It’s a cold life if you don’t drink vodka

Siberia by Nikolai Maslov. Translated by Blake Ferris with Lisa Barocas Anderson. Soft Skull Press, 2006. 9781933368030. 98pp.

The story behind this graphic novel is so central to understanding it that it’s front and center on the back cover and it’s recounted in detail in the afterword. (I wonder if I may have tried and failed to read it when it came out, because I rarely read the back of books or afterwords.) A 50-year-old Russian night watchman approached a bookseller in Moscow, who was also the editor of Asterix in Russia, and shyly showed him three panels (according to back of the book) or three pages (according to the afterword) of a graphic novel he’d started working on. The watchman asked the editor to finance the rest. And he did, paying the man what he would have earned at his job for three years while he worked on it. The book was eventually published in France and, apparently, elsewhere. This is that book.

It’s the story of a young man with slight artistic ambitions and a bit of talent growing up in Siberia. In 1971 he’s finishing high school, just about to discover drinking and French Impressionists and that there’s little place for art after he’s drafted and sent to Mongolia. It’s a stark existence, sometimes violent, usually alcohol soaked, and it doesn’t offer many opportunities for self expression. Art needs to serve the state, after all. And his kind of does — the soft pencils he draws with are simple and elegantly straightforward. He never dwells on the hopelessness or pitilessness of his life — or maybe that’s me reading too much into it. Or maybe that’s Maslov setting us up for the small moments of beauty, the empty landscapes and meeting his wife. When he eventually goes crazy and is institutionalized, it feels like just another day.

It’s hard to believe that comics are so uncommon in Russia that Maslov had to figure out the medium entirely by himself, as indicated in the afterword, but maybe it’s true. This certainly feels like understated genius, like a book that had to be drawn.

A Clean, Expertly Inked Place

Carver: A Paris Story by Chris Hunt. Z2 Comics, (no date listed but apparently 2016). 9781940878096. 172pp.

Inspired by Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese and Hunt’s work with mentor Paul Pope (who wrote and drew a short preface for this graphic novel), the art of Carver recalls the work of both but stands on its own. It’s set in 1920s Paris, and Hunt’s old school inks create a tone that’s not just beautiful to look at but serves the story, too. It’s short, entirely readable, and very fun.

Carver, a scarred, famed former US marine who says he’s an artist, is in town because Catie, the woman he loved, needs his help. When three thugs try to give Carver a message from their boss, he makes quick work of them. They were sent by a guy in a white hood, Stacker Lee, who likes to rant and who may be villainous or ridiculous or both. (His look is more Cobra Commander’s dressed down look than the KKK.) Carver meets Catie, finds out she didn’t write the letter that summoned him, and that her daughter has been missing for two weeks. There’s a local gangster who wants to hire Carver, a huge bar fight involving whiskey and a one eyed man (plus others), and a hooker with a heart of gold nursing skills.

Family History

Irmina by Barbara Yelin. Translated from German by Michael Waaler. SelfMadeHero, 2016. 9781910593103.

Barbara Yelin’s fictional, beautifully drawn graphic novel was inspired by a box of “diaries and letters she found among [her] late grandmother’s things.” The question she’s asking herself throughout by creating it seems to be: Why were ordinary Germans so passive during the horrors they were responsible for during World War II? The answer the book offers never felt like an excuse to me

It opens in London in 1934 with the arrival of Miss Irmina von (something German) in foggy London. Some assume she’s a Jew or a communist fleeing Hitler, but all she wants is a profession and independence. She is the only German in her class at a commercial school for young women and somewhat awkward in social situations, but at a party she hits it off with Henry, a young black man from Barbados studying at Oxford. The two begin spending time together, developing a friendship on the basis of their not quite fitting in. Their relationship is charming, and clearly heading toward more than friendship, but money trouble forces Irmina to return home. The two vow to stay in touch, with Irmina struggling to save enough money to return to England.

I don’t think I’m ruining too much by saying that doesn’t work out as Irmina hopes, and that she soon gives up on returning to England and makes a life in Hitler’s Germany. She doesn’t personally do anything horrific, but she witnesses horrors perpetrated against Jews and does nothing, and clearly knows about what’s happening elsewhere in German territory. She’s such a sympathetic character in the first part of the book I kept hoping for some sort of redemptive action on her part in the second half. I won’t ruin the book by telling you whether that happened or not, but it did remain compelling throughout, all the way through the bit set in the 1980s at the end.

Also? The cover is amazing

Lovecraft Country: A Novel by Matt Ruff. HarperCollins, 2016. 9780062292063.

In Atticus Turner’s teen years, his father argued with him about reading H. P. Lovecraft stories, telling him that he shouldn’t read anything by a racist author. Atticus looked to his uncle George, who sympathized but gave Atticus some perspective on his father’s anger. (He makes a comment that will definitely resonate with readers: “But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect,” and when Atticus asks him why he doesn’t get as angry, “I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes. Sometimes they stab me in the heart.”)

Now it’s 1954, and Atticus Turner is back from the Korean War. He gets a letter from his father urging him to come to Massachusetts to learn more about his mother’s family. The letter appears to have come from a town called Arkham: the home of the nightmarish godlike creatures, ominous occultists, and corpse reanimators of Lovecraft’s stories. Atticus knows it’s a fictional place (and George is pretty sure it’s actually Ardham), but his father was last seen with a white stranger in a flashy car, which doesn’t seem like a good sign for a black man in 1950s Chicago.

Uncle George, now the editor of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and strong-willed family friend Letitia drive north with Atticus to rescue his father. Their journey is perilous: in Jim Crow era America they face sundown towns and the imminent threat of murder by the police. The new owners of a cafe George wants to review for the guide seem to have burnt out the previous owner and are ready to do violence to them. The possibility of facing down lethal extradimensional creatures and dark magic pales in comparison.

This starts a series of intertwined stories of Atticus and Letitia’s families getting caught up in a multi-generational feud as leaders of the Ardham and Chicago lodges of the Order of the Ancient Dawn struggle for control of vast magical powers. Like social an economic power, magic is firmly in the hands of old white New Englanders, and they use it against black people in similar ways. The ghost haunting a house and the house’s white neighbors both want the new black owner gone, a ledger detailing the money owed to an enslaved ancestor is ransomed for a powerful book of spells, a woman discouraged from studying astronomy finds a portal to other planets: each story combines everyday oppression with spooky otherworldly powers and high-stakes adventure.

I picked Lovecraft Country up because of the premise, then I couldn’t put it down: the creepy atmosphere and perilous battles kept me turning pages.

Love in Wartime

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Simon and Schuster, 2016. 9781501124372.

Eighteen-year-old Mary North, spoiled daughter of a politician, abandons her Swiss ski trip to volunteer at the outbreak of World War II — so suddenly that she’s still in ski wear when she checks in. She’s disappointed with her boring assignment as schoolteacher. But then she creates her own excitement by seducing her boss, Tom Shaw. Everything is complicated when Mary meets Tom’s handsome roommate Alistair Heath, formerly an art restorer but currently an artillery officer, just back from the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Alistair is posted to Malta, Mary takes charge of a motley class of kids returned from their evacuation from London, and the two continue their romance in lighthearted letters, not all of which reach their destinations. Alistair narrowly escapes death many times. Mary ruffles society feathers with her egalitarian notions and by accepting a black student into her class. Mary and her friend Hilda volunteer for air raid duty, and Mary drives an improvised ambulance that carries stretchers which, empty or not, are tied to its roof!

This romance is sprawling, vivid, witty, and, though it might seem messy at first, tightly plotted and carefully constructed.

Thanks to Robert in San Diego for this guest book review!

8-Bit Nostalgia

Impossible Fortress: A Novel by Jason Rekulak. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 9781501144417.

Sarah: So do you find yourself wondering if a book is intended to be an adult or teen book and then judging it differently?
Gene: Yeah.
S: I think I would have been harsher to this book if it had been a teen book.
G: Isn’t it a teen book?
S: It is not a teen book.
G: I read it like it was a teen book.
S: I read it as an adult book, so I was a little bit more forgiving of the fact that it meandered.
G: But it’s clearly a teen novel. It just relies so heavily on nostalgia that you can’t put it on the teen shelf. It’s much more for us.
Continue reading “8-Bit Nostalgia”

The Plague

laid waste by Julia Gfrörer. Fantagraphics, 2016. 9781606999714.

laid-wasteGfrörer’s inks are amazing. It looks like she uses a pen — there isn’t much variation to the thickness of her lines — but she’s able to cross them to create different textures which give only a sense of the darkness of the story and the deep despair of its characters. I’ve returned to this book again and again to look at its shadows.

When she was a young girl in a medieval town, Agnès was mistakenly buried. Her older sister rescued her from her grave, though, and Agnès grew up. Now her town is being ravaged by the plague. It’s a world of funeral pyres, mass graves, and dogs eating body parts. Nothing matters. Agnès finds a moment of pleasure with a man whose wife is dying, but only after he stops trying to reassure her and agrees that it’s the end of the world. Will St. Catherine answer her prayers for a new husband and more children, or for death?

I know it sounds like a bummer, but Gfrörer ends it on a hopeful note (or not, depending on your interpretation — and there’s a lot of room here for interpretation).