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book review

Earthling by Aisha Franz

One Year in America by Elisabeth Belliveau, Conundrum, 112 pages, $17.00

A sojourn in upstate New York occupies about the middle third of Elisabeth Belliveau's latest book, and first graphic novel. In a college town, and an elliptical series of images, the nameless protagonist makes a go at her life as a hesitant newlywed. But the majority of One Year in America is just as concerned with other locales, from Calgary to Bologna, and from Sackville to Paris. Though hardly a traditional travelogue, the book is invested with a restless spirit that privileges changes of scenery over settling down in any one spot. Each ink-and-wash panel flits with thrilling abandon to the next, disconnected in time and space from its neighbours, giving the impression of scrolling through an Instagram feed rather than reading a comic book page. Occasional, lengthy e-mail excerpts also serve to forward the story, though these can come off as overly prosaic. Still, it's the unusually poetic cadences of Belliveau's non-linear cartooning that make her work so suggestive and freeing.

Earthling by Aisha Franz Drawn and Quarterly, 208 pages, $19.95

Alien was the original, German title for this debut graphic novel about a day in the lives of two impassive girls and their crestfallen mother. That the book has been published in translation as Earthling makes sense: it's a coming-of-age story that shimmers between the alien and the familiar, between feeling at home with those around you, and feeling hopelessly estranged. While the characters orbit around their tidy, modular house in the suburbs, each is also trapped in her own disruptive fantasy world. The mother endures visions of the brilliant self she could have been, if only she hadn't had her girls. The eldest daughter turns to desultory sex as an escape from a teenaged life lacking in childhood's magic. And the youngest – well, she's found and befriended an actual alien. Franz crowds her pages full of panels, to convey what constrained lives these characters lead, and her drawings – all sketched out in pencil – look fittingly tentative, fragile, and easily effaced.

Arsène Schrauwen by Olivier Schrauwen, Fantagraphics, 250 pages, $34.99

A surreal hallucination of what colonial expeditions might have been like for blinkered Europeans, Arsène Schrauwen reads like Conrad by way of Kafka, as drawn in pen and ink by the douanier Rousseau. Cockeyed, adventurous, and truly bizarre, the first full graphic novel from the Belgian cartoonist sets out to dramatize the heartsick youthful folly of the artist's dim but determined grandfather. A lone and paunchy newcomer to some indeterminate colony, Arsène attempts to help his cousin erect a "city of the future" deep in the country's oppressive interior, despite having fallen in love with his kinsman's wife. Throughout, it's difficult to discern where reality ends and the artist's fancy begins, especially since many characters distressingly lack faces, while the draughtsmanship fluctuates between breathtaking mastery and deliberate crudity. Schrauwen's portrait of the impulse towards empire may not be rooted in actual history, but it does loopy justice to the garish and arrogant irrationality of the whole colonial enterprise.

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