JAMITLI, AYA OF YOP CITY and BURMA CHRONICLES reviewed by The Star Tribune

Drawn from all over the world

Star Tribune    |    Books Tom Horgen    |    December 25, 2009

Here is proof that the power of comic books has reached a worldwide audience. And I'm not talking about all the money that superhero movies make overseas. These three stories -- set in Israel, the Ivory Coast and Myanmar -- represent the field's rich diversity, which is celebrating an all-time high thanks to publishers like Drawn & Quarterly. These comics (or graphic novels) each tell stories specific to a different small corner of the globe. Lucky for us that comics speak a universal language.

Jamilti And Other Stories
Rutu Modan

When the graphic novel "Exit Wounds" was released last year, it heralded the arrival of a top-tiered talent in Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan. Her colorful art popped off every page with lifelike movement. And her story was a page-turner, as it followed a young Tel Aviv man on the trail of his estranged father who might have been killed in the latest suicide bombing. Modan also took a controversial stance: As an Israeli, she spoke firsthand of the random violence that informs daily Tel Aviv life, but she also voiced a deep empathy for the other side.

It's a surprise, then, that Modan's second book isn't another full-length story, but instead a collection of stories, many of which aren't even new (most were made pre-"Exit Wounds"). But "Jamilti and Other Stores" is still a fascinating read. Storywise, she is again focused on the sudden violence that numbs everyday Israeli life. Artistically, you can watch Modan bloom from an early sketchy style to her current love of defined lines, which give her characters a three-dimensional quality.

From these seven stories we learn that she's a bit of a mystery writer, often leading us down twists and turns until the big reveal. Take the 10-page title story that opens "Jamilti." In it, a young Israeli woman storms off after a fight with her crude fiance, only to be nearly killed in a suicide blast outside a Tel Aviv cafe. Searching for other survivors, she finds a dying man with his legs blown off. As she leans over him, he suddenly kisses her and says "Jamilti" before paramedics rush him away. Later, without mentioning the kiss, she asks her fiancé if he knows what "Jamilti" means. He says it's Arabic for "my beautiful one." It's classic Modan.

Aya of Yop City
Marguerite Abouet, Clement Oubrerie

Writer Marguerite Abouet, a native of the Ivory Coast, has done something extraordinary for her Western readers. She's given us a vision of her homeland that has nothing to do with war, famine or any of the many atrocities that clog our minds when we think of Africa. That's not to say we should forget those images of suffering; it's just foolish to view an entire continent through a one-dimensional lens.

Abouet's viewfinder is focused on everyday life in the Ivory Coast's capital city, Abidjan, a place filled with bright colors and mischievous comedy. She sets "Aya of Yop City" during the 1970s, a time when the country's booming economy was the envy of Western Africa. In a working-class district nicknamed Yop City, the characters Abouet introduced in her must-read 2007 debut (simply titled "Aya") are still struggling with one intense, uncompromising problem: young love.

Chief among them is Aya, a young woman who acts like a den mother to her group of girlfriends, each on the prowl for Mr. Right. Abouet finds humor in their unpredictable exploits, and has the perfect artist to bring it all to life. Clement Oubrerie's artwork is light, almost doodling pencils flushed out with bold colors. He adds a whimsy to every interaction. Even the panels that frame everything are loosely hand-drawn, as if they were floating on the page.

Of course, life in the Ivory Coast wouldn't always be so cheery, as the country would fall into economic and political turmoil during the 1980s. But for this moment, in "Aya of Yop City," Abouet isn't concerned with that. And isn't that a statement in itself?

Burma Chronicles
Guy Delisle

Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle has carved out a niche for himself, traveling to oppressed Asian countries and writing about his experience. He's not an aid worker or a journalist. His day job is in animation, which has landed him gigs in China and North Korea. He just happens to be a keen observer of cultural ambiguities and the way life carries on under repressive conditions. So after each trip, he publishes a comic travelogue in stylized black-and-white.

First came "Pyongyang" and "Shenzhen." Now he's on to Myanmar (formally Burma), where the country's military dictatorship made headlines in 2007 for brutally crushing anti-government protests. Delisle was there two years earlier, not as an animator but as a companion to his wife, who's with Doctors Without Borders.

Delisle is a humorist, which makes writing about Communist states or the junta in "Burma Chronicles" a bit unusual. That's why he uses a familiar comedic motif: He's a stranger in a strange land. While this approach can generate passages of humor and peculiar discovery (they play Karen Carpenter nonstop in Burmese grocery stores), Delisle can sometimes come off as the snooty foreigner. He's also prone to rambling on about his trivial, culture-clash discomforts. But all this has a purpose. Delisle loves depicting his own cultural naivete in order to give readers a better understanding of what he saw.

In one instance, Delisle naively assures his Burmese friend that change will come once the country's 76-year-old dictator dies. His friend explains that change was expected after the last dictator, but he was replaced by another. "So I don't see much reason for hope," he tells Delisle. The cartoonist doesn't say anything else.

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