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Review: New comics from Anders Nilsen, Lynn Johnston, and Max de Radiguès

For Better or for Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston
By Lynn Johnston and Katherine Hadway, Goose Lane, 192 pages, $24.95

Given how intimately I feel like I know the Patterson family – the stars of Lynn Johnston's beloved comic strip, For Better or for Worse – it was a surprise just how little I knew about its creator. This retrospective, issued concurrently with a new exhibit at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, digs deep into Johnston's archives and biography, in order to illustrate the stories behind the creation of the iconic family who aged in real time on our funny pages. FBOFW may come across like the authentic successor to L.M. Montgomery's Avonlea chronicles, a decades-long domestic chronicle alive with friendly humour and melodrama, but Johnston's own story reads surprisingly like Alice Munro, quietly fraught with unease, despite the triumph of her cartooning career. While her work doesn't get the same kind of deluxe treatment lavished on her few peers such as Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau – it would be nice to see art reproduced from the original line drawings, or publication dates attached to any of the strips – the insights into Johnston's life and philosophy are still invaluable, and often inspiring.

Poetry is Useless
By Anders Nilsen, Drawn & Quarterly, 224 pages, $37.95

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For Anders Nilsen, the uselessness of poetry – and of art in general – is entirely to its credit. His new book collects years' worth of sketchbook meanderings, photographed from the artist's beaten-up Moleskines with white-outs and inkblots palpably intact, every page of which revels in digressive pointlessness. As in his previous work, Nilsen uses philosophical monologues delivered by silhouetted stick figures to question received wisdom about life, God, and America (one strip poetically splices together patriotic clichés: "Give me liberty leaves the whole world blind"; "Behind every great man is fear itself"). But here, Nilsen interrupts these speeches with highly wrought glimpses of visual pleasure – vividly observed portraits of strangers surface throughout, or pointillist studies of landscapes and imaginary machines. (The few extended stories are miniature marvels: the author encounters another Anders Nilsen at a book signing; a man stuck in a hole tries to find sustenance.) Nilsen's assiduous, perfect drawings and distanced, inquisitive writing take as their subject the trivial and commonplace, rendering what seems to be useless strange, endearing and curiously new.

By Max de Radiguès, Conundrum, 160 pages, $17

Cartooned with a panel-to-panel clarity that owes much to animation storyboards and drawn with the kind of winnowy lines that imply a youthful, uncomplicated way of seeing the world, Moose eventually reveals itself to be a book troubled by concerns far more mature than its simple appearance would indicate. Like de Radiguès's seemingly placid style, the behaviour of Joe – Moose's bookish, teenaged protagonist – looks content and serene to his parents and teachers, though that front only disguises the sadistic bullying he suffers multiple times a day. Throughout Joe's trials, which culminate among the wildlife and snowy woods surrounding his idyllic hometown, de Radiguès withholds emotional insight and narrative information, demanding that his readers both intuit Joe's torment, and try to unravel the tangle of thoughts he must wrestle with, when he's given the chance for revenge. While the characterizations can seem overly familiar (though Jason, Joe's bully, seems authentically troubled and vile), Moose's admirable ambiguity will give teen readers, especially, much to sympathize with and debate.

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