THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Not just black and white

From the surreal and fantastic to domestic and romantic, a search for universal truths

An illustration from “Approximate Continuum Comics.” An illustration from “Approximate Continuum Comics.” (Lewis Trondheim)
By Max Winter
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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The graphic novel is much more than a slightly longer comic book, or even the comic’s smarter cousin. It’s a vehicle for artists of different stripes, with or without excessive drafting ability, to reveal something of their imaginations and their visions of the world with untold levels of quirkiness and, at times, poetic immediacy. The doubleness of the best graphic novels, following the profound (though wordless) precedent of artists like Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward while also paying homage, by definition, to the panel-bound virtuosic escapism of traditional comic books, is on triumphant display in five recently published works.

Ben Katchor, in his first book in over a decade, stretches and develops his natural sense of the absurd. The figures drifting through “The Cardboard Valise’’ are drawn with deliberate, weighted lines, and bear names like Emile Delilah, Elijah Salamis, and Boreal Rince. They journey to and from places like Tensint Island, with its public toilet monuments, and Outer Canthus, a two-dimensional country, and yet their movement is more poetic than linear. A love-hate relationship with objects runs throughout; when Emile leaves his cardboard suitcase (filled with his reading matter since 1970) in a Tensint Island hotel, the contents are contemptuously removed, later given away. Ultimately, the book, with its threadbare plot involving the alleged death of Emile, becomes a parable about our obsession with things, the cardboard valise a metaphor for our deceptively sturdy bodies, themselves subject to decay or disappearance.

In a similarly surreal vein, Jim Woodring continues the wordless work he did in “Weathercraft’’ with “Congress of the Animals,’’ the tale of a cat-faced character (whom aficionados will know as Frank) and his adventures in the Unifactor, Woodring’s invented world (a name, again, known to insiders). A portly, well-dressed black duck-like creature flies a balloon over a sparse, otherworldly landscape; a man on the ground with a crescent moon-shaped head downs the balloon with a carefully thrown rock; and off we go.

As one surreal event leads to another, including a battle with men with holes for faces, an arduous journey to a mystical tower, and the blossoming of love, the work continually tries to outdo itself in its pure unpredictability. These misshapen figures recall a combination of Maurice Sendak, Terry Gilliam, and R. Crumb, blending the loopy and the nightmarish in a way that is both unsettling and inspiring.

Also picaresque, but down-to-earth, “Kiss and Tell,’’ MariNaomi’s memoir of her romantic life from childhood to early adulthood, winningly marries its spare, gestural, black-and-white style to its capricious though thoughtful tone. MariNaomi moves through 50-odd partners, male and female, with zippy candidness. Some relationships merit only one page, while she returns to others for “bonus’’ or “extra bonus’’ stories. As she gets older, she becomes more adventurous, having threesomes, going to sex shows, dabbling with drugs — and yet she struggles through these phases maturely. She is not shy about trash-talking boyfriends, leaving nothing forgiven, from one beau’s huge pot habit to another’s poor posterior hygiene, and yet she can also be quite tenderly nostalgic. The bluntness of the narrative, combined with its visuals, at times edges uncomfortably close to Marjane Satrapi’s audacity, but the soulfulness and even loneliness she expresses is all hers.

For another perspective on the dating world, Daniel Clowes offers “Mister Wonderful,’’ a tighter and funnier work than “Wilson,’’ his most recent novel. Originally serialized in The New York Times in sparer form, this story of a lonely, divorced, middle-aged guy’s journey toward “one last stab at romance’’ evolves from a mist of sardonic self-criticism into a genuine struggle for connection. As Marshall waits in a coffee shop for a blind date, he gets drunk and nourishes neurotic day-mares of the date’s collapse and failure, expressed in clouds of text; when she shows up, his attraction throws him into a panic, but harder challenges (physical and emotional) lie ahead. In the awkward conversations they have, in the shyness and discomfort he feels around her friends, and in the tentative ways these two souls express affection, albeit through a smoke screen composed of Marshall’s rabid internal monologues, we see human empathy dramatized in varying shades of white, black, and gray — with plenty of sharp humor included.

The insecurities and complexities of everyday life get semi-surreal trappings in Lewis Trondheim’s “Approximate Continuum Comics.’’ Trondheim has long been revered as an underground comics hero in Europe; this marks the first English publication of this celebrated series of linked autobiographical strips. The events described — Lewis pondering where he and his family should move, Lewis throwing a disastrous party in his drawing studio — are commonplace, but Trondheim portrays himself as a human-sized bird with a large beak; other characters, many of whom are well-known French cartoonists, appear as large badgers, pigs, and other animals. Louis uses visions of himself, sometimes as a bird, sometimes as a snake, to challenge his self-absorption and his endless fretting, in nimbly translated nags and jabs. Trondheim suggests a French Woody Allen, though possibly less interested in joking than in solving personal problems. Because these problems are thorny, the verbiage necessary to work them out occasionally engulfs his story. Nevertheless, Trondheim evokes, with the deft scrappiness of his agitated, angular figures, the universality of so many of our concerns and insecurities, and the completeness with which they surround us.

Max Winter is author of “The Pictures’’ and co-edits the small press Solid Objects. He can be reached at maxw28@yahoo.com.

Lieutenant William Lowell Putnam of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — Willie to his friends, who described him, simply, as “beautiful” — was a bedrock abolitionist. He’d been raised to the cause. His mother, Mary Lowell Putnam, wrote books and plays against slavery. His uncle was James Russell Lowell, the abolitionist, poet, and editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who said of the ardent 20th: “And what they dare to dream of, dare to do.” When Willie signed up at age 21, he wrote: “Human being never drew sword in a better cause than ours.”

Four months later, he took a bullet to the gut at Ball’s Bluff, a disastrous battle for the north, and the first cause for close grief here in Massachusetts. He spurned care, claiming others had a better shot at survival, and died in untold pain on Oct. 22, 1861. Governor John Andrew accompanied the body to the Putnam’s home at 13 Pemberton Square, near the John Adams Courthouse, home of the Supreme Judicial Court. Willie’s sister met them at the door. “Governor Andrew,” she said, “we thanked you when we got Willie’s commission. And we thank you now.” Andrew broke down in the doorway, and wept.

I’m married to a Civil War buff, and I’ve been to (and wept at) Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Spotsylvania. By all means, honor the fallen by heading south to a battlefield this year, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. (Note: one of the biggest reenactment celebrations is at Manassas July 21-24.) But also take a moment when you pass by the courthouse at Pemberton Square, or consider visiting the monument to the 54th Massachusetts on the Common this Memorial Day. Because the war upended Boston, too, and the soldiers who set out from here — as the three following books bear out.

I learned about Putnam in “Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’’ by Richard F. Miller (University Press of New England, 2005). The Harvard in the title is a kind of shorthand. Yes, the 20th boasted lots of alums — like future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Paul Joseph Revere, the midnight rider’s grandson — but also plenty of German and Irish immigrants, whalers from Nantucket, shoemakers from Pittsfield, and “street toughs” from Boston.

Most regimental bios are a forced march of dry writing. Not this one. In fact, James M. McPherson, the renowned author of “Battle Cry of Freedom,’’ calls it “quite simply the most outstanding Civil War regimental history I have read.” Miller gives us the 20th at Antietam, the Wilderness, Gettysburg, and more. He doesn’t stint on regimental class conflict — but he also offers unexpected moments of unifying sympathy. The Brahmin officers helped their less well-off troops pay passage home, for instance, and protected fugitive slaves by hiring them as military valets.

Then there’s Thomas H. O’Connor’s “Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield’’ (Northeastern University, 1997). O’Connor is the Boston College historian who gave us “The Boston Irish’’ and, no surprise, he’s got grand material here on how the group’s status rose because of its wartime service. He also profiles the city’s black community on Beacon Hill and the West End, dropping such gems as the fact that many owned clothing stores where escaped slaves could exchange their incriminating garments for something less conspicuous. And did you know that this war had its own Rosie the Riveters? They worked filling cartridge shells at the Watertown Arsenal.

Which brings us to the subject of women, specifically “Little Women.’’ If you recall the book, the March family must make do while the father is away at war. Thus Geraldine Brooks’s glorious, Pulitzer-prize-winning novel “March’’ (Viking, 2005), which imagines his side of the story. Her March is based on Louisa May Alcott’s father, Concord’s own vegan-utopian-educator-abolitionist-transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott, friend of Thoreau, Emerson, and John Brown — who left 61 journals behind for Brooks’s inspiration.

Brooks has made a specialty of the immersive, prismatic historical novel, and (bonus) she’s married to a Civil War buff too (Tony Horwitz, author of “Confederates in the Attic.’’) “March’’ has a formal but striking voice, and you can feel Brooks’s delight when scattering obscure 19th-century words (knop, rutilant, nimshi). We travel with him through the horrors at Ball’s Bluff to a cotton plantation taken over by a Yankee merchant, to a Washington D.C. hospital, where he is nursed by a former slavewoman and his wife, Marmee — who acts decidedly less saintly than in “Little Women.’’ Brooks’s characters are so deeply alive. And isn’t that the point as we read and remember the Civil War? To give life to those who fought for the “better cause,” and traded their tomorrows for our todays.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.

THE CARDBOARD VALISE
By Ben Katchor
Pantheon, 128 pp., $25.95

CONGRESS OF THE ANIMALS
By Jim Woodring
Fantagraphics, 104 pp., $19.99

KISS AND TELL
By MariNaomi
Harper Perennial, 331 pp., paperback, $15.99

MISTER WONDERFUL
By Daniel Clowes
Pantheon, 80 pp., $19.95

APPROXIMATE CONTINUUM COMICS
By Lewis Trondheim
Fantagraphics, 160 pp., paperback, $18.99