Graphic novelists who show us what loneliness means

This summer is bringing a well-timed comic book series on loneliness, not all of which deal with the fallout from Covid-19. They are, however, all reminiscent of the sense of disconnection that the last year and a half has brought about. Kristen Radtke, the designer and artistic director of The Believer magazine, where she publishes cutting edge comics, followed up on ‘Imagine Wanting Only This’, her first melancholy memoirs of 2017, which recounted her pervasive sense of loneliness throughout. in his twenties. . LOOKING FOR YOU: A JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN LONELINESS (Pantheon, $ 30) amplifies his previous effort (it is 75 pages longer), expanding the topic through in-depth research interspersed with stories from his own life. Part literature review, part essay, part autobiographical meditation, “Seek You” illustrates the capacity of non-fiction comics today. In the realm of fiction, the sad and charming caricature of the English designer Lizzy Stewart THIS ISN’T WHAT YOU THINK IT WOULD BE (Fantagraphics, $ 24.99), nine interrelated vignettes of girls and young women, often embody what Radtke makes explicit in its documentary form.

“Seek You” sat in a pile of books on my staircase for a while before its beautifully designed cover – a dark green apartment building with windows framing simple figures, adorned with a remarkable rooftop panel in peach and green bearing the big bold letters of the title – called me, with its undoubtedly important subject. Even before the Covid onslaught, as Radtke details, the “epidemic of loneliness” was significant, especially among older Americans. As she points out, loneliness affects all populations, poses acute health risks and is not synonymous with being alone. The title of the book, a nod to the amateur radio operator “CQ call”, is proof of Radtke’s significant mastery of interesting facts, which span five sections dedicated to various senses (more “Click” , on online life, now its own special category of being in the world).

“Touch” is perhaps the most difficult to read. Going through “Seek You,” I often had to pull myself together, frightened, to encounter the full and gruesome details of scientific studies that I had previously only known as fleeting benchmarks. “Touch” is largely a deep dive into the personal life and academic work of Harry Harlow, the psychologist best known for his controversial studies of the “Wire Mother” and “Cloth Mother”, in which Baby monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth and subjected to cruel experiments to assess their emotional and social development. Radtke’s perspective on man himself, as well as his results, embody the scope of this book; she calls his actions “monstrous” even as she tries to understand him and her own desire to understand attachment. But the presentation in the book of deliberately isolated animals and their suffering can seem unbearable.

London-based Stewart opens “It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be” with a perfect story that also deals with the vulnerability of animals. On a hot summer night, the narrator and her little brother bond with other children in their large English housing complex when they discover a sick fox standing still in front of a rainstorm. Doubtful that they can save him, they build him a shelter anyway, and decide to give him the dignity to make him beautiful, with flowers and “cans of cola with dandelions stuffed inside and wrappers of lollipops. tied like flags “.

Stewart captures the magic of trying to push back the isolation. She combines pen and ink with watercolor; when the downpour finally arrives – the story is called “Heavy Air” – the sky is a vortex of dense graphite scribbles. In “Dog Walk” we meet a teenage couple whose deep friendship deteriorates with age; the story appears as three interludes scattered throughout the volume. It’s like “Ghost World”, without the sardonic side. Stewart gives each slice a distinct look, with its own set of colors, its own drawing tool, and its own line weight.

Stewart’s dynamic, warm, and fluid art invites the reader in, while “Seek You” ultimately feels icy even as he reflects on the connection. Radtke’s aesthetic is impressive, with crisp, crisp black lines, stripes of white shadows, and stylized, muted blocks of color. She has a designer eye for striking graphics. But his images have a static quality; at the same time magnificent and fixed, they give a book which, as pretty as it is, looks alienated, perhaps too perfectly in tune with his subject.

In WOMEN OF TROJAN (New Directions, $ 19.95), poet and classic Anne Carson and painter Rosanna Bruno intensify the excitement seen in Stewart’s flowing markings: Bruno’s shaggy black-and-white drawings evoke palimpsests, often with pencil marks visible underneath. His scribbles radiate urgency. Unlike Radtke and Stewart, this book features handwritten letters, wide and loose all over the page, commanding our eye. (Believer once printed a quote from Carson – “I throw nothing out of hand writing” – on a postcard.) This collaborative and experimental adaptation of Euripides’ antiwar tragedy is the first graphic work from the venerable New Directions, who has long published the famous and idiosyncratic Carson (including his 2010 visual book, “Nox”).

The Greeks sacked Troy and killed all of its men. Here we move from the structural and social loneliness described above to the bottomless heartbreak: the women at the center of this heartbreaking play turned graphic novel brutally lose their husbands, sons, brothers and grandsons. Carson and Bruno eschew realism for the construction of an imaginative world and the flexible visual articulation of comics: Hekabe, the Queen of Troy, is an “old sled dog”; the Choir includes cows and dogs; and Athene is overalls. The experimental figuration is particularly moving in the most devastating part of the book: Andromache, wife of the slain warrior Hektor (who is also one of Hekabe’s sons), is a tree that cradles a small branch – their toddler, Astyanax, who is himself taken from her to be murdered as the tree spins inconsolably, “a blizzard of broken branches, twigs and leaves.”

How to account for this boundless anguish? “Oh, let me lie,” Hekabe implores the Chorus, in one of Carson’s typically engaging words. “Good posture is kind of an upright concept. I passed it. God! Now why did I say that? God never helped me. Her weary and resigned face, and the horizontal flattening of her body on the ground, kick in – just like the shrunken and eviscerated tree posture when her son is taken from her. Carson and Bruno are very attentive to the change of form of the poor.