Graphic Novel Reviews: Families, Friends, and Complications
“The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere”, written and illustrated by James Spooner; Harper (368 pages, $26.99)
To one degree or another, every teenager feels abandoned. This was particularly the case of James Spooner. Although he would later become known as a filmmaker and co-founder of the Afropunk festival, in 1990 Spooner was an awkward biracial teenager stuck in the high desert town of Apple Valley, California. His freshly told and painfully vulnerable graphic memoirs depict his teenage years as an outcast on multiple occasions.
Already standing out in the largely white rural community, Spooner was also deep into skateboarding and punk rock, neither considered at the time to belong to non-white children. He’s trying to find like-minded friends, community, and hopefully a girlfriend, all while building a band. But the complexity of navigating multiple unseen fault lines leads to difficult situations, such as the pressure to ignore the racism of the white skinhead in his band.
Spooner’s storytelling has an endearing sense of earnestness and honesty, whether pining for the cool goth girl in the video store or exulting in discovering countercultural meccas like East Village and Venice Beach. . His passionate love of punk signifiers – the movie ‘Suburbia’, his first pair of Doc Martens boots, Xeroxed zines – will register with anyone in the pre-internet underground. But more importantly, Spooner’s memoirs communicate with acute intensity what these totems meant in his youth and how they helped him, and many children like him, survive.
“Keeping Two”, written and illustrated by Jordan Crane; Fantagraphics (316 pages, $29.99)
Jordan Crane’s limpid, dense, elusive and harrowing graphic novel, “Keeping Two”, begins as a simple domestic tale whose outlines are familiar to the point of boredom. A couple returns home after a long car ride filled with quarrels. Although they have at least pretended to reconcile, the smoldering ashes of their fight are just waiting to be awakened.
She goes out to do the shopping, he stays to do the dishes; neither has quite forgiven the other. It’s an old story: routine family life mixed with conflict with some kind of split or coming together.
But Crane is after a bigger game. Into the space created by the couple’s temporary separation, it pours additional narratives. It tells a story from a book the woman is reading about another fighting couple whose problems are more serious (the ghost of their aborted child sending them both to dark places) but whose style of combat is just as toxic.
The main scenario is also divided into mirror halves where each goes to look for the other in the night. Both imagine worst-case scenarios in a darkening spiral, which Crane accentuates by alternating with the tragic and suicidal turbulence of the other couple (perhaps fictional, perhaps not).
Fantasies melt into reality long before the smashing conclusion, which Crane renders with chilling violence, flowery dreamlike beauty and an almost tactile sense of how love obscures and amplifies heartbreak.
“Acting Class,” written and illustrated by Nick Drnaso; Drawn & Quarterly (248 pages, $29.95, in stores Aug. 16.)
In his latest book, 2018’s “Sabrina” (the first graphic novel to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize), Nick Drnaso evokes an America marked by atomization and an inability to separate fact from fiction. In his latest tale, “Acting Class,” the atmosphere of boredom, longing, and yearning for something bigger only intensified.
A group of people mostly united by low-key boredom and shrugging their shoulders with their lives come together for an acting class whose disturbing personal ultra-methodical exercises turn out to be nothing like they or the reader expects .
At first, the story highlights some awkward misunderstandings. Although the characters have little in common or much to say, the politely insistent teacher tells them to learn to play by exposing their innermost selves. Before long, however, these exercises take on the air of anxious dreams. But as their teacher puts them through ever-increasing hypnotic nightmares and teaches in increasingly remote locations, the class follows without question.
With their mild manners and bland joke dialogue (“that’s fine”) often hiding uglier perversities, they almost sound like robotic caricatures of small-town Midwest David Lynch style. This impression is accentuated by Drnaso’s style, which emphasizes starkly expressionless features and hauntingly empty landscapes.
It’s possible that “Acting Class” relies almost too much on its undeniably surprising and disturbing reveal to top it all off. But its painstaking construction of suspense and impossibly eerie mood make the long build interesting long before the final twist and powerfully cinematic.
“Keeping Two”, written and illustrated by Jordan Crane.
Chris Barsanti is the author of several books, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and a frequent contributor of comic books for Publishers Weekly. He lives in Saint Paul.