For years now I have been drifting back towards the comic book/graphic novel mode. I say ‘back’, because it does feel like I’m coming home. As a teenager I always drew strip cartoons and comics, and it seemed like that was what I would always do. Until all of a sudden it wasn’t. The fact that this happened while I was at art school is no coincidence, but I can’t really blame anyone else (not even Batman) -- the fact is, it just didn’t seem to be something I could build a career on. I talked myself out of it.
I won’t bore you with the epic journey round my navel that has brought me to regret that decision. But I would like to share some of the landmark graphic books I came across on the way. And just in time for Christmas too.
La Théorie des Gens Seuls (or any of the Monsieur Jean books) by Dupuy & Berberian
When I moved to France I was pretty down on comic books. But Bandes Dessinées are a big deal over there, often the most popular section in bookshops, and it didn’t take me long to latch on to Monsieur Jean as something a bit special. These are the stories of a frustrated twenty-something (then thirty-something) Parisian writer as he tries to steer a course through modern life. They should strike a chord with anyone who has struggled to understand the opposite sex, been perplexed by their friends or wondered how to be a good parent. Do you know anyone like that?
Plenty of humour, moments of pathos, and lots of sitting in cafés with self-doubt and small cups of coffee. France in a book! But available in English too.
Rébétiko (La Mauvaise Herbe) by David Prudhomme
When I first read Rébétiko, I thought it was nothing less than the best graphic novel I’d ever seen. Even now, having discovered some real treasures, I still think this is the case. The book feels drawn in a way few graphic novels do, as if it was taped together from fragments torn from someone’s sketchbook, and the story (set in hard-line Greece during the 30s) reads like true experience. But the greatest thing in this book is the music. I don’t mean that to sound gimmicky, simply that this tale of musicians, whose music has been proscribed by the state, is shot through with sound, energy and dance. It’s a masterpiece.
I don’t think Rébétiko has been translated into English, but really, you don’t need to read it all. The book would be worth owning just for the art on pages 57 to 66 alone. Get a taste of it here.
Rupestres! by various (see link)
Okay, another French one, but I’m trying to keep this chronological. Rupestres! is the work of six comic book artists as they make a tour of the prehistoric painted caves of Southern France, paying homage to, and trying to connect with, the earliest ‘cartoonists’. The six styles vary wildly, but are tied together by shared experience. The book is based on a real trip (there are some photographs too) and will take you deeper into the mysteries of the prehistoric mind and the origins of art than any textbook on the subject.
Rupestres! isn’t available in English, but again, it’s the graphic statement that really matters. And that’s triumphant. For anyone who cares about drawing.
Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks
Prompted by my good blogging friend Rachel Fenton, I finally got round to reading Hicksville only recently. With a narrative that runs on several levels, through different comic book genres and stories, Hicksville might have been too tricksy for its own good, if it weren’t so full of good humour and humanity. And this tale of artists, searchers and tea-lovers is like an introduction to the world of comics itself, and the lovely people it seems to attract.
The perfect cure for anyone who thinks comic books are just about superheroes and big-eyed manga girls (*shudder*). And hey, it’s in English:)
Nelson by various (see link)
Newly published, Nelson acts as an anthology of contemporary British comic art, and that’s why I bought it. But in just a few pages I found myself drawn into the story of Nel, as she grows up without her twin, Sonny. The constantly changing styles didn’t upset the story as much as I thought, and the journey through Nel’s life is packed with period details and ‘how we used to live’ charm (the music! The hair!). I wish this book had been available while I was still at art school. Grown-up content, but the perfect surprise Christmas gift for anyone who likes telling stories in pictures.
All proceeds go to Shelter.
I’m always on the lookout for new books to read. If you’ve read a comic/graphic book recently and want to share it, please leave a note in the comments.