Dec. 30, 2009 - Issue #741: 10
BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS OF THE 2000sAfter Art Spiegelman’s memoir Maus paved the way in the 1990s, the 2000s saw comic-strip narratives not just accepted but devoured by the public, the publishing industry and the media as literature in its own right. Maybe the first sign was Chris Ware’s masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan winning English newspaper The Guardian’s First Book Award in 2000. Soon graphic novels had their own space in bookstores, their own reviews in major newspapers and were being taught in schools and universities; webcomics spread and comic-book adaptations stormed the box office.
The funny pages and superhero books had long dominated most readers’ sense of what pictures combined with words could do. So it was a fitting sign of the comic-strip form’s 21st-century renaissance that the big boys turned to the small men, in 2009, when Marvel Comics put out the three-issue Strange Tales, where graphic novelists—Nick Bertozzi, Jason, R. Kikuo Johnson, Dash Shaw—reimagined their hulking, flying, web-spinning characters in all kinds of lowly, earthy, quirky situations.
From personal memoir to public history, from haunting war-scapes to inner dreamlands, the decade saw a glut of thrilling graphic novels. The very best of them stretched the panels and frames of this playful yet poetic medium, which wrings out so much honesty from its deceptive blend of words and pictures.
David B., Epileptic (Pantheon, 2005)
Dark eyes, skulls and shadows besiege David B. and his younger brother in his memoir of his family’s ceaseless quest to find a cure for the latter’s wracking condition. This quest bleeds into a lacerating examination of the artist’s selfishness and resentment, staunched by his own concern and love for his brother. The fantastic, dream-like sequences are pictorial storytelling at its finest.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
In a rare coincidence of popularity and quality, Bechdel’s memoir was a well-deserved best-seller. Intellectual and erudite, Fun Home collides personal histories (Bechdel’s coming-out, her father’s own secret life) with literary lives (Icarus, Gatsby, Wilde, Proust). The effect is an elegant, determined unraveling of the fictions we tell ourselves and others, emboldened by sharp-eyed line drawings. A slow and steady revelation.
Gipi, Notes for a War Story (First Second, 2004)
In an unnamed Eastern European land, wasted by war, Giuliano falls in with mafia-militia men. Word bubbles float like ghosts; the landscape is an inky wash of desolated beauty. Hovering somewhere in the terrain between war-journalism and post-apocalypse fiction, the book ends with a surreal flourish, silently summing up the impossibility of post-war reconciliation. A blistering reckoning of the smoking machismo of war.
Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Stones and Berlin: City of Smoke (Drawn and Quarterly, 2000, 2008)
In these first two volumes of an enthralling trilogy, picture and word find their expression in artist Marthe Müller and journalist Kurt Severing, who catch us up in the feverish battle between Communists and Fascists in late 1920s Germany. A sharp eye for detail and tragic dovetailing of subplots make this an epic of personal politics—history, Lutes reminds us, can be made in those skirmishes over ideology that are fought in peacetime, in homes and out on the cobblestones, within families and between lovers.
David Mazzuchelli, Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, 2009)
Fiery fates, bolting from the heavens, open and close this odyssey of an austere intellectual as time and space become hit-and-myth in one man’s memory. Classical allusions and duelling dualities haunt a failed architect’s trip through middle America, but it’s Mazzuchelli’s own rebuilding of comic architecture with his use of colour, word bubbles, frames and human forms that truly linger.
Joe Sacco, Safe Area GoraÅ¾de: Notes from the War in Bosnia 1992-1995 (Fantagraphics, 2000)
Sacco’s made comics a serious and messily truthful place for journalism. In this, his best work, diplomatic dithering, UN impotence and venal leadership comprise the backdrop to the horrific trauma in GoraÅ¾de as townspeople find themselves caught in ambushes, sieges, massacres, and shellings. Sacco (at times guilt-stricken, scared, dismayed and relieved) draws on a multitude of sad, awful stories to detail the front-line lives and deaths of civilians in this war that should never have been.
Marjane Satrapi, Chicken with Plums (Pantheon, 2006)
Satrapi’s Persepolis (much more complex than the film adaptation) is the easier pick, but the play of dark and light takes on more haunting, mature shades in this elegy. A slim account of her tar-playing great-uncle’s determination to waste away in 1950s Iran after his instrument cannot be repaired, that sings volumes, though more obliquely and poetically, about a paralyzed homeland, lost love, and cultural refuge.
Seth, Clyde Fans (Drawn and Quarterly, 2004)
The master of Canadian nostalgia-ennui, Seth’s space for sifting memories here is a fan company, run by the Matchcard brothers. The eye for the passing details of 1950s small-town Southern Ontario life, as seen in the company shop-turned-fading house, is paired with an eye for shrinking loneliness when the more introverted brother hits the road in his effort at a sales-trip. The comic-strip in its most quietly aching story form.
Chris Ware, The Acme Novelty Library #19 (Drawn and Quarterly, 2008) and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000)
It may seem outlandish to call Ware the James Joyce of graphic novels, but he’s reinvented the form much as Joyce reinvented the novel 100 years before him. Look no further than these two works, bookending his decade, for proof. #19 merely manages to bridge the worldly and interstellar, the melancholy romance and sci-fi, in its tale of lonely earthling Rusty Brown and his short-story about the first, small Mars colony. Jimmy Corrigan, the reworked collection of a story that appeared in strips throughout the ’90s, spans 100 years in Chicago while establishing Ware’s rapturous melancholy. Characters just missing a true glimpse of themselves, musically rhythmic panels, brilliant colour, architectural detail, memory-leaps in space and time over a frame—Ware has perfected a gorgeous grasp of comic language, even reworking it to hit a higher, heart-heavier pitch.
Honourable Mentions: Danica Novgorodoff’s exquisite, wordless odd-couple odyssey, the mini-comic A Late Freeze; the lyrical skyscapes and architectural poetry of Paul Madonna’s All Over Coffee; J. P. Stassen’s Rwandan trauma-tale Deogratias; R. Kikuo Johnson’s reimagining of the growing-up graphic novel with Night Fisher; the comic-strip grief of Pascal Girard’s Nicolas; Cyril Pedrosa’s haunting Three Shadows; Ho Che Anderson’s prismatic biography King.
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