If you think graphic novels tend to focus on people who get superpowers from spider bites or radioactive experiments gone wrong, think again.

Four of this summer's best graphic novels cover topics as wide-ranging as the sexual exploits of writer Anaïs Nin, "the talk" Black parents have with their kids in an attempt to keep them safe, the race to build an atomic bomb and, OK, super-heroic He-Man. The illustration styles are as varied as the subject matter of these four titles:

Before Darrin Bell created the comic strip "Candorville" and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, he was a kid who wanted to think the best of the world but kept getting tripped up by its racism. Black and Jewish, academic and athletic, Bell did not slot into the stereotypes associated with his California upbringing in the 1980s and '90s. In his bittersweet and mordantly funny graphic memoir, Bell describes a Black student sneering at him as "Halfrican American" and a teacher insult-complimenting him as "one of the good ones."

With a brother who ignored racism and a father who preached self-reliance ("a white boy's words never made me run for my life"), Bell tried to be an optimist, seeing prejudice as "mostly ignorance, not malice." His career flourished. But Bell's spirit was buffeted by police-related tragedies that returned him to a terrifyingly rendered childhood memory of being threatened by an officer after dropping his water pistol. Counterintuitively, the need to give to his son the same survival talk about how to behave around police that his mother had given to him brings a glimmer of optimism to a hope-challenged story.

Like all great editorial cartoonists, Bell minimizes overt commentary, making satiric jabs, instead, with brevity, wit, insight and humanity.

The Talk

By: Darrin Bell.

Publisher: Henry Holt, 352 pages, $29.99.

Somehow triangulating a storytelling space between silly celebratory throwbacks like Netflix's "The Toys That Made Us" series and Chomsky-an deconstructions of official narratives, Brian "Box" Brown's "The He-Man Effect" is less the tale of one beloved 1980s toy than the pop history of an industry. Brown argues that the persuasion tactics Edward Bernays, the Freudian founder of modern public relations, used to convince Americans to support the CIA-led 1954 Guatemala coup d'état also helped Disney and other corporations push GI Joes to the masses.

After the modern toy industry came into being with the flood of "Star Wars" products, companies like Hasbro and Mattel found a new path to profit. Instead of waiting for a movie to license, they worked in reverse: creating animated series designed as ads for characters whose action figures could be stacked up on Toys 'R' Us shelves.

Though Brown spends little time on He-Man, he does reveal how designers mashed up focus-group-approved trends into one quasi-Conan muscular warrior. During the mid-1980s toy boom, blockbusters like Transformers and GI Joe so depended on the manipulations of children that one Mattel executive argued that marketers in his industry were "psychological terrorists."

Brown is no scold, admitting to nostalgia for these toys. But his book will still fascinate readers wanting to understand the curious pull that a small, plastic, blond, outer-space barbarian still has on their emotions.

The He-Man Effect: How American Toymakers Sold You Your Childhood

By: Brian "Box" Brown.

Publisher: First Second, 272 pages, $26.99.

American ideas of between-the-wars Paris literary life tend to be filtered through Hemingway's world-weary sensibility. "A Sea of Lies," a dreamy, graphic rendition of Anaïs Nin's erotic diaries, presents a more theatrically romantic take. Léonie Bischoff opens in the 1920s, just after Nin, a Cuban writer who had yet to find her voice, moved to Paris with husband Hugo, a banker who put his artistic ambitions on hold to support them.

With its swirling lines and volcanic emotions, Bischoff's sumptuously drawn book, first published in France in 2020, echoes the oceanic style Nin used to render the chaos of her inner life ("few know how many women live inside me"). Torn between her love of Hugo and other desires, Nin hurls herself into torrid affairs — most famously, a love triangle with comically louche author Henry Miller and his operatic beauty of a wife, June — with the same fervor she pours into her avant-garde writing.

Hungry for experience ("I want a blaze of bodies and spirits"), Nin also pursues darker seductions, such as her therapists and even the father who abused and abandoned her as a child. Bischoff presents this hothouse atmosphere of artistic and lifestyle experimentation with florid flourishes, free of judgment.

Anaïs Nin: A Sea of Lies

By: Léonie Bischoff, translated by Jenna Allen.

Publisher: Fantagraphics, 200 pages, $29.99.

Those looking for a thorough yet not overwhelming guide to the Manhattan Project to pair with Christopher Nolan's current "Oppenheimer" film will want to try Didier Alcante and Laurent-Frédéric Bollée's densely researched "The Bomb." In the late 1930s, physicists like Leo Szilard realized first that scientific advances made possible the development of an astonishingly devastating atomic bomb and, then, that the Nazis had to be stopped from developing it first.

Less a story of science than scientists, The Bomb is mostly a drama of clashing egos, set against a cataclysmic world war backdrop. Denis Rodier's stark, heavily cross-hatched black-and-white illustrations bring a noir intensity to an already charged story.

While detailing the infighting and machinations needed to produce the bomb in secret, the authors thread in side plots about competing Nazi, Japanese and Soviet projects. In inspired breaks from the standard narrative, the authors include stories like a Japanese man whose shadow is scorched into a building by the Hiroshima bomb and the Americans unwittingly turned into plutonium guinea pigs.

While the dialogue is too often declamatory, and the decision to give the bomb a literal voice in some sections is a bafflingly awkward one, this is an epic story, told in human terms.

The Bomb: The Weapon That Changed the World

By: Didier Alcante and Laurent-Frédéric Bollée, illustrated by Denis Rodier.

Publisher: Abrams ComicArts, 464 pages, $29.99.

Chris Barsanti is the author of the forthcoming "Six Seasons and a Movie: How 'Community' Broke Television") and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in St. Paul.