any groundbreaking graphic novels are being composed stateside, but some of the most stunning sequential art continues to be produced overseas. It's not surprising, given that comics readership is greater in Europe and Japan than it is here. There are signs, however, that American interest in international comics is on the rise. Overall U.S. sales of manga, or Japanese comics, last year exceeded $110 million, up from about $22 million in 2001, according to ICv2, an online retail trade publication. For the last 10 years, the International Comic Arts Festival has been drawing attention to the field's diversity by inviting creators and scholars from around the world to come to the District and discuss their work. This Thursday, ICAF hosts a free three-day forum at the Library of Congress (James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE, www.go.to/icaf.)
"There are so many more styles of comics than you might think," says event organizer Marc Singer. "You can see them at the festival, and there's bound to be one that appeals to you."
Ready to start reading, but don't know "Cities of the Fantastic" from the Fantastic Four? These five critically acclaimed international comics, all of which have been recently translated into English, are a great place to start.
By Osamu Tezuka (Vertical, $24.95)
Considered the godfather of Japanese manga, Tezuka produced this heroic work between 1974 and 1984, near the end of his career. Using fictional characters, historical settings and plenty of philosophical introspection, he tells the life story of Siddhartha in eight volumes that total more than 3,000 pages. The work itself is far more than Intro to Buddhism, as Tezuka deftly lends dollops of adventure, humor and whimsy to his character's metaphysical musings ("Why were we born slaves? Why weren't we born as warriors or Brahmin?"). You'll also marvel at the art, which veers between Disney-esque drawing and naturalistic draftsmanship.
Cities of the Fantastic: The Invisible Frontier
By Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peeters (NBM Publishing, $15.95-$17.95)
Just what you've been waiting for, a Belgian-French comic that delves into the heart-stopping excitement of . . . cartography. No, really. "Cities" is one of the most elegant and compelling examples of comic art in the last 30 years. The first volume in a two-part story, this is the tale of Roland, a young mapmaker who becomes embroiled in a mystery having to do with a nationalist architecture project. The story engages in real-world thinking -- philosophy, art theory and geopolitics -- while evoking otherworldly literary sources such as Franz Kafka and Jules Verne. When one character remarks upon "the feeling for landscape, attention to the slightest details, everything that makes a map a condensation of events and drama," he could have just as easily been talking about the book itself.
By David B. (Pantheon, $27.50)
A monumental memoir tracing the author's evolution as an artist, "Epileptic" is defined by its hallucinatory, symbol-heavy style. A leading light of the experimental French comics scene, David B. employs a thick, sure line -- evoking everything from African art to 18th-century woodcuts -- to trace his older brother's lifelong struggle with the titular disorder while growing up in the Loire Valley in the 1960s and '70s. "And thus begins the endless round of doctors, for my brother and my parents," the narrator notes, paving the way for a depiction of family that never descends into mawkishness.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
By Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, $17.95)
The first of two volumes, "Persepolis" is Satrapi's account of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, before being sent to Europe for safe schooling by her broad-minded parents. Now living in France, where the book was originally published, Satrapi employs a deceptively simple black-and-white cartooning style -- one which belies her sharp eye for the horrors of totalitarianism. Her gift for wry observations about the foibles of fundamentalism (in one sequence, the mandate "All bilingual schools must be closed down" is met with cries of "Bravo" and "What wisdom!") is more than matched by her brutal renderings of the Iran-Iraq war and military oppression.
The Push Man and Other Stories
By Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95)
Tatsumi was largely responsible for ushering in manga geared toward adults, and his gritty depictions of life in 1960s working-class Japan are finally being translated into English, thanks to the efforts of celebrated "Optic Nerve" creator Adrian Tomine. This volume of work from 1969 consists largely of eight-page tautly-composed vignettes about bad decisions, adultery and murder. There's little dialogue to speak of, and Tatsumi's figures look as though they were quickly drawn, with cartoonish, google-eyed features. But the author's careful control of line expresses a broad range of emotion, and his layouts are so thoughtfully paced that his craft becomes invisible, always serving the story rather than drawing attention to itself.