Several new graphic novels draw expertly on the familiar, and one defines new territory
We've seen graphic novels that combine elements of memoir and journalism. But we haven't seen one that leaves the predictable behind to create something startlingly original.
Open your mind to "The Museum of Lost Wonder" (Weiser , 159 pp., $49.95), by Jeff Hoke, by day the senior exhibit designer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. His pun-rich writing and mystical art conflate history, philosophy , and psychology for those intrepid enough to join his quest for the transcendent. A guide to the subconscious that brushes up against quantum physics and metaphysics, this would conjugate the ineffable.
Packed with diagrams, tricky visuals , and "study" guides, "Museum" tracks the history of consciousness, suggesting equations -- like "awe+wonder+sense=value" -- lost to a society in which science and faith do what Hoke considers egregious battle. A "do it yourself model" at the end of each chapter gives the mechanically inclined an opportunity to build their own wondrous museums.
Other recent offerings are more conventional if no less effective.
Among the best memoirs of this fall are Marisa Acocella Marchetto's "Cancer Vixen" (Knopf, 212 pp., $22) and Marjane Satrapi's "Chicken With Plums" (Pantheon, 84 pp., $16.95). On the more masculine, pop-culture sides are Joe Sacco's "But I Like It" (Fantagraphics, 122 pp., $24.95) and "40 Hour Man" (Manx Media, 245 pp., $18), by Stephen Beaupre and Steve Lafler.
For politics junkies, there's "Silk Road to Ruin" (NBM, 303 pp., $22.95), Ted Rall's syn esthetic document of his travels through Central Asia.
"Cancer Vixen" is an ultimately sunny chronicle of Marchetto's battle with the breast cancer that threatened her career as a cartoonist for The New Yorker and Glamour. She conquered it with medicine, the love of a good man, the support of her fabulously meddlesome mother , and her own good humor. The book is garish, childlike , and hopeful; Marchetto portrays the cancer cells as squinty-eyed urban thugs, death as a hooded figure sans face. Silvano, her love, plies her with fantastic food and unconditional affection, and to keep herself grounded she drops product names with the happy aplomb of a seasoned shopaholic. "Cancer Vixen" beats back death with tight text and warm graphics.
"Chicken With Plums" expands on "Embroideries," Satrapi's first literary foray into domestic life after her "Persepolis" books established her as a political commentator. Here, she revisits her Iranian childhood to recount how her great-uncle gave up the ghost after his wife broke his tar, the stringed instrument that made him whole. How deeply chicken with plums, Nasser Ali Khan's favorite dish, satisfied him almost filled the emotional hole at the core of his marriage. Not only does this short, telling book speak to the artistic drive, it further unveils a patriarchal, repressive society in which family ties can produce stomachaches that only opium can soothe. Satrapi's black-and-white drawings are simultaneously austere and sensual, her text lean and expressive. I was afraid her fourth book in three years would spread her thin; instead, it's a wonderful refinement of her singular art.
Sacco is best known for books about Bosnia ("War's End") and the Middle East ("Palestine"). Here, his subject is less serious. "But I Like It" (the title nicks the Stones' "It's Only Rock 'n Roll") collects his graphic accounts of a tour with Portland , Ore., grunge-rock group the Miracle Workers. Wild, non linear graphics find Sacco, who sold T-shirts at Miracle Workers' shows, in strange places, indeed. The black-and-white art is so vigorous it can dizzy, propelling one of the better books about the loud, tiring life of a minor rock band. Marketing inspiration: "Live With Long Hair," a CD of a Miracle Workers 1988 performance in Enger, West Germany, is included in an insert at the back of the book.
In "40 Hour Man," Beaupre , of Hudson, and Lafler (like Sacco, a resident of Portland ) examine the lower rungs of the working class. Follow Beaupre as he evolves from stock clerk to "content developer." Crack up when Lafler draws buddy Beaupre as a faux-knowledgeable clerk at the renamed Boston record store Raspberries. Rejoice that the funny Beaupre now writes online content for monster.com, the Internet job placement site. In the tradition of "American Splendor," "40 Hour Man" captures the black humor that can beat back the numbing of the soul that accompanies mindless work.
Subtitled "Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," Rall's "Silk Road to Ruin" is the kind of history you wish schools taught. Stuffed with information, characterized by courage, it slams Central Asia, which contains the world's largest reserves of oil and natural gas, even as it celebrates it. Rall deplores the dictatorships that keep Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan medieval but deplores the US policy that enables them even more. In photos, "comic novellas ," and pictures, he serves up a travelogue of a region teetering on the brink of irreparable political and environmental failure. At the same time, he extols its beauty and delivers an inspired account of buzkashi, "the bloodiest and most anarchic sport currently played by the human race." Buzkashi is distantly linked to polo, but instead of concentrating on a ball with mallets, Central Asian horsemen compete for control of a decapitated, dehoofed carcass of a goat. I'm glad Rall survived the frequently fatal buzkashi action.