I came across the Hernandez brothers, Jaime & Gilbert, and their Love & Rockets serial graphic novels when I was around fifteen years old. Being a brown-skinned teenager in east Texas in the mid-80’s who had adopted a goth-punk ethos made me somewhat of an outcast back then. Finding these books, seeing brown faces with shaved heads, curves (or not) and combat boots, gave me the steam to continue on as an “oddity.” Almost 25 years later, I still love them, and continue to search out new stories—both similar to and different from my own—to add to my library. Here are but a few of the treasures I’ve found so far…
Los Bros Hernandez have created several ongoing narratives, including one about Luba, the feisty, hammer-toting, libertine mayor of the fictional Latin American town of Palomar, as well as many stand-alone tales. My favorite, however, has always been the Locas series which follows Esperanza “Hopey” Leticia Glass and her on-again, off-again, lover and best friend Margarita Luisa “Maggie” Chascarrillo. Their “will they or won’t they” relationship begins when both are teenagers and, in more recent stories, continues on into their middle years. See also: Art of Jaime Hernandez by Jaime Hernandez, Todd Hignite with intro by Alison Bechdel, any of the Love & Rockets series and Locas II.
Shortcomings Follows Ben Tanaka, a young, urban, surly and sarcastic Japanese-American. With his friends and lovers as sounding boards, he contemplates identity, inter-racial dating and other uncomfortable corners of love and full-fledged adulthood. While Ben is a hard-to-love character, the friction created by his words and actions make for a constructive, if uncomfortable, environment within which we can explore ourselves. See also: Summer Blonde and 32 Stories by Tomine and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.
This award-winning series follows a group of teenagers who not only discover that their parents are super-villains but that they have also inherited their powers. Marvelesque in style and plot, Runaways still manages to bend the norms with a cast of characters diverse in gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Though the series was created by Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, a few others have put their hands into the pot, including my man, Joss Whedon. See also: Y: The Last Man, a personal favorite.
This award-winning graphic autobiography by Bechdel, known for her Dykes to Watch Out For series, delves deep into family dynamics. The face her father puts forward, the status-quo her mother clings to and the suspicions Alison has about her father and herself all play out in an incredibly beautiful, heartbreaking way. See also: Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki.
This well-received web-comic is set in racially charged 1930’s Mississippi and revolves around the friendship of a black girl named Lee and her best friend, a white girl named Lily. When Lily is snatched by an evil creature named Bog with Lee’s father as the accused, Lee must venture, accompanied by a swamp monster named Bayou, into an Oz-like world in order to save them both. A wonderful narrative set to a fever dream of beautiful pictures, Bayou is a rich combination of history and myth, Southern Gothic-style magical realism and a pinch of the blues. Look for Bayou 2 in January 2011. See also: Pop Gun War by Farel Dalrymple.
This highly acclaimed series is set in the Ivory Coast of the late 1970’s and features an Africa not commonly seen in the West. Sans war and famine, the community in Yop City is dynamic, bright and complex, full of humor and not-a-little drama. Aya is a strong, optimistic and determined character surrounded by supportive friends and an involved family. Rich illustrations and slice-of-life story lines revolve around nights at the disco, gay relationships, failed business ventures and messy love affairs with sticky paternity issues. Complete with a glossary, recipes, and instructions for turning bright colored cloth into head wraps and skirts. See also: The Zabime Sisters by Aristophane.
Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection edited by Matt Dembicki
While gathering these twenty-one Native American trickster tales, Dembicki faced resistance from many storytellers who questioned his intentions in taking what was a mostly oral tradition and placing it into graphic novel form. Still, he found a few willing participants, some of whom got tribal permission before sharing their tales. With narrative and illustrative styles that range from dark to funny, Trickster is the first anthology to illustrate such stories. He matched each storyteller with an artist and produced a great book about both animal and human tricksters. Even though it’s not a graphic novel, see also: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie with illustrations by Ellen Forney.
One of my favorites! Satrapi’s story of growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and, later on, in Europe, quickly became a hit in France. Soon, it reached other shores, receiving even more praise. With wonderful illustrations Satrapi meanders through the maze of her youth spent under a repressive regime. A curious and spirited child of Marxist parents, she is sent away during her teen years to live abroad. Her family hopes this will give her breadth to explore and express herself. Life becomes more complex however as Marjane struggles with freedom, displacement, and what it means to belong. Political, intimate, funny and sometimes heartbreaking, Persepolis is one of those necessary books. See also: Palestine by Joe Sacco, The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar, and the animated documentary film turned graphic novel, Waltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War Story by Ari Folman.
In the past, American comic books held inclusiveness at bay. To many of us, it was a world that welcomed only the dominant “norms” of white, heterosexual males. As illustrated above, things have changed in some amazing ways. More women and women of color are creating comics, stories are becoming more international and the identities that appear are more varied and fleshed out. Of course, the titles mentioned above are only a slice of what’s available. So search on! -Shannon