“Paying the Land,” written and illustrated by Joe Sacco. (Metropolitan Books, 272 pages, $29.99. This book will be published on July 7.)
It has been more than 10 years since Joe Sacco has produced a full-length work (2009’s “Footnotes in Gaza”). Not to suggest that one of our greatest living graphic journalists should make a habit of taking that much time off (he should not), but the wait has been worth it. “Paying the Land” is an immersive exploration of the Northwest Territories’ native Dene people that casts its net across a broad panoply of topics while still hewing to the granular detail (maps, diagrams, footnotes) that make Sacco’s work so rewarding.
Sacco begins with a lyric depiction of the traditional Dene way of life in which everything and everybody has their place (“you work yourself into the circle of that community,” one elder explains). He then ventures into the vast Northwest Territories (its roughly 45,000 people spread over an area the size of France and Spain), where that community is wracked by still-unresolved questions about how best to coexist with Western culture.
Sacco describes with graphic firsthand accounts the abuse and cultural imperialism of the residential schools (called “state-sponsored kidnapping” by one survivor). He also delves into the cycles of welfare dependency and abuse (sexual, addiction, violence) that followed the Dene’s disconnection from the land, as well as the divide-and-conquer tactics used by oil and gas companies eager to extract the Territories’ resources. The resulting narrative is sympathetic without depriving the Dene of agency.
Drawing himself as somewhat more grizzled than in previous works, Sacco continues to use his flustered presence for self-deprecating jabs of humor. Rather than just trying to lighten a dark subject, though, he also does so to undercut the idea that he is an expert. One of Sacco’s greatest gifts is bringing readers into his learning, making us feel that we are somehow part of it rather than passive observers.
“Year of the Rabbit,” written and illustrated by Tian Veasna, translated from the French by Helga Dascher. (Drawn & Quarterly, 380 pages, $29.99.)
Tian Veasna’s swiftly paced, overwhelming graphic memoir of the Cambodian genocide begins and ends with a family tree. The harrowing pages in between show why some of the faces in the concluding tree have been grayed out.
Born just days after the Khmer Rouge overthrew the U.S.-backed Cambodian government in 1975, Veasna starts in the chaos of Phnom Penh, where excitement was braided with anxiety over what would follow. His middle-class parents and extended family find themselves in the flood of urban exiles driven from the city by Khmer cadres obsessed with an ill-planned vision of creating a Communist utopia in the countryside.
In the following years, Veasna’s relatives become industrious and canny refugees. They bargain for food, leverage their many acquaintances, and scramble to avoid notice of the murderous Khmer, whose capricious savagery (many are teenage boys) includes beheading boys for having Beatles haircuts and drowning intellectuals in a lake. Starvation and night assassinations are recurring threats, with many people reduced to “living corpses.”
Studded with maps, the story presents a documentarian’s clean historical sweep. Veasna grapples with the horrors of the Khmer regime in a bracingly direct fashion that avoids sentimentality or violence voyeurism. Instead, his family’s terrifying ordeal in the dizzyingly bloody and swift maelstrom that killed one out of four Cambodians is used as an empathetic lens to turn unfathomable numbers into personal tragedies and victories.
The uncertainty, dread and scarred triumphs that thrum through Veasna’s book would affect readers at any time. But its depiction of a suddenly upended people grabbing supplies and response to an omnipresent and evolving threat on the fly will feel chillingly familiar to today’s pandemic-rattled audience.
“Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës,” written and illustrated by Isabel Greenberg. (Abrams Comicarts, 224 pages, $31.99.)
After two of the Brontë children died in rapid succession in 1825, the four surviving siblings — sisters Charlotte, Anne and Emily, with their brother Branwell — took refuge not only in each other, but in a fantasy world that they created. In this astounding feat of literary world-building, Isabel Greenberg (“The Encyclopedia of Early Earth”), spins the Brontës’ juvenilia about the fantastical events in the kingdom of Glass Town built “from all the books on their father’s bookshelf” into a heartfelt story of family, loss and the joy of creation.
Greenberg contrasts the bleak setting of the Brontës’ father’s remote parsonage on the Yorkshire moors (“its windows were the only light before a grand and infinite darkness”) with the colorful dramatics of Glass Town, rippling with conquest, rivalries, thwarted love and “half-imagined ideas.”
Each sibling refracts themselves into central characters of their overlapping and sometimes competing story lines. But Greenberg rewardingly focuses on Charlotte, whose creations take on lives of their own (“we will sneak into your stories,” one promises).
Emily later used the most dramatic, romantic Glass Town story line — about the vengeful kidnapped African prince Quashia — as the inspiration for “Wuthering Heights” ’ Heathcliff (depicted in adaptations by white actors until very recently).
Charlotte’s moodiness, tight bond with Branwell and departure for school frays ties with Anne and Emily, who break off and form the rival kingdom of Gondal.
Increasingly, the fervid dramatics of Glass Town become how the Brontës play out their internecine conflicts and try to look past their lives’ often grim limitations.
Looking back, Charlotte notes “the dangers … of an interior world that was brighter, more golden than the gray reality.” Drawn with a cheery and expansive sweep that belies its sometimes somber subject, “Glass Town” is a testament to the (usually) redemptive powers of imagination.
Chris Barsanti is the author of several books, a member of the National Book Critics Circle and frequent contributor on comics for Publishers Weekly. He lives in St. Paul.