Art imitating life imitating ... well, you get the idea

The Globe and Mail    |    Nathalie Atkinson    |    June 9, 2007

Exploring the darker side of the supernatural, from acts of blind faith and men driven insane by guilt, James Sturm's America: God, Gold, and Golems (Drawn & Quarterly, 190 pages, $27.95) brings together the cartoonist's American trilogy, previously unavailable in its entirety in book form. Sturm chooses a drawing style unique to each story's period and setting. First, he looks heavenward in The Revival, imagining thousands of pioneer settlers attending an impromptu gospel meeting in Cane Ridge, Ky., in 1801, with finely detailed line work that evokes various illustration styles of early American broadsheets.

Turning to a heavier use of black, Sturm moves underground with Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight for the tale of a 19th-century mining town and the greed that only gold can breed, playing with darkness and contrast on the page.

Then, as he moves into the 20th century for the final and strongest novella, The Golem's Mighty Swing, he employs a more simplified and modern cartooning style. A barnstorming Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David travels through Depression-era middle America and exploits the public's interest in the supernatural - specifically, the golem legend. They use their giant baseball player, who happens to be black (a "member of the lost tribe"), to draw a crowd in the stands, until at one game, faced with extreme anti-Semitism, they only narrowly escape a bloodthirsty mob: "It's no surprise things got out of hand. That is the nature of the golem."
In stark contrast, John Porcellino's King-Cat Classix (D&Q, 383 pages, $33.95) is a collection of his self-published, photocopied and folded comic zines (1989-1996). Even assembled in a slick hardcover format, the stories retain the folksy, DIY charm of the original.

Porcellino's short stories and observations about his life and the nature around him are simple and spare, but manage to capture his awe at the world, and this sensibility is echoed in his minimalist drawing style: a haiku or Zen parable told in the cartoon shorthand of artful doodles. They have the deceptively simple allure of a Ron Sexsmith song.

Another long-time comics insider, the pathetic, self-deprecating Joe Matt, finds himself exhausted financially, sexually and creatively in Spent (D&Q, 120 pages, $22.95), the latest instalment in his series of ever-more-confessional autobiographical comics. The infamous cartoon onanist is a mix of Harvey Pekar and Larry David (if they peed in a jar, watched porn all day, obsessed over past injustices, girlfriends and money, and then watched more porn), and Matt's style does what classical American cartooning is supposed to do: tell the story without drawing attention to itself.

But the marrying of tone, content and drawing style is perhaps most elegantly accomplished in Exit Wounds (D&Q, 172 pages, $21.95), the first long work by Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan (a member of the publishing collective Actus Tragicus, a dominant force in Israeli comics). After a young man learns that his estranged father may be the unidentified victim of a suicide bombing, a female soldier drags him on her search for answers. But it is not the outcome that matters. The political conflict and the tension of everyday life in Israel introduced by the bombing contribute to the tone of the story like any other background detail, but are not part of the puzzle. Instead, Modan uses the situation to create relationships between characters and then explore them, without any trace of sentimentality. Her main characters are fallible, at times unappealing, selfish or duplicitous, but these flaws are mundane rather than crucial.

Modan's art, too, is dispassionate. Using largely flat, watercolour hues and a consistent clear line, she creates an effect that is subdued and subtle. Elements of her style echo Hergé, but she eschews his right angles - people are realistically lumpy, not geometric - and her panels more tightly frame the characters. In the end, that's where the real story lies: There is no resolution, only the banal, sometimes petty, powerfully understated elements of human relationships.

Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso, God and golem, doodled cats and suicide bombers

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