Graphic novelists sketch complex terrain

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Thank God, graphic novels have finally reached some level of mainstream acceptance. Hell, even the Globe and Mail is starting review roundups of them this summer. For fans of the form, this means we don't have to explain that no, we're not reading comic books. (Well, we are, but you know what I mean…) That not every book has to be compared to Peanuts. And with interest from Hollywood—everything from American Splendor to the still-showing Art School Confidential—names like Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Seth have gained a measure of recognition. It's such a relief. If the trend continues, one day they could become as popular and profitable as poetry!

Given the enormous amount of effort required to compose, draft, and complete a full-length graphic novel, it's no wonder obsession is such an enduring theme. This can be quite overwhelming, as in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Bechdel (of the Dykes to Watch Out For strip) endlessly sifts through decades-old conversations and situations to relate her moving life story. (But then, reliving and reexamining are to be expected given the echo-chamber nature of autobiography.) In her drawing, she meticulously renders details that seem only incidental to the focus of each frame: a bookmark pokes out of a stray volume, a sliver of branch edges into a side window. Most extraordinary, though, is her technique: every figure on every page is drawn from life. “In order to achieve the level of detail I wanted the images to have,” Bechdel explains in her introduction, “I had to create reference photos of myself, posing as all the characters, in all the drawings. And while the process of embodying various members of my family and reenacting scenes from my life definitely helped with the technical aspects of drawing, it also had the unanticipated side effect of giving me access to emotional details I otherwise might have missed.”

Most of those details relate to her closeted, artistic, perfectionist father; as her own lesbian, artistic, perfectionist self emerges, her relationship with him—a fascinating mixture of sympathy, pity, and rage—deepens until, soon after she comes out to him, he dies, apparently by accident. (But Bechdel thinks otherwise.) Her nature is clever, analytical, difficult throughout. One example: her father considers his own reflection in a mirror that the long-suffering young Alison holds against a wall of her room; they look identical, an overlap echoed in the caption: “I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” Throw on top of that the evolving connections between her father's story, James Joyce's Ulysses, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Albert Camus's A Happy Death, the myths of Icarus and Odysseus, and Bechdel's understated visual style and you've got the most nuanced meditation on family, honesty, and growing old versus growing up that you could hope to stumble across.

Reviewed

Hubris

By Harvey Pekar, with illustrations by Gary Dumm. Ballantine Books, 152 pp, $27.95, hardcover.

La Perdida

By Jessica Abel. Pantheon Books, 275 pp, $27.95, hardcover.

Fun Home

By Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin, 232 pp, $19.95, softcover.

We Are on Our Own

By Miriam Katin. Drawn & Quarterly, 129 pp, $24.95, hardcover.

True Loves: Vol. 1

By Jason Turner and Manien Botma. New Reliable Press, unpaginated, $14.99, softcover.

In the other corner, weighing in at 100 pounds (or so we're told), is Michael Malice, the real-life—and extremely obsessive— subject of American Splendor author Harvey Pekar's latest nonfiction book, Ego & Hubris. Malice is a piece of work indeed, a seemingly heartless libertarian anarchist with a family-size case of whatever atheists call a God complex. As presented by Pekar (whom he came to know through a mutual acquaintance) and drawn by Gary Dumm, the aptly named Malice is at no point likable, though his self-aggrandizement is car-wreck fascinating throughout his life—which has been brief and unremarkable on the outside but operatic in Malice's own mind. (Visit his Web site at www.michaelmalice.com/ for a sour taste.) With characteristic understatement, Pekar, that chronicler of the banal, concludes this strange, exasperating memoir with the thought “To familiarize oneself with his history and compare it to one's own can lead to incidents of self-discovery.” Perhaps…

Self-discovery is the thematic engine behind Jessica Abel's massive and magnificent La Perdida (The Lost One). This hardcover version collects five volumes, released annually from 2001; published in its entirety, it's a vast and compelling study of exactly why its narrator, Carla, proves the motto “You can't go home again”, especially when “home” is a nebulous concept at best. Carla travels to Mexico to come to some understanding of her own heritage (her absent father was Mexican), and quickly falls in with a crowd that's obviously (to everyone but Carla) bad, bad, bad. Carla's fall from innocence progresses panel by vibrantly inked panel, halting only at the very end when she wonders why she ever thought things had to go the way they did (without giving away a plot twist: a terrible betrayal and a kidnapping gone wrong). Abel controls language so well—Carla arrives speaking only English, and Abel invents an excellent way to visually represent her problems with Spanish—that we're aware of her isolation, her loneliness, and her desire to fit in and be accepted, from the first frame.

Ah, loneliness and a desire to fit in— sentiments that could exist in a place like, say, Vancouver just as well as in Mexico City. And they do in spades in True Loves: Vol. 1, a collaboration between local cartoonist Jason Turner and writer Manien Bothma. The protagonist, True, the owner of a downtown vintage-clothing store, is caught between a safe (boring) boyfriend in the hand and a kooky but enthusiastic pothead in the bush. Her deliberation about how to find happiness and the love of the title unfolds without a lot of surprises, but don't hold that against this first book from Vancouver publisher New Reliable Press (www.newreliable.com/)—after all, it's a romance, and romances are meant to follow convention. Bothma's characters are genial and chipper, and Turner's faithful, Sunday-newspaper-style renderings of the city make True Loves impossible to dislike. Vol. 2 promises to pick up True's life one year later, and I, for one, am pulling for her; she deserves a happily-ever-after, even if it takes a few false starts to find.

Saving best for last, We Are on Our Own is a memoir of how author Miriam Katin's mother survived the last year of WWII. A Hungarian Jew, Esther saved herself and her daughter by fleeing Budapest and the Nazis. Disguised as a bumpkin servant with her illegitimate child, Esther collides here with Russian forces, German officers, violence, and rape; her qualified triumph (loss of lives, of faith, of innocence) is incredibly moving. Throughout, Katin condenses so much emotional and visual material into her frames that reading their plight is a breathless experience. Swinging between social satire and dispassionate documentary, We Are on Our Own is wholly persuasive, using humour, irony, and a range of drawing styles. It's not unusual for Katin to focus a panel on a seemingly irrelevant detail—a shoe, a window, a breast—as though little Miriam is already editing their remarkable journey with her child's eye. This is an extraordinary presentation of survival, and the furious fight to attain it.