PYONGYANG and THE PUSH MAN in the Santa Fe New Mexican

“Drawing Power” / The Santa Fe New Mexican / Robert Benziker / December 23, 2005

Storytelling through sequential art has been around for centuries. In the early 1500s, the conquistador Hern n Cortez acquired an ancient 36-foot-long manuscript depicting the trials of the Mixtec folk hero 8-Deer Tiger Claw. The French embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry to describe the Norman conquest of 1066. In the 1700s, William Hogarth created popular etchings and paintings like A Harlot's Progress that were intended to be read in sequence as a critique on English society. It was not until the cheap serials of the mid-1900s that comics were considered juvenile superhero punch- outs. That perception has changed with the recent emergence of interest in the graphic-novel form.

With so much product and variety in the world, any attempt to throw a blanket over an entire medium -- or prove that no such blanket exists -- is folly. Graphic novels cannot even be limited to a single art form. They are a marriage between visual art (a stand- alone panel), visual storytelling (panels in sequence), writing, and even music (as the stories are told in beats and rhythm from one panel to the next). This combination can increase the chances of a work being bad. But great art in any medium invents a fully realized, imaginary world and uses it to show us new and wonderful things. Graphic novels have that power as much as any medium.

Perhaps no recent work exemplifies this as much as Paul Pope's 100% (Vertigo, 2005). The book is set in New York City's future -- a run-down place where hovercars fly through row-house canyons. Nothing is shocking anymore in the art world, which bleeds into the strip-club scene while violence permeates everything. Most artists would have used such a setting for a glorified tale of guns, drugs, and hard-nosed action. Pope uses it to tell the story of six people whose lives intersect as they search for love, meaning -- anything to call their own.

In a world so ugly, this search can seem so quixotic that the characters might not realize it when beauty stares them in the face. One character struggles to get financing for his art installation: 100 teakettles all tuned to C major. This book hits its notes with a similar power and clarity. Pope's thick brushstrokes reveal the souls of these characters and this world in a "warts and all" way that feels real and reinforces the themes.

Looking for a space of one's own in an ugly, crowded city is also a major theme in Yoshihiro Tatsumi's The Push Man and Other Stories (Drawn & Quarterly, 2005). The setting is 1960s Tokyo: a place full of rats, aborted fetuses in sewers, and sex slaves hidden in apartments. It's not what comes to mind when thinking of Tokyo, but Tatsumi's work is not typical '60s Japanese art. These stories, reprinted from Tatsumi's 1969 serials, are told in a more Western form of cartooning than Japanese manga, and the pleasing line work contradicts the awful subject matter. Each story begins as a slice of life before sinking into horrific sex and violence as the protagonists' frustrations increase their depravity. The only character to enjoy a happy ending without resorting to violence is the man who comes to terms with his cross-dressing after finding a woman who loves him as a woman. Such sexual proclivities and the violent frustrations of the working class lying just under Japan's polite surface are rarely subjects in Japanese art and make this book compelling.

Guy Delisle's Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (Drawn & Quarterly, 2005) centers on another Asian city concerned with its surface image. With the success of Joe Sacco's Palestine, travel journalism is a growing subgenre of graphic novels and is perfectly suited to the form. An artist keeping a pictorial diary of a trip can let the reader see this world through his or her eyes in an impressionistic way. This is especially handy with a country like North Korea, which is so concerned with appearance that it won't let foreigners photograph its garbage or shantytowns. Delisle, a French animator, documented his trip to Pyongyang to oversee the production of a cartoon (the cels between the beginning and end of a movement in most Western cartoons -- the ones that create the sense of motion -- are mass-produced in Asia). The result is a fascinating and highly personable glimpse at an unfamiliar country whose leader floods the struggling population with propaganda that reinforces his image and blames America's foreign policy for all North Korea's hardships.

Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's The Ultimates 2: Gods and Monsters (Marvel, 2005) is an unlikely book to study America's policies. It stars reimagined versions of Marvel characters, like the Hulk and Captain America, but depicts the conflicts between left-wing and right-wing ideology rather than between heroes and villains. Millar wisely doesn't pass judgment on either viewpoint but objectively holds the ideologies up for us to consider. In this world, America is creating superheroes (or "peoples of mass destruction") to use in pre-emptive strikes in the war on terror. Captain America embodies his country as a man with outdated World War II ideals, who can be a hero as well as a bully to those weaker than himself. Much of the book retells the 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk; here, the Hulk goes on a rampage, kills hundreds of New Yorkers, and is put on trial. The story examines the morality of the death penalty, the public's thirst for a scapegoat in the face of tragedy, and the impulse to solve violence with violence, all under the guise of an obvious September 11 metaphor. Hitch's detailed, cinematic approach gives the work the feel of a blockbuster movie -- albeit one much smarter than the usual Hollywood production.

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely also used the cinematic approach to tell a personal and allegorical story with their great WE3 (Vertigo, 2005). In that story the military adopts stray animals, gives them bizarre, buglike armor, and turns them into experimental, living weapons. A sympathetic trainer realizes that her subjects -- a dog, a cat, and a rabbit -- are about to be terminated and frees them. This ultraviolent retelling of The Incredible Journey is done with some of the medium's most innovative artwork (characters sometimes literally jump out of the panels) and with passionate writing from animal-lover Morrison. He gives the animals a crude form of dialogue ("Is Gud Dog?") and writes each one with a distinct personality similar to its true-life behavior. The dog is compassionate and idealistic; the cat is selfish and aggressive; and the rabbit is passive and simple-minded. Together they stay just ahead of the government's attacks and eventually realize their home is gone and they will die. Underlying this science-fiction action is a profound meditation on the value of life -- animal and human -- and as strong a statement for animal rights as any fiction out there.

Not all books need to be so serious. Kiyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba&! series (ADV Manga, 2005) is delightful, often hilarious all-ages manga. Yotsuba is a 5-year-old who moves to a new town with her father and learns about life one remarkable discovery at a time. The books are broken up into 30-page stories for each new revelation, and along the way adults can recognize little quirks from their own youth. Azuma puts the reader on Yotsuba's level and follows the mad logic of a boisterous child as she casually insults adults with her honesty, is confounded by her shortcomings, is terrified of random things like owls, and is overexcited about everything. The panels showing her reactions are even funnier than the dialogue, and every page oozes pure joy. Anyone who is 5, or has ever been 5, will find a lot to smile at in these pages.

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