Fall has become as important a release season for literary graphic novels as for literary prose novels. This year, publishers are rolling out their biggest guns in the high prestige (but relatively low volume) category, showcasing some of the industry’s biggest names in impressive new editions.
The headliner of the season, if not the year, is Monica, by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World, Patience), who surely belongs on the Mount Rushmore of contemporary graphic novelists. His latest, published by Fantagraphics, is the most ambitious work of his career. It tells the story of Monica, born amidst the spiritual confusion of the 1960s counterculture, and her midlife attempts to piece together the story of her mother who abandoned her in childhood to join a cult. The book unfolds in a series of vignettes that shift in tone and focus, although we eventually settle into Monica’s first-person point of view.
Clowes has a lucid and efficient drawing style that keeps the story moving even though much of the drama is psychological. Because Clowes’s career dates back to the era when even serious graphic novels were judged in the context of popular genre and superhero comics, he has developed a wide repertoire of self-referential visual tricks to create an overtone of allusions to comic book tropes and styles, giving experienced readers some context for each of the different chapters. For example, certain sections are paced and framed like an old horror comic; others like a war comic from the 1950s. At times, his drawing style is reminiscent of Steve Ditko, whose claustrophobic renderings helped animate the earliest Spider-Man stories.
Despite the accessibility of Clowes’s artwork, Monica is a complex and difficult read, recalling the narrative pyrotechnics of Nabokov or Pynchon. And like those authors, Clowes uses structural complications to maintain a certain distance from both his characters and the reader. That makes Monica easier to appreciate than to enjoy, at least in my opinion, but it is unquestionably a masterwork and major achievement in the medium.
Another marquee fall release that mines comics history for universal themes is The Super Hero’s Journey, just out from Abrams ComicArts under license from Marvel, by Patrick McDonnell, best known for the modern classic comic strip “Mutts.” McDonnell literally reconstructs a story from 1960s Marvel Silver Age mythology using individual panels and images originally drawn by Ditko, Jack Kirby and others, while creating his own connective tissue to weave a story about the power of hope and the triumph of the human spirit.
While Clowes’s Monica is dense and layered, McDonnell’s tale is as straightforward as a fable and as spare as a haiku. Familiar Marvel characters like Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Hulk, Spider-Man and the rest, face a cosmic threat from Doctor Doom and Galactus. Rather than duking it out in bombastic superhero style, Richards, encouraged by the Watcher, seeks a solution rooted in the power of love, overcoming his own doubts and ego-driven concerns along the way. It is an amazing, uplifting testament to the power of comics and the rare serious graphic novel that can be read and enjoyed by people of all ages and all levels of interest in superhero comics.
From our friends in the north, Montreal’s Drawn and Quarterly, comes another big fall release. Are You Willing to Die for the Cause, by D&Q founder Chris Oliveros, is what the Will Eisner Awards categorize as a “reality based work.” It recounts the history of the FLQ, a would-be revolutionary organization aimed at liberating French-speaking Quebec from the domination of anglophone Canada, whose activities culminated in the violent events of 1970. The revolutionaries start out as a feckless bunch, with more zeal than practical skills at things like bomb-making. Eventually, things take a darker turn, but Oliveros is saving that story for volume two.
Oliveros relates all of this with the tone and manner of a film documentary, featuring a cast of characters ranging from the revolutionaries and their spouses to the mayor of Montreal at the time, all describing events in their own voices. His lively cartoonish style is somehow perfect for this material: one on hand, straightforwardly illustrating the events of the story, and on the other, making everything look slightly ridiculous. It feels like a good way to disarm a subject that remains a hot-button in the politics of Canada and Quebec half a century later.
The more serious question of whether oppression justifies acts of terrorism against innocent targets is, unfortunately, still very much with us. As we grapple with those issues from the perspective of ethics and ideology, books like Are You Willing to Die for the Cause remind us that, at the heart of these conflicts are flawed human beings, often with vanities, foibles, inadequacies and obsessions cloaked in the garb of higher principles.
Another fine nonfiction title, albeit in a completely different vein, is Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound, the latest jazz-themed graphic novel from Dave Chisholm, published by Z2 books. This is a biography of the great jazz trumpeter, covering his life from his adolescence in the 1930s, through his shifting styles that defined jazz genres from bebop to cool jazz to fusion into the 1980s.
Davis himself is a fascinating character: smart, principled, uncompromising, capable of great genius, self-destruction, cruelty and misogyny. His story, straightforwardly told, is enough to keep readers turning the pages. What elevates Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound is Chisholm’s absolute mastery of the comics page in every respect: design, draftsmanship, use of color and use of text. Representing the emotional impact of music, especially music as rich as evocative as Davis’s, in a visual medium like comics is a top-tier challenge, but one that Chisholm is up to. The palette of the book cycles through cool blues, fiery reds, warm oranges, electric purples like a musician changing keys.
In addition to being visually beautiful and narratively gripping, Miles Davis and the Search for Sound is also a handy guide to the music of Miles Davis, which can be forbidding to a casual listener, especially as he enters his more experimental, improvisational phase in the 1970s. Chisolm knows his jazz, and the joy of sharing that with the reader soaks through every page of the book.
One more recent release of note is Time Under Tension by M.S. Harkness, from Fantagraphics. This is Harkness’s third autobiographical graphic novel following Tinderella (2018) and Desperate Pleasures (2020), and it is a powerhouse. The protagonist, a young 20-something cartoonist struggling to make ends meet and find her voice, carries more than her fair share of emotional baggage: a creepy sexually-abusive father just out on parole and trying to make amends, an overbearing mother, sugar daddies looking for sex in exchange for some pocket money, and an emotionally manipulative stoner boyfriend drifting in and out of her life.
Harkness handles this dark and volatile material with confidence. Her tone is straightforward, with no room for false sentimentality or self-pity. Harkness has a lean and fluid cartooning language, with each illustration delivering the emotional essence of the moment before moving on.The woodcut-like illustration style is full of heavy blacks and spikey hatching, suggesting the artist carving the lines out of a block with a sharp tool.
This is an incredibly assured work for someone so relatively early in her career. As bleak as Time Under Tension gets in its subject matter, the emergence of this kind of talent is a hopeful moment for literary graphic novels in the 2020s and beyond.