Graphic novels roundup, 2008

29/11/08, The Times

A significant theme in the graphic novel publishing scene this year is what I would like to call the backward glance. Sleepwalk and Other Stories by the great Adrian Tomine is a retrospective collection of his early works. Tomine can not only draw, he can also write eloquent, penetrating prose that catches the slippery essence of the drift and alienation of lonely lives: an old woman revisits a café where she used to have lunch with a lover decades ago, a young man misses his flight and becomes a secret observer of his own life with him missing from it, a young woman pores over the personals in a local paper and confuses the imagined and the real, another young woman slips in and out of the role of friendly helper of a blind man with disturbing ease. Extraordinary. Like Tomine’s, Jason Lutes’s artwork is also beautifully realistic. His Jar of Fools tells the story of the alcoholic, washed-up magician, Ernie Weiss, trying to cope with the inexplicable suicide of his brother and the end of a romance, when his senile mentor, Al Flosso, reappears in his ruin of a life. Faber’s UK issue of this heartbreaking, deep, and emotionally vast novel, first published in book form in the US over a decade ago, marks the introduction to a new readership of a book that will come to be seen as a turning point in mature psychological realism in the graphic novel genre.

Of the brand-new works published this year, Hannah Berry’s sensational debut, Britten and Brülightly, is effortlessly Book of the Year. A rain-drenched, melancholy-soaked noir thriller, it features a terminally depressive Ecuadorian-English detective, Fernández Britten, and his teabag partner – yes, you read that right – Stewart Brülightly, investigating a murder that will delve into a wealthy family’s murky past and uncover long-buried secrets. It’s the kind of perfect marriage of soaringly beautiful drawing and writing that makes you want to jump up and down with euphoria. Make no mistake, Berry is the Real Thing. A darker shade of noir, of the blackest, macabre kind, is provided by Thomas Ott in his new, wordless book, The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8, where the discovery of a slip of paper with the eponymous long number on it in an executed man’s possessions leads to a chain of shocking consequences for the discoverer. Combining numerology, Borgesian inventiveness, and a gruesome imagination with his trademark, immensely detailed scratchboard illustration, Ott has once again produced a twisted, scary masterpiece. Another wordless, genre-defying book is Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz’s Travelers, a series of photographs simulating a wintry world inside a snow globe, complete with miniature people and animals. By turns calming, shocking, bizarre, menacing, brutal, baffling, these full-page photographs may or may not lend themselves for stringing into a narrative but they have an undeniably hypnotic power and you can concoct a different story each time you visit them. As a coda to the visuals, Jonathan Lethem has written a short story that is tonally inspired by some of the pictures but his words by no means exhaust the interpretive indeterminacy offered by the images.

Of a different order of inventiveness, one approaching the density and emotional acuity of the novel-form itself, is Dash Shaw’s 720-page Bottomless Belly Button about the Loony family – elderly parents, three children, two grandchildren – who gather together at the parents’ seaside home to be told the news of their imminent divorce after 50 years of marriage. Emotionally complex and rich, this is a quirky, intimate and leisurely work. Quirky is an underdescription for The Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics, Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury’s gorgeously produced collection of the some of the wackiest, craziest, beyond-the-pale comics ever written. I worry about the crowd Gravett and Stanbury hang out with or the duo’s choice of reading matter: from where on earth have they excavated deranged gems such as the pornographic Amputee Love, or La Donna Ragna, the Italian porno-horror version of Spider-Man, or Trucker Fags in Denial – believe me, I’m really not making all this up – or Genus: Special Extra Large Lesbian Unicorn Issue, or Hansi: The Girl Who Loved the Swastika? A wildly uproarious, perverted must-have.