Some Graphic Novels

(August 2008)

Do you feel as frustrated as I do when you go looking for a good graphic novel? Manga manga, yadda yadda... Sigh. And the grown-up stuff is likely to be either in-your-face-ugly and self-centered (yes I do mean R Crumb), or it’s gross-out violence, or horror, or twee, or sexist, or otherwise not down my alley. I guess my alley is pretty narrow.

All the same I keep hoping, because the form seems to me such a hugely promising and adventurous one, just waiting for more people to realise how much they could do with it... Meanwhile, here are some I’ve really liked:

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis I and II, and her other books. (The movie of Persepolis was charming but it really didn’t add much to the book.) I admire her drawing, which is deceptively simple but very subtly designed, using the pure contrast-power of black-and-white. The drawings and the text combine so seamlessly that I’m not aware of looking back and forth between them, I’m just taking it all in at once — Which I think is pretty much my ideal for a graphic narrative?

Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat I and II. Three connected stories in each volume. The first two stories in the first volume are pure delight. They are funny and wise and show you a world you almost certainly never knew existed. The rabbi is a dear, the rabbi’s daughter is a dear, and the rabbi’s cat is all cat, all through, all the way down. (I wondered why Sfar drew him so strangely, until I looked at the photograph of Sfar’s cat on the cover.) The second volume isn’t quite as great, but the first story in it is awfully funny and well drawn, with the most irresistible lion, and it’s all enjoyable. Sfar’s imagination and color are wonderful. His publisher should be pilloried in Times Square for printing the art in Vol II so small that you literally need a magnifying glass to read some of the continuity. — I gather that Sfar and Satrapi are friends. Are we on the way to having a great school of graphic novels by Foreigners Living in Paris?

Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze.— (which I mentioned in Books I Like in 2006)— Two handsome b&w books setting out to tell the story of the Trojan War. The text is unobtrusive, the drawing is elegant and eloquent, and the research (story, costumes, ships, hair-dos, scenery, buildings, everything) is stunning. Because he’s giving you the back story on all the characters, Greek and Trojan, Shanower has barely got to the beginning of the war by Vol II. And the war lasted ten years... (Homer solved this problem radically: The whole Iliad centers on a single event, late in the war — the beginning, the middle, and the end of it are all offstage.) But even if this is as far as he takes it, it’s a terrific piece of visualisation, a great intro to a great story. I wish every kid could have both volumes to grow up with.

Finally, an anthology edited by William Ward, Fablewood (Ape Entertainment, 2008.) I just received this book from the editor. Twenty-three or four artists and writers, living in the US, Canada, Finland, worked on these thirteen graphic tales, some only a page or two, some longer. The art styles are extremely various, and so are the subjects, though they all have a fantasy or fabulous element. It’s a contained explosion of visual imagination — really exhilarating. Some of the pieces work better than others, some are difficult, but none of them is inept or stupid, and some are stunners. I think my favorite is a wordless four-pager by Sarah Mensinga called “Fish.”

18 August 2008

Index of Some Books I’ve Liked

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