Etelka Lehoczky

Like any good story about a scientific discovery, Walter A. Brown's account of the history of lithium features plenty of improvisation, conjecture and straight-up kismet.

Unlike many such stories, though, it also features a fair share of personal bias, senseless puttering and random speculation — on part of these scientific researchers.

The time is 1987. The movie is Spaceballs. As Dark Helmet ponders his next move, his lieutenant has a brainwave: "Get me a cassette of Spaceballs the movie." The videotape is produced, and soon Dark Helmet and the lieutenant are peering at a screen on which they can be seen watching themselves. "What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?" Dark Helmet demands. "Now," answers the lieutenant. "You're looking at now, sir.

As NPR spends the summer reflecting on literary laughter, a funny thing is happening in popular culture. An era infamous for its uniquely counterintuitive approach to humor is coming back in style. If Seventeen magazine says so, it must be true: The '90s are with us again.

Sometimes a book deserves attention not for what it is, but for what it isn't. Molly Mendoza's graphic novel Skip isn't a lot of things. It isn't typical of any of the genres that dominate comics today, for one thing: It's not an action-packed serial adventure, a revealing memoir or an arty exploration of formal principles. It also isn't a book that will immediately attract grown-up readers, and yet it probably won't win a wide following in the under-18 set.

If you're reading this on your phone, drop it! (Or at least, drop it once you've finished this article.) That little screen of yours won't give you access to some of the wildest, weirdest, most innovative images and words bubbling up into the culture right now. Said miraculous content can only be found — brace yourself — on paper. To be precise, it can only be found in a flood of new periodicals by brave (or perhaps deluded) publishers who've declared war on digital monotony. Where in the world could such a quixotic movement emerge, you ask? Only in alternative comics.

"Shame is a cruel thing," writes George Takei in They Called Us Enemy, his new graphic novel about his childhood years in an American concentration camp during World War II. "It should rest on the perpetrators, but they don't carry it the way the victims do."

Let's get one thing straight: Monstress, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda's wildly successful graphical epic, is great. Yep, "great" is definitely the word to use. No, brilliant. Brilliant, that's what Monstress is ... or is it?

There are some people who can look at complex equations — this one, for example:

If you want a nice little boost to your aesthete's ego, here's a fun exercise: Pick out a seemingly forgettable artwork and give it your attention.

When young urbanites move into poor neighborhoods in search of cheap rents and local color, they often get more than they bargained for. What they don't usually get are body parts spilling over toilet bowl rims and face-eating tentacles crawling out of ventilation systems. That's the kind of visceral revenge meted out in BTTM FDRS, Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore's comedic horror comic. Daniels, who wrote BTTM FDRS, and Passmore, who illustrated it, wanted to distill the complex politics of gentrification into digestible (well, really fairly indigestible) form.

Sometimes the greatest stories are forever out of reach. Such is the case with innumerable tales of the mocambos, communities of runaway slaves that took root in the jungles of Brazil in the 1600s. And such is the case with the stories that make up Marcelo D'Salete's Angola Janga. In this massive graphic novel, D'Salete relates the history of the villages that provided havens for freedom-seeking runaways — and presented a perennial threat to the whole institution of slavery in Brazil.

If you were to make a list of professions in which women have failed to achieve a fair share of renown, one of the topmost entries would surely be architecture.

What do you want? The question haunts us all — but why? It's not as if the answer doesn't seem clear enough. Naturally, we want money, love, a hundred thousand Instagram followers. And yet for those who do attain these prizes, there's still no exalted state of perfect happiness. Take the Kardashians, a group of people whose only function is to demonstrate what you do when you get everything you ever wanted. The answer, it turns out, is that you freeze: You inter yourself inside a million static selfies.

For about a year in the late '70s, Mark Alan Stamaty showed Village Voice readers how to see their city as a child would. His weekly strip "MacDoodle St." presented life in New York City as an intricate, kaleidoscopic melee of odd people and outlandish happenings. Nothing was dingy or ordinary in Stamaty's city. Every passerby was remarkable, every block animated by collisions between disparate lives. Each new street corner offered the questing mind an opportunity to tell a story.

Remember Loompanics? It was that dicey little press skulking on the cultural fringes from the 1970s through the mid-2000s.

Inés Estrada's new graphic novel is sci-fi, but a special kind of sci-fi. It's sci-fi that doesn't imagine the future so much as remind you just how strange the present is. Though it's set in 2054, Alienation sketches a world that, in most aspects, feels just a few ticks off from the present day. Its characters experience online communication, virtual reality, sexual fluidity, cultural heterogeneity and the increasingly compromised natural environment in much the same way we do now.

Drawing comics with characters of diverse races is a fraught task. From the earliest political cartoons up through last year's controversial depiction of Serena Williams by Australian artist Mark Knight, comics have a long history of exaggerating physical features in the service of racist stereotypes.

Scott Hampton has big work to do in My Ainsel, volume 2 of an ambitious, three-part graphic adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Hampton's task duplicates the thorny one Gaiman set himself in the 2001 novel: To convince readers that figures out of myth and fable deserve deadly serious, unsentimental attention. American Gods shows these figures — Odin, Bast, Loki, even the personification of Easter – grappling with the failure of that attention.

Journalist, novelist and polemicist Rose Wilder Lane may be the most controversial woman nobody's ever heard of. Today she's known primarily for her turbulent collaboration with her famous mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, on the Little House on the Prairie books. But Lane's story doesn't end there — far from it. A fire-breathing libertarian, she denounced Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" and grew her own food to protest World War II rationing.

Think you know the suburbs? Well, it might be time to revisit.

At least, that's what Amanda Kolson Hurley, a senior editor at urban news site CityLab, wants you to do. Kolson Hurley is well-acquainted with suburbia's numerous negative stereotypes — some of them, such as racial segregation and ecological threat, all too valid. But in Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City, Kolson Hurley sets out to reveal a different side of the vast patchwork of not-quite-urban, not-quite-rural zones in which more than half of Americans live.

People who talk about comics talk a lot about connection. An image, after all, can spark understanding instantaneously, linking the artist's mind with the reader's in a millisecond while mere words — so weighty and awkward by comparison — lumber to catch up. It's no accident that the medium has always been associated with the semi-literate masses and with children; you don't have to learn to read a comic panel to be influenced by the person who drew it.

Whether he's investigating such contentious celebs as André the Giant and Andy Kaufman or delving into the mythology of Tetris, Box Brown has a knack for using comics to illuminate tricky subjects.

"Would you rather be able to fly or turn invisible?" It's the archetypal party question. It was already popular way back in 2001, when This American Life addressed it, and the years haven't lessened its appeal. As recently as 2015, Forbes posed the question to 7,065 "business and professional leaders ... across the globe" and Vulture brought it up with the stars of Ant-Man.