Here's one of the central conundrums of the aging comics reader-- what happens when you begin to get too old for the superhero stuff, but you still love the medium? Where do you turn your interests when you realize that the men-in-tights books are basically recycling the same handful of stories over and over? Fortunately, the alternative comics genre has been steadily producing non-mainstream, non-superhero related content over the last twenty years or so, with increasing quality. The following five works represent what I believe to be the best examples of non-superhero related graphic novels from about the last decade.
5. Can't Get No by Rick Veitch. It almost feels like cheating to include this as the first selection for this list, because what Veitch has done here is create a sort of post-post-modern costumed hero tale. It's the story of Chad Roe, an ordinary businessman who, under a set of rather extraordinary cirucumstances, acquires a bizarre kind of full-body tattoo. This tattoo immediately sets him apart from the rest of his New York commuter world, turning him into a societal outcast; and a day after this new condition is set upon him, 9/11 occurs. What follows is an account of Chad's journey through a bruised new America, seen from the perspective of an unwilling outsider. The entire book is a series of nearly wordless panels depicting the story, using no word-balloons or dialogue, but including a stream-of-consciousness narrative that wanders near and far from the action depicted by the artwork. From the way it's described here, it may sound like an incoherent mess, but the book has a strong central narrative pull, and a handful of twists and turns to the story. The book is unique in physical format as well, printed in "landscape format," a short, wide horizontal construction about half the height of a normal comic page. This format allows for Veitch to explore some large ideas with large spans of picture. The book is unique in many ways, and bears repeated readings well.
4. It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken by Seth. Here we have a much more intimate story, a semi-autobiographical tale of a comic artist's search for information about Kalo, a Canadian cartoon artist who submitted one-panel cartoons to New Yorker magazine in the mid-20th century. The book is a compilation of several issues of Seth's alternative comic book Palookaville, but it functions as its own complete narrative, offering a slice-of-life look at rural and urban Canadian life, drawing on the author's nostalgic interest in mid-20th century architecture and culture. It's a very quiet book, which I read through twice during a long day of air-travel; the book's simply-drawn panels give careful consideration to things like factories, trains, second-hand shop windows, and other snapshots of a disappearing idea of culture. Seth manages to be nostalgic and a bit defensive of his subject matter without being overtly bleak or bitter, and his small cast of characters includes some who question the artist's own concerns. The subtlety and meticulous nature of the book speak of someone who takes things which most people don't notice very seriously.
3. A Complete Lowlife by Ed Brubaker. Of all the books on this list, this may be the most difficult to lay your hands on. Brubaker's book is a look at the life of the late 80s/early 90s small-town slacker, built around a small cast of characters who fall into and out of drug use, petty crime, and frustrated romance. It's no less nostalgic than the aforementioned book by Seth, but it's twice as dark and very honest, dealing with familiar topics to the young and barely-employed: stealing from your workplace, getting too drunk at a nightclub, waiting for too long to break up with your girlfriend. Brubaker has done an excellent job of chronicling the years which occur between adolescence and adulthood, when many of us are trying to figure out how to stop being kids, and start being grownups. I've read this one many times over the past decade or so, and keep coming back to it, recognizing some of the characters as my friends, and some as myself.
2. Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth by Chris Ware. This is easily the least approachable book on this list. Many readers find Ware's layouts and artwork to be so minimalist and confusing that they're somewhere between difficult and impossible to follow; personally, I didn't have this problem. Ware uses a flat but colorful style to tell the story of Jimmy Corrigan, a lonely, introverted bachelor in his thirties who meets his father for the first time over a snowy Thanksgiving weekend. What unfolds from there is a story about several generations of the Corrigan family dating back to the 19th century, and involving a fascinating depiction of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, both during its construction and operation. The book employs some symbolic elements and some unusual narrative techniques, but the story it tells of how damaged relationships can be passed down through generations of family is incredibly human and direct. In 2005, The New Yorker called Jimmy Corrigan "the first formal masterpiece of the medium" of graphic novels." It's a title well-deserved. Many comics enthusiasts will tell you that graphic novels can be considered literature, but will then cite works like Moore's Watchmen as examples (which is an excellent read, but a debatable example of 'literature'); Jimmy Corrigan is a book which bears the label with little doubt, inviting comparisons with Joyce's Ulysses more than it evokes any superhero tale.
1. Black Hole by Charles Burns. I'm not sure if this is the greatest graphic novel ever written, but it's certainly my favorite. Charles Burns uses his stark, almost brutal black-and-white style to tell the story of a group of 1970s suburban Seattle teenagers dealing with something they commonly refer to as "the Bug," which is a sexually-transmitted disease that causes various degrees of physical mutation. In tone and content, the book is a cross between a horror tale and a teenage coming-of-age story, and it's impossible to read the story without thinking of it as a very dark take on the original X-Men concept, as the various characters deal with the fact that their bodies are mutating. However, this is far from a superhero tale-- instead of amazing abilities, the victims of "the Bug" are faced with grotesque deformities which offer no empowerment, but only disgust, horror, and isolation. The narrative functions as both a commentary on the AIDS epidemic and as a depiction of young people coming to terms with their own physical development and shortcomings. The entire story is awash with drugs and sex, and on another level, can be seen as a bizarre morality tale, showing imaginary but dire repercussions for those youths that indulge their desires for both vices, echoing the teen slasher movies of the 70s and 80s, which offered similar consequences for those who stray from the moral path. With all of these disparate elements and ideas, the book is remarkably cohesive and sharply-drawn, and very readable. Earlier this year it was announced that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary are collaborating on the script for an adaptation of this as a feature film, with young horror director Alexandre Aja slated to direct; but don't wait for the movie--get in on this one now. Originally published as a 12-issue Fantagraphics series, it's available now in a gorgeous hardbound edition that will easily survive being handed around to family and friends, and it's a book you'll come back to for years.