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Hardly black and white

Embracing complexity, new graphic novels offer fresh takes on history, fantasy, and fiction

'Cla$$war' (left) spotlights an offbeat group of superheroes, from a skeptical, British point of view. "Cla$$war" (left) spotlights an offbeat group of superheroes, from a skeptical, British point of view.
By Carlo Wolff
July 26, 2009

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David Mazzucchelli’s stunning opus is of the magnum, embracing kind, and in that sense serves as an appropriate lead-in to a sweeping roundup of Grafix Americana, including the diverse anthology “Syncopated,’’ the despairing, nurturing “A.D.,’’ and “Cla$$war,’’ a striking variation on the superhero genre.

Mazzucchelli’s wildly imaginative work spotlights Asterios Polyp, a “paper architect’’ who teaches in upstate New York but keeps an apartment in Manhattan. When that burns down, he’s adrift, winding up in a small Midwestern town to put his life back together. There are pages of standalone art, ones of art with text, and ones replete with characters such as the narcissistic Asterios, his retiring, talented wife Hana, and the “goddess’’ Ursula Major. Heady with philosophical and mythological references, “Asterios Polyp’’ vaults Mazzucchelli into the top rank of graphic artists. It’s a sweeping, provocative book that blends the richness of the traditional novel with the best modern art. Mazzucchelli’s style - effortless and so versatile that you can’t imagine “Asterios’’ in any other medium - is sweeping in every sense.

Like “The Beats,’’ a graphic history by Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle, and others, “Syncopated’’ features numerous artists, on topics including the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 (Nate Powell’s somber “Like Hell I Will’’), the development of a landmark psychological work (Paul Karasik’s kindly but cutting “Erik Erikson’’), the displacement of Native Americans (Dave Kiersh’s guileless, guilt-inducing “Welcome Home, Brave’’), and a history of the Dvorak keyboard (Alec Longstreth’s “Dvorak,’’ told in friendly pictures and stern text). The hammer is Greg Cook’s “What We So Quietly Saw,’’ a stark account of torture at Guantanamo in which the word “redacted’’ has the power of a scream.

“Cla$$war’’ collects and amplifies six issues of a comic-book series fitfully published between 2002 and 2004. It’s a kinetic, satirical twist on the notion of the superhero team, told from a skeptical, British point of view. The “hero’’ of team Enola Gay is American, a truth tribune who burns the word “liar’’ into the forehead of the mealy-mouthed president whom he reports to but ultimately refuses to serve. It’s trenchant commentary on American foreign policy in the Age of W., told dynamically and in hot color.

Josh Neufeld’s “A.D.’’ intertwines the stories of seven Hurricane Katrina survivors redefining their relationship to their deeply wounded home, New Orleans. Shortly after Katrina struck, Neufeld spent three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi, a Mississippi city also devastated by the storm. “A.D.’’ is the outgrowth of blog entries stemming from his experience. The dialogue is convincingly vernacular; the characterizations ring true; the revisionist history is credible; and the double-page spreads will make you want to take shelter from the storm. It’s due out in mid-August, in time for Katrina’s fourth anniversary.

Gabrielle Bell’s charming “Cecil and Jordan in New York’’ bespeaks a continental approach to feminism and art. Like Mazzucchelli’s narrative, her stories frequently focus on the friction between a dominant man and a less assertive woman; in “Felix,’’ a teacher demeans Anna, an art student, who nevertheless finds equilibrium as a teacher herself. Many stories are about the value of different kinds of art, from fine to comics. Bell’s eye for the small exchanges that blossom into deep communication makes her precisely crafted, texturally variable stories memorable.

Feminism - and sexuality -also figure in Kim Dong Hwa’s “The Color of Earth’’ and Victoria Francés’ “Arlene’s Heart.’’ The first in a trilogy of manhwa, (Korean for “graphic novel’’), Hwa’s book is a perfumed, kindly work that explores the relationship between Ehwa and her recently widowed mother; Ehwa turns into an adolescent, and then a woman, before our eyes even as her mother falls in love with, yes, a traveling salesman. Hwa’s texture and use of shadowing, in this triumphantly black-and-white work, is impeccable.

Francés, meanwhile, is darker, her four-color art more voluptuous and disturbing. “Arlene’s Heart’’ speaks of a woman who loses a breast to cancer and finds herself marginalized. In a dreamlike tour, she discovers her empathy with junkies and her identification with dolls. A weird book, it’s certainly artful. But no matter how damaged her figures, they’re also always stylish, rendering their pain inauthentic and confusing our feelings for them.

The Adrian Tomine and Seth books are repackages notable for their sophistication. Tomine’s “Shortcomings’’ was a hit in 2007, when it was originally published; it’s a sharp, canny and timeless look at long-distance relationships. What’s more interesting is the “32 Stories’’ box, a replica of the original “Optic Nerve’’ comics that in the early ’90s catapulted Tomine into the front rank of graphic memoirists. They show astonishing artistic growth and evoke the “alternative rock’’ atmosphere of the times.

The oversized Seth book George Sprott, 1894-1975 collects and amplifies strips about a fictitious Canadian TV talk show host who appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2006 and 2007. Like Seth’s earlier “Wimbledon Green,’’ this picture novella is a beautiful work. Seth confronts ambiguity, aging, and the evolution of the media in this graphically enthralling book. His sense of community is palpable and more convincing than his take on his “hero’’ George Sprott, a fat old man we first see hours before his fatal heart attack. Seth doesn’t seem to like Sprott. That disdain subverts an otherwise affectionate take on nostalgia for a simpler, smaller time.

Cleveland freelance writer Carlo Wolff is the author of “Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories.’’

ASTERIOS POLYP
By David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon, 344 pp., $29.95

SYNCOPATED: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays
Edited by Brendan Burford
Villard, 153 pp., $16.95

CLA$$WAR
By Rob Williams, Trevor Hairsine, Travel Foreman, and Len O’Grady
Com.x, 208 pp., $24.99

A.D. : New Orleans After the Deluge By Josh Neufeld
Pantheon, 193 pp., $24.95

CECIL AND JORDAN IN NEW YORK
By Gabrielle Bell
Drawn & Quarterly, 148 pp., $19.95

THE COLOR OF EARTH
By Kim Dong Hwa
First/Second, 319 pp., $16.95

ARLENE’S HEART
By Victoria Francés
NBM, 78 pp., $24.95

SHORTCOMINGS/32 STORIES
By Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly, 108 pp., $14.95 / $19.95

GEORGE SPROTT, 1894-1975 By Seth
Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pp., $24,95

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