What to Read
Slide show: On subjects ranging from war and love to physics and prostitution, 10 dazzling new illustrated books
“Habibi” by Craig Thompson (Pantheon)
It’s been seven years since the publication of Thompson’s much-celebrated autobiographical “Blankets,” but that hardly seems enough time to produce a work as epic as “Habibi,” a story of love, injustice and loyalty set in a semi-fantastical Middle East that includes both camel caravans and skyscrapers. Dodola, a heartbreakingly young girl sold into marriage and then kidnapped into slavery, escapes with a little boy named Zam into a desert hideout. Their life there is idyllic if precarious, until Dodola is abducted yet again and imprisoned in the sultan’s harem. In the long, winding and adventurous tale of how the pair find each other again, Thompson gives full rein to his love of Arabic calligraphy and the region’s great storytelling tradition. “Habibi” is like a big, rousing, unabashedly tear-jerking Dumas novel, with fascinatingly intricate designs and fabulous tales on almost every page.
“Daytripper” by F
Each chapter of this gorgeously drawn book tells the story of a Brazilian man named Bras at a particular age — 32, 21, 7, 47 — and each one ends with his death. He either has the chance to travel around Latin America with his best friend Jorge or to land a job at the obituaries desk of a newspaper or to write a novel as good as the works of his celebrated literary father or to marry the love of his life or to have a child of his own — or not. Genuine maturity can be hard to find in the comics genre, and “Daytripper” makes for a noteworthy exception. It brings the wisdom of such modernist novels as “Mrs. Dalloway” to the question of how the ending of a life reshapes what that life means. How much do we owe to friendship (a relationship portrayed with great sensitivity here)? Are the misty promises of the future worth sacrificing the vivid experiences of the moment? Does the joy of a deep love compensate for the despair that comes with losing it? What does it mean to live fully, and well? Of course, these riddles are unanswerable, but it’s the asking that counts.
“Big Questions” by Anders Nilsen (Drawn & Quarterly)
At the center of this fat hardcover opus is a collection of ordinary birds, initially drawn as expressionless little blobs pecking at dots of seed. Soon these birds — who have names like Charlotte, Betty and Curtis — begin a bemused investigation into the nature of their existence. This encompasses a sort of religion that the birds construct around a discarded missile they mistake for an egg and their attempts to answer such questions as “To what extent are we responsible for the fulfillment of our destinies?” and “Where does food come from?” An old lady and her mentally disabled son, a downed jet pilot with a thing for swans, and a snake with an obscure agenda are drawn into their orbit and provide even more puzzles to contemplate with results both funny and deep. (Observing a man pulling bark off a tree to get at the grubs beneath, one bird marvels, “He must have the strength of 20 birds! … Science is amazing.”) Nilsen’s drawings become more elaborate and evocative as the book goes along, and in time he brings his drolly stoic intelligence to bear on seemingly every big question known to man or bird.
“Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land” by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle, eds. (Abrams)
Let’s face it — goyim like me (and maybe you) are unlikely to sit down with a scholarly text on the history of Yiddish culture as it traveled from the old world to the new. But a m
“The Arctic Marauder” by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics)
This French artist’s unabashedly campy tribute to Jules Vernes’ proto-steampunk adventure yarns is all about the art — spectacularly composed black-and-white evocations of arctic landscapes and Victorian contraptions. A young Frenchman with a trapezoidal hairdo is traveling on a mail steamship through the icebergs outside of Murmansk when the crew stumbles upon a bizarre sight: a sailing vessel frozen atop a column of ice towering above the ocean surface. How did it get there? Why are other ships in the area exploding for no discernible reason? Why did our hero’s late uncle leave behind a laboratory full of pickled animal specimens when he wasn’t a biologist and what is that weird ice-covered gizmo in the back storeroom? Tardi has drawn a tribute to a venerable genre that partakes of its wonders while poking gentle fun at its preposterous twists and turns. The result is pure fun.
“Flight of Angels” by Rebecca Guay, with Holly Black, Bill Willingham, Alisa Kwitney, Louise Hawes and Todd Mitchell (Vertigo)
An angel falls to earth in a forest, where he’s discovered by a motley assortment of magical creatures — a troll, a witch, a nymph, a faun, a talking fox and a fairy prince. They squabble over whether they should nurse him, kill him or leave him alone. They decide to hold a “trial” in which each witness presents as testimony a story revealing the truth about angelic nature. Like the setup for a classic medieval collection of tales, this premise allows five authors to contribute five very different stories on the central theme. As with most anthologies, some stories are better than others. A sly retelling of the story of the Fall by Louise Hawes and Alisa Kwitney’s recasting of a Russian fairy tale about a woman who tricks the angel of death are particular standouts. Every story, however, is lushly illustrated in full color by Guay, the book’s presiding talent. Varying her style subtly to match the material at hand, she can do the blurry reverie of a Regency romance, the bold patterns of folk art, and an ornate, Beaux Arts style reminiscent of Arthur Ransome and the Pre-Raphaelites, each one languidly gorgeous.
“Everything Is Its Own Reward” by Paul Madonna (City Lights)
You don’t have to have lived in or loved San Francisco to fall under the spell of Madonna’s mysterious and largely unpeopled cityscapes. San Francisco isn’t the only place he draws with the miraculously exquisite attention on display here (Paris, Rome and Buenos Ares also appear) but something about the fog off the bay makes it particularly well suited to his dreamy and surprisingly emotional pen-and-ink images. Madonna eschews well-known and much-photographed places in favor of the spaces between old Victorians, neglected corners, intersections that seem to cant dangerously into space, vistas of rooftops bristling with pipes and ganglia-like clusters of power lines, all paired with short enigmatic stories and reflections on art, memory and love. This book is the second collection of “All Over Coffee,” a “strip” Madonna draws for the Sunday arts section of the San Francisco Chronicle. There’s also a free app, too, if you’d like to see a sample, but only paper can do justice to the eerie radiance of Madonna’s artwork, and the cumulative effect of its 176 pages is ravishing.
“Paying for It” by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly)
A celebrated alternative comics artist, Brown reached an impasse with romantic love a few years back. His live-in girlfriend wanted to see other men and he felt unwilling or unable to deal with the effort and drama of a new relationship. But he still wanted to have sex every now and then, and so began his life as a john, visiting brothels and eventually inviting call girls into his home. Brown, who tells this story in diminutive panels in which he depicts himself as a tiny, gaunt, insectoidal version of the farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” had long discussions with his friends about the personal and political implications of this new activity, debates he includes in this refreshingly candid memoir. Although it would be wrong to call this story moving, it is fascinatingly forthright, an argument for the sex industry’s potential to provide the world’s oddballs and cash-short women with the opportunity to meet and make reasonably pleasant music together.
“Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” by Shigeru Mizuki (Drawn & Quarterly)
Mizuki is a legendary manga artist, now in his 90s, whose work isn’t well-known outside of Japan. While his tales of lovable troll-like creatures from Japanese folklore are his most popular creations, this story based on his experiences in the Imperial Army during World War II is anything but cuddly. It’s the classic stuff of war narratives told from a grunt’s-eye view: bickering over duties, dreaming of decent meals and pretty girls, grousing about superior officers and boredom — all punctuated by interludes of gruesome violence and overwhelming terror. All of this is made even worse by a military culture that permits officers to beat their men routinely and treat them as cannon fodder for doomed actions designed to serve a mad, empty conception of “honor.” By turns goofily comic and bleakly horrific, this book offers a rare, humanizing window on an experience that’s long been mythologized and caricatured in the West.
“Feynman” by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (First Second)
The comic book form lends itself beautifully to the exploration of such abstract subjects as mathematics, as works like 2009′s “Logicomix” have so amply proved. This biocomic about the Nobelist Richard Feynman aims to do the same for physics. True, the famously puckish and eccentric Feynman tends to steal the show from his own discipline, but once you’ve been thoroughly charmed by his tragic courtship of his first wife (she had an illness that prevented them from touching), his conflicted work on the atom bomb and his outrageous bongo-playing antics in the classroom and beyond, you still get a good dose of the hard stuff toward the end. You may not master the mysteries of quantum electrodynamics by the time you’re done, but you should be a little less in the dark. And a better acquaintance with the joyfully curious mind of one of science’s preeminent characters is worth the ticket all by itself.