'Commies and Comics' - A Selection of Graphic Books Reviewed

By Martin, Tim | The Spectator, December 8, 2018 | Go to article overview

'Commies and Comics' - A Selection of Graphic Books Reviewed


Martin, Tim, The Spectator


Its Booker-longlist nomination meant that Nick Drnaso's Sabrina (Granta, £16.99) was the comic that everyone has heard of this year, even if it's also the one most likely to give them post-traumatic stress. Drawn in deliberately bland colours and small, often wordless panels, this story about the human aftermath of a grisly American killing takes in internet paranoia, conspiracy theorists and the internet's hyperspeed appetite for atrocity. But it's also an intensely withdrawn book, full of desperate characters whose emotions vibrate at near-subperceptible frequencies. I admired it deeply, and I'd be happy never to think about it again.

Less emotionally stressful, though with deep seriousness lurking beneath its shrewd wit and artistic energy, is Jules Feiffer's The Ghost Script (Liveright, £19.99), the third in a trilogy of graphic novels by a veteran cartoon satirist (Feiffer is 89). In straggly, super-vivid monotone art, it pays homage to the Spirit comics of Will Eisner, whom Feiffer once assisted, and the PI stories of mid-century Hollywood. This final volume ties up the loose ends of its predecessors, offering closure to some and a sticky end to others, as a bunch of detectives, commie screenwriters, gossip-mongers, starlets and right-wing agitators hare about after a dynamite screenplay that may or may not exist.

On the topic of commies, I've enjoyed few comics this year as much as Martin Rowson's slim, ferocious retelling of Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto (SelfMadeHero, £12.99). Published for the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth in a deft abridgement with introductory notes by Rowson, this is a nightmare fantasia in black, grey and, naturally, red, in which grisly industrial landscapes are stalked by toilet-bowl monsters with cash registers for heads and a huge iron giant of industry with the face of the Westminster clock.

Like all Rowson's stuff, it's extraordinarily clever and utterly savage: I didn't know whether to squeal with laughter or horror at, for example, the drawing of the proletariat getting its tongue caught in a mangle, then being snipped up and pulped by wing-collared Lord Snooties, or the riot policeman shining a torch down an old lady's throat beneath the iron cliff of a bank's HQ. In some ways it's the perfect Spectator stocking-filler.

The Manifesto wasn't the only historic work freely adapted as a comic this year. Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation (Penguin, £14.99) offers a version of the text endorsed by the Anne Frank Fonds, and presented in graphic form by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, the Israel-based director and artist behind the animated film Waltz with Bashir. This English version is late to market, but it's still a treat, with Folman's scripting a marvel of compression and Polonsky's supple, witty art tracking Anne's mind through banality, reflection, fantasies and nightmares. It's one to read and share.

As is Ken Krimstein's The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt (Bloomsbury, £14.99), a spirited biographical comic about the inner life of the German philosopher and social/political theorist: her life in Berlin, her escape from France, her philosophical development and her relationship with Heidegger. Told in a quirky style that may lure readers fascinated by a previous struggle against patriarchy, anti-Semitism and the extreme right, it's forested with footnotes (initially infuriating, then quite endearing) that will whisk even the staunchest anti-Wikipedian through the whole thing: Auden, Augustine, Husserl, Horkheimer, Schnabel, Schoenberg, Onkel Tom Kobli and all.

And a small but special mention for Apollo (SelfMadeHero, £15.99), a comic by Mike Collins, Matt Fitch and Chris Baker that spins outward from the central event of the Moon mission into the lives of astronauts, families, politicians and the world, without ever falling into clichéd heroics or losing its poise and sense of character, making a familiar story thrilling and wondrous again. …

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