Graphic novelists sketch complex terrain

The Georgia Straight    |    John Burns    |    June 8, 2006

Thank God, graphic novels have finally reached some level of mainstream acceptance. Hell, even the Globe and Mail is starting review roundups of them this summer. For fans of the form, this means we don’t have to explain that no, we’re not reading comic books. (Well, we are, but you know what I mean…) That not every book has to be compared to Peanuts. And with interest from Hollywood—everything from American Splendor to the still-showing Art School Confidential—names like Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Seth have gained a measure of recognition. It’s such a relief. If the trend continues, one day they could become as popular and profitable as poetry!

Given the enormous amount of effort required to compose, draft, and complete a full-length graphic novel, it’s no wonder obsession is such an enduring theme.

We Are on Our Own
By Miriam Katin. Drawn & Quarterly, 129 pp, $24.95, hardcover.

Saving best for last, We Are on Our Own is a memoir of how author Miriam Katin’s mother survived the last year of WWII. A Hungarian Jew, Esther saved herself and her daughter by fleeing Budapest and the Nazis. Disguised as a bumpkin servant with her illegitimate child, Esther collides here with Russian forces, German officers, violence, and rape; her qualified triumph (loss of lives, of faith, of innocence) is incredibly moving. Throughout, Katin condenses so much emotional and visual material into her frames that reading their plight is a breathless experience. Swinging between social satire and dispassionate documentary, We Are on Our Own is wholly persuasive, using humour, irony, and a range of drawing styles. It’s not unusual for Katin to focus a panel on a seemingly irrelevant detail—a shoe, a window, a breast—as though little Miriam is already editing their remarkable journey with her child’s eye. This is an extraordinary presentation of survival, and the furious fight to attain it.

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