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PG Tips Special:

Graphic Novels - An Eloquent Allusiveness

Graphic novels are demanding, but can be rewarding. Like riding a bike, with some perseverance, comics literacy can be learnt, by being alert and taking pleasure in how words and images interact. John Ruskin, in his 1884 compilation Art of England, Lectures Given In Oxford, enthused about this, citing an 1845 “histoire en estampes” by the Genevan innovator in comics, Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846): “He can do more with fewer lines than any draughtsman known to me, and in several plates of his Histoire d’Albert, has succeeded entirely in representing the tenor of conversation with no more than half the profile and one eye of the speaker.” Part of the appeal of graphic novels is their ludic quality, resembling puzzles or board games full of clues and cues, engaging both halves of the brain. And the best also engage the heart, allowing the reader to empathise with static, soundless, music-less, often simplified two-dimensional drawings, relying on none of the insistent manipulations of live-action film.


George Sprott, 1894-1975

A number of current graphic novels demonstrate this media-specific versatility. In what he modestly labels a “picture novella”, Canadian cartoonist Seth invites us to reflect on the meaning of one man’s life and death and their ripple effects on others around him. Seth began George Sprott 1894-1975 (Drawn and Quarterly) as a short series of one-page weekly comics for the The New York Times Magazine, self-contained but cumulative, dense with as many as thirty or more panels. In six of these pages a self-confessed unreliable narrator charts the final hours of Sprott, the fading fictional presenter of “Northern Hi-Lights”, a once-popular Canadian television show based around old clips of his filmed excursions among the icebergs, wildlife and Inuit people. The ratings are now dropping, not helped by Sprott’s tendency to doze off while on air. Other episodes interview his assorted family, friends, colleagues and fans, recount the changing facades and fortunes of landmark buildings associated with him or simply offer us Sprott’s own words of wisdom. Seth enhances these single pages for their book compilation by interweaving them with: bold illustrated spreads of arctic and urban wastelands; photographs of his painted cardboard models of the key buildings; eight further three-page strips, tinged in sepia, of telling incidents from Sprott’s past; and as we reach his sad, mundane demise, a patchwork, multi-sensual reverie of six pages, replaying pleasures and regrets, matters unresolved and unresolvable. Punctuating the images are text panels of white letters on black, urging George to “wake”, presumably as his life flashes before his eyes.

Gradually, through all these elements Seth enables us to piece together one life as seen from various perspectives, and not all of them admiring. Sprott is survived by an illegitimate Inuit daughter, angry at being fatherless. This family secret of a white male protagonist’s mixed-race offspring also haunts the absentee father of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. In Sprott’s case, his memory of her returns to him years later. As he drifts back into this dream, Seth shows Sprott revert, for one panel, to his youthful self when he abandoned her. The rest of Sprott’s legacy is bittersweet. Only a solitary video of his 1,132 shows and one of his original Arctic films survive, in the clammy hands of an obsessive collector. He did inspire his niece to found The Narwhal Press, a tiny publishing company of Canadiana, which is squeaking by with government help. An unapologetic nostalgic, Seth asks how much is constantly being lost and how much do any of us leave behind.  As a student of past masters of cartooning and design, he carries these aesthetics through to the book-as-object, conceiving a large, beautifully foil-embossed, cloth-spined hardback with plain grey card covers, almost as solid and austere as Sprott’s epitaphless gravestone.


The Photographer

Another testament to a life, that of French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre (1957-2007), is Emmanuel Guibert’s 260-page non-fiction reportage The Photographer (First Second). Like many press photographers, Lefèvre takes hundreds more shots than are ever published. On a chance visit to Lefèvre’s home, Guibert was shown box after box of them as the photographer recounted his experiences recording a gruelling mission in 1986 in and out of Afghanistan by Doctors Without Borders to bring health care to those in remote regions, on either side of the conflict. Guibert was determined that this story should reach the public and found a way, with designer and colourist Frédéric Lemercier, to integrate the black-and-white photos within his comics. They wisely decide never to impose captions or speech balloons into the photos, but to leave them intact and uncropped, either as small contact sheets, like the panels of comics, some singled out in red pen, or enlarged to two across or a single shot filling a full-width half-page, even filling whole pages with photos to let them speak for themselves. Those incidents which the camera have not recorded, Guibert has to visualise. As Lefèvre took took hardly any photos of himself, it is left to Guibert to draw him throughout. It’s an arresting experience switching between these two visual modes. The photos’ surfeit of information, recording every wrinkle, every rock in shades of grey, contrasts with the lean, concise drawings in muted, flat colours, almost an ink-blotted, less perfected version of Hergé‘s Clear Line.

Like the junior reporter Tintin, Lefèvre immediately adopts local dress to blend in. He also acquires an Afghan name and basic phrases and becomes our confused guide into this alien culture and warzone. As he puts it, “I point cameras, not guns.” Lefèvre’s first-person narration, in cream boxes like pages from a notebook, reveals the locals’ unfamiliar customs, the bonds he forms with the doctors, and their sensitive relations with rival leaders. In several operations performed with the minimum of medical supplies, he captures the victims’ brave suffering in twenty or more moment-by-moment photos. But in a house-call to a young girl, paralysed after a bombing, the room is too dark to take pictures. So Guibert draws the scene in silhouettes, lit by the examining doctor’s torch on his head, as he spots a tiny hole in her back. It was made by a piece of shrapnel “no bigger than a grain of rice” and she will never walk again. Lefèvre breaks down, unable to take more photos, but is jolted out of this by the mission’s leader Juliette Fournot, alias “Jamila”, who has just videotaped a child’s death. She tells him, “The mother said to me, ‘Film it, Jamila. People have to know’.” Now, more people can know about this ongoing tragedy through this timely, deeply humane chronicle, made still more poignant by the fact that after the assassination of five Doctors Without Borders aid workers in 2004, all of its medical programmes in Afghanistan have been closed.


A Drifting Life

In part because manga, or comics in Japan, are traditionally published only in black and white, except for the occasional introductions or interludes in colour, this keeps their print costs low enough to allow long-form graphic novels, mainly serialised in magazines in 16- to 24-page chapters, to run to the length their story requires. So in A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly), veteran Japanese master Yoshihiro Tatsumi can take ten years and 804 pages to unfold his own life as “Hiroshi Katsumi”, from Japan’s surrender in 1945 when he was 10 through to 1960 when he joins angry protestors in Tokyo demonstrating against the new security treaty. This is a volatile period of change, not only in Japanese society, reported here in documentary-style, photo-referenced sections, but also in the author’s personal life from adolescence into adulthood, and in the mutating marketplace for manga which young Katsumi is so eager to break into.

His great idol and influence, whom he meets as a youngster, is Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), the post-war pioneer of both the modern comics and animation industries. Fresh talent is so much in demand that, to ensure loyalty, one shrewd publisher promised a tailor-made suit for every author who produced five books for them. For Katsumi, winning contests and getting printed while still in school fires up his determination, and little his more stolid, cynical elder brother says can dampen this for long. Not that he never faces doubts or setbacks. As cut-price novelty books for kids make way for darker, more mature anthologies sold to the burgeoning rental library sector, fierce competition erupts and publishers’ gambles do not always pay off. Katsumi and his young peers want to break away from Tezuka’s approach and band together to champion a movement of “manga that isn’t manga”, which they eventually christen “gekiga” or dramatic pictures. The tantalising glimpses we get here of these 1950s comics, unseen outside Japan, suggest there may be gems among them. Even the moodier “noir” gekiga retain a certain cartoonish charm, very different from the more realistic chiaroscuro illustration in American crime comic books of the period, inspired by Milton Caniff. While it’s a fascinating tale of personal, national and cultural history, it may not be the most accessible introduction to Tatsumi’s work, especially since the book lacks a handy biographical appendix explaining the significance of the many manga artists he refers to. Better to start with one of his collections of short, sharp stories, in which Tatsumi’s searing perception confronts the private crises and their underlying causes within post-war Japanese society.


A Distant Neighborhood

It is not that uncommon in Japan for the responsibilities on some husbands and fathers to become too much and force them one day to abruptly walk away from everything. In Jiro Taniguchi’s two-volume A Distant Neighborhood (Fanfare/Ponent Mon), the hungover salaryman and father Hiroshi boards the wrong train home one spring morning in 1998, and finds himself travelling to the town where he was born. He is forty-eight, the age at which his mother died, and he decides to visit her grave. Praying in the tranquil cemetery, he loses track of time. When he comes to, he feels his heavy adult body has grown lighter and smaller, and is astonished to find that he has become his 14-year old self, with all his adult memories intact. This is his chance to ask his parents, grandmother and friends all those unanswered questions - above all why one day, out of the blue, his father disappeared forever. Hiroshi becomes determined to prevent this happening again, but the more answers he finds, the more uncertain he is that he can change the past. In naturalistic and exquisitely detailed, greytoned artwork with a dual soundtrack of external dialogues and internal monologue, Taniguchi crafts a subtle meditation on whether these two generations, father and son, are living the life they have chosen or the life chosen for them by others.


Asterios Polyp

In Asterios Polyp (Pantheon) by David Mazzucchelli, our hero’s life is narrated by his twin brother, Ignazio, who died at birth. Asterios has always been haunted by this death, which could so easily have been his, and by the idea that he might have been his twin’s murderer. Preoccupied with dualities, Asterios is a prickly, stiff, self-important “paper architect”, praised for his designs, none of which has ever been built. Framed by acts of God, from the opening lightning bolt that destroys Asterios’s apartment, to its potentially equally dramatic finale, Asterios Polyp unfolds in flashbacks, to his family roots, his dying father and his romance with a Japanese sculptress, Hana. In the present-day chapters, he rebuilds his ego by working as a small-town auto mechanic, a world away from his former elite milieu. Mazzucchelli intercuts these scenes with philosophical musings, a variation on Orpheus and Eurydice, and symbolist vignettes where Asterios communes with his twin.

An innovative formalist, Mazzucchelli has rejected the one-style-fits-all approach to comics, assigning each principal character his or her own personal visual style, balloon shape and dialogue font. When Asterios and Hana first meet at a party, he is drawin in outlined Aristotelean forms, while she resembles a Henry Moore statue. As the two of them get on, they take on each other’s visual register, visibly coming together, and their combined style then spreads to everything around them. This is a good example of the eloquent, elegant “allusiveness” to be savoured in this exceptional graphic novel of ideas.

There is something extraordinary being discovered in graphic novels today. In Seth’s George Sprott, the opening spread consists of nothing but the floating heads and naked bodies of Sprott as a newborn and an old man. George ruminates about whether the “void before we exist” might be the same as the afterlife, “two voids separated by a brief spurt of time.” Bemused, Sprott finds clarity while reading comics: “Maybe it’s like these Funnies? These boxes in a row - perhaps they’re not just in sequence. Perhaps the action in the middle box… isn’t merely determined by the action in the box before it. Maybe it is also influenced by what must occur in the box that follows. It needs to fulfil and anticipate in both directions. Maybe it is in this way that the future determines the present as much as the past.” This two-way tension is one of the unique properties of the graphic novel: where else can we see and examine past, present and future all at once before our eyes, and hold a life in our hands?

Posted: August 2, 2009

An edited version of the article was published in the Times Literary Supplement on 24 July 2009.

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Featured Books


George Sprott
1894-1975

by Seth


The Photographer
by Emmanuel Guibert,
Didier Lefèvre
& Frédéric Lemercier


A Drifting Life
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi


A Distant Neighborhood
by Jiro Taniguchi


Asterios Polyp
by David Mazzucchelli