Graphic novels round-up, 2010

27/11/10, The Times

Two Books of the Year, Charles Burns’s X’ed Out (Cape, £12.99) and Bryan Talbot’s Grandville Mon Amour (Cape, £16.99), have been reviewed separately, which leaves us with the remaining three Books of the Year. First among these is Cathy Malkasian’s Temperance (Fantagraphics, £16.99). An expansive allegorical fable, set in the community of Blessedbowl, a people self-imprisoned by fear within a huge ark-urbis built by a wholly malignant, destructive and invincible force called Pa, Temperance speaks to our times with prophetic pointedness. It features a ruined man, Lester, whose memory has been wiped out by extreme violence; a woman, Minerva, who looks after Lester and rules over Blessedbowl, continuing the absent Pa’s regime, but with increasing ambivalence; and a sentient tree trunk, which undergoes several metamorphoses to become the instrument of an apocalyptic redemption. A uniquely imaginative book, Temperance is an example of how a sepia-toned pencil can sing.

Quite a different kind of sepia is invoked in the next Book of the Year, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Self Made Hero, £12.99), adapted by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Catherine Anyango. Hardly any of Conrad’s weighty prose survives in the abridgement; instead, Mairowitz has spliced the novella with Conrad’s Congo diaries, with mixed results. But it is the sensational artwork by Anyango that makes the book. I’m unhappy about the way Marlow has been made to become Conrad himself in the artwork, but in the eternal crepuscular gloom of her heavy pencil drawings, a pall of grey and sepia with contrasts of black, she catches something potent about the sick heart of colonialism and also about the resilient and unforgiving landscape in which the drama of the impossibility of human redemption unfurls. It is not Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not quite, nevertheless the visual content is so beautiful, so painstakingly executed, that the pages look as if they’ve strayed in from the world of painting.

Painterly is an apt description of the final Book of the Year, a children’s book, Mezolith (David Fickling Books, £9.99), written by Ben Haggarty and illustrated by Adam Brockbank. Set 10,000 years ago, in the New Stone Age, amongst the Kansa tribe of the North Sea Basin, it is the story of young Poika’s life, leading to the final initiation ceremony when he attains the status of an adult. In between we are given not only the daily lives of the Kansa people, with its perilous hunting of big beasts and savage confrontations with enemy tribes, but also some astonishing inset fables and stories. Violent, beautiful, magical, compelling, this makes you want to go back in time and visit the landscape of the book.

While the artwork of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile (Cape, £16.99) is a bit shaky, the story it tells is beguiling and, ultimately, melancholy. Alexandra walks into a mysterious bookmobile in the early hours of the morning in Chicago and finds it stacked with all the books she has ever read. The Winnebago disappears and she spends most of her life looking for it until it makes another unexpected appearance in her life. It is then that she realises what she wants truly in life and the difficult crossing that she has to undertake in order to get it. It’s a sad and unusual work about the abiding love of books and reading; there can’t be enough of those.

Infinitely darker in tone is the misanthropic Wilson (Cape, £12.99) by Daniel Clowes. Each page, comprised of six or seven large panels, is a chapter-length gag and the entire book is drawn in a huge variety of comic-art styles. Its overwhelmingly central character, Wilson, is an angry, self-obsessed, unappetising loser who is in the habit of badgering complete strangers and inflicting his opinion on everything on them. Wilson’s own story emerges as a devastating one: long-term single, lonely, a father dying of cancer, an estranged ex-wife who has nothing (literally) to say to him, a teenage daughter (born after the marriage ended) whose existence he discovers only now and who was given up for adoption at birth … Bleak, funny in a hopeless and tragic way, Wilson is a cumulative shock of a book that isolates the two core attributes of the human condition, pathos and bathos, and play them as an astringent and steadily darkening opera buffa.

The always-superb Jason too has a book out this year: Werewolves of Montpellier (Fantagraphics, $12.99). Droll, laconic as always, dry as drought, and hilarious and sympathetic in equal measures, it follows Sven, an ex-pat artist who lives in Montpellier and dresses up as a werewolf at night and prowls the city’s roofs, occasionally burgling homes too. The real werewolves of the city are not happy, understandably, and this ends in a confrontational denouement that changes the course of Sven’s life. Meanwhile, his friend and neighbour, Audrey, is having some troubles of her own. A mad, lovely and bright book.

While we’re on the subject of Jason, it wouldn’t do to leave out a mention of Almost Silent (Fantagraphics, £18.99), a deluxe collection of four of his earlier books, Meow, Baby, Tell Me Something, You Can’t Get There From Here, and The Living and The Dead. The book is worth searching out for the third item alone. It’s the longest story in the book and is a retelling of the Frankenstein story as a love triangle without words, set off by a Greek chorus-type duet between two hunchbacks.

Mad books bring us to John Broadley’s Books (Cape, £16.99) by John Broadley. It’s difficult to describe what kind of a book this is. A book of books, an album of sketches, one-page comic strips, a fantastical visual commonplace book, a crazy collection of nonsense and non-sequiturs … all these only go a tiny bit of the way in describing a book that seems to be a transcription, through crazy glass, of the outer fringes of an absurdist, Dadaist mind.