Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Graphic Lit: Three from D&Q

One of the things that comics do remarkably well is provide the reader with a tangible sense of place.

Unlike prose, which must rely on verbal descriptions, or photography, which can only show you a small section of a scene, comics can immerse you in a landscape, be it town or country, giving you a concrete feel for a particular area, real or imaginary.

Three new graphic novels from the small press publisher Drawn and Quarterly underscore that idea by focusing on cultures and countries far outside of the U.S.’s boundaries.

“Jamiliti and Other Stories” by Rutu Modan.

Though not an official follow-up to her acclaimed 2007 book “Exit Wounds,” this collection of short stories by Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan nevertheless proves that she’s much more than a one-trick pony.

Modan’s tales deal with longing and isolation, though a sly bit of satire frequently shines through, as in “The Panty Killer,” an unusual murder mystery, or “Homecoming,” about a family that is forever waiting for the return of the prodigal soldier son.

The early stories here tend to take on a fairy tale tone, while more recent work, such as the title story, focus on the characters and the way they brush against one another.

No doubt some of Modan’s themes are lost to American audiences. You get the sense that there are issues specific to Israeli concerns. That doesn’t change the fact that these are wonderful, haunting tales though, that should only further cement Modan’s reputation as a first-class storyteller.
“Aya of Yop City” by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie.

This is a sequel to last year’s “Aya,” a charming look at life in the Ivory Coast during the late 1970s, when the country was prosperous and on the verge of modernity.

Thankfully, everything that made the first book so delightful is evident here as well. More soap opera than social drama, “Yop City” finds its characters continuing to make fools of themselves in the pursuit of love and/or success, with issues of gender, class and colonialism well hidden in the background. Only headstrong Aya, the Greek chorus of the book, has any sense.

The book risks turning its large cast into cartoonish types at times, but they remain winning and likable even when some of them are exhibiting inane or frustrating behavior.

This is a sumptuously illustrated book; Oubrerie’s art gives you a real sense of the particular place and time. Ultimately though, it’s the characters you remember best. Even if you don’t know the country, you know these people.

“Burma Chronicles” by Guy Delisle.

Having already chronicled his travels to China and North Korea (in “Shenzhen” and “Pyongyang,” respectively), Delisle ventures into Myanmar with his young son and wife, (her job for Doctors Without Borders providing the reason for the trip).

This is Delisle’s best book, a subtle yet pointed look at life in a totalitarian state. Delisle focuses on the everyday minutiae of expatriate life with humor and insight.

At times it seems as if Myanmar could be anyplace, until he abruptly runs into the poverty and cruelty pushed down upon the country. A visit with a bed-ridden elderly woman, for example, strikes home hard, and not for the reasons you might suspect.

Delisle exhibits a basic, blocky style here but is able to convey a wide range of emotions and issues. It’s an indelible portrait of a people forced to live in ugly circumstances that stays with you long after you’ve put the book down.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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