The Cover Wars: Non-Fiction Graphic Novels

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When I got the news about Nelson Mandela’s death, I had an odd moment of panic- what happens to a story when its subject is no more? Who continues to tell these exceptional people’s stories? I mean, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to expect everyone to know who Mandela is. But every medium has its own bias. And not everyone is attracted to these mediums. Personally, I found history books (at least the ones I grew up with) to be rather underwhelming. On the other hand, movies tended towards melodrama (painting people as superheroes rather than portraying them as the flawed heroes that they were), and auto-biographical and/or academic writing was just too dense and inaccessible for me as a child (and often still is!). And so I turned to graphic novels. They were, and remain to be, a good starting point for me to explore people and histories.

And so, this week’s Cover Wars is all about non-fiction graphic novels for young adults, with some crossover appeal. As always, we encourage you to comment and/or tweet your own feelings and thoughts about these covers.

 Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book by The Nelson Mandela Foundation and Umlando Wezithombe

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Steph – I gotta be honest, the intentions are good, but I am not attracted to this art at all. The design is so basic and boxy and though I can tell that the cover is supposed to give me hints at the action and life that I’ll be reading it just doesn’t look at that exciting – but again, perhaps that’s the art? (especially the bottom left hand corner drawing…. no, just, no).

Janet: Um. The left side, both top and bottom, is okay, but the right side, not so much. I assume the top right is a prison scene, but taken out of context it lacks meaning. The bottom right – have to agree with Steph. I am intrigued that there is an official Nelson Mandela comic book/biography, though.

Yash: I imagine that the sales for this one will go up no matter what the cover looks like, and yes, I am pleased that there even is a comic book adaptation. But my brain is trying to figure out a kind of sequence of events in the panels. Does it have one? It’s a bit confusing. I wish I could have found a larger image. And I agree with Steph, the art could have been a bit better.

Nafiza: I’m going to have to agree with you guys. My trouble is with the panel with the light shining through. I understand what it’s doing but it sort of feels a bit strange especially compared to the other drawings on the cover. The tone of the drawing is just…bizarre. I would read it anyway because well, I like things like this.

 Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón

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Steph – Again – the design is so un-eyecatching. I mean it doesn’t have to be all pop and pazazz, especially when dealing with this familiar subject matter – but again the art is just not great and the colour scheme is boring. I’m not a fan of the portions of pictures, and to top it off (literally!) they are only on the top of the cover and not consistent throughout. I think that the purpose of adapting a story like this into a graphic format is to let the graphics help tell the story, to give it more dimension, to take over for the words – but I just don’t believe this book will do that. So, I’ll take the standard text, thanks.

Janet: The photographs and half-off-the-page images work, I think, because even though we’ve read Anne Frank’s diary, there’s still so much we don’t know. But the centre (and boxy) image just doesn’t appeal, maybe because it’s an uneasy merger between realistic and openly cartoony styles. The result is that I can’t take the girl on the cover seriously. She doesn’t seem real, which is the cover’s greatest failure, because the big thing about reading the diary is that Anne Frank is so real – I mean, she was an actual person, and it really is her diary we’re reading, and her writing draws the reader right into what she lived. But this cover draws me right out again, and forces distance between me and her, because she doesn’t seem real enough for me to care.

Yash: Wow, I feel like they could have done a lot with Anne Frank’s diary. I think I know why I’m not a fan of this one or the earlier one. They focus too much on the non-fiction aspect of the graphic novel and less on the art. Yes, the people in question are important, but I also think that Mandela and Frank are people who made a deep impact on the people around them despite (or because of) their circumstances. Those circumstances could have easily been the focus of the cover.

Nafiza: Once again, I’m in complete agreement with you guys. I think the photographs work fine but the central image is just…somehow offputting. I doubt she had an actual table at which to write and I doubt she wrote in such pleasant circumstances as to warrant a smile on her face. I think it may have been better if they had gone with images of writing utensils or books to create that atmosphere rather than giving us this white washed version.

The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography by Tetsu Saiwai

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Steph – I like the colour scheme, I like the gobsmacked face of the adorable protagonist. While I don’t love the blatant ‘Penguin’ marketing, however, I do appreciate that this story will probably have a better production value and more rigorous editing than the previous two. I also appreciate that this is a story that I haven’t heard before. Anne Frank and Mandela are already part of my cultural fabric, this is a new and fresh story – and will hopefully be interesting and potentially enlightening. It has the same appeal to me as Persepolis, it’s a story and perspective that I don’t know, and might never have known were it not in graphic novel format. I’d read the back and flip through it to make sure the production value of the cover is consistent. But I think I’d read it anyway.

Janet: The cover might have been better served if the title and author-artist’s name hadn’t been foregrounded as boldly as they are. His expression is eye-catching and catches my interest. With that huge title (etc) line though, it feels very marketed, and I’m not sure how much this will be actual art/biography/graphic novel, and how much it will be trendy media spin. (I don’t mean to speak rudely about the Dalai Lama.) The effect of the cover is, for me, a bit too planned – and I can’t tell who this is aimed at: children? teens? adults who want to look trendy by carrying around a book about the Dalai Lama as they sip coffee from disposable coffee cups?

Yash: Ooh! I volunteer to be one of those adults carrying this book as I sip my coffee! 😀 It doesn’t, for me, have quite the appeal that Persepolis does, but I love that it’s a different art style. I love his shocked expression and given the age at which he was announced to be the new Dalai Lama, it makes sense that the person on the cover is a young child. I think that even if I didn’t know what I do about the current Dalai Lama, I would be intrigued enough to read the back and flip through the pages, and maybe look for references in the back.

Nafiza: I love the expression on his face. It is often the expression on my face, no, it really is. I like the teal colour (tealish?) of the background and basically, this works for me. A lot.

Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

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Steph – Love the title, word play and historical reference, it hints at the nuance the tale itself might have. However, I really dislike the blinding and vague cover. I’ll give the art a chance and glance through the book should I ever come across it – but it just doesn’t really grab me. I’d flip through it because the title is so great and I’d read the back. These are people I know of but would be interested to learn more about.

Janet: Oh Steph, once again you take the words from my mouth. The premise looks interesting, and I would like to learn more about Marie Curie (and Pierre Curie). The cover does make me uneasy – nothing wrong with it, but the colour scheme makes me feel tainted by the promised radioactivity. But I’d take a look at this for sure.

Yash: I kinda love the colour scheme and the simple cover and I absolutely adore the title. However, I am worried that they will focus more on their relationship rather than their achievements …

Nafiza: I like this a lot but I worry that looking at it will cause me a headache. In all seriousness, I like how the first character is turned slightly suggesting that it may be Marie turning to look back at her younger self. I love the cleverness of it.

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

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Steph – Yes. This is really really great – love the colours, the art, the typeface, the title, I love the premise that these three important figures will be in dialogue about a serious issue that I don’t hear enough about. Brilliant. I want to read it.

Janet: I’ve heard Yash rave about this, so I’m biased, but yes, the art on this cover is lovely – playful and serious and lovely. I’d like to read this.

Yash: Yes! I do so love this cover and the book! The colours are perfect, the title is a tad too long but necessary and informative, and I love the new take on picturing evolution because it even provides some chronological context even before we open the book and get to know our scientists better. Very clever.

Nafiza: I actually hadn’t heard about this one before but I am intrigued now and the cover is intriguing enough for it to find a spot on my reading list. I also love the background. I have a thing for green things.

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse and Alison Bechdel

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Steph – This one I have heard of. I’m not a huge fan of the art – but it is detailed and looks like it is meant to be as much a part of the story as the words. I also know that it is a product of it’s times and so some graphic allowances must be permitted. As I have heard of it, I would probably read it, though it doesn’t necessarily grab me, shake me and scream at me to pick it up this instant!

Janet: The face of the man in the foreground kind of puts me off this, but the silhouettes – well, there’s just so much going on there that this has potential. It depends on what’s on the back cover.

Yash: The art is not one that I am used to- but I could get used to it. I really love the bright yellow for the title and the dark, moody shades in the background. And the fact that I don’t (yet) know a thing about what the title means probably will not dissuade me from picking it up. I’m also kind of won over by the fact that Alison Bechdel is mentioned on the cover. So whatever doubts I have about the cover are pretty much vanquished when I pick it up to read the new foreword.

Nafiza: Yeah that dude on the cover looking slightly sulky and broody would not make me take a second look at the book. However, the silhouettes are intriguing and I think this book would have a better chance of being read by me if I came across it online first and read the synopsis than just the cover in a bookstore.

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Fréderic Lemercier

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Steph – Nifty! I like the mixed media on the cover, it’s about a photographer and I like the idea that the story will be told through classic graphic novel art (which is a little sketchy, not my fave, but it’ll do) and the photography that the story is talking about. It’s an interesting enough concept, cover and title that I’d certainly read the back and flip through it.

Janet: I’m not sure what the focus is – the photographer (which one?), or the Doctors Without Borders. (Who are heroes, I’ll say it right now.) The contrast between the top drawing and the bottom photo is striking. The photo is compelling; I’d read this just to find out more about the man in the photo and the circumstances.

Yash: This cover ties with Primates for me. It’s incredible that a. the book seems to be about a photographer and b. a photographer who works in Afghanistan. It follows the photographer’s life through the graphic novel style and reveals things about his subjects through his photography. Lovely. I need this.

Nafiza: I love this one. I love how, how should I phrase it, the “fictionalizing” (as in the artistic expression) of the photographer brings into stark focus the reality of the photograph. It’s like the photographer has taken an intentional step back to let his work come to the fore. So yeah, I would totally pick this one up.