Approaching Reality: Slice-of-Life Graphic Novels

Slice-of-life graphic novels are nothing new, but this genre has been expanding in new and exciting ways while becoming increasingly visible in the comics scene. Over the past couple years, there has been an explosion of noteworthy not-quite-fact/not-quite-fiction graphic novels tackling the stuff of life. Slice-of-life graphic novels read very much like graphic memoirs, which may be a more familiar graphic novel genre, but they aren’t always as grounded in reality and often incorporate elements of other genres and writing/illustration styles. Here are a few recent examples to check out if you are looking to approach (but still escape from) reality through some unique perspectives.

Looking for a short (but very impactful) read? Look no further than No One Else written and illustrated by R. Kikuo Johnson. Set in the author’s hometown on Maui, No One Else tackles grief, family dynamics, parenthood, and even environmental issues. Charlene, a single mom who has spent the last several years caring for her aging father, must reprocess life after his passing with the help of her estranged musician brother. The illustrations are expressive, and the contrasting color palate is used to set a tone and draw attention to story elements. No One Else is heavy and will require space to dwell on the part of the reader, but it’s a great title to read if you want to introduce yourself to slice-of-life graphic novels.

Featured on our Best Books of 2021 list, Stone Fruit, written and illustrated by Lee Lai, digs at the meaning of understanding one’s self and others while tiptoeing through varying examples of relationship strain. Aunties Ray and Bron are effortlessly free in the best of ways when they are together with their young niece, but what happens once they must face the realities of adulthood? Lai has a unique illustration style and the way the characters are depicted in childhood play has a beautifully feral quality. This story feels so real and relatable, it's hard to imagine that it is fiction making it a strong example of this genre.

Looking to get lost in pockets of abstract thought? New Yorker artist Will McPhail’s debut graphic novel In. meanders between external and internal dialogue by incorporating full-page dream-like sequences saturated in color and richness. The main character Nick feels disconnected in moments of human interaction and is just trying to make sense of it all while maintaining relationships and moving through life. At times you may laugh out loud (I recommend paying attention to the coffee shop names), yet just a few pages later you may be mesmerized and lost in thought wading through Nick’s inner self.

If bite-sized story collections are your thing, you should read It's Not What You Thought It Would Be written and illustrated by Lizzy Stewart. Presented as a series of interconnected vignettes, Stewart not only explores different character perspectives but also varying illustrative styles representative of the characters and storylines. Each story is self-contained yet fits into the larger picture of neighborhood life and themes surrounding growing up. What is it like looking down at your neighborhood from your newly found rooftop hang and who do you let share your space? Dive into this read and you will find out.

Real life can be daunting at times, even in slice-of-life storylines. Night Bus pulls from life experiences of its writer and illustrator Zuo Ma (translated by Orion Martin) blending it with elements of dark humor, fantasy, and even horror in an ink-heavy, sketchy illustration style. The collection has common themes of loss, the angst of growing up, instances of deterioration, and our relationship with nature. Depictions of the memory loss of an aging grandmother are woven into more than one story in ways that make it difficult to escape this read without some tears, but it is very much worth it. Other vignettes will take you beetle hunting, through small towns being engulfed by new development, and the struggles of finding purpose as a young adult.

Are you seeking more of a graphic memoir vibe? Feelings: A Story in Seasons, written and illustrated by Manjit Thapp, may be a good read to ground yourself. In the opening page, Thapp writes that the woman in Feelings is not an exact likeness of herself but is instead representative of some of the most important parts of her. Flowing through the six-season calendar used by many South Asian countries, Thapp expresses the feelings and emotions that accompany the character’s anxiety through colorful illustrations full of movement and texture using very little text along the way. This art-forward graphic novel is a great read to sit down with if you are craving space for contemplation.

Have you read any of these titles or any other slice-of-life graphic novels? If so, tell us what you think! If you end up liking this rising genre as much as I do, I recommend keeping tabs on publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly which regularly release many stand-out slice-of-life graphic novel titles.

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