Postcards from Shangri-La

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SHANGRI-LA — Greetings from the freezing hot, lush deserts of the world's most overpopulated wasteland. It seemed only fitting, after all, to take a presidential-style "working vacation" when filing a column about travel comix. Though comix' combination of art and narrative is ideally suited to travel books, only a handful have appeared, probably as a result of the medium's longtime marginalization. Suddenly, though, a group of works — two books and one comix series — have appeared with travel as the central theme. By traipsing through them, we can map out the route to the golden spires and around the crocodile pits of this emerging sub-genre.

The first stop is Justin Hall's comix series "True Travel Tales" (All Thumbs Press; 48 pages; $4), the third issue of which appeared a few months ago. Hall approaches travel writing from an unusual angle by adapting and illustrating other people's stories. The first two issues collected short, anecdotal tales of (mis)adventure. One story involves a young punk rocker on her way to San Francisco who, on a stop at Bryce Canyon, Utah, decides to clamber down the rock face rather than follow the "hippies" down the trail, to predictably disastrous results. In another a man cruises a fellow traveler for a quickie inside an Egyptian temple. But, lacking in detail or development, and drawn with a minimum of detail, the stories will be forgotten as quickly as you turn the page.

Helena and Sarah in "True Travel Tales" #3

Fortunately this does not stay true for the current issue of "True Travel Tales." Here Justin Hall dedicates the entire issue to just one, slightly doctored, "true" narrative, with noticeably improved results. Sub-titled "La Rubia Loca," issue three concerns Sarah, who decides to sign up for a camping tour of northern Mexico to get away from some unnamed misery at home. Early in the trip she bonds with another woman, Helena, who seems as troubled as she. But as the trip progresses, Helena becomes increasingly manic and psychotic, forcing Sarah and the tour guides to figure out how to manage Helena back to the States before she gets arrested and thrown into a Mexican mental hospital. During this ordeal, Sarah discovers a part of herself that she didn't know was there. A dramatic, moving and unusual sort of travel tale, it leaves out the details of physical places and instead concentrates on two character's very different movement from one kind of self to another.

A more traditional travel book, Josh Neufeld's "A Few Perfect Hours" (self-published; 128 pages; $13) collects the author's memoirs of his time spent in Southeast Asia and central Europe. Owing to each chapter's original appearance in various publications, the book reads like a series of episodes rather than cohesive journey, but Neufeld picks his moments well. In each he discovers something about the world or himself that, if it doesn't actually broaden him, at least gives him pause. For example, the opening, titular chapter features Neufeld and his girlfriend, Sari, arriving in Bangkok after a miserable flight. While puttering around, feeling vaguely disconcerted, they stumble upon a Buddhist temple. Here, at last, they find a welcoming but totally foreign culture where "religion wasn't grim or judgmental, like my impressions growing up," as Neufeld notes. Suddenly relaxed, Neufeld opens up to the serendipitous nature of travel and feels content. Other adventures include the exploration of a vast cave, where he faces his mortality, and his appearance as an extra on the "New York" set of a Singapore soap opera, where he finds his own culture as the foreign one.

Josh encounters the local fauna in "A Few Perfect Hours"

The artwork, attractively printed in blue ink on an off-white ground, has polish and clarity. Unfortunately, the experiences of "A Few Perfect Hours" do far less for us as readers than they evidently did for the author. The book's episodic nature defeats the raison d'etre of a travel book — to learn something new about the world. Neufeld never stays in one place long enough to give us a depth of understanding about the environs or people in the places he visits. "A Few Perfect Hours," ultimately reads more like autobiography set in exotic locals. But without the neurotic and complex central personality of, say, Harvey Pekar's in his "American Splendor" series, or the funny and dramatic stories of Dennis Eichhorn's "Real Stuff," we are left with only the mild adventures of a nice guy who means well. Maybe you can relate, but it doesn't move you anywhere.

To get the sensation of being transported to other places and cultures through the unique language of comix, look no further than Craig Thompson's "Carnet de Voyage" (Top Shelf; 224 pages; $15). Creator of the lauded and successful graphic novel "Blankets," Thompson's introductory insistence that "Carnet" is not his "next book," tries to disarm any critics, but he needn't have worried. Seemingly unedited, "Carnet" chronicles, in the form of an engrossing diary sketchbook, Thompson's European author tour, with a side trip to Morocco, during the spring of 2004. With all of its pages drawn from life, here at last we have one continuous journey, rich with detail of place and characters, told with humor, pathos and insight.

A page from the Morocco section of Craig Thompson's "Carnet de Voyage"

"Carnet" eschews panels and layouts in favor of life sketches or quick cartoons, mixed with explanatory text. The book begins in France with lovely renderings of rooftops, cafés and the people he meets. But in the margins the text reveals an undercurrent of loneliness and anxiety. Slowly you catch on that the tour comes on the heels of a major breakup and that someone, presumably his ex-lover, has become seriously ill back in the States. (The details stay frustratingly obtuse.) In spite of this Thompson continues on to Marrakech, alone. His three weeks in North Africa result in complex portraits of both the place and of Thompson's state of mind. His impressive drawings reveal the beauty of the architecture, the bustle of the marketplace, and even the animals that carve out a life in the city. Against these idyllic scenes we also get a clear sense of culture and economic clashes, as Thompson becomes a target for near constant hustling, making him more and more stressed.

The final third of the book returns from the demands of the Third World to the luxury of the First. In the French Alps the author luxuriates in the pleasures of skiing and food, filing the pages with rich detail like the one about raclette, a cheese you melt and pour over sliced potatoes and ham. Bucolic vistas of snowy woods and mountains soon give way to sunbathers when, at the end, Thompson swings through the south of France and Barcelona. This final leg includes encounters with a number of other cartoonists, like Louis Trondheim and Charles Burns, who contribute cameo sketches of their own. In spite of all this, Thompson continues to struggle with the alienation of travel. Then, at last he makes a happy connection that, even if it didn't happen, would have to be made up for the sake of book's dramatic arc. By the end, "Carnet de Voyage," turns into a kind of melancholy picture poem of love for people, the environment and art. You can't ask much more from a travel book than that.