Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Comics

Ever since I was a little kid, I've found refuge in the comics. As an adult, particularly when I'm down (I've decided to stop whining, effective now) , I can still get a little suspension of belief by turning to what has become a new literary genre, the graphic novel.

In France, Tintin reigned. He was a young reporter who, with his dog Milou, his friend Captain Haddock and a list of colorful and not altogether healthy characters, traveled to all parts of the world and expounded what was then European colonial aspirations. He went to the moon, stopped slavers, found sunken treasures, hunted in the Congo, foiled opium traders in the Orient. He was completely sexless--no romantic interest ever entered life and the sole woman portrayed was an overweight opera singer whose stolen jewels he recovered.

In the States, the greatest and most original work was A Contract with God, by Will Eisner. Seeking a more mature expression of the comics' form, Eisner, a cartoonist whose works include The Spirit, Blackhawk, Sheena, and many others, spent two years creating four short stories of "sequential art" that became A Contract with God, first published by Baronet Books in 1978. In this book, with its 1930s Bronx tenements and slice-of-life moral tales, Eisner returned to his roots and discovered new potential for the comics form — the graphic novel.

More recently, artist Neil Gaiman wrote and published The Sandman, the tale of Dream of the Endless, an amorphous creature who rules over the kingdom of dreams. There were 75 issues in all from 1989 t0 1996, and Norman Mailer described Gaiman's creations as "a comic book for the intellectual." The Sandman is one of a handful of graphic novels to ever make the New York Times bestseller list. And of course there is also the Watchmen series, recently made into an unfortunate and incomprehensible movie.

Graphic novels are not for lazy readers. The images are far more complex than the text, which is often secondary, and the plots would daunt Dante. These books are put together by a team of artists--writer, drawer, inker, letterer, editor and each participant will probably have a impact on the book's lot and resolution. In some editions--notably Sandman--the writer invites several teams of artists to put together a given issue, so that by the time these are put into a printed collection, each issue has its particular look, style and voice. Imagine,if you will, Mick Jagger putting a different band together for each cut of the Stones' new CD and you'll get an idea of what publishers of graphic novels are offering today.

Interested? Here are some worth considering according to Time magazine:

Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly; 2000)
Part of an incredibly ambitious, years-in-the-making project, this is just the first volume of a series of novels that will all take place during the combustible Weimar era of the titular city. Drawn with clean lines and an attention to architectural detail that pays homage to such European comics as Hergé's "Tintin," City of Stones follows a young woman art student who starts an affair with a weary leftist journalist against a background of boiling politics and decadence. Filled with rich characters and period detail, even if the follow-up books never come, it will still be one of the premier works of historical fiction in the medium.

Blankets by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf; 2003)
This semi-autobiographical novel set in the snowy hinterlands of Wisconsin tells the story of a lonely, artistic young man who struggles with his fundamentalist Christian upbringing when he falls in love. Fluidly told over 582 pages, Blankets magically recreates the high emotional stakes of adolescence. Thompson has set new bars for the medium not just in length, but breadth.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (DC Comics; 1986)
One of the best-selling graphic novels of all time, this black comedy version of Batman's latter days masterfully combines satire with superhero antics without betraying it's central character's core of danger. Along with Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon's Watchmen, it redefined the concept of "superhero," and helped spark the first wave of "serious" interest in comics.

David Boring by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon; 2000)
Although best known for his book Ghost World, thanks to the movie version, Dan Clowes' David Boring, about a guy in search of a woman while the world may be ending, marked his first truly novelistic approach to graphical storytelling. Peerless in his ability to create offbeat characters and write sardonic humor, Clowes has lately gotten more experimental in his form, but David Boring remains his most readable and unified book.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (Pantheon; 2000)
The most perfect novel yet seen in this format, Ware innovates in form and in content to create a uniquely American story, both tragic and gut-splittingly funny. Neither smart nor a kid, Jimmy reunites with his long-lost dad, finds him a great disappointment, and discovers an African-American sister he never knew about. Confronting race, history, and family this book proved incontrovertibly that the form could be as deep and complex as any prose novel.

Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books; 2003)
A kind of über graphic novel that collects a series of smaller graphic novels all situated in a small town "somewhere south of the U.S. border," this giant tome by a seminal comic artist will likely be the author's magnum opus. Part of the creative team behind the deeply influential "Love and Rockets" comic book series (along with his equally talented brother Jaime) Gilbert has created a pan-American epic that spans multiple generations of a family run almost exclusively by women. Hernandez' Palomar combines the look of Archie comics with Faulkner's richness of character and place into the melodramatic sweep of a sexy soap opera to create one of the most remarkable works of any narrative art.

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