Autumn graphic novels

Five of the best.

Slowly but surely, comics and graphic novels are being accepted as the art they have the potential to be. The release schedule for this autumn shows as eclectic a mix of titles as you'd expect in any other medium. Although they can only ever be personal picks, here are the five I'm looking out for (click on any page to see it full-size):

The Hive

Charles Burns's seminal coming of age/mutating STD story, Black Hole, took ten years to come out over the course of 12 issues, but boy was it worth it. For his new story, he's copying the Franco-Belgian model of 60-odd page comic albums; the first volume, X'ed Out, came out in 2010, and was something like Tintin meets David Lynch.

Given it was just the first of three, however, it did rather end with the reader still in the dark. The Hive, the second of the trilogy, ought to bring the story further to the centre. But whether or not it does, the beauty of Burns's art – X'ed Out was his first work in full colour, and this is his second – is reason enough to give it a go.

Building Stories

Chris Ware is a strong contender for greatest living graphic novelist. But his last full-length work, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, came out in 2000, and the world has been eagerly awaiting something new. Ware has kept himself busy in that time – a groundbreaking digital comic for McSweeneys, and several editions of his serial Acme Novelty Library – but Building Stories makes its welcome appearance in October.

Hitting the headlines for its format as much as anything, the book – if that's the right description – ships as an enormous box, with fourteen books, pamphlets, sheets and posters of varying sizes contained within. There is no recommended reading order, and Ware makes the most of the various formats he has to work with, from broadsheet newspapers to hardback children's books (the page below, for instance, is slightly bigger than the Telegraph). All are presented in his trademark hyper-detailed style, and the work is sure to take your breath away.

Saga, volume one

Brian K Vaughan is one of the best loved writers of genre comics. Making his name with Y: the Last Man, a high-concept serial which explored a world in which every animal with a Y chromosome had died except for one man and his monkey, Vaughan has spent the last few years writing for television, honing his skill in the writers' room for Lost. Saga marks his return to comics, and also a maturing of his writing.

The series is almost unwieldy in its scope, but it never forgets the human story at its core: that of a couple, from either side of a war between two feuding races, and their quest to give their daughter a life which seems almost impossible. Ostensibly a space-opera, the series connects on a far more emotional level than many examples of the genre.

Hilda and the Bird Parade

Luke Pearson's follow-up to 2011's Hilda and the Midnight Giant sees him return to Hilda, his delightful all-ages creation (all-ages being comics-speak for "suitable for children, but really you should read it even if you are an adult, because it's great" – think Pixar or the Simpsons). The stories – of which this is the third, but just as strong an entry point as either of the first two – have a deliberate Scandinavian twinge, focusing on that same unquestioning acceptance of the supernatural that gives stories like Tove Jansson's Moomins their unmistakeable feeling.

In this book, Hilda and her single mother have moved from the fjords to the city of Trolberg, and Hilda is struggling to fit in. But when she saves a raven from being killed by her new friends, she finds out he can talk. Together, they embark on an adventure through her new home.

Goddamn This War!

Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches took altogether too long to make it into English. One chapter made it into Art Spiegelman's Raw magazine – most famous for being the site of the original serialisation of Spiegelman's own groundbreaking work Maus – while another two were published in the 1990s by Drawn and Quarterly magazine. But when it Fantagraphics finally published it in full in 2010, Anglophonic audiences were able for the first time to experience an incredibly powerful exploration of the horror of the First World War.

Goddam This War! is more spiritual successor than actual sequel, but it is easily the equal of It Was the War…. Eschewing the latter's splintered storytelling for a simpler, chronological tale, told through the first person narration of an unnamed soldier, it's an accessible look at one of the masters of French comics tackling the subject which he writes about like no other. Plus, it's presented in Tardi's beautiful pen-ink-and-watercolour.

Browsing for graphic novels in a shop in Washington DC (Photograph: Getty Images)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism