Chicago Sun Times reviews Seth's Clyde Fans!

“The graphic alternative” / Chicago Sun Times / Carlo Wolff / June 13, 2004

Graphic novels are finally coming into their own. Even though Will Eisner's A Contract with God,published in 1978, was the first to be called a graphic novel, these distinctive, varied works have not until recently reached a mass audience. It wasn't until 1992, when comics artist Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, his book on the Holocaust, that the graphic novel even came into focus. (In The Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman's first new book of comics since Maus, comes from Pantheon in September.)

Since Spiegelman's breakthrough, the medium has gradually grown in popularity and respect. Sandman: Endless Night, a Vertigo release by writer Neil Gaiman and seven artists, made the New York Times' extended best-seller list in 2003. Pantheon, which published Maus, scored last year with Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and will issue a sequel in August. Amazon.com just added the category "comics and graphic novels" on its search bar.

Graphic novels are narrated with both words and illustrations. These books come in all shapes, sizes and colors, blending picture and text to tell stories that couldn't be told as well by either mode alone. Some resemble comic books; others look like high-end art books. Some look strikingly familiar; others are hard to read -- they can be linear, unpaginated and at times unsettling. They can be fiction, "docufiction" or fantasy. It's all about the medium, not the format.

The most complex graphic novels are as challenging as purely textual works and strike chords just as deep. Here is a sampling of the most compelling current works.

Clyde Fans: Book One, by Seth (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95) is a good, old-fashioned story freshened by expressive artwork. It is about Abraham and Simon Matchcard, proprietors of Clyde Fans, a business in a small Ontario town. (An excerpt is available in the McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Issue 13. Designed by Chris Ware, creator of the remarkable graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, the new McSweeney's is devoted to graphic novels.)

Drawn with deft, knowing grace, Clyde Fans: Book One details how Abe guilt-trips shy, dreamy Simon into a business that is dying, like the town. Crusty Abe narrates the first part of the book, a long view of salesmanship and of the way siblings can sour on each other. Set in 1997, the novel is Abe's look at a life defined by the shallow relationships of a traveling salesman and frustration with a brother who would rather collect weird postcards than knock on doors.

The second part, set in 1957, tracks Simon as he tries -- against his will -- to drum up business. The scene in which Simon learns about sales techniques from another "drummer" in a remote hotel is especially warm and telling.

"Seth" is the remarkably gifted Gregory Gallant, who uses words sparingly and draws with affection and efficiency. What's startling is how Seth gets inside the heads of both brothers; if he didn't model them on people he knows or knew, I'd be surprised, and by the time you're done with this, you will feel like you know and care for them, too.

Like an Edward Hopper painting, Clyde Fans: Book One celebrates what seems mundane. But its realistic style, conveyed in sober black, white and blue, carries a mystical undertone that comes through clearly in Seth's cityscapes: The lunar, rural downtowns of his richly imagined locales feel like home. Clyde Fans: Book One feels like a box of old family photos you're privileged to stumble on. I can't wait for Book Two.

Dead Herring Comics (Actus Independent Comics, $24.95) is an oversized collection of "graphic short stories" by members of a comics artist collective in Tel Aviv. One of its highlights is "The New Normal," a two-page Art Spiegelman effort, complete with manipulated photographs, about the aftermath of Sept. 11. Drawn with mordant economy, it tells how Spiegelman felt when he saw the World Trade Center towers tumbling. The terrorist attacks rumble through these intimate, personal frames as Spiegelman attempts to move on psychologically, and the exorcism is not easy, either as a process or to look at. (It's in the current McSweeney's, too.)

Other stories are less straightforward, like David Polonsky's "Strobe," an extraordinary black-and-white "snapshot" of an Israeli street corner. At the top of two two-page spreads, Polonsky communicates the intersection's vibrant population. On the bottom run close-up confrontations and overheard conversations, the minutiae of human traffic; this counterpoint operates like a strobe, providing the kinetics of a split screen.

Splits of a more psychological nature animate "Bombshell," Itzik Repert's chilly, funny account of a girl whose parents are so controlling that she turns to eating small parts, and Blanquet's "Case of the Illiterate Demon," surrealistic, charged block prints showing how a little boy who considers himself "bilingual" -- because he can tell when a video game starts and stops -- can die of boredom. Saturated with political commentary and psychosexual concern, Dead Herring Comics suggests that Israel, like Canada, is a hotbed of graphics novels.

For a view of the world from below the belt (and, at times, from inside the intestinal tract), check out Tony Millionaire's When We Were Very Maakies (Fantagraphics, $19.95) which will shock, amuse, disgust and perhaps enlighten you. A direct descendant of George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel, this is fantastic, hysterically funny and bracingly vulgar art. Like its predecessor, The House at Maakies Corner, it features the malleable and gleefully malicious Sock Monkey, his alcoholic sidekick Drinky Crow, the insects Millionaire likes to highlight, and, in lower-page, miniature contrast, a couple whose main thrill seems to be to insult.

Millionaire revels in breaking taboos; his single-page panels about Sock and Drinky are never less than randy and are often scatological. Designed by the graphics designer Chip Kidd in low, wide "landscape" style, this book could be considered potty humor, but it's neither sexist nor sophomoric, and it's democratically offensive; no body type or gender preference is spared. By expressing himself so bluntly, Millionaire makes fun with depth. His style -- crossing ornamental Victorian with Disney -- is perfect for his black-and-white art, and his attitude is unfailingly and refreshingly irreverent.

Mark Beyer's Amy & Jordan (Pantheon, $21) collects Beyer's strips for the free alternative weekly New York Press from 1988 to 1996, giving them new, cumulative power. Published in garish "landscape" hardcover and garnished with an introduction by Chip Kidd, A&J features a cityscape alternately dreamy and nightmarish. Beyer packs his panels with childlike black-and-white drawings.

These roommates are close, even intimate, but never sexual. They share fears -- dogs steal masks from their garbage in order to scare their owners to death and take control of the kitchen food supply -- but also delights: Jordan surprises Amy with flowers even after she kicks him out of the apartment. Beyer's art is flexible, unpredictable and profoundly urban, and its variety is mesmerizing.


Carlo Wolff is a Cleveland free-lance writer.

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