IF YOUR IDEA of a ''graphic novel'' is a large-format reprint of a few comic books, ''Mea Culpa'' will challenge that notion and perhaps shake up a few other cherished beliefs as well. There are no costumed superheroes here, nor mutants, nor spaceships, nor even film noir private eyes.
''Mea Culpa'' tells a gritty story about a high school football star who murders a neighbor for kicks before growing up to become president of the United States. And it tells the story without any words.
Well, not quite. There's a back cover synopsis of the story, and a caption, ''Mt. Banion, Pennsylvania,'' on the first page to set the scene. There also are cryptic words within pictures like, ''It was better than the cat.'' No dialogue, however, and no captions, except on the opening page and at the beginning of the last chapter in Washington, D.C.
Peter Kalberkamp's novel is, if nothing else, a daring experiment in a relatively new field of artistic endeavor. Both the art and the disturbing story have a haunting quality, and I have found myself picking up the book several times since the first reading. No one interested in graphic literature should miss this book.
NOTE: One of the few things I've altered from the published versions of these stories is the headline for this one. The original title was "Comic Novel Without Words," and they meant "comic" as in "comic book" or "comic strip." But "Comic Novel," to most people, means one that is funny, and this one decidedly is not. I think this headline fits the book better.
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