Sequential summer 

Herbie, Volumes 1-3

Herbie is a "big fat nothing," according to his hothead father. All the boy wants to do is suck on lollipops and stare into space. But Herbie — as written by Richard E. Hughes with art from Ogden Whitney — has a secret life. He talks to animals and takes on odd jobs for the government. For a character that debuted in the late '50s, Herbie's dialogue is as hilarious and relatable as ever ("You want I should bop you with this here lollipop?"). And it never gets old seeing a joyless fat kid stumbling through time-traveling adventures. (Dark Horse Archives; three hardcover editions $49.95 each)

Asterios Polyp

Asterios Polyp is the first truly groundbreaking graphic novel I've read in a long time. David Mazzucchelli is a master craftsman who draws his characters (a self-absorbed architect chief among them) with different strokes based on their moods and captures tiny details like a less-twee Wes Anderson. It's a beautiful, challenging read that puts its author in a club with a handful of the medium's brightest stars. (Pantheon Books; hardcover $29.95)

Essex County

I might be kind of a pussy, but I broke down crying reading these books (recommended to me by Portland, Ore., musician and author Willy Vlautin). The Essex County tales are delivered through flashbacks by its elderly characters — heartbreaking because they've got nothing much left to live for but the memories in their heads. Canadian artist Jeff Lemire puts his characters — their bulbous bodies rendered with thick sloshes of black ink — through hell while retaining an incredible empathy for them. Though his work offers few glimmers of hope, Lemire's talent is undeniable. Top shelf. (Available as three separate volumes, $9.95-$14.95; or in August in softcover for $29.95, hardcover $49.95)

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge

Though Americans are well-acquainted with the damage Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans, our images are largely of the aftereffects. A.D. lets us see the storm's damage in real time. Josh Neufeld's pages move with cinematic pacing, and because he refuses to politicize his book, the devastation (as experienced by five Louisianans) speaks for itself. The result is largely free of melodrama, which is why it's so effective in helping readers to understand what happened. (Pantheon Books; available Aug. 18 in softcover for $24.95)

Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes

Though he's capable of beautiful and detailed cartooning, Anders Nilsen won't blow you away with his near-stick-figure visual style in Black Holes. The book — more a collection of related sketches than a graphic novel — is dependent on dialogue so terrifyingly surreal it forces us to question the author's grip on reality. But that's where Nilsen — whose writing is reminiscent of the paranoid ramblings of Radiohead's Thom Yorke — gets us. (Fantagraphics; softcover $22.99)

A Drifting Life

Legendary Japanese cartoonist Yoshihiro Tatsumi is known more for sharp, Hitchcockian graphic short stories than decade-sprawling epics, but he's grown long-winded in his old age. Tatsumi regales us with lovingly illustrated tales from his youth in his memoir, A Drifting Life, which doubles as a history of manga and film in postwar Japan. The minutiae of Tatsumi's life won't be very compelling to readers who aren't comics geeks, but the neurotic detail with which he tells his story is worth turning the book's 800-plus pages. (Drawn & Quarterly; softcover $29.95)

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

Brian Fies is an incurable optimist. Even his previous book, Mom's Cancer (guess what it's about?), clung to strength in the face of adversity. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is a reasonably meta collection of father-son stories that examine, with wide-eyed wonder, technological advances from America's can-do last century. Most comic creators are outsiders by trade, but Fies seems remarkably well-adjusted, a trait a lot of comics readers will find jarring. But that upbeat perspective goes well with the author's clean drawing style, and by the end of the book we just really hope Fies is right in predicting a non-dystopian future. (Abrams ComicArts; hardcover $24.95)

The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders

Didier Lefèvre traveled through Afghanistan in the mid-'80s (where there were plenty of pre-9/11 troubles), and he took enough photos to make a stop-motion film. Instead, he worked with artist Emmanuel Guibert to compile a detailed account of his time in the country in illustrations and photos. Not only does the book shed light on the political history of Afghanistan, it documents the bravery of doctors who volunteered there, and the beauty of the country's mountain landscape. Sadly, Lefèvre died in 2007. (First Second Books; softcover $29.95)

Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories

The stalest form in comics is the graphic journal, wherein artists document boring day-to-day happenings at art school. Gabrielle Bell's stories may not be purely autobiographical, but they successfully twist that format into something fresh. Her characters are as hard to peg as Bell's own ever-changing drawing style: Vulnerable and brash, they make decisions and say things that don't always make sense, but they seem very real nonetheless. (Drawn & Quarterly; hardcover $19.95)

(This story first appeared in the Willamette Weekly.)


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