Once again our blog is graced with a guest post! This time, our guest is my colleague Dr. Corey Creekmur of the University of Iowa, a distinguished scholar and teacher of world cinema, literature, race, gender, and sexuality studies, and comics. Corey is the Director of the Institute for Cinema and Culture at the U of Iowa and editor of the new Comics Culture book series from Rutgers University Press. Here he gives us some of his choices for outstanding nonfiction comics. Thank you, Corey, and take it away!
I’ve played by this rule: don’t list any of the remarkable texts my precursor contributors Craig and Derik have named! Given that restriction, I’m pleased to recognize that there’s no shortage of great nonfiction comics examples to choose from!
Joe Sacco, “Airpower Through Victory,” originally in Yahoo (which was published by Fantagraphics for six issues in 1988-92) #4 is both a fully annotated history of modern military air attacks and a vivid account of the artist’s mother’s experience of World War II on Malta. As such it’s a striking balance of the public and personal, or global and local, understanding of modern war. Issue #5 is also great, a sympathetic illustration of Susan Catherine’s story of her life as a stripper. For non-fiction comics in general, I’d say the collected works of Joe Sacco are required reading, but these gems might be overlooked among the achievements of his longer works.
Two-Fisted Tales #26 (EC, March-April 1952): This “special issue,” “a document of the action at the Changjin Reservoir,” recounts, through four vivid, grim and — most significantly — linked stories, a now-forgotten incident from the Korean War. It’s a remarkable use of the humble comic book format, both for historical documentation and as a modernist dramatization of multiple points of view, produced before most of the world knew to refer to Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon to summarize this technique.
Written by Harvey Kurtzman, with typically outstanding art by John Severin, Jack Davis, Will Elder, and Wally Wood (at the top of his form), this might be my favorite single issue of any comic book.
John Porcellino, Thoreau at Walden: Like Craig and Derik, I love Porcellino’s autobiographical and deceptively simple King-Cat comics, but also really enjoy this linking of his usually personal style to the words of a major historical figure who inspired him, Henry David Thoreau. The result is a sort of autobiography via biography, indicating the complex identification and distance between any biographer and their subject. I wish a few more exclusively autobiographical comics creators would turn their attention to others.
Ho Che Anderson, King: A Comics Biography: This is not the basic, simply informative biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. one might expect, but an impressionistic and potentially controversial account, and that’s its strength. (There are other more “responsible” but rather dull comics biographies of King.) While clearly well and deeply researched, this “comics biography” never forgets that it needs to function as a great comic as well, and so the demands of the two forms are continually placed in a debate with one another rather than an easy, comfortable sync.
Robert Crumb’s biographical comics, including an illustrated section of James Boswell’s 18th-century London Journal (Weirdo #3), case studies from Krafft-Ebing’s 19th-century Psychopathia Sexualis (Weirdo #13), and a biography of the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick (Weirdo #17), each produced in what had become Crumb’s increasingly distinctive “late” style, marked by intensified cross-hatching and realistic detail. (These can be found most easily in volumes of The Complete Crumb Comics.) To these should be added Crumb’s biographical comics about his beloved blues musicians, Charlie Patton, Jelly Roll Morton, and Kansas City Frank Melrose (collected in R. Crumb Draws the Blues). From one of the great, deeply influential and notoriously uninhibited comics autobiographers, these vivid biographical treatments of troubled others with whom one assumes Crumb identifies are all short masterpieces.
Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell: While this distinctive, even obsessive, take on the Jack the Ripper killings in Victorian London might veer away from strict nonfiction — call this historical fiction — the academic in me recalls being astonished by realizing, when issues of From Hell first appeared, that this was a comic that involved as much research as any scholarly study: has any comic before or since included such an extensive bibliography and (fascinating) annotation? If not finally easily classified as nonfiction, this is a massive exploration of the complex relationship between history and fiction.
Ann Marie Fleming, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam: An Illustrated Memoir: It’s perhaps tricky to call this a comic or graphic novel (rather than an illustrated book), but in any case it’s a wonderful, virtually one-of-a-kind book, derived from an equally wonderful documentary film (as well as a standard format comic book) by Fleming, best known as an experimental animation filmmaker. (See www.longtacksam.com for information on the film.) On the one hand, it’s a biographical account of the artist’s Chinese great-grandfather, a professional magician who traveled the world as a vaudeville star; but through the multimedia form it takes — best experienced rather than described — it’s a whole lot more.
Paul Karasik, “Whatever Happened to Fletcher Hanks?”: The “Afterword” in comics form to I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, his astonishing first (of two) collections of early comic book stories by the notoriously obscure Fletcher Hanks, this 16-page story is a moving account of Karasik’s thrill at uncovering lost comics history while also discovering why we might wish the past to remain buried. As much about the difficult relationships between children and parents as a contribution to comics history, this is a brilliant way to deepen and contextualize the truly bizarre comics that precede it.
Nick Abadzis, Laika: While this beautiful graphic novel includes fictional elements, these are extrapolated from the work’s historical source, the story of the small dog launched into space by the Soviet Union in 1958. Comics have always relied on anthropomorphic animals, but surprisingly few nonfiction comics tell the stories of actual animals. This one does, and it’s heartbreaking.
Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!: Like many others, I simply assumed that Barry’s earlier comic strips were thinly autobiographical accounts of her own childhood, but this volume (as meaningful in its book design as Chris Ware’s publications) reoriented her work towards more explicit memoir and exploration of her ethnic roots: she smartly labels the hybrid result as “autobifictionalgraphic.” Pointing towards her subsequent volumes on the creative process, this is also a highly self-reflexive “how-to” book, as much about itself and Barry’s reenergized artistic process as it is yet another brilliant balancing act of hilarious and painful observations about kids and their families.