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PG Tips No. 14:

Paul Gravett's Recommended Reading

In a regular series of PG Tips articles, Paul Gravett reviews books of and about comics from his recommended reading list.


Monsieur Lambert
by Jean-Jacques Sempé
Phaidon
£9.99
Paris, 1965, two days before Valentine’s Day. Every weekday it’s a table for four for lunch at Chez Picard and endless banter about football and food for young Lambert and his three balding mates. One of these provides this tale’s typeset running commentary below, sometimes in ironic counterpoint to the drawings and dialogues above. Their ritual changes when Lambert arrives late and doesn’t chat or eat. His behaviour grows odder by the day until he spills the beans about his lunchtime romantic rendezvous. As he describes his Florence, Sempé fills three thought clouds overhead with utterly different Florences imagined by his pals. With Lambert increasingly absent, the trio’s only topic of conversation becomes their own youthful flings. Sempé stages this set-piece brilliantly, redrawing the restaurant’s all-male clients and unfussy interior afresh page after page, encouraging the reader to warm to this utterly Gallic quartet’s foibles and fantasies when love, or the aroma of fine cuisine,is in the air.


Cancer Vixen: A True Story
by Marisa Acocella Marchetto
4th Estate
£12.99
Honest, empowering, even funny memoirs about battling cancer are not new in graphic novels. Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame wrote Our Cancer Year in 1994. Last year brought Brian Fries’ Mom’s Cancer, first posted anonymously online, and one woman’s spirited perspective in Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg, who last November lost her battle with breast cancer. What’s new about Marchetto’s Pop Art, chick-lit confessional is that she is a sassy if superficial “fashionista”, cartoonist, celebrity wife-to-be to a top restauranteur in New York’s well-heeled high society, and uninsured when cancer strikes. Hers is the self-deprecating but defiant story of how her man, her “(s)mother”, friends, family, faith, a passion for fashion and crafting these comics help her “kick cancer in the butt… in five-inch heels.” It helps that hubby’s insurance covers the $200,000 medical bill; as she acknowledges, not every woman is so lucky.


The Times Of Botchan
by Jiro Taniguchi & Natuso Sekikawa
Fanfare/Ponent Mon
£9.99 per volume, 3 volumes so far
Exquisitely, naturalistically illustrated with no huge eyes or extreme faces, this evocative, far-from-fusty historical series offers further proof of the quality and diversity of manga or Japanese comics. Writer Sekikawa and artist Taniguchi plunge us into the closing years of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), a time of cultural turmoil and pressures of Westernisation which shaped modern Japan’s outlook. They introduce us to Tokyo’s social circles and in particular literary scholar Soseki Natsume, still disturbed in 1905 after his disagreeable two years of study in in England. His life changes as he begins to find solace and success in writing fiction. Natsume based Botchan, one of the most popular Japanese novels ever, on his own experiences, explaining “if the roots of the story are well-grounded, the leaves will be all the more luxuriant.” The same can be said of thisten-volume docudrama based on his life and times.


Fluffy
by Simone Lia
Jonathan Cape
£12.99
Make way, Bugs Bunny and Thumper, for an even more aggravating yet adorable cartoon rabbit, Fluffy. Inexplicably, this little long-eared chatterbox in nursery school is being raised in English suburbia by harried, unmarried Michael Pulcino. Michael tries telling Fluffy, “I am not your real Daddy” and “I’m a man and you’re a bunny”, wiping up the rabbit droppings left on the sofa, but nothing seems to diminish Fluffy’s love for him. This odd couple goes on a getaway to Michael’s parents and sister in Sicily, only to find that he has to confront another kind of persistent love, when Fluffy’s amorous schoolteacher pursues him out to the island. Simone Lia transforms what first looks like another of her appealing children’s books into an unpredictable and reflective human drama, while never losing her childlike playfulness, inserting diagrams of thoughts cramming a character’s head or wacky asides from particles of cheery dust and grouchy dandruff. The result is a unique parable about the loving bunny inside us all.


Adventures Of Rabbit & Bear Paws: The Sugar Bush
by Chad Solomon & Christopher Meyer
Little Spirit Bear Productions
$7.95
From Leo Baxendale’s Little Plum, Your Redskin Chum, recently retired again from The Beano, to Belgian Derib’s eco-friendly Yakari, translated by Cinebook, no junior cartoon versions of North American Indians have ever been created by an actual North American Indian. That is, not until co-writer and artist Chad Solomon, a citizen of the Anishinabek Nation in Canada, devised this mischievous duo. Pint-sized prankster Rabbit and ‘Little Giant’ Bear Paws will do anything to avoid their chores, even using the village medicine man’s spirit powder to change temporarily into animals. Winding up lost, the boys encounter their first white men, redcoat soldiers from England, who mistake them for their native scouts. More misunderstandings follow, as Solomon and Meyer contrive a fast-paced broad comedy set in the 18th century colonised New World, which highlights the two cultures’ differing ways, especially through the mad French-hating General Braddock, while intercutting some tribal legends to alert our young heroes to the wisdom of respect. Their first 36-page bande dessinée-format paperback is rather simply cartooned and computer-coloured and so lacks some of the polish of their obvious prime influences, Asterix creators Goscinny and Uderzo, who also invented an Indian brave, the adult, super-strong Ompa-Pa. Even so, Solomon and Meyer deserve credit for bringing ‘First Nation’ history and values to life so entertainingly through their endearing little-and-large double act.


My Boy
by Olivier Schrauwen
Bries
£10.50
Flemish animator Schrauwen devises an extraordinary fresh take on the distance, distrust and dysfunction between fathers and sons, powerful, prevalent themes in graphic novels from Maus to Jimmy Corrigan. Here, the overdue beamish boy is finally born in a coffin at his dead mother’s funeral. No wonder his bereaved father’s hair turns white. This strange, timid son, dot-eyed and ginger-haired like Tintin, almost inaudible and apparently stunted, is so weeny, his broad-shouldered father can hold him in his hand or carry him in his pocket. As he tries raising him on his own and shows him the wonders of the world, an atmosphere of shame, unease and menace haunt their homelife and outings together to a golf course, a gallery of medieval art in Bruges and the zoo. It’s here, for example, that the son is swallowed whole by a crocodile, but makes his escape thanks to a tribe of pygmies also in the beast’s stomach, whose arrows and acrobatics liberate all the caged animals. Schrauwen’s exquisitely faded, distressed colour pages resemble some lost early relics from America’s Sunday newspapers or European cartoon magazines and children’s books from more than a century ago, but given a deliciously disturbing, David Lynch-style twist. More, please!

Posted: September 23, 2007

The above reviews originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph in January 2007 and Comics International in April 2007.

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Chad Solomon
Christopher Meyer
Jiro Taniguchi
Marisa Acocella Marchetto
Olivier Schrauwen
PG Tips
Sempe
Simone Lia

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Featured Books


Monsieur Lambert
by Jean-Jacques Sempé


Cancer Vixen:
A True Story

by Marisa Acocella Marchetto


The Times Of Botchan
by Jiro Taniguchi & Natuso Sekikawa


Fluffy
by Simone Lia


Adventures Of
Rabbit & Bear Paws:
The Sugar Bush

by Chad Solomon & Christopher Meyer


My Boy
by Olivier Schrauwen