Etelka Lehoczky

The Janes are back — and guess what? They've grown up. Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg's young adult comic about four teenagers-turned-guerilla-artists charmed critics when it debuted in 2007. It's the kind of book you can't wait to give to the teen in your life, but not before spending a couple of hours reading it yourself. Its theme is earnest, peppy and — in these trying times — something many of us struggle to keep in mind: That art has the power to transform and invigorate us, both within and in our relationships with one another.

There are a lot of different ways to adapt fiction into graphic-novel form, but there may only be one way to adapt the work of H.P. Lovecraft. At least, that's how it feels after reading Gou Tanabe's take on Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness. Tanabe's approach is so spot-on, it makes every other attempt to draw Lovecraft (of which there have been no shortage over the years) seem ill-advised.

Among all the weird quirks in the world of comics publishing, one of the weirdest is the practice of crediting writers first on book covers and title pages. Why would you give top billing to wordsmiths in a medium that's defined by graphics? Not that writers aren't essential — of course they are. Usually, though, even the most innovative and evocative comics story stands or falls with its artwork.

It's always a surprise to see whom the MacArthur Foundation selects to receive its annual fellowships — the six-figure awards known as Genius Grants — but one of this year's picks was particularly exhilarating: comic artist Lynda Barry. For anyone who read alternative weeklies from the '80s through the '00s, she was the eternally wise and strange mind behind Ernie Pook's Comeek.

The most intriguing thing about Girl on Film, a comic-book memoir by someone who never set out to create comics, is that it isn't a tragedy. Told one way, it could have been a story of a would-be artist stubbornly pursuing their dream for years, only to finally give up in despair. Cecil Castellucci chronicles her decade-plus quest to become a filmmaker from the birth of her obsession, when she first saw Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark in junior high school, all the way through trying and failing to cut together her first feature in her early 20s.

So there's this pale, gawky, bald guy in mirror shades running through the desert. That's the central image of Connor Willumsen's graphic novel Bradley of Him, and it's also a kind of seed. From the image of a stubborn runner in an inhospitable landscape, Willumsen has built up a hilarious and philosophically challenging meditation on individuality, capitalism, celebrity, connection — and, under it all, absurdity.

"A bloody racist." When African novelist Chinua Achebe summed up Joseph Conrad this way in 1975, it was like a bomb going off in the literary canon. Spurred by Achebe's brash assault, some critics started arguing that Conrad's works should perhaps not be read at all. These writers pointed to Conrad's imperialist tendencies, his apparent inability to see Africans as equal to Europeans and his use of the n-word.

Being a male feminist has got to be tough. No sooner do you become aware of the virulent, insidious web of oppression that's permeated society for over 2000 years than you realize that, because you happen to be a man, the most effective thing you can do to fight it is to just shut up. Or as comedian Hannah Gadsby put it in GQ's recent roundup of Voices of the New Masculinity, "How about you scale back on your confidence? How about you try not to act in every situation?

Yes, there are monkeys. There are Hollywood cowboys and antique toys in Kim Deitch's graphic novel Reincarnation Stories, as well as cartoon magpies Heckle and Jeckle, a storytelling robot and a crystal ball. Frank Sinatra, D.W. Griffith, Bozo the Clown and even Jesus make appearances. These pages overflow. Even the cover pushes at boundaries, with the iconic Waldo the cat zooming out at the reader in a fiery flying car. All this might make Reincarnation Stories seem like a release, a purging, a great unmediated yowl or yawp from the depths of the artistic soul.

One of the really neat things about comic artists is their ability to make small stories into big ones. Stanislaw Lem's 1976 tale "The Seventh Voyage" is small in various ways: Besides taking place inside a cramped spaceship and featuring only one character (well, sort of), it's quite short and is told in a wry, dialed-down tone that comes close to disguising just how funny it is. In the hands of Jon J. Muth, though, every tiny development in Lem's plot becomes the catalyst for a painting showing a slightly different perspective on the action.

Even if Rusty Brown weren't the latest book from Chris Ware, whose instantly recognizable style and impeccable talent have defined the genre of art comics for some 30 years now, it would still be an event. The bricklike graphical epic documents a handful of ordinary lives in Omaha, Neb., meditating on the cosmic significance of everyday actions and the countless invisible connections linking people together.

If literature is in trouble these days, it's not just because we're all on the Internet. Sure, it's hard to focus with a million tweets and popups and ads for shoes (especially ads for shoes) competing for your attention, but that's not the reason why more people don't set aside their devices and read novels for a couple of hours every night. The real problem is that we're living in an era with an unprecedented potential for catastrophe. How can you possibly be expected to wrench your attention away from, say, climate change to dwell on the torturous inner life of a single character?

There are a whole lot of webcomics out there, and a whole lot of them take the same approach to art: They don't use a lot of it. Confronted with the pressure to constantly produce new content and the ephemerality of the online medium, creators will use simple doodles or even stick figures to convey their jokes and plot devices. Ophiuchus is notable for doing the opposite. While its sci-fi plot is sparse and schematic, its art is dense, complex and sometimes overwhelming.

There are two graphic novels out this summer about Jean-Michel Basquiat, and you're definitely going to hate one of them. Which one? That's harder to say. Julian Voloj and Søren Mosdal's Basquiat and Paolo Parisi's Basquiat: A Graphic Novel couldn't be more different: Mosdal emulates the artist's agitated lines, while Parisi uses flat zones of primary color, in the style of Basquiat's mentor Andy Warhol. Aficionados will doubtless disagree about which book works — but that was probably inevitable.

Like any good story about a scientific discovery, Walter A. Brown's account of the history of lithium features plenty of improvisation, conjecture and straight-up kismet.

Unlike many such stories, though, it also features a fair share of personal bias, senseless puttering and random speculation — on part of these scientific researchers.

The time is 1987. The movie is Spaceballs. As Dark Helmet ponders his next move, his lieutenant has a brainwave: "Get me a cassette of Spaceballs the movie." The videotape is produced, and soon Dark Helmet and the lieutenant are peering at a screen on which they can be seen watching themselves. "What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?" Dark Helmet demands. "Now," answers the lieutenant. "You're looking at now, sir.

As NPR spends the summer reflecting on literary laughter, a funny thing is happening in popular culture. An era infamous for its uniquely counterintuitive approach to humor is coming back in style. If Seventeen magazine says so, it must be true: The '90s are with us again.

Sometimes a book deserves attention not for what it is, but for what it isn't. Molly Mendoza's graphic novel Skip isn't a lot of things. It isn't typical of any of the genres that dominate comics today, for one thing: It's not an action-packed serial adventure, a revealing memoir or an arty exploration of formal principles. It also isn't a book that will immediately attract grown-up readers, and yet it probably won't win a wide following in the under-18 set.

If you're reading this on your phone, drop it! (Or at least, drop it once you've finished this article.) That little screen of yours won't give you access to some of the wildest, weirdest, most innovative images and words bubbling up into the culture right now. Said miraculous content can only be found — brace yourself — on paper. To be precise, it can only be found in a flood of new periodicals by brave (or perhaps deluded) publishers who've declared war on digital monotony. Where in the world could such a quixotic movement emerge, you ask? Only in alternative comics.

"Shame is a cruel thing," writes George Takei in They Called Us Enemy, his new graphic novel about his childhood years in an American concentration camp during World War II. "It should rest on the perpetrators, but they don't carry it the way the victims do."

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