A bunch of memorable graphic novels, 2015

04/10/15

Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening is a book not quite like any other. First of all, there’s the fact that this graphic novel was his Columbia University PhD thesis (yes, executed as a graphic novel, not as your common-or-garden collection of chapters in words). Secondly, the book is entirely non-narrative – it doesn’t tell a story, but instead explores, and is powered by, a series of ideas about how the human mind produces meaning. It takes on the central problem that Derrida identified as ‘logocentrism’, the primacy of words over images in Western philosophical tradition, but then goes about the critique of the idea in a completely different, evidence-based way. Ranging across a wide range of disciplines – arts, sciences, popular culture, critical theory, social sciences – Sousanis argues that the verbal and the visual are inextricably twinned in the production of knowledge. His own book enacts that process, being at once thesis and its illustration (in both senses: example, and pictorial representation); praxis, if you will. It is a book dense with the syntheses of ideas, nimble and far-reaching and revelatory, and impossible to summarise. It liberates itself from the standard layout of panels within frames, teaching the eye and mind to read the unfailingly intelligent black-and-white artwork in unconventional and new ways. Unflattening deserves a place as a compulsory textbook in schools.

William Goldsmith’s Vignettes of Ystov (2011) announced an original and brilliant talent. He is back now with his second graphic novel, The Bind, which is set in a Victorian bookbindery, Egret, run by two brothers, Guy and Victor, of radically opposite temperaments. Guy is prudent, responsible, hard-working, a safe pair of hands, while the devil-may-care Victor is a dashing, creative, rule-bending risk-taker. The making of the most expensive book ever, a gem-encrusted deluxe edition of ‘A Moonless Land’, a volume of poems, ignites the tinderbox of the destructive dynamics between the two brothers, resulting in disastrous consequences for the bindery. The ghost of the brothers’ dead father, despairing yet powerless, hovers over the events as a chorus-of-one, commenting on the action, while Goldsmith, as natural a storyteller as he is a dazzling illustrator, keeps wrongfooting the reader, introducing twist upon twist in the corkscrew narrative. The result is utterly delicious, a gripping, constantly surprising story that is beautiful to behold. Goldsmith’s restrained palette of greys, orangey-browns and umbers gives the book the visual feel of early-era cinema, or a book of sepia and black-and-white pictures.

David Hughes’ second graphic novel, The Pillbox, transports the basic structural elements of a ghost story – an unsettled and unresolved past misdeed, its sudden and inexplicable irruption in the present tense and its equally sudden vanishing – to the Suffolk seaside and creates an altogether different creature of it. Quite apart from the stunning artwork, knowing, often painterly, part-Grosz, part-Steadman, the book turns around a cruel deployment of dramatic irony: the characters are refused the bitter illumination that the readers are given. Eleven-year-old Jack stumbles upon a second world war pillbox on the beach and meets a slightly older boy called Bill. The next day the pillbox is gone and there is no sign of Bill. The narrative then loops back to 1945 to give us Bill’s story. It is violent and shocking but even more shocking, if only because it continues forward to the present day and touches Jack’s life in an originally tangential manner, is the story of Bill’s sister Rita and her terminally ill husband. Hughes has captured something ineluctably English in the combination of seediness, violence, sensationalism and humour, but the book’s biggest effect is the resonance of the present-day story, which will leave at least one haunting question ringing in your head.

I’ve always had more admiration than love for Jules Feiffer’s work – there’s something about the messy fluidity of his lines that I don’t warm to – but Kill My Mother, his first foray into the graphic novel form (at the age of eighty-six, natch), is perfection of its kind. It is a transparent homage to the masters of noir – Chandler, Hammett, Cain are among the book’s several dedicatees. Like Howard Hawks’ film of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, in which even the director and screenplay writers (Faulkner was one of them) were in the dark about certain elements of the convoluted plot, Feiffer’s graphic novel delivers a story of devilish intricacy. It features a needy, annoying daughter who wants to kill her mother; the mother who works for a drunken private investigator and is looking for her husband’s killer; two very tall women and a tall, dashing Hollywood actor; a whining, chippy tap-dancer who wants to be Hollywood’s biggest star; a bullied, weedy boy who grows up to be a hulky soldier. It spans a decade, its locations shift from Bay City to Hollywood to a theatre of war in a South Pacific island, where the story, a ticking bomb so far, explodes spectacularly. Feiffer’s economy is astonishing: in four panels occupying a single page, he can reveal vast backstories and emotional histories.

Adrian Tomine is one of the finest graphic novelists working within the tradition of psychological realism. His new book, Killing and Dying, a collection of six short stories, has all the depth, shadows, restraint, and emotional impact of an Alice Munro or William Trevor book of stories. There is no finer exploration of embarrassment out there, both as subject and effect, than the title story about a stammering, underconfident 14-yea-old who wants to be a stand-up, much against her unsupportive father’s wishes, but Tomine goes a few steps further and devastates you, changing the entire emotional weather. He is the master of desolation, melancholy, quiet despair, of depicting lives running into the sand. He is also a master of humour, of the deflating joke, and of comedy that breaks the heart. He makes you feel sympathy at the same time as you laugh at the delusions of a talentless horticulturist. In a story called ‘Go Owls’, he makes seedy poetry out of a relationship between an addict and a lying, abusive drug-dealer, and invests it with immense yet unstated pathos. The emotional complexity and depth he is capable of rendering in four or six or eight panels is astounding. This book is a masterpiece.