A heartbreaking wartime tale of a Korean ‘comfort woman’ stands out in an excellent year in which stalwarts Seth and Chris Ware continued to expand the horizons of the form.
This would have been an extraordinary year for graphic novels even had no other comics save for Seth’s Clyde Fans (Drawn & Quarterly) and Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown (Jonathan Cape) been published. Seth’s book is a history of mid-century capitalism disguised as the story of two elderly brothers; Ware’s uses a single day in a Nebraska high school in the 1970s to tell, in characteristically frown-inducing manner, a host of very human stories. Both are utterly amazing; both push the form in new directions. That said, even without them it would have been an exceptional 12 months. I could write a piece three times as long as this and still have to leave out several favourites.
I loved – and reviewed – the following: Sensible Footwear (Myriad), Kate Charlesworth’s vital and joyful history of British LGBTQ life; Sunday’s Child (Jonathan Cape), in which Serena Katt pieces together with exquisite tact the story of what her Polish-German father did in the war; Maggy Garrisson (SelfMadeHero), an intricately plotted collection of stories about a female London gumshoe by Lewis Trondheim and Stéphane Oiry; and Off Season, James Sturm’s spare and strangely affecting book about a canine builder who finds himself estranged from his wife and politics in Trump’s America. And I can say, without hesitation, that all four of them would make fantastic Christmas presents.
But there were also lots of books that I was unable to review on publication. Gina Siciliano’s I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi (Fantagraphics) is an extraordinary debut – a beautifully drawn portrait of the Italian baroque painter that comes complete with scholarly footnotes – while David Rault’s ABC of Typography (SelfMadeHero) deftly traces 3,500 years of history using comics by, among others, Libon and Delphine Panique. My favourite adaptation, meanwhile, was Kristina Gehrmann’s comic book version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (Ten Speed Press). Gehrmann hardly needs to try to make this novel, written to expose the exploited lives of immigrant workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry, seem newly relevant (it was first published in 1906) – and I grow a little weary of the current deluge of graphic adaptations, some of which seem to me to be rather lame. But her concision and sense of drama imbue it, I think, with an entirely new kind of energy.
New York Review Books continues to expand its excellent list of comics, and this year I’d pick out Return to Romance, its new collection of strips by Ogden Whitney. These cartoons, which date from the late 1950s and early 60s, subvert the form of the romantic comic strip by depicting love as a devastating power struggle: a form of psychological warfare fought by women in twinsets and pearls, and men in flannel suits and trilby hats. Whitney, the creator of the unlikely superhero Herbie Popnecker, remains a shadowy figure (born in 1918, he died in the early 70s, seemingly from madness and grief), and his romances are marked by the sexism of the era in which they were written. But they’re also very funny and savage and knowing. Daniel Clowes and Liana Finck (who introduces this book) regard him as something of a hero, and once you know what he’s about, it’s not hard to see why.
Finally, two beautiful books that are connected by Korea (both are published by Drawn & Quarterly). The first is Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, in which the author, who now lives in New Zealand, tells the story of the search for her birth parents. The second is Grass by the award-winning Korean comic artist, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim: a novel about a Korean girl who becomes a “comfort woman” during the second world war, having been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial army. Quietly heartbreaking and devastatingly striking to look at, this might well be my graphic book of the year.