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book review

I'm Not Here By GG, Koyama Press, 104 pages, $12

"To live is to be somebody else," writes Fernando Pessoa – or, in any case, one of his many literary alter egos. These are the words that GG's nameless protagonist, a reticent young woman in a standoffish small town, reads at the outset of the prairie cartoonist's stark, enigmatic debut. The character feels split and displaced in similar ways, guilt-ridden on one hand about the sacrifices her mother made by migrating here to raise her, and tormented, on the other, by the desire to break free of the obligations she feels she owes her. The tensions are familiar, but GG's handling of them is allegorical and elliptical. The artist stages this identity crisis by actually having her hero step into the life of a stranger she photographs. Inhabiting her double's apartment, the young woman dreams of her own strained childhood, while GG shifts between time frames and emotions almost imperceptibly, her pages abounding in negative space and sleek layers of gray-scale, untroubled by contour lines or panel borders. GG's captivating photorealist images, like her heroine, tend to a feeling of melancholic floating – they submit to the sensation of being unmoored.

Songy of Paradise By Gary Panter, Fantagraphics, 40 pages, $45.50

Completing the trilogy he began with postapocalyptic pastiches of Dante's Inferno and Purgatory, legendary punk artist Gary Panter pivots to adapting John Milton's Paradise Regained for this final volume. Where Milton's Satan tempts Jesus in the desert with the spectre of feasts, riches, armies to rule and lands to conquer – all scratched out with zealous, hallucinatory intensity on Panter's oversized boards – here, the poet's righteous Son of God gets replaced with an ornery, no-nonsense "hillbilly" named Songy. The substitution isn't mere irreverence, though Panter's wild-eyed cartooning and ornate prose can be wickedly funny. In his imposing, studious compositions, the artist yokes contemporary life to antiquity with shrewd satiric sting. Drones in the sky are emissaries of God; Satan takes the form of Syd Hoff's beloved children's book dinosaur; the armies he reveals embroiled on the plain are legions of militarized police rampaging through fiery cities. Panter draws these hordes and demons and vistas with equal parts delight and pique, politicizing paradise with the searing vision of a Blake or a Goya, only addled with 20th-century pop culture, and heartsick at contemplating what deliverance awaits us.

The Customer is Always Wrong By Mimi Pond, Drawn & Quarterly, 448 pages, $32.95

In the hefty follow-up to her comeback success, Over Easy, Mimi Pond concludes her fictionalized memoir of slinging hash at a bohemian diner in Oakland's drug-fuelled early eighties. The setting provides a parade of colourful characters – Colombian hit men, chic hippie cokeheads, gun-toting vintage store sirens – who help cram the book with so much gonzo activity that it would begin to strain credulity, were it not for its origins in autobiography (one single night veers from conning the Mafia to fighting with bikers to infiltrating a juke joint, like an East Bay Taxi Driver). Mainly, though, this volume deepens the kinship between Pond's struggling-artist avatar, Madge, and the café's guru-cum-manager, part-time poet Lazlo. As her co-workers nod off in the bathroom and Lazlo's cheerful sang-froid collapses, Madge has an awakening: She needs to get out. Pond's observant portrait of life in one's mid-20s is keenly aware of how aimlessness can become desperation. Her bubbly figures, moon-faced and lanky, boil over with cartoony rage, but also succumb to depression and – shockingly – bodily harm. The distance between Pond's peppy, open-hearted style and sometimes grisly subject matter complements how her characters put up a good front while life crumbles around them.

Jeff Lemire says he worked on his new graphic novel Roughneck at the same time as the Gord Downie project, Secret Path. The illustrator says “Roughneck” addresses themes of violence and addiction in indigenous communities.

The Canadian Press