated by Julia Wertz, is a perfect rainy weekend read to curl up with on your couch, or as the artist would call it, your “fart receptacle.” Wertz addresses her struggle with addiction in this delightful autobiographical memoir that spans an eight-year period while she is working as a full-time cartoonist and living in an illegal basement apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s much more than a sobriety story, though. Besides the wise introspection and personal analysis of her relationship with alcohol, there is love and loss, hilarious first dates, professional triumphs, excursions to abandoned asylums, a car crash in Puerto Rico, and the origin story of her beloved cat, Jack. Wertz weaves it all together between AA meetings and enlightening conversations with her brother and close friends, who keep her grounded throughout. Wertz’s character is a young, lovable curmudgeon who masterfully adds levity to the difficult subject of recovery. It’s a uniquely funny depiction of the progressively isolating cycle of addiction, best remedied by getting out of your bubble and letting people in. —Lauren Purje

Buy on Bookshop | Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, May 2023


Firebugs by Nino Bulling

A touching look at the disintegration of a relationship between two young Berliners, Nino Bulling’s Firebugs explores the coming of age of a protagonist who goes on a journey of discovery that can feel as relatable as it is humdrum at times. Commissioned for Documenta 15, the drawings themselves are loose and airy, and only red panel outlines and various squiggles interrupt the black lines to offer a more dynamic look to the short graphic novel. It’s a sweet story but somewhat emotionally unresolved — then again, what isn’t — yet it makes me want to see more by this artist. So, mission accomplished? —HV

Buy on Bookshop | Colorama Books and Edition Moderne, June 2022


Israeli soldiers rampaging through Gaza, destroying everything in their way; dead bodies of Palestinians strewn across the streets; starved refugees in United Nations tents; men lined up at gunpoint; wailing mothers, and innocent lives taken in cold blood. No, these are not scenes from the current brutal Israeli offense in Gaza, which has claimed over 32,000 lives. Rather, these are chronicles of a much earlier Israeli invasion of Gaza in 1956, described in harrowing detail by award-winning investigative journalist and comics artist Joe Sacco. In this illuminating but heart-wrenching book, Sacco investigates the events leading to an Israeli massacre that killed 111 Palestinians in the city of Rafah, currently threatened with a much larger massacre. Originally published in 2009, this excellent work of journalism remains tragically timely. It’s required reading for anyone studying the origins of the current round of violence in Gaza, especially those who falsely believe it all began on October 7, 2023. —Hakim Bishara

Buy on Bookshop | Metropolitan Books, October 2010

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