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Total recall

With drawings and text, these graphic novels conjure vivid moments in public and personal history

Email|Print| Text size + By Carlo Wolff
December 9, 2007

Inquiries into history and outsider status spark a striking sampling of recent graphic literature. Nick Abadzis's homage to the first dog in space is largely traditional in its blend of image and word. Similarly, Ann Marie Fleming's reconstruction of the story of her great-grandfather, Rutu Modan's edgy walk along the personal-political border, and Adrian Tomine's finely drawn analysis of young, overintellectualized love hew to lesser and greater degrees of relative conventionality. A history of Students for a Democratic Society resembles author Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor" series in its deadpan realism but transcends the expected by virtue of its many voices. Laurence Hyde's offering is a replica of a 1951 "novel of the South Seas" told in wood engravings. It is a stunning narrative in which the visuals, some tortured but all transcendent, do all the talking necessary.

"Laika" (First Second, 205 pp., paperback, $17.95) is the tale of the Moscow street mutt that served as the first guinea pig of space travel. Strapped into Sputnik II, which the Communists launched 50 years ago to herald the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Laika died of stress and overheating after mere hours in space. By braiding and embellishing her story and those of chief Sputnik II designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev and Yelena Dubrosky, the nurse who came to be Laika's chief caretaker, Abadzis conjures the complex, scary period known as the Cold War. His colors are vivid, his pages dense - most are 12 frames deep though varied in verbosity - and his line is vigorous, if not detailed. Verve and variety, not finesse, are his watchwords. So is the emotional genuineness that makes this kind treatment of an iconic dog so strong.

"The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam: An Illustrated Memoir'' (Riverhead, 170 pp., paperback, $14) is a "graphicization" of a 2003 documentary film the talented Canadian Fleming made about her great-grandfather, a magician and acrobat who toured internationally in the first half of the 20th century. Told in drawings, photographs, and words, it's quite unlike other graphic novels in its dynamism (fan the tiny figures at the bottom of each page fast; they're like contemporary flipbooks and the Fleer Funnies that used to wrap chunks of Dubble Bubble gum). In tracking Sam from his origins in China to his success in the United States and Europe, it links Fleming to her hybrid roots; she was born in Okinawa of Chinese and Australian parentage. Long Tack Sam's life, though it had its ups and downs, is convincingly magical; it also embodied issues of race, commerce, and creativity that still dog us.

Modan's "Exit Wounds" (Drawn & Quarterly, 172 pp., $19.95) also is about coming to terms with family. Economical of line but vivid in its use of color to denote emotion, it's the story of Koby Franco, a Tel Aviv taxi driver who learns that his estranged father, Gabriel, may have died in a suicide bombing. Consumed by his hostility toward Gabriel, he tangles with Numi, a rich girl who had an affair with him. Modan crafts a meditation on identity in which representatives of various generations intermingle, sex is a weapon, and politics nearly conquers love. Modan, who has worked with Etgar Keret, another piquant Israeli graphic novelist and member of the Actus collective, doesn't always like what she sees in her native land. But she'll never turn a blind eye.

"Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History" (Hill and Wang, 211 pp., paperback, $22) interprets a groundbreaking political group of the '60s with words, pictures, and passion. It offers versions of history told by former members of SDS eager to reclaim honor for a group that can lay claim to being part of the seedbed of the women's liberation and black power movements. After Pekar, artist Gary Dumm and editor Paul Buhle (a founder of the SDS journal, Radical America) tell the chronological history of SDS, separate accounts of SDS activity in Chicago, Cleveland, Madison, Wis., and elsewhere round out the picture. Pekar has become an acute pop sociologist, and Dumm's neutral art only underlines the electrical charge of the times. Among the notable "soloists": Wes Modes, whose recounting of the fatal shooting of four Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, has the dense, grainy poignancy of the Zapruder JFK assassination film; David Roheim, whose text-heavy, brilliant "Iowa SDS Story" sums up the intoxicating highs (and crashes) of the late '60s; and Bruce Rubenstein's end piece on the revival of SDS.

Tomine's narrowly focused "Shortcomings" (Drawn & Quarterly, 108 pp., $19.95) pits brittle Ben Tanaka against sensitive, sensual Miko Hayashi, the girlfriend he still wants. Ben is possessive and unfaithful, while Miko has wanderlust and a healthy sense of privacy. Tomine plays his feelings close to the vest, presenting simultaneously spare and spacious pages that allow the moods of his tightly wound characters to flicker and flare. A cutting portrayal of losers beautiful and otherwise, "Shortcomings" is a sophisticated designer downer, intelligently framed by Tomine to convey charged situations that don't resolve easily. Graphic novels are rarely this disquieting and subtle.

Hyde's "Southern Cross: A Novel of the South Seas" (Drawn & Quarterly, 255 pp., $24.95) is a work of protest about the atomic-bomb testing the United States conducted in the South Pacific after World War II. It traverses an idyllic South Pacific island visited by the American military, which plants an atomic bomb under the sea, forcing the islanders to evacuate. A US soldier's rape of an island woman prompts the woman's husband to kill the American; it's a frightening sequence and apt symbol of that other violation, the bomb implantation itself. Some of Hyde's images are so packed they're hard to make out, let alone bear. But the message - pacifist, angry, pure - is unmistakable. A timely reissue indeed.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer and author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories," regularly reviews graphic novels for the Globe.

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