CECIL AND JORDAN, 32 STORIES AND GEORGE SPROTT reviewed by the Star Tribune

“Masters of melancholy ; Three new graphic novels to make you laugh, cry and feel everything in between.” / Star Tribune / Star Tribune Staff / August 23, 2009

Loneliness, sorrow and sadness never looked this good.

In the hands of the comic-book world's top cartoonists, doomed relationships and daily doldrums are a sight to behold. Seth, Adrian Tomine and Gabrielle Bell do not disappoint with their latest collections from powerhouse publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

"George Sprott: (1894-1975)," by Seth. (Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pages, $24.95.)

The characters who inhabit Seth's stories are never terribly interesting. Typically, they are aging white guys plagued by nostalgic memories of the good old days.

Even so, Seth (the pen name of Gregory Gallant) is one of the medium's best. For him, it's the way you tell the story. And his latest graphic novel might be his most ambitious yet. First off, it's huge. Measuring 12 by 14 inches, the hardcover barely fits in your lap.

Over 96 full-color pages, Seth tells the life and death of fictional Canadian TV personality George Sprott, an oaf of a man who once fashioned himself an Arctic explorer.

The dimensions of the book are an essential part of telling this story. The traditional comic-book page contains no more than nine panels. Here, Seth sometimes packs in 30 panels to a page. Many of these pages feature interviews with people who loved and loathed George -- echoing "Citizen Kane." Most panels simply capture their changing facial expressions as they ramble on about the George they knew -- lover, cheater, idol, absentee father.

"George Sprott" was first serialized in the New York Times magazine. There, Seth's overstuffed panels let him tell a single, contained thread in one page. Now collected (and with added material), Seth's technique feels cinematic -- if at times, overwhelming.

At the very least, this is a sad story about a selfish man. At its best, it is a story about how comic-book stories are told.

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"32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics," by Adrian Tomine. (Drawn & Quarterly, 104 pages, $19.95.)

"The book you hold in your hands would not exist had high school been a pleasant experience for me." So begins Adrian Tomine's introduction -- one of two included in this collection of short stories. Today, Tomine is one of the biggest names in comics. His illustrations regularly appear in the New Yorker, and his 2007 graphic novel, "Shortcomings," solidified his place as one of the medium's most gifted storytellers. That 108-page story -- about a young man struggling with his Asian-American identity -- was a masterpiece of nuanced pacing and clean, realistic pencils.

"32 Stories" is a "special edition" of a collection first published in 1995. It collects Tomine's eight "Optic Nerve" mini-comics, which he self-published while still in high school. Drawn & Quarterly has manufactured replicas of those rare mini-comics and packaged them in a fancy box.

These old stories are a fascinating look at the roots of Tomine's obsession with everyday dejection. His stories are brief, just two to four pages, and often revolve around the daily miseries of ordinary people. They're also quite funny. For Tomine, even a trip to the barber can go awry. His black ink artwork was messy, but drawn with purpose.

These 32 tales are a far cry from the craftsmanship of "Shortcomings," but they give a unique glimpse at the genesis of a major talent.

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"Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories," by Gabrielle Bell. (Drawn & Quarterly, 112 pages, $19.95.)

In comics, the best art is sometimes the simplest.

Gabrielle Bell's minimalist pencils work wonders in her latest collection of short stories about youthful malaise.

Bell rarely frames her characters in close-up. Rather we observe from afar. It's an appropriate distance, because many of the situations Bell creates for her characters sting with the tension and awkwardness of real-life relationships.

Emotional truth is her objective. In "One Afternoon," a young woman learns that her husband has died in a plane crash. At first she is sad, but then quietly elated -- she's finally free of a relationship that bottomed out long ago. Days later her husband returns very much alive. He says he was bumped to another flight, when in fact he hadn't flown anywhere -- he was with his mistress. The two are once again stuck together, lying to each other.

These stories are all slices of life, but a couple wander off course into surrealism. Cecil (of the title) feels unappreciated by her boyfriend. Out on the street she transforms into a chair. She's picked up and brought into a stranger's apartment, where she concludes, "I've never felt so useful."

These dreamy pieces seem out of place among the rest of Bell's stories. But they still illustrate what is most interesting to her -- that we either triumph over daily rejection, or we allow it to consume us.

Tom Horgen
 

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