Sometimes the thing you need to get you through a typically overcast autumn day in Vancouver is that perfectly balanced combo of words and images that only a graphic novel can deliver. Here are four suggestions, all written by Canadians (although one of them was drawn by a Brit), and all telling very different stories.
By Sarah Leavitt. Freehand
The story goes that Agnes McVee owned a roadhouse in the Cariboo region, where prospectors on their way to or from the goldfields could get a bed for the night and some company to keep that bed warm. If they didn’t watch their backs, they could also be relieved of their gold and even their lives. It’s an unverified (and almost certainly fictional) chapter in B.C. history, and Vancouver-based Sarah Leavitt uses it as a jumping-off point for a portrait of a complicated and deeply troubled woman. Raised in austerity on a remote Scottish island by her imposing grandmother, Gormul, who might or might not be a witch, Agnes eventually makes her way to Canada. She’s looking to recapture the wild isolation of her childhood—and also escape the ever-present, taunting voice of Gormul—in what she perceives as an empty frontier too young to hold ghosts. Agnes is a killer with no apparent empathy for others, but did her soul become twisted by a generational curse, or is she simply a psychopath? Leavitt conjures a vivid sense of place in just a few simple brushstrokes, but she doesn’t offer any easy answers.
Once Our Land 2
By Peter Ricq. Scout Comics
If you haven’t read the first part of the story, this collection of the second series of Peter Ricq’s epic steampunk sci-fi adventure can be a bit confounding. In 1830s Germany, humans are fighting an invading force of extraterrestrial creatures that, like giant slugs, can be defeated only with sufficient quantities of salt. There is also a war between men and women that gets mentioned but never explained, a separate race of aliens who drive tanks and look a bit like Minions, and a 60-something warrior who is several decades older than his own father. If it’s too confusing, go back and read the first book, or just enjoy the visuals. Ricq—who is also a musician known for his membership in the local bands Gang Signs and Humans—is a prodigiously talented illustrator and designer whose savvy aesthetic here seems to draw on an array of influences, from Hayao Miyazaki to Moebius.
Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass
By Mariko Tamaki and Steve Pugh. DC Ink
With Todd Phillips’s bleak and violent Joker dividing critics and allegedly inciting incels, it’s instructive to contrast it with another stand-alone origin story set in Gotham City. The tone of Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass couldn’t be more different, though. Writing in the voice of 15-year-old Harleen Quinzel, Toronto-born Mariko Tamaki tells a story as exuberantly hypercaffeinated as you could hope for, framing the world through the funhouse-mirror perspective of a character who is definitely too smart for her own good and almost certainly a little bit crazy. It’s fun, and British artist Steve Pugh’s images match Tamaki’s tone panel by panel, but the plot touches on some real-world topics, including gentrification, the marginalization of LGBTQ+ people, and the power of community. There’s a Joker in this deck, too, but it’s not Joaquin Phoenix’s pushed-to-the-brink Arthur Fleck. I would tell you who it is, but that would spoil the fun.
By Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Douglas & McIntyre
In this prequel to his groundbreaking 2009 work Red, Bowen Island artist Yahgulanaas blends Japanese-style manga with First Nations art, and centuries-old storytelling with contemporary environmental concerns. Using those varied threads (and dropping in references to everything from Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa to the Who’s Tommy), he weaves together a narrative about humankind’s reliance on the ocean and the consequences of trying to rein in the untamable forces of nature. Carpe Fin is actually a large six-panel mural, which is reproduced in its original format on the inside of the book’s dust jacket. (The mural itself will be on exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum for 12 months, starting November 1.) So it’s a monumental statement no matter how you look at it.
Sarah Leavitt and Mariko Tamaki will each make multiple appearances during the Vancouver Writers Fest, which takes place on Granville Island from October 21 to 27. For more info, visit the festival's website.