If you like reading. You love finding a new author, and somehow it’s even better when that author is just starting out, and wows from the start. I began with Tillie Walden‘s extraordinary On a Sunbeam (You can read it here). Then her memoir of being a competitive skater Spinning. You won’t regret time spent with either of these. But I have just read her third graphic novel, A City Inside published by the wonderful Avery Hill Publishing. It’s a weird novel.
It begins with a young woman being told to relax and being given tea. I’m English, I appreciate that. Then she is told, “Swallow all your spit and breathe deeply.” The words “A City Inside” fill the next two pages. Continuing in the second person. “You left…trying to escape those southern ghosts…were too afraid to live in the city…so you decided the sky would be better.” She lives in the sky with a cat and meets “Her.” You is so taken with Her that You leaves the sky and moves in. Like a good poem, the story leaves sense at the edges and perfectly for a short graphic story, focuses on images of place. Her is even a place. All the old wounds inside You start to accumulate, and a new city is built. In You’s mind maybe? Not certainly. At the end, she steps out of the story and there Her is, in the waiting room. It is as though every line Walden makes on the page has meaning. Each panel is a small work of feeling. A work of story. A work of human emotion. At the end you are together with You and Her, and happy.
Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk is based around conversations Mira has with those around her in New York, between 2014 and 2016 with flashes back to her family in New Mexico and India. She has an extraordinary talent for dialogue that is at the centre here. Much of the story’s present is autobiography alongside her developing romance with Jed,a family story and most affectingly a story of how race in America impacts individuals and families.
The first scene is 2014. Mira and her 6-year-old son, Z, are discussing his obsession with Michael Jackson. Z and Mira are drawn, and then cut out leaving a white border around each figure and super-imposed on photos of Jackson album covers and cityscapes of New York. Z is asking questions: “Who taught him to dance?” and “What is a LaToya?” before he moves on to “Was Michael Jackson brown or white?” Later on, in reference to the murder of Michael Brown, Z asks, “Is it bad to be brown?” Mira replies, “No, it’s great being brown. We look good in colors! We have history! We don’t get skin cancer as easily!” These exchanges establish the narrative and the subject matter of the whole work, but Z wonders why his mother is “yelling at me.” The graphic style of the drawn figures on top of the photographs, sometimes augmented by photographic portraits of some of the characters, allows the story to happen in the actual settings. The photos often open the narrative up beyond the rooms where the conversations are taking place.
“ Now every question Z asked made me realize the growing gap between the America I’d been raised to believe in and the one rising fast all around us. I kept thinking if I could go back in time and make sense of the things I’d been told growing up, I would be able to give Z better answers. Maybe even find a way toward that better country. Soon though with news of the Black Lives Matter Movement flooding our televisions, and the rise of Donald Trump, I would have just as many questions as he did.”
The book progresses through her parents’ story of an arranged marriage and her family’s worries about her love marriage (defined by Mira’s mother as “a marriage that is not arranged.” to Jed, a Jewish man; an hyper-awareness of shades of skin color that comes from her family thinking that she is “not fair” and therefore “no beauty.” There are attempts to arrange a marriage for Mira that fail–all the time she is moving through relationships at school, college after college in Seattle and New York.
Around the middle of the book, 9/11 happens. The book turns here. Indians are taken for terrorists. Mira is mistaken for a young Indian woman who was lost in the twin towers who appears on a poster. The hope of America disintegrates from here on out as Trump’s rise after the hope of Obama, strains the relationships between Jed’s parents and their daughter-in-law and grandson.
This is a subtle examination of how race works for people of color set in a narrative where most of the time the stakes are emotional rather than life or death, and this allows those of us, who because we are white, don’t feel the slights and digs and mispeakings, another place to feel them as they happen. I read the memoir while at the same time reading Jacob’s impressive novel The Sleepwaker’s Guide to Dancing they echo each other. Give them both a try.
Weegee obsessively photographs murders in the seamier streets of the city. He’s often there before the police and notoriously rearranges bodies to get a better shot. He knew the police. He knew the underworld and the prostitutes. Much of Weegee’s time is spent on the Lower East Side, where he has a marriage-like friendship with Rita a cafe owner, and has sex with Irma a local prostitute. But despite his notoriety, and the fact that the newspapers are buying his photos, he wants to be accepted in the art world and Hollywood, and he gets to try both. Just as in Bastard, the main character is unsympathetic , but Radiguès surprises and make him endearing. Check this book out. Check out the original photos. Weegee is also the inspiration for characters in films such as A Public Eye, Nightcrawler and Watchmen. And it’s Fellig photo which is the cover and inspiration for the name of Naked City’s (the John Zorn group) first album.
A young woman is buying tacos and Mark approaches her and says, “April, it’s me.” She replies, “You’re mistaken. Sorry…Have a good day.” Back at the motel her son, Eugene, is watching TV. “We’ve got to move,” she says. Eugene takes the bags to the car, and we realize that they are on the run. “April” (her real name is May) is a member of a gang who committed 52 simultaneous robberies in the same day in Prescott.
What’s so impressive about this book is that May is a murderer, who has double-crossed her gang and has implicated her son in her crimes, and she is loyal, an adoring mother, and someone who wants more for her son than she had. She gets more. He knows how to rescue her when some of the gang almost catch them. The two are rescued by a former banker who is now a truck driver, and they spend time with him in New Mexico, before May goes back to “sort out” the gang. There’s a twist near the end that makes the sympathetic drawings, and the loving relationship turn into a touching story.
There’s energy in the storytelling and the drawing. We are pulled along and cheer for May and Eugene to come through despite all they do. In the end we understand. Give it a go.
Young Frances by Hartley Lin, published in 2018 by Adhouse Books, is a graphic novel, set in Toronto, that follows Frances as she almost inadvertently finds herself.
The story alternates between her time at work as a law clerk in a large corporate law firm and her time amongst her friends. Even as she avoids attention, people are drawn to her.
She has insomnia. She works hard, is conscientious and moves up the ladder in spite of her inclinations, even while other clerks and lawyers are being fired. As the story moves on, Frances moves from one person’s idiosyncratic life to the next. She ends up working for the leading bankruptcy partner, an alcoholic called Castonguay who lives in a hotel room next to the office. At home, she shares her flat with Vickie a spacey actress who drinks a lot and is always behind on the rent, relying on the ever-sensible Franny to bail her out. And yet Frances just keep moving forward, trying her hardest, always feeling like she is not doing the right thing, and yet Vickie loves her–and keeps in touch even when she gets a part in a cable TV show and moves to LA–Castonguay realises what he has and keeps promoting her, and finally, Peter, who just keeps hanging around, gets Frances to pay attention to him.
For many of the employers at the law firm, work defines them. The same goes for the actress Vickie. But Peter, a builder of “other people’s dream homes” doesn’t let his work define him. By the end of the novel, Frances realises that her work does define her, she has made something for herself, and she gets home that night, and Peter is waiting on the doorstep and she hugs him.
Lin’s drawing style draws out a gentle humanity in all the characters including the ones he is satirizing. This is a special talent. He makes fun of the actress who can’t live in the real world and the lawyer who only thinks about his work, and yet, like Frances he sees what is warm in them. The indoor spaces and the buildings of the cityscape of Toronto are there in the scenes where we need them and just suggested or absent at other times. The fact that Frances falls in love with a gentle sensitive builder is perhaps what happens to us as readers of this engaging, humanizing work of art.
“I’m just a law clerk. I barely figure in the pecking order. The weird thing is I think I’m pretty good at it.”
Read this now. Buy a copy, so that you can share it with your friends.
A Graphic Novel by Irene N. Watts and Kathryn E Shoemaker
Black and white images softly drawn. Shaded background. Any white is the word balloons, letters or aprons. Marianne arrives in London on the Kindertransport and is taken in by Mrs. and Mr. Abercrombie-Jones who were looking for an older child to be a second domestic in their home. They insist on calling her Mary Anne, and yet correct her when she mispronounces their names. They do send her to school where she makes friends. The painfulness of British anti-Semitism from schoolmates, caretakers, teachers and neighbours is scratched into the background of the narrative like the hatching in each frame. Marianne does make good friends in school who move on as she does when the London schools are evacuated–she goes to Wales where a couple hope that Mairi will replace their daughter who recently died. While the prejudices are not absent in Wales, the kindly Mr. Evans, guides Marianne through Llanelli. The end is too easy, but hopeful.
Daniel Raeburn: “I snicker at the neologism first for its insecure pretension—the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a ‘sanitation engineer’—and second because a ‘graphic novel’ is in fact the very thing it is ashamed to admit: a comic book, rather than a comic pamphlet or comic magazine.”
I have discovered so many extraordinary novels, memoirs and non-fiction books that use cartooning to tell the story. My problem with the term “graphic novel” is not that it is pretentious–I suppose it is, but it describes what I am looking for–nor is it that it is a marketing term–all names for products that are sold are marketing terms: comics just as much as graphic novels. IT’s that not all graphic novels are novels. There is not a good term for the non-fiction, full length comics. Maybe it’s just “graphic non-fiction,” and in the end, graphic novels will be shelved with novels and non-ficiton shelved with its subjects. Graphic novels are another way of communicating, where a great deal of innovation is happening in how stories are told.
Originally published in 1998, Sleepwalk and Other Stories collects the sixteen earliest stories from the Optic Nerve comic series. Tomine won a Harvey Award for Best New Talent for this book.
These are stories of people trying to move on in their lives, trying to connect with each other, and more often than not missing, and when they miss they end up somewhere they hadn’t intended, and the focus of their attention often is misplaced.
Sleepwalk is just one of several volumes that collect these short stories, first of all self-published and then continued by the always impressive Drawn and Quarterly.