Comic books have traditionally taken their audience anywhere—outer space, other dimensions, or imaginary paradises hidden away near the South Pole. But in the last decade, comics' long form—dubbed the "graphic novel"—has also taken readers on real travel expeditions experienced by their authors.
Inevitably, perhaps, a generation of creators raised on Tintin—the fictional Belgian reporter who traveled the world with his dog Snowy— would turn their storytelling skills to their own adventures abroad. And why not? Travel stories are charged with creating an atmosphere, their text inspiring imaginary visuals of foreign lands in the minds of the reader. Graphic novels are a natural fit for travelogues, the illustrations setting the mood and telling the story as much as the accompanying text.
Early forays into the medium were made by illustrator and MAD magazine contributor Peter Kuper in 1992—in "Comics Trips," his story–and– sketchbook–mix about his eight–month around–the–world trip—and by former superhero comics artist David Mazzucchelli, who two years later questioned the nature of truth in travel writing in his 16–page story "Rates of Exchange" about renting a room in Paris (Drawn & Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2).
A decade passed before travel comics matured into full–fledged graphic novels. Editorial cartoonist Ted Rall dabbled in the medium in 2001, with a combined text–and–cartoon account of a trip he made to Afghanistan after 9/11. Then in 2004, several comic book creators produced travel graphic novels all at once. A full–fledged trend was born, and hasn't stopped yet.
Baraka and Black Magic in Morocco
By Rick Smith Alternative Comics, 2004
"I just wander from place to place and don't really belong anywhere. I just watch other people's lives and write," says Patrick, a young backpacker that Rick Smith repeatedly crossed paths with in Morocco.
Disconnection and alienation are themes frequently mentioned in travel literature. Smith deals with it (and with aggressive touts, cheap hotel rooms, and inconveniences) by smoking pot, eating hash brownies, opium tea, and indulging in anything on offer as he and his wife make their way across Morocco. Some readers will be alienated by this, and by his reactions—once, he even throws cigarettes to children when they swarm his car.
Put aside any expectations you may have about what qualifies as insight, and get ready for entertainment on the level of "Anchorman" instead of "Casablanca." This funny story of misfortunes along the chaotic budget travel circuit is not for everyone, but its simple illustrations will be for you if you like a little honesty and dopiness along with your cultural interactions.
Carnet de Voyage
By Craig Thompson Top Shelf, 2004
Thompson, who had previously authored two acclaimed graphic novels, offers a disclaimer on page one. "This is not "the Next Book," but rather a self–indulgent side–project—a simple travel diary drawn while I was traveling through Europe & Morocco." He later suggests that the book was produced in a week. It's part–sketchbook, part meandering narrative—a perfect metaphor for how we travel—that follows the author as he attends European comic book conventions, plays tourist, and nurses a broken heart.
"My own loneliness takes precedent," says Thompson, as he mopes around Marrakesh, holding himself apart from the chaos as much as Rick Smith embraced it. He imagines a chicken calling him a whiner as he declares himself a "sucky traveler." Thompson exaggerates, of course. He's a marvelous travel companion for us, as he investigates his own self–doubt in the context of poverty and ingenuity. Like Smith, he battles with touts. But Thompson is a different sort of traveler. He reacts quietly, more concerned with his lost love than with the assault on his senses from old medinas in Morocco.
A Few Perfect Hours …and other Stories from Southeast Asia and Central Europe
By Josh Neufeld Self–published with assistance from Xeric Foundation, 2004 Distributed by Alternative Comics
Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson—the open–minded and kind tourists in A Few Perfect Hours—are the travelers we all want to be. They spent a year–and–a–half journeying from Hong Kong to Prague, and never let setbacks ruin their enjoyment of the moment, though Neufeld must, as Wilson wrote in the book's foreword, repeatedly "confront his romantic notions of adventure." This happens whenever the couple embarks on an adventure that sounds cool but turns out to be dangerous, pointless, or unsettling.
Why do we travel? To fight with touts? To sneer while Serbian police search our bags? To develop the best diarrhea tale to pass on at hostel social hour? No. Neufeld named his book for the moments of serendipity, for the time after we've braved the crowd of smokers at the back of the Sri Lankan airplane, after being conned into working for free at an organic farm, after learning one's limitations during a dangerous cave exploration or being scammed for money. He named his book for the unexpected moments we search for when we travel. For the sunset, spiritual interaction, or friendly ice cream man. We travel on and on in search of a few perfect hours.