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17 February 2015updated 18 Feb 2015 5:06am

Substance abuse: How form meets content in three new graphic novels

Scott McCloud's The Sculptor, Richard McGuire's Here and Joe Sacco's Bumf.

By Yo Zushi

The Sculptor
Scott McCloud
SelfMadeHero, 496pp, £18.99

Richard McGuire
Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, £25

Joe Sacco
Jonathan Cape, 120pp, £12.99

In 1984, Nile Rodgers was shooting the breeze with Mick Jagger and a friend in a recording studio lounge, watching Madonna perform “Like a Virgin” – a single that Rodgers had produced – on TV. “Madonna is just style and no substance,” the friend said. “You just don’t get it, do you?” Rodgers barked back. “This is show business. Style is substance!”

All great art, whether part of show business or not, has style – or rather, it displays a mastery of style. Van Gogh could paint a bunch of sunflowers in a vase and give it more substance than Banksy, say, could ever wring out of the weightier subjects of mass surveillance and rapacious capitalism. When an artist, regardless of the medium, decides to tackle a meaningful idea, that ambition is to be applauded; whether he or she succeeds is another matter.

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Scott McCloud’s graphic novel The Sculptor begins promisingly. A series of disjointed images (a girl in bed, a falling man, a crowd in a state of shock) serves as a prelude, charging the next few pages – which show a drunk nephew, David, running into an uncle at a restaurant – with enough curiosity to last until the revelation that Uncle Harry isn’t Uncle Harry at all. He is, in reality, Death. And Death casually makes David a Faustian offer: you can make whatever artwork you can dream up, moulding solid matter with your bare hands, but you’ll drop dead in 200 days. David, a frustrated sculptor, declares that for art, “I would give my life.”
Deal done.

What follows is an entertaining story of a loser’s rediscovery of his self-esteem and a love affair cut short by Uncle You-Know-Who. “Entertaining” may be a weak descriptor but the word fits. David isn’t particularly likeable. He is charmless, rude and narcissistic. Even his redemption is no meaningful redemption – his obsessive belief in the importance of his own work never wavers and his self-absorption is rewarded with fame . . . as a Banksy-ish street artist. Yet McCloud, the author of the essential study Understanding Comics, keeps the plotting tight and it’s hard not to be moved when major characters sigh, cry or die.

The problem is that it feels so small. The Sculptor is loaded with portentous imagery (a street becomes a calendar with an abyss at the end of it); there are ruminations on love, friendship and mortality. But it invokes these themes without ever truly expanding our understanding of them: they facilitate the narrative, which, though strong, is standard wish-fulfilment fare. Visually, too, it suffers from an efficient but somewhat characterless aesthetic – though I admit that this last complaint is entirely subjective.

Richard McGuire’s Here is formally so idiosyncratic that it evades easy categorisation. Where The Sculptor is all story, McGuire’s book seems at first to lack one altogether. If there is a main protagonist, it is a corner of a New Jersey room, viewed at different points through millennia, from the year 3,000,500,000BC (when all there was was fiery landscape) to the distant future.

Expanded from a six-page strip first published in 1989, Here is a collection of casual moments that derive their power from their juxtaposition with other, equally casual moments. In 1958, a man smiles as his wife asks him if he’s got his “watch, wallet, keys”. “Check,” he confirms, patting his pocket. This is set against another scene in 1959 with the same dialogue. About 60 pages later, we glimpse the man, again in 1959, waving his hands in exasperation. “Have you seen my keys?” he groans. “I put them down and then poof, they were gone.” To his left, a woman cradling a child in 1996 tells an unseen interlocutor, “Then I lost my self-control,” while to his right, a man in the year 2222 wonders, “Where the hell is my car?”

It’s a musical book, rich in motifs, and it creates subtle drama through resonance rather than manipulation. If there is an analogue, it is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which focused on domestic America in the 20th century but found dinosaurs relevant, too. Unlike Malick’s film, however, Here is unsentimental; McGuire places as much emphasis on a girl who has lost an earring in 1994 as he does on an elderly woman in 1962 who is losing her hearing.

McGuire’s spare visual style exists at the opposite end of the spectrum to that of Joe Sacco’s satirical comic Bumf. Here conflates time to explore humanity through the ages; Bumf remixes images of modern warfare to show our inhumanity. Nixon returns from the dead and takes Obama’s place, amusing himself by firing on random targets using drones and learning the ropes of the war on terror. Eddie Adams’s 1968 Saigon execution photograph is evoked in a panel in which an Allied First World War officer shoots a German soldier; opposite this is an early-20th-century woman weeping over a corpse, in the pose of Mary Ann Vecchio in John Filo’s Kent State image. Cruelty fills each page, as Abu Ghraib-style human pyramids tower over masked, naked Americans performing enhanced interrogation techniques on “citizen suspects”.

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Sac­co’s was among the most nuanced voices analysing the role of comics in political debate. “When we draw a line, we are often crossing one, too,” he wrote, asking whether an offensive image can be taken as a “joke” and, if so, in what context. The crudity of Bumf clearly has intent: it will offend right-wingers across America. It’s a book with an expert command of an abhorrent style – and in this is its substance.

Yo Zushi’s new album, “It Never Entered My Mind” (Eidola Records), is out now

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