Voice to Books: Recent Graphic Novels


While Voice to Books has covered graphic novels and memoirs in the past, we couldn’t help noticing how many intriguing books from underrepresented communities have been published in the last three years—stories of difficult journeys, both physical and spiritual; of searching for one’s place in a new culture and finding an identity within a subculture; of intergenerational trauma and the struggle to improve one’s mental health when, traditionally, these topics are taboo. Though many of the five books we’ve reviewed feature teenage protagonists, these visually arresting stories, even at their most fantastical, offer insight into authentic and universal human experiences.


In Limbo
By Deb JJ Lee
Reviewed by Dave Oei

This coming-of-age memoir follows Lee’s New Jersey high school years with beautiful illustrations and storytelling that does not shy from their experience with teenage darkness and joy. The journey presents Deborah’s battle with racism and bullying, as well as the challenges of making and retaining friends, fitting between two cultures, and most difficult, meeting their immigrant mother’s strict expectations. The dual-toned art is stunning and at times photorealistic, such as Lee’s portrayal of South Korean cityscapes. Other times, it’s borderline fantastical, as when they meet with their faceless therapist, whose words are among the few given to Deborah without judgement or pretense.

This marriage of art and story are highlighted by Deborah’s self-consciousness about their eyes and contrasts the Caucasian beauty standard of double eyelids with their own monolids. Lee portrays this motif by initially drawing other characters’ eyes with nuance and detail, such as with lower and upper lids, glowing irises, and flowing eyelashes. Deborah’s eyes, meanwhile, are minimalistic, each comprised of a simple arc and a dark, cropped circle. The exaggeration indicates how they see themself—an outsider both mentally and physically.

But the crux of Deborah’s challenges are the duels with their condescending and at times violent mother. “I really hope you aren’t truly my child,” their mother says, after comparing Deborah’s lack of academic aspirations to a family friend’s. Lee’s portrayal is nuanced. Though strict, their mother recognizes and nurtures Deborah’s passion for the arts. She also discloses that she’d had cosmetic surgery on her own eyes and offers Deborah the same opportunity. Lee’s focus is on their own story, and yet hidden within it is their mother’s journey on whether to raise her daughter as Korean or American. This is challenging to convey without revealing their mother’s thoughts or point of view, and it’s easily overshadowed by the viscerally illustrated violence, but it’s clear that Deborah isn’t alone in balancing between two worlds. Their interwoven journey is a rich, complex narrative with universal feelings that make In Limbo a uniquely American book.


The High Desert
By James Spooner
Reviewed by Jenny Hayes

 This graphic memoir by the director of Afropunk and editor of Black Punk Now is both the story of a turbulent high school year and an exploration of how punk rock can be a transformative, positive force for those lucky enough to find it when they need it. James and his white mother have just moved to Apple Valley, California in the late 1980s; his Black father lives in Brooklyn, and their relationship is strained. James feels adrift, full of unexcavated anger and frustration, plus all the usual teen angst. He’s burdened with a constant drip of racist aggression from the small, mostly white desert town, from slurs yelled from a passing car to a coordinated beatdown from the local Nazi skinheads. The only inspiration James finds is punk rock; there’s not much of it in Apple Valley, but he meets a few likeminded friends—and, in one delightful passage, even encounters some real New York punks while visiting his father. Spooner takes us along for the ride as his younger self starts to see that punk isn’t just a means of rebellion, but a potential force for creating something new.

Spooner’s occasional interjections of present-day James’s thoughts add depth to the story, acknowledging times when he wimped out or let somebody down. He also displays a tenderness towards his younger self, recognizing how he’d grasped toward answers without really understanding the questions, especially around aspects of race and identity. The book’s artwork showcases Spooner’s ability to convey complex emotions through a character’s face, gestures, and even their clothes and hair, including James’s own evolving style. Action scenes like fights and parties feel vivid, and static scenes are equally impactful. Spooner documents how he still often thinks about that time, including a series of wordless full-page portraits of his friends and parents, each alone in their own space. These pages—and the book itself—illuminate the lasting impact of the relationships you make when you’re young, figuring out who you are and who you want to be.


Just Another Story
By Ernesto Saade
Reviewed by Jackelin Orellana

Just Another Story depicts the immigration journey of the author’s cousin and aunt, Carlos and Elena, from El Salvador to the United States. Saade embeds the feeling of Salvadorian life into the story, with images so detailed that the pages seem to carry within them the leaves and dandelion seeds breezing through the streets. The box of Pollo Campero in the hands of an airport passenger within the first few frames is as evocative an image of Salvadorian travel as a box of pineapples is at a Hawaiian airport. Some cultural details are presented humorously, like Saade’s depiction of himself with a suitcase full of cheese, while others are more subtle, like the coffee cups that always seem to be in his character’s hand regardless of the time of day.

This is not just another story; it’s a part of history that has been missing from the Latin American conversation for years. Stories like Carlos and Elena’s are often obscured by trauma—hidden away and internalized by survivors who lack the proper mental healthcare to process these life-changing journeys. It takes Carlos ten years to disclose this story to Saade, and as he unfolds it, he admits that his mother still cannot talk about it, even with Carlos. The missing history of these stories has led to years of trauma. As hard as it may be for this younger generation of immigrants to share their story, by documenting it Saade perpetuates hope for generational healing.


The Keeper
By Tananarive Due & Steven Barnes

Reviewed by Michael E. Medina

Husband-and-wife literary superstars Due and Barnes blend a stunning mixture of heart and horror in this novel illustrated by Marco Finnegan. Due and Barnes depict the cross-generational effects of oppression and trauma through a family from Detroit, including young Aisha, who lost her parents in a horrific accident only to find a protector in the dark secrets of her ancestors.

The authors use the innocence of childhood to amplify the all-too-familiar burdens of loss and institutionalized racism that place Aisha in dire need of protection and guidance, despite her grandmother’s best efforts to care for her. Aisha’s protection arrives in the form of a monster whose origins are built on the cumulative trauma of her ancestors’ pasts; the authors effortlessly use generational storytelling in the form of flashbacks to develop a full picture of their ancestral, decades-long African American struggles with racism. The authors’ deep commitment to character development is present not only in the complex feelings of love and obligation between Aisha and her grandmother but also in the powerful sacrifices made for those they love.

Finnegan’s classical but eerie depiction of Aisha’s world enhances the experience of this masterful story. “Dull” tones combine with the two-tone coloring of classic horror movies to evoke the spine-tingling anxiety of imagining what lies behind the shadows. The art suggests the unknown, personifying the question this story burns to ask: should Aisha be more afraid of the monster, or the world that created it?

From its comedic moments of Grandma calling the snooping neighbor “a spiteful-ass heifer” to the heartwarming portrayal of Aisha taking care of Grandmother as much as Grandmother takes care of her, The Keeper is a real joy. The monster is as terrifying as the generational trauma it represents—a burden that falls to Aisha, but one she has the power to expel.


49 Days
Agnes Lee
Reviewed by Kristi Rabe

In this meticulous fusion of visual and narrative elements, Agnes Lee crafts a poignant journey that explores the movement inherent to grief, redemption, and human connection, engendering a deeply empathetic story. The plot is intentionally confusing. A young Kit travels through a stark landscape shrouded in blue artwork, following an ever-changing map, but is continually thwarted from reaching an ambiguous destination. Through Kit, the book covers the Buddhist concept of Bardo, where the soul travels in a transitional period for 49 days and undergoes various experiences for spiritual growth—but it also follows her grieving family, who offer Kit prayers while struggling to cope with being left behind.

Colors become a visual conduit to convey layers of meaning—a conceptualization also rooted in Buddhist beliefs. Each color imparts the wisdom found in the evolution of each timeline’s arc. In the blue of Kit’s journey, we touch the purity of infinity. Orange conveys the illuminating perfection of childhood memories. While the family’s memories are also orange, the present timeline uses a dusty rose to depict the gradual solace of healing wisdom. The evolving palette enriches empathy and provides a way to slowly drive plot and reveal each character’s distinct personality.

Lee’s minimalist approach builds a momentum that carries the reader into the lives of each grieving character.  In the book’s center are ten dual spreads detailing Kit’s demise. The colors evaporate into a stark black with a small white circle in the center of the first page. Subsequent pages show an enlarging circle, suggesting the light of an impending catastrophe, until the final page cuts to black. The graphic treatment of this stark cut to darkness conveys and contains as much horror and tension as would a story told entirely in prose. It’s a testament to storytelling’s versatility and power, achieved here through a dynamic fusion of color, plot intricacies, and realistic characters. It’s a profoundly resonant journey that transcends traditional boundaries and offers a transformative experience that lingers long after the final page is turned.

Voice to Books is a periodical short list of reviews focusing on writers from marginalized or underrepresented groups.