Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
The comic book renaissance continues this season with all kinds of great graphic novels in every genre imaginable.
From gory fantasy to sobering slice-of-life, racial commentary to socio-economic analysis, these five titles reflect the astonishing diversity of comic book publishing today. Read on – and prepare to be intrigued!
Ducks: two years in the oil sands
Kate Beaton is best known for the eccentric historical humor of Listen ! A vagrant, a webcomic that became two bestselling books. Ducks is not only different from his previous work, it’s the opposite: dark, even austere. It’s a glimpse into Beaton’s dark side. She recounts how, desperate to repay her college loans, she spent two years in her twenties working in the oil fields of Alberta. His memoirs are an intricate tapestry of complex subjects: economic injustice, the fragility of the social contract, white entitlement and Indigenous dispossession, the environmental crisis, and, at the center, sexual harassment and rape. Beaton also considers how his years in the oil sands affected his own creativity. Her surroundings seemed almost designed to silence her imagination – and yet she started posting Listen ! A vagrant during this time. A vast and fascinating book, Ducks is a crucial turning point in the career of an important artist.
It won’t always be like this
NPR’s Malaka Gharib may have a soft, bouncy line, but she has a keen eye for character detail and cross-cultural irony. This was evident in her 2019 memoir I Was Their American Dream, where Gharib — who is half-Filipina, half-Egyptian — riffed on the different types of racial diversity and identity she encountered in high school and college. ‘university. Now, in It Won’t Always Be Like This, Gharib steps back a bit to revisit her teenage years in the late 90s and early 2000s. In a pretty color palette, she recounts her departure from Los Angeles, where she lived with her mother, to visit her father and mother-in-law in Egypt every summer. Looking back on that turbulent time with adult eyes, she remembers herself with a mixture of tenderness and exasperation. Incorporating excerpts from his old journals, It won’t always be like this has a definite YA slant, but it will also make it engaging reading for adults.
The most punk-rock figure at work in comics today (or outside of it, arguably) returns with a volume dedicated, rightly so, to punk rock. The rockers in question may be familiar characters Megg the Witch and Werewolf Jones, but below ambition holds surprises for the many fans of Simon Hanselmann. It’s still characterized by the rather dark, rather crude, and rather lovable tone that defined the earlier adventures of Megg and her friends, but below ambition is darker, cruder and less amiable. Performing together as Horse Mania, “the worst band in town”, Megg and Werewolf barely get together to practice, and when they hit the stage, they’re so stoned they just put on their angry public. Meanwhile, the offstage antics — like Werewolf’s 8-panel urination orgy all over someone’s bathroom — seem designed to alienate the reader as completely as the band alienates listeners. The result is, well, punk: rawer and less compromising than Hanselmann’s earlier books. Hanselmann is determined to test his audience, and many may not succeed. But those who can tolerate his depressed outlook will find his themes sharper than ever.
All Your Racial Problems Will Soon End: The Charles Johnson Cartoons
Charles Johnson’s remarkable literary career, which has encompassed a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a National Book Award for his 1990 novel Middle Passage, has had only one downside: it tends to distract from his equally remarkable work as a draftsman. He was still at university when he published his first collection, 1970’s Dark humor. The first collection of his work in over 50 years, All your racial problems will soon end – which takes its title from one of his still caustic legends – includes parts of Dark humorhis next book Half Time Nation Hourand the unpublished manuscript Lumps in the Melting Pot. Johnson’s mind is as flexible as his line, and these comics encompass a wide range of sentiments and themes. Some invite the reader to reflect on what has changed since the 1970s, while others remain glaringly relevant. As two black graduates in mortar contemplate their degrees, one says, “Well, I guess now I’m going to see if Standard Oil or Bank of America needs a graduate black history consultant. “
Confronted at her doorstep by five armed policemen, a black woman says, “You can’t raid our house now; the place is a mess!” This collection is not only a long-awaited tribute to a great designer; it’s a terrific read.
The night eaters: she eats at night
After dazzling audiences with their 2015 Monstress series, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda have no intention of letting their fans get away from it. The Night Eaters features many familiar Monstress elements: ambiguous characters, grotesque violence, a slowly building sense of horror, and most notably, Takeda’s stunning art. Here, the most ambiguous character is Ipo, a former stuntwoman from Hong Kong who now lives in Queens. Gnarled and sullen, Ipo smokes, hates vegetables, and knows many secrets. When she decides to show her adult children inside the filthy old house across the street (a hell where “even the yard smells like death”), their blissful modernity is put to good use. As in Monstress, the sheer effort that must have gone into each of Takeda’s pages is as fascinating as the skill on display. Luminous hues, vibrant character designs and electrifying compositions make virtually every panel its own work of art. This is only Book 1 of Liu and Takeda’s New World, so be prepared for more on night eaters for some time to come.
Etelka Lehoczky wrote about books for The Atlantic, the Los Angeles book review and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.