Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
The comics renaissance continues this season with all sorts of great graphic novels in every genre imaginable.
From gory fantasy to sobering slices of life, racial commentary to socioeconomic analysis, these five titles reflect the astonishing diversity of comics publishing today. Read on – and prepare to be intrigued!
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
Kate Beaton is best known for the quirky historical humor of Hark! A Vagrant, a webcomic that became two bestselling books. Ducks isn't just different from her previous work, it's the opposite: grim, even dour. It's a glimpse of Beaton's shadow side. She tells how, desperate to pay off college loans, she spent two years in her 20s working in the oil fields of Alberta. Her memoir is an intricate tapestry of complex topics: economic injustice, the fragility of the social contract, white entitlement and indigenous dispossession, environmental crisis and, centrally, sexual harassment and rape. Beaton also considers how her years in the oil sands affected her own creativity. Her surroundings seemed almost designed to silence her imagination — and yet she started publishing Hark! A Vagrant during this time. A vast and fascinating book, Ducks is a crucial turning point in the career of an important artist.
It Won't Always Be Like This
NPR's Malaka Gharib may have a gentle, bouncy line, but she's got a piercingly sharp eye for character detail and cross-cultural irony. That was evident in her 2019 memoir I Was Their American Dream, where Gharib — who is half-Filipina, half-Egyptian — riffed on the different kinds of racial diversity and identity she encountered in high school and college. Now, in It Won't Always Be Like This, Gharib backs up a bit to revisit her teens in the late '90s-early 2000s. In a lovely full-color palette, she tells about leaving Los Angeles, where she lived with her mother, to visit her father and stepmother in Egypt every summer. Looking back at this turbulent time with adult eyes, she recalls her tween self with a mix of fondness and exasperation. Incorporating excerpts from her old diaries, It Won't Always Be Like This has a definite YA slant, but it will also make engaging reading for grownups.
The most punk-rock figure at work today in comics (or out of it, arguably) returns with a volume dedicated, appropriately, to punk rock. The rockers in question may be the familiar characters Megg the witch and Werewolf Jones, but Below Ambition has surprises in store for Simon Hanselmann's many fans. It's still characterized by the sorta-bleak, sorta-gross, sorta-lovable tone that defined the earlier adventures of Megg and friends, but Below Ambition is bleaker, grosser and less lovable. Performing together as Horse Mania, "the worst band in town," Megg and Werewolf hardly get it together to practice, and when they do take the stage they're so high they only anger their audiences. Meanwhile, offstage antics — like Werewolf's 8-panel orgy of micturition all over someone's bathroom — seem designed to alienate the reader just as thoroughly as the band alienates listeners. The result is, well, punk: more raw and less compromising than Hanselmann's earlier books. Hanselmann is determined to test his audiences, and it's possible that many won't pass. But those who can tolerate his depressive vision will find his themes more acidly trenchant than ever before.
All Your Racial Problems Will Soon End: The Cartoons of Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson's remarkable literary career, which has encompassed a MacArthur "Genius Grant" and a National Book Award for his 1990 novel Middle Passage, has had only one drawback: It's tended to distract attention from his equally remarkable work as a cartoonist. He was still in college when he published his first collection, 1970's Black Humor. The first collection of his work in more than 50 years, All Your Racial Problems Will Soon End — which takes its title from one of his ever-caustic captions — includes parts of Black Humor, his next book Half-Past Nation Time, and the never-published manuscript Lumps in the Melting Pot. Johnson's wit is as supple as his line, and these comics encompass a wide range of feelings and themes. Some invite the reader to ponder what's changed since the '70s, while others remain glaringly relevant. As two black grads in mortarboards contemplate their diplomas, one says, "Well, I guess now I'll see if Standard Oil or the Bank of America needs a consultant with a degree in Black History."
Confronted at her door by five policemen with guns, a black woman says, "You can't raid our house now; the place is a mess!" This collection isn't just a long-overdue tribute to a great cartoonist; it's a terrific read.
The Night Eaters: She Eats the Night
Having dazzled audiences with their 2015 Monstress series, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda have no intention of letting their fans escape them. The Night Eaters features many elements familiar from Monstress: ambiguous characters, grotesque violence, a sense of slow-building horror and, most distinctively, Takeda's astonishing art. Here the most ambiguous character is Ipo, a onetime stuntwoman from Hong Kong who now lives in Queens. Gnarled and scowly, Ipo smokes, hates vegetables and knows a lot of secrets. When she decides to show her adult children inside the yucky old house across the street (a hellhole where "even the yard smells like death"), their smug modernity is in for a stirring comeuppance. As in Monstress, the sheer effort that must have gone into each of Takeda's pages is as mesmerizing as the skill on display. Luminous hues, vibrant character designs and electrifying compositions make virtually every panel its own work of art. This is just Book 1 of Liu and Takeda's new world, so be ready to hear a lot more about Night Eaters for some time to come.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.