I've read two awesome graphic novels lately. They are very different, and yet both completely wonderful. They are Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch and Cairo by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker (words and art respectively.)
A while back I read the Hereville webcomic, which is about an 11-year-old troll-fighting Orthodox Jewish girl. I fell in love with it, so when I heard that it was coming out in expanded form as an actual graphic novel, I put it on my Amazon wishlist post haste. (You can read a preview of Hereville if you're interested -- the preview contains the first 15 pages of the book.)
Mirka is the hero of Hereville, and she is awesome: smart and spunky and absolutely convinced that someday she's going to fight dragons, even though she doesn't yet have a sword. (Oh, and there haven't been any dragons anywhere near her village in living memory. But why should that stop her?)
Over the course of the book, we meet her little brother Zindel (who's kind of a brat, in a sweet way), her older sister Gittel (who's fourteen and already thinking about whether Gittel's oddities are going to keep her from getting a good marriage match), her stepsister Rochel (who giggles a lot), and her stepmother Fruma who is smarter and more awesome than Mirka initially realizes.
I love this book for a lot of reasons: because it normalizes Orthodox Jewish life (the text is full of Yiddish words, which are translated in small print at the bottom of the page) and shows charming glimpses of things like separate-gender schooling and the tasks involved in preparing for Shabbat; because Mirka is a fabulous hero, as quirky and bright as Sara Crewe or Harry Potter; because the step-mother turns out to be at least as smart as the heroine, which means awesomeness doesn't magically evaporate at adulthood.
And then there is Cairo:
Cairo has little in common with Hereville, aside from general awesomeness. The text was written by G. Willow Wilson, an American author and journalist who divides her time between Egypt and the U.S., and her familiarity with Cairo comes through. There are several pages in this book which filled me with nostalgia -- though I haven't been to Cairo since I was fourteen, there are parts of the Old City of Jerusalem which have some of the same dusty, cluttered beauty as the Cairo depicted here. Wilson didn't do the art for this novel; the art is by M.K. Perker, and reminds me of some of my favorite issues of Sandman.
The beginning of the book offers us a panoply of characters, both Egyptian (a drug smuggler chatting with his dead mother; a journalist visiting an exotic dancer) and other (a Lebanese-American boy on an airplane who turns out to have both a pretty dreadful intention and a far more interesting future than he can imagine; a perky American girl who wants to be post-colonialist and is in for one heck of an adventure.) The plot features a djinn in an old glass hookah, awesome references to the poetry of Rumi, the under-Nile and its magic, and a couple of unlikely romances -- including one which involves a wounded Israeli soldier; I'll let you read the book to find out how that one unfolds.
Each of these graphic novels is set in its own very particular milieu -- the community in which each one takes place is as much a character as the characters are, in a certain way. But I think both of them also transcend their settings. Even if you're not Jewish, I think Hereville will make you grin; even if you don't spend a lot of time thinking about the Middle East, I think Cairo will touch you as it did me. (And, needless to say, if Jewish heroines or Middle Eastern fables are your usual cup of tea, then these books will be right up your alley.) Big thumbs up to both of these books. If you've got Christmas, solstice, Kwanzaa, or New Year's gifts left to buy for comics fans in your life, these might be a good place to start.