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Graphic Novels & Art-Comics - October 2011 

Craig Thomson’s best-selling, award-winning 2003 autobiographical comic Blankets combined three subjects—child abuse, religious disillusionment, and first love—that could’ve filled volumes all to themselves, resulting in a book that proved worthy of the tag “graphic novel” in its winding narrative and wealth of detail. Thomson’s new book Habibi (Pantheon) was six years in the making, and at 600-plus pages, it rivals Blankets for heft. It’s also every bit as formidable as a work of literature and a work of art—and perhaps even more so. With Blankets, Thompson shaped his own small experiences into something grander. Habibi, on the other hand, is pure fiction, taking pieces of Islamic mysticism and folktales and fashioning them into a mosaic, at the center of which sit two characters: Dodola, a child-bride-turned-prostitute, and Zam, a boy born into slavery. Their story is set in a nebulous time and place, where the desert shades into cities, cities into slums, and slums into palaces, and where the ancient is perched unsteadily atop the modern. Once again, Thompson could’ve spun any one element of Habibi off into its own substantial story. But by piling on ideas and locations and narrative paths, he comes up with something epic and unexpected. As soon as readers think they have Habibi pegged, Thompson changes course.

And yet Habibi is never too obscure or too elusive, because Thompson anchors it to Dodola and Zam, and their own evolving relationship. When the book begins, Zam is a toddler and Dodola barely in her teens. She raises him in an abandoned ship in the desert, where she teaches him the Koran and tells him stories, until he’s old enough to venture outside the boat—and old enough to take an interest in her as more than just a sister/mother. Then Dodola and Zam are separated: She’s taken into the harem of a murderous sultan, while he survives on the streets with the help of a commune of eunuchs. The rest of Habibi is about the two trying to find each other again, and then what happens after that—because Thompson’s not one to end a story on a “happily ever after” moment, not when there’s more to be considered. The book works in allusions to Arabian Nights and digresses for extended comparisons between the Koran and the Holy Bible and lessons on numerology. Strictly on the level of draftsmanship, Habibi is a stunning achievement, turning the very shape of Arabic calligraphy into a recurring visual motif. But it’s first and foremost the story of two people enduring terrible indignities—which Thompson shows in gut-wrenching detail—because they aspire to ideals that transcend religion. Dodola and Zam aren’t saints; they screw up royally, and hurt other people as well as each other. But they’re connected, to each other and to the reader, by the swoop of a line on a page, and the words those lines weave.

Seth’s latest “sketchbook novella,” The Great Northern Brotherhood Of Canadian Cartoonists (Drawn & Quarterly) is also an epic of a kind, exploring the 75-year history of a prestigious club by way of a tour through the headquarters of a branch in Seth’s fictional city of Dominion. Seth himself is the guide, leading the reader through the exhibits and archives of The G.N.B. Double C, and describing how before the club went into decline, it was a beloved institution, and its members active participants in the civic life of Canada’s great cities. Seth also describes some of the work the members of the Brotherhood created: the long-running series about the Eskimo astronaut; the square-bound adventure comics that featured one panel per page; the silent newspaper strip about a typical suburban Ontario family; the impressionistic proto-graphic-novel about a building containing a variety of mysterious machines; and so on.

Some of those comics are actually available in the real world, but most are products of Seth’s imagination that The G.N.B. Double C tries to will into being. This is nothing new for Seth, of course. His first great comic-book opus—It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken—combined autobiography with the wholly concocted story of an amateur gag cartoonist, and his Wimbledon Green and George Sprott are full of reveries about old Canadian media the way it almost was and the way Seth wishes it had been. (At times, Seth’s collected work reads like the alt-comics version of Kurt Busiek’s revisionist super-hero series Astro City.) But The G.N.B. Double C contains an undercurrent of anger along with the usual wistful melancholy. Why don’t these books exist?

To an extent, The G.N.B. Double C could be seen as a wishlist of the comics that Seth himself would write and draw, if he had the time—and a time machine. But the selection of actual and imaginary stories he describes isn’t random; each reflects some meaningful aspect of Seth’s work, including this book itself. It’s no accident that one of the most haunting comics that Seth describes is about a tour through a building of wonders; and it’s no accident that one of the creators he dreams up was known for using a format a lot like the one Seth uses in The G.N.B. Double C. Seth is both paying homage to the nostalgic appeal and seemingly limitless potential of old comics, and trying to create his own testament to how much wonder can be contained within a nine-panel grid.

It should go without saying by now that any new volume of Love And Rockets is a must for any serious comics fan, though to be honest, Gilbert Hernandez’s contributions to Love And Rockets: New Stories Vol. 4 (Fantagraphics) aren’t as potent as what he did for last year’s book. Gilbert’s been a little too locked-in lately to his abstract, B-movie-inspired reveries, and while “And Then Reality Kicks In” in the new volume develops an eerie poetry as it follows a couple’s circular conversation while they wander through a generic comic-book landscape, his other, longer story, “King Vampire,” comes off as purposelessly opaque, even though it plays off the current teen obsession with the undead.

But New Stories 4 is still one of the major events of the comics year, because it contains the conclusion to “The Love Bunglers,” the masterpiece that Jaime Hernandez began in New Stories 3. In last year’s L&R, Jaime started recounting the tentative reunion of his recurring characters Maggie and Ray, broken up by a Maggie dream sequence and a lengthy flashback to Maggie’s early teen years. This year, Jaime continues the oft-painful courtship between the now-middle-aged exes, broken by a Ray dream sequence, another flashback to Maggie’s youth (this time from the perspective of her dead friend Letty rather than her troubled brother Calvin), and a tone-setting one-pager about an old married couple who’ve made it through the doldrums of their relationship.

The second part of “The Love Bunglers” is more tied to the decades of Love And Rockets backstory than the first part, featuring characters whose connections are largely unexplained here, but which will be more meaningful to longtime readers. But anyone who loves brilliant cartooning technique should appreciate the way Jaime draws the casual sag of a post-coital naked body, or the way he illustrates a pre-schooler tugging at his mother, oblivious to any notion of “personal space.” And anyone who’s alive in the world should be moved by this story’s depiction of life as a series of accidents, miscommunications, and embarrassments, which sometimes work out okay regardless. Like Habibi and The G.N.B. Double C, “The Love Bunglers” is rich with hidden meanings, complicated ideas, and superior artistry. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the state of modern literature, and whether anyone’s writing books worthy of being analyzed and championed by the academy. Well, here are three.


Not every cartoonist is thinking big these days; Adrian Tomine gets back to his roots with Optic Nerve #12 (D&Q), an honest-to-goodness comic book, running 40 pages and containing three short stories and a letters column. Tomine is one of the medium’s masters of the short form, and the new Optic Nerve contains one for the canon in “Amber Sweet,” a beautifully brittle story about a young woman who discovers that she resembles a famous porn star. The other pieces in the book include a funny autobiographical two-pager about the creation of this very issue, and a strange, semi-experimental piece called “A Brief History Of The Art Form Known As ‘Hortisculpture.’” The latter uses the makeshift-newspaper-comic format that’s previously been the province of artists like Daniel Clowes and Robert Sikoryak (among others) to tell the sad, funny tale of a gardener who begins to fancy himself as an artist. Frankly, the structural gimmick feels unnecessary, but the story itself is a good one, shadowing the other strips in Optic Nerve #12 by exploring the line between craft and art, and the difference between a whim and a waste. … 

Hark! A Vagrant (D&Q) collects a big batch of cartoons by Kate Beaton, who riffs on history and classic literature with the wit and silliness of everyone’s favorite college classmate. In punchy three-or-four-panel strips, Beaton conceives a world where the pomposity of historical figures and the imposing surfaces of old books are just a front for a group of characters who are a lot like us in their vanity, their petty annoyances, and their social awkwardness. The layout of Hark! A Vagrant is a little distracting, with footnotes that take longer to read than the strips they’re annotating, and Beaton’s humor tends to be more effective in drops rather than dollops. But she has an expressive, Feiffer-esque cartooning style, with eyes and mouths that convey as much as the dialogue does. Her work is never less than a pleasure to look at. … 

The autobiographical strips in Jennifer Hayden’s Underwire (Top Shelf) may appeal more to parents than non-parents, but the former should find a lot to relate to in Hayden’s stories about trying to maintain her own identity while raising children strong enough to find theirs. Hayden is funny and touching as she breaks her life down into fleeting, charged moments: watching her daughter eat a sandwich, having a sexy-yet-frustrating dream about her husband, looking forward to her brother’s second wedding, remembering the free spirit she once wanted to be, and so on. Hayden draws busy panels, with big faces in the center, showing how in all the hubbub that surrounds us, there are still just people: learning, growing, aging, and clinging tenaciously to each other. … 

A few years back, artist Arthur Jones started drawing stories written by friends and acquaintances, using the Post-It pads he’d liberated from his day job. Post-It Note Diaries: 20 Stories Of Youthful Abandon, Embarrassing Mishaps, And Everyday Adventure (Plume) features Jones’ art next to words by such literary heavy-hitters as John Hodgman, Mary Roach, Chuck Klosterman, and David Rakoff, as well as an eclectic batch of famous and non-famous folk. Jones’ art is clean and simple, and since this exercise requires him to think one panel at a time rather than one page at a time, he comes up with illustrations that pack a lot of information and impact into tiny boxes. But the real star of the show here is the stories: elliptical autobiographical tales about near-death experiences, exotic travels, and lessons learned from day-to-day drudgery. Fans of This American Life and McSweeney’s should connect to the subject matter and the tone. … 

Writer Jeff Jensen and artist Jonathan Case’s Green River Killer: A True Detective Story (Dark Horse) recounts how Jensen’s father Tom—a Seattle-based police detective for more than 20 years—worked to crack the case of one of the region’s most notorious serial killers, Gary Leon Ridgway, and how the whole saga culminated with Ridgway cooperating with the cops to locate the bodies of his victims. Unlike some writers with close access to such a juicy story, Jensen—an Entertainment Weekly reporter and critic best known for his Lost coverage—downplays the personal connection except where it matters most. He appears in the book himself in a couple of scenes, and the house he grew up in figures prominently as a backdrop (and a psychological/chronological marker) throughout the story. Mostly, though, Green River Killer is a gripping and well-constructed tale of crime and punishment, jumping back and forth in time to give both a matter-of-fact recounting of Ridgway’s compulsion to rape and kill prostitutes (and then later have sex with their corpses) and of Tom Jensen’s dogged efforts to get the meek, polite Ridgway to own up to what he did and why. Case’s thick-lined, inky black-and-white art coveys the cold facts of the case, but also gives way to moments of poignancy as everyone involved with the investigation grows older yet no less determined to get answers. This is strong stuff that can stand with best true-crime stories in any medium. … 

Though not strictly a comic book, Michael Kupperman’s Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010 (Fantagraphics) is very much of a piece with the cartoonist’s gleefully absurdist Tales Designed To Thrizzle series. Working mostly in prose this time (with full-page illustrations and the occasional short comics interlude), Kupperman picks up the story of an American icon beginning with what the newspapers reported as Mark Twain’s “death.” Kupperman’s Twain quickly sets the record straight, then relates what he’s been up to for the past century: fighting in World War I, losing a fortune by investing in chocolate-covered olives, making gangster pictures inspired by The Wizard Of Oz… y’know, the usual. Kupperman’s working method seems to be just to let his mind wander, making stream-of-consciousness associations that fuse into comedy. “What if Mark Twain were a hobo?” Kupperman wonders, and soon one of our greatest writers is riding the rails, alongside Robert “Less Taken Road Takin’ Bob” Frost, Wallace “Even” Stevens, and e.e. “bumming” cummings. … 

Lastly, just in time for Halloween, two new collections bring the horror in ways both sophisticated and shocking. Graphic Classics Volume 21: Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales Of Mystery (Eureka) features Poe adaptations by the likes of Stan Shaw, Maxon Crumb, Roger Langridge, and Nelson Evergreen. As with the other titles in the Graphic Classics line, Tales Of Mystery is designed to represent the original intentions of the writer as much as possible, which means these versions of “The Murders In The Rue Morgue,” “The Masque Of The Red Death,” and others are fairly straightforward, albeit rendered in a variety of styles, and with an emphasis on Poe’s ability to creep readers out. Even creepier? Creepy Presents Bernie Wrightson (Dark Horse), which features a looser take on Poe in Wrightson’s gory, gothic version of “The Black Cat,” and also features some of Wrightson’s more bone-chilling contributions to the legendary Warren horror magazines Creepy and Eerie. The book could use more annotation and context beyond the brief introduction by Warren writer Bruce Jones (author of the terrifying anti-love-story “Jennifer,” included here), but the actual comics are undeniably impressive, as is the reproduction of Wrightson’s art, with its shadowy folds and lines drawing readers deeper into the abyss.