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Drawing the line at love, war and haute cuisine: new graphic novels reviewed

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Good things come to those who wait. It has taken Barry Windsor-Smith some 15 years or so to finish his new graphic novel, Monsters (Fantagraphics, £25). The result is a grand, grim, bleakly beautiful slab of a book that is as monstrous in size as it is in content.

Has it been worth it? I think so. What a strange, wild, handsome, horrifying, at times messy thing it is, pinballing between science fiction and horror and social realism. Windsor-Smith’s black and white art is utterly gorgeous and thrillingly consistent. You can’t say the same about the story, which jumps about in place, time and tone. But it is worth sticking with.

Monsters, Barry Windsor Smith

Set in post-war America, Monsters tells a story about secret government experiments on innocent civilians. But it’s also about a family living with the painful fallout of the Second World War. As the title suggests, there is more than one monster in this book.

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Windsor-Smith made his name working for Marvel Comics and he is still clearly juiced by pulp fiction. The opening section of Monsters takes in car chases, Nazi experiments, shoot-outs and second sight. And Windsor-Smith is very good at all of it. Still, it can feel a little second-hand.

As it progresses, though, Monsters moves into darker, deeper currents. Near the end there’s a truly grim sequence set in a Nazi camp at the end of the war, but otherwise this is a story about trauma and how it fractures and breaks families.

And this is where it is at its best, where Windsor-Smith’s precise yet fluid art chimes with the pain of the story he is telling. He has wrapped this story into the louder, flashier B-movie plot, but this is the sequence that lingers afterwards. That said, he draws a great car chase.

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HeraldScotland:

Monsters is just one of the louder arrivals in what is a bumper season for graphic novelists. If you want something a little quieter then Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) may be more to your taste.

Bechdel’s debut graphic novel Fun Home was adapted into a Broadway musical. Here, she takes what might sound an unpromising premise – her relationship with exercise – and uses it to explore ideas of self-hood, ageing, mortality, relationships and creativity. It takes in in Buddhism, Jack Kerouac, Ralph Waldo Emerson and her own history with skiing, cycling, yoga and creative blocks. Here is an artist totally in control of her voice.

Closer to home, Edinburgh-based cartoonist Will McPhail has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 2014. Now he makes his graphic novel debut with In (Sceptre, £18.99), the story of an insular young illustrator who struggles to connect with friends, family, plumbers and pretty much everyone else.

In starts off in social satire mode, making entertaining fun of pretentious coffee houses and modern romance, before changing direction and mood to something more painful and heartfelt. McPhail moves from minimalist black-and-white wash to more painterly colour for the story’s moments of self-revelation. Maybe there’s an element of overreach about it now and then, but it’s good to see someone having fun with form and making adventurous choices. And the story is compelling.

HeraldScotland:

McPhail’s book is delicate, polished and smart. He’s a miniaturist who offers precision and poise. By contrast his fellow Scot James Albon is one for big, punchy artistic gestures. The Delicacy (Top Shelf Productions, £19.99) is Albon’s third graphic novel, one that restates his talents with some bravura, taking in, as it does, the sometime insularity of the Scottish islands, the vapidity of the London restaurant scene and the complexity of family life, all wrapped up in gorgeous full-colour art that is all thick lines and bold gestures.

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It is the story of two Scottish brothers who inherit an estate in the south of England. One brother decides to create a great garden. His sibling opens his own restaurant. Throw in a particular mushroom (the delicacy of the title) with a morbid secret behind it and you have a tremendously entertaining moral fable that delights because it never quite goes where you think it will.

Equally entertaining is Esther’s Notebooks (Pushkin Press, £12.99), the latest book by Riad Sattouf, creator of The Arab of the Future series. Esther is a 10-year-old French girl who tells us about her life in Paris; her family, school life, boys, and what she wants to be when she grows up. Sattouf’s busy, funny cartooning perfectly complements the narrative voice he creates for Esther. The result is a smart comic snapshot of a child’s life. Recommended.

The New York Review Comics project of reviving classic comic strips continues with reprints of Gary Panter’s punk-flavoured text Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise (NYRC, £24) and Shary Flenniken’s hippy-era Trots and Bonnie (NYRC, £32).

HeraldScotland: Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise, Gary PanterJimbo: Adventures in Paradise, Gary Panter

Panter’s 1980s Jimbo sequence falls somewhere between comic strip and art project. Best known for designing sets for Pee-Wee Herman’s TV series, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Panter plays with form and artistic styles as he, very loosely, tells stories set in a futuristic city Dal-Tokyo that take in giant cockroaches, talking animals and a homemade atomic bomb.

Panter is formally provocative, but Flenniken, whose work draws on and feeds off the tropes of the classic American newspaper comic strip, is possibly the more challenging to read now. Dating to the early 1970s and the pages of National Lampoon Magazine, the strips feature Trots, a talking dog and Bonnie, a 13-year-old girl. So far, so Calvin and Hobbes. But Flenniken’s concerns – puberty and sexuality and how those two primal forces mix – feel very raw at times.

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HeraldScotland:

In her introduction, cartoonist Emily Flake talks of Flenniken’s “heady mix of raunch and innocence” and describes the result as “a bit like [Windsor McCay’s] Little Nemo if Little Nemo had been drawn for and by pervs”.

Maybe that’s a little over the top but it’s true that Flenniken’s sexual candour when it comes to her 13-year-old heroine can be shocking, more so now, perhaps, than when it was originally published.

But it’s also funny. As are Flenniken’s notes at the back of the book, which show she hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. “Sex is the glue that binds love relationships together,” she writes. “Having said that, I recommend you research the longevity of various adhesives.”

Finally, if you think this last year of the pandemic has been bad (and it has), give thanks that things aren’t quite as terrible (yet) as the post-viral life painted in Resistance by Val McDermid and Kathryn Briggs (Profile Books/Wellcome Collection, £18.99).

This compelling, and, let’s be honest, bleak-as-hell thriller tracks a viral outbreak from a music festival in north-east England to basically the end of life as we know it. Scarily believable. And don’t expect a happy ending.

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