"Everything Is Flammable" by Gabrielle Bell; Uncivilized Books (160 pages, $25.95)
"Imagine Wanting Only This" by Kristen Radtke; Pantheon (278 pages, $29.95)
Gabrielle Bell is a star in the world of graphic novels, and it is something of a coup for the Minneapolis publisher Uncivilized Books to land her poignant, funny and melancholy new memoir, "Everything Is Flammable."
When the book opens, Bell is living outside New York City, battling anxiety, obsessing over her garden and coping with a peculiar stranger who camps in her yard and won't leave.
And then she gets a call about her mother, whom she has not seen in four years. Her mother's house has burned down; she has lost everything and is living in a borrowed tent. So Bell heads to California to help out – and also, she confesses, to write about it, and maybe be "some sort of hero."
That confession might be the soul of this book, which – in small, square illustrations and a modicum of words – portrays the mother-daughter relationship in rich complexity: the guilt, the frustration, the resentments and annoyances, the push and pull, the need to be loved.
"For most of my life I've been a negligent, ungrateful, absent daughter, while at the same time exploiting her interesting life and sweet character for my comics," Bell writes. So she hauls a dish rack with her to California, a sort of offering. "I'm sure this dish rack will make up for everything."
Bell's mother is offbeat and difficult, an aging hippie who, like her daughter, has obsessive tendencies and a life built around a group of misfit friends. Everyone in this book is sort of down and out, but they lift each other up, even if it's just to let someone siphon gas from their truck's gas tank, or crash on their couch.
Still, relationships are fraught, and when Bell awkwardly tries interviewing her mother about her life, her mother answers patiently before finally burying her face in her hands, saying, "Can we stop? This just makes me get upset. I'm tired, I don't have the energy to think about this."
Some of the most powerful scenes in the memoir are moments from the past, which is depicted as a brutal world of dying, feral pets; a furious father; chaos. And yet the overall sense is not of despair, but of hope: From the ashes of her mother's fire rises a stronger relationship, a new home, new friendships.
Bell tells her stories in grids, six squares to a page, as neat and tidy as an ice-cube tray. Her visual point of view is mostly straight on, without unusual angles or perspectives, and each square is packed full to the edges. Even with that sameness, the drawings carry a lot of power – such as one of a gun under a bed, and one of the young narrator curling with the family dog, sobbing, after being beaten by her father.
"In films, motherhood is often presented on a spectrum ranging from the cold, unloving careerist to the overbearing, smothering witch to the long-suffering, self-sacrificing martyr," Bell writes. "Mine exists outside of that continuum." And that understanding is what makes this memoir feel so honest.
A very different graphic memoir is Kristen Radtke's serious, haunting "Imagine Wanting Only This," a long, complex examination of abandonment, the fleetingness of life, the impermanence of everything.
While in college, Radtke and her boyfriend did a sort of ruin tour of Gary, Ind., prowling through an abandoned cathedral and drawing inspiration from the wreckage. "Maybe I'll do a triptych of this place," she says. Instead, they stumble across dozens of photographs of a young man, which she scoops up and takes home, only to realize later that they had been left there deliberately as a memorial.
This marks the beginning of Radtke's lengthy journey from the Midwest to Italy to Vietnam to Iceland to ghost towns of the American West, searching for meaning in a world that is temporary.
"Since Gary, I'd been consumed by the question of how something that is can become very suddenly something that isn't," she writes. "There are things we know about the lives we make. I painted this room. I bought this table. I washed these sheets and made this bed. We forget that everything will become no longer ours."
If Bell's memoir makes you feel that the world is haphazard but grounded in friendship and love, Radtke's makes you feel that there is no grounding, that everything can go flying off at any moment. It is powerful and bleak, but strangely thrilling.