Summer 2008 graphic novels roundup

06/09/08, The Times

There is nothing mellow about the fruitfulness of the summer harvest of graphic novels this year. Heading the chosen ones is Jonathan Cape’s reissue of The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot, first published in 1995, in its ‘Cape Graphic Classics’ series. This story of Helen Potter, a girl who runs away from home and sexual abuse by her father, ultimately to end up, through homelessness in London, in the Lake District, following her obsession with Beatrix Potter (whose first name was Helen), is an incontrovertible and blazing masterpiece. It is a story of the redemption that art holds and its full-colour realistic drawing style is perfection of its kind. The views of Lake District are exalting in their beauty.

Also in Cape’s new series is another reprint, Gentleman Jim by Raymond Briggs. 28 years have not withered the simplicity and innocence of Jim Bloggs, the public-toilet cleaner, whose private and misguided daydreams of improving his life spill out, with heartbreaking consequences, into the public domain. Briggs adroitly wrings a deep pathos from Jim’s ignorance of the outside world. Here is an ageless story of the underdog crushed by the inhumanity that man holds for man. It is a moral triumph of sorts that Jim remains the holy fool right up to the very end.

Talbot’s isn’t the only graphic novel about child abuse. A fictionalised account of the sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Daddy’s Girl, by Debbie Drechsler, is psychologically more intimate than Talbot’s book, and more barbed, partly because its open-endedness, in both form and content, holds out little hope of salvation for its damaged protagonist. It is an excoriating piece of work, which manages a miraculous marriage of the brutal and the innocent, keeping both running concurrently. The artwork, black-heavy drawings made to resemble the heavy preciseness of woodcuts, is a visual feast, while the emerging portrait of family life and growing up is note-perfect.

In The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, editor Paul Gravett has done more of his magic archaeology, this time in the lost world of crime comics, and excavated 24 short, complete pieces spanning nearly 75 years. The usual practitioners of crime are all here: Ed McBain, Will Eisner, Dashiel Hammett, Mickey Spillane, even Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, but there are genuine discoveries, such as the first English outing for the Milanesi Commissario Spada, by Gianluigi Gonano and Gianni De Luca, or the tough female detective, Ms. Tree (geddit?), by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty. A box of unmitigated delights.

From an anthology of crime ‘short stories’, we arrive at a crime ‘novel’ with Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece. It is a complex and harrowing work that holds up a mirror to a toxic chapter in American history: race lynching in the Deep South. ‘Going incognegro’ was the term used of the risky infiltration of white mobs by light-skinned blacks to witness the murders firsthand and write about them. Our hero, Zane Pinchback, is one such journalist at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. He travels to Mississippi ‘incognegro’ to save his brother accused of murdering a white woman. A twisty, flawlessly-paced, rich, dense thriller, it is also a chilling social document and a layered, effortlessly entertaining meditation on identity and self-fashioning.

Talking of crime, those of us who think that Jeremy Clarkson is one of the greatest wrong turnings taken by British culture now have Rumble Strip by Woodrow Phoenix as the perfect corrective. Drawn in crystal clear black-and-white, this polemic against the car and the pervasive car-culture that now infects us like an incurable disease weighs the cost of our automobile dependency to the last penny, literal and metaphorical. It is an angry essay on late-capitalist culture, an alarm bell, a long, hypnotic visual poem and a rigorous argument, all rolled into one utterly original work of genius. It should be made mandatory reading for everyone everywhere.

Funeral of the Heart by Leah Hayes is a bizarre, disturbing debut collection executed entirely in scratchboard. The stark beauty of the black and white medium, already hallucinatory, is intensified by the fairytale-like surrealness of the five stories that constitute the book. By turns menacing, cruel, tender and freakish, these stories, with their gallery of characters that reminds you of figures from Botero or Stanley Spencer, seems to have stepped out from Hayes’s rich, febrile dreams.

Pocket Full of Rain by Jason is a selection from his earlier work, so it’s a great surprise to see that he did ‘ordinary’ human figures before he settled on his trademark humans with animal heads. The eponymous story, the longest one in the book, is a tale of love, revenge, hitmen and the inevitable end of love like you’ve never read before. The rest are quirky, exceptionally droll and compelling short riffs on themes ranging from loneliness and pursuit of girls to cinema and celebrity hate-figures. It even includes posters and homages to the gods of the graphic novel form.