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For Whom The Bell Tolls (#110 of 2)

Draw, Write, Love Ulli Lust’s Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life

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Draw, Write, Love: Ulli Lust’s Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
Draw, Write, Love: Ulli Lust’s Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life

Ulli Lust is an Austrian cartoonist who lives and works in Berlin and who published in 2009 a long, thick, graphic novel memoir about hitchhiking through Italy as a teenager in the 1980s. It won awards in Germany, was translated to French, and then won awards in France. Fantagraphics Books has just translated it to English under the title Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, and it’s going to win more awards here, too. It’s a memoir that avoids being self-centered, petty, naïve, or boring, and, like On the Road meets The Diary of Anaïs Nin meets The Innocents Abroad, it’s spontaneous, sexual, and both cynically and internationally adventurous. It’s also further proof that the graphic novel is going to dethrone the novel as the 21st century’s preferred form for telling a story—in print—that’s dense and serious and artful and long.

A good way to think about Today Is the Last Day is as a kind of anti-Eat, Pray, Love. Both books are the confessions of a girl/woman who’s restless and frustrated and looking for life, and who leaves home in order to find it, but whereas Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir is a breezy, yuppie fairy tale told in the service of the ego of its author, Today Is the Last Day is bohemian and brutal and frequently reads like a traveler’s nightmare. The teenaged Ulli, the book’s hero, crosses illegally into Italy, wanders around with just a sleeping bag (no money, no passport, no change of clothes), and is raped by strangers, betrayed by her friend, injected with heroin, harassed by mafiosos, and arrested by the police. But despite and amid all that, she gets to sneak into a Clash concert, camp out on the beach, pick wild strawberries, and sleep for a night in the Fontana del Pincio in Rome. All of which is to say that she gets to experience, for a few months, what it’s like to live outside that protective, pacifying, Matrix-like bubble that an affluent and well-ordered society encases its citizens in, layer by layer, from birth until death—whereas Eat, Pray, Love is basically what it feels like to travel through Italy, India, and Indonesia while deeply, stupidly, ensconced within that bubble.

Far from Home Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

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Far from Home: Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Far from Home: Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

A question for the history of the graphic novel: Will anyone ever write a cartoon equivalent of Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Will there ever be a cartoonist who in his or her real life does a bunch of dangerous and exciting stuff, such as work on a whaling ship, pilot a river boat, or fight in a war, and who then sublimates those experiences via the imagination into a work of fiction that’s vivid and dense and spiritually substantial? More specifically, will there ever be a cartoonist who can combine with his or her comics all that you get in Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin (the audacity, the action, the energetic globetrotting) with all that you get in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (the disappointment, the ambiguity, the baroque psychology)?

Guy Delisle’s new Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is a nonfictional graphic novel about being far away from home in an occasionally dangerous and precarious and confusing place. It’s about living for a year in Israel while trying to be a husband, a father, and an itinerant cartoonist. Insofar as it’s a memoir, Jerusalem is low-key and humorous, and brings to mind Ross McElwee’s documentary Sherman’s March. Insofar as it’s a travelogue, Jerusalem is inquisitive and observant, and brings to mind another doc: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. As a whole, the book is both enjoyable and instructive; it makes you chuckle and grin, and it makes you feel like a more informed, concerned citizen of the world.