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GRAPHIC NOVELS

Margins to mainstream

Recent novels bring the outsider experience in

Nearly five years after the fact, 9/11 continues to resonate and inspire, only now it's the stuff of a more complex anxiety. The phantasmagorical nature of the contemporary is the subject of Rick Veitch's graphic novel ``Can't Get No" (Vertigo, unpaginated, $19.99). One of a gang of recent entries in this rapidly expanding medium, it conflates 9/11, Enron, the lunatic right, and Katrina in a quasi-allegory that thankfully bites off more than it can chew.

That run-on, multifaceted thought applies to a work in which the art is expansive but the text is dense with ideas; looking at ``Can't Get No" (nice Stones sample there) is easy, but absorbing it as a whole is more difficult. Veitch's ambitious book is full of stimuli and is one of the more provocative attempts to make sense of events that continue to throw the world for a loop. It stars Chad Roe , head of Eter-No-Mark. When his permanent marker company goes belly up, Roe finds himself adrift in an unmoored society. A pair of grotesque but sexy women mark him permanently and set him loose to wander, drugged and aimless, through 9/11, a bizarre funhouse based on Revolutionary themes and an aquatic disaster of Katrina depth. Roe ends up largely where he started; Veitch doesn't draw conclusions or tie things up neatly, so the finale is as disquieting as the beginning.

The language is portentous and freighted, the allusions rich (how many people do you know who quote Albrecht Durer?), the black-and-white art vivid. Veitch varies his pages, splitting a single image into pieces or filling his laterally designed graphics with numerous ``windows." Read ``Can't Get No" wide and long, rather than up and down; it's designed like those little flip-through comic books of the 1950s, forcing the reader to slip into its rhythm.

Graphic literature often draws on society's margins; outsider art celebrating those challenged to join the mainstream, it is among the most democratizing literary forms. Some recent examples: Renee French's ``The Ticking" (Top Shelf, unpaginated, $19.95), Brian Fies's ``Mom's Cancer" (Abrams Image, 115 pp., $12.95), and Jessica Abel's ``La Perdida" (Pantheon, 275 pp., $19.95).

Other works you'll want to absorb are Miriam Katin's ``We Are on Our Own" (Drawn & Quarterly, 122 pp., $19.95), the Rob Vollmar and Pablo G. Callejo ``Bluesman" Books 1 and 2 (NBM, both 80 pp., $6.95 and $8.95,) and Milt Gross's ``He Done Her Wrong" (Fantagraphics, unpaginated, $16.95).

French's ``The Ticking" tracks Edison Steelhead 's effort to make his own society. His birth takes his mother's life, and he inherits his father's deformed face. As he grows up, this boy with slits for ears, and eyes on the side of his head, deals with a twisted father, a woefully inadequate monkey companion, and his own loneliness. His way out is art. With no more than two graphics to a page, ``The Ticking" is a surreal, cute nightmare of fuzzy imagery and prickly poignancy.

``Mom's Cancer," the account of Fies's struggle with his mother's illness, is more prosaic and no less moving. The art evokes a '50s comic book (I keep thinking of Archie and Veronica), but the topic -- smoking -- is naggingly contemporary. Its strength is its anger: against the illness, against a medical profession that's often tone deaf, against a culture that glamorizes cigarettes to teenagers. Fies uses color for emphasis and words for narrative, making commanding what might have been corny.

``La Perdida" is a bilingual celebration of Mexico City, to which Carla, a Mexican-American estranged from her family, repairs to find herself. She discovers that feeling at home in a strange society, populated by slackers, domineering leftist intellectuals, macho militants, flashy coke dealers, and the occasional good guy and gal, is exhausting. Abel's kinetic black-and-white pages, mostly six-panel, are vibrant; like the sweeter Seth and her comrade in attitude Jaime Hernandez, Abel communicates the feel of a city with authority and affection.

Katin's ``We Are on Our Own" is a skillfully rendered memoir about Katin and her mother's harrowing escape from Budapest in 1944. Its world is gray, its characters complex; even the Nazi commandant who inveigles Katin's mother into an unwilling relationship has a human side. The narrative moves quickly; the lie her mother's friend spreads to throw the Nazis off track is telescoped in a page that is the last graphic word on gossip. I couldn't figure out what kind of soldier Katin's father was or which front he was fighting on. Otherwise, this narrative, rendered in soft, nuanced pencil, rings modest and true.

The haunting ``Bluesman" books track guitarist Lem Taylor and pianist Ironwood Malcott as they play juke joints in the Deep South and stay ahead of the law. Black lawmen fight white lawmen eager to pin murders on the musicians or the small businessmen who hire them. The gravity and depth of the graphics conjure that blend of naturalism and surrealism that distinguishes the art of Thomas Hart Benton. Taking cues from American masters like him and Rockwell Kent, Vollmar and Callejo turn mayhem into melody here.

Milt Gross's wordless ``He Done Her Wrong" -- a facsimile reproduction of the 1930 original -- is a delight, like the jumpy, funny movies of Chaplin. It's a Depression classic in which a strong, true bumpkin and a curly-haired damsel click, separate, and reconnect. It's about the contrast between city and country, the class divide, the power of money, and the greater power of love. There are pages with but one image, pages bursting with innumerable ones, horizontal pages, dizzying verticals. This is a blast, despite its dated racial stereotypes.

Carlo Wolff regularly reviews graphic novels for the Globe.

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