Local publisher brings us tales from around the world

The Gazette    |    Ian McGillis     |    September 19, 2008

Even at this advanced date, reviews of graphic literature are apt to slip into a faintly apologetic tone. Praise is common but often qualified, as if it's assumed that true literary depth comes in spite of the form instead of growing naturally from it.

Well, can we all just get over that? No less a figure than Chip Kidd has observed that graphic novels have taken over the conversation about American literature," and a similar trend is happening worldwide. The field, in which Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly is arguably among the world's top two or three publishers, is experiencing a renaissance that shows no sign of fading. Three of D&Q's new titles, coincidentally all drawing on international themes, can serve as perfect examples.

Held up by consensus as one of the peak achievements of the genre is the Israeli Rutu Modan's 2007 book Exit Wounds, a novel that - in its classically clean visual lines and sharp, unsentimental portrayal of young love amid political turmoil - feels like a dream fusion of Hergé, Truffaut and Coetzee. Jamilti and Other Stories now gives fans a chance to see how Modan honed some of the elements that came to full fruition in Exit Wounds.

Often depicting how everyday life learns to accommodate random violence, these stories also trace Modan's arc from an artist prone to romanticizing others' pasts into a confident chronicler of her home country's present reality, with special emphasis on family and identity.

As Modan's themes sharpen and gain focus, so too does her visual style, to the point where the final piece, Your Number One Fan, leads seamlessly into the flawless economy of Exit Wounds.

Aya of Yop City continues the story begun in Marguerite Abouet's award-winning 2007 debut, Aya. Set in a working-class district of Côte d'Ivoire's former capital city, Abidjan, in the late 1970s, the books offer a time-capsule slice of life in a place that, at the time, was a shining example of indigenous post-colonial success.

In many ways, Abouet's deceptively complex interwoven narratives - of female bonding, awkward courtship, class tension, unwanted pregnancy - could be happening in any reasonablycomfortable late-20th-century setting. But that, paradoxically, is the key to Abouet's power: She presents her stories with unassuming universality, letting the specific political dimensions work their way in from the margins by implication.

Aiding her immeasurably is the French artist Clément Oubrerie; theirs is the perfect complementary relationship, producing something greater than the sum of its considerable parts. Saturated with rich colour, Oubrerie's work is stylized enough to evoke West African folk art without losing the crucial element of realism that gives the reader a you-are-there sensation.

The Aya stories have attracted a strong following among African expatriates in France, as well as readers internationally, so it will be very interesting to see whether Abouet - and, one hopes, Oubrerie along with her - extends the chronology into Côte d'Ivoire's more recent history. The essential sweetness of the Aya books would presumably come under severe stress should harder times be depicted; how the authors respond to that challenge would surely make for a fascinating continuation of an already unique body of work.

Quebec comics artist and animator Guy Delisle made his first book-length impact in 2006 with Pyongyang, an autobiographical account of a surreal stay in North Korea. That book's strength was its ability to inspire amused sympathy for its feckless (and not always likeable) narrator while offering documentary-quality perspective on a mystique-shrouded hot spot. The author's follow-up, Shenzhen, employed a similar strategy, and now Delisle returns with Burma Chronicles.

This time the everyman is a househusband, largely confined to Rangoon while his wife does field work with Médecins Sans Frontières. The necessity of caring for his preschool son, and the occasional forays afforded by his wife's job, give Delisle the opportunity to mix domestic minutiae with broader observations and reportage.

There's little narrative flow to this account, something emphasized by Delisle's style f inserting blocks of explanatory type at the top of his small black-and-white frames while employing minimal dialogue. Nor is the incorporation of historical background always handled smoothly. Nonetheless, by the end, the reader has a real sense of the strangeness - sometimes sinister, sometimes comical, sometimes downright baffling - of life under an oppressive and secretive regime.

"In a country without journalists, gossip is king," observes our narrator. Delisle provides his own kind of journalism, though, one that incorporates gossip and seemingly everything else an observant if often queasily disoriented visitor can glean.

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