Regular readers of this blog will know that I have, at best, an ambivalent relationship with comics and graphic novels. I can see the potential in the medium, and I've read works within it that I've admired or even liked a lot, but only very rarely do I truly love a graphic work (really, I think it's just the later volumes of Sandman). So that when a graphic novel gains praise and acclaim, I tend to file its name away for future reference. Then once or twice a year I go on a comics-buying binge, which is how I ended up, over the last week, reading three of the best-received graphic works of the last couple of years. Here are my thoughts.
The earliest of the three is Charles Burns's Black Hole. The compilation was published in 2005, but individual issues were published over a period of a decade. Burns's slow and meticulous work tells in the finished result, which is illustrated in stark, black and white drawings that flit effortlessly between realism and surrealism. A wound in a character's foot becomes a portal into another world, a deserted beach becomes a nightmare realm peopled by worms with human faces. The style is reminiscent of that used by French artist David B. in his magnum opus, Epileptic, but to my mind Burns is the better illustrator. His people are, if not quite photorealistic, then at least real-looking, as opposed to the slightly cartoonish look that the characters in Epileptic (and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, also illustrated in a similar style) come to assume, as are the inanimate details of his world--buildings, lanscape, greenery, and interiors. He also has a knack of conveying a lot of information with what has to be a very limiting palette. Several of his characters undergo profound emotional upheavals, going from healthy and happy to heartbroken, or vice versa, and despite working exclusively with pools of black and white space (and very little in the way of pen-strokes to convey grey), Burns is able to effortlessly convey the change in their circumstances, so that only a single panel is necessary for us to know that this character is in trouble, and that one has found some happiness.
Unfortunately, though it's plain to see how the artwork in Black Hole could have justified a decade of Burns's life, the story is slight and all too familiar. The book takes place in a 1970s American suburb in a world in which a sexually transmitted disease causes bizarre deformities in the people--mostly teenagers--who contract it. Some grow a tail, skin flaps, or an extra mouth. One girl sheds her skin. Others are completely transformed into monsters or half-beasts. The infected teens are treated with suspicion and disdain by healthy society, and most of them retreat into the woods. The main characters are Chris, a former A-student and class queen who falls in love with the boy who gives her the disease, and Keith, a borderline nerd who is in love with her and tries to help her before becoming infected himself. Both become involved with the society of misfits and freaks that grows in the wooks, simultaneously rejecting and reenacting the high school cliques they've been ejected from.
So, basically, Black Hole is a cross between an AIDS metaphor and a high school story, and though Burns's visual inventiveness is enough to carry the story along, when I turned the last page I couldn't think of a single thing Burns had said with Black Hole that hadn't been said before. It doesn't help that the narrative appears to be missing its third act--Chris and Keith start out as innocents being drawn into the underworld of those already infected, get sucked into it through, respectively, tragedy and salvation, and then the book ends without, to my mind, telling us the most interesting part of the story--how these two kids will manage in the great wide world to which they've escaped. A week after finishing Black Hole, its imagery is still vivid in my mind, but the story has left no impression beyond this troubling conviction that, for all of Burns's work and attention, it is unfinished.
If Black Hole prioritizes art over story, then Shaun Tan's The Arrival, which has no text at all except for an invented alphabet, would seem to take that approach to an even further extreme. And yet Tan's short and devastating book is more strongly and effectively plotted than many prose works. It tells the story of a man who leaves his home and family to work in a distant land, send money back to his wife and daughter, and hopefully make enough to bring them to him. It's a familiar story, if only because so many of us can look back a few generations and find someone in our family who did just this (for me, it was my great-grandfather, who left Belarussia and worked as a builder at the St. Louis World's Fair for several years to pay for passage for his wife and five children; my grandmother was the product of their reunion), but like M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, The Arrival takes dry history and transforms it into something heartbreaking and immediate. I've been hearing effusive praise for this book for several months, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming experience of reading it.
Tan's central conceit is that the country his protagonist emigrates to is as foreign to us as it is to him. I've already mentioned the invented alphabet in which every document, poster, and newspaper in the book is written, but there are many other details that reinforce this foreignness while recalling elements from the real world. Arriving at their destination by boat, the immigrants are greeted by a gigantic harbor statue, but one entirely unlike the Statue of Liberty (see above). They are subjected to the standard Ellis Island barrage of health tests and questionnaires, and then transported to the city via hot air balloons. Tan's inventiveness, however, amounts to more than a facilitator for his story. He clearly had a lot of fun inventing this magical, alternate New York, as well as his protagonist's place of origin (a city overgrown with huge, dangerous looking vines) and the places where the other immigrants he meets come from. All of these imaginary nations have obvious paraellels in the real world--the couple who barely escaped the conquest of their city by giants who sucked its inhabitants into tubes are probably a reference to the Holocaust, or perhaps any other instance of ethnic cleansing--but all of them are convincing, and stunning, in their own right.
My only complaint about The Arrival is that it is too hopeful and too kind-hearted. Tan's drawings tug at our heartstrings so effectively that we desperately want his protagonist to have a happy ending--as so many of our ancestors did after undergoing the same process--and are deeply gratified when he gets it, mostly because of the benign attitude of the city he arrives in and its inhabitants. But the story The Arrival tells is out of date. Nowadays, economic immigrants often have little reason to believe that they'll be able to make a new home and a better life for their families, and refugees from persecution and horror are no less likely to be sent back to it than they were at the height of the second World War. And this is not even to mention the scores of people who perish every day attempting to cross borders and make a better life for themselves. Lovely as it is, The Arrival presents a conciliatory fantasy about a subject whose reality is grim and terrible.
One of my greatest complaints about graphic novels is that very few of them are novels at all, by which I don't mean that it is ridiculous to call a memoir like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home a novel, though clearly it is, but that the amount of narrative material in most graphic works barely amounts to a novella. Black Hole may have taken Charles Burns ten years to put together, but I read it in a little more than an hour. It's hard for a work that demands so little of a reader's time to develop the breadth and heft that I associate with novels (or novel-like works of non-fiction). Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland is the exception. Not only is it long, but it is so exhaustively--and exhaustingly--detailed that, in an event unprecedented in my history as a comics reader, I found myself taking several sittings to get through it. There's so much information here, both written and graphic, that it is simply too overwhelming to take in at a single stretch.
Like Fun Home, Alice in Sunderland is not a novel. It is Talbot's love song to his home town, the titular Sunderland, a former shipbuilding center in England's north-east, and its history stretching back thousands of years. It is his love song to Alice in Wonderland, its author Lewis Carrol, its inspiration Alice Liddel, and the enduring image of the little girl who falls down the rabbit hole in our culture. And it is his love song to his medium, comics. Told in a psychedelic collage incorporating Talbot's line drawings and paintings, homages to comics stalwarts from Tintin to the caricatures in Punch, historical documents, photographs, and portraits, and modern photography (sometimes presented straight up and sometimes photoshopped), and within a a framing story that is either a dream or a theatrical review, Alice in Sunderland moves frenetically back and forth between these three subjects, and touching on many others. It's a display of geeky enthusiasm run amok, and done so effectively that it is hard not to be won over by Talbot's fascination with his subjects.
If there's any complaint that I can level against Alice in Sunderland, it is that this sprawling, digressive work is too huge to linger as more than a vague impression in the reader's mind. It isn't that, like Black Hole, Talbot's point seems too simple to have been worth all his efforts. Rather, Talbot has so many points, so many pieces of information in so many subjects that he wants to impart to his readers, that they end up forming a bubbling, fizzing mass of idea far too momentous for any mind to contain. Turning the last page of Alice in Sunderland is like walking away from a spectacular theatrical review knowing that one has seen something wonderful, but so overwhelmed and overstimulated that very few of its details have been retained. The only solution is to go again, to dive once more into Talbot's maniacal history and try to get a distinct impression of it beyond 'Wow.'
So, all things considered, not a bad foray into comics-land. Of the three, I probably love The Arrival the best and am most impressed with Alice in Sunderland, but all are worth a look even for people who don't read a lot of comics (people who do have probably read all of these books, and others far more esoteric, already). More importantly, such an impressive array of talent and accomplishment is surely a sign that I ought to get around to reading comics more often than once or twice a year.