32 Stories, Cecil and Jordan in New York and George Sprott reviewed by The Montreal Gazette

“Graphic Lit: Get Used To It” / The Montreal Gazette / Ian McGillis / July 19, 2009

I was drawn to Kaya Oakes’s Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture because of the title’s shout-out to Pavement’s debut album, a work that hogged my Walkman circa 1992-93 to the point where I’ll probably never need to listen to those songs again. (And I mean that in the kindest of possible ways.) But I’m glad Oakes pulled me in, because among her book’s many astringent perspectives on all things indie is a chapter that helped me crystallize why I’ve been feeling so evangelical about the increasingly ubiquitous but still frequently misunderstood corner of the literary marketplace tagged variously as comics/comix/graphic literature.

Tracing the form from its early-20th-century stirrings, Oakes eventually identifies the point where comics publishers (Fantagraphics being at the forefront) twigged that a whole new market could be opened up with a simple repackaging expedient: gathering serial comics into single-volume collections “that could be sold in any respectable bookstore.” That use of “respectable” is of course laced with deliberate irony on Oakes’s part, acknowledging as it does the long and tangled history of the form’s stepchild status within the wider literary world. Sometimes, as Oakes astutely points out, it’s a mere matter of labeling: “Calling comics ‘graphic novels’ also opened them up to an audience that accepted the idea of comics as ‘real’ literature more easily than it swallowed the concept of a comic book, which can carry an air of disposability except for an audience of collectors.”

Confession time: I was, from a very early age, one of those “real literature” high-and-mighty types. I didn’t grow up with comics. As a child I looked askance at my peers with their Archies and Green Lantern and Mad obsessions, occupied as I was with weightier tomes like Stan Mikita’s I Play To Win, Harry Sinden’s Hockey Showdown and Farley Mowat’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. (Mowat was a near neighbor of my grandmother in Port Hope, Ontario; as a young boy I once espied him on the street and was convinced for years afterward that all writers had to smoke pipes and have big bushy beards and that therefore I would never be a writer. But that’s a whole other story, I guess.) It was only shamefully recently, with exposure to Chris Ware’s mind-bogglingly complex and beautiful Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, that the richness of which this form is capable was made manifest to me. Suitably humbled, I worked my way back through Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb and forward to their inheritors. And discovered that one of the two or three most prominent proponents of this culture was Montreal’s own Drawn & Quarterly, who—wouldn’t you just know it?—have a varied line of spring and summer titles for our consideration.

32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics by Adrian Tomine is the publishing equivalent of one of those finely curated demos-and-outtakes collections beloved of indie music labels. If you love the band, you need to have it; if you just like the band, you’ll be curious to check it out but will probably find you can live without it. Tomine’s Summer Blonde and Shortcomings are note-perfect portrayals of young educated urbans adrift: shitty service industry jobs, romantic disaffection, identity confusion, all depicted with crisp visual line, deadpan dialogue, and a willingness to look closely into seamy corners of life many would be content to leave private. Fans of those perpetually popular titles now have the chance to see Tomine working toward his mature style in 32 Stories’ seven facsimile editions, gathered into an attractive box, of the Optic Nerve mini-comics that originally drew him to D & Q’s attention. For review purposes, well, I couldn’t really put it any better than the author does himself, in his introduction:

“If you’re a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, you might say that these comics are youthful, energetic, and even enlightening in terms of the evolution they chart. If you’re feeling less charitable, you’d probably describe them as amateurish, scatter-shot, affected, and deeply derivative.”

I’m glass half full guy myself, but there you have it.

Working similar thematic and stylistic terrain to Tomine is Gabrielle Bell. Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories divides roughly in two. The first half’s stories are set among the New York art world, where the struggling often rub up against the fabulously rich. In “Felix” a middling art student finds herself in the home of a famous sculptor, hired to give drawing lessons to the artist’s alienated adolescent son. Teacher and student form a touchingly awkward bond while the father develops a suspiciously noblesse oblige attraction to the young woman. Multiple layers of emotion and psychology are implied with minimal dialogue and spare visuals: the settings are almost exclusively interior, the characters defined and confined by their environment. Bell can convey all we need to know about a relationship by how far apart or how close she places two people on a couch. The second half, more autobiographical if Bell’s available bio is anything to go by, focuses on a teenage misfit in rural Northern California. Here Bell allows herself a more relaxed line and a broader emotional palette, even venturing, in the remarkable “My Affliction,” into the realm of full-blown surrealism. Readers may well be reminded of The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, and will feel an agreeable frisson on learning that Bell is now indeed collaborating with Michel Gondry.

Seth first came to my attention with his stunning design of Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space CD, a package that very nearly single-handedly redeemed the visual limitations of a format soon to pass away unmourned. Born in Clinton, Ontario in 1962, Seth is the established master of a subject he has made his own: the stultifying melancholy of past-their-prime small towns and the thwarted lives therein. It’s a world he’s able to depict so well because of his own clearly conflicted relationship with his subject matter. Here is a man not at home in the modern world, drawn instinctively to the mood and aesthetic of a fading place and time even as he puts that bygone world’s pathos under an unsparing spotlight. If you’re looking for a cinematic equivalent, think David Lynch, but without the gratuitous unpleasantness. The title character of the magnificent new picture novella George Sprott: 1894-1975 is of a type that will ring bells with readers of Clyde Fans, It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken and Wimbledon Green. Emotionally repressed, a distant ineffectual father, a serial philanderer, small-town TV host Sprott nonetheless manages for decades to pass himself off as a cuddly avuncular minor celebrity. That he’s an unknowing figure of fun to anyone with experience beyond his constricted world—that he is in many ways a deeply unlovable man—doesn’t compromise the sympathy with which Seth draws him.

Another favoured Seth theme, the unreliability and subjectivity of memory, gets a good airing here, as figures from Sprott’s life recall events in a contradictory tangle of accounts that only serves to underline the ultimate futility of any attempt to “sum up” a life. Visually George Sprott takes all Seth’s customary strengths—subtle shifts in framing, a limited colour palette that can render the slightest variation powerful in impact, dialogue and text-heavy pages melded seamlessly with wordless passages—and by dint of the book’s lavish outsized format, brings it all to a whole new level. Quite aside from its undeniable literary and artistic merits, George Sprott is a downright beautiful thing, an artifact you’ll like holding in your hands and having in your home. Which brings me to an x-factor about graphic literature, something I think of whenever I hear non-converts complain that graphic novels can appear a bit pricey. At their best, these books provide the strongest possible bulwark against the feared death of the book-as-object: they give us something that Kindle will never be able to duplicate.

In a near-future posting on this very blog, I’ll explore in some detail the world of the late Tove Jansson, the sui generis Swedish/Finnish writer-cartoonist whose complete Moomin comic strips are being gathered by Drawn & Quarterly in a sumptuous series that is now at four volumes and counting. Meanwhile I urge all good people to at least dip their toes into the pool of graphic literature—the water may feel cold at first but that never stopped you from learning to swim, did it?--and leave you, for old times’ sake, with something from a band who knew a thing or two about the bittersweet task of taking the underground to the masses.

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