"Moon of the Snowblind," written and illustrated by Gary Kelley. (Ice Cube Press, 184 pages, $19.99.)
The history of the Indian Wars is often told from a high-altitude perspective of skirmishes, treaties, victories and defeats. This obscures what it meant to those wrapped up in its muddled battle lines and sudden, inexplicable cruelties. In this astounding graphic historical novel about the 1857 Spirit Lake Massacre from veteran illustrator Gary Kelley, that reality is brought hauntingly to life.
In 1856, a pair of families had trekked West from New York looking for new land. They and eventually other white settlers found a seemingly perfect spot around the lakes of northwest Iowa. Kelley renders the verdant landscape in idyllic, lyric tones that reflect how the settlers saw the "forest primeval" as unpopulated. But following a brutal winter, the land's residents made their presence known. In March 1857, a band of the Wapekute Dakota attacked the settlers' cabins, killing several and taking four women and girls captive.
The ensuing chase through the snow into Minnesota could easily have been depicted in racially dubious dime-novel fashion. But Kelley's humanistic approach includes both the terror of the captives (including excerpts from a memoir by captive Abigail Gardner) and the boxed-in trauma of the Dakota (their leader Inkpaduta having a face "scarred by white man's smallpox" and a soul "scarred by the murder of extended family" by a white horse trader).
A deeply impressive debut from Kelley, whose eerie, epic black-and-white artistry is well-matched with empathy.
"The Great Gatsby," by F. Scott Fitzgerald, adapted and illustrated by K. Woodman-Maynard. (Candlewick Press, 240 pages, $24.99.)
"The Great Gatsby" has been subjected to more high school-level analysis than its short plot and booming symbolism probably warrant. But F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel about a fatal love triangle and an elusive millionaire has an atmosphere of evanescent romanticism that remains hard to shake, particularly in such fragile-feeling times as today.
Minnesota artist K. Woodman-Maynard's graphic adaptation avoids scene-by-scene re-creation. Instead, she focuses more on emotive subtext. Her wash of jewel-toned watercolors and fanciful framing (letters loop and curl around characters) highlight the gaudily fleeting beauty of the book's jazz- and Champagne-fueled bashes and its melancholic undertone.
As with the movie adaptations, visualizing Fitzgerald's text means shrinking the perspective of Nick Carraway, the narrator from the Midwest's "ragged edge of the universe" whose passive subjectivity colors the novel. As a result, the trio of characters whose imploding lives he observes — buzzy socialite Daisy Fay, mysterious nouveau riche Jay Gatsby, and Daisy's grumpy husband, Tom Buchanan — come jumping off the page. But while Gatsby's childlike wooing of Daisy, her blithe disregard of consequences, and Tom's thumping jealousy are as preordained as ever for tragedy, the adaptation's faster pacing makes the conclusion arrive almost before readers have settled into the story.
"Save It for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest," written and illustrated by Nate Powell. (Abrams ComicArts, 160 pages, $24.99.)
"This is not a parenting book or an activist guide," Nate Powell warns at the start of his urgent and grittily rendered collection of illustrated essays. But in the pieces that follow, he views the Donald Trump years as an activist now understanding politics from the perspective of a father living deep in red state Indiana.
Known for illustrating the landmark John Lewis graphic biography series "March," Powell taught his daughter — adorably rendered as a little unicorn with glasses — about progressive causes since "every four-year-old has a pretty clear radar for fairness and injustice."
But he was challenged when ugly realities smashed into his best-delivered ideals. Some of the book's keenest moments show him struggling to parse for his daughter why a truck they passed would fly American and Confederate flags (she believed "the American flag was the good guys") or how in the 2016 election "the bad guy won."
Other essays mix agitation and honesty. In "About Face," Powell pairs his childhood worship of the military and G.I. Joe with an incisive take on current cultural signifiers of commercialized paramilitary toxic masculinity. "Tornado Children" is an anxiety-addled thumbnail pandemic chronicle that hinges on the bruised, exhausted optimism fueling this edgy and plaintive work: "America is as beautiful as it is terrible."
"The Secret to Superhuman Strength," written and illustrated by Alison Bechdel. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pages, $24.)
After two masterful graphic quasi-memoirs that were almost more about her parents ("Fun Home" and "Are You My Mother?"), Alison Bechdel finally turns her gaze on herself, with beautiful results. Ostensibly framed as the story of her decadeslong obsession with exercise, the book appears to have metamorphosed from a simple physical fitness guide. The final product yokes in Margaret Fuller and the Transcendentalists, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Campbell, Buddhism, L.L. Bean, Patagonia, discovering yoga in Minneapolis, workout videos, various manias and girlfriends, the pressure of even graphic novelist-level fame, and, ultimately, death itself.
Using her pursuit of different fitness fads (a "rampant expanse of damp spandex") as a jumping-off point, Bechdel describes her decade-by-decade search for some kind of meaning to transcend all the hamster wheels she kept jumping on. Her mania for work, whether the long-running "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip or her minutely detailed books, was matched by exercising to the point of burnout. Continually measuring herself against others — especially her father, whose somewhat disapproving glare familiar from "Fun Home" reappears here — she knows that her fitful bursts of mania and bleakness are as unsustainable as her avoidance of mortality: "I seemed to be going nowhere fast."
As ever, Bechdel satirizes and analyzes herself with a sharp, knowing, but affectionate touch that is observant without being solipsistic. This is a thoughtful, funny and ruminative autobiography whose intensity is leavened with surprising notes of grace.
Chris Barsanti is the author of several books, a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a frequent contributor on comics for Publishers Weekly. He lives in St. Paul.