Five eye-catching graphic novels that define the genre

Michael via Flickr, CC BY-SA

David Brauner, University of Reading

For someone who teaches about the graphic novel, compiling an all-time top five list is challenging. It’s not just the way that such a list is compiled, making agonising decisions over which favourites to exclude, but also because it raises tricky questions of definition. That the term refers not just to fiction but to life-writing, as in all manner of memoirs, diaries and so on, is accepted – but beyond that there is little consensus.

If there are multiple volumes (as with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman or the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets series), should the whole series be counted as one epic graphic novel, or should only individual volumes be eligible?

And what about a book like Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl(2002), which tells the story of an authorial alter-ego, Minnie, through a combination of prose diary entries, illustrations with captions, comic-strip narratives, letters, poems and photographs? Or Joe Sacco’s comic-strip documentary journalism?

I’ve chosen five books that I (and many others) regard as central to the graphic novel canon. They are all richly textured, powerful, nuanced books that are immediately arresting but also reward repeated re-reading.

1. Watchmen (1987)

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen works on so many levels – it is, among other things, a whodunnit, a love story, a commentary on Cold War politics and an exploration of fundamental philosophical and ethical questions.


Watchmen is an homage to – and a deconstruction of – the classic superhero comic-strip narrative, which in turn has inspired numerous subsequent revisions of the genre, from Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) to the Marvel Comics (and later MCU’s) Avengers civil war storyline.

Shifting points of view, disrupting chronology, layering texts within texts, Watchmen is a hugely ambitious narrative that discloses new details with every fresh reading. It’s also a real page-turner.

2. Maus (1991)

Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece, Maus, probably did more than any other graphic novel to make readers and critics take this genre seriously.

A Holocaust tale with a twist.
Google Books

It’s the story of the author’s father, Vladek, who survived Auschwitz, as well as the story of Spiegelman’s relationship with him. Controversially representing Jews as anthropomorphised mice, preyed upon by German cat-people and often betrayed by Polish pig-people, Maus nevertheless resists stereotypes. The novel represents both its author and his father as flawed, complex individuals who struggle in different ways to deal with the legacy of a trauma that makes itself felt in every aspect of their lives.

3. Ghost World (1997)

Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World is the shortest – and at first glance the most straightforward – of my choices. It’s a bittersweet tale of the friendship, and gradual estrangement, of recent high-school graduates Enid and Becky.

Coming of age story.

Cynical and vulnerable, with a sardonic sense of humour and a nostalgic streak, Enid is, in part, a portrait of the artist as a young girl grappling with her sexuality, ethnicity and her conflicting expectations of herself.

But Ghost World is also a powerful evocation of what it is like to drift, ghost-like, through a nondescript, soulless urban environment that is itself ghostly. Full of quirky characters and memorable images, Ghost World manages, paradoxically, to represent boredom and ennui vividly and entertainingly.

4. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (2000)

Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan was the first graphic novel to be awarded major literary prizes on both sides of the Atlantic – the American Book Award and The Guardian First Book Award.

First graphic novel to win major literary prizes.

Like Watchmen, Jimmy Corrigan has a complex, non-linear structure and subverts conventional notions of (super)heroism. Like Maus, it is a book about fathers and sons; and like Ghost World, it has a protagonist who is drifting aimlessly through life, alienated from the world around him.

Yet it is visually and formally more radical than any of the other books on this list. Chris Ware’s dark palette and landscape format and his use of diagrams, instructions and definitions make the book, as an object and text, highly unusual. In terms of narrative, too, Ware is a great innovator – the absence of exposition and page numbering, the abrupt transitions between a historical narrative focusing on Jimmy’s grandfather and the present-day narrative focusing on Jimmy, the use of surreal dream sequences and the disruption of conventional panel sequencing all make Jimmy Corrigan challenging.

But it’s well worth the effort. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking story that has been much imitated but never bettered.

5. Fun Home (2006)

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a self-consciously literary coming of age novel that pays homage to James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, among others.

Graphic novel became a musical.

It is a moving memoir about the author’s relationship with her father, whose queer sexuality finds an echo in her lesbianism, and whose (possible) suicide haunts the book.

Adapted as an award-winning musical, Fun Home reached an audience that might never have encountered the bestselling graphic novel. Yet while Fun Home the musical is fun, just like the film adaptations of Watchmen and Ghost World, it can’t quite do justice to the complexity of the original.

Read more:
Guilty Pleasures: an English literature professor’s secret stash of graphic novels

What I hope a reading of these titles will demonstrate to any newcomers is that these are not just great graphic novels but great works of art. The term graphic novel was initially deployed in order to confer intellectual credibility on what had been previously seen as a trivial form of entertainment aimed primarily at children. But the works listed above rival anything done in the novel form over the same period – some of the most innovative and exciting work in fiction and life-writing is being done right now in the graphic novel form.The Conversation

David Brauner, Professor of Contemporary Literature, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Secrets and scandals: where Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir fits in the rich history of prime ministerial books

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Joshua Black, Australian National University

Landing in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it may seem strange former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir has generated so much political controversy.

Turnbull has been accused of hypocrisy and championing socialism, and has been threatened with expulsion from the Liberal Party.

Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on his autobiography, ‘A Bigger Picture’

In A Bigger Picture, Turnbull deals candidly with his antagonists inside the Coalition, who fought him bitterly on the same-sex marriage reform and climate policy. Similarly, he names and shames those he blames for the leadership insurgency of August 2018. All of this was expected, but none of it must please the current government.

But is the book any more inflammatory than previous prime ministerial memoirs?

Political controversy is a trademark of political memoir publishing in Australia. A Bigger Picture is just another page in that story.

Until the 1960s, prime ministerial memoirs were the exception, not the rule. Between 1945 and 1990, just three former prime ministers chose to publish books about their political lives. Two of them – Billy Hughes and Robert Menzies – produced two books each, and both political veterans sought to avoid “telling tales out of school”. Both seemed more interested in foreign affairs, particularly our imperial relationship to the UK in the case of Menzies.

The dismissal of the Whitlam government provoked both Sir John Kerr and Gough Whitlam to publish their memoirs. After reading extracts of Kerr’s Matters for Judgement, Whitlam decided to “set the record straight immediately” by writing The Truth of the Matter. His second book, The Whitlam Government, was also designed to make a political splash. Promising to explain the “development and implementation” of his policy program, the book was timed for release on the tenth anniversary of the dismissal itself, ensuring maximum publicity.

Since then, political controversy has accompanied prime ministerial memoirs, in part because incumbent political parties and leaders have had a vested interest in how these books might affect their popularity.

In his 1994 political memoir, Bob Hawke accused his rival and successor, Paul Keating, of calling Australia “the arse-end of the world” during an argument about the Labor leadership. Further, Hawke accused Keating of failing to support Australia’s involvement in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Keating, who was attacked in parliament in October 1994 over the claims, called both allegations “lies”. Hawke offered to take a lie-detector test to prove his sincerity. Senior ALP figures recorded their outrage at Hawke’s memoir. But Hawke hit back, describing them as “precious self-appointed guardians of proper behaviour”.

Hawke’s predecessor also damaged his relationship with his own party in the process of publishing his memoirs. Malcolm Fraser’s Political Memoirs, written with journalist Margaret Simons, was recognised as one of Australia’s top ten books of 2010. His outspokenness – in the book and in his post-prime-ministerial life more generally – earned him many attacks from Coalition MPs.

John Howard handled the politics of his memoirs better than most politicians. Though the book was antagonistic toward his former treasurer, Peter Costello, Howard promised to “deal objectively” with events and relationships in Lazarus Rising. Ever the party stalwart, Howard and his publishers re-issued the book after the 2013 election with a new chapter that touted Tony Abbott’s “high intelligence, discipline […] good people skills”.

Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard both publicly took aim at one another in their memoirs, which made for plenty of media fodder. In My Story, Gillard described Rudd’s leadership as a descent into “paralysis and misery”. Rudd returned fire, calling her book her “latest contribution to Australian fiction”. However, he was unable to dent the book’s commercial success.

Four years later, Rudd in The PM Years accused Gillard of plotting “with the faceless men” to become prime minister. In a bid to patch over the historic rifts, he subsequently promised the Labor Party’s 2018 National Conference that the “time for healing” had come.

Critics of Turnbull’s book – such as Sky News’ Andrew Bolt and 2GB’s Ben Fordham – have argued that he and his publishers, Hardie Grant, were wrong to “betray confidences” and divulge “private conversations”.

In reality, political memoirs have always pushed against conventions of political secrecy. In the 1970s, British cabinet minister Richard Crossman published his Diaries, which included detailed descriptions of how cabinet functioned. The British establishment subsequently conducted the Radcliffe review into political memoirs and diaries. It found such material should be kept secret for 15 years, but that civil servants could do little to stop their political masters from publishing.

In 1999, Australia’s Neal Blewett was warned that publishing his A Cabinet Diary, recorded seven years earlier, could lead to prosecution under the Crimes Act because it revealed confidential cabinet discussions. Calling the public service’s bluff, Blewett published anyway. He explained in the book that “a few egos will be bruised, but cabinet ministers are a robust lot”. His diary shed significant light on the trials and tribulations of a ministerial life.

Since then, countless MPs and ministers have published books that claim to accurately represent personal conversations, some based on private notes (as Costello claimed in his memoirs), others on diary entries (as is the case in Turnbull’s book). In recent years, politicians have reproduced text messages and email exchanges in their books, as Bob Carr did in his 2014 book, Diary of a Foreign Minister. In each version of history, the author is the essential policymaker.

Read more:
View from The Hill: Malcolm Turnbull gives his very on-the-record account of Scott Morrison

In his book, Turnbull reveals private conversations and WhatsApp exchanges with colleagues, world leaders, public servants and more. His accounts of cabinet discussions are hardly ground-breaking: cabinet debates about the economy and national security under the Abbott government, for instance, were thoroughly detailed in Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin, while the acrimonious debates about energy policy, same-sex marriage and home affairs inside the Turnbull government were laid bare in David Crowe’s Venom. Similarly, Turnbull’s criticisms of News Corporation’s biased reporting have been aired elsewhere, and stop short of Rudd’s argument in The PM Years that Rupert Murdoch should be the subject of a royal commission.

Turnbull’s book is another addition to the history of incendiary political memoir publishing in Australia. Political parties and their media associates have confirmed once again that a successful parliamentary memoir requires deft political management.

Ultimately, A Bigger Picture is not the compendium of revelations that some may perceive. Instead, it is another picture of politics in which “character” and “leadership” reign supreme at the expense of all other political forces.The Conversation

Joshua Black, PhD Candidate, School of History, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.