Autumn graphic novels

Five of the best.

Slowly but surely, comics and graphic novels are being accepted as the art they have the potential to be. The release schedule for this autumn shows as eclectic a mix of titles as you'd expect in any other medium. Although they can only ever be personal picks, here are the five I'm looking out for (click on any page to see it full-size):

The Hive

Charles Burns's seminal coming of age/mutating STD story, Black Hole, took ten years to come out over the course of 12 issues, but boy was it worth it. For his new story, he's copying the Franco-Belgian model of 60-odd page comic albums; the first volume, X'ed Out, came out in 2010, and was something like Tintin meets David Lynch.

Given it was just the first of three, however, it did rather end with the reader still in the dark. The Hive, the second of the trilogy, ought to bring the story further to the centre. But whether or not it does, the beauty of Burns's art – X'ed Out was his first work in full colour, and this is his second – is reason enough to give it a go.

Building Stories

Chris Ware is a strong contender for greatest living graphic novelist. But his last full-length work, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, came out in 2000, and the world has been eagerly awaiting something new. Ware has kept himself busy in that time – a groundbreaking digital comic for McSweeneys, and several editions of his serial Acme Novelty Library – but Building Stories makes its welcome appearance in October.

Hitting the headlines for its format as much as anything, the book – if that's the right description – ships as an enormous box, with fourteen books, pamphlets, sheets and posters of varying sizes contained within. There is no recommended reading order, and Ware makes the most of the various formats he has to work with, from broadsheet newspapers to hardback children's books (the page below, for instance, is slightly bigger than the Telegraph). All are presented in his trademark hyper-detailed style, and the work is sure to take your breath away.

Saga, volume one

Brian K Vaughan is one of the best loved writers of genre comics. Making his name with Y: the Last Man, a high-concept serial which explored a world in which every animal with a Y chromosome had died except for one man and his monkey, Vaughan has spent the last few years writing for television, honing his skill in the writers' room for Lost. Saga marks his return to comics, and also a maturing of his writing.

The series is almost unwieldy in its scope, but it never forgets the human story at its core: that of a couple, from either side of a war between two feuding races, and their quest to give their daughter a life which seems almost impossible. Ostensibly a space-opera, the series connects on a far more emotional level than many examples of the genre.

Hilda and the Bird Parade

Luke Pearson's follow-up to 2011's Hilda and the Midnight Giant sees him return to Hilda, his delightful all-ages creation (all-ages being comics-speak for "suitable for children, but really you should read it even if you are an adult, because it's great" – think Pixar or the Simpsons). The stories – of which this is the third, but just as strong an entry point as either of the first two – have a deliberate Scandinavian twinge, focusing on that same unquestioning acceptance of the supernatural that gives stories like Tove Jansson's Moomins their unmistakeable feeling.

In this book, Hilda and her single mother have moved from the fjords to the city of Trolberg, and Hilda is struggling to fit in. But when she saves a raven from being killed by her new friends, she finds out he can talk. Together, they embark on an adventure through her new home.

Goddamn This War!

Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches took altogether too long to make it into English. One chapter made it into Art Spiegelman's Raw magazine – most famous for being the site of the original serialisation of Spiegelman's own groundbreaking work Maus – while another two were published in the 1990s by Drawn and Quarterly magazine. But when it Fantagraphics finally published it in full in 2010, Anglophonic audiences were able for the first time to experience an incredibly powerful exploration of the horror of the First World War.

Goddam This War! is more spiritual successor than actual sequel, but it is easily the equal of It Was the War…. Eschewing the latter's splintered storytelling for a simpler, chronological tale, told through the first person narration of an unnamed soldier, it's an accessible look at one of the masters of French comics tackling the subject which he writes about like no other. Plus, it's presented in Tardi's beautiful pen-ink-and-watercolour.

Browsing for graphic novels in a shop in Washington DC (Photograph: Getty Images)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times