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What's in a Graphic Novel?

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Issue: 28 Section: Arts

May 6, 2005

What's in a Graphic Novel?

by Jane Henderson

It's fun to ask people to define the phrase "graphic novel." A few people still hate it for giving literary pretensions to an immature preoccupation with the gory and fantastic. Another militant minority hates it for selling out the comix underdog and toadying to the aforementioned literary pretensions.

Most people just find it weird that, under this heading, you find Spiderman and a Holocaust memoir sharing the same shelf.

Fair enough. But I enjoy this loose and baggy category. Simple but true, these books do share something special which sets them apart from the rest of the fiction/non-fiction world. Books with pictures, and books that are pictures, make us read differently and understand story differently, whether they're organized by frame or collage, in sequence or at random. They challenge our vocabulary--should we talk about "viewing" or "reading," "figures" or "characters"? And though comic-strip conventions are often used, there's little formulaic to be found.

Recent works like Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, Craig Thompson's gigantic novel Blankets, and Marjane Satrapi's Iranian memoirs, Persepolis I and II, have been picking up international attention and awards. Here are introductions to three recent, dissimilar Canadian works which I was happy to discover in that curious collection behind the Tolkien display.

sethcover.jpg Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea
by John Gallant and Seth
Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal, 2004

Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea is a charming book to hold. Small, dark, clothbound, its endearing presentation is at odds with its stark contents. It's a father-son collaboration; renowned cartoonist Seth spent a decade collecting, sifting, and assembling his dad's reminiscences of childhood in Depression-era Prince Edward Island. Somehow the stories morphed from the adventurous tales Seth remembered his father telling to reveal a reality of "awful desperation… the memories of a neglected starving child." Seth's introduction is told in comic-strip frames, his father's words appear as text, and illustrations and diagrams by both appear throughout. Mixed in between stories like "I Walked All the Way to the Lobster Factory Just to Get Fired" are wry lists like "Night-Time Snacks." (This includes:

"2. Raw turnip. Scoop with spoon and eat.
3. Apple (in summer). Slice and eat.
4. Raw carrot. Eat."


This prickly treasure evokes both grief and nostalgia. Its content and presentation capture the conundrum beautifully.

boylecover.jpg Witness My Shame
by Shary Boyle
Conundrum Press, Montreal, 2004

Insistent, often unpolished, and flecked with humour, Shary Boyle's drawings expose private vice and public embarrassment. Witness My Shame assembles nine "bookworks," one collaborative piece, and assorted drawings. Words are few or absent altogether, and her subjects, like a girl caught masturbating with a birthday cake, surprise and disturb. The minibooks, such as "I Feel Funny Mommy," "Horny" and "Homestead, Scarborough" become chapters in this larger story about longing and vulnerability flayed open. Told almost entirely in pictures, Boyle's characters live in an imaginative world, confused and funny, lusty and driven.

ahlercover.jpg Fatal Distraction
by Sonja Ahlers
Insomniac Press, (Toronto), 2004

Hundreds of clipped images, scribbles, and snippets of text stuff this anarchic compendium. Ahlers' second book is a tribute to obsession which she suggests reading "in a random sort of way or front to back."

Each page of the miscellany can stand alone: "I don't wanna be in the opening band singing about the artist working the art supply store," reads one page; "I've been repeating myself for years," says a cherub perched on a record. When viewed sequentially, different stories appear. Page-numberless, Fatal Distraction offers limitless potential for conversations between its component parts.

Its black-and-white contents appear scattered yet meticulously assembled. Its disorder both mocks and rewards a reader's longing for sequence and story. Ahlers riffs on work, anxiety, shopping, rock and roll, BC pot, sensitivity, and Fatal Attraction, of course.… trying to contain this book in a list is absurd. Just go play with it.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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