Democracy Dies in Darkness

Comic Riffs | Opinion

7 graphic novels and memoirs you should read this summer

By Michael Cavna

July 12, 2016 at 7:00 AM

“Harley Quinn: A Call to Arms (Vol. 4).” (courtesy of DC Comics 2016)

NOW THAT we're in the month of Comic-Con, the new graphic-novel reading season really heats up. Many of the midyear author tours crank into full gear, and in comes a new wave of quality comics.

With that in mind, here are seven fascinating graphic-narrative books that Comic Riffs recommends for your reading list this summer:

“Dream Jumper.” (courtesy of Scholastic Graphix 2016)

"Dream Jumper"

by Greg Grunberg and Lucas Turnbloom (Scholastic/ Graphix)

This series for middle-grade readers looks like a winner from the get-go. In "Book One: Nightmare Escape" (out this month), young Ben keeps discovering new aspects of his gift, the ability to leap into other people's dreams and help defeat foes within their fraught, REM-state adventures.

Writer-actor Grunberg ("Heroes," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens") and co-creator and artist Turnbloom ("Imagine This") have built such a beautiful launchpad with Book One that a big question seems not whether the series will succeed, but rather how long till Grunberg pal J.J. Abrams (who writes the glowing foreword) options the project for the natural screen adaptation.

Boasting colors so vibrant that I'm reminded of Scholastic's beautiful printing of "Bone," this first "DJ" book will surely catch many young eyes.

The exclusive cover real of “March: Book Three,” due out in August. (courtesy of IDW Publishing / Top Shelf Productions 2016)

"March: Book Three"

by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell (Top Shelf/IDW)

I was so deeply moved within this memoir's first 10 pages that a few fellow train commuters seemed to be staring as I read. "March Book Three" (available Aug. 2) can be gut-wrenching material.

Rep. Lewis completes his award-winning civil-rights trilogy by opening on the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls — and the sense of man's inhumanity to man never lets go. The voter-registration efforts span from Capitol Hill to Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, and many of the key players are featured here.

This work is epic, and Powell's pens and gray washes rise to the historic occasion, which has powerful resonance in a Black Lives Matter era.

“Hot Dog Taste Test.” (courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly 2016)

"Hot Dog Taste Test"

by Lisa Hanawalt (Drawn and Quarterly)

Some artists construct fun-house comics that warmly invite you into their beautifully warped worlds. The eclectic comics are connected not by character or plot, but simply the creator's beguiling viewpoint. And one of the best such cartoonists going today is Lisa Hanawalt, whose resume includes being a character designer for Netflix's "BoJack Horseman," which begins its third season this month.

A couple of years ago, Hanawalt's book "My Dirty Dumb Eyes" made my year-end best-of list, and her new follow-up collection of food/body/social comics, "Hot Dog Taste Test," is even more textured and sharply observed and perfectly, relatably strange. (Her "Menstrual Huts" comic is a slice of highly specific genius.)

Hanawalt does more than make the reader smile; she also, deliciously renders our own damned dirty selves.

Related: [The James Beard Awards love continues for Lisa Hanawalt]

“Ghosts.” (courtesy of Scholastic)

"Ghosts"

by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic)

The hottest-selling YA graphic novelist of the decade ("Smile," "Drama") is one of the best cartoonists around at weaving warm and poignant memoir. Now, Telgemeier spins toward the supernatural, as young Cat and her family, including sick sister Maya, move up the California coast, to a land of fog and specters. (There are numerous nods to Mexican culture and folklore, including Dia de los Muertos.)

Related: [What is next for the ever-popular Raina Telgemeier?]

As a native Californian, I can relate to her apt depictions of the terrain and the visual touchstones. But as a native resident of graphic storytelling, I love seeing Telgemeier move into sharply rendered fantasy adventure. This surefire hit (which arrives in early September) is utterly spellbinding.

“Cousin Joseph.” (courtesy of Liveright/Norton)

"Cousin Joseph"

by Jules Feiffer (Liveright/Norton) 

Last fall, at Baltimore Comic-Con, I was moderating a spotlight session with the legendary cartoonist-playwright-screenwriter Jules Feiffer and asked him about his arc as an artist over nearly nine decades. "I think," Feiffer said with gusto, "I am doing my best work."

By best work, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist was referring to "Kill My Mother," his recent graphic novel that was nominated for an Eisner Award some 70 years after Feiffer was a studio assistant to Will Eisner himself. And what "Mother" represents is Feiffer's full-on embrace of not only the comics of his boyhood (he visually nods to Eisner and Milton Caniff), but also the cinematic crime noir of his young manhood.

Now comes the prequel to "Mother" with "Cousin Joseph," in which we see the return of blunt-knuckled cop Sam Hannigan, who leads Bay City's Red Squad. "Cousin" ripples with noir dialogue that is not only hard-boiled, but also occasionally spiced with adult phrases that might have caused even Chandler and Cain to do a double take of salty appreciation.

And then there is Feiffer's rough-and-tumble line, with a kinetic quality that matches the tough-guy neighborhood where the book is set. And when the characters come to blows, backgrounds tend to fall away, letting the pugilists on all sides of a labor dispute exist in their own immediate, existential reality.

"Cousin Joseph" may just yield a second Eisner nomination for this series. In this case, brilliantly, the cartoonist always rings twice.

“The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero.” (Simon & Schuster 2016)

"The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero"

by Rachel Renée Russell (Simon & Schuster)

The "Dork Diaries" franchise is a popular powerhouse among graphic-prose "hybrid" novels, but as the Russells (mother Rachel Renee and daughters Erin, who helps with story, and Nikki, the series artist) acknowledged to Comic Riffs last year, the audience still trends toward girls.

Related: [Dork Diaries: A peek into a Virginia family’s publishing empire]

The Russells' latest, "Max Crumbly," has a high potential to appeal to more boy readers. And a key distinction from the "Dork" stories is that the humor sometimes dares to go a bit darker, and slightly more warped. (That could perhaps be due to the addition of Erin Russell, a former comic-strip creator who just joined the team.) At school, young Max's imaginings can turn macabre, such as what his skeleton might look like should he become trapped in his school locker.

"Max Crumbly" is a promising kickoff to another Russell series for young readers.

"Harley Quinn: A Call to Arms (Volume 4)"

by Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, Chad Hardin, John Timms and Alex Sinclair (DC Comics)

With the "Suicide Squad" film arriving next month, DC Entertainment is seemingly minting money with all things Harley Quinn. The Joker-tortured love interest is having her biggest moment nearly a quarter-century after she was created, in part because of the cinematic spin for the Forever 21 generation by current "It" actress Margot Robbie.

Related: [Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is now a pop icon, and other ‘Suicide Squad’ takeaways]

DC is widely maximizing the moment with a new hardcover collection of best-selling Harley comics. And what readers get with "A Call to Arms" is absolutely no-holds-barred Harley (sometimes literally, in fact, given a visual reference to bondage). Conner and Palmiotti's writing is dialed to "11," including the cheeky wordplay that befits the cheek-baring sensuality. Political correctness is thrown with force out of the window. This can be a rude and crude world 0f villains and even Hollywood ne'er-do-wells (check out the special one-shot "Road Trip Special") and even visual allusions to Popeye are supersized for a UFC era, as the monstrous sailor man roid-rages on "speed weed."

Harley is the DC character who is most owning 2016. And this collection is especially for those fans who will go see Robbie's "Squad" interpretation more than once.

Happy geek reading.


Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.

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