Sunday, July 09, 2006

Two Graphic Novels

Joann Sfar is the author of The Rabbi’s Cat and the Little Vampire children’s books. Vampire Loves is a series of short stories starring Ferdinand, a rather gentle Lithuanian vampire. Ferdinand breaks up with his girlfriend Lani (a mandragora, or plant/girl), and meets several other girls with varying degrees of success. He is luckiest with Aspirine, a girl vampire. (Aspirine and her sister Ritaline follow the tradition of punning names that marked the great French comic Asterix.)

Vampire Loves is a slight, meandering book. Its virtue is its charm and Sfar’s art. Sfar is like Jules Feiffer—he has a loose, sketchy style that subtly disguises his mastery. His drawing is, in fact, a joy to look at, and his rich color schemes are fantastic as well.

A richer graphic novel is Fun Home, by Allison Bechdel. Bechdel is the creator of the astonishingly good comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. In its emotional pull, I place it along with another favorite continuity comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. A weird comparison, I know. Dykes is a domestic situation comedy, Terry was a swashbuckling adventure; Dykes is politically correct, Terry was macho, imperialist, and racist; Dykes is politically left-wing, Terry was patriotic and pro-war. But they both embed their stories with an emotional punch.

Fun Home is a complex story about Bechdel’s father. Autobiography is usually a study of minutia in the hands of cartoonists, and often excellent because of it. Big issues, however, are avoided. That is not Bechdel’s way. She links her coming out with her closeted father’s death—officially an accident, but Bechdel theorizes it may have been intentional.

The structure of the book is not linear through time. The same ground is gone over again and again, concentrating on different details, stitching together the mystery of her father, decoding their relationship. Bechdel is sympathetic, but approaches autobiography like a scientific researcher. Her unusually rich, literary language reflects the bookishness of both father and daughter. Someone who has not read Dykes to Watch Out For might see this as Bechdel’s natural way of expressing herself, or worse, pedantic showing off. But it is clearly an intentional strategy—literature and language are a way that Bechdel can relate to her distant father.

This is an amazing book, one that I suspect will greatly reward rereading.

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