Graphic novels round-up, 2007

01/12/07, The Times

There are three Books of the Year. The first is It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, by Canadian artist Seth. A book so quiet that it stills the reader into an enchanted trance, IAGLIYDW tells the story of Seth’s obsessive search for Kalo, a New Yorker cartoonist from the 1940s, whose works have been lost to time and oblivion. Wrapped in nostalgia, exquisitely drawn in black-and-white washed over with blue-grey-green, impeccably narrated and full of gentle, wry wit, this book about disaffection and the salvations held out by art and love of art is magical, insightful and, ultimately, a transformative reading experience.

The second is Exit Wounds. Rutu Modan’s clear-eyed look at what must be one of the most contentious issues of our time, suicide bombing in Israel, is free of cant, outrage, hysteria, preaching, politics. Instead, in full-colour panels, it tells the story of a young woman who approaches a taxi-driver to inform him that his father, who was her lover, has been the casualty of such an attack. As the fractious and edgy friendship between Numi and Koby grows while they try to reconstruct what happened, both the public event of his death and the private story of the dead man’s secret relationship with Numi, the story moves towards its unexpected (and beautiful) ending. It’s a moving and utterly convincing portrayal of what it is to live in modern Israel.

The third, Shortcomings, is the celebrated Adrian Tomine’s first outing in Britain. It strains credibility that a story about the relationship problems of an unpleasant, aggressive second generation Asian-American, with a secret hunger for Caucasian women and a corresponding contempt for women of his broad racial group, could be fresh, original, convincing and unputdownable but Tomine’s latest book is all of those and more. It is rendered with uncluttered beauty, the dialogue is so convincing that you can almost hear the characters speak, and it is alight with truth.

Those three are the trailblazers of 2007. The following five are the other outstanding ones of the year. Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a young-adult novel. This story of a twelve-year-old clockmaker’s apprentice, living in poverty in the Gare du Montparnasse in 1929, whose boyhood gets inadvertently entangled with the early history of cinema, is so beautifully, so lovingly drawn that it’s difficult to put the book down. The written and drawn sections are kept separate, almost in imitation of early, silent films. You’ll keep coming back to sneak astonished looks at these pages long, long after you’ve finished it.

Jason’s I Killed Adolf Hitler is about a professional assassin sent back to the 1930s in a time-travel machine to take out Hitler but cocks up the mission, leaving Hitler to travel to the present. But the book, with Jason’s characteristic animal-headed people, stripped-down narrative, and crisp, laser-sharp colour drawings, is really a wintry, melancholy story about ageing and what people do for love. A strangely uplifting desolation haunts the book and its 48 pages have more to say about affection and ties that bind than many novels several times its length.

Paul Hornschemeier’s The Three Paradoxes, is a baffling, delightfully inconclusive story of an illustrator, struggling with artist’s block, on a short visit to his father in the town where he grew up. He is also racked by childhood memories and anxiety about an imminent first meeting with a girl after he leaves his father’s home to return to Chicago. Interlacing at least five different drawing styles, to signal the various memories, paratexts and counterfactuals, it is a luminously intelligent example of how much the form can achieve with such economy: a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

And nowhere is that adage more eloquently illustrated as in Posy Simmonds’s Tamara Drewe. It is a book that is devastatingly spot-on with its observations of the liberal, creative middle-classes, the publishing world, and the heavy boredom of the lives of working-class teenagers in a hole of a provincial English village. The drawings hold a wealth of details that no amount of words could express. It’s a witty, gripping book and Simmonds’s prose is as beautiful and sharp-etched as her drawing.

Nevermore is a collection of ten of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic horror tales (and a poem), adapted for the graphic format and illustrated by – ahem – new blood, showcases a dazzling array of styles. They’re all here, from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ to ‘The Raven’, each drawn by a different artist, each distilling as much terror from Poe as putting images to that uniquely macabre imagination will allow.