The year’s best graphic novels, 2009

05/12/09, The Times

Of the five Books of the Year, two (Stitches by David Small and Grandville by Bryan Talbot) have been reviewed separately, leaving three more to be written about. The first is Logicomix (Bloomsbury, £16.99), written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou and sensationally drawn, in all-colour, by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. It is being described as a book on the foundational quest, in the first three decades of the twentieth century, for logically impeccable rules of mathematics. Well, it is that, but only as a sidebar to the main story of the life of Bertrand Russell, the man who wanted to secure the foundations of mathematics for once and for all. While he counted himself a failure in this particular aim, his collaborative work with A.N. Whitehead, the Principia Mathematica, created the platform for geniuses such as Wittgenstein, Gödel, John Von Neumann, Turing, who were to bring about epistemic breaks in mathematics, philosophy and computers. A self-referential work that dramatises the process of its own formation, Logicomix ends up working out a wonderful synthesis between reason and emotion, logic and passion, what’s provable and what lies outside meaning. Beautifully illustrated, immensely intelligent and unputdownable, and written with clarity, style, verve and great intellectual honesty, it sets a benchmark for graphic novels. If we had books like this when we were at school, mathematics would have been a delight rather than the fearsome spectre it is for most.

The second is Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia (Templar, £12.99). This is not a graphic novel in the strictest sense, rather, an exuberantly illustrated collection of fourteen short stories written by the artist himself. Circling around the theme of journey, this book, about transformation, is itself a transformative reading and visual experience. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, which have fallen into disuse, become brightly coloured garden installations that house tropical birds. An exchange student is a two-dimensional collection of lines with a leaf for a head. A blind reindeer appears on the roofs of houses on Christmas night to collect objects precious to people’s hearts. A lost deep-sea diver brings about an inexplicable change of heart in the irascible local witch. Fragments of paper, containing private, unpublished poetry, begin to come together as a huge ball, which then becomes a giant cloud over a town and releases itself as paper-rain, bringing a wholly unexpected discovery to each of the townspeople in the morning: scraps of paper containing ‘various faded words pressed into accidental verse’. And to each reader, they ‘whisper something different’, touching his life with a ‘strange feeling of weightlessness’. There’s even one story which executes pastiches of Italian Renaissance paintings. Tan’s writing is as beautiful as his art and his mind produces ideas and images as if from an inexhaustible sea of magic. This is one of the most wondrous books to be published in recent times.

The final one is Harvey Pekar’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winner Studs Terkel’s astonishing compendium of ordinary lives, Working (The New Press, $22.95), a monument of American oral history, first published in 1974. The world’s biggest economy may well be one of the most unequal, high capitalism and redistribution being as immiscible as oil and water, and here is an eye-opening account of the have-nots in the richest country, of gravediggers, stonecutters, garbagemen, bar pianists, barbers, proofreaders, mail carriers, supermarket box-boys, hookers, miners. Reading these first-person accounts of how they make a living, I was reminded repeatedly of the Old Testament words, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.’ A fleet of illustrators has been gathered to do the artwork; each is distinctive and honours the person/profession it illustrates. Heartbreaking, revelatory, impassioned, and sometimes shockingly frank, it contains a dignity that borders on the noble and is a work of focused moral energy.

Dignity is also a word that comes to mind when faced with Jason’s expressionless characters. Low Moon (Fantagraphics, $24.99), his latest, a collection of five stories, is a book that can easily be counted as one of his finest. ‘Emily Says Hello’ is a devastating story of the mismatch of two different types of desires – sexual and vengeful. The title-story is a deadpan take on the Western, complicated by chess, revenge, and, once again, love. ‘&’ brings together, wittily, punningly, two separate, melancholy tales right at the end. The final story, ‘You Are Here’, is a heartbreaking one of love and loss but, unsurprisingly for a Jason book, involves alien abduction, space travel, and a desolate sting in the tail. Laconic, sad, resonantly eloquent without the use of words, Jason’s work continues to mine the depths of the heart in the way Keaton or Chaplin did.

Deadpan too is Joe Daly’s hilarious and far-out, stoner-cool graphic novel, The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book (Fantagraphics, $22.99). There are two stories, both featuring two dope-smoking, hippy losers, the monkey-footed graphic artist, Dave, and his didgeridoo-maker friend, Paul. The first, ‘The Leaking Cello Case’, has the duo exposing dodgy drug-dealing in Cape Town while the second, longer piece, ‘John Wesley Harding’ (yes, named after the 1967 Bob Dylan album), finds the two of them in a wetlands nature reserve, looking for an escaped capybara (named John Wesley Harding). Soon they stumble upon a top-secret, dangerous plot to drain the wetlands so that it can be sold off as real estate and it is up to Dave and Paul to foil the evil-doers. But are they sure they’re not imagining it? Twist follows twist in this insanely funny caper and the comic tone is pitch-perfect throughout. The drawing is pin-sharp, the textures sumptuous and the writing uproarious and spot-on. Double happiness indeed.

While we’re on the topic of pin-sharp drawing, how could I not mention Paul Hornschemeier’s All and Sundry (Fantagraphics, $29.99)? You know you’ve arrived when your bottom-drawer doodles are published in a swish hardcover edition, except this assorted stuff from flat file drawers is a visual feast. Short graphic stories, short non-graphic (but illustrated) stories, serialised strips (from Life and Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, for example), anthologised pieces, original artwork, posters, covers from the non-English editions of his books: which reader won’t feel grateful for this gorgeous opulence? An endlessly browsable book, designed to be dipped into and savoured in short sessions, it will put a blissful smile on your face before you turn the lights out for bedtime.

A different kind of smile, nostalgic, melancholy, affection-filled, will break out on your face while reading Giraffes in My Hair: A Rock ’N’ Roll Life (Fantagraphics, $19.99), the memoir by Bruce Paley, illustrated by Carol Swain. A series of intimate snapshots of a lost era, the book gives us a front-seat view of the wild, idealistic, drug-fuelled optimism of the sixties and the seventies, with all the period’s highs and lows: the summer of love, road trips, Kerouac, hippy communality, anti-establishment activism, a (literally) mind-boggling assortment of drugs, overdoses, The Who and T-Rex, Nixon, Vietnam, brutal American police. There is a failed attempt to get into Disneyland after dropping acid, and a bleakly hilarious account of successfully dodging the draft. There is a scary one, ‘3rd and B’, about drug-dealing and heroin-addiction in 70s New York. There is a sad and tender account of an unsuccessful marriage with some of the most beautiful lines I’ve read in recent times about an oasis found unexpectedly in the middle of an aimless, rackety, chaotic life: ‘At night Daphne and I would sit on the porch swing and listen to the trains go by. Was there ever a more beautiful sound than a lonesome train whistle cutting through the Mississippi night?’

Shirley Hughes’s first graphic book for adults, Bye Bye Birdie (Cape, £12.99), is very funny in a slightly macabre way. This wordless book about a dapper and charming man, who picks up a sexy, bird-like woman, finds himself whirled into the vortex of a Freud-tinged nightmare. Part Hitchcock’s Birds, part disturbing unrepressing of ornithophobia, and part Edward Lear’s grotesquerie of feathered beasts, it remains frantic right down to its twist of an ending.

Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole (Top Shelf, $19.95), a disturbed, moody, haunting book, is impossible to describe. Dispensing with the configuration of story and art within panels, Powell creates a fluid, swirling world, capturing, with fractured perfection, the afflicted subjectivities of its two adolescent protagonists, Ruth and Perry, stepsiblings who are schizophrenic and are tormented by hallucinations and inner demons. Misunderstood at school, both by peers and authority, and haunted by illness, the two cling on to each other as lifelines. Meanwhile, a very old grandmother lies dying on their living room sofa, Ruth is pursued by imaginary swarms of insects and Perry’s obstinate visions of a tiny old gnome drives him into frenetic drawing. Black has never seemed blacker and more shadowy in Powell’s stark palette. It’s not an easy book, in the way, say, Ulysses isn’t (and the comparisons with Joyce are not misplaced) but it is rewarding in a similar way and its dark brilliance marks Powell as a writer-artist of genius.

BOOKS DISCUSSED:
1) Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, Logicomix (Bloomsbury, £16.99).
2) Shaun Tan, Tales from Outer Suburbia (Templar, £12.99).
3) Studs Terkel, Working, adapted by Harvey Pekar (The New Press, $22.95).
4) Jason, Low Moon (Fantagraphics, $24.99).
5) Joe Daly, The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book (Fantagraphics, $22.99).
6) Paul Hornschemeier, All and Sundry (Fantagraphics, $29.99).
7) Bruce Paley, illustrated by Carol Swain, Giraffes in My Hair: A Rock ’N’ Roll Life (Fantagraphics, $19.99).
8) Shirley Hughes, Bye Bye Birdie (Cape, £12.99).
9) Nate Powell, Swallow Me Whole (Top Shelf, $19.95).