Saturday, December 01, 2007

Neel Mukherjee Reviews 'Graphic Novels'. Why?

Now, Neel Mukerjee is a serial reviewer. He is a Cambridge graduate and so he is uniquely placed to review 'graphic novels' because...actually no, I'm being sarcastic.

It's not that I have anything against Neel Mukharjee, you see, it's just that I don't think the sort of people who get invited to review novels, should automatically be encouraged to review 'graphic novels', for reasons that I have recorded in earlier bloggings (see below), and nothing written in today's Times, by Neel, has changed my mind.

In today's Times the job of reviewing 'Graphic Novels' is given to Neel, who may well be a fan of the genre, for all we know, but there must be a certain amount of doubt cast on that assumption when we read the reviews. It's not that he doesn't effuse over the titles, he does, it's just that, well, he doesn't seem to quite get it. For instance, the 'Three Books of the Year', according to Neel, are, It's a Good Life if you Don't Weaken, by Seth, Exit Wounds, by Rutu Modan, and Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings.

Maybe they are in 'no particular order' but Neel has Seth's, It's a Good Life...(published originally by Drawn and Quarterly in 1996 in his native Canada, and reprinted here, in the UK, by Cape) as his number one of these 'three books of the year'. Don't get me wrong, I like Seth, and this is a decent book, especially for Seth fans and cartoonists and illustrators who are, like Seth, in both his mode of dress and his style of drawing, drawn to the great illustrators of the past, and past New Yorker Magazine illustrators, in particular. But we have to bear a few things in mind. The first is that the story is actually a collection of Seth's comic Palookaville, issues 4 to 9, and it was originally published in, and has sold very well since, 1996, and hard though it may be for Neel to believe, a lot of some backward folks over here in yea olde Britain are already too familiar with the work to proclaim it a 'book of the year' for 2007. If you are new to Seth's work, which you may well have seen in the New Yorker (yes Neel we even get that in Scotchland) I certainly wouldn't put you off buying it. It's a Great Life... was voted number 52 on the list of the '100 Best Comics of the 20th Century' by The Comics Journal.

Exit Wounds, again originally published by Drawn and Quarterly, and again reprinted here in the UK by Cape, is new though, and a sample from its pages can be found here;
The book, by Rita Modan, was the North American 'graphic novel' debut by the impressive Israeli cartoonist/illustrator, who has already won several awards in Israel and abroad and was voted 'Young Artist of the Year' by the Israeli Ministry of Culture. Unlike Seth's book, the premise of Modan's story is thoroughly modern. Set in modern-day Tel Aviv, the protagonist, Koby Franco, discovers that his estranged father may have been a victim of a suicide bombing in Hadera, and he sets of, reluctantly, to discover the truth about his Father's disappearance. This is story of our times, and a really great example of what a modern 'graphic novel' can be.

The third choice here, Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine, was published originally by Drawn and Quarterly (am I sensing a theme here?) and is reprinted here in the UK by Faber. A sample from the book can be found here;
Of course, those of you familiar with my blog will know that I just recently posted about an exhibition by Giant Robot Magazine that featured original artwork from this book, so I'm a bit of a fan, but I wouldn't fo so far as to proclaim Shortcomings one of three 'books of the year'.
Tomine's protagonist, Asian-American, Ben Tanaka, is, as The Village Voice pointed out, 'a lonely, socially constricted man, longing to make a connection and spinning in the purgatory between youth and adulthood', in other words he has the mind-set of a typical cartoonist. He is overly critical, overly sarcastic, and highly insensitive, especially in relation to his long–term, long-suffering, girlfriend, Miko Hayashi. I like Adrian Tomine and I like Shortcomings, but like Seth's book earlier, it has neither the scope or the depth that Exit Wounds brings to the medium.

Now, I draw no conclusions from the fact that ALL three of these books were originally published by Drawn and Quarterly, it may just mean that D&Q have a good eye (maybe that will rub-off on Cape and Faber and they will one day publish a new story, rather than a reprint that has already garnered critical acclaim). And although these three books are declared as '...THREE BOOKS OF THE YEAR' by Neel, he reviews a further five 'graphic novels': The Invention of Hugo Cabaret (Scholastic) by Brian Selznick, I Killed Adolf Hitler (Fantagraphics), by Norwegian cartoonist Jason, Paul Hornschemeier's The Three Paradoxes (Fantagraphics), Posey's Tamara Drew (Cape) and Nevermore (SelfMadeHero) an anthology, illustrated by Stuart Tipples, Steve Pugh, John McCrea, D'Israeli, Shane Ivan Oakley, Jame Fletcher, Natalie Sandells, Alice Duke, Erik Rangel, and Laura Howell.

Anyone writing a review of graphic novels and compiling a list of 'THE THREE BOOKS OF THE YEAR' in that medium, who has no knowledge of Shaun Tan's, The Arrival (Arthur A. Levine Books, reprinted by Lothian Children's Books in the UK), doesn't know the first thing about 'Graphic Novels'. In my humble opinion. I'd be prepared to overlook sloppy research that results in 'THE THREE Books OF THE YEAR', in the 'graphic novel' genre all being found on one publisher's website, but having no knowledge of a 'Graphic Novel' that has the entire cartooning community of cartoonists, illustrators, cartooning critics, cartooning bloggers and comicbook fans gaping in awe, is an astonishing oversight, is it not?

For the benefit of any Times readers who might look in and for Neel himself, Shaun Tan's, The Arrival is a 'silent graphic novel', of 120 pages of pencilled artwork, that took four years to develop. The reviews below, by people who clearly do have a clue about the medium, sum it up:


Kolclutter said...

Dear Rod,

I have a student who wishes to do his Ph.D. on graphic novels. Which books do you he should absolutely look at to know his area well?


Rod McKie said...

There are so many great books out there, 'Kol' (Kolcutta, eh?). There is a lot of reading around the subject to be done and it could certainly lead to a interesting thesis. Yale University Library might have a few pointers:

DFE-520TX said...

But Neel also did a good review of Shaun Tan's The Arrival. Check this: