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Posted at 03:01 PM ET, 08/17/2010

THE UNEXPENDABLES: Five picks for your Summer Reading List

Perhaps there's something notably nostalgic in the summer air -- what with Sylvester Stallone and crew rolling back the decades at the box office -- because as I pore over my August reading list, I find myself drawn to cartoonist memoirs and classic graphic novels. In short, works that remain the furthest thing from expendable.

This summer has brought such wonderful new graphic novels as "Greendale" and "War Is Boring," yet reading them has only spurred my thirst to revisit such greats as the war reporter Joe Sacco and the fantastical storyteller that is Neil Gaiman. And even recent memoirs that hark back to the heart of the past century suddenly beckon a second read.

So with the smell of fresh-cut grass in the olfactories, making summer still feel like the green Dream of youth, here are five cartoon-related books that Comic Riffs is re-reading in recent days. And as we ruminate some over these old friends, we invite you to share: What are you reading this summer that stirs the senses?


1. "A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories"

Why not return to the source? Years after "The Spirit," of course, the mighty Will Eisner summoned his powers to create one of the most important and influential graphic novels. The 1978 release in the Dropsie Avenue Trilogy is set in a Depression-era Bronx tenement, and the great man's magic is on full display, from the oppressive "eisner-spritz" to the faces that convey agenda and motive and sin with utter fluency and fluidity. And the sepia tones only heighten the transcendent sense of nostalgia. Reams have been written about this legendary work, so suffice here to say: Revisiting this work only inspires anew -- and the book's final story, "Cookalein" (about "a summer getaway for Jews"), with all its stoked hopes and hot desperate passions, is as deliciously sticky as August itself.

2. "Jules Feiffer: Backing Into Forward"

The Pulitzer-winning legend's moving memoir came out just earlier this year, but somehow, coming-of-age stories from Eisner's former teen apprentice make the perfect bookend to "Contract With God." Jules Feiffer tells of being born in 1929 in the East Bronx, which "I'm told was a fine place to be if you were a different kind of poor Jewish boy than I was," he writes. The future Village Voice fixture recalls his father's failed businesses, his bitter and bullying mother's work creating fashion sketches -- and his own general discomfort with life as he soon craved fame. Writes Feiffer: "I felt ill at ease from birth. I hid in my sleep. I hid in my dreams. I revealed myself only in comics." Fortunately, he also reveals himself poignantly in this superbly engaging memoir.

3. "The Sandman" collection

It's sometimes hard to believe that it's been a full two decades since comics "rock god" Neil Gaiman first rocked the world with the dawn of his legendary "The Sandman" series. And I find myself revisiting the tales and travels of Dream every summer, if only to refresh my sense of its epic greatness. This summer, I've particularly been re-examining "The Doll's House" and "Preludes and Nocturnes" -- especially the connections regarding Desire. And I'm dazzled anew by the story "Three Septembers and a January" -- the "mostly true" biography of the United States's last and only emperor (Norton). Born in California, I was weaned on 19th-century San Francisco tales of Twain and Bret Harte and Emperor Norton, and Gaiman's gift for bio-invention remains beguilingly masterful.

4. "Palestine"

As cartoonists Ted Rall and Matt Bors (traveling, too, with Steven Cloud) wend their way through Afghanistan this month to tell "the people's story," they both namechecked to Comic Riffs that preeminent name of war reporting by cartoon journalists, Joe Sacco. And the Rall-Bors-Cloud mission seems most directly inspired by Sacco's first opus, "Palestine," for which nearly two decades ago, the artist trekked through the occupied territories to focus on the small details of the everyday Palestinian's life. Sacco's keen eye for observation matches his deft hand for conveying those telling details. Sacco recently told the Los Angeles Times that it just might be time to hang up his war journalist's press credentials. For us, that's all the more reason to revisit this 1996 American Book Award winner and appreciate Sacco's bravery and brilliance.

5. "Stitches: A Memoir"

David Small's best-selling memoir is only a year old, but this National Book Award finalist is so rich in "Mad Men"-era images of mammoth cars and clinking Manhattans and ever-menacing secondhand smoke (at the time seeming as relatively innocuous as exposure to all that X-ray radiation from Small's doctor dad), it felt instantly nostalgic. One summer after it first won rave reviews, "Stitches" is due out soon in paperback, so it seems the perfect time to revisit this near-perfect work. Small continually shifts size and scope and angle with the high art of a master cinematographer, and "Stitches" is never less than graphically riveting. And when Small offers a tight shot of his "bloody boot" scar on Page 190 -- about two-thirds into the book -- it's a visual revelation. This summer, still, I can't look away -- or cease reading.

By  |  03:01 PM ET, 08/17/2010

Categories:  This Riffster's Reading List | Tags:  David Small, Joe Sacco, Jules Feiffer, Neil Gaiman, Will Eisner

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