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PG Tips No.38:

Graphic Novels & Memoirs Round-Up

Life is good for chef Katie and Seconds may be the best restaurant in town, but she wants an even better one she can call her own and she wants her ex-boyfriend back. When the restaurant’s invisible ‘house spirit’ gives her one chance to erase a mistake, once proves not enough, but with every revision, her world changes in unforeseen ways. Perfectly pitched, paced and pictured, Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s Seconds (£15.99, SelfMadeHero), a 336-page follow-up to his six-volume hit Scott Pilgrim, is another manga-influenced romantic fantasy, this time about the perils of wanting perfection at any price. It’s cute, clever yet never cloying, and O’Malley’s sassy, self-seeking redhead restaurateur wins us over, as she talks to herself and talks back at the story’s narrator. (O’Malley is interviewed on Friday August 15th 6.30pm, the opening event of the Comica Festival Weekend at The British Library - book now! He’ll also be signing Seconds on the morning of Saturday August 16th at the free Comica Comiket Independent Comics Market in The British Library Entrance Hall.)


The gothic tradition is alive, or perhaps splendidly undead, in Emily Carroll‘s chilling period folktales Through The Woods (£12.99, Faber & Faber). Particularly effective is how Carroll insinuates her handwritten narration within her elegant page designs. For example, the words of a refrain wailing through a haunted house unravel across her panels in white, changing volume between subdued lower-case and emphatic capitals, and inscribed over smearing bloodstains, like the red ribbons with which a second wife binds together her predecessor’s skeletal body parts in her murderous husband’s bedroom. Bonds of trust easily snap, while forests and caves become tomb-like or womb-like menaces. Carroll knows when to shock on the turn of a page and when to leave her horrors lurking, all the better to worm their way into your sleepless nights.

Bonds are also tested to breaking point in Fatherland (£16.99, Jonathan Cape), Nina Bunjevac‘s compulsive attempt to piece together the tragic life and legacy of a father she barely knew. As a dissident Serb in Tito’s Yugoslavia, he escaped in 1960 for exile in Canada, where his all-consuming anti-communist terrorism first cost him his marriage. His wife finally broke free in 1975 by taking Nina and their other daughter to their grandparents in Yugoslavia for a ‘short visit’ which lasted three years. Then in 1977, he died in an explosion while preparing another bomb attack on communist sympathisers. The fear Bunjevac’s mother lived with has never entirely gone; returning to Canada, she used to block the children’s bedroom windows with furniture each night, and to this day insists that Nina always locks her apartment door and will not leave until she hears the click. Illuminated in exquisite cross-hatched and pointillist realism, Fatherland lucidly untangles political history to show its deep-rooted, far-reaching impact on Bunjevac’s parents, family and herself.

Further examples of transforming memories into memoirs include Matilda Tristram‘s Probably Nothing (£16.99, Viking) and Emmanuel Guibert‘s How The World Was (First Second, £14.99). Pregnant 18 weeks when diagnosed with bowel cancer, Tristram posted her experiences and feelings online in disarmingly direct cartoons and commentaries. Her tone can veer on the same page from poignant - putting into the baby’s cradle “a doll of myself that I made (so if I die I’ll still be there)” -  to hilarious - contemplating “lacy colostomy bag covers” -  and furious - “Look at all these people not having cancer.” Hers is autobiography at its most heartfelt and heartening.  (Matilda Tristram will sign Probably Nothing from 11am to noon on Saturday August 16th in The British Library Bookshop as part of the free Comica Comiket Independent Comics Market in The British Library Entrance Hall. On Sunday August 17th, 2-3pm, she joins a panel discussion, ‘New Voices, New Directions’ at The British Library Conference Centre - booking info here…)

In Guibert’s graphic biography of Alan Cope, genuine lyricism emerges from the blend of his elderly American friend’s candid recollections and Guibert’s vibrant visualisations of a Californian childhood during the Depression. Welcome to a vanished Los Angeles, when “the air smelled like lemons”. (Guibert comes to London August 16th to the free Comica Comiket Independent Comics Market in The British Library Entrance Hall, and on Sunday august 17th he is interviewed from 5-6.30pm followed by signings at The British Library Conference Centre - book your tickets now…

Twenty-six new stories, that would have been forbidden in their time, question what was so ‘great’ about The Great War in To End All Wars (£18.99, Soaring Penguin). So deserter Thomas Highgate narrates his own execution, Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk cross-examines in a trial in The Hague the ‘inbred genetic incompetents’ behind this preventable war (by co-editor Brick, above), and German artist Otto Dix drags us inside his paintings, “not anti-war statements… rather, they are exorcisms”. The obscure and forgotten are commemorated, whether East Africans dragged into the conflict, Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, zealous recruiter Horatio Bottomley or ex-circus elephant Lizzie. This fascinating, wide-ranging anthology challenges any revisionist glorifying of heroic sacrifice. Contributor Sarah Jones joins Pat (Charley’s War) Mills and others in a Comica Conversation about ‘The Great War In Comics’ on Sunday August 17th, 11-12 noon followed by signings. Get details and tickets here…

Posted: August 2, 2014

An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Independent, August 2nd 2014.


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Bryan Lee O'Malley
Emily Carroll
Emmanuel Guibert
Matilda Tristram
Nina Bunjevac
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Featured Books

by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Through The Woods
by Emily Carroll
(Faber & Faber)

by Nina Bunjevac
(Jonathan Cape)

Probably Nothing
by Matilda Tristram

How The World Was
by Emmanuel Guibert
(First Second)

To End All Wars
by various creators
(Soaring Penguin)