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4 compelling graphic novels tackle joy, anxiety, family and monsters

By Chris Barsanti, Star Tribune
Published: June 1, 2024, 6:04am
4 Photos
&ldquo;My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two,&rdquo; by Emil Ferris.
“My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two,” by Emil Ferris. (Fantagraphics) Photo Gallery

These four graphic novels tell compelling stories, from a girl navigating life’s chaos through horror comics to a compilation of often misunderstood comic strips and from the meta-comedic struggles of a compulsively self-referential novelist to a frank memoir of historical trauma and familial reconnection.

‘My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Book Two’

By: Emil Ferris. Publisher: Fantagraphics, 412 pages, $44.99.

It’s hard to communicate the giddy thrill Emil Ferris’ “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters” produced in 2017. People ran out of praise. With the eagerly awaited second volume hitting shelves with a resounding thump (it’s a big one), it’s clear Ferris was no flash in the pan. It continues to thread creature-feature fantasy with an achingly poignant coming-of-age story, drawn with Ferris’ boisterously dense, pen-and-marker-on-lined-notebook-paper aesthetic, creating a soulful portrait of an awakening self.

It opens on Ferris’ quasi-autobiographical heroine, 10-year-old Karen Reyes. She has lost both her mother and neighbor Anka, a Holocaust survivor who was Karen’s dark muse. The grit and tumult of Karen’s lovingly rendered late-’60s Chicago neighborhood is dense with vivid characters (gangsters, crooked cops, a cult leader) and looming portents. Casting herself as detective, Karen listens to tapes left by a haunted Anka to decipher her death.

Ferris intersperses the horror-loving Karen’s frenetic imagination (to visualize her fractured self-image, she is drawn as a dress-wearing werewolf) with jolts of reality (the ugly truth about her older brother, a chaotic glimpse of the 1968 Democratic National Convention). Given the real monsters stalking Karen’s waking world, escaping into gothic fantasia seems like a smart call.

‘Nancy & Sluggo’s Guide to Life’

By: Ernie Bushmiller. Publisher: New York Review Comics, 148 pages, $24.95.

Anybody who caught “Zippy the Pinhead” creator Bill Griffith’s “Three Rocks”— a tribute to the Zen greatness of Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip “Nancy” — knows the humble comic is considered more than just another strip wedged in next to “Blondie.” This compilation of Bushmiller’s work about the spunky 8-year-old (which he stopped producing in 1982) is a fun, at times head-scratching reminder of newspaper comics at their peak.

“Guide to Life” culls strips from anthologies printed by comics preservationist Denis Kitchen (who produced the hilarious, told-ya-so foreword) into subject chapters (“Money,” “Food”). Bushmiller’s work is a model of economy, with lines so clean they verge on abstract. Each strip has a gag, but it’s rarely a knee-slapper. The final frames generally deserve a chuckle at best, sometimes just intrigued silence. Some strips, like the one ending with Nancy staring into space while ink spills over a portrait of her, are downright eerie.

Though some strips are nearly a century old, they are largely timeless, occasionally joking at the expense of beatniks or even Calvin Coolidge. If those references don’t seem timely, that is part of the appeal. Consider this serenely odd book a palate cleanser for a chaotic time.

‘Self-Esteem and the End of the World’

By: Luke Healy. Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly, 324 pages, $29.95.

Luke Healy’s latest graphic novel seems both a continuation of earlier work (“The Con Artists”) and an attempt to move past it. A deadpan, lacerating ouroboros of self-absorption, -criticism, and -destruction, “Self-Esteem and the End of the World” features various iterations of “Luke Healy,” a funhouse mirror distortion of the author. The book’s Luke is a gay, terminally anxious and blocked graphic artist who wants to be productive and content. But that darn impending apocalypse keeps getting in the way.

The chapters follow Luke’s failing upward as his personal life craters (a note to self advises: “Emulate a person whose life you covet.”). He is crushed by his brother not asking him to be best man at his wedding and works to gain his mother’s approval. Though Luke’s career seems to be on hold, he finds success with “a corporate team-building murder-mystery weekend thing” and with having one of his deeply personal earlier indie comics turned into a soulless blockbuster. A minor key of unreality plays in the background, with a sarcastic chorus of mice commenting on Luke’s doomed attempts at self-improvement, and his climate change worries manifest in world-ending downpours. Needless to say, Luke’s success does not provide him satisfaction, but Healy’s doom-scrolling meta-comedy will satisfy readers.

‘Feeding Ghosts: A Graphic Memoir’

By: Tessa Hulls. Publisher: MCD, 400 pages, $40.

Growing up in a remote Pacific Northwest town, Tessa Hulls had few neighbors but felt surrounded. In her heavily detailed, lucidly personal memoir “Feeding Ghosts,” Hulls describes the home where she lived with her mother Rose and grandmother Sun Yi as “choked by ghosts.” Those ghosts represented the unspoken, multi-generational trauma she witnessed as a child but could not understood. Once the collateral damage this dark past wrought on her became clear, Hulls launches into an emotionally fraught multi-year research project and mother-daughter reunification effort that became “Feeding Ghosts.”

Hulls knew Sun Yi had been a Shanghai journalist who had Rose after an affair with a European man, fled Communist persecution to Hong Kong and wrote a popular memoir. The Sun Yi Hulls grew up with was tormented, locked in codependency with Rose, who relentlessly criticizes what she sees as daughter Tessa’s non-Chinese-ness. Hulls describes fleeing this secret-laden environment, drawing herself as a romanticized cowboy. The extensive in-person and archival research complicates Hulls’ family story and turns the book into a resonant personal and historical mystery.

This is a busy, cacophonous book, with Hulls throwing a lot at the reader. But while the details are unique to her, the surprising complications of the story Hulls uncovers are recognizable to anybody who learns their family narratives are only part of the truth.