Sam Leith

The serious business of graphic novels

This year’s ‘comic books’ tackle such weighty subjects as the plight of the Dene people, psychotherapy, human prehistory and Trump’s America

The serious business of graphic novels
From Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan. Credit: Jake Halpern/Michael Sloan
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One of the running jokes about ‘serious’ graphic novels is that so many seem to consist, one way and another, of comics about how lonely, miserable and socially inept comic book creators are. Adrian Tomine leans into the trend, but with great charm, in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist (Faber, £16.99). Here is an autobiographical anthology of humiliation in chronological order — a series of wan vignettes taking the artist from inadequate-feeling schoolboy comics nerd to... inadequate-feeling New Yorker-published middle-aged comics superstar.

Every time he feels he’s arrived, there’s something to remind him he hasn’t: a stinking review; a disobliging comparison to Neil Gaiman or Dan Clowes; Frank Miller not being able to pronounce his name; hopes dashed at an awards ceremony; a couple at the next table in a restaurant discussing the badness of his books. It ends in his mid-forties, when a health scare causes him to reappraise everything:

It made me think about how much of my life has been spent drawing comics, reading comics, thinking about comics! And I don’t even like comics! Okay, that’s not true, but this has been going on since I was two! That’s 42 years!

This impassioned monologue is delivered to — it turns out — his fast-asleep wife. A coda shows him going, well, back to the drawing board.

It’s beautifully produced, designed as a large Moleskine-style sketchbook (complete with faint blue graph-squares and an elastic strap to hold it shut), and would make a nice stocking-filler for the inadequate-feeling middle-aged comics nerd in your own life.

Joe Sacco, another big name in comics, couldn’t be accused of trucking in introspection: he has carved a niche as a comic-book reporter, which is a strange and unusual niche to have. It’s one he has made compelling. You don’t look to Sacco for laughs — previous subjects have included Iraq, the Bosnian War and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict — but his drawings often seem more expressive than photojournalism could be, and he does what journalists do: he goes places, keeps his eyes open, talks to people and writes down what they say. He’s as much a child of Errol Morris as of R Crumb.

In Paying the Land (Cape, £20), he heads for the frozen subarctic Canadian North-Western Territories to untangle the complicated history of the indigenous Dene people and their relationship with the Anglo establishment. Here’s an area ‘the size of France and Spain combined but has a population [...] that might not fill a modern football stadium’. In just one generation a lifestyle of trapping, dogsledding and building moose-skin canoes has given way to snowmobiles, endemic alcoholism and precarious jobs in the fracking industry.

It’s a story, at root, of two radically different ways of relating to the land itself. Sacco’s drawings show you the beauty and vastness of that land and his words set out the knotty problems of those who live in it. And he’s not so callow as simply to demonise the oil industry or romanticise subsistence life. As one of his interviewees who grew up in the old ways tells him: ‘You’re out there at 40 below with the wind howling. Tough way to make a living.’

Reporting is also to the fore in the superb Welcome to the New World: Waking Up in Trump’s America (Bloomsbury, £16.99). Originally serialised as a strip cartoon in the New York Times, Jake Halpern’s meticulous and charming graphic novel, illustrated by Michael Sloan, tells the true story of the Aldabaan family as they make their way as new immigrants in America. They arrived from Jordan on the day of the 2016 election, having originally fled the fighting in Syria — and the comic follows their progress in suburban Connecticut, with its anxieties and encouragements alike. There’s the comedy of culture clash; but also little vignettes of ordinary — and sometimes extraordinary — kindness from neighbours and volunteers and immigrants who shared similar experiences a generation before.

Philippa Perry’s Couch Fiction: A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy (Penguin, £16.99), winningly illustrated by Flo Perry, weaves the author’s real experiences as a psychotherapist into the fictional tale of a therapeutic relationship between ‘Pat’ and a kleptomaniac barrister called ‘James’. It’s absolutely fascinating, and often very funny — as Perry’s footnotes chide her stand-in (‘Pat has forgotten about inter-subjectivity theory’; ‘Luckily, Pat manages to bracket her “phallic potency” interpretation’) or give the reader the inside track on why so many therapists wear open-toed sandals indoors.

In case there’s any household in the nation that doesn’t yet own a copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s zillion-selling Sapiens, or one whose children aren’t yet at the stage of being able to read it, there’s now a zippy new digest of the book in comics form called Sapiens: A Graphic History — Volume One (Cape, £18.99). Illustrated by David Vandermeulen and Daniel Casanave, it’s an imaginative and prankish gallop through human prehistory, with Yuval and his niece Zoe as our guides — and ending in the courtroom in which a certain species of ‘intercontinental serial killers’ gets put on trial.

It’s also worth mentioning that the first graphic novel ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, is 40 years old this year — and has been republished as a handsome and well-priced two-volume boxed set (Viking, £20). Here’s a rightly acknowledged pinnacle of graphic storytelling, exploring the cartoonist’s relationship with his Holocaust survivor father and the latter’s experiences up to and through the war. It’s harrowing and funny and its visual gimmick — Nazis as cats and Jews as mice — in no way takes from its sense of documentary verisimilitude.

Finally, if you prefer your comic-book pleasures a little more lurid but you don’t want anyone to catch you reading Batman, you can always count on John Constantine. The potty-mouthed, chain-smoking, demon-disrespecting Scouse magus is in fine form in John Constantine: Hellblazer, Volume One (DC, £12.99), the first of two trade paperbacks collecting Si Spurrier’s run on the title as a writer. Madness, treachery, evisceration... and William Blake, to add a bit of literary tone.