The graphic novel — an umbrella term that has come to cover all aspects of comics-related literature even when the work in question isn’t a novel in the accepted sense — comes closer every year to breaking down the prejudices keeping it from being accepted as a form every bit as worthy as any other. And 2013 brought a truly bumper crop of gift-worthy works.
Like no other literary form, these books really need to be seen and held. So for best results before buying, go to the publishers’ websites, the artists’ blogs or, better yet, your friendly neighbourhood bookstore.
Gilbert Hernandez, along with his brother Jaime, is a titan of alternative comics, even if you don’t look beyond Love and Rockets, the ongoing punk rock-informed serial that brought Southern California’s Hispanic youth culture to the world in the 1980s. In 2013, he brought out two very different but equally impressive books. Marble Season (Drawn & Quarterly) is an autobiographical coming-of-age story set in a blue-collar suburb in the 1960s and ’70s, with a sweet tone that brings to mind a parallel-world Archies.
It’s also been a banner year for the Canadian cartoonist born Gregory Gallant. In the past year, Seth, who slowly but surely has become a prime supplier of Canada’s visual iconography, provided a set of portraits for the late David Rakoff’s acclaimed novel-in-verse Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, as well as designing and illustrating an attractive new edition of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.
Palookaville #21 (Drawn & Quarterly) is the newest in his semi-annual series of work-in-progress/miscellany collections, each volume of which is a uniquely designed artifact in its own right. This features an update of the counterintuitively gripping fraternal family business saga Clyde Fans and a journal in the form of individually customized rubber stamps.
Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge (Drawn & Quarterly) will strike a deep chord among readers who grew up with comic biographies of historical figures. Sanger, an early 20th-century American women’s rights campaigner, was no weekend activist, serving multiple prison terms and being muzzled by official bans for much of her life. A complex figure (pro-birth control, anti-abortion), her convictions arose directly from her life.
Bagge is best known for his subversive underground comics series Neat Stuff and Hate. His exaggerated cartoon style — characters go through life with mouth invariably agape and eyes invariably bugged out — might appear at first to sit uneasily with his subject matter in this case. But you get used to it very quickly, and its populist underpinnings, combined with exhaustive research and illuminating endnotes, should bring an unsung heroine into the light.
In The Property, by Rutu Modan (Drawn & Quarterly), a Jewish woman who fled Poland for Palestine just before the Second World War returns to today’s Warsaw with her granddaughter to see to a long-dormant disputed property ownership issue. Fans of Modan’s hit graphic novel Exit Wounds will be glad to see her razor-sharp way with character and thematic nuance on full display here.
She vividly captures a moment in history where the legacy of the Holocaust can lead to well-intentioned “roundup” re-enactments and an elderly Polish woman saying “I miss the ghetto” without intending any unkindness or any irony. Modan’s elegant line and use of vivid primary colours recall Tintin, though her stories couldn’t be less like Hergé’s. The resulting tension between remembered childhood reading and contemporary stylish realism makes The Property irresistible.
Readers of a certain age may well have a small corner of attic space devoted to Wacky Packages, those once-popular collectible sticker cards that offered baby boom kids the giddy release of gross-out satire while encouraging them to be healthily skeptical about consumerism. What many won’t know is that those subversive images sprung from the same mind that later created the seminal Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, as well as countless iconic New Yorker covers, most memorably the magazine’s first post-9/11 issue.
All this and more are represented in Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps, by Art Spiegelman (Drawn & Quarterly). Maus, especially, is so embedded in the collective cultural DNA that it’s good to be reminded just how audacious a concept the retelling of the Holocaust with animal characters was when Spiegelman first hatched it. This collection should ideally be used as an introduction as opposed to a substitute for a larger Spiegelman collection; as it makes clear, Spiegelman’s only true comics peer is Robert Crumb.
Leanne Shapton’s multimedia memoir Swimming Studies made my personal Ten Best list last year and went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Now comes Sunday Night Movies (Drawn & Quarterly Petits Livres), a set of monochrome watercolour studies of stills from an idiosyncratic assortment of black-and-white movies, ranging from iconic tableaus to images as seemingly mundane as directors’ credits.
Strictly speaking, these are fairly straightforward depictions of film moments, but there’s something about the twice-removed device — an impressionistic medium interpreting another medium — that bypasses the rational mind and taps straight into the mysterious essence of memory. Shapton did something similar to this in 2010 with The Native Trees of Canada, an interpretation of a 1917 government reference book; plenty of people will be hoping she spins further variations in perpetuity.
Honourable mentions (very honourable, in fact): The Library by Chihoi (Conundrum International); Rage of Poseidon by Anders Nilsen (Drawn & Quarterly)