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Review: David Collier’s Morton, Guy Delisle’s Hostage and Keiler Roberts’s Sunburning

Morton: A Cross-Country Rail Journey

By David Collier

Conundrum Press, 150 pages, $20

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As David Collier's new travelogue begins, he regales us with anecdotes about First World War shell shock, life during the Blitz and his smuggler grandfather's inglorious death in a Montreal hotel – and that's all before the artist even leaves his kitchen. Life, for Collier, consists of vertiginous layering, compressing centuries of history into mere handfuls of comics panels – his intensely hatched line work bulges with the strain.

His family's itinerary is likewise overstuffed once they embark on their cross-Canada train voyage, ranging from their Hamilton home to the Plains of Abraham and up to the Saguenay, before heading across Shield and prairie into the permafrost and mosquitoes of Churchill, Man. As their passenger train noses through inhospitable Boreal forest, an awed Collier remarks that "there's just this veneer of civilization over us." Still, the artist is an enthusiastic proponent of that civilization, using his travels as prompts to tell stories about his military service, strongman Louis Cyr, or the voyageurs who once travelled the same routes, as well as countless, colourful strangers. Like the rail journey his book depicts, Collier connects all these far-flung points of interest with a solid, sure sense that they constitute a country.

Hostage

By Guy Delisle, translated by Helge Dascher

Drawn & Quarterly, 436 pages, $32.95

Guy Delisle's previous books have had the cartoonist himself at their centre, a tour guide whose good-natured bumbling helps illuminate the flashpoint cultures in which he finds himself, from Pyongyang to Burma or Jerusalem. In Hostage, Delisle turns his attention to the Russian Caucasus, but removes himself from the proceedings, focusing instead on the recollections of Christophe André, an MSF staffer who was kidnapped by Chechen militants and held for ransom for several months in 1997. The artist's intimate recreation of André's experience of deprivation, alone in a bare room, invites us into the subjective experience of being held captive, in all its maddening tedium (point-of-view shots return to a light bulb, the corner of the ceiling, the handcuff with which André's attached to the radiator).

Measuring time's passing by the waxing and waning of grey light in the room, Delisle introduces small variations to his drawing and André's routine that heighten sensations – suspense, uncertainty, the call of nature – to unbearable extremes. As André's ordeal drags on, this careful, methodical cartooning culminates in one of the most thrilling comics sequences in recent memory, a hard-earned, exhilarating breakthrough for hostage and cartoonist alike.

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Sunburning

By Keiler Roberts

Koyama Press, 120 pages, $12

Keiler Roberts has been self-publishing autobiographical comics for years, so while Sunburning marks her belated debut in traditional publishing, it's a remarkably assured bit of observational comedy – like a cable sitcom, a few seasons into its run. Without any fussy preliminaries, Roberts establishes an easy dynamic between herself, husband Scott and young daughter Xia, using brief sequences to sketch complex relationships in endearing shorthand. (A typically deadpan punchline: after her family asks for more pancakes, Roberts refuses, insisting, "I made them and I deserve to eat most of them.") Roberts draws every situation freehand, with no ruled lines and no shading, just a steady pen and confident compositions. The artist presents the life of a mother and artist unadorned, whether she's preserving Xia's childish bon mots (in praise of mom's hair: "it looks like a rat's nest"), or coping with bipolar disorder and a miscarriage. A kind of domestic epic, the book climaxes with a surprisingly long passage of cleaning the house – panels upon panels of laundry, dishes, vacuuming, and dusting. Cartooning allows Roberts to break down work and life into their component moments, each of them loaded with mildly startling, funny significance.

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