the observer Sat 16 August 2008
Jokes about graphic novels' unearned status are looking a bit old now ('Is that a comic book? No! It's a graphic novel! Is that porn? No! It's adult entertainment!' runs a characteristic Robin Williams riff). The fact is that they're an established form with a following that couldn't care less about status. True, the nomenclature isn't precise; many graphic novels are not really novels as such and some bookshops are experimenting with other labels (graphic non-fiction, graphic journalism, graphic novella etc). Does it matter? In the end, perhaps Art Spiegelman is right, the best definition is a comic that needs a bookmark.
Blue Pills by Frederik Peeters (Jonathan Cape £12.99) is an autobiography, a graphic memoir, if you will, and a love story with a difference. Boy meets girl at a party; boy falls in love with girl; girl tells boy that she and her young son have HIV. Thus begins Peeters's unflinchingly honest journey into a relationship that involves blue moods, blue pills and some studied blue-sky thinking. The turning point comes when he meets a 'human doctor' who tells him he has 'as much chance of catching Aids as you have of running into a rhinoceros'. This allays his fears, though, inevitably, the rhinoceros keeps materialising in his daydreams.
A misery memoir this ain't. Caveats about the fiction of autobiography aside, there is something very moving about the way in which simple black-and-white illustration is used to convey a psychological situation that is far from black and white. The pacing is expert, too; when the couple have sex and the condom breaks, the silent panels thereafter say more about dread than a thousand words of prose. Thankfully, their relationship is strong, the rhino is kept at bay and the book merits its subtitle: 'A positive love story'.
The Master and Margarita (Self Made Hero £16.99) is a version of Mikhail Bulgakov's classic novel from the Thirties, with the adaptation and art credited to Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal. The story concerns a visit by Satan plus some of his familiars to Moscow, where he has plans for two lovers - the Master and Margarita. The chaos the visit engenders could today be labelled magic realism, but for Bulgakov it was originally an allegory for Stalin's politics. 'Humans love money,' muses the suave Satan at one point, 'except the housing shortage has made them sour ... '
It's an uneven book, not helped by having two artists with very different styles. The abridgement is just too abridged, to the point of discordance at times, and you never care about the characters as a result. But Klimowski's art is very special (you may know his work as an illustrator of movie posters and book covers) and his ink-and-watercolour technique not only creates a sense of period but also gives the satanic entourage a wonderful air of playful menace. The devil is in the details, as they say.
Lest we forget that 'comics' can also mean 'comic', Jules Feiffer's Explainers (Fantagraphics £17.99) is something of a satirical masterpiece. It's a collection of strips for the Village Voice between 1956 and 1966, mostly 'explaining' America's political pressure points. My favourite has a confused little girl witnessing a civil rights demo and concluding: 'I don't mind the coloured people but I wish they'd leave their policemen at home.' You can tell a great cartoonist because they get into 'the zone' - just as some footballers seem to have more time on the ball than anybody else, so Feiffer can let his strips take crazily neurotic detours before settling on a perfect punchline.
The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics (Constable £12.99), edited by Paul Gravett, is a lively compendium of mostly hard-boiled fare, including some terrific scripts by Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane and Ed McBain. What strikes you most is the onomatopoeia - the SKUEEELLL! of car tyres and the TAT TAT TAT! of machine guns (not to mention the IFFFFTT! of a cigarette being stubbed on someone's cheek). It seems that crime comics are in vogue at the moment in the wake of The Wire (both Marvel and DC have launched crime series), and this anthology is a great introduction to some of the genre's roots.
Jeff Hawke: Overlord and Jeff Hawke: The Ambassadors by Willie Patterson and Sydney Jordan (both Titan £16.99) are the latest reprint volumes of Sixties science-fiction strips starring Britain's 'adult Dan Dare'. The storytelling mixes a deep knowledge of hard SF lore with lashings of dry humour: 'Let's not have any nonsense, gentlemen!' the pacifist Jeff wearily tells a room full of tentacled beasties. It's almost as if he secretly knows it'll be the Americans who end up leading the space race.
Finally, Lynda Barry's What It Is (Drawn and Quarterly £16.99) is a 'how to make pictorial literature' guide with a twist. Rather than set out a boring template about composing images, judging perspective etc, she simply suggests exercises to maximise creative potential (the zone again). But she does so in a style that is itself inspiring, with punkily naive strips, collage and personal reflections ('The lines made a picture and the picture made a story. Every kid I knew could do it.'). You end up convinced that fretting over the status of the graphic novel pales into insignificance against actually trying to create one.