Reviews by S.F. Winser
Sometimes reading comes in themes. My theme last week was autobiography, with an emphasis of graphic-novel works. Not by intention, it just worked out that way.
And now I'm looking forward to the big pile of bright, shiny graphic short-stories that are next in my To Be Read pile. This week was bloody HARROWING. Each of these books probably deserve their own reviews but I'm a touch emotionally scarred right now, and that prospect fills me with a dread so real I can smell it. Real life SUCKS.
So a compendi-review is what you all get.
You want more, YOU pay for the therapy.
Dark Horse Comix
A great batch of short, true stories from graphic novelists and visual artists. These are a great introduction to the way people tell stories that just happen to be true. There are funny anecdotes, philosophical ruminations, examinations of points-of-time and a whole bunch of great art (Yes, the collective term for art is 'the bunch'. As in 'Look at that bunch of Picasso!' or 'I lost my lunch looking at a bunch of Munch.').
It does just what you would expect from such a compendium, bringing new perspectives on the lives of others while simultaneously introducing the reader to new artists. It's a great selection of old masters and up-and-comers, not all of whom do the autobiographical thing as a habit, and are therefore pushed and challenged in good ways. Not everything here is strong, but these few pieces are more than compensated for by some bits of absolute brilliance.
Alec: The Years Have Pants
by Eddie Campbell
639 pages, Top Shelf Productions
My goodness, what a brick of a book. Eddie Campbell, who is one of the 'old hands' who appeared in the above 'Autobiographix, has always been considered a master of the autobiographical graphic novel (No wonder he hates that term so much. Autobiographical graphic novel: That's a phrase that contains several flavours of wrong.). He's also co-creator of 'From Hell' with Alan Moore, which I have recommended here before and 'Bacchus', his take on what would happen if the Greek god were still around today. In 'Alec', most of his autobiographical work has been collected into a tome that could be classified as a blunt instrument, set into a chronological order and re-edited to flow as one full-length life.
So what we end up with is a wholly satisfying, surprising, honest portrayal of a man's life from the eighties to 2008. From years carousing and womanising and raising hell in Scottish pubs, to years of toil at Art in an underground industry and all the setbacks that entails, to eventual success – with all the setbacks that entails. Eddie (or 'Alec', as his pseudonym is throughout the texts) grows up from up-himself, self-indulgent, heavy beer drinker in Scotland to... still kind of up-himself (but more easygoing about it) artist and publisher living in Queensland, Australia with a taste for fine wines, a wife and one... no two... now three kids in a house bought with the cash from a story about Jack the Ripper.
Campbell's growth as an artist from the first book 'The King Canute Crowd' to the final parts goes from strength to strength. Even better, his ability to structure a story gets better, too. Mostly, these books are anecdotes and vignettes where Campbell's only strictures seem to be that the incidents be either insightful, or interesting or in some way worth the reader's time. Even if they make him look bad or at first glance are tiny and insignificant. In the first book, the structure of these is rollicking and unsure – a perfect way to render a bunch of careless twenty-somethings, and very 'underground', but still a bit hard on the reader. They get better. There isn't really a narrative in 'Alec' except in parts. Mostly, Campbell is showing us bits and pieces of Truth and from these we build the man and his life.
The reader ends up worrying and struggling with Alec. Will he manage to render this idea correctly? Sleep with the cute teenager or her Mum... or both? Fall in love? Get over himself? Get enough money to feed his family? And the few detours the book takes from his life (as in the absolutely brilliant 'How to be an Artist') are still relevant or even actually MORE about his life than the other sections. In what is part of the artistry, the bits about his life seem to actually be about ideas... and the bits where he examines a single idea (Such as 'A History of Humour') are hugely telling, or completely based off of his own experiences or feelings. They're obviously included for very good reason in an autobiography.
The honesty can be a bit confronting. Alec worries a lot, and is sometimes a bit stupid (aren't we all) and so, once we are fully with him, we feel every bit of heartache when a publisher stiffs him of fifteen grand. Or every iota of embarrassment when he destroys a packet of sweets in the premiere of the movie based on of one of his books. The reader feels every nuance of the often strained relationship with his unpredictable best friend, and Campbell builds in real affection for his wife and kids, even if he's complaining about them.
Campbell is sometimes quite funny, often deep, and only every so often strays into self-indulgence. It's hard to turn to a page that hasn't got some nice idea in either the artwork or the text. Collected brilliance from a master.
by Craig Thompson
Top Shelf Productions
Blankets is wonderful. Flatly confirmed by the fact it won... well... everything it pretty much could. I should get that out of the way. It's beautiful. Like 'Alec' the art and text meld in just the way a graphic novel at it's best does. This is not a story that would have worked any other way. Gorgeously handled storytelling, wonderful characters, superlative visuals.
However, this was the beginning of my personal descent into Hell. Remember, this is the third book based on true-stories that I'd read in the space of a few days. I'd just done an 'Alec' marathon and you could even count those as ten separate autobiographies in a row. I'm already empathising on turbo. And then Thompson, skilful bastard that he is, takes my heart and rips it into tiny, desiccated pieces.
This is a story of true love. First love. With two characters who are hyper-real, complex and vulnerable. You simultaneously want to hug them and shake them. And then hug them again.
Thompson takes these two kids who fall in love on a Christian camp and weaves the story of their relationship with an insight that is so damn honest it rubs you raw. And then he – no, Real Life – dumps them into a pile of tangled, dysfunctional relationships and confusing situations. This is very much a book about the many ways relationships can be unhealthy and how that bleeds through to other relationships. The way good people get hurt and hurt each other – and I'm not talking about the protagonists. This collection of surrounding turmoil would be enough, but all this goes on with the pair of innocents at the centre, clinging to each other with an almost fanatic intensity, while buffeted by waves of stress, emotional storms and religion turned sour. Every time Craig is tormented by religious-guilt and encouraged in it by the supposed protectors in his life, every time Raina's mother takes a pill for stress and hides in her bedroom... the reader gets that empathetic kick in the guts, like you were witnessing it and feeling all the turmoil of someone who was sitting on the couch next to them, watching it actually happen. And what hurts more is the realisation that most of this is based off Thompson's actual experiences. It's a double-punch to the soul.
In a book called 'Blankets' it's no surprise that comfort and togetherness are major themes. The masterful way Thompson has structured this in his graphic masterwork is... umm... masterly (didn't leave myself much room there, did I?). Taking this everyday object and using it as a symbol in so many different, relevant ways. 'Blankets' is impeccable story-pacing, character development and theme revelation. Did I say 'masterly' and 'masterwork' yet? I did? Damn. Okay: it's masterful, then.
By the end of the book, there's a definite sense of hope, but I still wanted to cry for Thompson. Raina. Their siblings – even their parents. I very rarely use the almost impossible word 'perfect' or the rather silly 'bittersweet' when discussing literature, but they're simply the right words. 'Blankets' is bittersweet perfection.
And we still have two more to go...
The Happiest Refugee
by Anh Do
229 pages, Allen and Unwin
Yes, I'm a sucker for punishment. I'm emotionally worn-out and I pick up a book – a true story and not even a graphic novel – with the word 'Refugee' in the title.
But give me some credit. Anh Do is frickin' hilarious. He's a stand-up comic, pretty well known in Australia. He was on 'Dancing with the Stars' out here, for example. This was gonna be a story about a kid whose family came from somewhere harsh, but he grew up happy. I mean 'Happiest' is in the title, too! There will be jokes! And industry gossip!
Then I read the book. And I barely stop myself from crying. God damn you, Anh Do! You and your emotional-rollercoaster life!
(You can tell I'm starting to lose it by this stage because of! All! The! Exclamation! Marks...)
There are jokes. And even better, as I exclaimed to my wife as I read, 'Holy crap! Anh Do can WRITE!'. Years as a comedian and law-student have given him some raconteur skills, but I suspect that he always had a talent with language. You don't write this well without it.
This is an incident packed book and yes, as I said, it's full of 'the funny' but Do has a lot of life to draw upon. His parents' life in war-destroyed Vietnam. Daring prison breaks. Murders. Their flight with their two sons
and half their extended families on a rickety boat. Pirates. Broken Engines. More pirates.
And then, growing up in Australia, full of gratitude and wonder at their new country. Anh captures Aussie suburban life through the eyes of an outsider culture, while from the inside. He's an Aussie as far as he and anyone else is concerned. There is childhood joy.
But, of course, the book can't end there. The struggle to make it in this country consumes his parents. His brave father and compassionate mother. The whole extended family of aunts and uncles. When this fails spectacularly his father becomes depressed and estranged, leaving Anh to tell the story of three kids to a single mum struggling in the Aussie suburbs. Anh gets that drive of so many eldest kids to look after everyone. The domestic ups and downs are told with honesty and grace. Anyone who has been in similar circumstance will relate, but even those who haven't can't help but be charmed by Anh's determination and pride and humour, his mum's focus on helping everyone at the same time as expecting the best from her children in very hard circumstances, his brother's humility and selflessness.
In the end, of course we get redemption. Anh finally woos the love of his life. Makes it big as a comedian (after dropping a ripe Law job). His brother wins Young Australian of the Year for his charity work. They make a film and win awards. Anh meets his father again and can't decide whether to punch him or hug him... It all goes much better than that. He buys his mum a house. It's all interspersed with funny, telling incidents and the revelation of enough skeletons in the closet to make a soap-opera writer drool. At least one of these is probably unique in literature in the way the family find out.
Anh is smart, funny and personable. You enjoy the entire time you're with him on the page. He comes across as a genuine Nice Guy. So this makes his triumphs all the more satisfying... however it also makes the setbacks – and there are many – hurt like hell.
Most celebrities, A or B or C grade, have to pad their autobiographies. I reckon even if Do had stayed a lawyer this book still wouldn't have been much shorter. It still would have been a truly interesting book of harsh beginnings, working-class struggles and eventual redemption and joy well worth the telling. Only the end few pages would have been any different – and probably Lawyer-Anh-Do would have found a few interesting things there, too.
So, reader SFW is worn out. But at least there was a happy ending.. What's next on the pile....?
by Joe Sacco
285 pages, Jonathan Cape
You know what – I really want to do this book justice. It's very brave. Sacco goes into Gaza and all sorts of hard, torn places. Draws what he feels and sees.
And I am too worn out by it to keep myself on track. One last comment from the wife: 'You just read a book called 'Palestine' and you're acting surprised that you're depressed. What exactly were you expecting?'
So I don't think I can. There's some wonderful art, though not often “beautiful”. There's not much chance for that in refugee camps. Sacco's faces are on the far side of the caricature/portrait divide. This is more Hogarth than Raphael. But this is the work of someone highly skilled. He is unashamedly telling only one side of the story (with the exception of a small interlude) and I don't think he's trying to be for one side or the other. It's
just that the Palestinian story had much more interest for him.
If your mind is made up for Israel, I don't think you'll like this book very much. And you'll probably miss the point. If it's for Palestine, it'll probably make you very angry. And you'll probably miss the point. The two last incidents retold in the book are Israeli soldiers making a small boy stand in the rain while they take his temporary rain-shelter, and small boys planning a stone-attack on a bus of innocent people. These were not accidentally placed. And in a book where Sacco has basically wandered The Holy Land asking people's opinions and experiences and drawing them, the last opinion that is shown on-page is from an Israeli talking about how both states are basically racists and the choice is whether it's two racist states, or one racist state suppressing the formation of the other. With actual people being hurt and divided either way.
We already know that terrorism is indefensible. And there are Palestinian atrocities. A lot of even the 'lesser' stuff the Palestinians do is simply stupid. And I (and I suspect, most readers) will be wary of the idea that all of the Israeli aggression described in the book was unprovoked. But the Israeli response is equally bad. Understandable, perhaps, but evil is still evil. Torturing potential plotters is torture. Suppression for the best reason is still suppression. Innocent people in Palestine suffer for Israel's peace of mind and security and the people of Israel don't even get that peace of mind and security as a result. Israeli soldiers end up needing therapy after being forced to do things to Palestinians. Ordinary Israelis live in fear and often a sense of guilt at what is done in their name. Some of them actually seem to blame the Palestinians simply so that they don't have to think about how badly they are sometimes treated. Good God, the entire situation is just goddamn bloody twisted and I am in no state by this stage to manage a rational response to it, or this book.
There's one part where I finally broke down. After all this reading about hardship and pain – and not just in this book – there's a bright Palestinian girl, living under a tin-roof surrounded by muddy streets who questions Sacco about his life with genuine warmth and curiosity. A ten year old asking what the soldiers do to people in his country? What do the PLO do? What do you mean you don't have PLO? What about Fateh? What is his house like? This stuff is normal to her. I bloody lost it.
It's a stupid situation, no matter which way you hack it to death with machetes. The last in-depth interview Sacco does is with a Palestinian man who is pretty much the only one in the book not to say that he wants peace. Not that he doesn't want it, but because this is a man who is cheerfully admits that he thinks that all the Palestinian factions are idiots, the Israeli government are idiots and peace will never actually happen. That the religious and political situation will basically continue forever because everyone is happy to say 'I just want peace' but none of them actually want it as much as they hate each other. It's very hard to disagree.
And now I'm off to read books about fuzzy chickens. Or lamb-ies. Or fuzzy lamb-ies who are bestest friends with even fuzzier chickens! YAY! Let's go get an ice cream!!