Elegiac Ink: Death in Graphic Novels | The Reader’s Shelf: February 15, 2013

Death is not an easy topic to explore, but when text is expanded by the graphic form, authors and artists find new ways to address the most fundamental of human experiences: coming to terms with mortality.

In Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (DC. 2009. ISBN 9781401223038. $24.99; pap. 2010. ISBN 9781401227241. $14.99), author Neil Gaiman has the ghost of the titular superhero attending his own funeral where he is dutifully eulogized by an array of friends and foes. Through these clever recollections, Batman transforms from a mere man to a deified icon whose doomed existence is necessary to bring balance to the world. It is a loving ode to Batman’s many incarnations and to the meaning of the superhero in modern mythology, concepts that artist Andy Kubert extends through careful use of perspective and attention to iconic detail.

Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon. 2000. ISBN 9780375404535. $35; pap. 2003. ISBN 9780375714542. $19.95) is the semiautobiographical story of a pudgy, frail man who can find pleasure only in escapism and is subjected to cycles of rejection. Jimmy’s grandfather is abandoned as a child; Jimmy’s father abandons his family only to return, decades later, shortly before his death. Ware’s artwork is cluttered in an evocative way, simultaneously recalling old comics and the inner workings of a nervous mind, as he brilliantly contrasts his highly ornate style with the mundane—even boring—scenes of Jimmy’s life.

Although the death in David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir (Norton. 2009. ISBN 9780393068573. $27.95; pap. 2010. ISBN 9780393338966. $16.95) is not at the center of the plot, it is a pivotal theme as it retrospectively frames the adolescent life of Small against that of his mother as she lies helpless in the hospital, ready to make amends. Small’s harrowing memoir of his youth and the cancer that robs him of his voice is illustrated in stark style. Many panels are wordless, mimicking the blur of childhood memories, and most are imbued with the bitter isolation felt by the author as he struggles to understand the coldness of his mother and the unjustness of the cancer.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, When the Wind Blows (pap. Penguin. 1988; o.p. but widely held) by Raymond Briggs features Jim and Hilda, an aging couple who survive the blast of an atomic bomb. After the explosion, these characters—so unguarded against this new form of warfare—try futilely to return to their daily routine. Gallows humor at its finest, the book is illustrated with colors that shift with the temperament of the story; Jim and Hilda turn pea green as their bodies are besieged by radiation poisoning, still cheerfully optimistic, but deluded, that life will go on.

Before it was a movie, The Fountain (DC. 2006. ISBN 9781401200589. pap. $19.99) was filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and Kent Williams’s lushly and kinetically realized meditation on immortality. In an epic quest of devotion spanning three time periods, a lone man labors to save the love of his life by any means. He becomes a conquistador seeking the Tree of Life and a scientist who discovers the key to stop death. Williams draws exaggerated figures to the point of caricature, and their surrealism is a compelling visual for the layers of text in this haunting, difficult, and ultimately deeply symbolic study of our internalization of grief.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2007. ISBN 9780618871711. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780547347004) is Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about growing up in a funeral home with a secretly gay father who is killed in an accident shortly after the author reveals herself to be a lesbian. Smart and introspective, Bechdel approaches death with an ambivalence that may only be possible for a person who is surrounded by it from a young age. Written in an intimate and carefully crafted style, complemented and furthered by detailed black, white, and green/blue drawings, her book is a cathartic wake for a man of many conflicts.

In Laika (First Second: Roaring Brook. 2007. ISBN 9781596431010. pap. $18.99), author Nick Abadzis imagines a life for the eponymous dog who entered space in Sputnik 2 in 1957. Using rich colors and commanding line work, Abadzis weaves scenes about former owners, a dog trainer, and the scientists who worked to make the Soviet space program a reality. As she moves through their worlds, Laika frames the terrible choices that humans make between innovation and compassion. Ultimately, Laika is a sacrifice. She is launched into space without hope of return, a fate that only her human handlers can fathom. Her death, only hours into the flight from overheating, is tenderly rendered by interspersing a dream sequence from Laika with the sorrow of her handler.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net