...from the theatre territory into the holiday season, I've purchased two graphic novels that will, hopefully, close my collection of American indy. A scene that blossomed in the 1990s and will, hopefully again, finally die or evolve, it has been characterized by a very narrow range of writing and drawing, as befits an insular little community. All simple, understated vignettes on dysfunctional post-adolescents, but there is undeniable quality to a lot of this work. It just cannot go on forever.
In any case, the holy trinity of the American indy that I have finally put together comprises Daniel Clowes's Ghost World, Jessica Abel's Mirror, World (collecting most of her Artbabe series), and the two collections of Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve series, Summer Blonde and Sleepwalk. Together, this would make a four-volume library of pure, if uncomfortable, splendour.
With graphic novels becoming an acceptable middlebrow read in the US, American indy, up to now limited to self-published short zines, has seemingly been pushed into the longer format, mostly to the detriment of whichever quality their style had. Abel's La Perdida and Tomine's Shortcomings, both recently published, are pleasant enough reads, and highly praised by literary critics (whose greatest praise for a comic book is that it's as good as a novel, and most of whom couldn't tell a graphic novel from an illustrated text). At the same time, they are infinitely inferior to the short story collections that preceded them. La Perdida is a sort of Bildungsroman travel narrative, one long journey towards a simple punchline, and Shortcomings the sort of unpleasant-young-man-coming-of-age story that American indy has been coming up with in bucketfuls, with none of the astonishing, minutely observed narrative composure.
Save yourself money, and get the short stories instead.
Adrian Tomine is probably the most talented of this bunch. Often compared to Raymond Carver (justifiably), he brings a touch of lightweight Japanese minimalism to stories of urban estrangement. While all of the authors in this big family (not least Clowes, whose other work I greatly dislike), have a painful fascination with the unpleasant, absolutely unpalatable side of humanity (the geek, the anti-social, the uncomfortable), they often seem to dwell on the details without the ability to spruce up an intelligent conclusion. Graphic novelists being a strange, geeky and anti-social bunch themselves, this is more often than not narcissistic, if forensic, solipsism. Todd Solonz without the sardonic touch. Tomine, by contrast, is a master of form without a hint of misanthropic self-pity. Some of the stories in these collections are a mere panel long, but so tight and chiseled one is left gasping for air.
Both volumes are best read slowly, on a sunny day, with a glass of gin and tonic, and long pauses for contemplation and recovery.