Graphic novels & memoirs round-up: Vivid worlds of woodlands, war and fine dining


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The Independent Culture

Life is good for chef Katie, and Seconds may be the best restaurant in town, but she wants an even better one she can call her own and she wants her ex-boyfriend back. When the restaurant's invisible "house spirit" gives her one chance to erase a mistake, once proves not enough, but her world changes in unforeseen ways. Perfectly pitched, paced and pictured, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds (SelfMadeHero, £15.99), a follow-up to his six-volume hit Scott Pilgrim, is another manga-influenced romantic fantasy, this time about the perils of wanting perfection at any price. It's cute and clever without being cloying, and O'Malley's sassy redhead restaurateur wins us over as she talks back at the story's narrator.

The gothic tradition is alive, or perhaps splendidly undead, in Emily Carroll's chilling period folktales Through the Woods (Faber & Faber, £12.99). Particularly effective is how Carroll insinuates her handwritten narration within her elegant page designs. For example, the words of a refrain wailing through a haunted house unravel across her panels in white, changing volume between subdued lower-case and emphatic capitals, and inscribed over smearing bloodstains, like the red ribbons with which a second wife binds together her predecessor's skeletal body parts in her murderous husband's bedroom. Bonds of trust easily snap, while forests and caves become tomb-like or womb-like menaces. Carroll knows when to shock on the turn of a page and when to leave her horrors lurking.

Bonds are also tested to breaking point in Fatherland (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), Nina Bunjevac's compulsive attempt to piece together the tragic life and legacy of a father she barely knew. As a dissident Serb in Tito's Yugoslavia, he escaped in 1960 for exile in Canada, where his all-consuming anti-communist terrorism cost him his marriage. His wife finally broke free in 1975 by taking Nina and their other daughter to their grandparents in Yugoslavia for a "short visit", which lasted three years.

Then, in 1977, he died in an explosion while preparing another bomb attack on communist sympathisers. The fear Bunjevac's mother lived with has never entirely gone; returning to Canada, she used to block the children's bedroom windows with furniture each night, and to this day insists that Nina always locks her door, not leaving until she hears the click. Illuminated in exquisite cross-hatched and pointillist realism, Fatherland lucidly untangles political history to show its deep-rooted, far-reaching impact on Bunjevac's parents, family and herself.

Images from Nina Bunjevac's Fatherland

Further examples of transforming memories into memoirs include Matilda Tristram's Probably Nothing (Viking, £16.99) and Emmanuel Guibert's How the World Was (First Second, £14.99). Pregnant 18 weeks when diagnosed with bowel cancer, Tristram posted her experiences and feelings online in disarmingly direct cartoons and commentaries. Her tone can veer on the same page from poignant – putting into the baby's cradle "a doll of myself that I made (so if I die I'll still be there)" – to hilarious (contemplating "lacy colostomy bag covers") and furious ("Look at all these people not having cancer."). Hers is autobiography at its most heartfelt and heartening.

Fourteen new stories that would have been forbidden in their time question what was so "great" about the Great War in To End All Wars (Soaring Penguin, £18.99). So, deserter Thomas Highgate narrates his own execution, Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk cross-examines in a trial in The Hague the "inbred genetic incompetents" behind this preventable war, and German artist Otto Dix drags us inside his paintings, "not anti-war statements… rather, they are exorcisms". This fascinating, wide-ranging anthology challenges any revisionist glorifying of heroic sacrifice.