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Graphic Fiction Review: How to Love by the Actus Comics Collective

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The first collection in three years by the Israeli alternative comics collective, Actus, How to Love (distributed in the U.S. by Top Shelf) is a handsomely packaged hardcover anthology of six "graphic novellas" centered on the title theme. In the years since Actus' last group production, 2005's Dead Herring Comics, one member of the group, Rutu Modan, has gone on to greater critical notice with her graphic novel Exit Wounds. But her success hasn't led the artist into dropping out of the collection. Good thing, too, since her contribution, "Your Number One Fan," is one of the book's highlights.

The 142-page volume opens with its cover story, Batia Kolton's "Summer Story," a meticulously rendered recounting of a young girl's trip to the beach with her family and a teenaged girl our heroine has been observing from afar. Kolton's straightforward art style is especially attuned to her characters' body language: though we're never shown heroine Dorit's inner thoughts, the awkwardness of her nascent teen-hood is beautifully captured. Working similar territory is Mira Friedmann's "Independence Day," the story of another young girl who ventures across the Israel/Jordan border in a futile attempt to impress a schoolboy. Drawing in a less realistic mode — her characters possess stunted bodies that approach more traditional cartoon proportions — Friedmann still manages to convey the isolation of traveling through a culture not your own.

Two illustrated fictions work from a more adult perspective: David Polonsky's "L'Elixir D'Amour" features a series of fantastic Borges-ian vignettes about the nature of love as told by an aged decadent nobleman, while Itzik Rennert's "Love Love Love" is a catalog of a nameless bisexual narrator's less-than-satisfying sexual encounters. The first is rendered with lovingly fantastical old-fashioned illustrations, while the second is presented in a more impressionistic sketchbook/collage blend. Both approaches suit their respective stories, though I have to admit to personally favoring Polonsky's lavishly inked gray-and-white illos.

The protagonist of Modan's "Your Number One Fan" is the not-quite-deserving object of a middle-aged Englishwoman's fannish love (the echo of Annie Wilkes' obsessive mantra is worth noting — especially since it isn't the fan who erupts in a violent rage in this story). A would-be singer/songwriter, Eitan Shabtai thinks he's finally made a big step into the limelight when he's invited to fly from Israel and perform in Sheffield, England, home of Joe Cocker and the Arctic Monkeys. Eitan, who has one self-made CD to his credit, has visions of a starmaking debut, but actually he's been invited by a lonely divorcee named Jackie to play for a small crowd at a Jewish cultural center. Though the singer struggles to maintain a game face, in the end his despair and frustration spur him into violently lashing out at the pathetic Jackie.

Modan builds to this character revealing moment carefully and believably. Though her art is a trace more cartoonish than cover artist Kolton's (Eitan's wife has a nose reminiscent of the old DC Bob Hope comics caricatures of ol' ski nose), her panels are as rigorously composed. The panels where the singer opens his show to a largely indifferent crowd are quietly excruciating; in its own way, Eitan's experience isn't much different from the pre-adolescent discomfiture of "Summer Story."

Yirmi Pinkus' "8:00 to 10:00" ends the volume on a much less melancholy note. A largely wordless piece, it captures one man's early morning routine as he gets up, watches his neighbors and then rouses his sleeping male lover. Slight and sweet, it provides a suitably optimistic finish to the Actus collective's knowing reflections on love and its pursuit.

If the six artists in this collection never explicitly tell us "How to Love" (you didn't think they really would, now did you?), taken together, they provide a crisp set of snapshots of the attempts.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
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