My Top 5 Favorite Graphic Novels

I got into graphic novels through a class at Purdue North Central taught by Dr. Jesse Cohen.  He's a rare and brilliant person who knows more about the obscure corners of American culture than most of us know is even there.  Ten years later, I'm still reading graphic novels, especially most of the ones he picked for class.  If I ever find the right artist, I've got the perfect idea for a graphic novel - but I've got ideas for everything, as you probably know.

So here's a new Top 5 list for the blog.  Would any of these make your list?

#5.  The Jew of New York by Ben Katchor

1 part history, 3 parts hilarity!  Building off of little-known 19th-century history, Ben Katchor takes us through wacky situations by way of endearing but overly passionate characters.  My favorite character has always been Moishe Ketzelbourd, an accountant who fancies himself a woodsman and becomes obsessed with two things: the disappearance of beavers in the wild and a stage actress known as Miss Patella.  (Miss Patella is ironically missing half of one leg below the patella - the kneecap.)  Ketzelbourd's preoccupations come to a head when his depression has all but transformed him into a beaver and he finally sets eyes on the real Miss Patella rather than a picture of her.  My favorite part outside of Ketzelbourd's absurdity is when short, moustachioed Yosl Feinbroyt seats himself in an outdoor eatery and studies the sounds of slurping soup and belching in order to write them down phonetically.  This kind of humor could only be pulled off in a graphic novel or comic strip.  It's situational humor at its best.

#4.  Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

You know those movies that follow a real sad sack of a character?  The guy who can barely talk he's so shy.  The guy who's uncomfortable and uncoordinated in every situation, big or small?  In the book world, that guy is Jimmy Corrigan.  He's loveable, he's kind, he's the regular guy next door - but man, it'd be nice if he had an ounce of self-confidence.  Watching him fumble his way through everyday life is interesting enough, but Chris Ware doesn't stop there.  Jimmy, as an adult, is meeting his father for the first time.  He meets an adopted sister he didn't know he had.  And Jimmy Corrigan is also the name and the story of his grandfather, who among other adventures, participated in the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.  This book is every emotion you can think of - sad, funny, heart warming, heart rending, simple, complex, and ultimately addictive.

#3.  Blankets by Craig Thompson

Told exclusively in black and white, Blankets is an honest, raw, gripping portrayal of American life.  First love.  Trying to do the right things.  Being haunted by childhood memories of situations we didn't have the power to stop then or the strength to get over now.  The intersection of reality and religion.  At 582 pages, it's not a quick read or a light one, but for anyone who's ever felt close to someone, in childhood and/or adulthood, this book is for you.  Funniest moment?  In a flashback, main character Craig recalls growing up with his brother, sharing a bed, sharing a blanket.  One night, his brother plays a prank on him.  He licks his fingertip, pokes young Craig with it, and boasts that it wasn't his finger - he peed a single drop on him.  Craig freaks out, and in his attempt at revenge through peeing one drop on his brother, discovers the obvious.  You can't pee a single drop, but you can create a huge mess that makes your mom shower you both in the middle of the night.  Biggest change of heart?  Young adult Craig spends two pages worrying over the state of his soul and fretting over Bible verses when given the opportunity to simply sleep beside the young woman he likes.  But the second she appears from changing into her sleep shirt, Craig envisions her as an angel and calls to mind a Song of Solomon full of adoration, love, and peace.

#2.  The Sandman Volume 8: Worlds' End by Neil Gaiman

A story within a story within a story.  But I never notice it when it happens, and I care even less when I finally do.  I'm too busy being fascinated.  This one volume out of the entire Sandman series doesn't revolve around the main characters that hold all of the volumes together.  Set in between or alongside the main storyline is this collection, set in a warm and cozy inn in the midst of a terrible storm.  The wide variety of characters tell stories to pass the time.  These tales take us from a ship at sea to a fairy city to an all-American golden boy to the darkly fantastic city of Necropolis.  Only in a handful of pages near the end do we see a vision of what's to come in the final volumes.  Maybe that's why I like this one so much - it's the calm before the final storm.  I respect the conclusion of the series, but it's more bitter than sweet for me because of who my favorite characters are.  This is the last volume before the main story line unravels into its inevitable conclusion.

#1.  Cages by Dave McKean

I thought Blankets was heavy until I hoisted this one up.  It's huge, it's hardcover, and I put it at #1 for a reason.  It combines all the great elements of all the others.  It's funny.  The characters are real, everyday people with problems and interests and decisions and shortcomings.  Characters tell stories.  Characters feel uncomfortable and make giant leaps forward anyway.  Dave McKean is one of the true masters of the graphic novel medium because he mixes line drawings with photographs and other visual effects.  It's a story about a city and the people in that city and the way they think and the ways they relate to each other.  The ending, which brings every piece together beautifully, has three of my favorite moments in it.  The main character, pony-tailed Leo Sabarsky, an artist, finally creates a spontaneous romantic rendezvous with his dark-haired neighbor, Karen.  The peak of their union explodes as an actual fiery explosion covering two mirrored pages.  A picture has a thousand words in it, so why ruin it?  The afterglow contains some of the best dialog ever.  Leo:  What are you thinking?  Karen:  Hmmm?  Oh... stuff.  Leo:  What kind of stuff?  Karen:  Oh... the usual... post coital... clouds... stars... chocolate cake... stuff...  To which Leo eventually replies:  Jesus... I was wondering why the sun isn't green.  Aside from the humor, it's the last page, down to the final 6 panels, that blow my mind.  I won't spoil it, but it involves a cat, a piece of plain post-modern artwork, and the loss of everything you thought you knew from reading the rest of the book.

Are any of these your favorites, too?  Did I make you want to learn more?  Share your thoughts below or on Facebook to keep the conversation going.

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