Oprah.com hails WHAT IT IS and BIG QUESTIONS as top two on list of graphic novels readers will love

5 graphic novels you'll love

Oprah.com    |    Leigh Newman and Abbe Wright    |    January 13, 2012

(Oprah.com) -- Like most of us, you've probably heard of graphic novels -- but haven't read too many. Here are four new titles[...]that make you think, feel and daydream just like any other book.

What It Is

One of the most moving and emotionally direct forms of the whole graphic genre is the memoir -- in part because it allows for all kinds of inventive approaches to telling life stories, such as using the drawings to show how people look and feel to the writer (a huge, tall, monstery dad, for example). It also helps to have thoughtful, deeply poignant writing, which is exactly what you'll find in Lynda Barry's "What It Is." This memoir of a young artist came out in 2008, but it's the one to start with if you've never read a graphic book before. (Note: Graphic novels can be novels, memoirs, biographies or anything in between.)

Barry uses text, drawings and even collages to re-create her violent, TV-saturated childhood, describing how she used art as her way out of the trailer park. "We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality," she says. "We create it to be able to stay." Discouraged at every turn by her parents and teachers, she grew into an adult who felt that she had little to say creatively and, further, that she couldn't say that little well enough. That is, until she rediscovered an imaginary game from childhood, one that required her simply to sit very still in the corner of a room and wait for inanimate objects (say, the pattern on the wallpaper) to come "alive" and move. The magic of that moment and of all Barry's self-examinations is that her ideas apply to just about everybody. We've all had those moments when we think we're not good enough or original enough. Her transformation belongs to all of us.

Big Questions

"Big Questions" is just what a novel should be, if by novel we mean a very long story that creates an entire imaginary universe that involves us so deeply that we begin to think of ourselves as characters within it. The book is 585 pages long (not including appendixes), a number that might seem overwhelming in a traditional format. In this case, you'll finish in two days, not only because graphic novels contain a lot less text but also because you'll race through the first time, desperate to figure out the big stuff, only to turn around and reread it in order to figure out all the little stuff you missed.

The story takes place in an anonymous bucolic countryside (trees, fields, the occasional house) and follows a flock of birds, each with its own personality and philosophical struggles, from questioning the monotony of a seed diet to wondering about the true perils of snakes to considering "to what extent are we responsible for the fulfillment of our destinies?" Life goes on in this manner -- think, peck, think, peck -- until an undetonated bomb drops into their lives, a bomb that many (but not all) in the flock believe is a long, warm metal egg that may contain a savior baby bird. The hilarity and discord that result will astonish you, as will the pathos.

Some of the most poignant scenes concern two humans -- an elderly caretaker and her mentally disabled grandson or son -- who are watched by the birds. Nilsen's artwork here needs no words. The endless labor of the old woman -- firewood, dishes, scrub the floor, soak the dentures, weep in secret -- is drawn into brutal reality, as is her unexpected beauty. The six-panel homage to her brushing the long, young-looking hair you never knew she had (it's usually tied in a bun) is, like the rest of the book, an unforgettable visual and emotional experience.

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