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Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

The Contradictions
Sophie Yanow

Drawn & Quarterly

September 2020

The Winter of the Cartoonist
Paco Roca

Fantagraphics

August 2020

Kusama
Elisa Macellari

Laurence King Publishing

September 2020

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, and the maxim is even more accurate for graphic novels.

This surprised me when I first started reading graphic literature – in a medium that is so heavily iconographic, surely it must be possible to glean something from the cover? Yet for some graphic novels, it's neither the art which defines a book's quality, nor its literary aspect. Rather, the magical quality that makes or breaks a work lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect. The result can be surprising. Sometimes a comic that is sparse in both art and dialogue can prove more rewarding than works which are at first glance more visually appealing, or packed with more densely researched and presented dialogue.

The Contradictions, by Sophie Yanow [Drawn & Quarterly]

Sophie Yanow's newest work The Contradictions -- her chronicle of a spring break spent hitchhiking around Europe as a young, queer American student abroad, together with her anarchist friend Zena – is a case in point. The Contradictions is a masterpiece of literary minimalism. Space and silence speak volumes in its panels, with the onus on the reader to fill in the gaps.

Despite the dearth of dialogue, the characters resonate in deep ways. One senses the yearning in each of them for something more fulfilling than their everyday – for adventure, change, renewal. Zena provides a prototypical example of radical ennui: the anarchist eager to stay in squats and shoplift her way through life. An American abroad in Europe, she's determined not to "debase" herself by visiting museums or tourist attractions, but she's at a loss for what to do with herself in their stead other than wander the streets aimlessly.

Sophie, the narrator, is torn between her inner-artist desire to scour local museums and comic shops, and the self-conscious restraint she exercises because she yearns for Zena's acceptance. The pair convince themselves that hitchhiking is a more interesting and authentic way to see Europe, but really? Most of their days are spent standing on the side of the road seeking rides, or stuck in the backs of cars engaging in awkward conversation with drivers (when they're not drowned out by thumping techno).

Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Yanow's narrative is not didactive in the slightest; she makes no commentary on her excursion. It is the bleak emptiness of the panels which exercises judgement, not the narrator. The closest she comes to pointing the reader in an interpretive direction is in the title. The Contradictions perfectly sums up her experience, which leaves her grappling with all the contradictions between desire, aspiration, and reality that emerge in any confrontation with self and other.

Yanow conveys volumes with her minimalistic technique. Backgrounds are often non-existent; the reader's focus is on the characters. Often their dialogue is non-existent as well, with meaning conveyed through the most subtle mechanisms: their stance toward each other, an awkward shuffle, the infinitesimal rolling of a barely discernible eye.

When panels are stripped down to their basics like this, the reader becomes hyper-aware of motion and tension, voraciously alert to movements and silences and the meanings they might convey. With another writer a minimalist style like this might come across as lazy and incomFantaplete, but in Yanow's work it leaves the reader with an immense sense of satisfaction.

The Conradictions (courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)

The Winter of the Cartoonist, by Paco Roca [Fantagraphics]

I read The Contradictions at the same time as I was reading The Winter of the Cartoonist, a Paco Roca politico-historical graphic novel I'd been eagerly anticipating. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg, the book chronicles a little-known and fascinating incident that took place in the Spanish publishing industry in the late 1950s, while Spain languished under Franco's fascist dictatorship.

A group of left-leaning comics artists broke from powerful corporate publisher Editions Bruguera and tried to form their own progressive, writer-owned magazine in defiance of industry and dictatorship alike. Roca tells the story of their short-lived rebellion.

Roca's art is sublime. Its roots in cartoon form are clearly evident but he leans toward a stylized realism which provides the reader gorgeously depicted, highly detailed backdrops. The book is deeply, visually appealing. Yet the characters filling this space are disappointingly hollow. They drink coffee, joke with each other, challenge the status quo and dream big dreams. But more often than not they feel flat, emotionless.

Yanow's self-depiction, by contrast, expresses tremendous vitality with minimal effort. Her listless slouch, her two-dimensional gaze as she utters "Cool, cool" are infinitely more expressive, conveying all the pent-up anxiety, the burning ennui, the torn and contradictory desires of youth. The contrast offers a telling example that sometimes less is more, and greater level of detail does not necessarily translate into more evocative feeling.

But that is not to say that the great Paco Roca does not communicate; he too possesses a subtle yet effective method of communication. What is immediately striking in the contrast between Yanow and Roca is the difference in artistic styles – Yanow's expressive minimalism versus Roca's richly detailed artistry which, while aesthetically immersive and deeply evocative of time and place, ultimately leaves his characters unanimated.

Yet Roca possesses a literary flair for communicating not through character or dialogue but through the subtle asides of his tale. He excels at revealing the hidden side of the human soul, the many subtle ways in which we harbour inconsistencies and contradictions. A sequence in Winter of the Cartoonist features Rafael Gonzalez, a former journalist who was blacklisted by the Franco regime for his work before and during the Civil War. He eventually made his peace with the dictatorship and went on to forge an ultimately prosperous career as editor with Editions Bruguera, Spain's largest comics publishing house for many decades.

Gonzalez is in many ways the villain of the tale, working assiduously to sabotage the rebellious comics writers who leave his company to start their own more progressive magazine. Does one sense a tinge of bitterness from a former rebel who has so visibly sold out his ideals and prospered in so doing? He plays the role of the corporate patrician in the book, acting the stern father figure to his employees while dishing out the occasional kindness.

Yet in a stirring sequence of wordless panels, he roams listlessly in his office after work one night, finds a set of pencils and proceeds to do some unfinished panels himself. There's a furtiveness around his action – the corporate CEO doing the most menial of tasks – and yet also a sense of unfulfilled yearning, as though all he desires is the ease and innocence of his penurious but idealistic rebel writers.

This sequence – like many featuring Gonzalez – works largely because it omits dialogue, and concentrates instead on the hesitant stop-and-start actions of the antagonist: the minute variation in a facial expression that is normally firmly set, the contrast between his days as restless paterfamilias and his stolen moments as calm, absorbed colorist. Roca's detailed artwork is superb, but often it is the minimalist panels which prove the most expressive.

The Winter Cartoonist (courtesy of Fantagraphics)

Kusama, by Elisa Macellari [Laurence King Publishing]

Elisa Macellari's biographical graphic novel, Kusama, offers another example of minimalist power. Her story of Japanese artist Yasoi Kusama – originally published in Italian, and translated to English by Edward Fortes – is not minimalist in an artistic sense. On the contrary, it's full of lush imagery and dizzyingly vivid splashes of colour that are deliberately evocative of Kusama's own work.

But where it exercises restraint is in its presentation of Kusama's story. Macellari makes no effort to provide a straightforward biography; instead, she concentrates on catalytic moments in Kusama's life and attempts to enter her head in those moments, understanding the impact of events and visions on her art. The opening pages in particular, corresponding with Kusama's difficult childhood, invoke a sinuous, bending perception of reality: talking flowers and multi-hued atmospherics, in which it is only art that allows Kusama to stay grounded.

Kusama experienced visions and hallucinations from the age of 10 onward, in vivid hues that helped shape and inspire her art. The intersection of the everyday and the hallucinatory, the inner and outer worlds that shaped Kusama, is gorgeously represented in this book, whose panels minimize dialogue while maximizing visual representation of Kusama's richly creative interiority.

There's a deliberate contrast in Macellari's work between the simple, straightforward sketches depicting Kusama's exterior surroundings over the years – her traditional Japanese home in Matsumoto, Japan; her cold, messily art-strewn apartment and the streets of 1950s New York City (where she moved at the age of 27); the art galleries where her work increasingly gained critical acclaim – and the hallucinatory imagery which guided her work, and which is painstakingly reflected in the book's vivid panels. The former is simple, straightforward and illustrative, with all the right colours in their proper places. The latter, by contrast, is an inspired miasma of colour and shapelessness, a visual overpowering of the senses.

Sexuality is an important theme in Kusama's life and work. As a child, her mother sent her to spy on her philandering father, and the effect of witnessing her father's sexual liaisons had both a traumatic and creative impact on her work, which often depicts phallic imagery. The experience left her with a lifelong revulsion for sex and the male body, although in the 1960s she achieved further fame and notoriety with a series of politicized art actions involving nude actors in public spaces. Her work was also ahead of its time in its open celebration of homosexuality.

Yet Kusama struggled financially and psychologically against the deeply ingrained misogyny and sexism of the art world, which rewarded her derivative male followers more than it rewarded her (a fact represented perhaps a bit too kindly in the book by a sequence in which she upbraids Andy Warhol for stealing her models). The struggles she faced for recognition and acknowledgement in a misogynistic American art world exacerbated her mental health struggles, and she attempted suicide on multiple occasions, eventually moving back to Japan for psychiatric treatment. She has resided, by choice, in a mental hospital since 1977, from which she continues to produce art and writing (she keeps a studio nearby).

Macellari wisely opts not to try to follow the complex threads of Kusama's life in intricate detail; instead she aims at leaving the reader an impression of Kusama's artistic style and inspiration, aided by a sparse narration of the broad contours of her life. But it is the art that grounds this work. Bright, vivid, full of the polka dots and phalluses for which Kusama's work is known, the book would be beautiful even without any text at all.

This is narrative minimalism: eschewing text and dialogue and instead communicating with the reader by means of colour and image. It's an appropriate method for an artist's biography, and one which graphic novels are uniquely positioned to facilitate. Many graphic biographies of artists attempt to replicate their subjects' style in their pages, but Macellari's Kusama achieves unique success in this effort.

That's not to say there's no dialogue – there's plenty to read as well. But Macellari wisely realizes that no straightforward chronological narrative will do justice to her subject, and instead opts for a series of patchwork vignettes drawn from Kusama's life, richly framed in superbly coloured panels.

Kusama (courtesy of Laurence King Publishing)

* * *

These three books are as stylistically varied as is possible, and judging them by their covers would be deceptive. The Contradictions hides modestly among its neighbours on a bookshelf, revealing nothing in its monochromatic minimalism. The Winter of the Cartoonist virtually screams literary intellectualism. Kusama's blindingly colourful cover might be mistaken for a children's book. All three have something profound to say (and are well worth reading), but it's through their judicious application of restraint that they manage to communicate the most.

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