Romance is in the air, as two gifted British graphic novelists confront today's physical, psychological and spiritual challenges of finding love. Karrie Fransman explores the peccadilloes of a decidedly oddball sextet of lodgers sharing "The House That Groaned". Newcomer, "living doll" Barbara, seems the least maladjusted, whereas across the landing, Matt works as a photographic retoucher, in search of blemish-free perfection, but unable to touch another living human being.
Downstairs, divorced six-stone dietician Janet is being tormented by nuisance phone calls from the gluttonous members of "The Midnight Feast Front", while Brian has developed an attraction to diseased women, making long-term relationships difficult. On the top floor live timid grandmother Demi, confined to her tiny flat and ailing frame, and the hedonistic Marion, who wants to free all bodies from society's shackles.
Fransman interweaves their unravelling narratives with flashbacks to formative incidents in her players' pasts, enriching our understanding and sympathy. She peppers her ensemble story with several surprises, sometimes macabre, sometimes shocking, usually saved for left-hand whole pages to catch us unawares. Fransman's dual background as a psychology and sociology student and a creative advertiser helps underpin her skills at both characterisation and communication. She has a lively cartooning style in black and shades of blue, with such quirks as large V-shaped noses and doll-like circles on her characters' cheeks. By its melodramatic finales, The House That Groaned acknowledges some scars that miss their chance to heal, but also gives us a kind of happy ending for two tenants.
The search for love has been no simpler for cartoonist Simone Lia, dumped by email, almost 34 and single again, shouting in Leicester Square: "Please God, Find Me A Husband!" To her surprise she gets an answer of sorts from the INXS song playing nearby, "Need You Tonight". In a reverie she joins the bearded, bespectacled Almighty in a rendition and resolves to "go on an adventure with God". She tells Him her plans involving Australia, "an interesting near-death experience", "a gorgeous man" and "a little miracle would be lovely, please".
Her adventure starts in a community of Welsh nuns, whose quiet devotion inspires her to seek some inner peace. In one scene of 18 almost identical panels, we follow her as she tries to listen to the silence, finally hearing the comforting words, "I value you". Lia is no model Christian, all the more empathetic for hiding none of her religious failings and doubts, while also communicating her fragile moments of revelation. She sidesteps the offputting self-confessional and self-help genres by maintaining a lightness of touch and a refreshing unpredictability. Slipping smoothly between reality, memory, prayer and imagination, she can portray her heart as a shrunken, unshaven grouch with an eyepatch, or follow Jesus back to her childhood self.
Lia gets her adventure in Australia, where she falls for handsome horse-trainer Brett. When he compliments her as a Penelope Cruz look-alike, she redraws herself as she feels, with Cruz's movie-star glamour. Lia conveys her quest for love, whether earthly or spiritual, with deceptive simplicity and abundant good humour, accompanied by the recurring, slightly mournful sound effect, "weenk, weenk", of a spinster's spinning wheel, Lia's suitcase – and some impressive wheelies by God on a bike.
Paul Gravett's '1000 Comic Books You Must Read Before You Die' is published by Cassell