Beyond the frame: the best recent graphic novels

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

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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