You start with one school day in 1970s Omaha, and a universe of quotidian tragedies expands from there. Interlocking narratives bring preteen social rejects, high school bullies, and teachers of varying levels of honor from youth to maturity and beyond. And all in the unmistakable style of Chris Ware: graphic panels to be read with the same care as the greatest traditional prose, exploding the depicted mundanities into cubist journeys toward the past, the future, and the imagination. (See the throwback Martian sci-fi narrative in the middle of the book for just one example.) Few comics artists command Ware’s widespread respect, from audiences with only glancing interest in the form to those most steeped in its history as both “low” and “high” art. Rusty Brown (Pantheon, $35) is the first volume of a magnum opus, compiling pieces Ware has been slowly releasing since first beginning the project in 2001, immediately following publication of his breakthrough Jimmy Corrigan. That protracted timespan sits profoundly on each page, where every frame, whether immense or miniature, feels like a home — maybe not the home his characters would always want, but the one they’ve come to accept for themselves all the same.
In an almost unimaginably tumultuous political time—when politics invades every moment of our private and public lives—the most politically searing book of 2019 was a graphic memoir. If you have awake, compassionate people in your life (and if they aren’t—why are you buying presents for them?!) give them Mira Jacob’s Good Talk (One World, $30). When her young biracial son started asking difficult questions during the 2016 election cycle (“are white people afraid of brown people?”) Jacob needed a new language to try to answer some unanswerable questions and this uniquely intimate but universal document of drawings, conversational snippets, and challenging dialogues was forged.
Comics artist and teacher Lynda Barry states that “everything good in my life came because I drew a picture.” Barry has created many books (The Greatest of Marlys and One! Hundred! Demons!), and teaches creativity, writing, and comics classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and at workshops around the country. And she invites you to take a creative journey in her new book of writing and drawing exercises, Making Comics (Drawn & Quarterly, $22.95). Ms. Barry stresses simple tools: composition books (which is the format Making Comics is written in), index cards, and a few markers and pencils. She’s a believer in keeping hands moving to see “what shows up” by transforming scribbles into monsters, or creating superhero self-portraits. The timed exercises (“put on a 3-minute pop song”) can “open doors and windows.” Making Comics is inspiring for all ages, and Ms. Barry shows examples of youngsters who all “speak image…this language moves up through your hand into your head. Young children are native speakers.” Still feeling trepidatious? Buy the book, and look at her bountiful website (thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com) to see the fun prompts and inspired results by Lynda and the class participants. Then jump in! (Ms. Barry recently received one of the 2019 MacArthur Fellow “genius” grants.)