'How the World Was' a vivid tale of a 20th century California boyhood

The Parisian artist Emmanuel Guibert creates nonfiction graphic novels that have the emotional weight and patient observation of great prose fiction. Many of his books are based on long interviews with real subjects. "The Photographer" told the story of a French medical mission into war-torn Afghanistan. "Alan's War," the memoir of a California GI's service in World War II, was an epic that followed an earnest, food-obsessed and libido-driven troop of young men halfway around the globe.

"How the World Was: A California Childhood" serves as a kind of prequel to "Alan's War." Like that earlier and critically acclaimed work, Guibert's new book is the product of the French artist's friendship with the late Alan Ingram Cope.

Before he was drafted into the Army in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Cope was a boy growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. "How the World Was" tells the story of Cope's youth in the less crowded, more hopeful Southern California. It was a land of wool swimming suits, where a road might take you past rows of oil derricks or hillsides filled with the scent of orange blossoms.

"The air was clear and wonderful," Cope begins, as he remembers the Southern California of the 1930s. "Nature, absolutely magnificent."

Cope, who died in 1999, was an ordinary man with a special gift for storytelling. In "Alan's War" his tales contained little of the gallantry and bloodshed one might expect in a wartime memoir. Instead, drawing on a prodigious memory, Cope spun memorable tales from mundane training incidents and absurd and wondrous encounters in battle-scarred European towns.

"How the World Was" hews to the same Proustian storytelling rhythms. Above all, it celebrates the wondrous and odd details of everyday life in working-class California during the Great Depression. The emphasis here is not on conflict nor melodrama — there is need and austerity, but not a single bread line. What interests Guibert in Cope's storytelling (as he wrote in the prologue to "Alan's War") is "the accents of truth" Cope's tales contain.

Guibert spent five years talking to Cope. He was a perceptive listener, and in his hands even Cope's memories about the invention of Kleenex can become reflections on a time of change: "I'd always used cloth handkerchiefs" before, Cope says. Children are captivated by the novelty of "monoplanes, biplanes, and even triplanes" circling over a San Gabriel Valley airfield.

Guibert's drawings give Cope's California stories a dreamlike texture. His illustrations are almost entirely in black and white and are crafted with a delicate, lyrical touch that recalls the "clear line" style employed by Belgian artist Hergé in the "Tintin" series.

But first "How the World Was" opens with a splash of color: a 20-page prologue that illustrates the Southern California of today. Alongside images of modern concrete freeway overpasses and glass-tower skylines, Cope speaks of the Southern California that was. "I have wondrous memories of my country before the war," Cope says.

Indeed, most of the book reads like a visual journey into one boy's memory space. In one especially lyrical section of 15 panels over four pages, Guibert illustrates Cope's mother dressing him with great tenderness when he was a toddler. As his mother fits a sailor suit on the boy, Cope recounts his most deep-seated memories of her.

"She had a curling iron she'd heat up on a glass stove," Cope says. "She often made her own clothes… A lot of the clothes were very — how should I put it — very loose."

Later, Cope joins boys and girls as they run across an otherwise blank panel. "We'd head for a nearby vacant lot," Cope says. "California cities were filled with vacant lots in those days."

As in a novel, it's Cope's understanding of character that truly brings his tale to life. Of his grandfather, Cope says, "he liked simplicity." Guibert illustrates the old man in his favorite activity: working with a lathe. Cope speaks of an aunt who "married a man who was nice but fairly worthless. He gambled and drank." Guibert shows the aunt guiding him home. "One thing led to another, and she, too, started to drink." "Because it was Prohibition, the alcohol was bad, and she lost her mind…"

There are stories of class discrimination too, and of family enmities with obscure origins, and family histories that inevitably begin outside California, as with the grandfather who served in the Civil War.

But it's the California landscape, and the Cope family's communion with it, that steals the show.

"Sometimes we'd take the highway to Santa Monica," Cope recounts in panels that illustrate the boy in a coupe with spoked wheels, his father driving through unpopulated and open land, his mother sitting in the front seat in a cloche hat. "Ten miles before we got to the coast, all of a sudden we could smell the ocean."

In the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Cope would stop with his family and pick wild gooseberries. Guibert draws a boy in overalls, marching up a trail into scrubland, and discovering one of those seemingly miraculous pools of water that can still be found in the mountains today.

"How the World Was" ends with a story of profound loss. But tragedy isn't its focal point. "There's a strange kind of beauty in the way that fate can change a person's life," Cope says, reflecting on that loss, and on the many comings and goings of the Cope family in California.

"How the World Was" serves to complete what is, in effect, a two-volume memoir. A quote from the sculptor Auguste Rodin that Cope reads to Guibert serves as a kind of epilogue to their joint project. "For the artist … everything is beautiful because he walks always in the light of spiritual truth."

Those same words can be said of Cope himself. His art was to be found in a generous memory and in the many vivid tales he shared with a man who loves to draw.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

Hector tweets about topics literary as @TobarWriter

How the World Was
A California Childhood

Emmanuel Guibert, translated by Kathryn M. Pulver
First Second: 160 pp., $19.99 paper