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The top five political comic books

By Nuala Calvi, for CNN
  • The medium of comics has has been used to tackle serious political subjects from the Holocaust to Palestine
  • Graphic novels take readers to places news cameras cannot reach and provide a personal insight into world events
  • The genre is still evolving, incorporating photojournalism and art traditions from other cultures

London, England (CNN) -- The word "comic" typically conjures up images of muscly men in colorful tights who possess superhuman powers.

But over the last few decades a growing number of artists have used the medium of graphic novels to tackle real stories of a more serious, earthbound nature.

From the horrors of Auschwitz to the experience of growing up during the Islamic Revolution, graphic novels provide a unique, personal insight into historic events and political situations, taking the reader to places that news cameras cannot access.

Comics historian Paul Gravett, whose book "1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die" is published in October, gives his pick of the top five political graphic novels.

1. "Maus"

From humble beginnings as an underground comic strip in the 1970s, Art Spiegelman's "Maus" grew into a giant of the graphic novel genre, becoming the first book of its kind to win a Pulitzer prize.

The two-part novel follows Spiegelman's Jewish parents in 1940s Poland, from their early experiences of anti-Semitism to their internment in Auschwitz, intercut with the young author's attempts to coax the story out of his cantankerous father as an old man.

This complex subject is handled with a simple, pared-back visual style akin to a journal sketch or diagram -- with the Jews depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats.

For many people, "Maus" was very shocking ... that a subject like the Holocaust could be dealt with by a comic.
--Paul Gravett, comics historian

"For many people, 'Maus' was very shocking -- firstly that a subject like the Holocaust could be dealt with by a comic, and secondly that the Tom and Jerry trope could be used in this way," says Gravett.

"But the symbol of the mouse had particular resonance," he explains, "because the poison used in the gas chambers was initially used for killing rodents, and the imagery of the Jews as some kind of pest or infestation was familiar in Nazi propaganda.

"The book is really harrowing of course, but also very approachable," he continues. "It pulls you in and is easy to read for people who perhaps haven't read comics before."

As a result, "Maus" quickly found a mainstream audience after it was published in book form in 1986 and 1991 -- but the idea of the graphic novel as biography was still radical enough to cause confusion.

"It was in the New York Times bestseller list, but as a graphic novel it was put in the fiction category," says Gravett. "Spiegelman contacted the paper and pointed out that the Holocaust was not fiction."

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2. "Palestine"

A former journalist, Joe Sacco became frustrated that he was not covering the kind of hard-hitting, political stories he had hoped, and turned to graphic novels as a way of chronicling the lives of ordinary people living in areas of conflict around the world.

"Palestine" covers the time Sacco spent in Gaza and the West Bank in the early 1990s, and employs an intricate, hyperreal style of drawing.

Sacco puts himself into the pictures but leaves his eyes blank behind his glasses, letting the reader form their own response to the stories he encounters.

"'Palestine' really shows what comics can do -- they can depict things that no photographer or news crew would ever be allowed to witness," says Gravett. "The interrogation scenes in the book for example are very powerful.

"People think of comics as being very simplified, but Sacco draws people and places in immense detail, so you really feel immersed," Gravett continues. "He really gets into the minutiae of what it's like to live with the Israel-Palestine conflict going on around you every day."

3. "Persepolis"

Marjane Satrapi's account of her childhood in Iran became a bestseller and an Oscar-nominated animated film, thanks to its unique insight into a veiled society.

"Persepolis" describes momentous events such as the Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq war through a child's eyes, documenting Marjane's growing politicization as she learns of her uncle's death at the hands of the regime and the bombing of her neighbors.

(Persepolis is) about the reality of life in an Islamic regime and a part of the world we don't really hear anything about.
--Paul Gravett, comics historian

"It's about the reality of life in an Islamic regime and a part of the world we don't really hear anything about," says Gravett.

"It came out in English in 2003 at a time when -- post 9/11 -- a lot of people in the West wanted to understand what was going on in the Arab world," Gravett adds. "It was a huge success."

The visual style is bold and childlike, as befits its heroine -- an engaging and precocious young girl whose parents send her away to Europe for fear she will fall foul of the Revolutionary Guard.

"As a result of that, in many ways she's not been sure where she belongs -- and that displacement is fundamental to the comic," says Gravett.

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4. "The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders"

In 1986, photojournalist Didier Lefevre was sent to document a Doctors Without Borders mission in Afghanistan, taking hundreds of photographs of doctors and nurses struggling to tend to the sick and wounded during the Soviet occupation.

Frustrated that only a fraction of his pictures were eventually published, he spoke to comics artist Emmanuel Guibert -- who convinced him to use the rest in a graphic novel about the trip.

Guibert offered to draw the things that Lefevre didn't capture -- such as the scenes that featured Lefevre himself -- creating an unusual book merging photography and art that was published in 2009.

"The personal journey that Lefevre went on is very interesting -- he is the outsider, and has to try to integrate himself with the medical team and the people they're looking after," says Gravett.

"At one point he finds it all too much and tries to make his own way back, almost losing his life in the process."

The book also reveals the amazing humanitarian efforts of the doctors and the tragedy of the victims on both sides of the war. Lefevres' photos are presented simply with captions, while Guibert's drawings include speech bubbles.

"The photos show everything in high-definition, and really capture the makeshift nature of these operations," says Gravett. "But the drawings provide the conversations and incidents that add to the story. The two really complement each other, and the use of photography in graphic novels is something I think we're going to see more of."

5. "Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability"

Bhimayana explores the plight of India's Dalits, or Untouchables, who -- despite the abolition of the country's ancient caste system -- continue to face routine discrimination based on the idea that they are impure.

The book, published this year, combines the biography of Indian activist and Dalit champion Bhimrao Ambedkar -- who himself grew up Untouchable -- with a present-day conversation between two people at a bus stop about whether or not the problem still exists.

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"This is a very important book which highlights one of the biggest denials of human rights still in existence on the planet," says Gravett.

"It's also fascinating for the way it's drawn," he continues. "The authors, Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand, wanted a uniquely Indian feel to the artwork so they commissioned couple Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, who work in the Pardhan Gond style, to produce it.

"Pardhan Gond is a style of art based on traditional techniques using detailed patterning and earth-based, natural colors," Gravett explains. "It has been used for large paintings before but had never been applied to comics."

The artists were reluctant to use the conventions of Western comics so employed decorative friezes to break up the pages instead of boxes, and drew speech bubbles in the shape of birds -- with scorpion tails to indicate prejudiced comments.

"It reminds you that, even today, people are still inventing new ways of creating comics," says Gravett.

What's your favorite political graphic novel? Has a comic changed your view of the world? Post your comments below.