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Ringing changes on elves, epilepsy, and turf wars

Want to bet that this fall there will be at least one graphic novel about the tidal waves that devastated Asia Christmas week? Want to bet on more political graphic novels in the wake of President Bush's reelection?

The medium grows ever more topical, ever deeper. It's catching on, too. Consider a recent New Yorker cartoon showing a scowling couple passing a bookstore window. The caption, spoken by the wife:

"Now I have to start pretending I like graphic novels, too?" You don't have to like them, but you might want to pay attention to them, because at their best, they are folkloric and topical and rich. Here's a sampling of remarkable ones from recent months:

James Kochalka's upbeat, guileless "American Elf" (Top Shelf, unpaginated, $29.95) is a gathering of the "Sketchbook Diaries" he produced from late 1998 to the end of 2003. Starring Kochalka, wife Amy, and cat Spandy, these graphic quatrains depict Kochalka as a snaggle-toothed, big-eared elf celebrating a productive and sensual domesticity. Taken a page at a time, this charmingly raunchy memoir seems ephemeral. But it accumulates power, particularly after 9/11 convinces Kochalka and Amy to have a child. Deceptively innocent, "American Elf" also hints at darkness: Kochalka does his share of drinking, the couple spar over responsibility, and Kochalka is ambivalent about the celebrity attending his graphics and music (he also has a rock 'n' roll career as James Kochalka Superstar). Overall, however, these line drawings make you feel good. And anyone who's ever lived in Burlington, Vt., where the Kochalkas reside, will hanker to return after absorbing Kochalka's affection for an open, inviting city where the cold burns like needles.

"Blab 15" (Fantagraphics, 120 pp., $19.95) collects graphics spanning legendary hippie Spain Rodriguez to mechano-futurist Matti Hagelberg. My favorites in this edition are Blanquet's repulsive, alluring "Gargarism of Paradise," Geoffrey Grahn's moving period piece, "Dime a Dance Girls" and "Fetal Elvis Gets Drafted!," a Mark Landman fantasia that puts Arnold Schwarzenegger in a subversive new light. For inner quietude, try Anders Nilsen's "Dogs and Water" (Drawn & Quarterly, unpaginated, $9.95). The Chicago artist spins a cryptic, alluring tale of a man, his teddy bear, a confrontation over an oil pipeline, and a fierce, sympathetic wolf pack. The carefully drawn "Dogs and Water" works a fine magic to take you where you've never been.

For a wild take on the subconscious, immerse yourself in "In My Darkest Hour" (Fantagraphics, unpaginated, $14.95). Wilfred Santiago's first graphic novel tracks Omar Guerrero, a pudgy guy who clings to his youth through affairs with sweet young things. Bipolar, vaguely threatening, racked by Catholic guilt and amorphously artistic, Guerrero dabbles in pornography as he works his tortuous way toward peace and productivity. Guerrero isn't likable but he's compelling, and Santiago's art makes his story magnetic. I like the look more than the narrative because Guerrero is such a down character, you wonder why people bother to interact with him. The art is great, however. Printed on glossy paper, "Darkest Hour" is slacker pulp fiction that scrambles media in fresh, prickly ways. Photoshop, photography, fine lettering, murky color, and a masterful grasp of perspective pack surprise into every page. Its power makes one wonder how Santiago would treat hope. He's an authority on despair.

"Epileptic" (Pantheon, 361 pp., $25) is a staggering work of heartbreaking genius in which writer/ artist David B. grapples with the epilepsy of his big brother, Jean-Christophe. The black-and-white illustrations are so intense they suggest shading has little to do with color; artistry and passion make them resonate. Jean-Christophe's seizures start small but grow in frequency and duration, plunging his family into a frantic search for a cure. Born Pierre-François Beauchard in a rural French town, David B. spent a happy childhood until his brother's epilepsy spun him into a troubled, cathartic creativity. Translated from the French, "Epileptic" is phantasmagorical and exceedingly personal; I wonder what Jean-Christophe thinks of it. A companion is "Babel Volume 1" (Drawn & Quarterly, 32 pp., $9.95), a prequel. Here, David B. attaches a more primitive and expansive graphic style to a narrative blending Jean-Christophe's illness with African civil war, suggesting an unusually deep connection between the personal and the political. The shocking use of red in "Babel" accents these transmissions from the spirit world, David B.'s brilliant yoking of dream and nightmare.

For futuristic cool with a sharp beat, rock to "The Originals" (Vertigo, unpaginated, $24.95), Dave Gibbons's beautifully drawn homage to the gangs that roiled Liverpool in the '60s.The battlefield is drugs, the prize status. Known for his work on "Green Lantern" and "Watchmen," Gibbons draws sharp, distinctive characters and makes gray an unimaginably expressive color. This is film-noir science fiction with comic book kinetics, as snappy as the toughest Jam track.

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