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Big draws

Politics, alienation, and rock 'n' roll get a lot of attention in new graphic novels

By Carlo Wolff
November 23, 2008
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AMERICAN WIDOW
Written by Alissa Torres
Illustrated by Sungyoon Choi
Villard, 209 pp., $22

AFTER 9/11: America's War on Terror (2001-__)
Written by Sid Jacobson
Illustrated by Ernie Colón
Hill & Wang, 149 pp., $16.95

THE ALCOHOLIC
Written by Jonathan Ames
Illustrated by Dean Haspiel
Vertigo, 136 pp., $19.99

PLEASE GOD SAVE US
Written by Kent Smith
Illustrated by Derek Hess
Strhess, 107 pp., $25

PUNK ROCK AND TRAILER PARKS
By Derf
SLG, 144 pp., $15.95

JAMILTI AND OTHER STORIES
By Rutu Modan
Drawn & Quarterly, 174 pp., $19.95

MR. SPIC GOES TO WASHINGTON
Written by Ilan Stavans
Illustrated by Roberto Weil
Soft Skull, 110 pp., $15.95

WORDLESS BOOKS: The Original Graphic Novels
By David A. Berona
Abrams, 255 pp., $35

These new graphic novels cover a familiar range: 9/11, the war on terror, political power and powerlessness, ethnic assimilation, and the notion of otherness that can permeate social life. Politics animates most of them, not surprising in this turbulent campaign year. Politics may well define such works to come, given the election of Barack Obama as president.

The war on terror is the backdrop of "American Widow," Alissa Torres's book about her attempts to find peace after her husband is killed on 9/11, his second day of work at Cantor Fitzgerald. Luis Torres was one of 658 of the trading company's employees who died when the firm's World Trade Center offices collapsed.

Torres's story, told in Sungyoon Choi's roomy, simple panels, directs its anger at a bureaucracy unable or unwilling to help her and her baby, born a few months after the attacks. Among her villains: the Red Cross and the federal September 11 Victim Compensation Fund of 2001, which in her account depersonalized her and others in their efforts to recover a sense of community. Torres's fury is palpable; her ability to embed it in a fundamentally kind book honors her struggle.

"After 9/11," a "work of graphic journalism," recounts the "incomplete story of an incomplete war." It brilliantly fuses Sid Jacobson's judiciously selected history with Ernie Colón's impassioned comic-book-style graphics. It's a natural for classrooms, with clear lessons in geography and distillations of Middle East carnage. The Iraq War may have receded from the headlines, but "After 9/11" will refresh your memory.

Jonathan Ames's "The Alcoholic" documents this thriller writer's struggles with booze and dope. Illustrated by the deadpan, driv ing Dean Haspiel, it explores Ames's tortured psyche in telling detail. Relentlessly self-destructive, yet extraordinarily talented, Ames seems to conquer his addiction by confronting his own mortality after 9/11. Meeting former President Bill Clinton helps; so does bonding with his great-aunt Sadie and conquering his addictive love for a glamorous, footloose graphic designer he refers to by whatever city she happens to be living in at the time.

Also dealing with 9/11 - if obliquely - is "Please God Save Us," a blend of Kent Smith's facts and tracts with Derek Hess's startling, dramatic art. Smith is an activist Democrat from suburban Cleveland, Hess a Cleveland artist who made his mark in the 1990s designing rock posters and album covers for the likes of Shudder to Think, Pantera, and Pink Floyd. Hess's work is unapologetically subversive. A shot at the religious right, "Please God Save Us" balls word and image into a smart fist. It stings, even now that the hard right has been knocked back a bit.

John Backderf's strip, "The City," is published in numerous alternative papers. "Punk Rock and Trailer Parks" is Derf's homage to the underground music scene in Akron, Ohio, in 1979 and '80, when the Bank was the key club. It's grungy and often hysterically funny, revolving around the Baron, a high school misfit who wound up working at the long-defunct Bank and, briefly, as a rock singer. Derf's black-and-white art, in pages eight or nine panels dense, is wildly hormonal and hyperbolic, a nose-thumbing update of Robert Crumb. His take on underground rock and its occasional roots in trailer trash is fabulous. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland may be the area's "official" musical face, but Derf's work rings more true.

Rutu Modan's "Jamilti" is a story collection in which the artistic style varies by literary theme. Profoundly feminist and imaginative, the gifted Israeli artist populates her stories with characters struggling to make sense of a world spinning out of control. Here, the gyre widens around politics and sex, sometimes separately, at times together: "The Panty Killer," its multihued art simultaneously stark and ornate, is gruesomely funny, while the black-and-white "Bygone" probes white lies that can preserve a sense of family.

Published just before the election, there's "Mr. Spic Goes to Washington," Ilan Stavans's tale of a Hispanic senator. Sparked by Venezuelan artist Roberto Weil's guileless, pointed illustrations, its wit devolves into a tragedy evoking the assassination of JFK and the Oswald shooting. Weil's look, a matter of line drawings and quick cuts, works beautifully with Stavans's barbed text.

For perspective on this evolving medium, check out "Wordless Books," a survey of stories told largely in black-and-white woodcut images. Introduced by gifted graphic novelist Peter Kuper, David Beronä's book reintroduces such well-known practitioners as Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. But it also covers the likes of the lesser-known but no less talented Istváán Szegedi Szüts and Helena Bochoráková-Dittrichová, respectively a Hungarian and Czech. Szüts' take on war is startling in its verve, economy, and elegance. Bochoráková-Dittrichová's take on childhood and rural life has a primitive, counterintuitively sunny power.

Carlo Wolff is the author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories."

AMERICAN WIDOW Written by Alissa Torres

Illustrated by Sungyoon Choi

Villard, 209 pp., $22

AFTER 9/11: America's War on Terror (2001-__) Written by Sid Jacobson

Illustrated by Ernie Colón

Hill & Wang, 149 pp., $16.95

THE ALCOHOLIC

Written by Jonathan Ames

Illustrated by Dean Haspiel

Vertigo, 136 pp., $19.99

PLEASE GOD SAVE US

Written by Kent Smith

Illustrated by Derek Hess

Strhess, 107 pp., $25

PUNK ROCK AND TRAILER PARKS

By Derf

SLG, 144 pp., $15.95

JAMILTI AND OTHER STORIES

By Rutu Modan

Drawn & Quarterly, 174 pp., $19.95

MR. SPIC GOES TO WASHINGTON

Written by Ilan Stavans

Illustrated by Roberto Weil

Soft Skull, 110 pp., $15.95

WORDLESS BOOKS: The Original Graphic Novels

By David A. Beronä

Abrams, 255 pp., $35

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