Singing A New Toon

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Chris Ware's Quimby the Mouse as a teenage psychic

America has a habit of "discovering" those extended comic books known as graphic novels every few years. It happened when Art Spiegelman published his shattering Holocaust comic Maus (and won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for it). It happened again in 2000, with the movie of Daniel Clowes' alienation epic Ghost World. And now we're coming back to the graphic novel yet again thanks to the film American Splendor, which is based on the autobiographical comic book by Harvey Pekar, who writes about life as a hard-luck, sad-sack, hospital file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. He's no superhero: the only flying he does is under the radar.

It's easy to underestimate graphic novels — after all, they look just like their less evolved forebears, comic books, and if that's not bad enough, they have been saddled with that awkward name. (Maybe it would help if we called them tragic books?) They get sold in comic-book stores or shelved in that corner of Barnes & Noble that buzzes with preteen X-Men fans, a place where self-respecting adult readers fear to tread. No wonder Pekar wrote American Splendor for 27 years before mainstream America finally took notice. The graphic-novel business is reportedly worth about $100 million a year, but it still has no honor in the country that invented it. Yet some of the most interesting, most daring, most heartbreaking art being created right now, of both the verbal and the visual varieties, is being published in graphic novels. These books take on memory, alienation, film noir, child abuse, life in postrevolutionary Iran and, of course, love, and they hit all the harder because we don't expect wisdom and truth from characters who talk in speech bubbles. So go ahead. Read on, and discover the graphic novel all over again. --By Lev Grossman

Chris Ware's "Quimby the Mouse"

Quimby The Mouse
By Chris Ware

To say Chris Ware lives in the past is like saying the Queen of England lives in a house. Ware turns the past into a palace. In 2000's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Ware ransacks the history of cartooning, borrowing from 19th century lithography, superhero comics and Sunday funnies to create a visual language in which panels twist across the page like a drunken conga line.

Quimby the Mouse (Fantagraphics; 68 pages) collects a series of comics from the early 1990s in which Corrigan's style and themes were formed. The alienated title rodent shares DNA with Disney's Mickey, among others, but with surreal differences (in some strips, for instance, he has two heads, one of which sickens and dies). Recapturing the past is a theme here too: Ware writes a touching introduction about the death of his grandmother, details from which — his returning to visit her former home, for example — surface in the strips. Ware's eerie, nostalgic world is no Disneyland, but it's a magic kingdom nonetheless. -- By James Poniewozik

Persepolis
By Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi is a typical headstrong girl on the cusp of adolescence: she questions her teachers, her parents and her society. It just happens that society is a misogynistic theocracy. Persepolis (Pantheon; 153 pages) is Satrapi's memoir of growing up in a well-off progressive family in the wake of Iran's Islamic revolution. Marjane's mother tapes their windows (to guard against bombs) and covers them in black curtains (to guard against their devout neighbors' prying). Drawn in simple, bold lines with wide, inquisitive eyes, Marjane is precocious and passionate, and her small rebellions (sneaking a cigarette) mirror those of her liquor-drinking, dance-party-throwing parents. -- By J.P.

Nightmare Alley
Adapted by Spain Rodriguez

In the hands of underground-comic pioneer Spain Rodriguez, the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel (later a 1947 movie) gets the cartoon treatment its subjects — hustling and degradation in a 1930s carnival — beg for. Magician Stanton Carlisle hatches a plan to pose as a spiritualist to con rich marks, in the process revealing the family history that destroyed his faith in God and man. Nightmare Alley (Fantagraphics; 129 pages) is an existential novel wrapped in a noir chiller, and Rodriguez's lurid drawings strike just the right balance of sheen and sleaze. Step right up. -- By J.P.

Craig Thompson's "Blankets"

Blankets
By Craig Thompson

Blankets (Top Shelf; 582 pages) is an autobiographical novel about a sensitive, artistic, vegetarian, teenage boy who finds love with a sensitive, artistic, vegetarian, teenage girl. That is, it should be insufferable. Instead it is a rarity: a first-love story so well remembered and honest that it reminds you what falling in love feels like. The narrator, Craig Thompson, grows up in rural Wisconsin in a devout Christian family. Craig's childhood is one long bout of fear — of bullies, hell, the baby-sitter who molests him and his little brother — until, at a Christian winter camp, Craig meets Raina, a doe-eyed outsider from a troubled family.

Blankets' charm and strength are that, like a love-sick teenager, the book is not embarrassed to be earnest about either Craig and Raina's romance or their religion (in one panel, hormone-drunk Craig sees Raina as a vision from Song of Solomon). As their affair gets complicated, so does the novel, becoming a bittersweet meditation on family, faith, loss and memory.

Thompson complements it with rapturous drawings of winter in northern Michigan and Wisconsin, a season that for all its harshness can — like Blankets — be achingly beautiful. -- By J.P.