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Thursday, February 11, 2010

500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Essential Guide by Gene Kannenberg Jr.

Graphic novels are presented in categories in this reference book into genres such as Non-Fiction, Crime and Mystery, Horror and Fantasy. Most of these groupings confirm a teacher’s perception that comics are an art form that relies heavily on boy’s life adventure stories.[1] In each section however, are surprising and worthy stories that transcend the genre. In the introduction, Kannenberg notes that works included were necessarily published in English and widely available.

This review will concentrate on the Non-Fiction, General Fiction and, to a lesser extent, the Humor categories as these stories transcend the conventions of adventures and heroic tales.


The top ten works of non-fiction include: Persopolis, Maus, American Splendor, Understanding Comics and other titles normally found on lists of best graphic novels. It is the “honorable mention” section which provides other insightful additions to this list of “bests.” Pedro and Me by Judd Minick is a title I recommend. I have found it is accessible to students because it tells a story students are familiar with. MTV’s Real World has been syndicated and replayed many times; Winnick provides a personal insight into the Real World experience and the loss of his friend Pedro Zamora.

Missing from the non-fiction section is The 911 Report: A Graphic Adaptation adapted by Jacobson and Colón. Kannenberg includes this in the last section of the book which addresses war as the subject of comics and graphic novels. Including The 911 Report on a reading list of non-fiction graphic novels is important for a number of reasons. It appeals to students who would prefer to read something other than a memoir and the use of sequential art explains clearly how the attack on the World Trade Center unfolded.


Over seventy stories are reviewed in this section, including works by Will Eisner, Alison Bechdel, Jaime Hernandez, Alan Moore and others. More than any other section, this is the place to begin reading graphic novels, preferably by cross-referencing Kannenberg’s list with the catalog of the local library. Each educational setting is different, and as teachers we have firsthand knowledge of the communities in which we teach.

Kannenberg’s short reviews are helpful and accurate. They provide a brief cultural context about the work and the style in which the story is told. For example, he notes that The Four Immigrants Manga by Yoshitaka (Henry) Kiyama was designed to be serialized over a year and that Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse is clearly presented and easily understandable.


The section on comedic works is also worth reviewing although humor, in this case, is subjective. The list includes such disparate works as Peter Bagge’s, Buddy Bradley, Watterson’s, Calvin and Hobbes and Kurtzman’s, Little Annie Fanny. It is here the reader will find compilations of comic strips originally published in newspapers.

Comic strips however, do not follow a conventional plot line of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Instead comic strips are the basic primers of sequential art and rely heavily on the readers understanding of context, delivered over days and weeks (Schultz, 1973).

James Kolchalka’s works Monkey versus Robot and Peanut Butter and Jeremy’s Best Book Ever appear in this section. Conflict and complex emotions are almost always part of Kolchalka’s funny stories and the teacher may find a lack of resolution disconcerting. Directed at different audiences, his bibliography includes stories such as Johnny Boo, written for K-3, while his American Elf, a daily diary detailing his personal life, is intimate and adult.

Recommended Use: Check it out of the library and start reading graphic novels. Can also be used as a student reference for independent reading although male students will find more of interest (You’ll get tired reading book reports about Frank Miller’s Dark Knight.)

Millard, E. (1997). Differently literate: Boys, girls, and the schooling of literacy. London: Washington, D.C.

Schultz, C. (1973). Forward. In A. A. Berger (Ed.), The comic-stripped American; what Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks and Charlie Brown tell us about ourselves (pp. xiv-xvi). New York: Walker.

[1] Men and women’s taste in fiction vary significantly. Reading specialists describe boys and girls as differently literate (Millard, 1997) and suggest that libraries offer a wide range of reading material. Although the authorship of comics is changing, a scan of the author’s index suggests that only 10% of the creators listed are women. Sections which are reviewed include a much higher percentage of works by women. Kannenberg makes an effort to maintain a gender neutral writing style which emphasizes the artist/author’s accomplishments.

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* B. Architecture, University of Cincinnati * Teaching Certificate, Art, Portland State University * Education Leadership Coursework, Eastern Washington University * MAT, Art Education, University of Idaho * Ph.D. Indiana University