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book review


By Brecht Evens, Drawn & Quarterly, 120 pages, $32.95

With Panther, Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens manages to dream up the same kind of menacing, seductive hocus-pocus that made kid-lit curmudgeons Maurice Sendak or Roald Dahl so beloved. When her pet cat gets put down, young Lucy begins to receive visits from the "crown prince of Pantherland," who slinks out of her bottom dresser drawer, nattily attired and suspiciously fawning. What are his plans for naive Lucy? With a gaudily tweaked rainbow of watercolours, Evens paints Panther as a protean trickster who changes his puss from panel to panel, presenting whatever face he thinks would most appease the child. One moment he looks like loveable Simba; the next, he's a scheming Cheshire Cat. The artist's dexterity with a brush is likewise feline: when Lucy and Panther play Twister, or when the beast mauls a stuffed animal, it's an acrobatic feat of drawing so intensely feral it borders on frightening. Far from wistful, Panther's story of a child's initiation into the grown-up world is recounted with an adult's knowledge of danger and pain, and with a keen recollection of how wised-up and thick-skinned kids need to be.

The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death under Soviet Rule

By Igort, Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $37

"What was the Soviet Union?" And what legacy has it left its citizens? Throughout the five years he spent in Ukraine, Russia, and Siberia, the Italian cartoonist Igort attempted to answer these questions by illustrating the hellish stories he encountered – particularly of the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s and the Second Chechen War. Though he experienced these events only second-hand – through the words of elderly, downtrodden Ukrainians, or the war journalism of Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated for her dissidence – Igort's vision of these atrocities remains ferocious and direct. In unflagging, unflinching panels, the artist hauntingly reconstructs eyewitness accounts of the persistent horrors of famine and war: whole families starve and eat each other; a disabled worker crawls helpless for years, half-paralyzed, "like a dog"; a villager barely survives assault from a "human corridor" of soldiers bearing bludgeons. Throughout, the cartoonist's line work is brittle but sturdy, and his colours are redolent of caked blood, damp earth, cinders and winter. With this dull palette, and these benumbed interviewees, Igort kindles a fiery sense of injustice, and a renewed passion for all human life.

Paul Up North

By Michel Rabagliati, Conundrum Press, 184 pages, $20

In what might be the final entry in the long-running Paul series, the moony teenage protagonist – Rabagliati's alter ego – comes of age "up north" in the Laurentians and in Montreal during the lead-up to the 1976 Olympics. A deft but humane caricaturist, Rabagliati views his younger self with compassion, as well as irony: a starry-eyed image of Paul and his first love, clasped together amidst rainbows and unicorns, is at once sincere and self-consciously dopey. Paul rarely gets up to much that's exceptional – he drinks his first beer, smokes his first joint, thumbs his first ride – but in the background, little dramas play out about class divides, body image or sovereigntism. Balancing personal memoir, historical currents and keenly observant drawing, the Paul books have slowly become a humble monument to both Rabagliati's life and Quebec's culture. Paul Up North is about maturing, but it's also – quietly – about an entire way of life: What Montreal once was, what that Olympic summer felt like, how working-class neighbourhoods and two-fours and teenage bedrooms used to look. Even if Rabagliati must leave Paul's world, it is preserved here, warm and alive.