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PG Tips No.39 Graphic Novel Reviews:

From Music of the Depression to Today's Financial Crisis

A robust, expressive physicality of all-too-human beings caught in motion and emotion pulses through the 22 self-published or small press comics that cartoonist-editor Ilya has cherry-picked for The Mammoth Book of Cult Comics (Robinson, £12.99). In Ilya’s opinion, America’s so-called mainstream superhero comic books “nowadays subsist and glory within a ghetto of their own making”, whereas these gems he has recovered from 1983 to 2011 have “truer mainstream appeal, appeal to the main flow of society.” No prior knowledge is required to enter and enjoy these tales across a spectrum from biography and autobiography to uninhibited comedy and fantasy. Prepare for the real and surreal to blur and blend, as a despairing office worker fits a jar over his head full of beer, breathing its bubbles (in Jeff Nicholson’s Through The Habitrails, above), and young lovers fight after a wispy succubus steals the man’s seed (in Julia Gfrörer’s Too Dark To See). Sadly some contributors have since quit comics, but most are working still or preparing their comebacks. Here’s to a second volume, in which Ilya plans to feature more than just two women participants.

One former self-publishing stalwart who has found his métier in pointed, pithy documentary cartooning is Darryl Cunningham. His latest, Supercrash (Myriad, £14.99), skilfully synthesises in three parts the causes and costs of the 2008 financial crisis. Cunningham dissects its origins in the influence of Russian-born champion of Objectivism and still a best-selling author in America, Ayn Rand. In recounting her life story and her effect on loyal followers, in particular Alan Greenspan, who played a crucial role in triggering the crisis, Cunningham questions Rand’s denial of any links between her life and her anti-collectivism, anti-taxation philosophy. Then Cunnigham’s crisp, clever graphics, symbols and examples demystify the complexities of credit default swaps, hedge funds and other devices behind the Crash. He concludes with ‘The Age of Selfishness’, challenging the way we think and resist change, even when the alternative is disaster. Some suggest that people may be buying Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century but not reading it, whereas Cunningham’s Supercrash is a hugely readable, revelatory condemnation and call to arms.

Contrasting perspectives on the 20th century American dream are provided by two fascinating graphic biographies. In Robert Moses, The Master Builder of New York City (Nobrow, £15.99), Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez chronicle this almost Randian figure in architecture and urban planning, who was driven to re-shape New York into his global vision. Certain of his colossal proposals, however, would overstep the mark, such as the ten-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway, successfully opposed by activist Jane Jacobs. Ironically, Christin and Balez point out that it is Jacobs who is commemorated with a day in her honour, while Moses’ name remains obscure to many; their elegant, insightful portrait should help to correct that.

Power and politics also underpin Nick Hayes’ fictionalised biography of Woody Guthrie (Jonathan Cape, £20.00), the singer-songwriter who gave his fellow Americans enduring the Great Depression solace and inspiration through his ballads. Hayes evokes their special quality, writing in one caption: “Something about these songs contained a truth, a way of seeing the world, that chimed through the present as it had through the past.” In a handsome square-format, with open spreads as wide as the land itself, Hayes captures the man and the times in his lyrical writing and brush artwork tinted in shades of brown, like old sepia photographs or the devastating, man-made Dust Bowl itself.

Familiar English suburbia and schooldays are uncomfortably skewed and skewered in The Motherless Oven (SelfMadeHero, £12.99) by Rob Davis. Schoolboy Scarper is especially sullen, as everyone in this upside-down world knows their ‘deathday’ and his is only three weeks today. It may be wisest to stop indoors when the weather clock says ‘Knife O’Clock’ to avoid the raining knives. But when his father, a brass, wind-powered contraption chained up in the shed, goes missing, Scarper resolves to use his dying days to find him at the mythical Motherless Oven, ‘where all the Mums and Dads are baked by the children of the world’. Escaping the school lions, Scarper forms an awkward alliance with rebel new-girl Vera and black prodigy Castro. Egg-timers and other appliances are revered like gods, but their singing stays misunderstood, except by Castro. His ‘inference syndrome’ handicap actually enables him to interpret the songs as warnings about their predicament. Brimming over with visual and verbal invention, Davis subverts and deepens the school adventure yarn by asking if anyone can escape their fate. Or in Castro’s words, “This is unschool.”

As a footnote, Ilya and Rob Davis will be taking part in a Comica Conversation on ‘What Makes A Cult Comics?’ as part of Comica Festival 2014 at Foyles Bookshop on Friday November 7thm joined by Paul Rainey and Carol Swain and hosted by Andy Oliver from Broken Frontier. Full details here…

And Darryl Cunningham will be in a Comica Conversation about Supercrash with Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography and author of Inequality And The 1% (Verso Books) at Foyles on Monday November 3rd. Full details here…

Posted: October 9, 2014

An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Independent newspaper & online.


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Featured Books

Mammoth Book of Cult
Comics, edited by Ilya

by Darryl Cunningham

Woody Guthrie
by Nick Hayes
(Jonathan Cape)

Robert Moses
by Pierre Christin
& Olivier Balez

The Motherless Oven
by Rob Davis