Sep. 23, 2009 - Issue #727: Inside Books 2009
A cross-section of this year's graphic novels explores time and space, war and disaster and classic novels abridged into cartoons
Earthly and heavenly spheres—a "Stiffly Major" is married to "Ursa Major"—orbit each other, trying to find harmony. The fissures and flames of decay and destruction—hemorrhoid ads, Asterios' last name, volcanoes and asteroids—threaten the lives these people have built up.
Rooms and buildings reflect their residents. Frames, when not sliding into place among whiteness, contain characters but sometimes overlap, like sharp Venn diagrams. Every character has his or her own speech-bubble shape and font (Asterios' is stiffly square), and fights break arrogant Asterios and shy Hana down into a cold blue tinman versus a fiery red shadow.
Asterios' Greek origins rise up into mythical allusions to the Odyssey and Orpheus (a purple-hazed dream-descent into the Underworld is probably the book's most glorious sequence), while Mazzuchelli slips in his own references to comic-book ancestors. In his self-exile, our screwtop-headed non-hero tries to fit in among round, colourful characters even as he drifts through the wreckage of his marriage-memories, looking for some new place of his own in the present. Yet the beauty of Asterios Polyp lies not so much in its meditations on time, space and personal history, but in its deconstruction and reconstruction of time and space and myth on the page, so that one flawed man's multi-story life shimmers into the horizon.
The horizon is beyond yet another mountain in Didier Lefèvre's black-and-white photos of Afghanistan. He's The Photographer, trekking into the northeast of the country from Pakistan with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) workers in the fall of 1986. His shots of warlords, wounded villagers, and rocky mountain passes march along with Emmanuel Guibert's illustrations, making us feel the arduous, strange, fear-filled journey through a foreign landscape and guerrilla warzone. While the Soviets, in the midst of their war against the CIA-funded bin Laden and other mujahedeen, never threaten the medical team or Didier, the weeks-long trek is enough of a battle, especially when the photojournalist, tired of being with a group, decides to go back without the MSF team.
Guibert's sparely coloured (by Frédéric Lemercier) illustrations—reminiscent of Hergé's Tintin in Tibet—match up perfectly with Lefèvre's stark photos. The horrors of a child dying after a bombing or the careful work by doctors on a boy's shattered jaw are laid out in strips of photo-film.
Guibert's pen ingeniously follows the trekkers through the nighttime. Lefèvre recalls the infinite variations of generosity, loyalty and narrow-mindedness in the country. MSF group leader Juliette explains to Didier just how much more complex the women's world in Afghanistan is than outsiders realize. And the terrain remains the rugged, mysterious, formidable heart of this unconquerable land: "The magnificent, unchanging landscape doesn't give a damn about war." A story about one man's effort to tell a story through pictures—just six were published by a magazine on Lefèvre's return to France—The Photographer is also a testament to the astounding organization Doctors Without Borders and to the late Lefèvre himself, who kept shooting images like a comic-book artist: to frame, explore, explain and even survive the space around him.
When space isn't just place but home, nothing's more horribly, personally epic than the ruin of your city. Josh Neufeld charts the rising waters on the City of Brotherly Love's streets in September 2005 in A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge. There's a Warhol-ian, pop art quality to the comic reporting here, with panels given just one colour, though not for any clear reason. The book's opening sequence is a wordless survey of New Orlean's and Biloxi's stormed landscapes, and some two-page spreads show the sprawl of destruction or panic of people at the Convention Centre. But the people Neufeld follows aren't developed enough early on to draw us into the eye of their emotions or the heart of their dislocation. Moments when a man holds up his baby at us, or a couple explains why some people couldn't leave the city, are too forced.
In the final parts, when Neufeld imagines survivors' stories as they tell them to him, over the phone, there's a more urgent sense of reportage and sharper contrasts between a doctor and a student, a white couple and a single black woman, trying to rebuild their lives now. But, unlike Joe Sacco's comic journalism, not enough of the stark details and surreal moments that could convey these survivors' traumatic experiences flood through A.D.
R. Sikoryak's Masterpiece Comics is a lighter take on suffering—the suffering in Dante or Shakespeare, Brontë or Beckett. Part-parody, part-abridged classics, these are best when they melt epic down into corny quips or collide angst with action heroes: the Inferno gets wrapped up in Bazooka Joe, Superman changes into Camus' shrugging Stranger: "Do you love me?" "Well, it's a meaningless question, but I suppose not."
The longer efforts come off as abridged classics mixed with comic homage, lacking cleverness beyond the visuals. (A '50s-horror comic version of Wuthering Heights doesn't even allude to the most lurid moments of that book: rape, dog-murder.) The explanations for the strips, passed off as mailbag queries at the end of comic books, aren't really necessary. When Sikoryak sticks to reducing the complexity of literature to comic idioms—a mail-order ad for a kid-sized replica of the Pequod, from Moby Dick, caricatures Melville's central metaphor with a picture of a kid clinging to a coffin-shaped piece of wood in the water—then Masterpiece Comics comes alive, bringing a Sunday-funnies snappiness to these old, super-serious texts. V
By Didier Lefèvre, Emmanuel Guibert, Frédéric Lemercier
Translated by Alexis Siegel
267 pp., $32.95
A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge
By Josh Neufeld
193 pp., $28.95
By R. Sikoryak
65 pp., $24.95
Drawn & Quarterly
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