Nate Powell’s 2008 graphic novel Swallow Me Whole showed an artist willing to risk losing control of his narrative in order to explore the possibilities of the page. His follow-up, Any Empire (Top Shelf), is much the same. Powell is partial to long, wordless sequences that stretch across multiple pages, with images that are sometimes direct in their meaning, but just as often impressionistic and allusive. Because Any Empire takes place over a couple of decades—jumping back and forth in time occasionally—in a world that’s familiar yet a little fantastic, the book is not always as clear about what’s going on with the characters as it could be. But that’s okay. Powell isn’t going for conventional effects in his work; he’s working from a more personal place, starting with memories and then seeing what associations they call up from his subconscious.
In the case of Any Empire, the starting point is the war zone of the suburban South where Powell grew up, where kids were largely left unsupervised to spend their weekends and after-school afternoons beating each other up, playing with firecrackers, or tormenting the fauna. Any Empire follows a small handful of those kids from childhood to young adulthood, comparing and contrasting the adventures of their youth—which involved killing turtles and staging elaborate battles with toy soldiers—with their contemporary lives, which have been profoundly affected by real war. The book takes a late turn toward speculative fiction that doesn’t quite fit with what’s gone before, but throughout, Powell’s understanding of the way his characters live—constantly feeling a little insecure about their position among their own peer group—and his ability to convey their daydreams work together to express a truth about a world where violence erupts organically from a culture of macho gamesmanship and cheap plastic guns.
Where Any Empire offers an art-film take on adolescence, Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost (First Second) is the audience-friendly, multiplex version. The heroine of Brosgol’s first graphic novel is a moody Russian-American teen who spends her days at her private school downplaying her ethnicity, pining for a hot jock, and sneaking off for cigarettes with a fellow misfit. Then one day, Anya falls down a well and befriends the ghost of a girl who’s been dead for 90 years. The ghost, Emily, keeps hanging around Anya after she’s rescued, helping her cheat on tests and extract secret information from her peers in order to make Anya more popular. Before long, Anya finds out that relying on help from Emily creates unwelcome obligations.
The high-school business in Anya’s Ghost is a little too familiar, differentiated only by Anya’s specific fears of being thought of as a foreigner—and even that wrinkle was handled more deftly in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. But the mystery of Emily gives Anya’s Ghost a real charge down the stretch, similar to some of the more youth-oriented work of Neil Gaiman (who gives this book an approving cover quote). Brosgol’s drawing style is unfussy and unspectacular, but she has a way with layouts and pacing that makes Anya’s Ghost a read-in-one-sitting kind of book, from its typical-angsty-teen opening to its life-or-death climax. It isn’t deep, but it’s hugely entertaining.
Shimura Takako’s Wandering Son: Volume One (Fantagraphics), on the other hand, is at times almost painfully deep. Beginning in fifth grade, Wandering Son tracks the budding friendship between a boyish girl named Yoshino and a girlish boy named Shuichi. In Japan, the Wandering Son series has followed Yoshino and Shuichi on into their teen years, but this first book is more about their awkward process of getting to know each other, and getting to know their own impulses toward gender-bending. While some classmates encourage them to cross-dress, others mock them for not being “normal.” And sometimes it’s the supportive friends who are harder to deal with, forcing these kids to confront truths about themselves that they aren’t comfortable with yet.
Wandering Son is anecdotal in tone and structure, and relies on some culturally specific details of social interaction that don’t always translate well. (Fantagraphics’ collection includes an intro by Matt Thorn that explains some of the conventions of the way people address each other, to help readers get why the characters might be embarrassed or shocked at different points in the book.) Still, like the best coming-of-age stories—comics or otherwise—Wandering Son is meticulously accurate in its details, but universal in its emotions. Gay or not, readers shouldn’t find it too difficult to identify with kids who feel like their bodies and their friends are equally culpable in the worst kind of betrayal, preventing them from realizing the potential they see in themselves.
After a decade-plus of hand-wringing over the declining, aging audience for traditional superhero and “kiddie” comics, it turns out that children are still just as much in love with the medium as they’ve ever been; they’re just getting their comics fix these days from children’s books and young-adult graphic novels. Dave Roman’s Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity (First Second)—the first installment of a new series—exemplifies the best and the worst of this new breed of comics. Roman’s premise and structure are a lot of fun, as every few pages, he introduces a new student at a prestigious outer-space-based private school, weaving their smaller stories into a larger one about a troubled kid-hero named Hakata Soy. The book mixes quick jokes and longer adventures, all arranged episodically. But Roman’s prose is tough to take for more than a few pages at a time. He tries to approximate the writing style of a 10-year-old—or perhaps that of a foreign-language comic roughly translated into English—and the uniform breathlessness of the dialogue and captions proves distracting…
An aggressively childlike tone is also an issue—though less of one—with the book Welcome To Oddville! (AdHouse), which collects Jay Stephens’ weekly comic strip about 8-year-old superhero Jetcat and the motley crew of ghosts, animals, and inanimate objects surrounding her. Stephens’ approach to comics has always been to reach back to his preteen self, constructing plots that turn on pure silliness or just peter out after a time, mimicking the rise-and-fall of a kid playing with toys on a lazy afternoon. But Stephens complements the at-times-frustrating impulsiveness of his storytelling with the sophistication of his cartooning. About a third of the way through the Welcome To Oddville! run, Stephens begins playing with the comic strip form more cleverly, using wild panel design and mixed-media illustration to make his jokes not just cute, but genuinely creative. Maybe any kid off the street could plot a series of Oddville strips, but only Stephens could draw them…
Though the title and the cartoony art imply otherwise, writer Paul Tobin and illustrator Colleen Coover decidedly didn’t design their graphic novel Gingerbread Girl (Top Shelf) for kids. The book’s heroine is a sexually confused, possibly mentally ill young Portlander named Annah who spends the book on a date with a girlfriend while she and her acquaintances talk directly to the reader about Annah’s childhood, and how she claims that her father peeled off a piece of her brain and created a homunculus named Ginger, whom no one else has ever seen. Gingerbread Girl doesn’t do much more than spend its 100-plus plotless pages introducing Annah, but Coover’s clean-lined art and Tobin’s method of passing the heroine’s backstory from character to character makes the book an engaging, breezy read. Mostly, it’s refreshing to see an indie comic address a quirky character without treating the quirks as completely harmless and untroubling. Gingerbread Girl captures the romance of being young and kooky in a hip city, while acknowledging that sometimes what seems like conscious eccentricity masks deeper issues. …
Two handsome color volumes from Fantagraphics mark what the publisher hopes will be an extensive series—sales permitting—dedicated to the Tintin-era golden age of French/Belgian comics. Maurice Tillieux’s Gil Jordan, Private Eye: Murder By High Tide combines two adventures featuring a brilliant, boyish detective who investigates tricky cases across Europe, while Raymond Macherot’s Sybil-Anne Vs. Ratticus contains two parts of an extended funny-animal epic about a resourceful mouse and her friends who fight off a rat that wants to seize their property. The tone of each book is very different, with the Gil Jordan collection favoring clever mysteries, narrow escapes, and broad comic relief, while the Sybil-Anne book is subtler, dissecting the way miniature societies work, together and in opposition. Both are excellent, though, showing off the strengths of the Eurocomics tradition, with its sprawling narratives spread across small panels, mixing cartoony characters and elaborate backgrounds…
It’s hard to know what to say about the latest installment of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, beyond that it exists, and that it forms the center section of a three-part epic that will likely make more sense once it’s completed. Like its predecessor, 1910, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century—1969 (Top Shelf) is ostensibly a standalone adventure, following Moore and O’Neill’s literary heroes in Swinging London, where the level of occult activity is as high as the psychedelic experimentation. As always, Moore finds room for ruminations on mysticism and interludes of kinky sex, and he has O’Neill fill the backgrounds (and foregrounds, for that matter) with well-known and obscure figures from popular culture. 1969 is an Anglophile’s dream, featuring British gangsters, Monty Python characters, and fictional rockers like The Rutles. It all builds to a grand feat of witchery at an outdoor concert featuring the Rolling Stones-like “Purple Orchestra” (fronted by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance), and a very Moore-ian re-write of “Sympathy For The Devil.” As with 1910, 1969 is clever and busy—both visually and as a narrative—and it’s harder to follow as a story than the earlier LXG books were. Then again, the story isn’t finished yet. Century will be easier to judge once it’s complete, which at Moore and O’Neill’s current pace could take a couple more years.