By Ray Olson and Gordon Flagg, first published March 15, 2008, in Booklist
Dale Messick started the first enduring newspaper comic strip by a woman, Brenda Starr, in 1940, and Nicole Hollander (Sylvia), Cathy Guisewite (Cathy), and Lynn Johnston (For Better or Worse) followed in her footsteps, only much later. Women creating graphic novels came still later. In fact, this core collection of books either made up of comic-book short stories and comic-book serials or created as books is an honor roll of pioneers.
Castle Waiting. By Linda Medley. 2006. Fantagraphics, $29.95 (9781560977476).
What happens after the wakened princess takes off with Prince Charming? In Putney, a castleful of characters waits. A pregnant woman arrives seeking refuge and finds them warm, welcoming, willing to let her leave her past behind. Medley's big book ranks with Jeff Smith's Bone as a nearly-all-ages graphic-novel triumph.
Fun Home. By Alison Bechdel. 2006. Houghton, $19.95 (9780618477944); Mariner, paper, $13.95 (9780618871711).
Bechdel's father-and-daughter story climaxes when, after coming out, she learns her father is homosexual, too. Suddenly his arrest for buying beer for a minor, the teen ìhelpersî he always had around, and his solo outings in New York come clear.
Late Bloomer. By Carol Tyler. 2005. Fantagraphics, $28.95 (9781560976646).
Tyler created frustratingly few comics since the 1980s because she was a working mom, juggling jobs with raising a daughter. Parenthood here provides fodder for some of her best stories, though in one she carries a bucket of "Relics from the Pre-baby Days"—creativity, solitude, focus, spontaneity, and other lost pleasures.
Life of the Party: The Complete Autobiographical Collection. By Mary Fleener. 1996. Fantagraphics, paper, $14.95 (9781560972617).
Depicting a post-1960s Southern California scene of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and New Age spirituality in a style she calls cubismo, Fleener tells plenty of good yarns, thanks to years of bar bands, wild parties, cracked boyfriends and roommates, and surfing.
Life's a Bitch: The Bitchy Bitch Chronicles. By Roberta Gregory. 2005. Fantagraphics, paper, $16.95 (9781560976561).
The star of Gregory's comic book Naughty Bits, an interior-monologue geiser of vitriol, particularly about coworkers and men, is bigoted, narrow-minded—and easy to sympathize with. Gregory's slapdash style conjures the freewheeling sensibility of sixties underground comics.
Love That Bunch. By Aline Kominsky-Crumb. 1990. Fantagraphics, paper, $16.95 (9781560970170).
The wife of underground comics icon R. Crumb chronicles her peripatetic life from 1950s Long Island childhood to San Francisco hippie days to her unconventional marriage in an unpretty, messy style and with self-lacerating candor.
My New York Diary. By Julie Doucet. 2d ed. 2004. Drawn & Quarterly, paper, $15.95 (9781896597836).
With brutal honesty, Doucet, creator of the underground comic Dirty Plotte, looks back on her harrowing bohemian days in Manhattan. Her loopy, cluttered drawings and postfeminist insouciance lend her account improbable charm.
One Hundred Demons. By Lynda Barry. 2002. Sasquatch, $24.95 (9781570613371); paper, $17.95 (9781570614590).
This collection of long stories by the creator of the weekly Ernie Pook's Comeek is based on an art exercise that Barry uses to exorcise personal demons, among them, old boyfriends, grandmas, liars, hippies, the 2000 election, and her own bad behavior.
La Perdida. By Jessica Abel. 2006. Pantheon, $22.95 (9780375423659); paper, $14 (9780375714719).
Rejecting the U.S. for Mexico, searching for roots and meaning, half-Latina Carla falls in with a leftist politico and a small-time drug dealer. She learns that aimlessness and poverty can be temporary for young white Yankees but turn into violent desperation for non-Yankees. Maturing in her artwork as well as story concerns, Abel heads for the front ranks of graphic novelists.
Persepolis. By Marjane Satrapi. Tr. by Anjali Singh. 2003. Pantheon, $17.95 (9780375422300); paper, $12.95 (9780375714573).
Satrapi's record of her early adolescence during Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, lately made into an award-winning animated film, is exceptional for its utterly believable re-creation of an intelligent child's perspective and understanding, not least via the children's-book simplicity of its artwork.
Summer of Love. By Debbie Drechsler. 2002. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 (1-896597-37-8); paper, $16.95 (1-896597-65-3).
Ninth-grader Lily has moved with her family to a new community and must find her place in her new high school's pecking order. Drechsler compellingly captures the angst, insecurities, and petty feuds typical of the teen years as Lily tries to make friends and sexually awakens.
Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art. Ed. by Diane Noomin. 1991. Penguin, paper, $14.95 (9780140153774).
A liberating sampling of 14 spiritual descendants of the few women who, in the early 1970s, leavened male underground-comics colleagues' sex-and-drug fantasies with more personal subject matter. The 14 take on everything from childhood traumas to disastrous relationships to menstruation, plastic surgery, and turning 40.
We Are on Our Own. By Miriam Katin. 2006. Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95 (9781896597201).
The first graphic novel by 63-year-old animator Katin recounts how she and her mother faked their deaths and fled Budapest after the Nazis occupied it. Passages set decades later reveal that Katin's experiences deprived her of any religious faith to pass on to her child.
May 3 is Free Comic Book Day, when participating comic book stores around the world give comic books absolutely free. Learn more at I Love Libraries' Free Comic Book Day page.