The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon

I’ve developed a fairly decent sense of restraint in my old age. Despite my ardent love of comics I will wait until a series is collected in trade paperback, or until I can find it at the library, or obtain it from my galley service. It’s not often that I glance through a book and immediately buy it because I must own it; but this is one of those books.

I had heard good things about it, of course, which is why I picked it up from the shelf in the first place. I knew that it had something to do with Buddhism, and that it had won lots of awards last year; but I hadn’t really properly seen it. And so last night, when I should have been working on my own comics, I devoured this one instead, and am better for it.

The Nao of Brown is the story of a young woman called Nao Brown; she is half-Japanese, half-British, and lives in London with a friend who is a nurse. Nao is a graphic designer in a bit of a downswing, recently dumped by her boyfriend and sacked from the job he had gotten her. She runs into an old friend from school who offers her a job in a geeky toy store that specializes in the kind of Japanese, anime-themed merchandise that Nao loves and knows about.

Nao has a Buddhist meditation practice and other strategies to help her combat her obsessive-compulsive disorder, which causes her to imagine violent things happening to others, especially those who are smaller than her (eg., children). Perhaps that is why she falls in love with Gregory, a burly appliance repairman who knows about Buddhism and Latin; but Gregory has issues of his own.

The Nao of Brown is not a perfect book, but it is so well-realized, from script to art to design. Like Blankets, Essex County, or Fun Home, it is an accomplished auteur piece that I would readily recommend to new readers or veterans alike.

Last Days of an Immortal

Last Days of an Immortal by Gwen De Bonneval and Fabien Vehlmann is one of the most thought-provoking, interesting comics I have read in some time. Set in a future where humankind has evolved beyond violence (mostly) and is in contact with alien races, global law enforcement is composed of philosophers rather than truncheon-wielders. Thanks to advancements in medical science, humans can essentially live forever by transferring their consciousness into multiple identical bodies, with the only negative side effect being a loss of early memories if the minds are re-integrated.

One of the top Philosophical Police agents, Elijah, is called upon to mediate tensions between a couple of alien races; failure to do so could result in great destruction on Earth and off. At the same time, Elijah is disturbed and a little hurt that one of his oldest friends has decided to voluntarily end his own life without telling Elijah. As he investigates the root of the tension between the alien races, he comes to understand both the case and his relationships with greater clarity.

Last Days of an Immortal is an ingenious piece of writing wrapped in an imaginative art style that creates a vision of the future that is both contemporary and quaintly old-fashioned, as if a graphic novel had arrived from the era of Aldous Huxley. Long may it survive.

Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One

This is the first volume of a projected 2600-page opus by young cartoonist Adam Hines, set in an alternate world where animals can talk. Other than that, the world is much like ours in that we humans still raise and slaughter animals for food, and keep them as pets; as a result it is by turns heartbreaking and horrifying. The first volume introduces many characters and themes, but it primarily revolves around Pompeii, a Barbary macaque that is the leader of an animal terrorist group; and Jack Hammond, a human FBI agent who pursues Pompeii after the bombing of a California college library. Pompeii and his hench-ape spend a chunk of time hiding in the home of a wealthy family, leading to a particularly haunting passage where Pompeii reads the diary of the mother who lived there.

The ambition, complexity, and artistry of this book cannot be understated. It frequently reminded me of another great series about man’s relationship with nature; The Puma Blues by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli. The art reminded me of the tragically aborted Alan Moore/Bill Sinkiewicz series Big Numbers, by Hines’ use of collage, graphite, ink and mixed media. He employs mathematical principles to design panel and page layouts, reflecting the natural world that he depicts. Long silent passages of the camera drifting over darkened wheat fields or forests give way to human streets and buildings rendered in line art. Like Chris Ware, Hines employs a variety of visual devices and metaphors to compartmentalize the narrative, without losing the tension that runs throughout.

In short, Adam Hines and his book are the real deal. I read most of Duncan the Wonder Dog last night, and found difficult to put down and difficult to sleep afterward. It’s not for the faint of heart; great books or art never are.

You can read Duncan the Wonder Dog online here.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life (Colour Edition)

I am a big fan of Scott Pilgrim; my introduction to the series was to buy a copy of this book in its original incarnation from writer/artist Bryan Lee O’Malley at a book festival in Halifax. For the purposes of this review, I’m going to divide the potential reader into the following groups: 1) those who have never read the books, and 2) those who have. Whether or not you have seen the film is immaterial; the books contain a lot of additional story that is well worth reading.

So if you are in group 1, should you buy this book? Probably. I feel that the cover price is a bit steep ($25 for a colour hardcover, compared to $15 for the black and white paperback), and artwise this is the weakest of the series; but the story is still one of the smartest and sharpest things you will encounter on the shelves, and the colour by Nathan Fairbairn is very well done. The lettering has also been “remastered”, whatever that means, and the artwork generally sharpened and tweaked to show off the colour as well as possible.

And if you are in group 2? Personally, I don’t feel compelled to buy the series again in colour. Oni Press has added some nice design touches reminiscent of the film, and some “behind the scenes” material by O’Malley at the end, but I would rather save my money for O’Malley’s new book due next year (or his wife’s adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, for that matter). Of course, your mileage may vary; I can easily imagine a hardcore SP fan replacing the paperbacks with these new hardcover editions.

The Underwater Welder

Jeff Lemire (Essex County, Sweet Tooth) recently released this original graphic novel through Top Shelf to great acclaim, and while I did enjoy it, I feel like it may be a little overpraised. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof puts it well in his introduction: The Underwater Welder is like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone. It is the story of Jack Joseph, a diver who works on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. His very pregnant wife is frustrated that he seems to be pulling away from her when she needs him most. Jack is haunted by the loss of his father – also a diver – twenty years earlier. When Jack finds an object deep in the ocean that appears to belong to his father, he finds himself forced to choose between dwelling on the past and his future.

The Underwater Welder is certainly not a bad book. Lemire has a great, idiosyncratic art style that is its own class of Canadian folk art. As a writer, though, I wonder if he is just best suited to short stories. For all of its ambition, The Underwater Welder feels somewhat slight to me, as if it was once a story of Essex County that got promoted to a longer treatment. Lindelof’s comparison to The Twilight Zone is apt and complimentary, but it is also a bit of a curse, because not every episode of The Twilight Zone was solid gold; sometimes it felt like a bit of a formula. So, too, does The Underwater Welder.

That said, as a native of the area, I did enjoy Lemire’s vision of this small Nova Scotia town and would be happy to read more stories set there. Lemire’s tone and output as a writer reminds me of George Elliott (the Canadian author, not the Victorian pseudonym) and the American writer Sherwood Anderson; pretty good company to keep.

Essex County by Jeff Lemire

I’m a year or two late to this party, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading the rest of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (I had read the first section previously). Lemire’s book became a cause celebre last year when it was in the running for the CBC’s annual “Canada Reads” competition; especially when a panelist considered it unworthy for being a comic.

I’d like to find that panelist and smack them in the head with a copy of this book in the hope that it knocks some sense into them. Lemire’s work here is everything we love about Canadian literature: the sense of place, the examination of family, the tension between city life and small town traditions, of dark secrets and coping with both human nature and mother nature. It is as brilliant and touching as anything I have read by Margaret Laurence, Stephen Leacock, or Alice Munro. Indeed, if someone had handed me the volume about the nurse and told me that it was written by Laurence, I would have believed them.

Essex County is not just just great Canadiana or great comics, it’s a great story and I found myself identifying with a lot of it. Lemire’s brush technique has a perfect weight and tension for this material; combined with a lack of gray tones and tiny hand lettering, as well as what I assume is Lemire’s own artwork from childhood, this is a well-executed passion piece for him. I plan to buy a copy for my parents; I only wish that my grandparents were around to read it too.