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Graphic novels

Originally published in the Ketchikan Daily News, January 2010; written by Kelly Johnson.

Everyone, I believe, has a genre of book they enjoy – mystery, romance, historical, whatever – I enjoy most genres myself. However, I also enjoy a different format of book – no, not audio books – graphic novels. There are quite a few folks who dismiss graphic novels out of hand as ‘picture books’, unworthy of their time. But graphic novels have grown up in many ways over the last few years and more and more there are stories being told in this format that should not be dismissed by anyone.

For example, I just finished The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders by Didier Lefevre (the photographer of the title), Emmanuel Guibert (who wrote out the story and drew the illustrations that accompany the photos), Frederic Lemercier (who did the layout and coloring), and Alexis Siegel (who translated the work from the original French). The story takes place in 1986 and is told by the photographer Didier Lefevre, he joins a MSF team (Medecins Sans Frontieres – the French Doctors without Borders group) as they travel into Afghanistan to create a hospital and staff one that had been set up earlier. The team knew it not only had to avoid Soviet forces that were currently in the area, but they also had to steer clear of the different groups of Afghan resistance fighters.

The group was led by Dr. Juliette Fournot a young French woman who had spent her teen years in Afghanistan. Others are introduced by first name and occupation only – including John ‘a surgeon’, Robert ‘a doctor’, Regis ‘a nurse-anesthesiologist’, and Mahmad ‘guide and interpreter’. Lefevre is equipped with local clothing as the group gathers supplies and readies for the nearly month long trek into Afghanistan. Organizing the expedition is complex and all factions and groups participating or involved must be appeased before they can even start their travels.

Once on the path to Afghanistan the trip becomes even more stressful as the team must often break up into smaller groups and travel at night to evade the Soviets and warring local factions. However, once they arrive it takes less than 24 hours for the locals to begin arriving for medical care. In this portion of the book are the most powerful photographs/images and the most harrowing stories, those of people who have been in the midst of war for nearly all of their lives. When Lefevre decides to travel back with only a small group instead of with the MSF group things go from bad to worse, but the story is riveting to the very end.

The ‘Portraits’ section at the back of the books is a nice touch to wrap up some of the stories that are left open in the book itself – but these are stories of war, so don’t be looking for happy endings.

The Photographer certainly takes the graphic novel to another level with its mix of film and drawn images, but it is the story itself that makes to book so memorable. The authors touch is given extra layers in these books by the addition of images. And The Photographer is not the only non-fiction graphic novel on the library’s shelves – you can also find excellent works like Nelson Mandela; the Authorized Comic Book by the Nelson Mandela Foundation with Umlando Wezithombe or Stitches; a Memoir by David Small.

If you prefer your graphic novels fictional the amazing Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (recently reviewed not only by Comic Journal and Powells Books, but also by the New York Times!) is a wonderful reading experience; Mr. Mazzucchelli truly uses the images of the graphic novel format to tell the story just as much as his words.

Or if you like your graphic novels ‘classic’ look for Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow – a Superman tale by Alan Moore or Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader – a Batman story collection by Neil Gaiman. These returns to well loved ‘comic book heroes’ are not only well written, but also excellently drawn – true works of art, just as great graphic novels should be rendered.

So take a moment to browse this amazing – and growing – collection of books that are told not only in words, but also in image and discover the wonderful world of graphic novels. Good Reading!

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