Graphic novel recommendations for 2009
by Aaron Ragan-Fore
In the three years I’ve been writing this annual graphic novel review roundup, I’ve never had such a difficult time choosing which books to cover. 2009 produced an amazing wealth of material, particularly in the realm of graphic narrative journalism and nonfiction.
A standout comic of 2009, The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders (First Second, $29.95) is the true story of Didier Lefèvre, a Parisian photographer embedded in 1986 with an international aid convoy as it crosses on foot into Afghanistan to treat the medical ailments of mountain villagers. It’s a dangerous adventure, one in which opium dealers and tribal gang lords paradoxically provide refuge from airborne Soviet patrols, corrupt rural cops and harsh winter conditions. Even as Lefèvre is disheartened by the complicated web of strange bedfellows, religious division and sparse mercies of Afghani politics, he simultaneously achieves a grudging respect for the cultural and geographic idiosyncrasies of the troubled countryside. Illustrated comic book panels by Emmanuel Guibert are intercut with “panels” composed of Lefèvre’s stunning black and white photography, advancing the story in a wholly original way and even making a low-key statement about the nature of comics’ graphic storytelling.
In A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon, $24.95), another graphic story presenting a specific moment in history, cartoonist Josh Neufeld reconstructs the Hurricane Katrina experiences of six real-life New Orleans families. Some flee the city, while others remain defiantly in their homes. Some barricade themselves to protect property and livelihood as others seek an ill-fated shelter in the Morial Convention Center. As in The Photographer, salvation is discovered in the most unlikely heroes, while those sworn to protect become one of the problems they’re assigned to relieve. The affecting subject matter is never maudlin in Neufeld’s hands, never feels ill-treated by the comics format. Sentiment that could easily devolve into a moribund, jingoistic chest-thumping is kept invigorated by stories of struggle for survival that are by turns saddening, thrilling and triumphant, but always engaging.
From a serious tale of world affairs to something that’s anything but, Toronto cartoonist Kate Beaton’s Never Learn Anything from History (TopatoCo, $18) gives world history the “Fractured Fairytale” treatment. Think of Beaton as the brainy kid who sat in the front row of your high school history class, who also happens to be wicked funny. Beaton finds dry-witted humor and more than a little cuteness in a petulant Napoleon, a meeting of Garfield the U.S. president and Garfield the cat and even the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. These comics aren’t for kids: Marie Antoinette advises one homely attendant she’d be better off as a hooker, and an arrow-to-the eye at the Battle of Hastings elicits some rough language. But adult history buffs will discover plenty of wiseass in-jokes in this charming collection.
Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, $29.95), a fiction magnum opus written and drawn by David Mazzucchelli, focuses on a jaded and reserved professor of architecture, a man who employs the geometric precision of his Grecian forebears in both his professional and personal lives. When Polyp’s carefully-ordered existence is thrown awry by two chaotic events, a romantic breakup and an apartment fire, he simply drops out of his own life and hits the road, seeking a return to his core values of linear predictability. Real life, of course, ensues. Mazzucchelli’s visual juxtaposition of straight-edged symmetry and messy curvature extends to lettering, character design, even the shapes of word balloons, offering a whip-smart treatise on the abilities of comics as a singular artistic medium. Don’t let that scare you off, though: it’s also a compelling story in the tradition of “One man’s life lesson.”
One of Hal Foster’s pages of gorgeously meticulous Prince Valiant art served as an anchoring piece for the Jordan Schnitzer Museum’s “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet” comic art exhibition, and it’s no wonder: Foster’s classic tales of knightly derring-do are a beloved part of the newspaper comics section. It’s difficult to laud Foster too excessively; he was one of the undisputed masters of the craft. A new effort to reprint the Valiant epic in sequential order is off to a roaring start with Prince Valiant, Vol. 1: 1937-1938 (Fantagraphics, $29.99), a handsome oversize volume reprinting the first two years’ worth of the Arthurian saga’s Sunday strips. Despite its creation in the late 1930s (months before the debut of Superman, arguably the first superhero), the comic strip’s otherworldly setting and taut characterization keep this an evergreen favorite for readers of all ages, an American epic born of a tale of European romance.