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Three to Start With 

by Sheri Boggs


One Hundred Demons -- Lynda Barry -- One Hundred Demons evolved from Lynda Barry's hilarious comic strips from the '80s and '90s -- collected in books like Boys + Girls, Down the Street and The Freddie Stories. Originally published on Salon.com, Demons isn't a graphic novel so much as collection of visual short stories. Still, the same qualities -- multi-layered narrative, character development, interplay between art and text -- that operate in a graphic novel are also evident here.


Calling these vignettes "autobifictionalography," Barry combines the wild originality of her early work -- she was the first cartoonist to openly mock women's magazines while simultaneously loving all the Tic-Tacs, lipstick and big hair-dos of being a girl -- with her most personal and autobiographical material to date. If anything, One Hundred Demons feels like graphic memoir.


Barry, the fun-loving, Bush-hating, dog-rescuing adult emerges in One Hundred Demons from Barry, the quiet girl on the block who savors kickball games and works for scary hippies as a teenager. The collages -- comprised of bits of ric rac, glitter, googly eyes and origami -- that introduce each story are a good foil for some of Barry's darker stories, including childhood sexual abuse, a friend's suicide and freaking out on acid. Even in her novels, The Good Times Are Killing Me and the deliciously bizarre Cruddy, art is an inextricable part of the whole package.


"Art Saves Lives": Sometimes that old saw fits; sometimes it feels histrionic. In the case of Lynda Barry, it feels essential, true and in her own words: "right on."





Maus: A Survivor's Tale -- Art Spiegelman -- Maus was one of the first examples I can remember of working in a bookstore and needing to be extra-aware that "comic book" does not necessarily mean "funny." The hollow-eyed mice and barbed wire on the cover were kind of a giveaway, but every now and then a customer or a new employee would park Maus in the humor section, unaware that the cartoon animals, red spines and bright pictures were actually telling a story about the Holocaust.


Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for the two volumes of Maus in 1992. The unflinching story of his parents and how they suffered in Auschwitz and Birkenau -- and also of the author's own modest success as a cartoonist -- Maus is a tangled skein of guilt, senselessness and love. Spiegelman has been roundly criticized for setting up his own form of racism in the book, casting his Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs and even the Americans as dogs. But the decision to use animals is brilliant, referencing the Nazis' own characterization of the Jews as "vermin," the dehumanization of the "Final Solution" and ultimately the brutality and innocence of the animal world.


Spiegelman's most stunning achievement, however, is not so much how effectively he portrays the horrors of Nazi-occupied Poland but how he evokes the Holocaust's legacy even across time and generations. His relationship with his parents is a troubled one; even though he understands that the war has made them the way they are, he portrays them as crabbed, depressed and doomed, and himself as an insensitive ass for not being more sympathetic. Maus is one of the bleakest stories in the annals of graphic noveldom, but it's not without its own strange and bitter loveliness.





Acme Novelty Datebook: Sketches and Diary Pages in Facsimile 1986-1995 -- Chris Ware -- There is something so awesomely precise, so elegantly tiny about Chris Ware's work that they feel like products of another age. Part of it is that he does so often visually refer to the typefaces, imagery, design elements and layout structures of an earlier age. Part of it is that his love for detail flies directly in the face of our early 21st-century obsession with time and speed.


There's no such thing as flying through any of Chris Ware's works, whether you're perusing Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Quimby the Mouse or any of his beautiful Acme Novelty Library creations. His Acme Novelty Date Book: 1986-1995 is no exception. Compiled of early Jimmy Corrigan and Quimby sketches, ratty journal entries, occasional naked lady drawings and lots of experimental pieces, the "date book" is the graphic novelist's soul laid bare.


In some ways, graphic novelists can be considerably more fearless than any of their strictly literary counterparts, and in this regard, Ware is especially so. His R. Crumb-ian self-loathing informs every page, and he comes across here as being a lot like an exceptionally talented 13-year-old boy. There's a pervasive and troubling sexual hostility running through much of Date Book -- the women in his drawings are creatures of endless fascination and frustration, and Ware conveys himself in terms of disgust and absurdity for lusting after them. It's not uncommon for him to draw himself like a great big ridiculous penis on some of these pages, or to utter scary phrases like "I ain't gettin' no girlie action!"


This book is a lot rawer -- in every sense of the word -- than his previous, more novel-ish material. It's also a remarkable view into the evolution not only of an idea, but of an artist's execution, subject and style.





Publication date: 04/01/04

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