Frame & glory: The rise of the graphic novel

Mrs Weber's Omnibus by Author Posy Simmonds
Mrs Weber's Omnibus by Author Posy Simmonds
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OF ALL the literary forms, the one that pushed at its boundaries the most in 2012 was the one that relied on words the least.

At the highbrow end of the cartoon world, this was the year that the graphic novel finally came in from the cold.

In just over two weeks’ time, when the Costa judges choose their best novel and biography awards, we’ll find out just how far in they’ve come. But merely by putting two graphic works on the shortlist – Joff Winterhart’s Days Of The Bagnold Summer and Mary and Brian Talbot’s Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes – they have done more than anyone else to smash critical prejudice against the form.

Much as I love Winterhart’s study of the relationship between a disappointed 52-year-old librarian and her uncommunicative teenage goth son, it sticks too closely to comic strip conventions to stand much of a chance against the imaginative brilliance of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies. The Talbots’ book – comparing Joyce’s daughter’s coming of age with that of Joycean scholar James Atherton’s daughter Mary – is an altogether more sophisticated and original piece of work, and stands more of a chance.

Whatever the judges decide in two weeks, though, a brief look back on the year’s best graphic novels is enough to make one realise the genre’s strength in depth. The Dandy may have died off in printed form earlier this month, but the upmarket end of the comic strip is in the rudest of health.

The genre hasn’t yet produced its own Ulysses, but Building Stories by Chris Ware (Cape, £30) is probably the nearest thing we have to it so far. This is the comic strip as experimental novel, with a boardgame-sized box containing 14 different forms (books, pamphlets of varying sizes, single strips, etc) of telling the story – in whatever order you want to read it – of the sadsack lives of the inhabitants of a Chicago rooming house.

These aren’t, as you might expect, 14 different stories, but the same story remixed in 14 different ways. They centre on a woman – we are never told her name – who lost half her leg in a motorboat accident as a child, and who lives on the third floor of the building, above a couple in an abusive relationship and an elderly woman whose parents built the house. Unpack the story, and you will find the building ­itself talking, wondering about its occupants, counting their collective orgasms, lost childhood memories, pregnancies, takeaway orders, wars, diaries, toenail clippings and dreams. The area will change, the old woman will die, the young art student with an artificial leg won’t end up as lonely as she thinks. The couple beneath her will bicker and finally split up.

Whenever anything really significant happens, we realise, we have got to work it out ourselves. The story won’t emphasise it. There will just be one frame, among the thousands, in which, say, the woman opens a window and lets a bee escape, or drives past the rooming house where she used to live and sees a wrecking ball crash against it. Both frames will be tiny and worldless: such is life, such is death.

As she drives past that rooming house where she was once so miserable and lonely, first as an art student and then as a florist, the woman has her daughter in the rear passenger seat. That’s another wordless reminder of what Ware achieves here. Because while the curse of the graphic novel is its relentless linearity, in Building Stories, those stories aren’t always, well, building. Instead, they contain each other. So the woman driving past the rooming house with her daughter is also (and at the same time) herself a vulnerable child, lonely adolescent, a questioning au pair, a failed art student, an angsty florist, a disappointed lover, a grieving daughter (as her ­father dies of cancer), and a mother married to an architect and living out in the ’burbs. Each stage of her life contains the other like the box contains its posters, boards, books, magazines and newspapers that are carrying the ­story of her internal life.

Ask yourself where you can see that? Not in a film, certainly. Not even in a novel, or not without a wordy confluence of streams of consciousness. But in Building Stories, you can see it as easily as you can look at a picture. In one small, separate strip-booklet, without any thought-bubbles or explicatory text, we see the woman in a darkened room, in that state between wakefulness and sleep. In one panel, she is alone and heavily pregnant in the double bed, in the next sharing it with her lover, then waking up in hospital, then looking at a tiny bundle in the cot, then bringing her baby into bed. Then it’s daylight, and she is making her child breakfast, playing with it in the garden in spring; then it’s autumn, and she is hugging her daughter, who is now seven, helping her with her homework, watching her draw. Then time seems to reverse. She is back in the hospital bed, then back in bed with her lover. She sees an open door in the darkness. A silhouetted figure of an adult walks through it. Is it her? Is it her daughter in the future? Is it all of them, in all their lives? She opens her eyes, puzzled.

Building Stories is, I think, a work of near genius, though like Joe Sacco’s Journalism (Cape, £18.99), a retrospective of the only working cartoonist foreign correspondent in the business, it is not always an easy read. So I’ll end with one who is no less brilliant but comprehensively enjoyable.

George Weber always was a plonker. The way Posy Simmonds drew him in her cartoon strip in the Guardian for a decade from 1977, that was the point. A senior lecturer in liberal studies at a north London polytechnic, he was the kind of man who would pick up a porn mag and ask his friend “Can you find me a better example of polysemic image discourse?”. Wife Wendy was as bad too: a writer of children’s books who patronised all the other parents in the neighbourhood, who lay into private education while employing a private tutor for her children, a brown rice-and-lentils former hippie whose daughter Belinda was in full-on rebellion against all that peace and love.

It’s great to have them all back, and in Mrs Weber’s Omnibus (Cape, £20) they are collected between hard covers for the first time in an enormous book that is not only great value but an ideal Christmas present for any woolly liberal you know. They’ll love it. If they’re old enough, they’ll remember whisky salesman Edmund Heep’s glorious political incorrectness, and even if they’re not they’ll appreciate the wit that always accompanies Simmonds’ art. Here, for example, are the lyrics Heep’s twin sons sing in their punk band: “My dad’s a suburban moron/ Wiv a small mind/ Rates and mortgage and a company car/ Gawd I hate that vehicle/ I got mal du siècle”.

For any future social historian looking at the changes in family life in Britain in the run-up to and first seven years of Thatcher’s Britain, this book is a goldmine. For the rest of us – and certainly those old enough to remember those days – it’s a sheer delight.

Twitter: @scotsmandavid