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Graphic novels are not only for geeks
Subject matter in graphic novels varies, but they can be a good way to bring young people into reading.

I will confess that one of my literary guilty pleasures is the graphic novel. For the most part, there seems to be a certain stigma about graphic novels and comic books outside of the sci-fi convention crowd or fans of the superhero genre. Many consider graphic novels as not "real" reading - that is, they may view the genre as picture books for adults (and in a vast majority of cases, very adult, given how gory and sexual some mainstream comic books have become nowadays).

Graphic novels tend to be fantasy, science fiction, horror or action adventure, so just as with any form of literature, they will appeal to a specific demographic. I would argue, however, that graphic novels could be an effective medium to encourage those who claim that they don't like to read to gradually become passionate bookworms.

For one, even a lengthy graphic novel — not to be confused with "comic books," as graphic novels tend to stand on their own and are not continuous weekly or monthly chapters — can usually be read in one sitting. Yet I find there is an incentive to re-read graphic novels because of the artwork — there is always something missed the first read-through, whether some secret symbolism in the background or just little nuances that are not evident until you begin to analyze the work.

Also, graphic novels can be good introductions to classic literature that some readers may not otherwise pick up because they may feel daunted by the book's language or complexity. There are illustrated versions of almost any book that is typically on a school reading list, such as Shakespeare's plays and Victorian era masterpieces.

Often, reading a condensed version with artistic depictions helps a young reader feel more confident to understand the original work and motivate them to attempt classic literature without dread.

Then there are graphic novels that are just so beautiful, with such memorable stories that could not have been done justice with words alone, that it adds a whole new level to a reader's imagination. I would like to share with you four of my favorite graphic novels that have made me feel this way, and even though they might be hard to come by at a typical bookstore, they are worth the hunt:

• "The Arrival." Story and Artwork by Shaun Tan. Portrayed in soft earthly color tones that give the artwork an antique, nostalgic quality, "The Arrival" follows the journey of an immigrant in an exotic new city, full of fantastic landscapes and bizarre creatures, and along his way our protagonist meets others who have migrated to this paradise from homelands begotten with hardships and unrest.

What makes this novel so special is that it manages to convey a powerful story and identifiable characters, and not a single word of written dialogue is to be found anywhere in its pages.

• "The Dream Hunters." Story by Neil Gaiman, Artwork by Yoshitaka Amano. Hailed as one of the best fantasy authors of our time, Neil Gaiman's unique imagination and spellbinding storytelling gives readers a fairy tale set in Japan, about a fox who falls in love with a human monk and is willing to sacrifice herself in order to save his life.

So far I have found two graphic novel versions of this story, but it is the one with Amano's artwork (video game connoisseurs will recognize his whimsical watercolors from the Final Fantasy games) that truly captures the surreal, dreamlike beauty that gives this novel a distinct Asian atmosphere.

• "The Last Dragon." Story by Jane Yolan, Artwork by Rebecca Guay. This is a familiar but gorgeously rendered tale about a healer's daughter and a kite-maker who must defeat the world's last dragon in order to save their country from its rampage. Yolan, a prolific children's book author who has been considered "America's Han Christian Andersen," and Guay, whose artwork has been featured in "Magic: The Gathering" trading cards, children's books, and various Marvel and DC comic books, make a perfect duo in creating an epic fantasy that is appropriate for all readers.

• "The Book of Ballads." Stories by various authors. Artwork by Charles Vess. This collection of stories is based on ancient ballads and folklore from Ireland, Scotland and England, and is rendered in simple black and white, but Vess' iconic artwork breathes new life into these ancient songs, ranging from the comical to the heartbreaking. Vess' artistic style runs a wide range to perfectly capture the different moods of each piece, and no two compositions are alike.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on

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