Graphic reality - David Thompson on why comics are finally shrugging off their disreputable image

Quimby the Mouse

Chris Ware, <em>Jonathan Cape, £16.99</em>

ISBN 022407265X

Something strange is happening in the twilight world of the comic book. Not the usual mad scien-tists, superheroes and talking dogs, but something far more incredible. The comic form is gaining grudging acceptance among booksellers and even a creeping respectability. Chris Ware's graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan controversially won the Guardian's First Book Award in 2001, and comics continue to provide fertile material for cinematic adaptation - from Bryan Singer's X-Men franchise to Daniel Clowes's Ghost World and Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.

The comic's disreputable status has been a recurrent theme for Ware, most notably in his painfully funny Rusty Brown strip. His latest volume, Quimby the Mouse (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), gathers together the tragicomic adventures of the eponymous rodent - or, more accurately, a silhouette of a rodent, complete with voyeuristic tendencies and two-dimensional genitals.

Essentially a deluxe scrapbook of one-off strips and semi-autobiographical episodes, Quimby is clearly not intended to deliver the narrative ingenuity of Jimmy Corrigan. Nevertheless, the tone of this attractive compilation is both melancholy and unhinged. There are literary ruminations on the pathological nature of laughter and some wonderfully apocryphal adverts culled from the pages of Ware's long-running periodical, the Acme Novelty Library. In a twisted reworking of the 1970s "bully kicking sand in the weakling's face" ad for exercise equipment, the situation is extended, quite logically, with firearms, abduction and getaway cars. In another sequence, an ostensible homage to 1930s superhero comics is offset by speech bubbles and captions telling an entirely different and more intimate story.

Posy Simmonds's Literary Life (Jona-than Cape, £14.99) is a selection of short stories and strips from the Guardian's Saturday Review. Simmonds's wry visual style and gently mocking observations gravitate around publishing soirees, authors' insecurities and the barely concealed schadenfreude of the literati. One centres on the self-pity of an author during an unsuccessful in-store book signing: "Imagine having to endure this soul-crushing humiliation. People just don't realise what it's like to be treated with callous indifference . . ." Dejected and resentful, the author leaves the store, oblivious to the weary question coming from the level of his feet: "Any spare change please . . . ?"

Political implications are a defining feature of Joe Sacco's comic-book journalism. His two major works, Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine, employ the comic's disarming form to lure readers into an unreported world of injustice, adversity and uncomfortable facts. Sacco's latest volume, Notes From a Defeatist (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), is a diverse collection of early musings on cannibalism, unrequited love and the hairstyling travails of a touring punk band. At its heart are three extended meditations on modern warfare and the American media. "When Good Bombs Happen to Bad People" charts a history of the strategic bombing of civilians, all done in the name of creating a safer world. Notes From a Defeatist is part satirical autobiography, part travelogue, and illustrates the development of Sacco's graphic reportage.

Tom Gauld and Simone Lia's Both (Bloomsbury, £7.99) combines their complementary styles to surreal effect. Lia's solo venture, Fluffy (Cabanon Press, £6), is a tale of "unanswerable questions, love, despair, adventure and happiness". It is also a mystery story of a man whose child happens to be an inexhaustibly curious rabbit, mixing absurdity with charm.

The somewhat darker appeal of Tho-mas Ott's Tales of Error (Fantagraphics, £10.99) is an acquired taste. Ott, famed for his intricate scratchboard illustrations, produces wordless scenarios that are a triumph of graphic expression and silent cinematic horror. Underpinned by symbolic resonance and a taste for comic grotesque, these noir morality plays exploit their lack of dialogue to heighten a sense of oppressive doubt, conspiracy and danger.

Ott's cautionary tales include the self-explanatory "10 Ways to Kill Your Husband" and "A Wrinkled Tragedy", a novel twist on the pitfalls of plastic surgery. Two earlier volumes, Dead End and Greetings from Hellville, complete the series, with greed, blackmail and divine visitation all leading to denouements that are as awful as they are visually amusing.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the peacemakers (and probably Norwegians)