Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Graphic Lit: Wordless graphic novels

We tend to lump comics in the “literature” category more often than not, though really, it’s a picture-driven medium.

Case in point: These five graphic novels tell their stories without using a single word:

“The Blot” by Tom Neely, I Will Destroy You, 192 pages, $14.95.

A young everyman, drawn in a style reminiscent of animated cartoons from the 1920s, is plagued by and ultimately forced to bond with a sinister ink blot in this surreal, disturbing and quite visionary story.

Neely uses the threat of the blot to good effect. The first third of the book resembles a horror novel, while the latter takes on the tone of a bittersweet romance as the everyman learns to use the blot’s powers for good thanks to the help of a young lady.

It’s the author’s constantly shifting landscape, both literal and metaphorical, that make this work so good.

Neely never comes out and overtly states what the blot, or any of the other antagonists, is supposed to represent (indeed, their symbolism seems to fluctuate as the book progresses). Rather, he leaves it to the reader to draw out what meaning he or she can.

“The Arrival” by Shaun Tan, Scholastic, 128 pages, $19.99.

Tan evokes the plight of Ellis Island immigrants in the fanciful, thoughtful story that follows the adventures of a man who is forced to leave his wife and child behind in an attempt to find employment and success in a bewildering new country.

By eschewing realism in favor of a more fantastic, otherworldly setting (the buildings and creatures seem to be a blend of Asimov and 19th-century Americana), Tan manages to convey the confusion and difficulty that faced those immigrants more dramatically than any documentary could. Highly recommended for both young and old audiences.

“Robot Dreams” by Sara Varon, First Second, 208 pages, $16.95.

A anthropomorphic dog builds and makes a robot friend in this all-ages story from relative newcomer Varon. The dog, however, quickly abandons his new companion after it becomes rusted during a trip to the beach.

The story then splits between the dog as he tries to make a variety of new friends and fails, and the robot, who spends the year daydreaming while stuck on the beach.

Varon deserves kudos for attempting to give her children’s story a bittersweet edge, and her simple, cartoony style is very likable. However, the dog’s initial desertion (despite a half-hearted rescue attempt) makes him a rather unsympathetic character. Do they not have Rust-Oleum in Varon’s universe?

“Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels” by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde, edited by George A. Walker, Firefly Books, 424 pages, $29.95.

There was a time, back in the 1930s and ¤’40s, when “woodcut novels” were all the rage.

Well OK, maybe not “the rage” exactly, but a number of artists, most notably Lynd Ward, were attempting to tell serious, literate stories using the unique method of woodcut engravings.

“Witness” collects four stories by some of the most notable creators in this field. Though these tales sometimes rely heavily on awkward (and very leftist) symbolism, visually they retain their power, especially considering the meticulous and demanding nature of their creation. It’s an intriguing glimpse at an alternate route comics might have taken.

“Southern Cross: A Novel of the South Seas” by Laurence Hyde, Drawn and Quarterly, 256 pages, $24.95.

Hyde’s contribution to “Witness” gets a more loving treatment in this hardcover, squarebound book, virtually identical to its initial 1951 publication save for a paper cover band.

The story evokes the atom bomb testing that went on at Bikini Atoll after World War II, with the kind-hearted island natives being forced from their idyllic home by the heartless American soldiers, who then kill them with the bomb’s radiation (I’m not giving anything away here; you can sense where things are heading from page one).

If Hyde’s plot is insufferably ham-fisted at times however, his art nevertheless is visually striking, and probably the foremost reason for picking this book up.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007



At 12:09 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Another good wordless GN is Fox Bunny Funny, which I just read and reviewed. It's not as new though, having come out earlier this year.


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