Graphic Lit Galore: Kabuishi, Bechdel, Robinson

Man, I've been hitting the graphic novels hard lately. Here's a rundown on recent reading.

Flight, Volume 1
edited by Kazuo Kibuishi

(Villard, April 2007)

Don't let the publication date fool you -- the Flight project is one that has been building and gathering steam for a long time, and just recently burst unavoidably into the consciousness of folks like me (i.e. "mainstream" readers). The anthology, first published by Image Comics in 2004, gathers short works by dozens of young (sometimes VERY young) independent comic artists and writers. Many relate, more or less, to the "theme" of flight, whether it's a boy and his dog building a dirigible to traverse a fantasy world, a nerd and a popular girl bonding over kite flying, or a penguin who finds a way to transcend the whole flightless bird thing.

As with any collection, it can be a bit uneven -- some of these artists were in their late teens when they did this work, and a few feel a bit teen angsty for my taste, while others are a little too avant garde for me to make sense of. But the overall high quality of the collection is astounding. The colors are gorgeous, the art is diverse and brilliant, the stories are quirky and clever and poignant. One of the best things about it: the collection could be read by nearly any age, so it's a great one to hand to teenage readers, and literary enough that you can feel proud to do so.

One of the best additions in this edition is the afterword by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame), written as if it's a retrospective on Flight in the year 2050. He reminisces on the moment that comics changed, and how Flight was the thing that made it happen: more women in comics, high production values from mainstream houses, the integration of (or erasure of the line between) online and print comics. The following three volumes of Flight, along with the gorgeous blog/website, seem to bear out his half-humorous future predictions. The editor, Kazuo Kabuishi, is a rising comics superstar in his own right (I reviewed his Daisy Kutter here). I can't wait to get to the next three volumes in this anthology series, or to see what Kabuishi and all these young stars do next.

Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel

(Mariner, June 2007)

I know, I know, it's ridiculous that I'm just now reading Fun Home -- the hardcover came out over a year ago, and it's probably the most successful literary comic book since Persepolis. I've been working my way through the Graphic Lit section at the bookstore and boning up on the classics -- I meant to borrow this one and return it in pristine condition, but it turns out I'll have to pay for it, because there's no way I'm giving it back. This is probably the best memoir I've ever read, graphic or no, doing all the things that this genre excels at: putting experience into context, creating a story out of the chaos of real life, working out emotions and connections in art, admitting subjectivity while striving for fairness and a bigger truth.

Bechdel's literary allusions, ranging from Proust to The Wind in the Willows to The Great Gatsby, aren't just smart girl show-offishness: they become integral to the story, tools for understanding her father and her family through narrative, through parallels with the stories she knows, and through connections to the stories that were important to them. Her family's life was literally shaped by the books they read, so it's inevitable and powerful to retell their story through these lenses. And she adds to this literary structure by doing what comics do best: using the power of images and words together and separately. Bechdel's stone-faced renditions of her mother and father are more telling than any attempt to describe their emotional distance: I've never seen comics characters more expressively expressionless. I won't bother to even mention the "plot", a description of which you can find anywhere. Its specificity, and its resonant universality -- what's more familiar than hometown, family, selfhood, education, mortality, love? -- make it a nearly perfect memoir, and a huge leap forward in the literary possibilities of comics.

As a matter of fact, I'm glad I read this comic so late. I somehow found myself on a panel with Alison Bechdel at Book Expo, and if I had read her book beforehand I would have been completely paralyzed with admiration. As it is, I'm going to have to start reading "Dykes to Watch Out For," reading Alison's blog, and becoming a literary stalker after the fact. You've been warned: read Fun Home at the risk of total, blissful obsession.

Box Office Poison
by Alex Robinson

(Top Shelf, May 2001)
And then it happened again. I'm way behind (this time six YEARS behind) on reading this book that everyone (okay, Gavin Grant at Small Beer and some best-of lists) recommended to me. I read it. I'm obsessed. And then I find out I've been in the same room with the author and totally failed to recognize the genius -- perhaps luckily for us both. Turns out Alex Robinson appeared at McNally Robinson for the Best American Comics reading with Harvey Pekar last October, and since I hadn't read Box Office Poison yet his name meant nothing to me, and I treated him like all the other up-and-comers playing second fiddle to the adorably near-comatose Harv. In fact, I didn't realize this until I found Alex's website and shamelessly emailed him to ask for permission to reproduce a page of his book (you'll see why below). Turns out he's a super nice guy, still lives in New York (where the book takes place) and is perfectly willing to have his art grace the blog.

Oh yeah, let me not forget to tell you about the book. Sherman (would-be writer), Jane (would-be cartoonist), Ed (would-be cartoonist), Stephen (would-be historian), Dorothy (journalist), and Irving (cranky has-been cartoonist) play out their lives in Brooklyn and Manhattan, falling in and out of love, jobs, projects and passions. Does it sound like a Friends-y sitcom? Actually, I think a more appropriate comparision is George Eliot's Middlemarch: a complex ensemble story, where characters develop in ways you don't expect, and the neat conflicts and fixes of Jane Austen (or comic strips or sitcoms) are deepened and enriched into a smart, funny, honest, unpretentious whole picture of a time of life and a time in history.

Robinson is good at stuff that I've never seen before. He gets at the exact feeling of a noisy party or a night of bar conversation with overlapping speech balloons that leave some words unreadable but get at the hubbub of voices or the buildup of friendships through conversations. He writes long-term relationships as well as the agonies of first kisses. (There's an extended scene where Jane and Stephen, a long-time couple, have sex while continuing to talk about their day -- the speech balloons are totally disconnected to what they're doing, and you get a sense of the deep comfort, and the habits, of their relationship. There's also a scene on a fire escape where Sherman contemplates kissing a girl who's not his girlfriend, and his thoughts take up way more space than the actual action, just like they do when you're thinking about making such a move.)

I love where Jane and Stephen visit Jane's family for Christmas -- the family resemblances, the love and exasperation, Stephen's bemused and longing outsider-ness. I love especially the epilogue from Ed, who turns out to be something of a hero, chronicling where his friends' lives have gone, with love and bewilderment. There's actually a lot of love in here (including Ed's compassion for the unloveable Irving, and the love of geeks for comics, among others) -- surprising for a bunch of kinda Gen-X 1990s sarcasm majors. Robinson has what I admire in my favorite writers: wit, humanism, playful seriousness, and a rich understanding of day-to-day joys. I've been going back and re-reading bits of this, and suspect I will continue to do so, at least until I lay my hands on some of his other work.

Anyway: the pages below. Sherman, one of the main characters in Box Office Poison, works as a bookseller -- in a huge Manhattan chain store, a job he hates more than anything on earth. (Since Robinson worked in a bookstore for 7 years, my guess is that this is the 18th Street or Union Square Barnes & Noble.) His experience is totally different from mine, or that of most of the booksellers I know, but some aspects are the same anywhere. I sat on the subway the other night with another bookseller from my store, cracking up in rueful familiarity with this spread of Dumb Customer Questions. Read 'em for a peek into a bookseller's (worst) day -- if you've ever worked in retail, you'll sympathize. As added proof that Robinson is a decent human being, he's even included himself in a cameo as a disgruntled author. Click to enlarge, and enjoy -- then go out and buy some comics to read this weekend.


lady t said…
This is the second time this week that I've seen someone give props to Box Office Poison(UnShelved,the online comic strip about libraries,had it as part of their Sunday Book Club). It's such a great book,that Christmas scene is touching.

I have to say one of my favorite bits(besides most of the interaction between Ed and Irving)is when Sherman gets to confront his insanely selfish father about all of his justifications for abandoning people(and cheating on his new life)when it suits him. Thanks for the link to Robinson's site-glad to be able to catch up with his work and how cool are those bookshelves of his?

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