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Nonfiction Uses Pictures To Help Tell The Story

Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography By Sabrina Jones Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008 144 pp., hardcover, $18.95

The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA By Mark Schultz Farrar, Straus and Giroux 160 pp., paper, $14.95

Not too long ago, the term "graphic nonfiction" might have referred to how-to manuals, editorial cartoons or field guides to flora and fauna. But recently, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released several works by nonfiction writers using pictures to help tell a story - to leaven a dense topic or to help the information flow. The topics are as varied as the U.S. Constitution, modern dancer Isadora Duncan and the human genetic code.

Brooklyn artist Sabrina Jones is not new to graphic nonfiction. She's worked on several issues of the political comic book World War 3 Illustrated and on nonfiction comics for Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, The Real Cost of Prisons and other projects. In Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography, she sets the record straight on myths and legends surrounding the great modern-dance pioneer, some of which Duncan created herself.

In an introductory essay of quotations and pictures, Jones observes that Duncan's own account of her life, placed alongside other sources, doesn't add up - prompting the author to draw one of those little speech bubbles above the head of a girl who is reading both: "She lied!"

She debunks Duncan as a Communist revolutionary, noting that "she was as proud to dance for the Romanov dynasty as she was for Lenin" - leading the author to quip, "Revolutionist or opportunist?" These disparities between myth and reality are amplified by the fact that there is no film of her dancing, so impressions come from her contemporaries, whom the author quotes. Dancer Ruth St. Denis described her as "the ecstatic liberation of the soul." The evangelist Billy Sunday is quoted as saying, "That Bolshevik hussy doesn't wear enough clothing to pad a crutch."

After that introduction, the author begins the story with the dancer's childhood. Her black-and white drawings are mostly functional, except for the flowing and voluptuous treatment of the dancer in motion, which seems to capture something of her spirit. It's an effective and surprisingly economical portrait of one of the seminal figures in dance and culture of the past 100 years.

Writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Aaron McConnell collaborated to make The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation an excellent guide not only to the document itself, but also to the events that informed it. It's not an article-by-article, amendment-by-amendment kind of reference, but rather an insightful look at factors like the relationships between the states, the ramifications of creating a federal government, the concerns of the people and the changes wrought over time on language, technology and the economy that inform the way we interpret the Constitution.

It's packed with information. In taking up the second-amendment right to bear arms, for example, Hennessey differentiates between the words "persons" and "people," persons being everyone and people being those individuals granted political rights - and therefore susceptible to having them taken away. He includes elements of the current debate, such as whether the men in the late 1700s who wrote the amendment could have imagined the power of the "arms" available today. Despite providing that level of background and collateral information, the book doesn't weigh in on whether the right should be limited.

McConnell's pictures mix narrative art with surreal political cartooning, using anthropomorphism (legislators with the Capitol dome in place of heads or the judicial branch represented by a human figure capped by the Supreme Court building); by depicting metaphors literally (a description of the states as "laboratories of democracy" is rendered as a chemistry lab surrounded by state birds, including Ohio's cardinal); and in straightforward comic-book style, like action-oriented battle scenes accompanying Hennessey's discussion of the fact that, until 1971, young men were eligible to be drafted for three years before they were eligible to vote. This gem of a book would be an asset to any high-school civics or government curriculum and equally at home on a pleasure reading list.

Genetic mutation is at the core of countless comic books, resulting in superhuman powers and responsible for heroes and villains alike. That concept gets its due in Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon's The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA. But this is a serious book, not one that explores whether exposure to high doses of radiation might result in super strength, X-ray vision or the ability to stretch and flow like molten plastic. Fortunately, it's not without its comic-book conventions. It's structured as "a detailed translation of the report of Bloort 183, interplanetary biologist of the Glargal Royal Science Academy."

The story begins five billion years ago with the formation of Earth and leaps from there to the creation of life in one page. Evolution from basic life forms to humans takes another two pages. Then Bloort 183 starts to tell the story of life on Earth and how every living thing shares the ability to pass on characteristics via what Earthlings call DNA. Mark Schultz is the star of the book, using the otherworldly naiveté of the aliens to get laughs, as well as to break down facts of life into introductory building blocks, like the idea of sex - "a strategy that allows for the sharing of genetic information between individuals within a species."

The book is dense with information like a good textbook. But Schultz's wit and the alien-report device make it easier to learn what you didn't understand in high school.

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