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PG Tips No. 32:

Graphic Novel Reviews

From the start, Cathy Malkasian‘s turbulent fantasy Temperance reels you in with a father’s terrible cruelties, mental as well as physical. One daughter, radiant, ethereal Peggy, insists that their ‘Pa’ is father to no one and has ‘torn us all apart’; the other, plain, drowsy Minerva, is too afraid to disbelieve his tales of a terrible looming enemy. Pa’s axe first chops down a trembling tree and then chops off the lower leg of Lester, a young man who rescues Peggy from the brute’s unwanted attentions. Lester has also lost his memory due to another blow to the head, so Pa allows Minerva to keep him and ‘fix’ him as her husband. Tree and man, grown tall and now felled together, bond further as a piece of trunk is carved into a pegleg fixed below the amnesiac Lester’s knee. This chunk of tree, once rooted, now mobile, is our narrator, its rings still vibrating and attuned to Lester’s lost memories. Can it make him remember? Abandoned by Pa, Minerva and her people seal themselves off from a non-existent enemy outside and stay within the city of Blessedbowl, a vast ship built of stone, its ramparts inaccessible, breached only by a sniping moon or spying birds. As leader, Minerva keeps up Pa’s lies that this ship of state is heading through a sea of fire towards a final battle. Daily she fabricates reports from her vanished ‘father’ on the frontlines, designed to brainwash the citizens into unquestioning loyalty and united purpose, and fills her husband Lester’s head with tales of his glorious past as a war hero. It is not hard to spot allegories in this to today’s war on terror, and to the Cold War, in Temperance‘s portrait of siege mentality and the exaggeration of external threats.

Later, without children from their marriage, Minerva refashions Lester’s wooden leg into a one-eyed doll: ‘It must have been my knot… a swirl in my grain that looked like sympathy’. She will unburden her secrets to it: ‘But no mouth for you, my little confidante, lest you say a word to sink this ship. We all must do without something, child. After all, there is a war on.’ Shaking into life with a hint of Pinocchio, the mute toy escapes the city to find the stump it came from and hunt down Pa, now a fiery force of nature laying waste to the outlands. Malkasian draws in tremulous pencil lines tinted in shades of graphite grey, a second colour sepia arriving to cue the truth invading Lester’s dreams. An acclaimed American animator on Rugrats and The Wild Thornberries Movie, Malkasian will at times repeat characters two, three or more times within a single frame to suggest motion or the passage of time, in a way that recalls the figures replicated across a single scene in medieval art. She uses words with arresting concision and freshness and is especially deft at conveying the dreadful, volatile dominance of Pa, one moment almost sympathetic, the next monstrous. No Shrek or Toy Story, Temperance confounds fairy-tale expectations with a disturbing, resonant parable about propaganda, memories and other lies.

Another toy-like protagonist named Little Blue plays Julian Hanshaw‘s avatar in The Art of Pho. What Hanshaw began as a baffled British back-packer’s travelogue of a trip to Vietnam in 2006 turns into this hallucinatory love-letter to Ho Chi Minh City and a memoir of his extended stay there. Its delicious streetfood ‘pho’, a noodle soup with many different flavours, specialities and mobile sales-stands, becomes a metaphor for this awkward outsider’s yearning for more than a holiday fling. His attentions are divided between Sandy, a room-mate and fellow English traveller, and a local customer of his successful pho stand who invites him out to cook for her entourage at her exclusive beachfront property and perhaps more. Like a journal, pages mix textured and gridded papers and diagrams with beautifully tinted reportage drawings and quirky cartoon linework, interspersed with recipes and cookery tips for spicy clams or summer rolls. The ‘real’ world arrives as drawings melt into photographs on the final pages. A far cry from conventional autobiography, The Art of Pho is an assured debut which captures the intensity of displacement, transient connections and bitter-sweet hopes of somehow belonging to someone, or to somewhere.

A former health care assistant on an acute psychiatric ward, Yorkshireman Darryl Cunningham has recorded in Psychiatric Tales his experiences of working with sufferers of depression, dementia, self-harming, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. This job takes its toll, not just from cleaning up the ward but from coping with its impact on his sensitive spirit. Carers care and can rarely avoid being affected, for example by the two suicides he witnesses over eight years and his feelings of guilt that he should have done more to prevent them. In stark graphics ably balancing black with white, Cunningham wants us to view these unsettling, sometimes harrowing incidents through his eyes. The circular lenses of his glasses reappear as a motif threaded through these short stories, their shape echoed in bicycle wheels, handcuffs, a gyrating sun, a full moon, the hole in his chest symbolising an emptiness within, and finally in a high-contrast photo of the bespectacled author himself. Looking out at us as we zoom into one lens, one eye, he affirms, ‘I redeemed myself in my own eyes.’ Psychiatric Tales has a touching epiphany in the closing chapter, ‘How I Lived Again’. Using himself as his last case study, Cunningham discloses that the four-year gap in creating these stories was due to his own severe depression after having to drop a demanding nurse training course with only one year to go. In his case, ‘with glacial slowness’ he found these very comics and the supportive online response they received brought him some self-worth. Cunningham’s survival through his artistic talents suggests one route to recovery.

Drawing, and specifically calligraphy, also offer the Taiwanese-born American author Belle Yang a spiritual escape, in her case from ‘Rotten Egg’, an abusive boyfriend-turned-stalker. Yang is used to being a free-spirited, independent Westernised woman, but she is forced to take refuge in the family home. And there begins her cautious reconnection to her Old World Chinese father, Baba, who wants her to understand more about his own grandfather’s ancestry in Manchuria. The strains between parent and child depicted here recall Art Spiegelman’s attempted reconciliation with his father in Maus. Yang applies the same practice of combining a father’s oral testimony of the past with her present-day autobiography. Forget Sorrow: An ancestral tale illuminates the tides of early twentieth-century Chinese history which sweep over one extended family, the House of Yang, from warlord battles and Japanese occupation to Soviet invasion and civil war. In successive generations, parallel tensions emerge between parents and their children over duties and desires, as bonds are stretched sometimes to breaking point. Coming afresh to graphic novels from making illustrated books for adults and children, Yang writes and draws the Chinese soul, capturing its phraseologies and philosophies. Her varied brushstrokes, from bold to dry, tap into a long tradition of ‘simplicity’ in Chinese art and notably the acute observations of everday life by master cartoonist Feng Zikai (1898-1975). Yang recalled to me, ‘Dad and I talked about the book his family once possessed, filled with block prints of Feng Zikai. His brush work is loose-limbed yet robust. You can feel and hear the ink as it merges with the paper.’ By the redemptive conclusion, Yang’s newfound perspective allows her to fulfil the promise of her Chinese name, Xuan, which means ‘Forget Sorrow’.

On the coast of New Zealand’s East Cape lies the fictional town of Hicksville, where the newly arrived biographer Leonard Batts is astonished to discover that his landlady owns a substantial comics collection. She replies, ‘Oh good heavens - doesn’t everyone?’ and Batts finds that indeed every citizen of this idyllic location naturally enjoys comics as part of their lives. Their lighthouse serves as a library of wondrous, hitherto unknown masterpieces, for example several by Picasso: ‘There were a couple written by Gertrude Stein, and the rest are mostly pornographic books.’ Batts has come to Hicksville to research the roots of one Dick Burger, a local boy who left for America to become the mainstream’s latest megastar, at the price of a terrible betrayal. Dylan Horrocks weaves together different forms of comics, from overblown American superheroes or minimalist gags to Captain Cook’s exploits or exotic artists’ books by a make-believe Cornucopian genius, into fascinating reflections on the medium as both exploitative business and fulfilling vehicle of expression. The tragedy here is that the teenage Dick Burger’s comics were remarkable, drawing on serious personal issues, but he ‘got scared of where they were taking me.’ Banishing his muse, unable to draw but still fiercely ambitious, Burger builds his stellar career by plagiarising others. In his new autobiographical introduction to this revised reissue of Hicksville, first published in 1998, Horrocks comments on how he worked for hire in the American industry, before growing disillusioned: ‘Soon just looking at a comic, any comic, filled me with dread.’ Fortunately, the true, bigger picture of comics, as rich, pluralist and life-enhancing, brings him back. There will always be space for graphic novels such as these on the shelves of Hicksville’s lighthouse library.

Posted: August 15, 2010

This article first appeared in this week’s issue of The Times Literary Supplement.

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Cathy Malkasian
Julian Hanshaw
Darryl Cunningham
Belle Yang
Dylan Horrocks

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Belle Yang
Cathy Malkasian
Darryl Cunningham
Dylan Horrocks
Julian Hanshaw
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Featured Books


Temperance
by Cathy Malkasian


The Art of Pho
by Julian Hanshaw


Psychiatric Tales
by Darryl Cunningham


Forget Sorrow
by Belle Yang


Hicksville
by Dylan Horrocks