Graphic novels: Drawing on magic, porn, angels, and death

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      Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels
      (Edited by George A. Walker. Firefly Books, 423 pp, $29.95)
      For all that graphic novels have become accepted in the mainstream–trendy, even–they're often puzzlingly similar. Confessional, documentary, sex-/squalor-obsessed, and youth-oriented, cartoon novels tend to stories of first love, unrequited longing, and misunderstanding by the bourgeoisie. The four "wordless sequential novels" reprinted here (rare-library finds, all) fall into another camp entirely. First published between 1918 (Frans Masereel's The Passion of a Man) and 1951 (Laurence Hyde's Southern Cross), they speak–though mutely–of the concerns of another age, particularly of man's helplessness against the big machines of money (Giacomo Patri's 1939 White Collar) and society and privilege (Lynd Ward's 1932 Wild Pilgrimage). Deeply political, these beautiful, quasi-expressionist woodcut narratives remind us how stark and chilling suffering seemed before postmodernism cushioned despair, like everything else, between quotation marks.

      The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam
      (By Ann Marie Fleming. Riverhead Books, 170 pp, $16.50)
      In 2003, Vancouver filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming released a documentary about her great-grandfather, a famous magician of the early 20th century who had faded into obscurity. The film, like this graphic-memoir adaptation, focused not just on Long Tack Sam and his on-stage feats, but on Fleming's clan and on larger issues of race, family, and forgiveness. Here, Fleming overlaps stills from the doc with her own stick-girl drawings and found documents (period photographs, advertisements, et cetera) to reproduce her quest for her illustrious ancestor. The mixed materials reflect the vaudeville years' "Let's put on a show" attitude, and although she's clearly beyond driven in her need to document, she manages to convey a genial admiration for a man who magically overcame the prejudices of his age.

      Exit Wounds
      (By Rutu Modan. Drawn & Quarterly, 172 pp, $21.95)
      Koby Franco has a poor relationship with his father, but when his dad's girlfriend shares her fear that he's been blown up in a terrorist explosion outside Tel Aviv, Koby consents to help her solve the mystery: is his father's the one unidentified corpse? (The story comes from Israeli filmmaker David Ofek's 2003 doc No. 17.) Rutu Modan's detailed panels–filled with average people going about their affairs (why are so many comics told as though the protagonist is the only person in the world?) and conveyed in the desaturated hues of despair–speak of a country where death is a constant presence and kindnesses can't be counted on. Bonus: the ending, though not the one you might expect, is a happy one.

      Shortcomings
      (By Adrian Tomine. Drawn & Quarterly, 108 pp, $22.95)
      Adrian Tomine is the reigning king of comic ennui, and with Shortcomings, which collects issues 9 to 11 of his Optic Nerve, he continues his wonderfully misanthropic rule. The story centres on Ben Tanaka, a typically maladjusted Tomine character with poor social skills and corrosive envy. The aimlessness of modern life, a distrust of ambition, and an interest in surveillance are all vintage, but Shortcomings is Tomine's most explicitly racial book yet, using Tanaka's relationship with a fellow Japanese American and his sexual yearnings for white women to explore issues of assimilation and self-hatred. Shortcomings isn't the happiest book you'll ever read, but it's eerily familiar, like something shared in a midnight call to your last friend on Earth. (Tomine makes a rare Vancouver appearance on November 13; for info, contact Sophia Books at 604-684-0484.)

      Spent
      (By Joe Matt. Drawn & Quarterly, 124 pp, $22.95)
      Joe Matt returns with the latest bound collection of his ongoing series, Peepshow. Here, issues 11 to 14 document the cartoon version of Matt compulsively collecting and editing porn footage; we're treated to several pages of his alter ego lining up and dubbing just the right frames. "God help me, I don't wanna end upa sex-crazed old man, living all alone in a basement somewhere," he tells himself, but unless his–only–friends Chester Brown and Seth (real-life cartoonist buddies) can pull him out of himself, it seems he's already holding his hermit-perv destiny in his own oily hands. The clean lines and flat duo tones put Matt squarely in line with powerhouses Seth and Brown.

      The Plain Janes
      (By Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg. Minx Books/DC Comics, unpaginated, $11.99)
      How do you live your life after witnessing a 9/11–ish explosion that sends you to hospital and leaves you with a fear of bangs and sirens? For high-schooler Jane, it gets worse: her parents decide to move to the country, which makes her the new girl at Buzz Aldrin High. Her solution? Shun the cool kids and hang with the nerds, three girls named Jane whom she convinces to join her in a secret art-girl gang performing acts of random weirdness in her new town of Suburbia. Cecil Castellucci makes acute observations about being the new girl and finding your place, and about the pain of being that one flower growing through the rubble. The Plain Janes is a promising debut for DC's new adolescent line, Minx Books.

      Therefore Repent!
      (By Jim Munroe and Salgood Sam. No Media Kings, unpaginated, $16)
      The good news is that the painterly drawings by Salgood Sam (aka Maxim Douglas) are so intricate you'll be happy to read Therefore Repent! more than once–and you'll need to, to get the whole postapocalyptic story. Toronto indie kid Jim Munroe's story of two Canadians alive in Chicago after the rapture is hard to get the first time, especially with all the magic, the mutations, and the assassin angels. Give it time, though, and the tale's offbeat anarchy and peculiar, parodic charms will win you over. It's like one of those church pamphlets about salvation gone terribly, terribly wrong.

      Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened
      (Edited by Jason Rodriguez. Villard, 152 pp, $27.95)
      It must have been fun working on these 16 stories inspired by postcards found at flea markets. Each one, spun off a few lines of correspondence, invents a world of context–usually in America's pioneer days. The best of them, like Stuart Moore and Michael Gaydos's "Tic-Tac-Bang-Bang", skip the he-done-her-wrong melodrama, but even the more shopworn stories, by their very diversity, remind us how fresh and unique the cartoon view of reality is–and will likely always be.

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