To wit, the primary pleasure of the graphic novel is visual. Well, duh, I hear you say. But actually, you can't overstate the importance of image. Words matter in graphic novels – it's very clear when a cartoonist can't write – but the success or failure depends on how our eye is guided around the page, how the cartoonist directs you, or sometimes misdirects you. All four of the following books lend weight to that idea in one way or another.
Take for example Nobrow 8 (Nobrow, £15), a collection of graphic short stories by young and up-and-coming cartoonists on the theme of hysteria. Some of them don't work for the very simple reason that it's not always clear what is happening. Compare that to Stephen Collins's debut book The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), a gorgeously pencilled fable about hysteria's bipolar opposite, order, and what happens when it begins to break down. For a graphic novel about stultifying and dangerous notions of order, what's striking is the cartoonist's level of control. The pacing and page design are immaculate. You are never in doubt about what you are seeing or being told.
The story? Dave is an almost hairless man who lives on an island called Here. Here is perfect. Dave is nearly perfect. He has one hair on his face beneath his nose. It's a minor problem. Dave's life is under control. Well almost. One thing: Dave has bad dreams. Untidy, hairy dreams. And one day at work the dreams begin to come true. Suddenly he's hirsute. Bristles pop up all over his face and a beard begins to grow. And grow. And grow. Soon it is taking over his house, his life and the whole island of Here. The police can't stop it. Tanks can't stop it. Hairdressers can't stop it. The island's "strictly no untidiness" rule is being flagrantly, hairily, flouted. Society begins to break down. The result is both comic and sinister and something of a triumph.
Comic and sinister could also apply to Montague Terrace (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) from British alt-comic cult brothers Warren and Gary Pleece. The Pleece brothers were one of the best things about British comics back in the 1980s and this new work is full of the qualities that made their cult comic Velocity so readable. And yet Montague Terrace feels rather slight in comparison to Collins's book.
It's a much wilder set of stories, to be sure, based on one crumbling 1930s building and its residents; a former SOE agent, a failed pop star, a terrible magician with a genuinely magical rabbit, a sniper, ghosts, a cult novelist and a honest-to-badness cult. And the whole thing barrels along. The result, though, reads a bit like one of those old 1970s portmanteau Amicus horror movies, half scary, half silly. And the comedic unfortunately rather outweighs the sinister.
Warren Pleece's art is full of vivid imagery but rather conventionally organised on the page. Nothing wrong with that. It makes it easy to read. You could argue that his cartooning anchors the story's wildness. But it also somehow tames it a little.
Wildness is exactly what David Hine's illustrations add to the graphic adaptation of Victor Hugo's wild and weird novel The Man Who Laughs (Selfmade Hero, £14.99). Mark Stafford's adaptation pares the story down impressively but what lingers is Hine's manic images of the lead character's twisted face and the twisted world he inhabits. The result is a vivid primer for the Hugo novel.
Back to the Nobrow anthology. For all that there are a couple of misses to be found in its pages, when it works it really works, most obviously in Luke Pearson's account of hypochondria.
The depiction of a frightened boy clambering towards his mum, seeking comfort across the black sea of her bedcovers, is the simplest and most telling example of how one image can visualise a deep and telling idea. When comic strips work best, they put you fully in the picture.