Graphic Nonfiction for Adults

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Graphic titles cover a much broader spectrum than just fantasy-themed fiction. In fact, nonfiction comics and graphic novels have been around for at least a century.

According to Richard Graham, in his book Government Issue: Comics for the People, 1940s-2000s, the U.S. government started using comics for propaganda purposes during WWI — at that time mostly using single-panel cartoons. During WWII, government-issue comics were mostly intended for the military, covering topics from how to recognize Japanese spies in Asian countries, to how to keep military vehicles in operating condition, to how to avoid getting sick with malaria. Comics creators Milt Caniff, Will Eisner, the cartooning staff at Walt Disney’s studios, and many more wrote and drew nonfiction comics.

Why this format? Nonfiction comics have a robust legacy. A 1942 study by the Advertising Research Foundation stated that among adult readers, comic strips were the most widely read non-advertisement content in newspapers. The military, government agencies (such as the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service), and many others have used comics to help spread information that they want more people to consume.

More recently, commercial publishers have published a wide array of informational nonfiction graphic novels: adaptations of official government reports (The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon); a hilariously-illustrated Terms and Conditions of Apple iTunes by R. Sikoryak; a quietly gut-wrenching account of a political kidnapping in the Caucasus (Hostage by Guy Delisle); and just about everything in between. Nonfiction graphic novels run the gamut: from personal memoirs, to travelogues, true crime, science, religion, and philosophy. Name the subject, and there’s probably a nonfiction graphic novel about it.

Here are some other titles and authors of note:

- Scottish writer Sean Michael Wilson lives and works in Japan. He’s written a graphic biography of Musashi Miyamoto, histories of the ninja, the arrival of the American “black ships” in Japan and their impact on the country, and more.

- NBM Publishing has done a lot of impressionistic graphic biographies of creative performers, including Elvis, Glenn Gould, and Billie Holiday.

- SelfMadeHero has published graphic biographies of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Salvador Dali.

- Lucy Knisley has written and drawn a number of memoirs, ranging from travelogues such as Age of License: A Travelogue, to musings about her wedding and the state of marriage in the US, in Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride.

- In Dark Night: A True Batman Story, Batman comics writer (and creator of Harley Quinn) Paul Dini wrote a memoir of the time he suffered a horrific assault. Comics writer Dean Trippe wrote his book, Something Terrible, about how Michael Keaton’s Batman helped him finally come to terms with the childhood sexual abuse he suffered.

Personally, I love reading graphic nonfiction, and not just because I think it's a cool medium. The visual nature of graphic novels lends itself beautifully to the succinct presentation of information. I have often used the example of the fold-out pages from The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation that depict the timelines of the four doomed flights in different graphic novel workshops and presentations. By showing the progress of all four flights on the same page, the book helps the reader understand the timeline without having to wade through so many pages of text. Another example: in Hostage, Guy Delisle depicts the three-month-long ordeal of Christophe Andre with art that masterfully makes the reader feel Andre’s increasing despair in his isolation.

R. Sikoryak pays homage to many comic strips, comic books, and their artists by using a different style for each page in his word-for-word transcription of iTunes’ Terms and Conditions. Upon reading through this book and recognizing most of the comic strips or series, I turned to the index and found that Sikoryak actually used specific strips and comics pages. Never before have I read the entire Terms and Conditions for anything. Doubters may have the same experience if they pick up his book.

I have compiled a Bibz list of mostly Adult graphic nonfiction from the past decade or so (Note: Brodart rates most of the graphic nonfiction by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon for teens); the wide range of subjects still amazes me. I haven’t read all the books on the list (there are more than 300 titles), but now I want to do so. Whether your interests or those of your adult patrons lie in memoirs, medical problems, science, history, or biographies, you will find something of interest here. You may be surprised to discover just how rich and varied graphic nonfiction can be.