Round-Up in the Calgary Herald

“Graphic Fiction: Adult comic books are storming the literary world -- here's a roundup of the best of the season” / Calgary Herald / Nancy Tousley / December 17, 2006

As few as three years ago, graphic novels were found in the Humour sections of mainstream bookstores, if they made it through the door at all. Many didn't. They looked too suspiciously like the much maligned comic book.

Now there is really no reason to keep apologizing for graphic fiction. These special books, which tell their stories with words and pictures, a.k.a. cartooning, are now being prominently displayed under their own category, with sales in North American adding up to more than $250 million a year, and climbing.

They are being published by mainstream and university presses as well as by alternative presses and self-publishers. They are being anthologized and the Best American Series has added comics to a list that includes short stories, nature and science writing, and sportswriting. The New York Times has even added a graphic fiction feature called The Funny Pages, currently running a story by the Canadian cartoonist Seth, to its trend-setting Sunday magazine. And this year, a graphic novel achieved a first by being selected as a finalist for a National Book Award in the United States.

Be warned, though. If you are after plain old comic books, don't look here. Not everything is novel length, it's true, but whatever the length don't buy graphic fiction for the kids before reading it first, unless its the chunky second volume of Hank Ketchum's Complete Dennis the Menace, 1953-54 (Fantagraphics Books, 653 pages, $29.95) or The Complete Peanuts 1961 to 1962 by Charles M. Schultz (Fantagraphics Books, 314 pages, $35.95). Some graphic fiction might contain nudity, profane language and violence, as the TV disclaimer says, or tackle issues way over the kids' heads.

Most of the graphic fiction in this roundup is in the literary vein. For readers unfamiliar with the genre, anthologies are a good place to whet your appetite. From inside the comics world come the scrumptiously printed Drawn & Quarterly's Showcase No. 4, a select menu of three new artists (Gabrielle Bell, Martin Cendreda and Dan Zettwoch), and Big Fat Little Lit, edited by Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Francoise Mouly, a banquet spread from Jules Feiffer and Maurice Sendak to Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns. And Big Fat Little Lit is intended for young readers.

Two new hardcover anthologies from hitherto unlikely publishers of graphic novels are The Best American Comics 2006, edited by Harvey Pekar and Elizabeth Moore (Thomas Allen, 336 pages, $29.95), and An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, edited by Ivan Brunetti (Yale University Press, 400 pages, $31.74). Pekar and Brunetti, both cartoonists, have edited very handsome books that include masters of the form and relative newcomers.

There are overlaps in the cartoonists, of course: Lynda Barry, R. Crumb, Ben Katchor and Chris Ware are included in both books. I'd give the beautifully produced Yale anthology the edge for its broader scope.

Its mix includes venerated American elders such as George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Frank King (Gasoline Alley) and Schultz (Peanuts), and Canadians Marc Bell, Chester Brown, David Collier, Julie Doucet and Seth -- artists on the cutting edge of the form.

Canada's distinctive contributions to cartooning get a new history all their own in the cleverly designed Invaders From the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe by John Bell (Dundurn, 192 pages, $40). And high time, too. Most Canadians are clueless that Superman, Prince Valiant, Cerebus the Aardvark and Spawn were all created by Canadians. Bell, a senior archivist at Library and Archives Canada, aims to introduce us to our own popular culture.

Canadian cartooning started in earnest back in 1849. Bell follows it to the present, through the Dawn of the Comic Book (1929-1940), the Golden Age of Canadian comics (1941-1946), the Comix Rebellion (1967-1974), Alternative Visions (1975-1988), and new developments since 1989.

Among the latter is Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly, 272 pages, $17,95) released in paperback this year. If you don't own this brilliant bestseller yet, now is the time.

Why keep looking south of the border? Well, there are a lot of reasons. Not the least is Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese (First Second, 233
pages, $13), which was nominated for a 2006 U.S. National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category.

Clearly drawn and nicely coloured, this funny and gentle story combines the lives of three unlikely characters -- a Chinese American boy Jin Wang who wants to fit in, the Monkey King and Chen Wei, a comical embodiment of noisy negative Chinese stereotypes -- in a surprisingly twisty story about difference and self-acceptance.

The pain of adolescence and middle age sets the melancholy tone and slow, pensive drift of Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library #17 (Drawn & Quarterly, 64 pages, $22), the second instalment of Rusty Brown.

This full-colour book, published by Ware, continues the events of the snowy school day in #16, in which Rusty discovers he has super powers and meets Chalky White. But it moves more deeply into the lives of main characters, who include Ware himself as the high school art teacher who tokes with his students in the back seat of a car.

Ware's exteriors of snow falling on the midwestern school work wordless magic that carry the distant, sad and beautiful ache of revisiting the past.

Two new books set in New York, which couldn't be more different, represent changing generations of artists and styles. Will Eisner's New York: Life in the Big City, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman (W.W. Norton, 448 pages, $37.50), is a hustle-bustle of vignettes of people, grates, streets, front stoops and buildings by the grand old man of American comics, a master of figural gesture, who died last year. The book collects four of Eisner's later graphic works, from 1986 to 1992, dedicated to the overflowing city that inspired him.

Lucky by Gabrielle Bell (Drawn & Quarterly, 112 pages, $22.95), which won an Ignatz award, is a terrific, wryly humorous journal in simply drawn black-and-white comics about the discomfort and ennui of being a poor, self-aware, twentysomething in New York, who models for art classes and dreams of becoming a successful artist. Bell's characters come from a generation also mined by Adrian Tomine and Daniel Clowes, but they and her drawings, which begin to recall Marjane Satrapi as the diary progresses, are clearly and engrossingly her own.

Former Calgarian Jillian Tamaki gives Edmonton a stream-of-consciousness treatment in The City of Champions in her book Gilded Lilies (Conundrum Press, 120 pages, $20), which combines nearly wordless stories and pen and brush drawings. The softcover book by this graduate of the Alberta College of Art & Design has the fresh feel of a sketchbook and shows off Tamaki's adept drawing skills.

To round out our tales of cities is Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 148 pages, $24.95), a graphic memoir that takes us behind the scenes of Chinese life and customs at street level, which most of us know little about, such as going to the dentist, which freaked out the French Canadian animator, who was working in Shenzhen, a city separated from the rest of the country by electric fences and armed guards. His heavily shaded pencil drawings recreate the grim look and barebones existence of a cold, oppressive city.

Ghost of Hoppers by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books, 120 pages, $23.95) and La Perdida by Jessica Abel (Random House of Canada, 275 pages, $27.95) present complex stories about the misadventures of Latin American women by first and second wave graphic novelists, respectively. Ghost, the 22nd volume of the groundbreaking Love and Rockets series, continues the vivid, in-depth story of Maggie Chascarrillo, his punk chicana hero who now is divorced and managing an apartment building in the San Fernando Valley.

The lively panels of La Perdida form a complete graphic novel about Carla, a naive young woman who has a Mexican father she doesn't see and goes to Mexico to find herself -- only to wind up involved in a kidnapping.

It seems fitting to end with Kim Dietch, a first wave graphic novelist, and two non-fiction books that defy categorizing. Deitch's latest offering, rendered with his distinctive crosshatching, is Shadowland (Fantagraphics Books, 180 pages, $23.95), a collection of improbable yarns about one Al Ledicker, Jr., the owner of a sleazy carnival where the goings-on get very surreal.

Also surreal, but in an entirely different way is The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon (Douglas & McIntyre, 133 pages,
$21), a dramatic and chilling way to read the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission in 2004.

Last -- this isn't everything on my desk but I have to stop somewhere -- from Scott McCloud, the cartoonist who wrote and drew Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, comes Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels (HarperCollins, 264 pages, $28.95).

Watching a cartoonist dissect and discuss the elements of cartooning in cartoon form is quite simply fascinating.

Colour Photo: Courtesy, Yale University Press / Excerpt from It's A Great [sic] Life if You Don't Weaken by Seth, in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction,
Cartoons, & True Stories; Photo: (See hard copy for photo description).

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