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Drawing attention

A grab bag of graphic novels embraces the sensual, political, personal, and fantastical

By Carlo Wolff
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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From the intimately personal to the overtly political, this batch of graphic novels from the past six months embraces memoir and manifesto, flag-waving salute and fantasy fable. A grab bag of good reads.

My favorite is Brecht Evens’s “The Wrong Place,” an exhilaratingly sensual book about jealousy and desire among a group of hip, young urban adults and the leader of the pack, Robbie, a very elusive life of the party. Evens is a Flemish watercolorist who populates his pages with distinctive characters such as the mercurial, magnetic Robbie; his stand-in host, Gary, a Hendrix fan; and Waldo, a schlub whose sad story becomes part of the Robbie myth. The look of Evens’s illustrations is reminiscent of watercolor wash; figures seem to melt into one another. This fizzy little novel is all about buzz, gossip, sex, and having fun. It’s so busy and exuberant you wish you could join the party.

More cultural but no less bubbly is Maira Kalman’s “And the Pursuit of Happiness,” clearly written in the initial bloom of the Obama presidency. A childlike, guileless celebration of the United States, it shouts Kalman’s belief in this country’s ability to reinvent itself. Kalman tours landmarks like Gettysburg, Monticello, and Mount Vernon, explaining and exploring how democracy works and evolved here. Kalman’s tour seamlessly goes from macro — the government in Washington — to micro — a town hall meeting in Newfane, Vt. To illustrate her lesson in civics, she alternates painting, with pen and ink, and photographs (my favorite: the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn). A delightful book that reminds us what there is about America that is indeed beautiful.

By contrast, Seth Tobocman’s “Understanding the Crash,” produced with Eric Laursen, a contributor to The Nation, and Jessica Wehrle, homes in on the late-2008 recession that still defines this country’s economy. Anything but optimistic, it’s appropriately rendered in black and white and, like Kalman’s book, represents a sharp history lesson. Tobocman’s illustrations are pointed, large, and stark, evocative of propaganda posters of the ’50s. He focuses on the collapse of neighborhoods in his native Cleveland and in Miami; he blames the former on subprime mortgages, the latter on the speculative stock market and the deregulation craze Ronald Reagan launched. This sobering, dramatic book effectively swirls lefty economics, history, and politics to attack the lack of scaffolding in George W. Bush’s vaunted and failed “ownership society.”

Also anti-establishment, but more personal: “Special Exits,” Joyce Farmer’s adieu to her parents. Realistic, like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” and mordant, like much of the late Harvey Pekar’s work in “American Splendor,” its underlying concern is the aging of American society. In pages of eight tight panels, Farmer’s memoir deals with the passing of her father, Lars, and her mother, Rachel, in the Los Angeles of the early 1990s. The officials who make health care so challenging for Farmer’s deteriorating parents are ogres; Farmer and her father take on a nursing home that allowed her ailing mother to fall and break her hip — and they win. Despite such victories, Farmer avoids the trap of seeming self-satisfaction, treating her parents with understanding and love but showing an awareness of her own impatience and frustration with them. In lines strong and warm and text fittingly lean, Farmer’s book captures the granularity of grief.

A more sociable memoir is “Two Cents Plain,” Martin Lemelman’s exploration of his childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in the ’50s and ’60s. Each chapter is introduced with a Yiddish saying. Each deals with an aspect of a neighborhood where Lemelman’s father’s candy store was a social matrix. Lemelman’s viewpoint is affectionate but not gauzy; same goes for his black-and-white pages spanning variously numbered panels. The book tracks the transformation of the neighborhood from a kind of shtetl to one of uneasy racial mix. This is literary territory familiar to fans of Mordecai Richler and Saul Bellow; what Lemelman brings to it is artistry featuring a fine eye for detail, penmanship nuanced but never watery, and a stylistic fearlessness that can stuff pop art tropes, photography, and naturalism onto the same page.

Two graphic novels dwell in fantasy: Pablo Holmberg’s delightful, minimalist “Eden” and Charles Burns’s queasy, creepy “X’ed Out.” Holmberg’s little book is decidedly nonlinear: This whimsical medieval folktale consists of a series of four-panel comic strips, each of which depicts a comic king and his queen and other characters in specific situations. The logic of “Eden” is not continuous but rather dreamlike. It is a charming book that leaves a sweet, surreal aftertaste. Burns’s first book since the epic, disquieting “Black Hole” is a kind of horror-show homage to the French comic “Tin Tin.” In it, teenager Doug, suffering from a head injury, follows his cat, Inky, through a hole in the wall, entering a universe populated by noseless thugs and monocular reptiles. Flashbacks and dreams alternate as Doug tries to remember what happened to him. This is the first installment of what Burns intends to be a three-part work. It’s scary and tantalizing and whets the appetite for the next unsettling piece.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer in Cleveland, can be reached at carlo.wolff@gmail.com.

THE WRONG PLACE
By Brecht Evens
Drawn & Quarterly, 184 pp., paperback, $24.95

AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
By Maira Kalman
Penguin, 471 pp., $29.95

UNDERSTANDING THE CRASH
By Seth Tobocman, Eric Laursen and Jessica Wehrle
Soft Skull, 116 pp., paperback, $15.95

SPECIAL EXITS: A Graphic Memoir
By Joyce Farmer
Fantagraphics, 200 pp., $26.99

TWO CENTS PLAIN: My Brooklyn Boyhood
By Martin Lemelman
Bloomsbury, 314 pp., $26

EDEN
By Pablo Holmberg
Drawn & Quarterly, 118 pp., paperback, $16.95

X’ED OUT
By Charles Burns
Pantheon, 56 pp., $19.95