Six fat comics

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Graphic, and novel, but not necessarily graphic novels âe" draw your own conclusions

ONE OF MY FONDEST memories of childhood was the trip to the local corner store at the back of which was a shelf with an always-overflowing abundance of used comic books. Retailing new for ten or twenty cents, I could get them for five or ten. Or I could buy a couple of new ones with my fifty cents of weekly allowance. The monthly instalments in the endless narratives of costumed crime fighters was something I looked forward to with unique anticipation. I can remember that feeling now. (Actually, I still have it and exercise it weekly at my local comic book store.)

Comics still come in monthly instalments. And there are the daily and weekly strips as well, of course. And to this has been added the so-called graphic novel âe" an unfortunate and frequently inaccurate term. Harvey Pekar, comic book author of American Splendour (and subject of the film of the same name), spoke in Toronto in late April and in his characteristically confrontational tone (though more curmudgeonly than aggressive) critiqued the term âeoegraphic novelâe pointing out correctly that âeoenovelâe refers to a fictional work while many so-called graphic novels are not fiction. He suggested that we simply call them âeoefat comics.âe I was an instant convert and have thus chosen six recently published fat comics spanning the variety of this medium: two novels, a memoir, a comic strip collection, an album of short stories and an unusual essay about (or exercise in) creativity.

Matt Maddenâe(TM)s 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Chamberlain Bros., 2005; $24.00) is a delightful and instructive essay about creativity. Inspired by French writer Raymond Queneauâe(TM)s famous work Exercises in Style, Madden has done with comics what Queneau did with text: he tells the same short (one page) narrative many different ways âe" 99, to be exact. He runs through numerous literary genres (science fiction, mystery, fantasy, âeoepolice proceduralâe ), comic-book genres (superhero, political cartoon, furry-animal cartoon), modes of narrative (flashback, personification, subjective), and some hard-to-classify exercises (dynamic constraint âe" a favourite of Queneauâe(TM)s âe" minimalist, calligram). Many of these can be found on Maddenâe(TM)s website Exercises in Style. This book is both an excellent introduction to the diversity of means of expression available to the comic-book artist as well as an excellent teaching about creativity in general. For those people who may be new to the world of comic books (fat or otherwise) this book is one that can help develop oneâe(TM)s âeoeliteracyâe in this medium.

The most ubiquitous forms of comic art are, undoubtedly, the daily and weekly comic strip and their close cousin the political cartoon (many of which are comic strips). Comic strips and political cartoons have been a staple of daily newspapers, and weekly tabloids and magazines for well over a century. Usually devoted to the stuff of daily social and political life, they poke fun at, lampoon, comment on, and commemorate the mundane, the ordinary, the often taken-for-granted actions of silly human life. Since 1994 Guelph-based graphic designer Gareth Lind has published the weekly comic strip Weltschmerz. In Toronto it runs in the Eye Weekly and it can also be found in a variety of other papers and on the Internet. Weltschmerz: Attack of the Same-sex Sleeper Cells (Linddesign,, 2005; $14.95) is Lindâe(TM)s first published (self-published, actually) collection and gathers together the strips from 2005.

His is a confident and experienced hand with design, illustration and writing. A roster of well-developed and easily recognizable characters from Canadian urban life act out the stories and Lind takes on many of the issues that populate the headlines from same sex marriage and âeoeterrorismâe (as alluded to in the bookâe(TM)s title) to AIDS, global warming, iPods and bird flu. Weltschmerz is an excellent example of the art of the comic strip devoted to social, cultural and political commentary. The term weltschmerz means to be sad over the evils of the world âe" a common disposition for the political cartoonist.

One of the newest developments in the world of the comic book is the interest that large publishing houses are demonstrating. The success of Art Spiegelmanâe(TM)s Maus (a biography of his fatherâe(TM)s experience surviving Nazi concentration camps) heralded a new world of comic book publishing. But it has been long in coming. Spiegelman began self-publishing Maus serially in 1973 and it was finally published in book form in the mid-80s. But it stood on the landscape alone for a long while. Comic book aficionados (i.e. collector geeks like me) have always been quick to cite numerous comparably high quality comic books. But, in truth, the comic book (especially in Canada and the US) continues to suffer from the popular opinion that it is not serious art. The prevalence of superhero comics, manga (Japanese popular comics) and the daily funnies continues to dominate popular attention and eclipse the quality of literature being produced. With the success of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapiâe(TM)s memoir of her childhood in the ayatollahâe(TM)s Iran, it seems that big publishing houses are finally recognizing the importance of comic book literature. Notably, Persepolis was first published in France where comic books have long had much greater respect than in Canada and the U.S. (A dozen pages of Satrapiâe(TM)s original artwork were also featured in a MOMA exhibit of works by women from the Islamic world: Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking.)

Pantheon, publisher of both Maus and Persepolis, is leading the pack with its âeoegraphic novelâe division. Two of their newest titles (and these actually can be described accurately as graphic novels) include Charles Burnsâe(TM) Black Hole (Pantheon, 2005; $34.95) and Jessica Abelâe(TM)s La Perdida (Pantheon, 2006; $27.95) both of which curiously (and synchronously with the growth in the publishing industryâe(TM)s interest?) are coming-of-age stories.

Black Hole (published serially since 1995) collects all 12 issues together into a very powerful whole. The story follows a group of those ubiquitous suburban teens (see Slackers, Mall Rats, Dazed and Confused) who go to school, agonize about their social life, and contend with the world of puberty, sex, drugs, alcohol and the impending world of adulthood. A disease that is apparently passed on through sexual contact is infecting people one by one and changing their bodies in grotesque and monstrous ways. Burnsâe(TM) crisp and sharp-lined illustration uses dense blacks and solid whites having the appearance of linocut images. The density and amount of black ink has an oppressive effect, quite in keeping with the banal despair that seems a common disposition of his characters. Burns handles the contemporary commonplace of teen alienation with a skill that has the strong mark of remembered pain. Iâe(TM)m sure puberty and adolescence is a pleasurable experience for some people (perhaps I simply have a neurotic and compensatory need to believe this) but, sadly, the social norm in Canada and the U.S. tends to create a form of adolescent alienation that is undoubtedly part of the machinery of social control. The nightmare imagery of Black Hole, reminiscent of B-movie horror flicks, is a disturbingly apt portrayal of so-called teen-angst.

Jessica Abelâe(TM)s La Perdida, takes up where Burnsâe(TM)s story leaves off âe" sort of. Itâe(TM)s the story of Carla, a young Mexican-American Chicagoan who takes up residence in Mexico City in a laissez-faire attempt to âeoefind herself.âe She cavalierly moves in with an ex-lover admitting to herself in what turns out to be a rare moment of lucidity and self-awareness that she was only really interested in him to begin with because of his connection to Mexico. From that initial casual manoeuver she goes on to many more, going with the flow, as it were; never taking much initiative. She meanders one relationship to the next, one friendship to the next in a hard-to-watch journey that you just know is going to get bad. And it does. Abelâe(TM)s prose hits dead-on.

Working in Latin America in the 80s I met many Carlas (and âeoeCarlsâe too, for that matter; hmmm, could I have been one?), privileged sons and daughters who could trade on that privilege and immerse themselves in the lives of the worldâe(TM)s poor, seemingly oblivious to the disparity that they were both living and taking advantage of for the benefit of âeoepersonal growth.âe Abel has created a true character, painfully true. And she does little to make the reader feel sympathetic with Carla, evoking a disturbing feeling of âeoeshe deserves what she gets.âe

It takes some work on the readerâe(TM)s part to avoid a simplistic âeoeblame the victimâe stance and this might put a dent in the bookâe(TM)s popularity. But it raises this story to the shelves of good and memorable literature. Not quite the nihilistic despair of Bowlesâe(TM) Sheltering Sky, but definitely kin. Abelâe(TM)s graphic work unfortunately doesnâe(TM)t work as well as her prose. Similar to Burns though with more of a pencil-sketch style, Abel has a heavy hand with the black ink. Unfortunately, where Burns achieves an effectively oppressive atmosphere many of Abelâe(TM)s pages simply feel busy. Abel is an excellent artist with a steady hand and I think that her illustration suffers from the small format âe" a problem that comic books face that text novels do not. Such is the nature of the printed page.

Even while the big publishing houses get into the âeoegraphic novelâe biz in a big way, there are a number of excellent quality comic book publishing houses that have established themselves with consistently high-quality work. Most of these are in France. But one of the worldâe(TM)s finest is Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly. It seems that a staple of contemporary comic-book publishing is the collected works of a long-lost and/or largely ignored master. Much of this type of publishing is a necessary insurgent act of historical recovery that is revising the history of the medium in the interests of promoting comics as an art form that can stand on its own.

One recent important contribution to this is The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly, 2005; $25.95) a Japanese artist who has been quietly working at his craft for over 40 years. The pervasive and abundant manga (Japanese comics) tends to eclipse all other forms of comic-book art practiced in Japan. Tatsumi is a hidden treasure. His art is simple sketches; it looks and feels quickly drawn; the settings are dense, urban and industrial. The stories are almost exclusively grim, filled with alienation and despair, stories of working-class people struggling to cope. Tatsumiâe(TM)s work is a sobering antidote to the hyper-commercialized, mass-produced manga. Curiously, the protagonist in each of the sixteen stories is male which forces one to wonder where the stories of female protagonists are to be found. Hopefully, these are being produced or are being sought out for better attention.

D&Qâe(TM)s newest title is Miriam Katinâe(TM)s girlhood memoir We Are On Our Own (Drawn & Quarterly, 2005; $24.95). It is the story of her and her motherâe(TM)s escape from Nazi-occupied Budapest and their survival on-the-run through rural and war-torn Hungary. It is a characteristically harrowing tale but one that relates the courage and sacrifice of Katinâe(TM)s mother in keeping them alive. Though their trials were punctuated with occasional kindness, it is a story of war and despair, one that we see, through some flash-forward scenes of Katin as a mother herself, has left her with a lingering scepticism about her religious beliefs. Katin has a soft and expressionistic style of illustration similar to British artist Raymond Briggs that works convincingly to convey this story as a childâe(TM)s memories. It gives the book a feel of being a childrenâe(TM)s story book though a child reading this book is likely to need support in understanding the complexities of this tale.

Though it is now popular to compare the anticipation for a new Harry Potter novel to that of the 19th Century American fans of Dickensâe(TM) serialized Old Curiosity Shop who waited at the docks to learn if Little Nell was still alive, a less dramatic comparison, though one acted out weekly, is to the comic-book fan. The fat comic (or graphic novel) doesnâe(TM)t come out as frequently as the monthly serials but it is definitely moving into its own and the titles that are listed for the coming few years are both promising and exciting.âe"chris cavanagh

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