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Words and pictures

The German poet Goethe once received a unique manuscript from a friend. It was a satirical novel that conveyed its story in words and pictures and was only available for private circulation. The story was laid out in illustrated panels much like the modern comic strip. Goethe sent a note of praise to its author, Rodolphe Topffer, a Swiss Professor of Literature, who was then inspired to have it published for a mass audience. Topffer's satirical novels became a rage in Europe, which led to the English translation of one of his works being published by a New York newspaper in its entirety in 1842. Thus many believe The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck was the first graphic novel to be published and it predates, by more than half a century, the publication of the first American comic strip The Yellow Kid.

The term graphic novel, however, only became popular in the 1970s  after the publication of Will Eisner's   A Contract with God, a collection of short stories that explored complexities of ordinary lives. The term was intended to describe long-form works that used all the creative tools of comics to tell their stories but were not published in the traditional comic book format. But with the success of Art Spiegelman's holocaust memoir Maus, which won a Pulitzer, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen that won the prestigious Hugo for science fiction, the term came to represent content that was meant for a more intellectual audience as opposed to comics. But this is not quite the truth, as what passes off  as a graphic novel often is  really a compilation of comic books covering a wide spectrum of genres, including non-fiction.

I spent the last month of 2014 catching up with some recent releases.  First up was Brian K Vaughan's Saga, a space opera that has been marketed as Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars via Game of Thrones! The plot revolves around  Hazel and her fugitive parents from opposing planets,  as they try to find a safe place in a universe dominated by a never-ending war, while being chased by assorted bounty hunters. Vaughan's gripping text is well-matched by Fiona Staple's lush digital illustrations that are inspired by video game imagery and Japanese animation.

In Letter 44: Escape Velocity by Charles Soule, the newly elected President of the United States receives a letter from the outgoing President, on his first day of office. The letter reveals an explosive secret. Aliens near Jupiter are building what could be a weapon targeted at Earth. The action deftly shifts between a space mission out to establish contact with the aliens and Washington D.C., where the President has to simultaneously cope with the revelations and the political intrigues of his predecessor. If Jeff Smith's Bone was an entertaining fantasy tale for all ages, his latest RASL is gripping science fiction noir for adults. Drawing inspiration from Nikola Tesla's theories and Native American customs, the plot revolves around an art thief, who has the ability to shift dimensions using a portal-like device.  Smith's artwork evokes all the dark shadows and sense of unease that is the hallmark of film noir, which is also the inspiration for Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter. Adapted by illustrator Darwyn Cook from the crime novel written by Donald Westlake, it opens with pages and pages of action with almost no dialogue, as its hard-boiled protagonist Parker returns seemingly from the dead, to exact revenge for a double-cross in a drug deal and betrayal by his girlfriend. It's almost like reading a story boarded screenplay with all the retro elements of production design in place, faithfully capturing the look and feel of 1960s New York.

For cape crusader quotient, check out the first volume of Ms Marvel: No Normal featuring  16-year-old Kamala Khan.  In this introductory volume, she has to learn to control her superpowers while she tackles the confusion and angst of growing up  in New Jersey as part of a Pakistani immigrant family. Writer Willow Wilson, whose previous acclaimed works include the graphic novel Cairo and the fantasy novel Alif the Unseen, is to be lauded for her sensitive portrayal of this American superhero, the first of South Asian origin.

Michael Cho's protagonist in Shoplifter has the angst but is no superhero. Corrina Park is a literature student who comes to the city with big dreams. This slice-of-life story tackles Park's quest to find fulfilment in striking two-colour art work.

The angst of a successful person is the subject of The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story. Vivek Tiwary and Andrew Robinson document the story of the man who discovered The Beatles and took them to great heights of popular and critical acclaim. It is also the story of a man who had to cope with anti-Semitism and his homosexuality. The narration mixes straight biography with surreal elements in keeping with the sights and sounds of the Swinging Sixties.

And finally, to a book that's featured in many critics' year-end lists. Roz Chast's Can't We talk about something more pleasant? is a humorous and moving account of her parents. Using cartoons, family photographs and documents, Chast's memoir is a triumph of the medium with a message that conveys universal truths about the parent-child relationship.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 7:51:06 AM |

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