Graphic Novels

By Douglas Wolk
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Frog Eyes and Gooseflesh

In a lot of ways, Renee French's The Ticking (Top Shelf, $19.95) is a sweet little story about a boy coming to terms with his odd family and peculiar self. Nonetheless, almost every panel oozes the kind of delicious creepiness that provokes shivers of amused disgust. Edison Steelhead is a curious youngster with a froglike eye on either side of his head; his father, who had the same condition surgically corrected, wants doctors to make his son look (sort of) normal, too. But Edison, who's beginning to love drawing small, grotesque things (scars, flies, geoducks), decides he wants to stay the way he is. Eventually, he leaves his father and "sister" (a monkey in a little-girl frock) to become an illustrator for fly-fishing catalogues -- but his family isn't done with him yet.

The book is paced with the deliberate calmness of an insect crawling across dead skin: There are only one or two little images on each page, surrounded by merciful white space and the occasional line of understated dialogue. French has a second career drawing children's books as Rainy Dohaney, and she's illustrated The Ticking with the same sort of meticulously rendered, cute, soft pencil textures; the difference is that here it's the softness of something that may have gone bad.

Mutable Mutations

The dominant metaphor of the X-Men comics has always been that their "mutant" heroes are the hated and feared Other -- a stand-in for every oppressed minority at once. Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel's House of M (Marvel, $24.99), collecting the miniseries that was one of last year's best-selling comic books, neatly flips that idea inside-out. A deranged mutant with the power to alter reality rewrites history; suddenly, mutants are the world's ruling élite, with the former arch-villain Magneto as their king, and homo sapiens is an outmoded underclass. The only people who remember the way the world used to be are a small group of superheroes, mostly mutant affiliates of the X-Men, who know they're obligated to set things right, at the cost of everything they've always longed for. Their attempt to re-establish the timeline they once knew becomes a disaster because of their panicked, mistaken assumptions.

Bendis skillfully juggles a huge cast, dropping just enough hints about each character's new history to suggest a broader rewriting of familiar storylines than he's got room to shoehorn in, and Coipel's artwork is lively if a bit generic. Unfortunately, the plot is riddled with holes and ludicrous contrivances, and the conclusion substitutes pyrotechnics for dramatic closure; it's much less a resolution to the book's subtexts and moral dilemmas than a cheap setup for future sequels.

Divine Hallucinations

Mome is the closest thing the art-comics world has to a literary quarterly -- a squarebound, lushly produced magazine featuring new work by a fairly stable lineup of mostly young American cartoonists. David B. is 47 years old and French, but the editors made a welcome exception for his magnificent story "The Armed Garden," which leads Mome's Winter 2006 issue (Fantagraphics, $14.95). Taking off from his graphic novel Epileptic 's themes of religious ecstasy, warfare and madness, B.'s unnerving tale delves into the 15th-century conflict in Bohemia between Taborites and Adamites, two sects that both believed themselves to be divinely inspired, and quickly veers away from the historical record and into the realm of fable. Most of the story's gorgeous images are half-abstract and symbolic -- they're effectively representations of the characters' schizophrenic perceptions, in which everything in the physical world, no matter how horrible, appears in its majestic spiritual aspect. The rest of the issue is hit-or-miss -- there's a little too much wart-flaunting autobiography.. Still, a few pieces are promising, especially Anders Nilsen's offhanded free-associative doodle "On Whaling" and the third installment of David Heatley's daffy, taboo-heavy, deliberately crudely drawn serial "Overpeck," which involves a headless dog, a mysterious naked girl wandering around railroad tracks, and a battered, underwear-clad prophet who lives in a "temporary fort."

Satirical Biting

Another notable French cartoonist, Joann Sfar, has recently seen a chunk of his prodigious output translated into English -- The Rabbi's Cat was one of last year's most disarming surprises. Vampire Loves (First Second, $16.95) collects the first four volumes of Sfar's dry-witted "Grand Vampire" series. "Vampire" is usually code for "dark romanticism," but even life-beyond-death hasn't improved the love life of its nebbishy protagonist, Ferdinand. He's an old-fashioned, mild-mannered neck-biter, who prefers tango to younger vamps' goth rock; his favorite snack is "scabitos" ("they're like chips, but made from coagulated blood"). As the story opens, he's just had a bad breakup with his tree-monster girlfriend, and decides to drown his sorrows by exploring the after-hours demimonde of monster society.

Sfar's got a charmingly distracted, scribbly visual style -- even his panel borders seem perpetually on the verge of wriggling away -- and his stories have a habit of meandering off on one tangent or another. One episode, "Lonely Hearts Crossing," starts out addressing Ferdinand's romantic troubles aboard an all-monster cruise ship, but gets sidetracked into a plot concerning a pair of supernatural researchers, then a long piece of slapstick involving a jar of "monster putty" being shaped into Lovecraftian creatures. The funniest sequences here, though, follow the strangely familiar social entanglements and petty frustrations of the undead; girls always go for the obnoxious werewolves, it seems. ยท

Douglas Wolk writes about comic books for Publishers Weekly, Salon and the Believer. He is the author of "Reading Comics."

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