The acquisitions staff at our local library shares my passion for graphic novels. The term is a bit of a misnomer because many books in this genre aren’t “novels” at all–they’re nonfiction or collections of short pieces–but it sounds better than “comic books your kids wouldn’t understand”. Below, a brief roundup of some of my latest reading.
R. Sikoryak’s inventive and darkly funny Masterpiece Comics mashes up the plots of literary classics with the visual style of well-known comic strips. This could easily have been a one-joke wonder, but Sikorsky’s thoughtful pairings give this slim volume an unexpected depth. Reading it, you realize that Charlie Brown actually does have a lot in common with Kafka’s Gregor Samsa; ditto for Beavis and Butthead and the protagonists of Waiting for Godot. You come away appreciating the existential sadness under comics’ forced jollity and limited range of expression, as well as the slam-bang action and excitement buried inside these books we treat so reverently. Maybe high school boys would crack open Wuthering Heights if they read Sikorsky’s “Tales from the Crypt” version first.
The early 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman is often quoted as saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Seeking an alternative to my feminist friends’ grim suspiciousness of popular culture and fashion, I picked up Sharon Rudahl’s cartoon biography of Goldman, A Dangerous Woman. The book definitely made me want to learn more about Goldman, a feisty and life-affirming woman who put herself at risk to improve the lives of prisoners, prostitutes, and other marginalized people. However, I was a bit disappointed by the presentation. The visual elements didn’t interact dynamically with the text, feeling more like illustrated summaries than true scenes. Since Rudahl relies mainly on Goldman’s own account of her life, the book always casts her actions in a positive light, glossing over difficult moral questions like the anarchists’ use of violence against civilians. A Dangerous Woman is an intriguing introduction to the subject, but I wouldn’t rely on it as the definitive word on this complicated historical figure.
Alison Bechdel is the author of the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, a witty sapphic soap opera whose humor often arises from the contrast between the characters’ self-righteous political views and their messy personal lives. I binged on 10 volumes of the strip from 1989 to 2005. The left-wing rants sometimes became tiresome, so my favorite characters were the ones who didn’t take themselves so seriously: the gleefully careerist Sydney, a literature professor with a Martha Stewart fetish; Lois, the part-time drag king and full-time sexual dynamo; and Mo’s two Siamese cats, who survey their human companions’ anxious lives with amused detachment.
My highest praise, though, is reserved for Bechdel’s cartoon memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which is both beautifully drawn and elegantly crafted as a narrative. Fun Home intertwines the author’s coming of age as a lesbian with her memories of her brilliant, enigmatic, repressed father, a closeted homosexual who died in an accident that she suspects was suicide. Drawing parallels to sources as diverse as Joyce, Colette, Proust, classical mythology, and The Wind in the Willows, she shows how their shared love of literature substituted for the intimacy they could never express in more personal terms. Some online reviewers felt Bechdel strained too hard to fit their family story into literary templates, but for me, that was what gave the book its special poignancy: ultimately, Bechdel concludes that there are no neat explanations that will give her closure, and we return to the simple image that opened the story, a little girl in her father’s arms.