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Still lifes

Back at the fag end of the 1980s, the cartoonist Nick Abadzis started a regular comic strip called Hugo Tate in a new magazine.

The graphic novel Nelson sees 54 different cartoonists take a day in the life of Nel Baker from childhood to the present day, with stunning results
The graphic novel Nelson sees 54 different cartoonists take a day in the life of Nel Baker from childhood to the present day, with stunning results

Deadline was the hipster home to Alan Martin and Jamie (Gorillaz) Hewlett's Tank Girl and interviews with shoegaze bands like Chapterhouse and Slowdive. Abadzis's frankly crude stick-man cartooning style seemed a tad out of place beside the full-fat slickness of Hewlett and Philip Bond's creamy comic strips. In time, however, Abadzis's strip outgrew its anti-art beginnings and reached further than many of the others in the magazine which coasted on cooler-than-thou attitude. How much further can now be measured in Hugo Tate (Blank Slate, £14.99), a collection of all of Abadzis's Deadline strips between two hardback covers.

Abadzis became both much more ambitious and much more accomplished. It's the work of a young man and so it's about a young man's concerns – looking for love, wondering what to do with life, drinking too much, falling over, feeling trapped, looking for a way out. In time Hugo finds it in a trip to America as the story becomes a road movie in still form. Which is where it gets a bit melodramatic, truth be told, a hallucinatory vision of madness and violence that ends in death. Or maybe in rebirth in the waters of the Pacific.

Hugo Tate is not perfect. It's rough-edged and of its time. But it's thrilling to watch a talent develop from page to page. It's also a reminder of how many great comic strips are out there just waiting to be rediscovered now that we're finally paying attention.

And there's so much to pay attention to. I wasn't sure I was going to like Simone Lia's Please God, Find Me A Husband! (Jonathan Cape, £14.99). Lia's previous book, Fluffy, lived up to its name just a little too much for my tastes. And the premise for this new book – which, as the title suggests, finds Lia seeking guidance from above in her quest for a partner – didn't really tickle my atheist heart.

And yet the result is hugely entertaining, partly because Lia is so open and honest about her faith. And also because she's never po-faced about it either. Difficult, admittedly, when you draw Jesus Christ sitting down to play Operation and God singing along to INXS songs. The result is the comic book equivalent of getting pleasantly squiffy on communion wine (or so I imagine).

I don't normally like Daniel Clowes's work for very different reasons. His standard surfeit of nihilism-meets-misanthropy usually does for me. But fair's fair, The Art Of Daniel Clowes Modern Cartoonist (Abrams, £24.99) is an impeccably designed assertion of his importance in the world of contemporary cartooning.

As well as copious examples of his art from his early Lloyd Llewellyn days to Ghost World and Art School Confidential (both later made into off-Hollywood movies, of course), through to his latest work The Death Ray (via his New Yorker illos, movie posters and book covers), there's a discursive and compelling interview with the cartoonist and essays on his work. I still think David Boring and the genuinely creepy Lynchesque surrealist thriller Like A Velvet Glove are the two Clowes books you need to read. But prompted by this, I've started to think maybe I should have another go at some of the others too.

In 2010 Darryl Cunningham published Psychiatric Tales, an account of his time as both a mental health nurse and someone who had suffered mental health problems. It was a work of cool, limpid clarity and something of a quiet masterpiece. His new book, Science Tales (Myriad, £11.99), isn't, I don't think. Not because it's bad. It's not. But it hasn't the same personal hook to pull you in.

What it is, though, is another example of the versatility of the graphic form. In a series of essays Cunningham examines and dismantles such junk science as homeopathy and climate change denial. He has managed to distil the arguments into a wonderfully clear and concise form. I think at times the rhythm is a little stuttery, but it's still a great primer for those seeking arguments to undermine their Daily Express-reading uncle.

As for your Vogue-reading glamorous auntie, you could point her in the direction of Margaux Motin's But I Really Wanted To Be An Anthropologist (SelfMadeHero, £14.99). Motin's slice-of-life comic strips are concerned with sex and shopping, friendship and motherhood. Probably best not to expect any startling insights into female life here. It's all familiar, albeit rude, riffs on bikini lines and bad parenting. But the cartooning is delightful. Imagine a dirty-minded, potty-mouthed, thong-flaunting Parisian version of Posy Simmonds, pictured left, and you're halfway there.

Saving the best for last, Nelson (Blank Slate, £18.99) could have ended up a mess. The idea is that 54 different cartoonists (including Lia, Cunningham, Philip Bond and Posy Simmonds, too) each pitches in to tell the story of the titular heroine in annual snapshots; Nel Baker's life is tracked from 1968 to 2011 via school, space hoppers, Duran Duran, rave culture, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and Facebook. That's a lot to juggle. But it works. And not only that, it works brilliantly.

Editors Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix manage to make the whole thing coherent and structurally sound (half the thrill is the way you see events echo and re-echo down the years). It is also a wonderful catalogue of the depth and breadth of British cartooning. But best of all, it hits home like a summer day, like a great pop single, like a first kiss. It's a giddy, endorphined rush of a book. And I'm slightly in love with it.

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