NNFN: Adam Murphy on the Best Non-Fiction Comics

adam-murphy-sketchToday’s guest post comes from comics creator Adam Murphy. He is the creator of ‘CorpseTalk,’ in which he digs up famous people from history and interviews their reanimated corpses, and ‘Lost Tales,’ in which he re-interprets unusual or lesser-known folktales from around the world, both for The Phoenix Children’s Comics Magazine. We asked him to come up with some fabulous non-fiction comics (other than his own brilliant ‘Corpse Talk’) that children, young people and their grown-ups might enjoy. Here’s what he had to say:

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“Favourite non-fiction comics in 500 words or less is a pretty tall order. There are just so many great books. After all, “non-fiction” is a pretty broad field. Looking at the smorgasbord of great comics out there right now, I see three main strains: autobiography, biography, and non-narrative, each of which has its own rules, conventions and goals, and which gives me an excuse to squeeze in more favourites!

Autobiography/memoir has become a particularly popular and vibrant genre. Something in the slow, personal drawing marks of the author, reliving and re-inhabiting their lived experience allows for a very intimate connection. There are so many great works in this field: David B’s moving, surreal Epileptic (suitable for thoughtful high-school age kids – features chronic illness and existential rage), James Kochalka’s immediate, personal American Elf (mostly suitable for all, but each strip is a direct snippet from his daily life, and as such it occasionally features deeply unsuitable material – you have been warned), Lucy Knisley’s warm, carefully-observed Relish (8+ – carefully observed family dynamics and wonderful food). 

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But I wanted to make a special mention of the Malay cartoonist Lat. I grew up with collections of Lat that my parents had brought back from VSO in Malaysia: a combination of newspaper cartoons, wry observations of daily life and a few autobiographical sequences, such as Lat’s experiences as a young Malay visiting England. I don’t think those books I read as a kid are available outside of Malaysia, but his magnum opus Kampung Boy (about his experiences growing up in a small rural village) and its sequel Town Boy (his family moved to a town when he was older) are both published by First Second (both suitable for all ages). His vibrant, careless-seeming style effortlessly captures the character of people and places, but also the immediate, numinous feeling of childhood memories welling up from some deep place.

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At the other end of the spectrum are a wide range of sweeping, novelistic biographies of historically interesting characters. I really enjoyed Ottaviani and Myrick’s Feynman, a biography of the Nobel-prize-wining physicist (12+ – contains some references to dubious womanizing and some really mind-bending physics).
 
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But the grand-daddy of this genre has to be Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha (again, 12+ -contains some violence, occasional nudity and difficult cosmic questions), charting the historical Siddharta’s rise to Buddha-hood, and the real historical events and characters of his life, but liberally sprinkled with Tezuka’s own wonderful fictional characters. This was the comic that really showed me that an adaptation can be both respectful and faithful to the spirit of a person’s life, while also being ridiculous, funny and irreverent at the same time.

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One other form of non-fiction that deserves consideration are the more purely factual, non-narrative comics explaining how something works or how to do something. Parts of Feynman do this really well, using the visual language of comics to explain his theories surprisingly succinctly and clearly, and with the context of his life story to ground them and keep this information from getting overwhelming. And I should probably make a special mention of Larry Gonick’s amazing History of… series (8+), which elegantly and humorously covers almost every subject imaginable. 

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But of course, the ultimate expression of this form is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (12+ – no unsuitable content, but some quite advanced semiotics that might lose younger kids) – possibly the most influential book on the medium of comics ever published, presenting his theories of the grammar of comics as a comic. 

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Comics are a fantastic medium for non-fiction, whether it’s bringing a human subject to life through distinctive drawings and carefully observed moments, or seamlessly weaving entertainment and explanatory diagrams. I hope this brief survey will whet your appetite to hunt down some of the truly great work that’s out there!”

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Huge thanks go to Adam for his non-fiction suggestions today. You can find out more about Adam on his website, http://www.adammurphy.com/ or you can follow him on Twitter, @Adam_T_Murphy.

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