Like fiction that is all text, graphic novels tackle all sorts of issues, treating even the most serious in a fresh, unconventional way. Now that they've gained legitimacy through features in major newspapers and magazines, these marriages of pictures and words are striking ever deeper, spanning the political and the personal in unexpectedly resonant ways.
With the country engaged in the presidential campaign, it's time to check out a few of the more political graphic novels. More personal expressions continue to tumble from the imaginations of these gifted, distinctive litterateurs, attesting to a medium still taking shape before our eyes and in our mind's eye.
''Sticks and Stones" (Three Rivers, unpaginated, $13.95)
Peter Kuper's ''picture story" is about an empire built of blocks. Crafted by the man who has created Mad magazine's ''Spy vs. Spy" since 1996, its pure imagery suggests that empires with bullies at their foundation are doomed. Kuper opens with a stylized landscape of dunes and mesas dominated by a volcano that belches out a blockhead, whom I call Big Guy. When Big Guy pulls himself together, he discovers a pile of rocks he assembles with the help of Lilliputian blockheads similarly eager for a home to call their own. A castle arises, but the doorway is too small for Big Guy, who ruins it trying to get in. His solution? Grow bigger, carry a big throne, and cow his subjects. Big Guy and a bitty deputy set their sights on mountains, where they discover a fortified, peaceful city. Unlike their black-and-white place, it's full color. War ensues, Big Guy takes over the city, and oppression becomes the rule. There are no words here, but Kuper is far from speechless. Like the best silent movies, this communicates in beautiful frames, and Kuper's spare use of color speaks volumes about contrast and freedom.
''Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return" (Pantheon, 187 pp., $17.95)
Paris resident Marjane Satrapi explores oppression in Europe and her native Iran in this sequel to last year's ''Persepolis," a memoir of her childhood during the Iranian revolution of 1979. ''Persepolis 2" focuses on 1984-88, when Satrapi's parents sent her to art school in Austria. There, she honed her craft despite pressures to conform; the half-baked, sexist yet radical politics of her schoolmates; and living arrangements that were sorely trying. Satrapi knows how to tell a story. Not only does she move the narrative along in time, she varies her black-and-white panels with confidence, imbuing her characters with just enough detail to give them expression and personality. A distinctive combination of the stark and the friendly, Satrapi's casually dramatic graphics are clear, informative, and warm. Her relationship with her parents, particularly poignant during a troubling return to Tehran in 1988, is rendered with a depth of a fine, serious literary novel. May Satrapi continue to blend the personal and the political to such extraordinary effect.
''Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel" (Crown, 137 pp., $25)
Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin write a memorably funny satire about the Florida election chaos of 2000. Sparked by the vivid, cleverly detailed illustrations of Kyle Baker (see if you can spot the iconic Huey Newton photo), this entertaining, vernacular book imagines the secession of the paradigmatically impoverished city of East St. Louis from the United States after an unfair election invalidates its votes. Mayor Fred Fredericks, who has always counted on goodwill and idealism for his popularity, allies with billionaire John Roberts (at least partially modeled on Black Entertainment Television mogul Robert Johnson) to make East St. Louis a separate country, renaming it Blackland as it girds for war with a government run by ''Governor Caldwell of Texas, the next President of the United States." Our current president is mercilessly lampooned (''You're saying we don't want to screw ourselves in the foot," he tells advisers arguing about whether to bomb the secessionist area), but McGruder and Hudlin are equal-opportunity caricaturists, blasting opportunists who seek to brand Blackland and entrepreneurs eager to forge backdoor deals with Arabs bent on keeping this country dependent on their oil. ''Birth" stands D. W. Griffith's 1915 racist movie on its head, tackling difficult political themes with spice and verve. At times, the plot seems as out of control as its template, those contested Florida ballots. But you can't put the book down, and it plays out like the movie ''House Party" director Hudlin and ''The Boondocks" comic strip inventor McGruder wanted it to be.
''2 Sisters" (Top Shelf, 334 pp., $19.95)
Matt Kindt's offering is big, meaty, and rough-hewn. I don't like everything about it, but I appreciate its ambition. It's the story of sisters Elle and Anna, who relate, across centuries and continents, through a Grecian urn. The double-necked urn (get the symbolism?) is the focus of a spy thriller that plays during World War II, but it and the sisters also have roles on pirate ships, in gypsy encampments, and in ancient Greece. Kindt is more illustrator than writer -- at times the narrative is downright bewildering -- and his kinetic, jagged style carries ''2 Sisters." His oddly childlike, hyperbolic art, pressed into the service of a resolutely feminist storyline, can be crude. But it can be startling, too, and Kindt excels in wordless displays, permeating minimalist, two-page spreads with drama; look at pages 10-11 and you'll see the complete culture of ancient Greece, sexist class system and all. ''2 Sisters" feels like pulp fiction: gritty, action-packed, and vibrant.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.