The most successful example of the graphic novel is Art Spiegelmans Maus, which has sold more than a million copies and won the cartoonist a Pulitzer Prize. Yet Spiegelmans work is fictional only in form and not in content. Although told in the form of an animal fable, with talking mice and cats, Maus is in fact an acutely accurate account of how Spiegelmans father, a Polish Jew, survived the Second World War.
As it happens, one of the most interesting graphic novels of the season follow Spiegelmans formidable lead in using comic book storytelling techniques to examine personal history.
Why are so many contemporary cartoonists drawn to the autobiographical form? In some ways, this is a surprising development: historically comics have achieved their greatest popularity in the realm of fantasy, ranging from the pow-bang heroics of Superman to the more whimsical Disney universe of talking ducks and two-legged mice. Even the relatively naturalistic world that Charles Schulz created for his Peanuts characters had a dab of fey make-believe: think of Snoopy using his dog-house to wage war on the Red Baron.
The idea that comics could be a vehicle for introspective and naturalistic storytelling only really developed in the 1960s, a curious byproduct of the cultural ferment of the era. In those heady days, the hippy counter-culture had its own artistic wing: artists like Robert Fritz the Cat Crumb and Gilbert Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Shelton produced comics that were rife with anti-establishment attitude, featuring characters not afraid to use foul language or engage in psychedelic excess.
At first, the undergrounds were content to simply shock. But by using comics, which had long been a heavily commercialized and censored artform, as a forum for self-expression, underground cartoonists paved the way for the turn to autobiography. Adopting the let-it-all-hang-out ethos of the sixties, some of the best underground comics were frankly confessional. Perhaps the most influential comic in this vein was Justin Greens Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972), an intense and obsessive examination of childhood lived in the shadow of Catholic guilt. By crafting this singularly powerful tale, Green directly influenced the development of other cartoonists, notably Spiegelman and Harvey Pekar, whose piquant comic book stories of working class life have just been adapted in the much-praised film American Splendor. The continuing vitality of the underground comics tradition (now going by the more genteel rubric of alternative comics) can be seen in the work of one North American cartoonists, Chester Brown.
I Never Liked You. (This graphic novel was first released in 1994, but Brown has tweaked the presentation of the material somewhat for the recent definitive edition released by Montreals Drawn and Quarterly) looks back, with a fine clinical detachment, to Browns teenage years in the 1970s as a high school student in anglophile Quebec. As portrayed in the book, the young Chester suffers from a reticent heart. He is pals with several girls, one of whom he is sexually drawn to, but chokes up whenever there is a possibility of starting a relationship.
There are hints in the background about possible sources for Chesters emotional constipation, including the fact that his family has a stoic code of silence in the face of emotional distress. Yet such explanatory factors are properly kept to a bare minimum: their force is felt in the narrative rather than stated outright. Psychological reduction is never allowed to simplify the complexity of experience.
At first glace, Browns art seems skimpy and sparse: a few tightly demarcated panels per page inside which are line drawings mainly focused on head shots or characters moving against a background as bare as a theatrical stage. When you read Browns work, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this visual frugality is evidence of a powerfully concentrated storytelling ability.
Each panel only gives us enough to move the story forward and convey essential information about the characters mode or situation. Free from unnecessary distractions, our eyes start to squeeze as much as we can from each drawing, so that seeing becomes a form of close reading. This merging of seeing and reading is perhaps the quintessential comic book experience. Few artists know how to distill this experience as effectively as Brown.
Jeet Heer (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
"A minimalist, but haunting, memoir of the artist's troubled adolescence." -- The New York Times Book Review
"An engrossing memoir by one of the most talented artists working in alternative comics today." -- Publishers Weekly
"a minimalist, but haunting, memoir of the artists troubled adolescence". -- The New York Times Book Review
"an engrossing memoir by one of the most talented artists working in alternative comics today". -- Publishers Weekly
Chester Brown is commonly regarded as one of the leading figures of the alternative comics "renaissance" that began in the 1980's. As a cartoonist, he has produced three regular comic book series, Yummy Fur, Underwater, and Louis Riel, and his work has been collected in four books: Ed The Happy Clown, The Playboy, I Never Liked You, and The Little Man. Throughout his career, Brown's work has been known for its diverse and unpredictable nature. His stories have ranged from the absurd surrealism of Ed the Happy Clown, to the deeply personal, understated autobiographical accounts of his youth, to, more recently, the dada-esque, linguistically-challenged oddness of Underwater. Brown has won two Harvey Awards, for Best Cartoonist and Best Graphic Album