Graphic novels round-up, 2005

03/12/05, The Times

Golden ages have a habit of being assigned to a distant and unrecoverable past but the graphic novel form is buckling and bending, among other things, this conservative tendency, for no one who has even the most fleeting glance at this year’s crop of the form can be in any doubt that its golden age is now.

Charles Burns’s Black Hole is a depraved, twisted masterpiece, influenced by early Cronenberg films, slasher flicks, even the Evil Dead series and The Blair Witch Project, and drawn with a clarity and detail that sometimes brings to mind Dürer’s etchings: its laser-sharp black-and-white artwork is a duotonic symphony of stark contrasts. Classic horror, AIDS parable, teenage angst and ennui, body dysmorphia, graphic sex, repulsion, inverted pastoral all collide and fuse in this intense, weird and utterly original tale of the interlaced lives of a handful of teenagers growing up in suburban Seattle in the mid-1970s.

Why people aren’t distributing Thomas Ott’s work from every street corner and roundabout in Britain is one of life’s abiding mysteries. This Swiss artist’s latest work is Cinema Panopticum, a menacingly scary wordless novel, much in the style of Edward Gorey or Andrzej Klimowski, about a little girl in a fairground who enters a tent and watches four films. Each tale is a nightmare, brimful of so much horror and unnameable mystery that when the ending arrives, it seems both apt and shocking in its withholding. This is a book that will sit in the dark corners of your mind to haunt you.

Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library belongs as much to an art gallery as to a bookshelf. Produced with the kind of attention, love, care and copiousness of detail that one finds in a Renaissance masterpiece, it is a sort of cartoon miscellany featuring several ‘strips’ on familiar Ware characters such as Quimby Mouse and Rusty Brown.  A compilation from most of the sixteen issues of ‘Acme Novelty Library’ that Ware has published irregularly over the last twelve years, the book is a dizzying melange of styles, genres, games, discourses. Paul Klee once defined art as taking a line for a walk; Ware’s book would stand as a testament to the apotheosis of such a claim.

If Chris Ware is the Joyce of the graphic novel, then Daniel Clowes is its postmodern Capote. His latest, Ice Haven, is structured centrifugally: the eponymous town forms the stable centre from which he spins out the stories and backstories of its inhabitants and visitors. It is much like a fugue and is a very clever book – part metafictional literary criticism on graphic novels and Clowes’s own standing as a graphic novelist, part study of dysfunctional people and families, isolated in their own alienations and peculiar solitudes, and part superbly poised and poisonously accurate riffing on the theme of ‘suburbia as hell’. Yet, it’s compassionate and tender, too, and his artwork has the precision and lucidity of nineteenth-century botanical prints.

Jeffrey Brown’s Any Easy Intimacy is tiny in size and charts the crests and troughs of a relationship and its inevitable end. It is an unmediated, raw and immediate account, and rings so very, very true that I cannot imagine it not speaking, directly and movingly, to anyone who has ever loved and lost.

Graham Rawle’s collage novel, Woman’s World, composed wholly of cut-outs from women’s magazines of the early 60s, might just be the most wildly original novel produced in this country in the last decade. It tells the screamingly funny and devastating story of a transvestite, Norma Fontaine/Roy Little, in a provincial English town in the early 60s. Like all great artists, Rawle has used the constraints of this exercise as a fiercely enabling liberation: from the outlandishly hilarious similes and metaphors to the manufacturing of a cross-gendered interiority through outward signals of dress, fabric, housework, washing products, this book is sui generis, the work of a soaring genius that readers will feel honoured to read.

Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life is not only the most definitive guide to the best work in the genre currently available but also the most exquisitely produced. There is an ever so slight whiff of the passnote about it somewhere, especially in the layout of the pages in the beginning and the section headings, but this is a very tiny quibble about an otherwise beautiful and knowledgeable book that manages to be a different type of critical history, one aflame with an incandescent passion. Its greatest success is the sheer infectiousness of its enthusiasm and love for the genre.

All these writers and artists are pushing forward the horizons of a genre, indeed, of reading, writing and the whole project of book-production itself. Like Emily Dickinson, the form can now declare, in bell-like confident peals, ‘I dwell in Possibility –/A fairer House than Prose’.