Never been into comics? Don’t worry—I wasn’t, either. I’d always felt there was a barrier between me and comics, like you had to be part of an “in club” to understand them, and there was no way I had enough nerd street cred to manage it.
This feeling held true for me all the way into adulthood, until I took a class on comics and stumbled into the amazing world of alternative comics. At last, here were comics I could read without knowing decades of arcane DC backstory. Here were comics that explored serious topics, from science and geopolitics to relationships and identity. Here were comics that became art.
The term “alternative comics,” strictly speaking, refers to comics that offer an alternative to the mainstream superhero comics published by Marvel, DC, and other major publishers. Alternative comics come in a wide variety, including your standard fiction offerings, but also venture into nonfiction through memoir, biography, and even explanatory scientific texts.
The art can range from allblack outlines to delicately painted watercolor panels, and the art styles can be deceptively simple, ragged and sketchy, or blisteringly complex. There’s a wide, diverse world of alternative comics out there, and I believe it holds something for everyone and every reading taste.
For me, the most thought-provoking alternative comics feature international affairs, exploring how people interpret and respond to major international crises. The comics format takes politics and makes it understandable; instead of being a complex, distant issue, politics becomes human and relatable through the lenses of comics creators.
In Rolling Blackouts, Sarah Glidden details her travels through the Middle East with a team of journalists. As they travel, Glidden learns about the lives of refugees and the effects of war, while also exploring the ideas behind journalism.
In The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, Igort depicts the horrors of life under Soviet rule, while Amir and Khalil’s Zahra’s Paradise brings haunting life to the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election in Iran.
Biographies are another group I was pleasantly surprised to find within comics, and there are always more intriguing biographies to choose from. Steffen Kverneland’s Munch is the most impressive comics biography I’ve seen this year, pulling from many sources to craft an exquisitely bizarre and nuanced portrait of Edvard Munch, the artist bestknownfor“TheScream.”
In The Imitation Game, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis, you can explore the life and science of Alan Turing, the man who cracked the German Enigma code during World War II. For mystery fans, Anne Martinetti’s Agatha depicts the life of Agatha Christie, beginning with her mysterious ten-day disappearance and traveling throughout her life from there.
Comics also can explore the more technical side of nonfiction, in that they combine explanatory text with detailed drawings in order to explain complex ideas to non-scientists. Andy Warner tackles science humorously with Brief Histories of Everyday Objects, looking at everything from toothbrushes and vacuum cleaners to instant ramen and ice cream cones. Darryl Cunningham explains how to tell science myth from science fact in his books How to Fake a Moon Landing and Science Tales.
Finally, Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed combines memoir and documentary as Squarzoni researches climate change in an effort to be knowledgeable about this major issue.
On the fiction end of things, comics also excel as a medium for exploring dramas both interpersonal and internal. Moyoco Anno confronts eating disorders in her work In Clothes Called Fat, as her main character Noko struggles to find what she really wants in a world that dictates how she should feel about her body weight.
Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor goes the magical realism route, following David, a sculptor who decides to die early in exchange for being able to sculpt anything with his bare hands. Needless to say, trading life for art is harder than David had originally bargained for. For science fiction fans, Daniel Clowes’s Patience offers a psychedelic thriller love story that doesn’t let up till the last mind-blowing page.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest about the alternative comics we have to offer here at Manhattan Public Library, especially since we have a strong collection to choose from.
If you’d like any help picking out comics, feel free to stop by the Reference Desk on the second floor, or request a personalized reading list on our website. We’d love to help you find some comics that resonate with you.