Graphic novels continue to break new ground, with recent works that run the gamut in both style and content. Here we take a look at four of the best new releases, ranging from a colorful tale of pirates and sea monsters to a close examination of democracy in America.
A CLASSIC TALE
It took Joann Sfar’s touch to make me finally fall in love with the story of The Little Prince. Sfar’s illustrated version of the classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is more playful than precious; the combination of his captivating artwork and the pared-down prose allows the story to sneak up on you rather than blatantly yanking your heartstrings. As drawn by Sfar, the mysterious prince from a tiny, faraway planet is adorable, wise and funny, rather than simply tragic. Sfar gives him depth and attitude, with tired shadows around his big blue eyes and subtle facial changes that express feelings it would be clunky to describe in writing. Sfar tells as much of the story as he can visually, employing words only when necessary, which gives the whole thing a feeling of restraint that the original lacks. In my favorite scene, the little prince meets a wild fox who begs to be tamed (“It means creating a bond,” the fox explains). So the prince tames him, but when it’s time to leave, the fox starts to cry. “So it hasn’t been worth it,” says the prince. “Oh yes it has,” the fox replies, and suddenly whole swaths of adult life make sense. (Sfar’s fox looks a lot like the namesake of his best-known book, The Rabbi’s Cat—angular, sly and prone to curling up expressively.)
ON THE HIGH SEAS
Similar in tone and in its rich color palette, The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier is, on the surface, a rollicking tale of pirates’ adventures on the open sea. But in fact it’s a story about loyalty, honor and keeping your promises. Walker Bean’s beloved grandfather has fallen ill after being cursed by a stolen skull; it’s up to Walker to return the skull to where it belongs and end the curse. But to do that, he has to keep the skull out of the hands of a creepy octopus man, a feisty pirate girl and his own father, among others. There are also huge, menacing lobster women and a ship that turns into a planetarium. Like all young boys trying to solve grown-up problems, Walker makes mistakes, but he also makes some very helpful friends, including a pirate boy named Shiv and, eventually, tentatively, that feisty pirate girl, Gen. Renier’s drawings are vivid and expressive, full of movement and sound, and the twist at the end of the story adds an unexpectedly heartwarming touch. Walker’s adventures will continue in Volume 2 of the series.
TRY, TRY AGAIN
At the other end of the graphic-novel spectrum is Good Eggs, Phoebe Potts’ memoir of her and her husband’s struggle to get pregnant. Her spare and simple line drawings invite you into the story; it’s mostly realistic, but with occasional flights of fancy that spring from Potts’ imagination. A discussion of a soul-sucking job, for instance, includes one panel showing a row of new college graduates on an assembly line, a “PhD factory,” as she puts it. And when she meets her future husband, something he says makes her draw herself being held aloft by little doves (who then drop her to the floor when he mentions having a girlfriend). It’s sweet, and effective. The writing is also excellent: sharp, clever, realistic dialogue with no wasted words. Potts grew up in Brooklyn, and her characters talk the way people talk in Brooklyn—always entertaining, and usually hilarious, even when the subject matter is serious. The story centers on her desire for a child, but it’s all the other things she discovers—about her own life, her priorities and values—while pursuing this desire that make the book so rewarding.
AN AMERICAN JOURNEY
Taking the search for fulfillment from the personal to the political is Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, an investigation into the roots of democracy in America and how it has changed throughout our history. Kalman was inspired by the 2008 elections, and on inauguration day she went to Washington, D.C., to begin a sort of political-science travelogue. She gets a crush on Abe Lincoln, discovers you can patent a peach, chats with farmers and meets diplomats. The sketches and collages she uses to illustrate what she learns are placed opposite pages of her hand-written observations, which are spirited and funny, keeping the material from ever seeming dull. On the very early origins of America, for instance, she says, “Growing tired of the ocean, creatures migrated onto the land. Then came dinosaurs and motorcycles.” Which sounds about right. A few pages later, we learn, “Then came Commerce and Greed.” It’s a fast-paced tour, hitting all the highlights and the lowlights, and enhanced with Kalman’s sketches and paintings as well as archival photos, postcards, pages from old books and diaries, etc. There’s a lot to learn from this book, but reading it never feels like hard work.