Memoirs of a Book Thief

Alessandro Tota and Pierre Van Hove

SelfMadeHero, £14.99

HeraldScotland:

This is the story of failure and exposure and how the fear of both can grind through you. Set in the literary demi-monde of 1950s Paris it centres, on Daniel Brodin who wants to be a poet, who is full of himself and of his talent … Except … Except there is this little niggling worry at the heart of him that feels he may not be quite as great as he thinks he is.

It leads him to pass other poet’s work off as his. Surrounded by wannabe revolutionaries and artists and thugs, he spends the rest of his time drinking, stealing books and falling further into the depths of the criminal world in his attempt to be anti-bourgeois.

Tota and Van Hove’s graphic novel is a pleasingly vinegary piece of work. There is no attempt to soften the edges of Brodin who is both selfish and self-obsessed. The result is a dark morality tale. Tota’s dialogue is succinct and sharp-edged, Van Hove’s black and white art has a similar keen edge. The whole thing is satisfyingly dislikeable.

Sunday’s Child

Serena Katt

Jonathan Cape, £16.99

In the 1930s Serena Katt’s grandfather, Opa, was a member of the Hitler Youth. Did he know what the Nazis were doing? What kind of indoctrination did he go through? His own words on the subject were brief and unrevealing. In Sunday’s Child Katt attempts to uncover what he might have gone through, how it might have affected him.

It doesn’t totally work. The gap between Opa’s rather bland recorded memories and Katt’s more fearful imaginings is almost impossible to bridge. We can’t know the truth. But it’s a brave attempt and Katt’s visual reimagining of that time – single images painted in muted colours for the most part – has more than enough texture and terror in it to make an impact.

Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre

Polyp, Robert Poole and Eva Schlunke

New Internationalist, £11.99

HeraldScotland:

This is a punchy graphic addendum to Mike Leigh’s recent movie on the same subject. Narrated via the voices of contemporary witnesses and participants, it recounts what happens in 1819 when sabre-wielding cavalry charged a crowd in Manchester demanding the right to vote.

Its creators are particularly good at marshalling the account of the terror of the day itself; its chaos and violence.

The narrative voices come from all political sides, but it would be impossible to come away from reading this book and not be horrified and appalled by what happened. The result is a vivid, angry reminder of what was suffered in the quest for democracy.

The Many Not the Few

Sean Michael Wilson & Robert Brown

Workable, £9.99

And sticking to progressive politics (not easy these days), The Many not the Few is a whistle-stop tour of working-class history from the 14th century to the present day, one that touches on the poll tax (the original one in 1377 and Mrs Thatcher's cover version), the peasant's revolt, radical Protestantism, the rise of friendly societies and the birth of trade unions and the Labour party, the Russian Revolution and the winter of discontent.

With a foreword from Jeremy Corbyn (maybe not quite the endorsement it would have been two years ago, but maybe that's the centrist dad in me talking), it's very much a primer for young readers and to that end it's very effective.

The Scottish writer, Sean Michael Wilson (an old friend of Graphic Content) frames the story in a conversation between an old-school lefty grandfather and his smart granddaughter, while Robert Brown's art jumps back and forth in time adroitly and does the hard task of keeping things simple. His storytelling is always clear and concise. The same can be said for Wilson.

Inevitably, you can take issue with some of the book's arguments (I reckon it plays down the ruinous aftermath of the Russian Revolution rather too much myself), but it's an effective introduction to the kind of history lessons that are rarely the subject of Sunday night primetime drama. It also recognises that politics is about discussion and argument. Grandad and granddaughter take very different positions on Brexit for example (grandad is something of a Lexiteer).

And you will learn something. In the14th century, for example, it was decided that everyone over 14 would pay the poll tax. To decide who was old enough to pay they tax collectors would measure pubic hair. Imagine HMRC trying that one on today.

Nobody's Fool

Bill Griffith

Abrams ComicArts, £17.99

Subtitled The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, Bill Griffiths's graphic memoir of the carny attraction and star of Tod Browning's notorious 1932? Film Freaks, Schlitizie Surtees, is a work of thorough research and true compassion.

Griffiths, best known for his daily comic strip Zippy (itself inspired by Browning's film), has recreated the early 20th-century world of circus freakshows and the men and women who were part of that world. In doing so, it touches on ideas of exploitation and community, but Griffiths never loses sight of the humanity of its main character who over his 50-odd year career goes from carny show to Hollywood and appeared on the same stage as Tom Mix and the Beach Boys (not on the same bill).

The asides are particularly fun. Did you know before he became a director Tod Browning used to work the carnys himself? He would be buried alive in a shallow grave for up to 48 hours breathing through a tube and being fed malted milk pellets.

But it’s Shlitzie’s story that compels. Griffiths's black and white cross hatched art has a rough and raucous feel to it that suits the world he is describing. That world is a loud, leery place full of catcalls and voyeurs. It's a noisy story that only quietens down to an ominous silence when Schilitzie is committed to Los Angeles County Hospital, the one sequence in the book you could argue that is truly horrific.

Born in 1901, Schlitizie had a long life and was performing until 1970 (he died a year later).

In telling his life story, Griffiths's book also gives us a glimpse of a long-faded corner of pop culture, touching on everyone from F Scott Fitzgerald to Ed Sullivan. In doing so, he also makes us look at it with fresh eyes.

Letter to Survivors

Gebe

New York Review Comics, £9.99

Originally published in 1981, Gebe’s post-apocalyptic story of a family trapped in a nuclear bunker being told stories down a vent by a postman in a hazmat suit, is, as Edward Gauvin notes, in his eloquent, astute introduction, uncomfortably timely again.

Gebe, who was a contributor to Cherlie Hebdo, brings a whimsical, anarchic approach to his sour story. The stories the Postman tells the family are both satires of genre fiction and fairy tales but also serve as painful reminders of what they have lost. As Gauvin notes: “the past is a trap, and the present a wasteland.”

The result is an idiosyncratic slice of science fiction more interested in the human stories than the story of what brought us to this point.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

Sonny Liew

Epigram Books, £19.99

HeraldScotland:

This is a remarkable piece of work. A history of post-war Singapore filtered through a history of comics with each layered each upon the other. Beginning in 1945, it tells the story of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a wannabe cartoonist who witnesses a police attack on a student demo. From that point on the reality of Singaporean politics keeps feeding into the work he creates.

The result is a sophisticated piece of political storytelling which takes in colonialism, activism, dissent and repression, all played out in cartoons that in turn are playful takes on the work of Osama Tezuka, Carl Barks, Frank Hampson and Frank Miller.

As an exercise in showing what the graphic novel is capable of this is technically impressive. More importantly it works as an affecting, very human take on how political decisions play out in people’s lives. Recommended.