The Montreal Gazette declares comics are for grown-ups!

“These comics are for grown-ups - R. Crumb on Genesis, literary icons get pulp treatment, and more” / The Montreal Gazette / Ian McGillis / December 14, 2009

From the Garden of Eden, to today’s Montreal, to unmapped worlds of fantasy, graphic literature’s storytelling range knows no bounds. Here are some of 2009’s best.

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb (W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $31). When the granddaddy of underground comics – a man who has been gleefully causing fits among censors and guardians of political correctness for decades – takes on the job of illustrating the first book of the Old Testament, controversy would appear guaranteed, would it not?

But while the single biggest surprise about this book is that Crumb has done it at all, the second biggest might be just how respectful he has been with the source material. (He uses mostly the modern Robert Adler translation.) Yes, some of the imagery might be bit, ahem, Crumb-like for the comfort of some – the voluptuous Eve on the cover can probably serve as a fair litmus test in this regard.

But in representing the text so faithfully, Crumb reminds us that Genesis is, after all, full of stories of people behaving in all kinds of less than perfectly noble ways. Potential detractors are thus left without a leg to stand on, and everyone else is free to celebrate a great artist rising spectacularly to a great challenge.

The Complete Essex County, by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf Productions, 512 pages, $31.95). In this family saga set in an imagined version of the author’s native southwestern Ontario, Lemire taps into some of the deepest wellsprings of Canadian mythology: hardscrabble farm life, long winters, stoicism, solitude and, as well as anyone has ever depicted, the central role of hockey. The result is a book that achieves an epic sweep even though it’s relatively light on text.

Lemire’s fluid, expressionistic black-and-white style – he’s especially effective with faces and how they echo across generations – speaks volumes by itself. As a storyteller, he’s bold enough to walk the thin line between melancholy and sentimentality, never quite succumbing to the latter. Essex County packs an enormous emotional punch.

Aya: The Secrets Come Out, by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (Drawn & Quarterly, 135 pages, $24.95). This, the third volume in writer Abouet and artist Oubrerie’s ongoing series about life in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in the 1970s, maintains the standard that placed the first two on multiple international best lists.

Abouet’s touch as a writer is deceptively light; she sneaks in political points on class, gender and post-colonial identity among a dispassionate cross-section observation of everyday goings-on in a bustling city at a time of relative prosperity.

Oubrerie employs vivid colour and an almost Modigliani-esque sense of line to create an effect both stylized and realistic. A glossary of Ivorian terms is provided, but many may well find themselves immersed in Aya’s world to the point where they’re happy to let the context do the explaining.

Stitches: A Memoir, by David Small (McClelland & Stewart, 329 pages, $29.99). When he was 14, David Small underwent a throat operation that left him unable to speak above a whisper for years. His parents, never paragons of loving openness, had told him the procedure was to remove a cyst; in fact, as his father revealed later, it was for cancer caused by the radiologist father’s over-enthusiastic use of X-rays.

Small, a prominent children’s book illustrator, has a harrowing tale to tell of family dysfunction and deceit in baby-boom America, and his treatment shows that when a form associated with childhood (comics) is used to depict childhood trauma, the effect is doubly powerful.

The conceit at the heart of Stitches – that a boy whose voice has already been ignored, then has his voice literally removed – might appear heavy-handed if Small didn’t make it so real for the reader. Seldom in a memoir has redemption been so honestly earned.

Masterpiece Comics, by R. Sikoryak (Drawn & Quarterly, 65 pages, $24.95). On first glance, this may look like a version of the cheap illustrated pulp titles that gave countless young people their entrée into the classics. Look closer, though, and what you’ll find is a subversive mash-up that makes short shrift of any attempted distinction between high and low literature.

Characters from the canon (Shakespeare, Brontë, Homer, Kafka, Camus and more) are placed in takeoffs on popular comic strips (Blondie, Mary Worth, Garfield, Ziggy et al), where they deliver their lines straight.

Visually, Sikoryak mimics the original strips so uncannily that you can almost be lulled into thinking you’re reading them, which only adds to the sparks raised by this enforced cohabitation of two very different iconographies. Laughs are scored at the expense of both sides, but counter-intuitively, Sikoryak sends you back to the originals with a fresh perspective.

Far Arden, by Kevin Cannon (Top Shelf Productions, 382 pages, $19.95). If you only buy one madcap future-dystopian adventure comic set in the Canadian High Arctic this year, make it Far Arden. Cannon’s oddly heavily populated northern milieu – global warming a few disturbing steps down the line, maybe – teems with multiple overlapping storylines. It’s all an odd but effective cross of contemporary nerd-hero comix with Tintin-style exotica.

Cannon’s drawing style has the spontaneous feel of a lightning sketch, but there’s nothing underdeveloped about his plotting, which zips along with the manic logic of a bedroom farce.

The Hipless Boy, by Sully (conundrum press, 224 pages, $19.95). This collection of 43 loosely connected urban miniatures occupies a spot on the comix continuum somewhere between Archie (an influence the author acknowledges) and Adrian Tomine, except with far more sex than either. Sully (the pen name of poet/painter/illustrator Sherwin Tjia) sets his stories of what Douglas Coupland has dubbed Generation A (“hipless” is the opposite of hip) in a specific and meticulously observed environment. Montrealers will have fun identifying local backdrops, but anyone can enjoy Tjia’s keen-eyed, emotionally generous worldview.

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, by Josh Neufeld (Pantheon, 193 pages, $28.95). Spike Lee has told the story on film (When The Levees Broke), Dave Eggers as literary non-fiction (Zeitoun), and now Josh Neufeld’s Hurricane Katrina chronicle states the case for graphic literature as on-the-spot journalism, social history and protest.

Seven people, representing the gamut of classes and backgrounds in New Orleans, are followed through the storm’s prelude, strike and aftermath; four were refugees, three stayed in the city through the worst. Telling domestic details – a man’s anguish over the fate of his cherished comic books collection, a Spider-Man doll floating face down in a bathtub, prefiguring horrors ahead – establish the human dimension that drives home the storm’s ultimate cost; deployment of saturated colour gives each strand of the story a unique emotional flavour.

Ojingogo, by Matthew Forsythe (Drawn & Quarterly, 152 pages, $14.95). Dispensing with words, Montrealer Forsythe narrates the fantastical journey through perilous dreamscapes of a little girl and her pet squid entirely in images that are at once exquisitely simple and laden with suggestion. The world-gone-strange feel recalls Lewis Carroll and the child’s assertion of identity through adventure Maurice Sendak, with perhaps a touch of Calvin and Hobbes’s mischief thrown in, all filtered through a Korean folk lens as viewed by a contemporary Westerner. That may sound like an awful lot of referencing, but rest assured the ultimate effect is as light as a feather in the best sense.

Red: A Haida Manga, by Michael Yahgulanaas (Douglas & McIntyre, 112 pages, $28.95). There can be few better examples of graphic lit’s malleability than this. Yahgulanaas, a Haida living on Bowen Island, B.C., has adapted the visual iconography of his heritage and applied the storytelling approach of Japanese Manga comics to tell a tragic story of war and revenge – one whose themes transcend their native setting to take on a classical dimension.

The overall effect is uncanny, as if a totem pole has come to life to act out a legend. Yahgulanaas’s circular approach to narrative, in both images and words, may demand a couple of go-throughs to absorb, but the effort is worth it.

The Beats: A Graphic History, by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, et al. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 199 pages, $27.50). Every new generation of aspiring hipsters, it seems, passes through a period of venerating Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs et al before defining its own oppositional identity. Anyone feeling ripe for the influence couldn’t ask for a better primer than this one. No snobs themselves, the original beats would surely approve of their message being introduced through the populist medium of comics; another big mark in this book’s favour is that it digs beyond the obvious names to spotlight less celebrated figures like Diane di Prima and Slim Brundage.

Hot Potatoe, by Marc Bell (Drawn & Quarterly, 273 pages, $44.95). Here is a book occupying the sparsely populated zone where alternative comix culture mingles with the gallery-driven world of fine art. Presented slightly tongue-in-cheek (the artist’s bio continues up to his death in 2075 at the hands of “former Prime Minister George Stroumboulopoulos”) as a monograph on the work of the 38-year-old, London, Ont.-raised Bell, Hot Potatoe gives a sui generis artist the large-scale showcase his fanatically detailed, ever-morphing surrealist multi-media collages demand. A cubist construction by Picasso or Braque as reimagined by a high school stoner with the technical command of Crumb is as good a stab as any at describing a typical Bell composition. Price tag notwithstanding, Hot Potatoe offers real value for money. Almost any given page of this hefty volume can be stared at and studied for hours.

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