Four must-read, critically acclaimed graphic novels

I spent most of my early reading life diving into thick volumes of prose, devouring everything from Little Women to Anna Karenina. Apart from some early obsessions with Archie comics and Mad Magazine (the latter stolen from my brother’s room, to be returned before he could notice), I thought of the two worlds of reading as separate. It wasn’t until I read Art Spiegelman’s Maus sometime around middle school that it finally hit me: comics, like straight prose, could catapult me into other worlds, shake up my emotional and mental states, and transform me.

I’ve come to appreciate comics and graphic novels as a different kind of reading experience, equally absorbing but a little bit sloppier, more carefree. It’s not always clear what to read first—the words or the images, if you can even tease these out—and it’s not even always obvious in what order you’re supposed to read panels on the page. Reading comics, you come to learn how to slow down, because the longer you look, the more you see.

In light of this Year of Reading Women, I offer you four cartoonists whose books will compel you to slow down. These cartoonists, though at different career stages, are nevertheless all influencing the landscape of literature and the arts through their groundbreaking works.

One BellGabrielle Bell

Bell is a well-known force in the autobiographical cartooning world, though her comics have spanned everything from everyday slice-of-life observations to surreal and sometimes eerie fictional storytelling. In her 2009 book of short comics stories, Cecil and Jordan in New York, the young woman in the title story one day transforms herself into a chair. Another beautifully rendered piece, “One Afternoon,” is Bell’s subtly executed, slow-paced version of a moving Kate Chopin story. More recently, her full-colored, gorgeous volume, The Voyeurs, published in 2012, tracks the narrator’s fecund imagination and nimble, steady eye as it is depicted in often-crowded, always carefully-rendered boxed-in drawings. Her newest book, Truth is Fragmentary: Diaries and Travelogues, comes out this spring from Uncivilized Books.

Two LustUlli Lust

Lust is an Austrian cartoonist who was introduced to the English-speaking world when her first graphic novel, Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, was translated into English and published in 2013 by Fantagraphics Books. The book is a 400-plus-page travelogue of Lust’s time travelling through Austria and Italy as a 17-year-old. The scratchy, expressive drawing style powerfully conveys the confusion and excitement of a teenager’s often-frightening adventure to discover herself as she mines her way through dangerous encounters with lusty, ogling men and a disturbed fellow-traveler with a confusing sense of friendship. This powerful memoir will take you into the depths of a troubling, bumbling late adolescence.

Three FinckLiana Finck

Finck’s first graphic novel, A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, was published in April by Ecco and has already received enthusiastic reviews on NPR‘s Fresh Air and The Paris Review‘s online blog. In this slim volume, she brings to life letters written to the Yiddish daily newspaper, The Forward, in the early 20th century, visualizing the aches and woes of immigrant tenement life. Finck’s distinctive drawing style is hard to pin down, as it shifts between letters to suit the letter writer’s voice, but her characters often recall the emotional depth and mystery of illustrator Edward Gorey’s tall, shadowy figures and landscapes.

Four KnisleyLucy Knisley

Knisley has already established a colorful, buoyant style, laid out in two published books and also apparent on her web comic series, Stop Paying Attention. Her travel journal, French Milk, published in 2007, is a decidedly more cheerful account of travelling than Lust’s, and in it she recounts a visit she had to see her mother in Paris when she was in her early 20s and her mother was about to turn 50. In her 2013 full-color food memoir, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Knisley delightfully tracks her family’s interest in food and the food-related interactions that have shaped her life until now. Her lighthearted and cartoonish drawings reflect an artist fastidiously bent on tethering a connection between past and present, and particularly childhood and adulthood sensibilities.