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.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State