Think graphic novels aren’t for you? These books will change your mind

Detail of an illustration from Men I Trust by Tommi Parrish - Scribe
Detail of an illustration from Men I Trust by Tommi Parrish - Scribe

I’ve never been to a cinema, and don’t plan to go. I saw a couple of moving pictures at school – that Lumière brothers flick of a train emerging from a tunnel is quite impressive, in its way – but a film isn’t art or literature in the way a painting or novel is. Besides, most movies these days seem to be about superheroes, and at 29 I’m too old for that nonsense. It isn’t for me.

I’m pulling your leg, of course – I was at the cinema this week. But if I had meant all that, how would you change my mind? It would be as hard as convincing most people to pick up a graphic novel, where the same arguments apply.
Comics are still seen as the preserve of spotty teens. It’s a rare pigeon that escapes the pigeonhole: Maus (1991), Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning study of his father’s experiences in the Holocaust, took wing in this way, as did Marjane Satrapi’s Iranian revolution memoir Persepolis (2000). But when Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1987) was named one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest novels of all time, it probably repelled as many casual readers as it won over: Moore’s subversive critique of superhero comics was really aimed at fans already obsessed with Superman.

A better introduction, for anyone tempted to dip their toe into an artform as rich and varied as any other, would be Lizzy Stewart’s beautiful new novel Alison (Serpent’s Tail, £18.99). It’s closer to, say, Anne Tyler than to Alan Moore, and a highlight of a new wave of auteur comics, often memoir or slice-of-life fiction, each written and painstakingly illustrated by one person.

Born in 1958 in Dorset, the titular Alison leaves her home and marriage at 20 for an affair with the rogueish Patrick Kerr RA, a Lucian Freud-like London painter more than twice her age. A lesser writer would turn this into an attack on toxic male artists; Stewart is more subtle and sympathetic than that. We follow Alison across several decades. Careers are made and ­forgotten, friends die or drift away. Alison’s life, like everyone’s, resists glib summaries.

Some pages look like conventional comic strips – half-a-dozen panels with speech bubbles. But on others, shopping lists, letters, life drawings, Polaroids and tickets appear stuck to the page with yellowing Sellotape, in a kind of trompe l’oeil: the scrapbook of a life.

Two pages from Alison by Lizzy Stewart - Serpent's Tail
Two pages from Alison by Lizzy Stewart - Serpent's Tail

Colour is used sparingly. Stewart’s figures are thin inked lines on a background of grisaille watercolours – a simple outline hovering over ambiguous, cloudy depths, much like her prose. Here, on the first page, is Alison describing her brother: “We were almost friends growing up. Almost, but not quite. I think we were happy. We were certainly ordinary, which made us assume that we must be happy.”

Kate Beaton made her name as one of the funniest cartoonists on the internet. Ducks (Jonathan Cape, £25) – almost a decade in the making – sees the Canadian break out of the four-panel-joke format to give a complex account of how she left her beautiful but economically deprived home island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for two gruelling years in Alberta’s oil sands, handing out tools to leering men in hard hats. It’s a story of homesickness, kindness, boredom and ordinary people reduced to their basest impulses by a brutal industry. Ducks moves into dark territory – including sexual assault – but Beaton, like Stewart, balances light and shade. No place or person is wholly good or bad, not even the oil sands with their dark satanic drills.

Kate Beaton's Ducks - Jonathan Cape
Kate Beaton's Ducks - Jonathan Cape

Like Beaton, Emily McGovern is best known for one-joke-per-strip web cartoons, but has now written a wonderfully funny full-length novel. The usual compliment paid to graphic novels is to say they could work in no other medium. That’s untrue here: Twelve Percent Dread (Picador, £20) would make a brilliant sitcom. Following a young woman who lies her way into a tutoring job for a tech billionaire’s daughter, it’s a warm but cutting satire on precarious 21st-century living, with swipes at London’s housing crisis (characters sublet half a bed), millennial pretensions, Gen X’s borrowed nostalgia and the pernicious effects of social media. Her protagonists may be flat cartoons with dots for eyes, but I found them more believable than many people I’ve actually met.

Emily McGovern's Twelve Percent Dread - Picador
Emily McGovern's Twelve Percent Dread - Picador

These characters are all longing for something more from life, without being sure what that something is. The same is true for the mostly middle-aged students in Acting Class (Granta, £20) by Nick Drnaso, whose Sabrina (2018) remains the only graphic novel ever to make the Booker longlist. Here, characters in a performance class find themselves losing their grip on reality. Its flat visual style and oppressively bland colour scheme – the browns and greys of a failing community centre – suit the Lynchian unease of the story, but muffle its emotional pay-off.

Nick Drnaso's Acting Class - Granta
Nick Drnaso's Acting Class - Granta

To see the form’s full artistic potential, I urge you to try Men I Trust (Fantagraphics, £34.99) by Tommi Parrish, the most visually dazzling graphic novel I’ve read this year. While most stick to pen and ink, here every frame is a painting; the use of colour and line reminds me of Cat With Red Fish-era Matisse.

Men I Trust by Tommi Parrish - Scribe
Men I Trust by Tommi Parrish - Scribe

A young Australian, Parrish worked up to 15 hours a day on this novel for three years without a break. With unflinching psychological realism, it tells the story of a struggling single mother and performance poet who forms an unhealthily close friendship with a fan, in a tale that builds to a harrowing heart-in-mouth climax.

Or, you know, you could just read something about Superman.

To order any of these books at a discounted price, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books