Saturday, September 17, 2011

An Animated World

Every year for a few weeks I set aside films and books and instead focus exclusively on reading graphic novels. The experience is always enriching and leaves me in complete awe of the fascinating direction some writers have taken graphic novels in. While there are still plenty of stories about super heroes, vampires, zombie and noir crime, there are an equally increasing number of works which are journalistic travelogues, memoirs or just a creative spin on genres. This year, I was lucky enough to come across some excellent works and here are some brief words on my haul for 2011:

Norway -- What I did by Jason

What I Did is a pure gem from Norway and I only came across it thanks to the owner of Frosst Books who recommended it. The collection consists of three stories with two of them being black and white. The second of these black and white stories is without any dialogues and appropriately labeled "Sshhhh". It is this silent story that is the best of the trio and manages to convey plenty of emotion and depth without any words. The story revolves around a homeless man who encounters the woman of his dreams and settles down with her. Unfortunately, agents of death take the woman away before her time and the man is left to fend off death who is constantly following him. In the next phase of the story, a man has a fling with a woman leading to a child. In just a few pages, an entire lifetime of emotion between father and son is shown eventually leading to the son parting ways when he grows up as an adult.

The entire graphic novel is beautifully drawn with simple and uncomplicated sketches. Also, the usage of space in each panel has produced a work of great depth that leaves plenty of material to ponder over. For example, in just a few panels a sexual encounter is described perfectly. A woman enters a train compartment where she eyes the man. The two of them move closer. The next panel shows the train heading into a tunnel with the next two panels painted completed in black. The train is shown to emerge from the tunnel followed by a panel which shows the man and woman on opposite ends of the seat, buttoning up their shirts. Given how many comics and graphic novels are packed with needless witty dialogues, Jason proves that in the hands of a good artist, a picture can speak volumes.

Canada -- The Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle

I sought out The Burma Chronicles on the strength of Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea which is a witty humorous graphic novel that recounts Delisle’s time in North Korea and his keen observance of the country’s culture and customs. The Burma Chronicles contains the same humor style and is a pure delight to read. This time around Delisle travels to Burma with his wife and baby and as a result, the book also contains some relevant challenges that arise due to family travel and everything is rendered perfectly with thoughtful panels.

Mexico -- Son of the Gun by Alejandro Jodorowsky

It was a real discovery to find that Alejandro Jodorowsky is also an active graphic novelist and has many collections to his name. Of the many stories available, I opted for Son of the Gun, a volume set against the backdrop of a corrupt Mexican political world. The story starts off with a baby abandoned at birth because of his abnormality in the form of tail. As the child grows up, so does the tail but despite that handicap the growing youngster is able to find his way in the world. The boy grows up to be a mercenary working in the mafia before eventually climbing the rungs of power. However, there are some nasty suprizes that lie in store for him especially regarding the identity of people close to him. Overall, this is a fast moving gripping tale which is beautifully illustrated with some eye-catching sketches.

Shades of War

It Was The War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi (France)

Tardi’s incredible graphic novel gives a vivid account of life in the trenches during wartime. The illustrations show the suffering and agony that soldiers faced in adverse conditions while trying to fight off an unseen enemy. This work is a perfect example of how graphic novels are creatively moving in new directions and producing work that leaves a lasting emotional impact on the reader.

A short sample of the work is available online.

Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman and David Polonsky

If Tardi’s graphic novel depicts the horrifying memories that are created due to war, then Waltz with Bashir is about the suppression of such memories of war. Ari Folman’s film contains plenty of memorable images so it was essential to visit the creative source of those images in Folman and Polonsky’s graphic novel. Reading the graphic novel only increases my admiration for the film because the cinematic work is able to transfer the haunting essence of the graphic novel perfectly.

Shooting War by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman

Lappe and Goldman’s work not only has plenty of political bite to it but it also highlights the media circus that can be associated with wars. Also, a few panels in the graphic novel reminded me of Richard Kelly's Southland Tales.

Shooting War exists in a web comic form.

War is Boring by David Axe and Matt Bors

If Shooting War shows adrenalin fueled journalists who rush into war zones and put themselves in the line of war, War is Boring is about the moments of silence that precede such chaotic scenes of war. The book provides snippets from David Axe’s journeys to some of the world’s hotspots and is a short quick read and comes across as an appetizer instead of a full course meal.

Israel -- Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan

A young woman soldier approaches Koby to tell him that his father may have been a victim of a suicide bombing attack. Koby is clearly skeptical but when he cannot get hold of his father, he travels with the woman across the country to find either his missing father or his father’s body. In the course of his journey, he discovers many secrets about his father leading him to question whether he ever knew his father. Exit Wounds is smartly paced and chooses its words perfectly. As a result, the graphic novel is an engrossing read packed with some touches of humor and sharp cultural observances.

Eastern Europe -- Market Day by James Sturm

A wonderful story about how a man cannot adapt to the changing times when he finds that there is no longer a market for his fine hand crafted rugs. To make matters worse, the man is going to be a father soon and needs the income for his future family. Market Day is set in decades long gone but the story can easily apply to modern scenarios where people’s products are priced out of a market or the market’s demand for a product shrinks down.

Sweden -- From the Shadow of the Northern Lights, an anthology of Swedish Alternative Comics, Volume 1

I had never read any comic books from Sweden yet nothing could have prepared me this Galago book. The collection features a range of works from relationship stories, political satire, sexual tales, humorous shorts to dark and bizarre tales. The work also serves as a springboard to further explore individual artists.

Brazil -- De:Tales by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, Stories from Urban Brazil

As per the title, the stories are indeed all urban and if Brazil was not mentioned in the book’s title, one would be hard pressed to ever think the characters lived in Brazil. The stories are mostly about one-night stands, love and relationships, with atleast half the stories taking place in clubs/bars. There are some interesting aspects but most of the stories do not leave a lasting impression. The best story in the collection is the last one which is a beautiful wordless tale.

Noir with a twist -- Tumor by Joshua Fialkov and Noel Tuazon

Frank Armstrong, a washed up aging private investigator, goes out to find the missing daughter of a drug lord but in classic noir fashion he finds himself dragged into a larger mess. Things are complicated by the fact that Frank has a tumor in the back of his head which leads to either temporary memory loss or transplants memories from his past into the present. As a result, Frank is battling constantly with himself even for the simple act of trying to cross the road. So when gangsters, corrupts cops, guns and plenty of blood are added to the mix, it leaves Frank fighting a solitary uphill battle.

The book’s introduction by Duane Swierczynski makes a wonderful point about the origins of Frank’s tumor. Duane mentions one of the common elements found in noir tales is when a detective gets a sharp blow to the head leading to a temporary state of unconsciousness. But what if a lifetime of such blows to the head led to a more serious problem? In a sense, Tumor is a response to such a question.

Note: It was remarkable to find out this incredible beautiful work by Archaia books was first a digital only book. I have not read the digital edition but I doubt that it can match the visual beauty of the sharp black and white pictures bound in a hardcover copy.

Future reading

There are quite a few more graphic novels to be read still, including my first ever Italian graphic novel -- Silent Dance by Matteo Casali, Grazia Lobaccaro and Alessandro DeAngelis.

Silent Dance will most likely be pushed onto the pile of reading for 2012 where I hope to find some more titles from other countries.

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