Graphic novels that would make good gifts
This story is from BostonGlobe.com, the only place for complete digital access to the Globe.
If printed volumes are to survive the avalanche of e-books and other screen-based literary media, their rescuers may well be graphic novels. Visually rich, physically substantial, and tactilely satisfying, graphic novels and their nonfiction cousins deliver a powerful counterpunch to the tyranny of pixels. Subtleties of color, tone, line work, and the interplay of ink on high-quality paper offer a visual experience that gets lost in digital reproduction. Here is a small sampling of the diverse offerings from 2012 that might delight someone on your holiday list and help keep printing presses humming.
The standout work of the year is Chris Ware’s breathtaking treasure chest, “Building Stories.” It is a sumptuous box containing 14 beautiful books of varying sizes, formats, and lengths. They include small pamphlets, a newspaper-size broadsheet, a folding board suggestive of a Monopoly game, and several bound books, including one designed to pay homage to children’s Little Golden Books. There is no suggested sequence, and the reader is enlisted in “building stories” by choosing where to start. The books share a setting (postwar Chicago), a main character (and her relationships or lack thereof over several decades), and a mood (intimate and introspective).
The concept of “building stories” radiates further. Many of the tales take place in a three-story townhouse — a structure with consciousness, a memory and, like all the characters in the collected stories, a gnawing insecurity. Several detailed cutaways of the 1902 building, drawn in the architectural orthogonal perspective that Ware favors, enumerate things the house remembers over its life. They include 301 tenants, 5 wars, 231 drain clogs, 178 trysts, 21,779 toenail clippings, 6 suicide notes, and 4 prostheses.
One of the prostheses belongs to the main character, who lost her lower left leg in a childhood accident. The loss presages others as she lives and relives her search for love and purpose. Ware paints a portrait of contemporary middle-class anxiety and longing that is convincing and moving. The dialogue of misaligned relationships is as precise and evocative as Ware’s rendering of place, form, and especially gesture. He explains in introductory notes on the box that these are stories that speak to a sense of disappointment “whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else.”
The interweaving existential struggles of the characters extend all the way to a bee that is attracted to the building’s flowers. In two of the books, Ware plumbs the anguished thoughts of “Branford – The Best Bee in the World.” Branford, a sensitive and self-critical worker bee, loves his wife and family but is tormented by feverish fantasies of fertilizing the hive’s queen. It’s very funny and poignant. The bee books have a more stylized look than the others, but all are visually rich, full color, and powerfully drawn. On the last page of one book, Ware uses 33 wordless panels to depict the townhouse’s elderly landlady in her kitchen taking a bite of a sandwich and a sip of water. Cutting from her hands, to her plate, to the view out her window, it is spare, masterful, and cinematic, with the added pleasure that the reader can slow the movie down and give the character, the setting, and the commanding artwork their due. (A word of caution: Not for those with poor vision — some of the lettering is small and intricate.)
For the music lover or American history buff, try “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song.’’ It’s not a novel but reads like one. Written by Frank Young and drawn by David Lasky, it recounts the history of the famed country music family from their roots in Poor Valley, Va., to their national radio and recording fame. Young uses dialogue in the dialect of the time and region to recreate the rocky road to stardom the family traveled between the early 20th century and their disbanding as a group in 1943. Their legacy continued long after in the music of The Carter Sisters, in the collaboration of June Carter with her third husband, singer Johnny Cash, and in a host of country musicians who followed them.
The Carters faced hunger, tuberculosis, religious strictures, bigotry against black musicians they worked with, and interpersonal betrayals as they made their way out of sawmills and tobacco fields to recording studios and regular radio appearances. Lasky’s carefully rendered, colored-ink drawings capture the feeling of both rural life and teeming cities of the 1920s and ’30s. The book is handsomely designed and printed and comes with a CD featuring 11 songs culled from the family’s radio recordings.Continued...