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Beyond the frame: the best recent graphic novels

Neel Mukherjee is moved and unsettled by everything from psychological realism to ghost stories.

Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (Harvard University Press, £16.95) is a book not quite like any other. First of all, this graphic novel was his doctoral thesis at Columbia University. Second, the book is entirely non-narrative – it doesn’t tell a story but instead explores and is powered by a series of ideas about how the human mind produces meaning. It takes on the problem that Jacques Derrida and others identified as “logocentrism”, the primacy of words over images in the western philosophical tradition, but then goes about the critique of the idea in a completely different, evidence-based way.

Ranging across a wide range of disciplines – the arts, the sciences, popular culture, critical theory – Sousanis argues that the verbal and the visual are inextricably entwined in the production of knowledge. His book enacts that process, being at once a thesis and its illustration (in both senses: example and pictorial representation). It is a book that is dense with the syntheses of ideas, nimble, far-reaching and impossible to summarise. It liberates itself from the standard layout of panels within frames, teaching the eye and mind to read the unfailingly intelligent black-and-white artwork in unconventional and new ways. Unflattening deserves a place as a compulsory textbook in schools.

William Goldsmith’s Vignettes of Ystov (2011) announced an original talent. He is back with his second graphic novel, The Bind (Jonathan Cape, £20), which is set in a Victorian bookbinders called Egret, run by two brothers, Guy and Victor, of opposite temperaments. Guy is prudent and responsible, while the devil-may-care Victor is a rule-bending risk-taker. The making of the most expensive book ever ignites the tinderbox of the destructive dynamics between the brothers, with disastrous consequences for the bindery.

The ghost of the brothers’ dead father, despairing yet powerless, hovers over the events as a chorus of one, commenting on the action, while Goldsmith, as natural a storyteller as he is a dazzling illustrator, keeps wrong-footing the reader, introducing twist upon twist in the corkscrew narrative. The result is utterly delicious, a gripping story that is beautiful to behold. Goldsmith’s restrained palette of greys, orangey browns and umbers gives the book the visual feel of early cinema.

David Hughes’s second graphic novel, The Pillbox (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) transports the structural elements of a ghost story – an unsettled and unresolved past misdeed, its sudden and inexplicable irruption in the present tense and its equally sudden vanishing – to the Suffolk seaside and creates a distinctive creature of it. Quite apart from the stunning artwork – knowing, often painterly, part George Grosz, part Ralph Steadman – the book turns around a cruel deployment of dramatic irony: the characters are refused the bitter illumination that the readers are given.

Jack, an 11-year-old, stumbles upon a Second World War pillbox on the beach and meets a slightly older boy called Bill. The next day, the pillbox is gone and there is no sign of Bill. The narrative loops back to 1945 to give us Bill’s story. It is violent and shocking, but even more shocking is the story of Bill’s sister, Rita, and her terminally ill husband. Hughes has captured something ineluctably English in the combination of seediness, violence, sensationalism and humour; the book’s biggest effect, however, is the resonance of the present-day story, which will leave at least one haunting question ringing in your head.

I’ve always had more admiration than love for Jules Feiffer’s work – there’s something about the messy fluidity of his lines that I don’t warm to – but Kill My Mother (Liveright, £16.99), his first foray into the graphic novel form (at the age of 86), is perfection of its kind. It’s a homage to the ­masters of noir: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain are among the book’s dedicatees. Like Howard Hawks’s film of Chandler’s The Big Sleep (even its screenwriters, including William Faulkner, were in the dark about certain elements of the plot), Feiffer’s book delivers a story of devilish intricacy with remarkable economy: in a single page, he reveals vast backstories. The cast of characters features a needy daughter who wants to kill her mother; the mother, who works for a drunken private investigator and is looking for her husband’s killer; a chippy tap dancer who wants to be Hollywood’s biggest star; a weedy boy who grows up to be a hulky soldier. Kill My Mother spans a decade and its locations shift from Bay City to a theatre of war on a South Pacific island, where the story, a ticking bomb so far, explodes spectacularly.

Adrian Tomine is one of the finest graphic novelists working in the tradition of psychological realism. Killing and Dying (Faber & Faber, £14.99), a collection of six interconnected short stories, has all the depth, shadows, restraint and emotional impact of Alice Munro or William Trevor. There is no finer exploration of embarrassment than the title story about a stammering, under-confident 14-year-old who wants to be a stand-up, much against her unsupportive father’s wishes, but Tomine goes a few steps further and devastates you, changing the entire emotional weather. He is a master of melancholy, of depicting lives running into the sand. He is also a master of the deflating joke, of comedy that breaks the heart. The psychological complexity and depth he is capable of rendering in a few panels is astounding.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage). He appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 29 November.

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.