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Review: New comics from Jessica Campbell, Tom Gauld and Riad Sattouf

Hot or Not: 20th-Century Male Artists

By Jessica Campbell, Koyama Press, 64 pages, $10

In this debut monograph by Jessica Campbell – whom the faux-scholarly preface deems "one of the world's leading art critics" – the author serves as docent, guiding readers through the masterworks of 20th-century art. Emphasis on "master": The dudes who ruled high modernism are the subject here, though it's not their bodies of work that come under scrutiny so much as their bodies, full stop. On the recto of each page, there's Campbell's thick-lined, minimal rendering of a representative piece from each artist – Modigliani, Rothko, Lawren Harris – annotated with her speculations about the hotness of the he-man who executed it (of Malevich's suprematist shapes: "These are the paintings of a brooding, complicated sex man"). On the verso, she reveals her sketched portrait of the artist himself, along with a fair and objective assessment of his actual – and frequently disappointing – hunkiness (Malevich, again: "And this is the face of an adult baby"). With the way Campbell reduces Borduas's or Mondrian's abstractions even further, or captures what's cute about Calder's mien, she poo-poos macho ideas of artistic greatness, at the same time she showcases her own slyly unassuming skill.

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Mooncop

By Tom Gauld, Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pages, $22.95

Adrift in a seemingly pointless existence, the last policeman in the tiny lunar colony goes through his routines with the kind of persistence that bespeaks either peace of mind or quiet depression. He drinks his coffee, eats his doughnut, files his reports ("crimes reported: zero") – and he sits in his cruiser, staring at Earth. Gauld's style is contemplative and understated: His noodle-limbed people and gunmetal landscapes look silly or simple, but also impenetrable. The book's meticulous pacing, like a silent-film comedy, makes much of the way that the colony declines, watching as a way of life gets altered and chipped away at – the cop's few remaining neighbours gradually opt to head back home, while housing units disappear and clunky computers try to do human jobs, badly. With bemused resignation, Gauld envisions what our sad future is bound to look like – modular, bare, utilitarian – but he also tries to preserve some sense of modest wonder at what we've achieved, however it's been cheapened, and however it's been ground down into routine.

The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985

By Riad Sattouf, Henry Holt, 160 pages, $37

In this second volume of Sattouf's manic memoir, nothing much has changed, as he admits at the outset. His coddled, clueless, fluffy-haired younger self is now starting school in a small Syrian village, where he's raised by his frenetic father, a professor in Damascus, and his reticent but determined French mother. He still visits family in France – in Brittany, in the Alps – goggling at the cultural shock of skiing or supermarkets. Since these larger contours repeat from the first volume, it's now easier to appreciate the cartoonist's ability to pick out peculiarities, marking out a character's whole persona and philosophy with the surgical shorthand of a practised caricaturist. His bit players are brilliant: merchants who haggle with lunatic abandon; the indignant girl, her face screwed up in demonic distortions, hurling mean curses; the towering teacher, built like a bull, sweet one moment and sadistic the next; a cross-eyed young aunt, generous and bubbling, brutally dealt with by her father for supposedly dishonouring the family. By volume's end, there's something about the adult world that even naive young Riad can tell is not only puzzling, but deeply troubling, as well.

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