Reviewing every book I read in my graphic novel class

It’s that time of year again: where I turn my semester in an English class into a blog post! This semester, I took an English/Jewish studies class called “Jews, African Americans, and other minorities in U.S. comics and graphic novels.” We read a lot of books this semester, most of which were graphic novels. And if you can’t tell from the course title, they were written by a diverse range of authors. I ended up reading some really interesting graphic novels as a result, and even though I never considered myself a comics or graphic novel person before, I have started exploring the genre a lot more and really came to appreciate it. So today I will share my reviews of both the well known and the obscure books I read for this class.

Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandoes by Jay Jackson, compiled by Jeet Heer

This is the only book on this list which is not a graphic novel, but instead the compilation of a year’s worth of a newspaper comic strip. During World War II, Jay Jackson transformed the comic strip Bungleton Green into a Science-Fiction Action/Adventure comic featuring young boys (and some girls) of varying backgrounds fighting Naziism and racism. There are ghosts and time travel, allowing for a multitude of Black historical figures to be introduced to readers. Through direct experience and allegory, he explores Black social justice issues from slavery to Jim Crow. Jackson holds no fear in directly drawing the comparison between Naziism and American racism. It is truly such a fascinating comic to read, and incredibly fun as well! It certainly crosses the line into the absurd or the overly moral and preachy at times (many comics tell readers to buy war bonds, and Benedict Arnold shows up to teach some boys a lesson), but that does make a lot of sense given that it was the middle of the war and it was a comic meant for young people. My only real complaint is with the publisher for getting the dates on nearly all the section pages incorrect. However, acknowledgments are due to Jeet Heer for taking the time to compile these comics and share them with the world.

A Contract with God and Other Stories by Will Eisner

Considered the first graphic novel, A Contract with God is probably not what most people would expect from a graphic novel. For one, rather than being one overarching story, it is actually four short stories in one. However, the four stories all center the experiences of Jewish New Yorkers, and they cover topics of grief, abusive relationships, growing up, and sexual assault. I would not say these are done with modern sensibilities, and are often employed as a shock device to the audience. Eisner’s goal was to use a graphic medium to tell more serious, literary stories meant for adults, when the common perception was that anything told through comics was for children. It is a strange, sometimes disturbing book, but also interesting and emotionally resonant. It is worth the read if you are prepared to encounter many dark themes.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

What is there even to say about Fun Home that you haven’t already heard? Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her relationship with her father is one of the best known graphic novels ever, and has even been turned into a successful Broadway musical. I first read Fun Home last year, in my queer studies class. Reading it this time around, specifically for class on comics, I was able to appreciate Bechdel’s use of the medium more. There is also just the fact that every page is so incredibly dense with references and details that it is the kind of book where every time you read it you get something new. I certainly caught a lot more allusions and literary devices this time around. It really is a remarkable book, and one of the greatest graphic novels ever.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Upon first reading American Born Chinese, I liked it well enough because I thought I understood exactly the themes it was trying to convey, but after discussing it in class I came away with a much more mixed opinion. American Born Chinese has three storylines, one of the Monkey King, who desperately seeks to be recognized as a god when the other gods won’t accept him despite his great power, one of Jin, a Chinese-American kid who navigates middle school, and one of Danny (a white boy) who is constantly embarrassed by his cousin Chin-Kee (who embodies every horrible Asian stereotype ever). It is a very strange book, and not one I was super invested in the story for, but I appreciated the themes. But like I said, it turns out there were a lot of “Christianity is best” themes I did not catch while reading, and once I started thinking about it more, it generally placed blame/responsibility on the person experiencing racism for not being able to get over it rather than the systemic racism or even the people perpetuating the racism. I think when we had less Asian-American representation it was a big deal, but not necessarily something I would recommend above other things on this list.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Good Talk, but I was absolutely blown away. It is subtitled “a memoir in conversations,” which it is, but it is also largely a commentary on race and life in American over the last thirty years. Jacob covers her own life as a child of immigrants and an Indian woman, including dating, living in New York during 9/11, the ways her and her Jewish husband navigate conversations about race with their son, and her experience taking care of her parents. Jacob ingeniously uses a combination of drawings and images to craft her story, which is incredibly emotionally resonant. I don’t really have a good way to describe it, but I would say if there is one book on this list you choose to look into, it should be this one.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

Rating memoirs is always difficult, I think the thing that is difficult about Gender Queer is that it is trying to be both a memoir and an intro to non-binary identities for cis people and a guide for young non-binary or genderqueer people, but that is a tall order and I don’t think it was able to do all of those things effectively. I believe that Kobabe truthfully spoke eir story; there are some truly emotional moments e pretty effectively conveys with eir art. However, I think the other two points were not well executed. There are certainly some points of this book which I think would be really helpful to cis readers, but I think there are other parts that would alienate them. Similarly, I think if you are aiming this book towards young people, there are pieces of it that require more nuance and attention. There are just things that I am sure are true to Kobabe’s experience, but which needed more explicit guidance attached to them if the book is supposed to be a guide. Ultimately, some genderqueer people will ultimately find it really relatable, and that is great! But it isn’t going to be relatable to everyone, which is also totally fine, we just need more books with nonbinary and genderqueer experiences.

Let There be Light by Liana Finck

Let There be Light is the book on this list I was probably most skeptical about, because the pitch is that it is a re-telling of the book of Genesis where God is a woman. But Liana Finck is so incredibly clever and funny. Her voice is fresh and feminist, and she offers a distinctly Jewish perspective. I think it would be so easy to have a girlboss take on “God is a woman” but I promise that is not what this is at all. Rather than reading Genesis as a set of rules and something to be taken literally, she sees it as a series of stories to be played with and critiqued just like any other stories could be. Her drawings and presentations of the stories are so creative and nothing like I would have expected. I love that I was introduced to it, and I definitely recommend it.

An image of blue flowers on a white background.

All in all, it turned out to be really interesting to take a class on comics and graphic novels and look at them from a new perspective. If you want to read something as a base education of graphic novels, I would definitely recommend Fun Home (or Maus which is not in this post but obviously a big one). But if you want to read something that is different and maybe even more experimental, I would recommend Good Talk and Let There be Light.

What are your favorite diverse graphic novels? Are there any you are looking forward to reading? Did any of the ones on this list sound interesting? Let me know in the comments!

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