Joe's Graphic Novel Roundup, by Hamilton writer and artist Joe Ollmann, is a column dedicated to reviews of graphic novels and comic books.
I want to talk to you about a serious subject: comic books, people! Comic books for grownups, specifically; graphic novels, if you will. They are real literature.
At some level, we already know this. The ubiquity of mainstream newspaper stories proclaiming, “Pow! Zap! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore,” is such that The Onion made their own version: “Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story.”
So comics, or graphic novels ¬– a self-important term cartoonists have grudgingly accepted – are real examples of literature for intelligent adult readers. But what to read if this is territory for a neophyte graphic novel reader? That’s where I come in – I wanna be your “cool uncle,” who nudges you in a good direction, so you don’t have to read all the bad comics.
These are not necessarily going to be funny stories (which is one reason why the name comics has always been problematic). I’ll mostly be talking about comics that are about people, not many superheroes or funny animals. I’m going to try and review graphic novels that hold up to the same criteria as normal literature, as real literature, as book books, which is what we call normal books in the comics world.
Also, I probably won’t be doing many reviews of stuff I don’t like as I don’t want to waste energy crapping on stuff that people worked hard on and doesn’t work for me. Don’t worry, I’m not all sunshine and lollipops and I do have some critical sense and I actually hate lots of graphic novels, you just won’t hear much about them here.
Boundless by Jillian Tamaki, Drawn and Quarterly, 2017
As in the world of book books, short story collections are a hard sell in the comics world. The public – and therefore publishers – want full-length graphic novels, so the short story collection has become less common. Which is a shame, because the short form story in old pamphlet comics was of course the genesis of the graphic novel, and short story collections have contained some of the best work done in the field.
Boundless is a masterful collection of short stories in comics form. It’s an incredible anthology that is smartly written, beautifully drawn, and full of humanity.
To simply describe the plots of these stories does them an injustice because some are quite fanciful, but even within the fantastical, Jillian Tamaki has the ability to employ the perfect visual and written details to make any scenario plausible and real.
Stories like Darla!, looking back at the world’s first pornographic sitcom and Half Life, about a woman who literally shrinks to subatomic size are whimsical, but function plausibly in their worlds while offering subtle insight into human interaction.
Other stories are more rooted in reality, such as Bed Bug, a tale of a broken relationship charted over the couple in question’s dealing with a bed bug infestation. There is so much going on under the surface of these stories – Tamaki is one of the most intelligent writers in comics – but with the level of subtlety she employs, there’s no artifice and it never feels like a forced structure.
The longer stories in the book are interspersed with shorter, more poetic experimental comics pieces, full-page drawings that evoke George Grosz and Picasso.
I’ve focused on Tamaki’s writing to now, as her drawing – she’s a regular New York Times contributor who has won both the Caldecott and the Governor General’s Award – is highly praised everywhere. Her visual style is impeccable and always adds verisimilitude to her narrative. If you’re someone who draws, looking at Jillian’s drawings makes you feel like how a hippo must feel watching a horse galloping.
All the elements in Boundless complement each other perfectly and this is a one of the finest, most original collections of short stories in comics in a long time.
Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me by Lorina Mapa, Conundrum Press, 2017
Lorina Mapa’s autobiographical graphic novel set in 1980s Manila is like an alternative Asian version of an 80s teen film with added political turmoil. It’s a lot about the love in a close family, a detailed study of Filipino history and culture as well as a first hand, compelling telling of the populist movement that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 80s.
Mapa juggles all these elements and tracks her growth from a pampered upper middle class kid to a politically active teen with a love of Western culture, especially 80s music (the book includes a suggested 80s discography.) The book works as a book for adults or as a Young Adult book, both groups will take different things from it.
This is a very sincere and earnest book, and I mean that in a good way; it’s unpretentious and doesn’t shy from showing real emotion. The family story is heartfelt and covers childhood to Mapa’s present day in Montreal. The story of the Filipino revolution is explained in a clear, detailed fashion and it’s a stirring report of common people standing up to a dictator and his army and their tanks and winning.
But, Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me, covers much more material between the stories, from gender and sexual identity and why Filipinos are more laidback than most people, to losing and regaining artistic inspiration.
Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me, is a really nicely-drawn, sad and funny book full of honesty and heart. Mapa’s book is cool because she doesn’t try to be cool, she just speaks from her heart and maybe sincerity is the new irony.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris, Fantagraphics, 2017
The story of how Emil Ferris made My Favorite Thing is Monsters is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Ferris grew up as something of an outsider with a curvature of her spine and two different lengths of legs. She was often alone, but used her ability to tell horror stories to attract and keep friends.
Years later, while she was a forty-year-old single mom working as a toy sculptor designing toys for McDonalds giveaways and toy companies, she contracted West Nile virus from a mosquito bite. She was paralyzed from the waist down and lost the use of her right hand. So she returned to school, entering an MFA writing program, since she didn’t think she’d ever draw again.
Her drawing ability and her mobility eventually returned and at age 55 she released her first book, the amazing, massive, almost 400-page graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters.
The book is a triumph on every front. It sold out its initial 70,000 print run (sales of 5,000 copies is a big seller in the world of comics), and has been optioned for a film already and Ferris is hard at work on the second 300-page volume to come out in the fall.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters is done in the style of the sketchbook/diary of ten-year-old Karen, a little girl obsessed with monster movies and magazines. Karen sees herself as an outsider; she’s half-Mexican, the daughter of a single mother and she’s initially unsure of her sexual orientation. She feels like an outsider and she draws herself as a monster throughout most of the book.
Ferris illustrates the book in coloured ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper, but the humbleness of the art supplies don’t stop her from delivering virtuosic, elaborately cross hatched masterful drawings that you can’t help but linger over. Her draftsmanship is stunning, and it never feels like showboating. It feels like the exuberance of a much younger artist, reveling in the joy of their abilities.
The book is a murder mystery set in 1960s Chicago, as Karen investigates the murder of her upstairs neighbour, discovering her harrowing back story that twists and turns back to her childhood in Nazi Germany.
This complex story also encompasses the civil rights movement, art history and the importance of art in a complete life, and gay and lesbian rights. Ferris writes in the voice of a ten-year-old believably and in her naiveté and misunderstandings she reveals a great deal about the adult world and its cruelties.
None of the characters are only one thing, Ferris writes with a complex maturity and a deep empathy. That Ferris has felt herself an outsider is apparent in the sensitivity of her story and her characters. Her writing is full of kindness and decency. She also tells a page-turning thriller in this story of intolerance and acceptance that is also at its core a love song to old horror comics, movies, and magazines.
Creation by Sylvia Nickerson, Self-published, 2017
Creation is artist Sylvia Nickerson’s self-published comic about the newly hot topic of living in Hamilton. It’s an austere autobiographical story of art, family and gentrification. When I say austere, I don’t mean to make the book sound humourless, it’s not. There’s a lot wry humour in there; I just mean Nickerson addresses serious topics in a straightforward, meditative fashion.
She tends to examine both sides of an issue, from gentrification and its effect on the poor of an area, while being honest about the rough aspects of living in an un-gentrified neighbourhood.
She’s equally candid about artistic life before and after kids and it’s clear that showing the monotonous aspects of childcare keeping someone from their artistic practice doesn’t diminish their love for their kids.
I respect that kind of honesty and confidence that the reader can grasp the complexity of two distinct ideas at the same time.
Creation is drawn in pleasant, loose brushwork gray washes. The figures are vague outlines, like hand-drawn pictogram figures, which suit the themes of urban life. They also evoke ghosts, which suits the tone of the book as well.
This version of Creation is an excerpt of a planned longer book, but this part stands on its own and demonstrates all its themes even in the reduced space. I do look forward to reading the final completed book some day.
(Creation is self-published and is available for sale at many Hamilton independent booksellers.)
Cartoonist Joe Ollmann has lived in Hamilton most of his life. With a career spanning 34 years, he is fairly old. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The Paris Review and Best American Comics. He is the author of seven graphic novels, one of them, Mid-life, won a Doug Wright Award for best book in 2007 but several other of his books have lost that same award since then.