Tag: graphic novels

Comics I Enjoyed Reading in 2018

As is traditional these days, here is an end-of-the-year list. These are not necessarily comics and graphic novels published this year, though many of them were, but a list of what I read in the past twelve months. This is, as it must be, a partial list. I am sure I read things this year that I am forgetting. And since this is a best of list, there are many things that I’ve read that are not here at all, and some of those things were good. Still, this became a longer list than I was anticipating when I first came up with the idea of doing this. And that’s not because I’m reading more. If anything, I feel like I’m reading less. There are just more good books out there, more quality publishers, and more artists. Long gone are the days when the only good books were shoved into the back of the comic book store next to the porn, and there only one or two I actually wanted to read. I can check out graphic novels from my library these days. On-line. While lying in bed. And that’s why I think lists like this can be helpful.

This list is organized alphabetically by title.

 

Arsène Schrauwen and Parallel Lives by Olivier Schrauwen
http://www.fantagraphics.com/parallel-lives/
I discovered the work of Olivier Schrauwen this year. It started with trying Arsène Schrauwen out through Hoopla. Then I went and bought Parallel Lives. The final story in Parallel Lives is a different take on a classic sci-fi trope: discovering a new world. In a way, it reminded me a bit of the beginning of Moebius’s Aedena, but the characters in Schrauwen’s work, while having god-like power through their technology, are not being deified by their creator. They are average people who are excited by their discoveries, but oddly blasé about their personal safety.

 

Beneath the Dead Oak Tree by Emily Carroll
https://www.shortbox.co.uk/product/beneath-the-dead-oak-tree-by-emily-carroll
I’ve been getting the ShortBox packages for a little while now. Every one has at least one book that I really love and several others that I appreciate having been published. If you don’t yet know about ShortBox, check it out. Emily Carroll is one of those comics artists whose work I buy sight unseen. Her color work is gorgeous and her sense of line is sensuous, which contrasts nicely with the horrific nature of her subject matter. Beneath the Dead Oak Tree is a short book, but shocking in how quickly it devolves into unbridled evisceration.

 

Calamity Jane by Christian Perrissin and Matthieu Blanchin
https://www.idwpublishing.com/product/calamity-jane-calamitous-life-martha-jane-cannary-1852-1903/
This book surprised me. I usually don’t like biography in comics. It’s a difficult genre to do well and many comics biographers oversimplify their subjects. But the character of Calamity Jane is full of exuberant contradictions. And while the actual story presented here may not be true, it offers a glimpse into what life was like on the U.S. frontier, especially for a woman. And the art is sketchy and evocative. If you ever consider what graphic novel to give to someone who doesn’t normally read graphic novels, this is a title to add to your list.

 

The Case of the Missing Men by Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes
http://www.conundrumpress.com/new-titles/the-case-of-the-missing-men/
I bought this for the cover. I admit it. But what I discovered was a very creative mystery story. At times, it tries a bit too hard to be odd and there are some distracting non-sequiturs. Overall though, the story is really entertaining. If you want a fun read, this book is it.

 

Eight-lane Runaways by Henry McCausland
http://www.ottopress.co.uk/eight-lane-runaways—part-1.html
I read volumes 2 and 3 this year. Basically, Eight-lane Runaways is like an Olympic event from your most fevered dream. The art is the first thing you will notice here. The line is clear and the composition is evocative, favoring the panoramic. The story itself, such as it is, pivots on acts of nature and strange devices and articles of clothing. The book seems less of a race and more of a quest that the characters are on to fully know themselves or at least find where their lane ends.

 

Equinoxes by Cyril Pedrosa
https://www.nbmpub.com/comicslit/equinox/equinoxhome.html
Another book I checked out from my library digitally through Hoopla. Pedrosa’s books sometimes are all mundane detail and not much story. But his art is always amazing. Equinoxes managed to move me, partly because it intermeshes the lives of several characters so we don’t get too bogged down in any one place. And there are some interesting stylistic choices in the book that make it engaging formally, as well.

 

Geis: A Matter of Life & Death by Alexis Deacon
https://nobrow.net/shop/geis/
I’m not a big reader of fantasy, but the art of this book drew me in. Often, that’s a trap and I get stuck reading a poorly written piece of inhuman drivel. But Geis has an engaging story and an engaging cast of characters who seem real, not like poor copies of characters from some other fantasy story. What I tend to dislike about fantasy is that it is so often, ironically, unimaginative, preferring to regurgitate genre conventions instead of being actually fantastical. But Geis is different. It’s like a fairy tale from another age, though modern in its concerns and pacing. I look forward to reading more of the story.

 

Gonzalo by Jed McGowan
https://www.shortbox.co.uk/product/gonzalo-by-jed-mcgowan
Another ShortBox book. I had never seen McGowan’s work before I received this ShortBox. Gonzalo is a post-apocalyptic story told from the point of view of a robot bear. Besides being about survival, it’s a story about the environment and the doubts of parenting. It’s a beautiful little sci-fi story.

 

Houses of the Holy by Caitlin Skaalrud
https://uncivilizedbooks.com/houses-of-the-holy/
This isn’t a book I would recommend to just anyone. Personally, I love it, but you have to be willing for forgo plot and embrace poetry and personal metaphor. And you also have to be willing to go to some dark places. Skaalrud’s book is about suffering and moving through it. In some ways it reminds me a bit of Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage, but while that book lacks any human subjects, Houses of the Holy is all about the human. Because of that, it’s moving in a way that The Cage simply can’t be.

 

John, Dear by Laura Lannes
https://retrofit.storenvy.com/products/24567936-john-dear-by-laura-lannes
The story here has echoes of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” even featuring a partner named John whom the woman feels compelled to defer to since society extols the virtues of men like John. And therein lies the trap. Instead of the horror playing out on the walls, it plays out on the narrator’s body. The dark and life-like drawings are disturbing and haunting. Since this book is composed of narration and attendant single-page images, the reader is encouraged to linger over the pictures and see what wriggles there in the darkness.

 

The Ladies-In-Waiting by Santiago García and Javier Olivares
http://www.fantagraphics.com/theladies/
I’ve liked Javier Olivares’s art for a long time, but never fully loved the books his art graced. But this take on Velázquez’s famous painting and the stories surrounding it is the perfect vehicle for Olivares’s bold, geometric art. And the art shifts in styles to match the change in time and subject of the chapters. It’s just a great book.

 

Land of the Sons by Gipi
http://www.fantagraphics.com/landofsons/
Gipi is one of my all-time favorite comics artists. So, yeah, I am biased. This book is in some ways a traditional post-apocalyptic story where people have to give up a part of their humanity to survive. Yet by focusing on the point of view of kids who have grown up in this world, there is a level of mystery and longing to everything. The boys may lack a moral sense, but they still yearn for the things all children want. That conflict drives the emotional heart of the book.

 

Out in the Open by Javi Rey and Jesús Carrasco
https://www.selfmadehero.com/books/out-in-the-open
This is one of those books I bought on a whim on ComiXology. The story here is of a type you may have seen before: a young person ventures out in a harsh world, only to meet a tough but caring older person, and by the end it becomes clear that the young person will later become that old person; they are but different generations of the same individual. Still, the art is so spare that it really matches the story and makes the reader work. It’s like some quiet foreign film that you love but can never remember the name of.

 

The Perineum Technique by Florent Ruppert and Jérome Mulot
http://www.europecomics.com/album/the-perineum-technique/
This book may have a suggestive title and be about sex, but the actual scenes often take place in a kind of on-line game iwhere an orgasm is depicted by people jumping off a cliff with swords in their hands. While at times the imagery may be wild, the dialogue is wonderfully real. This is a funny and engaging story about trying to find connection and love in our wired world.

 

Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet
https://www.nyrb.com/products/pretending-is-lying?variant=19334521287
To be honest, I have some reservations about this book. Like many memoirs, it is often a series of scenes that don’t always add up to something larger or are analyzed in any way. And I have trouble with memoirs where the main character/artist has a partner who is a complete schmuck. Still, Goblet manages to capture dialogue and body language amazingly well. And I really like her drawing style. The ending of the book is very poetic.

 

Sound of Snow Falling by Maggie Umber
http://2dcloud.com/sound-of-snow-falling
I had seen people discussing this book on-line, so I finally got it. It’s a beautiful meditation on the life of owls, kind of like a quiet nature documentary in comics form. It reminds me a lot of a children’s books The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr. But, as I say, it’s more nature documentary than kids’ book. But the thick painted images make the book as much about the art as its subject matter. It’s just a beautiful little piece.

 

Through a Life by Tom Haugomat
https://nobrow.net/shop/through-a-life/
I love wordless comics and this book, with its carefully designed pages of one image per page, is just beautiful. The story itself, while being about space exploration at one point,  doesn’t transcend its human story. That’s both a blessing and a curse, as the book ends with a whimper. But sometimes that’s life.

 

Why Art? by Eleanor Davis
http://www.fantagraphics.com/whyart/
I always love Davis’s work. The concept of Why Art? is so good and, of course, her art is simple yet beautiful in its graceful line and full forms. Just read it.

 

Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagabé
https://www.nyrb.com/products/yellow-negroes-and-other-imaginary-creatures?variant=41951212167
This book is a classic, so worth checking out for that alone. But Algabé’s art and the way he approaches narrative is something any serious reader of graphic narrative should study. Then there is his subject matter, which takes on immigration, race, and sexual desire in France. This is an important book.

Arsène Schrauwen

Arsène Schrauwen
Olivier Schrauwen

Arsène Schrauwen reminds me a bit of the work of Ben Katchor, with his blocky businessmen engaged in endeavors that seem just outside the real. The book also reminds me of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in the sense that expectation is often thwarted and any sense of narrative tension is drained by the inanity and passivity of the main character. I make these comparisons to Katchor and Sterne so you understand that this is a book aimed at a particular sensibility, at a reader who enjoys the absurd and the structurally inventive.

So we get a story of the artist’s grandfather, a man-child who moves to a colony- a place that is never named, inhabited by a people we don’t get to see until late in the book- and who spends most of the “adventure” hiding in his bungalow, too afraid to venture out. This is not the story of a hero, nor does it seem to be a critique of colonialism. It’s an anti-story the way that Tristram Shandy is. Yet things do happen. There is an obsession that may be love. A character is committed and receives electro-shock therapy. People get lost. Leopard men come out of the jungle. A city is built. Still, a decisive climax is avoided and all the grandiloquence of the project the colonialists undertake is undercut by the needs of capitalism. At the end, we see Arsène bicycle into the darkness, no more a solid character than he was at the outset.

Besides his playfulness with the absurdity of the story, Oliver Schrauwen is also playful with the layout and drawings of his comic. Colors shift between blues and reds, grids give way to double-page spreads. Schrauwen also uses visual metaphors. When Arsène is arroused he turns into a donkey, like a Belgian Bottom. At other times he becomes a young boy, at others his penis is a bird. Most of the other characters in the comic don’t have faces and instead have simple spheres for heads. At certain moments, their faces emerge, but often quickly disappear again. This may be Schrauwen’s style, but it underscores how little the titular character thinks about other people.

I found the playfulness of this book to be funny and charming. The whole thing was constantly inventive and engaging. At the same time, I can see how this book isn’t for all tastes. Also, I was a bit troubled that a book about a colony in Africa doesn’t have any black people in it. Reality is not Schrauwen’s game here; he is playing more with the European narratives of the great artist and the great adventurer. Still, the lack of a native perspective was at times an unnerving hole in the book.

I read Arsène Schrauwen through my library on the Hoopla app. So if your library has a similar service, you can try it out that way. Or you can get the book from Fantagraphics.

How to Create Graphic Novels by Rodolphe Töpffer

Rodolphe Töpffer usually wins credit for being the first comics artist. He put multiple panels on a page and employed the new advancements in printing to get his work read. He may not have used word balloons, but most of the elements of contemporary comics started with him. What I didn’t know (and maybe you didn’t either) is that he also was one of the first theorists about this new medium. In 1845 Töpffer wrote Essai de Physiognomie, his thoughts on what made littérature en estampes (as he called it) so special. Sorry, Will Eisner.

I learned this because a new translation was recently published under the title How to Create Graphic Novels, translated and edited by John McShane. While I understand the need for a better title than “Essay on Physiognomy,” “How to Create Graphic Novels” is a bit misleading. Still, this is a very interesting little book and I’m really glad this new edition exists.

I just want to mention that the introduction to this book is both helpful and confusing. It gives a bit of background on Töpffer and goes over what parts of Essai de Physiognomie of have been cut for this edition. But the unrestrained enthusiasm and unfocused chronological jumps make it hard to tell when the opinions being described are Töpffer’s, his time period’s, or the editor’s. Also, almost half the introduction talks about contemporary works. I understand that McShane is trying to contextualize Töpffer’s influence, but it makes for a muddle of times and ideas that obfuscate more than illuminate. That being said, McShane’s translation of the main text is very readable and engaging.

Panels as hyperbole.

As Töpffer’s original title implies, most of his book concerns facial expressions and how what characters look like reveals their personalities. Töpffer does mention some other ideas in the beginning. The one I found most interesting is that an artist can use multiple panels in quick succession as a kind of visual hyperbole. Yet he doesn’t say much more than that; most of the book discusses physiognomy.

I was concerned when I first saw this term used. Physiognomy usually goes hand-in-hand with prejudice. The very idea of it, that we can judge people’s personalities based on their looks, is the definition of pre-judging. And yet so much of what we do as artists in comics is based in this. We convey character through visual signifiers. This is something that has always troubled me since there are so many examples of how this can go horribly, even fatally, wrong. All you have to do is look at the hooked noses and dark skin in the history of Disney villains to find one example. While he never mentions racial profiling or caricature used as warmongering, Töpffer understands that physiognomy has its limits. He emphasizes that the types of visual signifiers he discusses are about drawings and don’t always relate to “nature.” He says, “these signs never present, neither when considered in isolation, nor when considered together, an infallible criterion by which to judge the intellectual or moral faculties.”

What is so refreshing about his approach is his sense of play. Töpffer says that an artist doesn’t have to go to school and study anatomy. All they need to do is sketch faces, no matter how simple, and play around with the features. See what happens when you move the eyebrows, the lips, or the nostrils. Observe what kinds of characters reveal themselves from these shifts. He then encourages artists to mix up these signifiers. He shows the result of drawing a mouth that denotes laughter with eyes that imply crying. It is this subtle interplay between these different features that Töpffer feels is the medium’s strength and what advantage it has over the novel. And so we see, even in the earliest essay on comics, this bid to prove that it is as worthy a medium as writing.

This is a short book, but a fascinating one. I can see how some of Töpffer’s ideas could be easily made into exercises for a class on creating comics. And again, I was really charmed by Töpffer’s tone. He is an enthusiastic proponent of this new medium, but he is also a practicing artist who is thoughtful about the realities of what he is doing. This book helped me not only respect Töpffer but like him.

You can get the book here. 

An alternative history of graphic novels

The common history of graphic novels, and the one I learned, follows comics aimed mainly at children and the publishers who made them. We hear about the rise and fall of EC, the birth of Mad, the undergrounds, Will Eisner, and then we miraculously get to Maus. This history isn’t wrong so much as the work it presents is very conscribed. Gil Kane’s Blackmark may have broken new ground, but it was basically an extension of the kind of adventure stories already being told in comics. Even the comics of the underground movement were just a step away from the work in Mad Magazine.

This is why I’ve always been excited to find works that fall completely outside this established narrative. Often, these works come out of the art world, not the publishing world. They are usually aberrations, almost never inspiring other works. Because of this, they don’t fit neatly into a causal narrative of the graphic novel. Yet for those of us who are creating today, these earlier works provide both inspiration and proof that comics can go in completely unexpected directions.

I just want to quickly mention that this is not meant to be a complete list. These are simply works I have discovered over the years and have found inspiring. Still, if you know of some other work that would fit here, please feel free to mention it in the comments.

 

Simplicissimus
Simplicissimus was a German magazine started in 1896 that was often critical of the politics of its day and ran work by writers such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. It also featured artwork by people like Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz. It also had comics. Yes, of course, it had cartoons, many satirical. But it also had multiple panel comics by artists such as Bruno Paul and Olaf Gulbransson. It’s not so much the subject matter of these comics that I find so inspiring, but their style. It’s German Expressionism brought to bear on comics. The only similar approach is Lyonel Feininger’s on The Kin-der-Kids.

You can view all the old issues here. 

Olaf Gulbransson

Bruno Paul

W. Schulz

W. Schulz

 

L’Assiette Au Beurre
L’Assiette Au Beurre was France’s answer to Simplicissimus and looked very similar. Again, the magazine was mostly full-page satirical illustrations. Yet every now and again there would be multiple panel strips, most notably by Caran d’Ache.

You can view individual issues by date here.

Caran D’Ache

Steinlen

 

Frans Masereel
Masereel was a Flemish woodcut artist who worked mostly in magazines. Yet at some point he decided to make a series of woodcuts and publish them as wordless novels. The first of these, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion, was published in 1918. Yet he is best known for his 1919 work, Passionate Journey. The story spans 165 woodcuts and captures politics, culture, and the unyielding spirit of the individual. It uses images both representationally and metaphorically. It’s an incredible tour-de-force and a must-read for anyone who wants to make graphic novels.

Lynd Ward
Ward followed in Masereel’s footsteps, and while he also had similar political interests, his stories became more layered and subtle than Masereel’s. This culminated in Ward’s 1937 book, Vertigo. The book portrays a narrative from the view of three different characters, each with their own time frame: years, months, and days. It’s an ambitious work and unlike anything else before or since. Ward remained an artist for decades afterwards, mostly doing book illustration. To my knowledge, he did at least one other wordless novel, The Silver Pony in 1973.

Miné Okubo
As I mentioned before, in middle school I was told that Farewell to Manzanar was the only novel written about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Yet No-No Boy was published almost twenty years earlier in 1957. And even before that, in 1946, there was Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660. The book captures the steps that lead up to the internment and the realities people faced once they were interned. I don’t know if Spiegelman read this or not, but Citizen 13660 is a spiritual mother to all the autobiographical graphic novels that would come decades later.

 

Edward Gorey
My parents had a few of the Gorey collections, Amphigorey, and so personally his work is some of the first comics I ever read. It took me a long time to realize that they were comics, though. The Gashlycrumb Tinies seemed to have no relation to Daredevil, which is the first comic book I began reading. Again, Gorey is not part of the standard comics narrative. But of course his work is comics. He first began publishing his macabre little books in 1953. In 1965 he published The Remembered Visit. While this story has the Edwardian characters that populate all his works, it isn’t morbid or humorous. Instead, it’s a quiet little tale of youthful promises and adult regret. It’s surprisingly emotional.

 

Martin Vaughn-James
Some people argue whether or not the works of Vaughn-James are comics. While not narrative, they contain pictures and words deliberately put into sequence. They have too many images to be poetry and too much sequence to be simply a collection of drawings. Vaughn-James’s work reminds me a bit of the psychedelic comics of Victor Moscoso in Zap Comix, but taken even further. 1975’s The Cage is the longest and best known work by Vaughn-James and it’s difficult to describe. I tried to write a review of it once and fell short. So I’d say it’s just a work that you have to experience. If you’re an artist it will open you up to completely new possibilities for the medium.

 

There are other names that could be here, like Dino Buzzati, Guy Peellaert, and Milt Gross, but I wanted to stick to artists I was personally inspired by. Still, if you can think of names that fit here feel free to comment.

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo

When I was in the seventh grade, I read Farewell to Manzanar and was told that it was the only book about the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2. Fifteen years later, I found out that this wasn’t true. There was in fact another book about the internment and one that was published long before Farewell to Manzanar (1946 versus 1973). Moreover, it was told from the point of view of a young adult, not a child, which meant it had many more details about life in the camps. More incredibly, it was a story told in words and pictures.

I’m not sure whether or not it’s the picture book aspect of Citizen 13660 that has made it less popular than Farewell to Manzanar, but I think it can be a strangely empty book for people who are unaccustomed to reading visual narratives (I definitely felt this upon a first reading). The text in the book is encyclopedic in style. There is no characterization, no dialogue, and little opinion. Details are given matter-of-factly. On the one hand, this makes the things depicted all the more monstrous, because they are so out in the open. But on the other hand, it can make the book seem a little flat.

That is, until you look at the images. Like a picture book, there is one image per page, set above the text. This separation is not popular in graphic novels today, but in Citizen 13660 the separation creates a tension between the text and the images. This is intentional, because the art serves to subvert the encyclopedic narrative. As Megan Kelso says in her review of the book, “new meaning arises from the discord.”

Citizen 13660 page 12

First of all, there is the nature of the figure drawing. Okubo was trained under Diego Rivera and her figures have a similar roundness and abstraction to them. Faces convey emotion, but are not heavily detailed, and everything is inked in a simple line black-and-white. One curious effect of this is that in some panels it is difficult to tell who is Japanese-American and who is not. On page 12 Okubo says that “people looked at all of us, both citizens and aliens, with suspicion and mistrust.” The accompanying image makes effective use of the intersecting lines of a bus window to highlight the figure of Okubo herself and underscore the tension. Yet when one looks at the other figures depicted in the bus, Okubo is not obviously more Japanese than any of them. This is due to the simplicity of her art of course, but it also adds a counterpoint to what is going on. She is a citizen like the rest of them. She isn’t any different. In fact, Okubo had been painting mosaics at a military base, Fort Ord, when talk of internment began (ironically). So while the text mentions a growing desire to make the Japanese-Americans into untrustworthy others, the image shows sameness. The reality the art depicts is not the one that the history book narrative allows space for.

The pictures are also the place where Okubo’s emotions become clear. On page 18 she tells of registering at one of the Civil Control Stations. The text simply states the rules regarding this and the fact that she did it. There is no point of view provided. Yet in the illustration above Okubo is giving a stern look to one of the soldiers and he is looking back at her with an expression of surprise. Likewise, on page 59 she talks about curfew at Tanforan and the roll call done by the house captain twice a day. Again, plain factual text. Yet in the picture Okubo seems to be sticking out her tongue at the house captain. On page 108 is perhaps my favorite scene. In the text, Okubo tells the reader that every room was inspected for “potentially dangerous tools” and the like. At the very end, she mentions that her room was almost not inspected due to a sign on her door. And that’s it for the text. The image, however, depicts the inspection of her room. The house captain is going through her drawers while a soldier stands guard. The soldier looks at Okubo with a harsh expression. Okubo looks back, her glance similarly stern. Yet she holds a pair of scissors in one hand and a piece of paper in another, and on her head is a floppy spiral cut out of paper, a whimsical counterpoint to the mood of the scene. Since Okubo is an artist, many of her tools could be construed as being “dangerous” by suspicious minds and yet the image shows the absurdity of such a claim. Not only does the image show a different reality than the text, but also the art within the image, the paper spiral, similarly resists the assumptions made by the other people in the scene. Art is the only sane response to such surreal inhumanity and the only possible recourse for resistance.

Citizen 13660 page 108

So it is the words in the book that provide the stark reality, just like it was the wording of Executive Order 9066 that made the internment a legal reality. Through words, people are able to convince themselves that stealing others of their civic rights is acceptable and even necessary. Words have the ability to create a new reality, but do so at the expense of human emotion. So it is left to visual art to subvert the inhumane effects of words. And that is exactly what Okubo does all throughout Citizen 13660. So the book is not simply an act of trying to remember the past, as Farewell to Manzanar is; it is a book about the necessity and humanizing power of art.

Megan Kelso wrote an insightful review of the book, but it seems to no longer be available on-line.

 

(written May 30, 2009)

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert

The story of Helen Keller is a famous one and one that has been told many times. So if an artist were tasked with telling the tale, there are many possible versions of the story to look to for inspiration or perhaps fall into the trap of imitating. Yet what Joseph Lambert has created is not simply a Classics Illustrated retelling Keller’s autobiography or a static version of The Miracle Worker, but a book that lives and breathes as a graphic novel, using the medium to its full advantage. Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is a book that should be on everyone’s permanent “best-of” lists.

Lambert had the challenge of making an old story new again yet readable to an all-ages audience. Upon flipping through the book, the first thing one notices is how Lambert has chosen to depict Helen’s world. Forms only appear in rough outline, with color denoting the separation of self and other. Over the course of the book, sign language starts appearing in the darkness, gradually to be replaced by words. The visual device both accents Helen’s isolation– she is literally in blackness– and makes it clear how she comes to understand language. The images and words in Helen’s world get more complicated as her understanding grows.

Lambert uses the static medium shot in vogue among people like Jason and Chris Ware. Of course, it is also also a style used by the early newspaper strips, such as King’s Gasoline Alley. Here the technique serves to let the drama unfold naturally without any potentially bathetic use of close-ups or fancy framing. Still, at times I felt too separate from the action. For instance, I didn’t understand at first that Annie was spelling words out on Helen’s hand. Since the hands were so small I didn’t realize the significance at first. Yet in general, the restrained compositions of the book make the actions of the characters come to life by heightening the small changes in their faces and posture.

Yet this book has more going for it than its formal decisions. One thing I’ve always felt that comics tend to lack is depth of characterization. For all the talk about “literary” comics, I think the majority of comics don’t get to the complexity of characterization that literature does. Yet Lambert’s book is not guilty of this fault. Overall, this book is a close character study of Annie Sullivan. We come to understand why she is uniquely able to get through to Helen, seeing both depictions of her experiences and expressions of her temperament. And Lambert doesn’t put Annie on a pedestal or candy-coat things. Annie is hot-headed and quick to vindictiveness. And by the end, I began to feel that she was too possessive of Helen. Not only does she keep people away from Helen, but it becomes clear that Helen’s sense of reality is mediated by Annie. Helen’s knowledge that the warmth that she feels is actually the sunlight through the trees or the fact that a story is fact or fantasy is dependent solely on Annie Sullivan. And in the end, we see the possibility that this is too claustrophobic a reality. Yet again, what Annie does is just an amplified version of what all parents do. On top of that, who else and how else could Helen be reached? And so, I was left thinking that it couldn’t have been any other way.

Such musings point to the complexity of Lambert’s book. Lambert doesn’t shy away from these complexities and he notices (or creates) many subtle details. And, thankfully, he doesn’t judge. For instance, on page 52 we see Mrs. Keller’s day and how being a housewife in that era was a full-time job. After nine panels depicting her work, her husband and brother return home (from doing what?) and her brother asks with unthinking privilege, “Dinner ready?” We understand Lambert’s point if we choose to, but he doesn’t belabor it. Nothing more is said and Mrs. Keller goes off to make dinner as a woman of her time would. This scene is not simply a feminist political statement; it helps to underscore Annie Sullivan’s reality. If she cannot have the job teaching Helen then what autonomy she has will be gone. Again, no character says this, but we understand it due to Lambert’s staging.

Such incredible restraint and trust of the reader are the hallmarks of a cartoonist in complete control of his craft. That and the deep understanding– and at times frustration– we come to feel for Annie make this a truly remarkable book.

The main quibble I have is with the ending. I think it may have required a firmer authorial hand. Lambert depicts the events of the plagiarism trial against Helen and allows a certain amount of vagueness about what actually happened, at least in terms of how much Annie Sullivan may have coached Helen to cover up the truth. This works and it creates a sense of doubt in the reader about Annie’s methods and we can see it creates doubt for Helen about her own sense of reality and herself. Yet the important thing is the relationship between Helen and Annie. With the trial we see a whole new side of that relationship; a strain is put upon the trust that the relationship is founded on. In other words, what is Helen thinking? How does she feel about Annie now? And this is left unanswered. The book ends here. It’s as if a door is opened in a house and a new room is revealed, but we are quickly told that we cannot enter and must in fact go home. And so I feel that the main relationship in the book, the one between Annie and Helen, is left in limbo. And so the book ends more with uncertainty than resolution. On the other hand, maybe I’m accusing Lambert for lacking the very thing I lauded him for earlier: lack of drama.

Besides this minor reservation about the choice of ending, I find Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller to be an incredibly strong book. In fact, it’s a book I’m going to add to the short list of graphic novels I will suggest to people who don’t read comics. It is such a solid work with such unassailable strengths that it will appeal to almost any reader. This is a book more people should be talking about. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

 

Other reviews:

Rob Clough The Comics Journal website

 

(written August 27, 2012)

Panther by Brecht Evens

A lot of children’s books are pretty creepy when you think about them. Many of them involve child abandonment or characters who seem whimsical on the surface, but reveal themselves to be agents of chaos. Think of The Cat in the Hat. He’s funny, but also incredibly destructive and unsafe. The new graphic novel by Brecht Evens takes the unsettling nature of many children’s books and turns that up a notch. But interestingly, he never tips it over into pure horror. Everything remains unnervingly ambiguous. It’s a horror story told as a children’s book.

Panther is about Christine who lives alone with her father. Her sickly cat, Lucy, has just been put to sleep. Into the midst of this childhood sorrow, held by a larger sorrow connected to her missing mother, steps the spotted form of Panther. Panther charms Christine and seems to be the answer to her loneliness. But from the outset, his predator’s eyes and ever-changing visage let us know that things are far from okay. Then Christine’s stuffed animal Bonzo goes missing, obviously connected to the appearance of Panther. Bonzo returns, but is it really Bonzo? And why doesn’t he corroborate Panther’s story? Events culminate in Christine’s birthday party, where Panther invites a few more of his friends into Christine’s world. Like the new Bonzo, none of them seem to know what is appropriate to say and do in front of a young girl.

The art here is really gorgeous. The color choices harken to the primaries of children’s books, but they are often paired with murky blacks. The effect is art that is both vibrant and unsettlingly dark. The focus in Panther is much tighter than in Evens’s previous books, so there is not as much breadth of setting and character. Yet in some ways, the character of Panther makes up for that by his constantly changing form. He is usually recognizably a cat, but the style shifts. Many times, the style echoes that of some children’s book artist, but it also changes to match the mood of the dialogue. The changes are beautiful, but also unnerving. They make you feel early on that Panther is not a creature to be trusted. There is something dishonest about his very appearance. Then there’s Panther’s dialogue. The sickly green cursive shows both his desire to sound refined and the rotten, ingratiating nature of his speech. He is desperate to charm Christine. Whenever he says something that she doesn’t like or that disturbs her, he changes his story immediately. And yet, we get the idea that he truly cares for Christine in his own way. The question is: what is his intention? But this begs another, deeper question. From whence does Panther come? Is he from inside Christine herself, or her version of a real person in her life, or is he a denizen of some fantastical world?

Panther shares a bit in common with Evens’s earlier short story “Bad Friends” in Night Animals. That story also involves a young woman, though older and just entering puberty. It also involves a growing cast of fanciful characters who become increasingly bestial and lecherous. Yet Panther doesn’t follow a clear trajectory. While things definitely get more and more out of hand, the character of Panther seems to want to try to keep control of events and protect Christine even though he is the one introducing the chaos into her life. Also, “Bad Friends” is more obvious about what happens to the main character. While Panther does show things, it still remains ambiguous.

This ambiguity means that Panther is less satisfying in terms of plot. The story opens up more possibilities than it answers. On the one hand, this lets the reader figure things out. Again, is Panther Christine’s creation or the mask of an abuser? On the other hand, this ambiguity means there’s less to hold onto. Yet the beauty of the art makes me want to pick up the book again and again and try to unlock its secrets. If they can be unlocked. What Evens has managed to do is create a tone that hovers between the creative joy of childhood imagination and the unfathomable terror of barely contained amorality. The fact that most the book walks that line without falling too heavily into either camp makes for a captivating, if completely unsettling, reading experience.

(written May 20, 2016)