Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Several Graphic Novels

I'm clearing the decks for the end of the year, so these books get shoved together, even if they don't really fit:

The Blot by Tom Neely (i will destroy you, 2007 trade paperback)

In a style and setting reminiscent of '20s and '30s cartoons -- rubber-pipe arms, bowler hats, fences made of closely set vertical wooden slats -- a nameless man is confronted by a growing blot of ink. The blot is a physical element of his world, moving with seeming purpose -- it spreads over the page like a wave to obliterate whatever was there before and then recedes to leave the world altered. The Blot is nearly wordless -- there's a character who shows up a third of the way through this graphic novel, and who speaks infrequently, but none of the other characters ever speak, nor is there any narration. The blot, of course, is silent -- a symbol of anything or everything, and open to any interpretation.

Neely's story stalks forward with its own logic, relying on the changes wrought by the blot and the nameless hero's growing knowledge of and control over the blot to move it from sequence to sequence. The logic of each section is usually opaque to the reader -- it all seems to make sense, and the blot feels like some kind of concretized metaphor, but The Blot isn't constructed to be a single metaphor, or to fit a single schema. Nelly's hero is A Man -- any of us, or all of us, an Everyman out of a 1928 Sunday comics page -- and the blot is the outside world, or any aspect of it, or whatever torments and threatens us, whatever gives us agency and purpose and strength.

It's a powerful story, and one of the better graphic novels I've read recently. It's refusal to simply mean one thing makes it that much more meaningful and impressive, and I hope Neely is already at work on something else equally fascinating and slippery.

Jellaby: Monster in the City by Kean Soo (Disney/Hyperion, 2009 trade paperback)

This is the second half of a graphic novel for kids about the title creature, who looks something like a baby dragon, following Jellaby (which I read, along with a few dozen other graphic novels, back in March). Jellaby and the two kids that know about him, Portia and Jason, head into "the city" (clearly Toronto) to send Jellaby back to wherever he came from.

It doesn't go as they planned, of course -- the kids fight, and even if they had really wanted to send Jellaby back, actually doing so isn't as easy as they thought. This volume has more action, and substantially more violence, than the first book, so it may upset some younger readers of Jellaby. It also has more of an open ending than the reader might have expected, so there may be more stories about Jellaby and his friends.

As before, this is a solid story for middle-graders (and some older people), with strong characters and a cute drawing style. The tone is a little inconsistent, and it sometimes feels like it's trying to change into a different story, but Jellaby: Monster in the City delivers on the promise of the first book.

Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician by Mawil (Blank Slate, 2008 small-format paperback)

Mawil is also the author of Beach Safari, which I saw last year; this is a slightly later work (originally published in 2006 in German, and, I suspect, somewhat earlier than that in installments or single pages in a magazine).

Sparky himself looks identical to the nameless "Bunny" main character of Beach Safari, but has a slightly different purpose in this story. The Bunny in Beach Safari was an audience identification character, confused and hapless but plucky and eventually winning out; the reader was on his side and saw the story through his eyes. Sparky is the butt of the jokes in Sparky O'Hare; he's an electrician who works in a small office (one male boss, three female workers), but who causes trouble in all electrical items when he arrives. The point of view is the women of the office, mostly Marianne, who Sparky meets in the first strip and whom he accompanies on an ill-fated business trip -- ostensibly to Asia, though of course anything as complicated electrically as an airplane doesn't manage to work correctly with Sparky on board.

Sparky of course doesn't realize his effect; he can't, for the joke to work. So he's a slightly bumbling character, well-meaning and pleasant but clueless and almost useless. Most of the pages in Sparky O'Hare can function as separate single-page gags, though Mawil also weaves them into longer stories -- such as that ill-fated trip to Asia, and a later sequence in which the boss is declared dead for a while.

There's quite a bit of dialogue and detail on Mawil's pages, and this small-format doesn't show them to best effect; it would be a nicer book at standard trade-paperback size, though it's entirely legible as it is. This is a more obvious and clearly less personal work than Beach Safari, but it has the rhythms and pleasures of a good sitcom, and Mawil's loose, casual line is delightful.

The Aviary by Jamie Tanner (AdHouse Books, 2007 trade paperback)

Fifteen linked stories combine to form a cold world filled with ape pornographers, limbless comedians, cat-headed zombie TV hosts, cyborg penguin crime-scene photographers and their ne'er-do-well sons, masked balls, foul-mouthed receptionists, and talking mannequins. I'm not sure at all that I understand The Aviary -- or any of its constituent stories, for that matter --but it doesn't really matter; Tanner has a cool, detached sensibility that sends Aviary into a graphic-novel version of David Lynch territory, where everything is both dangerous and unspeakably obvious to the characters.

Tanner has a cast of about two dozen main characters, who return in different stories as the book goes on -- though the stories here are not presented in the chronological order that they occurred, and some events (such as a huge flood) may be real or not. And there's a doll -- the "Quiet Bird-Man" -- which has some deep, central significance to this story, though I can't figure out what that is.

So, in short, The Aviary is deeply weird, and entirely slippery, but not unpleasing. And it always seems as if it's just about to make sense.

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