How to Love, Graphic Novellas by Actus Comics, distributed by Top Shelf, $29.95.
Even to those who follow the indie comic scene, the arrival and subsequent acclaim of Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds may have been something of a surprise. For readers unaware of the work being done across the Atlantic in the 90s (and, unless some kind soul pointed it out to you, that was quite likely), it may have seemed as if she sprang fully formed, completed graphic novel in hand, from the void.
Of course, Modan has been working and publishing steadily over the past decade or more, most notably as part of the Israeli comics collective known as Actus Tragicus. Since the group’s formation in 1995, they have continually pushed their collective creative talents with increasingly dizzying results. Producing an anthology a year in a variety of formats (the 2001 edition came in a box) and usually (though not always) centered on a specific theme, the Actus group, from Modan on down, showed themselves to be a formidable and ever improving pool of talent.
Having taken a lengthy leave of absence, the group is now back together with their first anthology since 2004′s Dead Herring, How to Love. It might well be their most consistent and best effort yet.
As you might guess from the title, the book’s theme centers around issues of romance and adoration. It kicks off with Summer Story by Batia Kolton, which focuses on the relationship between a prepubescent girl and her older, decidedly voluptuous teen-age neighbor, who uses her good looks to manipulate the men around her. The story is told from the younger girl’s perspective, and it’s clear she idolizes her neighbor’s worldliness, though confused perhaps about how to imitate her behavior. More of a character study than plot-driven narrative, Kolton uses a clean, thin-line approach heavily reminiscent of Modan’s work. Her excellent use of body language says much more about her characters than the dialogue, and it’s ultimately what makes the story so compelling.
Following her is Actus newcomer David Polonsky with L’Elixir D’Amour. Polonsky adopts a style heavily influenced by various 19th-century illustrators like Caran D’Ache, as Baron tells his mistress absurd tales of love he’s come across in his travels, such as the king who attempted to “fashion his country’s borders along the contours of his wife’s body.” Though perhaps not necessarily “comics,” they are nonetheless very charming and funny and Polonsky proves to be a welcome addition to the group.
Next up is Mira Friedmann, whose Independence Day tells of a young girl who on a whim decides to cross the border into Jordan in order to impress a boy she likes. The story reads like a slight but charming tale of a young crush until the denouement on the final two pages, which give the previous events a strong emotional weight and resonance. Friedmann’s thick-lined, blocky style has never looked better here and achieves a real sad grace and poetry in the final panels.
Itzik Rennert’s Love Love Love is the story I’m betting most people will trip over as it’s the most abstract and conceptual of the lot. Rennert juxtaposes a series of unrelated, highly symbolic drawings and paintings with short, perfunctory summations of failed relationships from (what one assumes to be) one man’s life. I liked the way the stories built upon each other to their tender conclusion, however, and also how the the text and images rubbed up roughly against each other.
Rutu Modan follows Rennert with Your Number One Fan, a sublime story about a struggling musician who travels to England for a concert that he thinks will be his big break, only to discover that he is very much mistaken. Modan’s tale is full of cringe-worthy moments and awkward behavior, but the nuance she shows in the relationship between the musician and the elderly divorcee who booked this gig — the number one fan of the title — is touching, funny and sad all at once. It’s probably my favorite story in the book.
Yirmi Pinkus wraps up the anthology with 8:00 to 10:00, a heartfelt observation of a man puttering around his house and watching the world around him in the early morning hours while waiting for his lover to awaken. It’s the most life-affirming and sweetest tale in the book, and the perfect note to end the book on.
I took the time to go through each individual story in How to Love simply because each individual story is strong enough that it could easily carry the weight in a more lopsided or lackluster collection. Taken together the end result is a wonderful book that again reminds us what a solid group of storytellers the Actus crew are.
Though you can order the book right now from Top Shelf’s Web site, supposedly it won’t be in comic shops until August. Trust me, you don’t want to wait.