NPR.org, December 4, 2008 · No longer only for kids, nerds and baby boomers longing for a second childhood, graphic novels are showing themselves to be a medium of startling breadth and grace. Don’t call them a genre anymore; cutting-edge graphic novels exist for everyone. With last year’s widely praised film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, there was a sense these books had come into their own.
Now that the first blush of wonder has faded, new fans are beginning to realize what comics buffs have known for decades: Comics and graphic novels have their own traditions and idiosyncrasies, and learning to understand them can be a rewarding lifetime journey.
Skyscrapers of the Midwest
by Joshua W. Cotter, Adhouse Books, 282 pages, $19.95
This tender meditation on boys growing up in the Midwest captures the mystery and loneliness of America’s vast farmlands. Drawn as hapless cats, robots and skeletons, these young people haven’t really discovered what it is to be alive, yet they long for something. The comic book-loving protagonist is haunted by visions of jet pack-wearing kitten angels and of a lonely robot striding across the seemingly endless landscape; the images and vignettes make emotional, rather than logical sense. Cotter weaves his story with such care and honesty that, despite the almost unutterable sadness, the overall effect is one of love and wonder. The book also shows a deep understanding of how Christian fundamentalism can weigh heavily on young men. Skyscrapers has the eeriness of a dream remembered from childhood. It is a sensitive masterpiece that can stand side-by-side with any literary debut of the last two decades.
by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly, Oni Press, 374 pages, $29.99
This graphic novel in 12 short stories follows punky dreamer Megan McKeenan as she roams America. Each short represents a different year in a different city, as she takes odd jobs, gets into creepy relationships and lives the extended childhood of many 20-somethings. Though she often lies and gets into dodgy situations, Megan approaches people with the instinctive wisdom that only young wanderers have. Wood, author of the hugely popular comic DMZ, has created a contemporary ballad to the idea of the open road. It’s both frightening and freeing to see how identity can be as fluid as location. Megan moves from state to state, dealing with roommates and dead-end jobs and looking for an existence that befits her intelligence and desire for authenticity. She’s not a lost cause; she simply chooses, for personal reasons, to drift a while.
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Drawn and Quarterly, 204 pages, $19.95
Originally published in Japan in the early ’70s, these deeply upsetting short stories deal with a post-war Japan on the cusp of the country’s entry into global capitalism. Tatsumi’s sexually grimy, emotionally barren tales of salarymen trying to squeeze a moment of warmth and meaning from life are both time capsules and striking works of social commentary that show the cost of linking the sense of manhood solely to work. In one brutal story, a monument to peace after the Hiroshima blast is used to conceal a murder. In another, a man spends his entire pension on gambling and fast women in order to exact revenge on his wife. Taken together, they create a bleakness reminiscent of Graham Greene on a hopeless day. Tatsumi, one of the pioneers of the realistic, intelligent geigika style of manga, is a top artistic figure in Japan. If you associate Japanese comics only with teenie boppers and ninja, Tatsumi will astonish you.
Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope
by Emmanuel Guibert, First Second, paperback, 304 pages, $24
In 1994, an acclaimed French artist named Emmanuel Guibert met Alan Cope, a former American G.I. who’d settled in France after the second World War. Guibert, then part of France’s famed anarchist graphic novel collective, L’Association, began to draw Cope’s many personal stories. What unfolded was a rambling narrative about friendship, romance and an American generation irreversibly changed by its exposure to Europe in the war years. Thousands of youngsters drove tanks and jeeps through the ruins of a landscape far more cultured and complex than anything they could imagine — and did so with all social barriers removed. Guibert’s gentle, unsentimental art and Cope’s nonjudgmental outlook on everything from German guilt to fellow soldiers who almost killed him with their mistakes portray youngsters who learned to keep their decency — even when they knew they might die by the luck of the draw. Alan’s War beautifully evokes how a mix of camaraderie, violence and the surrealism of a civilization coming apart turned many rank innocents into silent, restless dreamers.
by Paul Pope, Vertigo, 256 pages, $39.99
Yes, it’s a reissue, but an utterly essential one. Paul Pope’s long-out-of-print cyberpunk classic follows the story of S, a courier addicted to the mysterious, lava-like drug Heavy Liquid. Both an intoxicant and a viscous metal, it’s one of the most sought-after substances in the world. On the run from thugs after his theft of the drug, S is retained by a wealthy businessman to track down Rodan Esperella, a former girlfriend who has gone into seclusion after her own epically bad Heavy Liquid trip. Meanwhile, the drug is doing things to S — he can’t tell exactly, but it seems he’s inhabited by a shadow-creature that’s turning him into a superhero. Pope’s landmark graphic novel has a Blade Runner feel, but in this case the urban hell is seen from the lower ranks of society, rather than through the eyes of a disaffected mercenary. Halfway between dystopian manga and a vision straight out of William Burroughs, Heavy Liquid captures the gritty underdog image the now-older Generation X once had of itself.