ForeWord Reviews

great books independent voices

Visual Tributes to Themes of Death and Remembrance

Through a Lens, Darkly

I’ve a confession: I rarely use concepts like shared themes, settings, or other filters when assembling a reading list. Instead, I usually focus on what I believe are the best graphic novels being published. So imagine my surprise when I realized that this time there is something shared among my choices: it revolves around the bifurcated theme of death and remembrance. But while this link might exist, it doesn’t mean that any of these selections constitute “heavy reading.”

Take Lamia Ziadé’s Bye Bye Babylon (Interlink Graphic, 978-1-56656-877-7), for instance. It’s a powerful graphic memoir charting her experiences as a well-to-do preteen living in a 1970s Beirut, Lebanon, increasingly ravaged by civil war. No short review, no matter how accurate, can begin to capture the full emotional impact of Ziadé’s simply phrased reminiscences, or the narrative power wielded by her evocative, child-like illustrations. Nor can it wholly convey the stunning effect as Technicolor renditions of favorite consumer goods and trademarked institutions give way to an unending visual catalog of weaponry, camouflage, and assassination techniques in all their Day-Glo glory.

It’s an absurdly simple solution for presenting the absurdity of her reality, one that effectively underscores perhaps the most terrible truth of modern life: ours is a world where everything, including life and death itself, is a commodity. Essentially, the very same forces that powered prewar Beirut were later subverted to drive all the death, destruction, rape, and pillage that convulsed that once idyllic city.

Although Bye Bye Babylon is, in truth, more of an illustrated prose tale than a graphic memoir—there really isn’t any sequential storytelling involved—it still serves as a prime example of the inherent adaptability of the comics format, even as it highlights some of the unique emotional, literary, and visual effects offered by the medium.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland (Top Shelf Productions and Zip Comics, 978-1-60309-091-9) is the final work from a master of the graphic memoir. Pekar entered comics in the ’70s, scripting issues of his own American Splendor series and other memory-based comics. Pekar proved to be a gifted graphic raconteur, seemingly capable of penning an engrossing yarn on any subject. He was so highly regarded that a string of artists happily lined up to work with him, starting with the godfather of underground comics himself, Robert Crumb.

Joseph Remnant was chosen to illustrate Pekar’s final ramble, and the artist demonstrates on every page why he’s the perfect foil for portraying the ever-prickly Pekar and his world. Remnant’s fluid line work and solid compositions bring Cleveland to life, instilling every object and player with a sense of real physical and emotional depth.

Still, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland isn’t really about his enduring memories of long-sold baseball teams, or the tentative courting of his wife. Nor is it just concerned with his deeply felt loss after parting with some of his beloved jazz records and out-of-print books, or his rage at the continuing decline of a once-great city and the ravages that crime and unemployment have wrought upon its citizenry.

Ultimately, this is Pekar’s summation, a Rust Belt State of the Union, if you will, delivered from the edge of an abyss that threatens to engulf everything that Harvey Pekar—and the rest of us—cherish. But it also bears witness to how we all keep dreaming, and why we all strive to do better each day, despite it all.

The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson (The Porcupine’s Quill, 978-0-88984-348-6) is the second of George A. Walker’s wordless novels published by this press. As with its predecessor—Book of Hours, a heartfelt examination of the human cost of 9/11—it is beautifully presented, effectively told, and utterly engrossing.

Walker is a wood engraver, illustrator, and teacher, among other things. He carves his striking narratives into wood blocks, assembling his wordless novels one image, one page at a time. A celebrated and widely recognized master of his craft, Walker’s work has a rough-hewn grace and concision augmented by an uncanny ability to convey his characters’ emotions with but chisel and wood, ink, and paper.

This new book focuses on the short life of Tom Thomson, one of Canada’s foremost commercial and landscape artists of the past century. As Walker reveals in his afterword, this novel is a labor of love for him, a passion that’s evident upon every page. Over the course of 109 images, he introduces Thomson, who works at a top Toronto design firm until rampant industrialization and a love of nature lead him to the wilds of northern Ontario. It’s there that Thomson makes his name and meets his questionable fate; and where the reader confronts the most essential human truths.

E. C. Segar, the creator of Popeye the Sailor, is an acknowledged past master of comic strips. From its beginning in 1925, his Thimble Theatre featured a diverse cast that, for all of their personal, psychological, or physical baggage and quirks, embraced life and all it had to offer with relish and gusto.

Popeye himself had little more than a walk-on when Segar introduced him in 1929, but he quickly became the daily strip’s lead. Readers and sponsors alike couldn’t get enough of that salty dog’s malapropisms and outlandish adventures. For his part, Segar obviously loved leading Popeye and friends through one improbable escapade after another until the author’s untimely death in 1938.

Although Me Li’l Swee’ Pea (Fantagraphics, 978-1-60699-483-2) is the sixth and final volume reprinting all of Segar’s Thimble Theatre strips featuring Popeye, readers shouldn’t let that prevent them from picking it up. Despite the fact that it’s filled with appearances by just about every major player in Popeye’s universe, Segar’s considerable prowess with pen, ink, and words eases the way for those unfamiliar with all the players by effectively revealing the shape and form of their inner and outer lives within a few panels. Quite simply, this and the preceding volumes in the series comprise one of the masterworks of modern American literature.

Rohan at the Louvre (NBM ComicsLit and Musee Du Louvre Editions, 978-1-56163-615-0) is the latest original graphic novel copublished by NBM’s ComicsLit imprint and Paris’s Louvre Museum. As with its predecessors, the book draws inspiration not only from the museum’s vaunted collection, but also a belief in the inherent power of art. This time, Japanese mangaka (artist) Hirohiko Araki melds one of the more persistent tropes of Japanese fantasy—the fatally viewed art object—with the conceit that a cursed Japanese painting awaits its next victims deep in the Louvre’s legendary underground archival vaults.

The tale is straightforward, beautifully drawn, and delicately colored, filled with emotional bursts, sudden death, and the scent of eternity. It’s also a great deal of fun.