Graphic novels round-up, 2006

25/11/06, The Times

Book of the Year, incontestably, is Alison Bechdel’s unflinching, multi-layered memoir of growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, Fun Home. Four months after Bechdel comes out to her parents, her father, the manager of the family funeral home business, dies in a road accident. Slowly, it comes to light that he was a closeted gay man. A complex and complicated love-letter not only to her father, but also to books and reading, Fun Home is luminescent with wit, pitch-perfect lyrical prose, intelligence, honesty and that very rare thing – emotional truth.

A more scorching burden of unbearable truth turns at the centre of Bernice Eisenstein’s memoir, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors. Born in Canada to parents who survived Auschwitz and later immigrated to the New World, Eisenstein spends her life trying to understand, articulate and capture the shadows of someone else’s past: the unimaginable horrors and losses witnessed by her parents. She realizes that such experiences are not easily transferable yet she tries to inhabit those shadows with heroic empathy; the straining creates for a uniquely original memorialisation where the self must, of necessity, be constructed retrospectively through a painstaking and painful piecing together of others’ histories.

Drawn & Quarterly’s beautiful reissue of four comic books created by the incomparable Tove Jansson for the London Evening News from 1953 to 1957 is an oasis of innocence: I cannot think of a better or more effective way to reverse the fallings away and vanishings of growing up and adulthood than immersing myself in these utterly delightful tales of Moomin, Snufkin, Snork Maiden.

Renée French’s The Ticking is like nothing I’ve encountered before: a surreal, desolate, near-wordless book, dredged up from some shadowy and unnameable recess of the mind, it tells the story of a deformed child brought up in isolation by his father in a remote island. It marries the world of David Lynch’s Eraserhead to the bleakness of Belá Tarr but its mysterious ending feels strangely yet disturbingly redemptive. The pencil drawings are heart-stoppingly beautiful.

There is a suffocating preponderance of black in the manically crammed and hyperventilating artwork in Max Andersson and Lars Sjunnesson’s Bosnian Flat Dog, as if to mirror the black, acid quality of their humour. For what they chart, in the guise of a cartoonists’ convention in Slovenia that turns into a nightmare involving ice-creams, grenade shells and the frozen corpse of Tito, is nothing less than a descent into the hell of Yugoslavia in the aftermath of its splintering. Saturated with an absurdist gallows humour and a scathing political pessimism, this book deserves to stand alongside Joe Sacco’s graphic masterpieces on the Balkans, Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer.

At first glance, Anders Nilsen’s Monologues for the Coming Plague appears shot through with unbearable whimsy and aimlessness, so it is a pleasant surprise to discover how these stream-of-consciousness, (mostly) unrelated doodles cumulatively acquire the status of playful meditations, almost a Zen-like quality of gnomic indirection. And at times, they are also very funny. The line drawings are relaxed and informal while the production values of the book are top-notch.

For a deadpan wry sensibility and a keenly intelligent skew-whiff sense of dry humour, look at Tom Smith’s chronicling of his time spent in Japan as an English-language teacher in The Spider Spoke 1 & 2 (at http://www.usscatastrophe.com/store/spider.html). Here’s a cartoonist who not only knows how to draw but, crucially, also knows how to write.

And so to the man whom posterity is going to remember as the greatest historian of the comics/graphic novel form in this country and certainly its most enthusiastic chronicler anywhere: Paul Gravett. His latest offering, co-authored by Peter Stanbury and gorgeously produced by Aurum Press, forms the complementary part of a diptych that was started by their Graphic Novels: Stories to Change your Life last year. The act of literary archaeology at the core of Great British Comics is so loving that it takes your breath away. Beano, Dandy, Modesty Blaise, Judge Dredd, Dan Dare are still familiar names but they rescue from oblivion scores of others: Leo Baxendale’s Tiddlers for Wham!, the magazine he created in 1964; Sweeny Toddlers (about a terrorising baby); a pastiche of Indian sci-fi and curryhouse-menu prose called Rogan Gosh; The Happy Days, a chirpily narrated strip, which ran for 13 years, about the experiences of a suburban family; the saga of Wulf the Brition, which started in Express Weekly from 1957 … dip your hand in this treasure trove and come up with something new and amazing every time.