xoBookClub: 12 Illustrated Books for Grownups

From Graphic novels to grimoires — what's your favorite picture book?
Publish date:
February 6, 2016
comics, short stories, xobookclub, xoBooks, graphic novels, illustrations

Since it's the weekend and we're all too grown up to get jazzed on sugary cereal and watch Saturday morning cartoons, let's immerse ourselves in books with pictures because what's the use of a book without them?

Some of my fondest memories of reading when I was small are of late nights spent with my grandmother poring over one of Graeme Base's riddle books and trying to decode the verse that lived among the pictures. I remember just as clearly the hours spent with Brian Froud's Good Faeries, Bad Faeries. As an adult, I'm still enchanted by a well illustrated text.

There's no reason we should be robbed of picture books as soon as we have to pay taxes and vote and go out and get jobs. Hell, there should more picture books available for us to help us through our banal adult existences.

The 12 books in this roundup offer a diverse look at how picture books have evolved over the years — some are dark (I know, I know, I like a heavy nightmare of a story and not everyone else does and I'm working on it), some are humorous, some are 400-page behemoths, and some only have a few words on each page. From graphic novels to short stories to fairytales tales retold, there's something for every voracious and grownup reader among these 12 titles.

Hipster Animals: A Field Guide — Dyna Moe

It's 2016 and we can all agree that it's time to stop hating on hipster culture, but it's hard not to grimace and groan and laugh (literally out loud) through Moe's charming and detailed descriptions of the too-cool-to-even-live-life, Brooklyn-based, artisanal activist, agonizing hipsters.

Hipster Animals: A Field Guide is broken up into nine sections and feature such familiar faces as the Experimental Coffee Gastronomist, the Social Media Branding Network Analyst or Whatever, the Blog-to-Book Editor, and the Way-Too-Sex-Positive Crusader. Along with markings, call, and habitat, Moe's field guide also includes the diet of each hipster variety as well as their prey, predators, and behaviors.

My Friend Dahmer — Derf Backderf

I don't know the Genesis of our cultural fascination with serial killers, but I'm a willing participant.

My Friend Dahmer is an illuminating look at one of the most infamous serial murderers of our time. Backderf attended high school with Dahmer and this illustrated origin story is honest, fascinating and, more than once, surprisingly tender.

Things I've Said To My Children — Nathan Ripperger

I don't use the word hysterical lightly, but I'm going to use it now along with the words irreverent, ridiculous, and delightful to describe Ripperger's slim but rich volume of playfully illustrated actual things he's actually said to his actual children.

Through the Woods — Emily Caroll

Hark! A collection of short stories! A collection of short scary stories! Rejoice!

Emily Carroll's Through the Woods has been called " sinister" and "compellingly spooky," and evokes some of our most visceral fears in a way only a picture book can. Caroll is well known for her webcomics which range in genre from horror to romance to fairy tales. Check out her website to see if you're ready to take the plunge into her full-length collection.

Was She Pretty? — Leanne Shapton

What's more intoxicating — and very, very, very bad for you — than wondering (and obsessing) about your lover's ex's? Shapton's Was She Pretty? explores that painful behavior that we just can't seem to quit with thoughtful sketches that cut right to the heart of how we love, by proxy, the ones our lovers have loved before us.

From Hell — Alan Moore, illustrated by Eddie Campbell

Two serial killers in one picture book roundup? Shocking.

Moore's graphic novel (which is infinitely more impressive and nuanced than the infamously bad movie it was made into) tells the tale of the infamous — and never captured — Jack the Ripper.

Girl in Dior — Annie Goetzinger

If you're a fan of couture sketches or the vibrant history of one of fashion's most iconic designers, immediately get yourself a copy of Girl in Dior.

Annie Goetzinger is a bestselling artist and the glamorous illustrations in Girl in Dior make it obvious just why she's is so successful. This "biography docudrama... marries fiction with the story of one of the greatest couturiers in history," and it does it all in a glorious medium well-suited for the tale.

Beautiful Darkness — Fabien Vehlmann

I've been warned of and enchanted by this dark, dark, VERY DARK graphic novel for some time now. Vehlmann begins with a fairy tale trope and turns it on its head with gorgeous watercolor illustrations that brutally illuminate the morality (or lack thereof), betrayal, and emotional turmoil that makes the human experience raw and magnificent.

Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection — Kate Beaton

Lesley dubbed Beaton's most recent collection her favorite book of 2015 and, as we all know, Lesley can do and say no wrong. Many of you are familiar with Beaton's witty and literary comics and if you aren't, you've probably seen them pop up on your Facebook newsfeed at one time or another.

If you're sitting at your computer, scratching your head and murmuring, who? it's high time you get acquainted. No more excuses.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic — Alison Bechdel

You know a book, or in this case a graphic novel, is a stellar creation when it's turned into a Broadway musical that wins FIVE Tony Awards (and is nominated for 12).

I usually try to avoid highlighting or underlining in graphic novels — after all, the artist has ideas about what your eyes should be drawn to and illustrates as such — but I couldn't help underscoring the many moments in Bechdel's autobiographic graphic novel that sang with exceptional beauty.

Abarat — Clive Barker

This is a YA series of novels but — CALM DOWN — Clive Barker is an exceptional painter. Often, when reading one of his novels, my mind buckles under the weight of depicting the fantasmagoria he describes so well.

Barker has been painting the Abarat — an archipelago where every island exists perpetually in a single hour of the day — since 1995 and the adventures of Candy Quackenbush mean just as much to me as an adult as they did when I was 12-years-old and stepping into the Abarat for the first time. Not without his trademark nightmares, the Abarat series has at least two more volumes on the way.

Found Poems — Bern Porter

Let's round off this roundup with the bane of this book club's existence — a book of poems. I stumbled across Bern Porter's Found Poems by accident while roving the shelves of the Hollins University library. David Byrne said of this strange and artful collection, “here is the hidden literature of the 20th century. Hidden in plain sight.”

No need to brace yourselves, this isn't exactly a book of poetry. Rather, it is a book of mass media images "cropped, manipulated, and arranged in unconventional and non-intuitive ways." It's a collection of our social consciousness — nearly 400 pages of diagrams, advertisements, and sketches, "used to reflect American culture as in a funny-house mirror: twisted but true."

Do you agree with Alice and see little use for a book without pictures and conversations? What's your favorite illustrated book from childhood or last year or this year or this very minute in the here and now?

Let's talk about it the comments where, naturally, pictures in place of words are most heartily welcome.