I’m new to graphic novels and comics but I’ve been attacking the genre with a fury.
What I really love about them is the unique visual storytelling capabilities. Comics that take place in another country provide a full and unique glimpse into a different world: you meet new people and experience the daily dramas of their lives while also getting to see new landscapes, clothing and architecture.
Here are a few outstanding international graphic novels for adult readers that take place in international locales. And best of all, they’re all available through your local Seattle Public Library!
Aya – by Marguerite Abouét and Clément Oubrerie
From the very beginning, Aya thwarts your expectations. Aya, our narrator, is a young woman growing up in a small town in the Ivory Coast. She tells us on the first page of this comic that life was simple until everything changed. If you, like me, have read stories from this part of the world, you might expect this to mean that things changed for the worse because war or famine broke out. Instead, the book focuses on more universal and peaceful stories, specifically of Aya’s friends and their lovers, and her own determination to make something of herself, and succeed in her studies where her friends have failed. The story is engaging and funny, and I am looking forward to reading the next installments.
Palomar – by Gilbert Hernandez
Palomar is a fictional town in Latin America where this hefty tome takes place. Featuring stories originally published in the Love and Rockets series drawn by the Hernandez Brothers (Gilbert and Jaime, with an occasional contribution from Mario), Palomar follows an eclectic cast of characters through many decades and experiences. You first meet the book’s main figures when they are teenagers, but the stories weave in and out of their lives like a series of memories. We learn about their childhoods and adult lives with all the accompanying successes and failures, marriages and children, heartbreaks and scandals. Though the stories take place in a small and isolated town, the people we meet in Palomar are diverse and always interesting: there are gay and trans characters, a female sheriff, men and women of all body types and predilections, and even the occasional gringo. Getting to hear stories from the point of view of many different characters, and learning information bit by bit through the course of the book, makes you feel as if you are living in Palomar for an extended stay.
Mercury – by Hope Larson
Set in a fictional small town in Nova Scotia, Canada, Mercury jogs back and forth between the modern era and the 1800s. I was particularly drawn to this story because of my family’s roots in Nova Scotia, and enjoyed the allusions to Canadian and Maritime institutions like Tim Horton’s and King of Donair, but I believe the interwoven story featuring romance, history and treasure, will hold anyone’s interest. Two young women connected by bloodline but separated by centuries are featured in the story. Both stories are engaging and lively, and become connected in an unexpected way.
Kampung Boy – by Lat
Originally published in 1979, Kampung Boy is a timeless autobiographical tale of a Malaysian boy’s village childhood. The book is fairly short and contains more pictures than words, but I was surprised at how many new things I learned from it. Author and protagonist Lat is born to a Muslim home in the Malaysian countryside. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really know that there were many Muslims in this part of the world, but Lat expounds upon his family’s beliefs and his schooling in the Muslim tradition. Most of the book focuses on the fun and simplicity of village life, a picture expertly drawn by this Malaysian cartoonist near the beginning of his career.
La Perdida – by Jessica Abel
La Perdida is one of those books that made me feel uncomfortable even as I enjoyed and identified with it. It tells the story of Carla, a young American woman of Mexican-American heritage who moves to Mexico City with no real purpose but to experience it. Struggling to come to terms with her understandings of culture and race, Carla attempts to distance herself from American capitalist belief systems and integrate with some fairly radical local Mexicans. Her limited understanding and willful innocence eventually lead to some serious complications. Although the story itself was engrossing and painfully fascinating, what I loved most of all was its depiction of Mexico City. One of my favorite cities in the world, D.F. (Distrito Federal, the city’s local nickname) is painted in gorgeous vivid colors (metaphorically that is, as the book is black and white), and reading La Perdida was like visiting that wonderful place all over again.
With these few comics, I have only scratched the surface of international graphic novels available through the Seattle Public Library. My list of holds and books to save for later contains many more worldwide delights, including:
Palestine by Joe Sacco
Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle
Ordinary Victories by Manu Larcenet
The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert
If you have more suggestions for international comics, please leave them in the comments section. My graphic novel quest is just beginning, and I could use your help!