The best graphic novels that explain things that matter

Why are we passionate about this?

Science is a way to make sense of the world, whatever the subject, and so are Comics. We are British and reserved, but passionately love science and comics. There are some excellent comics that tell stories about people - Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home. But, there are fewer that try to explain ideas without a strong biographical bent. Here are five comics that are, we think, just a little bit more about ideas than people. They're also fabulous examples of how well comics can communicate sophisticated information, without hype. and in a way that reaches any thinking person, whatever their age or place in life. We are, respectively, two retired neuroscientists, a children's non-fiction author, and an artist. We've all grown up reading, and continue to read, comics from Germany, Britain, France, Belgium, Japan, and even the USA.

We wrote...

Two Heads: A Graphic Exploration of How Our Brains Work with Other Brains

By Uta Frith, Chris Frith, Alex Frith , Daniel Locke (illustrator)

Book cover of Two Heads: A Graphic Exploration of How Our Brains Work with Other Brains

What is our book about?

This is a serious science book and a fun comic for grown-ups, a combination that is hard to find. We explain how neuroscientists find out about the brain and ask how it can possibly produce the mind. We dip into the history of neuroscience, and tell a personal story of our own lives, at home and at work. We summarize research from a large variety of labs, working with different species including humans. We seek out findings that tell how and why humans get on - and don’t get on - with each other, whether they collaborate or compete. We show when two, or more heads can be better than one, whether solving problems or being creative.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

Uta, Chris, and Alex Frith Why did I love this book?

Logicomix is a revelation. It tells the colorful life stories of some incredibly important philosophers and mathematicians of recent times, how they met and how their lives reflect their thoughts about some of the most difficult questions ever posed. The stories are beautifully illustrated with a detail that conveys more than mere words. It feels wondrous how the most abstract ideas can be made comprehensible and captivating when we had only the vaguest notions about what these ideas even meant.

By Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Logicomix as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This brilliantly illustrated tale of reason, insanity, love and truth recounts the story of Bertrand Russell's life. Raised by his paternal grandparents, young Russell was never told the whereabouts of his parents. Driven by a desire for knowledge of his own history, he attempted to force the world to yield to his yearnings: for truth, clarity and resolve. As he grew older, and increasingly sophisticated as a philosopher and mathematician, Russell strove to create an objective language with which to describe the world - one free of the biases and slippages of the written word. At the same time, he…

Book cover of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Uta, Chris, and Alex Frith Why did I love this book?

What subject merits explaining more than comics themselves? This playful and enthralling book is full of examples of what, how and why comics can do things that no other medium can. Partly because there are so few comics like this one, it's vastly influential on almost any comic that provides step by step explanations of how things work - not least on Two Heads. For a book that so clearly explains its own subject, it's amazing how much it lends itself to re-reading - especially after some years of looking all different kinds of comics - to remind yourself of just how insightful it is.

By Scott McCloud,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Understanding Comics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling international classic on storytelling and visual communication "You must read this book." - Neil Gaiman Praised throughout the cartoon industry by such luminaries as Art Spiegelman, Matt Groening, and Will Eisner, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is a seminal examination of comics art: its rich history, surprising technical components, and major cultural significance. Explore the secret world between the panels, through the lines, and within the hidden symbols of a powerful but misunderstood art form.

Book cover of Trashed

Uta, Chris, and Alex Frith Why did I love this book?

One of those books that tells you about a topic most people never think about - in this case, your trash. Partly semi-autobiographical about the time Backderf spent as a a trash collector but interspersed with general info about America's love of waste and where it all ends up. Backderf's hyper-exaggerated figures render everything fun to read, with a cynical but accurate eye towards human behavior. It's also painstakingly detailed, and the depictions of the gigantic dumps at the edges of towns cannot be unseen. We all know that trash smells terrible - and boy does this book manage to convey how much worse the smell of a whole canyon full of trash can be.

By Derf Backderf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trashed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Every week we pile our rubbish out on the pavement. We go to work and when we return it's gone. Like magic!
The reality is anything but, of course. Trashed, Derf Backderf's follow-up to the critically acclaimed, award-winning national bestseller My Friend Dahmer, is a working man's epic. An ode to the crap job of all crap jobs-but anyone who has ever been trapped in a soul-sucking gig can relate to this tale. Trashed takes place after Derf graduates high school, when he and his childhood pals find themselves working as garbagemen in their Midwestern hometown. Together they clean the…

Book cover of What It Is

Uta, Chris, and Alex Frith Why did I love this book?

This extraordinary, and very LARGE, book is a simple guide on how to write and draw things. It is also a subtle and ambitious attempt to explain what it is to be creative. Chapters with suggestions for things to draw or write are interspersed with short stories from Barry’s own life. At first it feels a bit instructional, as one might expect from an art/writing teacher. But it really draws you in to see just how basic and wonderful any act of creation is, with no need to try to create important or original things - those features will all come out in the end.

By Lynda Barry,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked What It Is as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Deliciously drawn (with fragments of collage worked into each page), insightful and bubbling with delight in the process of artistic creation. A+" -Salon

How do objects summon memories? What do real images feel like? For decades, these types of questions have permeated the pages of Lynda Barry's compositions, with words attracting pictures and conjuring places through a pen that first and foremost keeps on moving. What It Is demonstrates a tried-and-true creative method that is playful, powerful, and accessible to anyone with an inquisitive wish to write or to remember. Composed of completely new material, each page of Barry's first…

Book cover of Max and Moritz

Uta, Chris, and Alex Frith Why did I love this book?

We can’t resist adding a historical first, published in German in 1865 by Wilhelm Busch, the father of countless other comics that present the pranks of naughty boys. And it features in Two Heads because it inspired psychologists, including ourselves, to study the remarkable ability to mindread. In a single panel Busch reveals that the reader can infer that what is in the mind of the terrible duo is different from what’s in the mind of Widow Bolte, and different from what’s in the mind of her dog. It allows us readers to get the contradictions between these different views and makes us laugh. So although this book doesn't set out to explain anything, it ends up doing a marvelous job of explaining the psychology of intention, interaction and reputation management - in the tradition of great comic strips from Crazy Kat to Peanuts to Calvin & Hobbes.

By Wilhelm Busch, Stefan Hollos (translator), J. Richard Hollos (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Max and Moritz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on the classic German children's story Max und Moritz by Wilhelm Busch, this dual language German-English version includes the original German verse and color illustrations with a new English translation. Contains a biographical timeline of Wilhelm Busch's life. Includes Wilhelm Busch's "Diogenes and the Bad Boys of Corinth".

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Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

Book cover of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

Wendy Lee Hermance Author Of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Wendy Lee Hermance was heard on National Public Radio (NPR) stations with her Missouri Folklore series in the 1980s. She earned a journalism degree from Stephens College, served as Editor and Features Writer for Midwestern and Southern university and regional publications, then settled into writing real estate contracts. In 2012 she attended University of Sydney, earning a master’s degree by research thesis. Her books include Where I’m Going with this Poem, a memoir in poetry and prose. Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat marks her return to feature writing as collections of narrative non-fiction stories.

Wendy's book list on why Portugal is weird

What is my book about?

Weird Foods of Portugal describes the author's first years trying to make sense of a strange new place and a home there for herself.

Witty, dreamlike, and at times jarring, the book sizzles with social commentary looking back at America and beautiful, finely drawn descriptions of Portugal and its people. Part dark-humor cautionary tale, part travel adventure, ultimately, Hermance's book of narrative non-fiction serves as affirmation for any who wish to make a similar move themselves.

Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

What is this book about?

"Wendy Lee Hermance describes Portugal´s colorful people and places - including taxi drivers and animals - with a poet´s empathy and dark humor. Part travel adventure, part cautionary tale, Weird Foods of Portugal is at it´s heart, affirmation for all who consider making such a move themselves."

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