With drawings and text, these graphic novels conjure vivid moments in public and personal history

The Boston Globe    |    Carlo Wolff    |    December 9, 2007

Inquiries into history and outsider status spark a striking sampling of recent graphic literature. Nick Abadzis's homage to the first dog in space is largely traditional in its blend of image and word. Similarly, Ann Marie Fleming's reconstruction of the story of her great-grandfather, Rutu Modan's edgy walk along the personal-political border, and Adrian Tomine's finely drawn analysis of young, overintellectualized love hew to lesser and greater degrees of relative conventionality. A history of Students for a Democratic Society resembles author Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor" series in its deadpan realism but transcends the expected by virtue of its many voices. Laurence Hyde's offering is a replica of a 1951 "novel of the South Seas" told in wood engravings. It is a stunning narrative in which the visuals, some tortured but all transcendent, do all the talking necessary.

Modan's "Exit Wounds" (Drawn & Quarterly, 172 pp., $19.95) also is about coming to terms with family. Economical of line but vivid in its use of color to denote emotion, it's the story of Koby Franco, a Tel Aviv taxi driver who learns that his estranged father, Gabriel, may have died in a suicide bombing. Consumed by his hostility toward Gabriel, he tangles with Numi, a rich girl who had an affair with him. Modan crafts a meditation on identity in which representatives of various generations intermingle, sex is a weapon, and politics nearly conquers love. Modan, who has worked with Etgar Keret, another piquant Israeli graphic novelist and member of the Actus collective, doesn't always like what she sees in her native land. But she'll never turn a blind eye.

Tomine's narrowly focused "Shortcomings" (Drawn & Quarterly, 108 pp., $19.95) pits brittle Ben Tanaka against sensitive, sensual Miko Hayashi, the girlfriend he still wants. Ben is possessive and unfaithful, while Miko has wanderlust and a healthy sense of privacy. Tomine plays his feelings close to the vest, presenting simultaneously spare and spacious pages that allow the moods of his tightly wound characters to flicker and flare. A cutting portrayal of losers beautiful and otherwise, "Shortcomings" is a sophisticated designer downer, intelligently framed by Tomine to convey charged situations that don't resolve easily. Graphic novels are rarely this disquieting and subtle.

Hyde's "Southern Cross: A Novel of the South Seas" (Drawn & Quarterly, 255 pp., $24.95) is a work of protest about the atomic-bomb testing the United States conducted in the South Pacific after World War II. It traverses an idyllic South Pacific island visited by the American military, which plants an atomic bomb under the sea, forcing the islanders to evacuate. A US soldier's rape of an island woman prompts the woman's husband to kill the American; it's a frightening sequence and apt symbol of that other violation, the bomb implantation itself. Some of Hyde's images are so packed they're hard to make out, let alone bear. But the message - pacifist, angry, pure - is unmistakable. A timely reissue indeed.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer and author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories," regularly reviews graphic novels for the Globe.

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