Nick Hornby, NY Times Book Review: Road to America

“Draw What You Know” / New York Times Book Review / Nick Hornby / December 22, 2002

However often you tell yourself that the comic book is a legitimate art form, with its own language and style, its Chaucers and Shakespeares (although there are some high-culture snobs who would argue that even Stan Lee at his best fails to approach the heights that ''King Lear'' attains), its critics, its ability to get us to see the world in a new way, you may still feel an urge to explain yourself if you are caught reading one in public. (This is especially true if you find yourself reading a page that contains a misspelling. Comic-book artists seem to have a little trouble in that department.) This defensiveness is more likely to come upon you if you have reached a certain age; in the course of preparing for this review, I was tempted more than once to explain to taxi drivers and fellow bus passengers that I was being paid -- paid by The New York Times Book Review, no less -- to read these works, and that there were all sorts of proper books by proper writers waiting for me on my bedside table at home.

The truth, of course, is that many of these proper books will remain unread, or half-read anyway, whereas these comic books were devoured, quickly and with great pleasure: comic books are never dull, in the excruciating way that prose fiction can be, and it's as hard to imagine half-reading most graphic novels (Chris Ware's brilliant, dense, long and occasionally obscure ''Jimmy Corrigan'' is an exception) as it is to imagine half-reading a sonnet.
Almost as impressive, not least because of the freshness of the subject matter and milieu, is Baru's ''Road to America,'' which is set during the Algerian struggle for independence from France in the late 1950's. Baru's protagonist is a talented young boxer who becomes an unwitting political symbol for both sides. The colonial oppressors want him to demonstrate that their patronage can work, and his native countrymen and their resistance movement want him to demonstrate his loyalty to the cause by giving them hefty chunks of his purses. This is an exemplary graphic novel, informative and gripping, and Baru's muted colors and mournful caricatures are a welcome break from the American style. I shall give this to my 10-year-old nephew, thus discharging my avuncular pedagogical duties, and he will never open it.

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