Seven graphic novels to draw you in

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      Tales From Outer Suburbia
      (By Shaun Tan. McClelland & Stewart/Tundra Books, 96 pp, $24.99)
      Tales From Outer Suburbia is more than a kids' book but not quite a graphic novel. If this latest work from Shaun Tan-the acclaimed Australian author and illustrator behind The Arrival and The Red Tree-is hard to categorize, that's only fitting, since the book is filled with stories that aren't quite stories. Rather, they're descriptions of the weird denizens and absurd happenings of a seemingly mundane anyplace called Outer Suburbia, where things tend to turn up in unexpected places. A man in a barnacle-encrusted diving suit is spotted wandering the streets, dragging his air hose behind him. A large marine mammal appears on the front lawn of a quarrelling couple. Two boys set off in search of the spot where their street map ends. Creatures composed of twigs and clods of sod skulk silently through town, walking targets for violent beatings by gangs of mean-spirited boys: "This can go on for hours, depending on how many the boys can find. But eventually it stops being amusing. It becomes boring, somehow enraging, the way they just stand there and take it. What are they? Why are they here? What do they want? Whack! Whack! Whack!" But they always come back; they're just another part of the suburban landscape.

      Tan's illustrations, some in full colour and some in black and white, bring this surreal world to vivid life through techniques ranging from collage to linocut. The best, though, are his paintings, which blend just enough creeping menace into the whimsy to evoke the films of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam (two of Tan's formative influences). Sure, it's a children's book (sort of), but why should the young 'uns have all the fun?
      > John Lucas

      Shaun Tan will make three Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival appearances: 1 p.m. Tuesday (October 21) at Performance Works (1218 Cartwright Street, Granville Island), and 7 p.m. the same day at the Waterfront Theatre (1412 Cartwright Street), as well as 1 p.m. next Thursday (October 23) at PTC Studio (1398 Cartwright Street).

      American Widow
      (By Alissa Torres. Drawn by Sungyoon Choi. Villard, 224 pp, $25)
      Although she is doubtless far too humble to admit it, Alissa Torres has achieved an astounding balance in writing American Widow, her first graphic novel (with art by relative newcomer Sungyoon Choi). In telling a deeply personal story about 9/11 and its after-effects, Torres avoids both political grandstanding and mawkish sentimentality, but still draws shock, anger, and deep empathy from the reader.

      On September 10, 2001, Torres's husband, Colombian immigrant Eddie, started a new job as a currency broker at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He went to work the next morning and was among those killed when terrorists piloted planes into the Twin Towers. His wife found herself thrust into the new and unwelcome role of "terror widow", a tragic circumstance compounded by the fact that she was seven-and-a-half-months pregnant at the time. Dealing with the death of a spouse must be difficult enough, but imagine having to share your grief with the rest of the world. As Torres tells it, she had to resist the advances of those who tried to make her into a symbol for a nation in mourning.

      In any case, she was far too busy in the months after the attack, dealing with life as a suddenly single mother and trying to survive on what money she could extract from the American Red Cross, her late husband's employer, and the government, all of whom delivered less than they promised, and only after making her jump through one hoop after another. And then, incredibly, came a vicious public backlash against the victims and their families.

      But American Widow isn't really about Torres's battles with bureaucracy. At its heart, it's a love story, albeit one that can't possibly have a happy ending. Moreover, it's about a woman faced with unimaginable pain, who somehow manages to find something like a happy ending anyway.
      > JL

      Burma Chronicles
      (By Guy Delisle. Drawn & Quarterly, 263 pp, $19.95)
      Guy Delisle's books play to our fascination with unusual parts of the world. His latest, Burma Chronicles, comes after journeys to Pyongyang and Shenzhen (detailed in graphic novels named after these cities). Here, he and baby Louis follow his wife, Nadí¨ge, who works for Médecins Sans Frontií¨res, to Burma. The art is playful and cartoony, lending humour to the numerous episodes that make up the book. While it captures aspects of life in Burma from the political to the pedestrian, at times reading the book feels like being subjected to someone's vacation photos in which they, rather than the place they visited, are the star.
      > Amanda Growe

      The ACME novelty library #19
      (By Chris Ware. The Acme Novelty Library, 80 pp, $15.95)
      The latest installment of Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library collects Rusty Brown strips first published in the Chicago Reader between 2002 and '04. Rusty himself doesn't appear, however, as this volume focuses on his father, William "Woody" Brown, and the girl who stomped on his heart-and indirectly launched his career as a science-fiction author-in strait-laced 1950s Omaha, Nebraska. As usual, Ware's drawing is deceptively simple yet painfully precise, which in this case underscores the horn-rimmed innocence of his socially stunted protagonist and the transgressive nature of his first sexual relationship. Lightening the tone just a shade, Ware's tributes to 1950s pulp-magazine covers are as fun as the strips' story line is emotionally devastating.
      > JL

      Red Colored Elegy
      (By Seiichi Hayashi. Drawn & Quarterly, 235 pp, $24.95)
      Though you never find out what's red in Red Colored Elegy, it's safe to assume the book is an elegy for main characters Sachiko and Ichiro's tortured relationship. It's the '70s, and the two are living together despite the fact that Sachiko's family wants her to have an arranged marriage. As they struggle to strike a balance between getting by and working at what they love, they alternate between affection and contempt. Their biggest conflict, however, is over whether they are a couple. While the story sometimes falters, the drawings-which often evoke the clean lines of Inuit art-make this translation of an influential comic from the '70s worth your while.
      > AG

      My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down
      (By David Heatley. Pantheon, 128 pp, $27.95)
      Here's one that will make you squirm in your seat, or at least feel vaguely mortified on behalf of its author. In his first collection, rising star David Heatley chronicles his entire sexual history (with a particular emphasis on the bad bits), documents every black person he has ever known (an exercise that forces him to confront his own assumptions about race), and examines his relationships with his parents in intimate detail. He's unapologetic for any embarrassment his work might cause. At one point his scandalized mother tells him, "I saw your comic book with the girl being fucked by a dog and I thought, ”˜What did I do wrong?!?'," to which the author replies, "Maybe you shouldn't read any of my comics”¦" Heatley's a charmer, though, and, even if he wears some of his influences (Jeffrey Brown, Chris Ware) on his sleeve, it's hard not to root for the guy and his honesty-at-all-costs policy.
      > JL

      Jamilti and Other Stories
      (By Rutu Modan. Drawn & Quarterly, 174 pp, $19.95)
      This collection of early short works by Rutu Modan, creator of last year's acclaimed graphic novel Exit Wounds, showcases the Israeli artist's ability to tell a compelling story in just a few pages. It also chronicles the development of her drawing, from the muted tones and stylized figures of "The King of the Lillies" to the deceptively straightforward cartoon realism of "Your Number One Fan", for which Modan adopted the ligne claire style pioneered by The Adventures of Tintin's Hergé. Of the seven stories here, "Jamilti" is the most affecting. Through its depiction of a fleeting encounter between a Tel Aviv nurse and a Hamas suicide bomber, Modan reveals something about the absurdity of war and the power of human connection.
      > JL