Graphic non-fiction combines the best of both worlds – the grown-up topics you want to tackle, told through the medium of drawings that captivate your inner child as well as the Instant Gratification Monkey. When done well, the seamless integration of images and storytelling can communicate complex and daunting topics much better than a big book full of long sentences and small print, making graphic novels the perfect companion for travellers looking to learn about new places.
And besides – it’s damn good fun!
Below I’ve collected the travel-inspired and travel-inspiring graphic novels I’ve read over the years (and some I haven’t yet). They give a fresh perspective on old topics, from the Iranian revolution to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and can be an indispensable part of your travel prep or a way to broaden your horizons while enjoying the comforts of home.
P.S.: If anyone mocks you for reading cartoons point them to the nearest copy of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus and the unfriend them on Facebook. That’ll teach ‘em.
PERSEPOLIS: The Story of a Childhood
By Marjane Satrapi
I’d read a lot of articles and books on Iran before travelling there at the end of 2014, but decided to give Persepolis a miss, thinking I was surely better off with all the big books with the small letters and the long sentences. Learn from my mistakes, people! This graphic novel is a great way to get acquainted with the complicated and glorious mess that is Iran, and it’s a damn sight more entertaining than all those Foreign Affairs articles.
Persepolis is Satrapi’s autobiographical tale of growing up during the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. As the daughter of liberal parents with a precocious love for Marx and the ambition of becoming a prophet when she grows up, her story is both uniquely hers and illuminating of an important part of Iran’s history. Told through the eyes of a child, we learn about the new world of the Islamic Republic along with Satrapi, joining her on a journey that’s witty, tragic, and at time really really funny. (goodreads)
The sequel, PERSEPOLIS: story of a Return, chronicles her return to Iran as a young woman, after having spent four years in Vienna.
Both books have also been adapted into an animated film.
SAFE AREA GORAZDE: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-1995
By Joe Sacco
Safe Area Goražde doesn’t pull any punches, but then the title makes it pretty clear what you’re getting into. You’ll probably have to put this journalistic graphic novel down every now and then and go watch funny cat videos to decompress. I’d recommend this over my approach, which was to read it in one go and then wallow in misery for a week.
I’m really not selling this very well – I thought it was an incredibly good book. It’s an account of the war in Bosnia, and rather than describe the events in the distant language of a history book or geopolitical analysis, Sacco’s stories and detailed illustrations bring us right into Goražde, the Muslim-held enclave which was besieged by Bosnian Serbs during the war. Sacco spent some five months in Bosnia and one month in Goražde. The book moves eloquently from intimate portrayals of his Bosnian friends to the larger ethno-political context of the war, never flinching away from the cruelty and desperation that marked that time. The book is largely told from the perspectives of people he talked to during his stay, with Sacco only inserting himself in the story for occasional historical and political explanations. (goodreads)
Also by Joe Sacco: PALESTINE, about his experiences in Gaza and the West Bank in the early 90s, with an introduction from Edward Said, and FOOTNOTES IN GAZA, describing his effort to discover what happened during two bloody days in Rafah and Khan Younis in 1956.
I’ve had both books for a while but frankly haven’t yet amassed enough reliably funny cat videos to tackle them. Will report back in due course.
By Anthony Jenkins
If you feel like you really don’t need to spend your free time reading (literally) graphic accounts of genocide or violent revolutions, Traveller’s Tales will help you travel through Australia, Asia and Africa from the comfort of your armchair. While not technically a graphic novel Jenkins’s little travel vignettes rely heavily on illustration and are a great way to while away a lazy evening. Published back in ’85 it’s all but forgotten by the Internet and the world, but copies of it tend to crop up in second-hand bookshops on the Asian backpacker trail – keep an eye out!
If you’ve ever struggled to make sense of the bewildering pantheon of Hindu gods you’re not alone. But visiting Hindu temples is a lot more fun if you know what all the fuss is about!
This is where Amar Chitra Katha comes in – it’s one of India’s best-selling comic book series which tells the stories of Hindu mythology, Indian epics and folklore, with more than 400 titles to choose from. They’re a fun read, can be bought in practically every kiosk in India and make for a user-friendly way of tackling the Ramayana and Mahabharata. And if you read them in plain view on a train you’re bound to make friends! (website)
That’s as far as I got – below are a couple more titles that are on my to-read list, but that I haven’t yet managed to get my hands on:
By Emmanuel Gilbert & Didier Lefevre
The graphic novel/photo-journal telling the story of photographer Didier Lefevre, who accompanied Doctors Without Borders on a mission in Afghanistan in 1986. (goodreads)
THE 14TH DALAI LAMA: a Manga Biography
By Tetsu Saiwai
Chronicling the history of modern Tibet through the life story of the Dalai Lama (who authorized the book), from his birth in rural northeast Tibet in 1935 to his exile in India and life as the Tibetan leader-in-exile. (goodreads)
By Guy Delisle
Described to me by various people as “very interesting” and “a French man complaining in pictures” I guess this one could go either way – but I think the complexities of Myanmar can always use an illustrated primer. (goodreads)
Also from him: Shenzen: a travelogue from China and Pyongyang: a journey in North Korea
So next time you’re planning a trip, or just want to learn something new, have a look around the graphic novel section in your local bookstore and you might be surprised by all the gems waiting there!
But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a rookie when it comes to the topic – did I miss any important titles? Do you have recommendations of your own? Comment below!