In the recent harvest of graphic novels, no particular long-form work stands out. Marisa Marchetto's memoir Cancer Vixen (reviewed Oct. 7 in Globe Books) will be the most popular crossover title of the season; Pride of Baghdad, a story plucked from the headlines about Baghdad zoo animals freed by the stray bombs, sneaks into reviews like a lion in sheep's clothing but is simply a slight bit of well-executed genre action fiction (whoops! there it goes again); and the much-ballyhooed 9/11 Report, albeit a record of one of the most important government reports of modern times, is little more than a hastily cobbled info-graphic.
The most anticipated sophomore efforts are also light. Chicken With Plums (Pantheon, 84 pages, $22.95), Marjane Satrapi's first major work since her acclaimed graphic memoir Persepolis, is the story of her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, a famous tar musician in Iran. It recounts the eight days leading to his death and reconstructs the facts of his life in semi-fictitious flashbacks. It is an interesting story, but lacks the presence of a spunky young Satrapi that made Persepolis so compelling.
Similarly, Shenzhen (Drawn & Quarterly, 148 pages, $24.95) is another closely observed travelogue by Guy Delisle; while China has inherently more potential for humour than last fall's North Korea-set Pyongyang (as in a sequence where the animator abroad observes a man slipping on a banana peel), like Chicken, it doesn't have the topical hook.
No, the excitement this season comes not from a single long-form work, but from interesting anthologies and collections. The publication of two major graphic anthologies is a significant milestone for the medium, an indicator of critical mass, and both are just appearing in bookstores this week.
An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories (Yale University Press, 400 pages, $32) is edited by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, best known for his self-loathing comic Schizo. In this comprehensive primer, Brunetti fills every page to assemble a contemporary cartoon canon that occupies the comics position of the Norton Anthology of Literature (with a gorgeous dust jacket designed by Seth that even comix cognoscenti won't be able to resist).
He also reproduces a handful of short pieces that are not only essential, but extremely influential. Jaime Hernandez's perfectly crafted short story Flies on the Ceiling is an exemplary distillation of why Hernandez is among the best living cartoonists, and Here, by Richard McGuire, is a hard-to-find short comic often cited by Chris Ware as a key influence (it's a formalist experiment with time and panel structure).
Justin Green's Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary appears, as does Love's Savage Fury by Mark Newgarden, wherein, using Nancy and Bazooka Joe, he deconstructs cartoon panels while playing with the geometric elements of Nancy's composition. Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware's comics tributes to Charles Schulz after his death -- which simultaneously render homage to Schulz's characters and iconic style while cleverly embodying their own signature tics -- precede Schulz's own illustrated essay on developing a comic strip (first published in 1959).
For context, Brunetti provides small morsels of the most influential old material from comics history, like a Gene Deitch cover, Crockett Johnson's Barnaby (circa 1946) and a Harvey Kurtzmann. It includes a roll call of the new generation, like Kevin Huizenga, Gabrielle Bell and Lauren Weinstein, and overlooks not a single contemporary artist: there's Chester Brown, Carol Tyler, Lynda Barry, surrealist Mark Beyer (whole nihilist punk avant-garde is probably the most difficult acquired taste in comics) and, of course, several R. Crumb selections, including Uncle Bob's Mid-Life Crisis, in which the cartoonist lies in bed and ruminates on his neuroses, elaborate sexual fantasies and jazz. An Anthology of Graphic Fiction is a delicious brick of a book.
Alas, The Best American Comics 2006 (Houghton Mifflin, 293 pages, $29.95) -- the inaugural comics offering from the successful "Best American" franchise -- suffers by comparison. While accessible, it lacks both the design and vision of the Yale compendium, with a whole less than the sum of its parts.
Although guest edited by Harvey Pekar, there is little editorial point of view or mandate at work other than the strictures of year of publication. Highlights include Joe Sacco's reportage on the current war in Iraq from the Guardian, R. Crumb's Walk in the Streets and the inclusion of a few newcomers seldom seen outside of zines and comic shops, such as Canadian Rebecca Dart.
Drawn & Quarterly Showcase No. 4 (Drawn & Quarterly, 102 pages, $19.95) publishes the short stories of three emerging cartoonists (not one born before the first Star Wars movie). In the opening story, a stint in art school leads cartoonist Gabrielle Bell to a job teaching an awkward 12-year-old to draw and an emotional entanglement with him and his father; this single story is more polished than Lucky, a collection of her diary comics also published this fall.
In a personal narrative washed in olive and red tones, Dan Zettwoch recounts his father's escapades in the great 1937 Louisville flood in a homemade boat. It's intensely researched and evokes the architecture and layout of the city, while Zettwoch's diagrammatic cartoons captures details from makeshift bridges to his father's grumbling stomach.
Martin Cendreda's Dog Days conjures a hot suburban summer day where kids cheat the video game at the local liquor store, stray dogs fight after wallowing in cool water, and a childhood excursion is interrupted by reports of a serial killer on the loose.
Before Joe Sacco made a name for himself as a reportage cartoonist in war zones in Palestine and the former Yugoslavia, he was a long-haired rock-obsessed cartoonist, living the grunge life in Washington and touring Europe with Seattle-based neo-psychedelic rock band the Miracle Workers. But I Like It (Fantagraphics, 122 pages, $29.95) collects his comics of the same (with a CD of live music) as Sacco chronicles his days as a hanger-on and poster artist in Berlin; and in the best story, lays bare his Rolling Stones obsession.
The most notable collected Canadian offering is This Will All End in Tears (Insomniac, 168 pages, $21.95), the third book of collected stories by Montreal-based cartoonist Joe Ollman. Ollman's narratives aren't happy tales; in Big Boned, Charlene lives with her bossy mother, eats in secret, obsesses about her weight and nurses an unrequited crush on her pimply office-mate Donny. Other characters are burdened with sadness, alcoholism and unwanted responsibility as Ollman's characteristic cartooning captures the everyday grotesque. Ollman's increasingly complex storytelling also grows more assured with each book and it's an aptly titled collection.
Of the single-artist collections this season, Curses (Drawn & Quarterly, 144 pages, $24.95), by Kevin Huizenga, stands out as the most coherent and consistently articulate. The link throughout these disparate stories is recurring protagonist and everyman Glenn Ganges, a blank slate and stand-in for the cartoonist. Ganges's calming presence lends Huizenga's narratives a matter-of-fact quality, however fantastical or absurd the premise may be.
In Green Tea (A Glenn Ganges Remix), Huizenga adapts a Victorian suspense story by J. Sheridan Le Fanu in which Dr. Hesselius investigates the suicide of Rev. Jennings and combines strange psychic phenomena (visions of a phantom monkey, a dog carrying a severed forearm) with mundane details about college all-nighters. 28th Street is based on an Italian folk tale by Italo Calvino: Ganges and his wife Wendy struggle with infertility and he is dispatched by various strangers on a quest to pluck a plume from a feathered ogre. Navigating through the suburban sprawl cluttered with neon signs, 24-hour fresh marts and big-box stores on his quest, Ganges douses his eyes with "magic" gasoline, is presented with an enchanted Styrofoam take-home container and eventually dons a magic plastic bag to wear over his head to trick the ogre.
Using primarily a clear line style (think Tintin creator Hergé), Huizenga uses comics to articulate complex patterns, recurring motifs and connected relationships. In Lost and Found, Ganges imagines the stories that might lie in the space between photos and descriptions of abducted and abductor he reads every week on missing children's flyers, then associates this idea with a news item on the "Lost Boys" -- the bands of barefoot Sudanese orphans who crossed the desert on foot and eventually came to the United States as refugees. Here especially Huizenga is masterful at illustrating how the mind makes connections, and his ability to communicate this circularity, in comics form, is particularly elegant.
In Curses' title story, Ganges's neighbourhood is terrorized by insomnia thanks to a noisy winter roost of starlings. Huizenga mixes facts about a Mozart composition with the data that up to half the output of the starling flock (technically and evocatively called "murmurations") may actually consist of sounds related to automobiles (like the whine of power windows, traffic and screeching tires) because starlings, as cousins of the mynah bird, are outstanding mimics.
As a sleepless Ganges wanders through his sleepy neighbourhood listening for distant freight trains and the hum of power lines, the content of the starlings' word balloons slowly changes from notes to images of the sounds their song may emulate. In these panels, Huizenga's inventive use of the graphic medium's language is the quintessential example of a sequence possible only in comics.
Nathalie Atkinson is The Globe and Mail's graphic books reviewer.