Books

Graphic novel book reviews: Families, friends and complications

“The High Desert: Black”. Punk. Nowhere,” written and illustrated by James Spooner; Harper (368 pages, $26.99)

To some degree or another, every teenager feels marooned. This was particularly the case for James Spooner. Though he would later become known as a filmmaker and co-founder of the Afropunk Festival, back in 1990 Spooner was an awkward biracial adolescent stuck in the high desert town of Apple Valley, California. His freshly told and achingly vulnerable graphic memoir illustrates his adolescence as being an outcast many times over.

Already standing out in the largely white rural community, Spooner was also deeply into skateboarding and punk rock, not seen at the time as belonging to non-white kids. He tries to find like-minded friends, the community and hopefully a girlfriend, while also starting a band. But the complexities of navigating multiple invisible fault lines lead to fraught situations, such as the pressure to overlook the racism of the white skinhead in his band.

Spooner’s narration is endearingly earnest and honest feeling, whether pining after the cool Goth girl at the video store or exulting in discovering countercultural meccas like the East Village and Venice Beach. His passionate love of punk signifiers — the movie “Suburbia,” his first pair of Doc Martens boots, Xeroxed ‘zines — will register with any denizen of the pre-internet underground. But more crucially, Spooner’s memoir communicates with a sharp intensity what those totems meant in his youth and how they helped him, and many kids like him, survive.

“Keeping Two,” written and illustrated by Jordan Crane; Fantagraphics (316 pages, $29.99)

Jordan Crane’s limpid, dense, elusive, and heart-rending graphic novel “Keeping Two” begins as a simple domestic tale whose contours are familiar to the point of tediousness. A couple returns home after a long car ride filled with bickering. Though they at least pretended to make up, the smoldering ashes of their fight are just waiting to spark back up.

She goes out to buy groceries, he stays back to do the dishes; Neither has quite forgiven the other. It’s an old story: Routine domesticity juiced with conflict into some kind of fissure or rapprochement.

But Crane is after bigger game. Into the space created by the couple’s temporary separation, he pours additional narratives. He threads in a story from a book the woman is reading about a different fighting couple whose problems are more severe (the ghost of their miscarried child sending them both to dark places) but whose fighting style feels similarly toxic.

The main storyline also fractures into mirroring halves where each goes looking for the other in the night. Both imagine worst-case scenarios in a darkening spiral, which Crane heightens by alternating with the tragic and suicide-haunted turbulence of the other (possibly fictional, possibly not) couple.

Fantasies blur into reality well before the shattering conclusion, which Crane renders with frightening violence, floridly dreamlike beauty and a nearly tactile sense of the ways love shadows and amplifies grief.

“Acting Class,” written and illustrated by Nick Drnaso; Drawn & Quarterly (248 pages, $29.95, in stores Aug. 16.)

In his last book, 2018’s “Sabrina” (the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), Nick Drnaso conjured up an America marked by atomization and an inability to separate fact from fiction. In his latest tale, “Acting Class,” the atmosphere of boredom, longing and the desire for something greater has only become more pronounced.

A group of people primarily united by a shrugging, low-key boredom with their lives comes together for an acting class whose disturbingly personal ultra-method exercises turn out to be nothing like what they or the reader expect.

At first, the story highlights awkward misconnections. Though the characters have little in common or much to say, they are told by the politely insistent teacher to learn acting by exposing their deepest selves. Before long, though, those exercises take on the air of anxiety dreams. But as their teacher puts them through lengthy hypnotic nightmares and conducts classes in ever-more remote locations along, the class unquestioningly.

With their mild manners and dialogue of bland pleasantries (“that’s nice”) frequently hiding uglier perversities, they seem almost like robotic caricatures of small-town Midwesterners by way of David Lynch. This impression is highlighted by Drnaso’s style, which emphasizes flatly inexpressive features and hauntingly empty landscapes.

It’s possible that “Acting Class” relies almost too much on its inarguably surprising and disturbing reveal to cap things off. But his careful building of suspense and overpoweringly eerie mood makes the long build worthwhile well before the final and powerfully cinematic twist.

“Keeping Two,” written and illustrated by Jordan Crane.

Chris Barsanti is the author of several books, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and a frequent contributor on comics for Publishers Weekly. He lives in St. Paul.

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