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The 2013 Eisner Awards: Reviewing the Best Reality-Based Comics

Art from The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song by Frank M. Young and David Lasky
Art from The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song by Frank M. Young and David Lasky
Abrams ComicArts

The Eisners, "the Oscars of comics," will be announced at Comicon (in San Diego) next month and I'm still madly reading to catch up with the best of the best of 2012's amazing crop of graphic novels. But, as it's (officially now) summer in Phoenix, it's not too burdensome for me to sprawl under a ceiling fan and cocoon, desert-style. This month I've been pleasure-trolling through the Eisner nominees for "Best Reality-Based Work." Though they are wildly disparate topically and stylistically, each of the six books in this category is entertaining, informative and, in its own way, inspiring. I confess that the first three on the list probably wouldn't have hit my radar if it hadn't been for their Eisner nominations; I would have been the poorer for not having found them.

They are...

See also: The Real Truth About Journalism The 2013 Eisner Awards: One More Look Back at Great Graphic Novels of 2012

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller, by Joseph Lambert (Center for Cartoon Studies/Disney Hyperion) I thought I was well acquainted with the story of Helen Keller and her tutor and lifelong companion Annie Sullivan, having grown up hearing and seeing their story in many forms. In fact, when I was in the second grade (please don't do the math) our class wrote letters to the octogenarian Helen Keller expressing our admiration of her, which she answered in a single letter to the group. I have no idea if kids today know anything about Helen Keller (and this book is suitable your younger readers) but it brought me both a new interpretation of the famous "spell water" episode and insight into what "trials," beyond the obvious ones of her physical disabilities, that Helen Keller went through with Annie by her side.

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song, by Frank M. Young and David Lasky (Abrams ComicArts) If documentarian Ken Burns did comics instead of films, this might be what they'd look and sound like: the book includes a CD of rare Carter Family radio recordings. And that's a compliment. This is a straightforward, chronological telling of the history of the Carter Family musical group -- one of whom was Maybelle Carter, mother of June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash's wife. But it's also a story of the first half America's 20th century, American folk and country music, the early days of the music recording, and performance business plus more. This one I got from the library, but I've got to own it now.

A Chinese Life, by Li Kunwu and P. Ôtié (Self Made Hero) Neither Phoenix nor Scottsdale Public Library has this one, so I bought it. Since it's nearly 700 pages and I have to sleep sometime, I've yet to read it cover to cover. But oh my gosh, this one's a stunner. This is Li Kunwu's memoir of life in China from the creation of the People's Republic in 1949 to present day. When I first opened the book blindly to get an impression for this piece, I landed on a five page arc depicting kids (including the author) randomly creating DA Zi BAOS--large-character public denunciations--during Mao's Cultural Revolution. The feral excitement and power of the youth as they manufacture denunciations is interrupted when a female friend of Li's asks if he knows where there is any petrol: she wants to burn all the DA Zi BAOS, her parents have been accused. When Li tells her it's probably a mistake, she turns away, saying she hopes that Li's father is never accused as her father was that day. If the other 690 or so pages of this book are just 1/10th as powerful, I'm in for quite a schooling.  

Art from The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz
Art from The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz
Koyama Press

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories, by Julia Wertz (Koyama Press) Another book I couldn't find at my library, but was eager to get my hands on. A few years ago I became a fan of Wertz, who published an online comic called "Fart Party," later collected in a book "Drinking at the Movies": obviously this woman has a way with titles. But she also has an enviable way with auto-bio comics. Her previous books had me snorting with laughter about every other page; this one is no different. In this collection of short stories, it's easy to go for laughs when describing your long history of bad jobs, not so easy to get at the funnybone when discussing being diagnosed with lupus when you are just twenty years old. The last story of the book, which Wertz describes in her notes as "basically just a love letter to my hometown library" is quirky and charming -- as is everything else I've read by this author.

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me, by Ellen Forney (Gotham Books) Marbles is Forney's recollection of being diagnosed bipolar at 30 and what it means both personally and culturally to be a "crazy artist." Forney does a delicate balancing act, keeping the reader engaged, amused and offering hope to fellow "crazies" that they, too, will be "okay."

You'll Never Know, Book 3: A Soldier's Heart, by C. Tyler (Fantagraphics) This book was nominated in four Eisner categories, so it's certain to win in one or more categories. If you have yet to discover the trilogy, do it. Now.

When I first discovered that, as a reviewer/journalist of comics, I wasn't allowed to vote in the Eisner competition, I was a little bummed. But now, I'm not sure I would want to. Each book I've read has been stellar and I'd be hard pressed to choose a singular winner. So much diversity, humanity, storytelling, and history is bounded in those thousands of panels -- it would be like asking me to pick one single food or fragrance or sound to declare "the best." I guess even though, when I was about twelve years old, I listed "judge" as a career goal, I'm not cut out to be one.

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