Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
* I don't really have a dog in the Twilight race other than a wife who enjoys it and my own tentative plans to watch New Moon again while under the influence, but I want to take a moment to praise the coverage of the franchise, and of similar projects like Kevin Williamson's The Vampire Diaries tv show, by Dread Central. They've completely eschewed the kneejerk macho borderline-gaybaiting tone taken by the other major horror and geek news sites, and their coverage is all the better for it. (Particularly of TVD, which turns out to be a pretty ripping vampire yarn. Magic rings!)
* Dave Simpson's profile of the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser for the Guardian is pretty extraordinary in that it simultaneously renews your faith in artists and crushes your hope for artistry. You don't even need to be a big Cocteau Twins fan to get a lot out of the story of how Fraser's break-up with her romantic and creative partner Robin Guthrie essentially drove her into artistic seclusion. It's powerful stuff, and next time you hear "Teardrop" or "Song to the Siren" or "Pearly Dewdrops' Drops" you'll be haunted. (Via Matthew Perpetua.)
* I know sweet fanny adams about the economics of hardcover and softcover collection release patterns from either a publisher or retailer perspective, but I nevertheless sympathize with this statement from Chris Butcher strictly as a person who buys superhero comics pretty much only in trade paperback and wants them to come out more quickly so I can purchase them in a timely fashion:
While I appreciate the short-term $$$ that comes from charging an extra $10 for a hardcover on a book, I think they're really hurting long-term sales. I know that the whole superhero section of the industry seems to be predicated on short-term thinking, but I think that if it was about giving consumers choice simultaneous releases would be the way to go. This is a bit of a bigger problem than I have time to give it right now, but DC and Marvel mandating hardcover exclusives for 4-6 months means that their biggest, newest, 'hottest' storylines remain considerably more inaccessible until well after the heat has entirely dissipated on the series. The Justice Society relaunch is the hardest-hit series I can think of, but Green Lantern and Spider-Man and Runaways from Marvel are also suffering, from my POV, for having long gaps between HC and SC collections.
* Curt Purcell articulates a pretty convincing recipe for compelling event-comic tie-ins. The idea, which he's expressed before, is that an event comics and its tie-ins are like a bank of tv monitors, and when the main action goes off in one direction, the tie-ins are what continues to play on the monitor the main action just left. The only flaw I see in this is that fans are conditioned to want "what matters," i.e. what moves the plot forward. Filling in gaps isn't their cup o' meat. I suppose the key is to make the filling-in crucial to the sub-story going on in that particular tie-in series.
what you're seeing in this picture is a horrifying sea monster with a sixth sense for hearing the physical manifestation of your terror, and smell/taste receptors which are attuned to the scent of your blood in the water.
Image United #1
Robert Kirkman, writer
Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, artists
Image, November 2009
Wowsers. So, uh, this is a jam comic by six of the seven Image founders, though Jim Lee makes a cameo by providing an alternate cover, which made me smile. It's about some villains running amok and fighting various heroes for no apparent reason--that's not my characterization of the plot, that's the heroes'--which is a pretty fantastic encapsulation of the work of the Image founders to begin with, and certainly their work here. It's all a moment-to-moment festival of sensation, gritted teeth and punching and blasting and charging the camera, without any kind of prologue or follow-through to place each physical action in any kind of spatial or temporal or emotional context, not even so much as a recap page to catch nostalgic readers up on characters they probably haven't read since Nirvana was a going concern.
Entrusting layouts to Rob Liefeld (of the six they could have picked from, Liefeld!) could be said to be a mistake, in that characters like the narrator-hero Fortress or the uber-antagonist Omega Spawn burst onto the pages out of nowhere, like they teleported, even though they're supposed to have been down the block or in the same room, but in light of the above it ends up fitting rather perfectly. At one point the big giant strong hero Badrock [sic] angrily threatens the big giant strong villain Overt-Kill [sic] over an attack we never see on a person who's not even on panel at the time; later, the long-running Erik Larsen character Savage Dragon, whose appearance in a book filled to the brim with Silvestri and Liefeld creations feels like a walk-on by Glenn Ganges by comparison, remarks "I had no clue the girl took such a hit," and I had to wonder if this wasn't Kirkman having some deliberate fun. (I doubt having the arrow-based character Shaft repeat a balloon's worth of dialogue verbatim two pages apart was deliberate, but wouldn't it be aweome if it were?)
The most interesting thing about the project is that the artists don't trade off sections, they draw their own characters whenever they appear, so that you can watch a Jim Valentino hero punch a Todd McFarlane villain, say. The problem with that, though, is that they're simply not a terribly distinct collection of individual visual stylists. I mean, Larsen's an exception of course, and Valentino doesn't look like the rest of the gang but he doesn't look like much of anything really, and McFarlane might stand out a little in terms of how he choreographs his characters' physicality but there's not much of that in this issue, so what you're left with between Liefeld, Silvestri, Portacio, and McFarlane is a lot of squinty-eyed dudes and dudettes comprised of lots of tiny little lines, standing against generic secret base/rooftop/rubble backgrounds. There's a manic energy to it, that's undeniable, but it's like an album-length guitar solo. It's all extremely harmless and good-natured--it's not going to upset you or offend you or leave a bad taste in your mouth, which is saying something--but it's like being asked for your thoughts on a really rad comic drawn during study hall by the five coolest metalheads in the 9th grade, which not coincidentally is the last time I read comics by most of these guys. It's all printed on paper stock so shiny it looks like a decade's worth of gold-embossed chromium glow-in-the-dark holofoil covers were ground up and mixed into the pulp, like KISS's blood or Mark Gruenwald's ashes. I think everyone involved, from Kirkman to the Founders to the bulk of the book's audience, got exactly what they wanted out of it.
* What's the most depressing thing about my most likely not being able to make this weekend's Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival? Mat Fucking Brinkman's gonna be there, that's what. And thus the Brinkman Bowie is lost to the ages.
* As the years pass it's difficult to remember just how noxious Britney Spears first seemed to music fans like me. Well, that's not quite true--from the very first time I heard and saw the video for "Baby One More Time" I knew there was no arguing with its monstrous greatness. But as the Jesus Christ to the Spice Girls' John the Baptist she represented the triumph of pop over all the music I really cared about, and it stunk. But today I can read something like Rich Juzwiak's review of all her singles and B-sides and think "hey, that's a pretty respectable body of work." I mean, plenty of junk, but plenty of songs I enjoy hearing too. I never thought I'd comfortably say that but a lot has changed since 1998.
* GOD how I loved MUSCLE figures. Thank you, Topless Robot, for reminding me.
* If you spend much time on the industry side of comics, you can probably understand the applicability of the Tiger Woods story--the real story, which is that Tiger's real story was apparently known to but not covered by the sports journalism world for years. Which in some ways is as it should be, because I don't think we need to go around panty-sniffing. But on the other hand, when a public figure who is also a major industry presents himself as one thing and the people whose job it is to cover that person know him to be something different...well, you wonder who else knows what else and isn't telling. (Via Atrios.)
Not a lot of Gossip Girl thoughts this week, other than these:
* The Thanksgiving dinner was the ultimate Gossip Girl scene in that all the dialogue consisted solely of lies, accusations, and revelations. Plus, I loved watching all the players slowly coalesce. It was like an event comic.
* Vanessa's mom is awesomely horrible. Bitching Vanessa out for using the woord "doorman," labeling Thanksgiving a front for the food industry...just magnificent. She's like what the South Park morons think all liberals are like.
* Chuck Bass, Voice of Morality. How wonderful is his transformation into the Cravated Crusader? I really want to watch him take down a crime boss.
* Rufus needs to learn that when using video chat, the other person can see you wincing.
* Good for Serena's mom for telling her she's not welcome there anymore. But I really feel for Serena--being a slut is how she expresses herself! Parents just don't understand.
* Blair suddenly encouraging Serena to go with Trip? Whaaat? Boo to that. And Serena fails at being a heterosexual woman by choosing Trip over Nate. But don't worry Nate, Chuck's there to comfort you...the only way he knows how.
Split Lip Vol. 1
Sam Costello, writer
Josh Bivens, Diego Candia, Gary Crutchley, Nelson Evergreen, Ayhan Hayrula, Brian A. Laframboise, Iain Laurie, Sami Makkonen, Brian McGleenon, Felipe Sobreiro, Kyle Strahm, artists
Tent City, 2009
$15 Read it and buy it at SplitLipComic.com
The back cover of this collection of astute horror writer and critic Sam Costello's anthology webcomic reads in part, "Split Lip sheds traditional horror archetypes in favor of creating dark moods, original characters, and frightening experiences." Of the three claims I think the first is the best supported. Somber and stark in almost every particular, from plotting to dialogue to his army of collaborators' art, Costello's comics quietly but relentlessly reinforce the simple fact that horror is about death. There's a funereal sadness even in the less effective pieces here, a sense that the horror Costello's interested in stems not so much from fright as from pessimism. After all, we're all headed for our own down endings. So to me this offsets the lack of bona fide "frightening experiences"; contra the back cover blurb, I don't even think that's what these comics were even going for.
That said, the individual stories vary wildly not so much in quality--I never though "man, this is junk"--as in, like I implied above, effectiveness. Costello's admirable reliance on the visuals to tell the key parts of his stories, in particular their climaxes or climactic twists, allows the work to rise and fall on how clearly his artists can tell the story, and on a couple of occasions the answer is "not very." I was left flummoxed by what, exactly, happened at the end of the King-esque cornfield morality play "Straw Men" and the grim fairy tale "Fitcher's Bird," while crucial spatial shifts in "Not Sleeping Well," "The Consequences of a Little Alone Time," and "School Supplies" were inadequately contextualized. Moreover, stiff figurework on "Straw," "Consequences," and "The Executioner Is a Lonely Men" tends toward pulp-ifying fairly restrained writing and, to return to the blurb, mitigating against the originality of the characters. (Given my predilections, I'm tempted to suggest Costello try tapping artists with an out-and-out alternative flavor to them, but I don't wanna armchair-quarterback this thing.) And on the rare occasion where Costello opts to do the heavy lifting himself, the Ciudad Juarez meets J-horror story "Mujer," overnarration adds a layer of remove and does in a sense of the story as a living breathing thing.
But elsewhere the writing's sharp as a knife. Whatever the shortcomings of its visually rushed ending, "Fitcher's Bird" is kind of uncanny in how well it captures the dark dream logic of classic fairy tales and children's stories, with their transformations, dismemberments, and ritualistic tasks that must be performed. And the art can shine as well as obscure: Kyle Strahm's striking white-on-black work in the Western-horror fable "Headin' South" radiates from the page with the power of agitprop and sets up a nifty negative-image punchline panel to boot. The best of the stories here, "The Tree of Remembrance," combines strengths on both fronts. For Costello's part, it's his least "scary," most straightforwardly melancholy piece, centered on a striking visual metaphor for the way memories of those we've lost can both haunt and heal. Aptly named artist Nelson Evergreen makes the best impression of any of the book's visual contributors by making the most of Costello's (according to the book's supplemental material) uncharacteristically loose script in terms of layout and paneling--the story appears to drift to the ground just like leaves off the titular tree. But Evergreen really kills it with a pair of heartrendingly lovely images of the story's elderly protagonist in the full bloom of her youth--ha, as I write this I'm listening to the lilting end section to My Bloody Valentine's "What You Want," and it's pretty much the visual equivalent of that. And the pair unite for a starkly gruesome final panel that adds a welcome sour note to the sad sweetness of the proceedings up until that point. It takes a lot for a collaboration of this sort to work so effectively, so when it does it's a treat, and it's worth tuning in again to see how often Costello and his collaborators can recapture that moment.
* Now this is a treat, film lovers: The great critic Matt Zoller Seitz elucidates the greatness of the great critics David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, declaring them The Critics of the '00s on IFC.com. My feelings about Seitz are no secrets, and like many film students I'll never forget the way Bordwell & Thompson gave me the vocabulary I needed to articulate things I'd always known but could never say about cinema. I may have forgotten many of those words since then, like I've lost my French, but I won't forget that I knew them.
Digression: In writing about film for this blog I've noticed that I don't talk about form the way I do with comics. Like I said, I've lost a lot of that vocabulary, which in turn limits my ability to think that way, and that's really sad. When I first started regularly reviewing comics--probably for The Comics Journal--it took a shot by Milo George at the state of comics criticism to make me realize that I was doing the usual formula: Three or four paragraphs about the writing, one paragraph about the art, a "to be sure" paragraph, and a conclusion. Figuring out that comics are a visual medium ain't rocket science, so to confer upon myself a rocket-science degree if you will, I tried to fix this the easiest way I could: I began forcing myself to start reviews by talking about the visual aspects of the comics. Eventually it got to the point where I was comfortable and conversant in that area, so now I feel like I don't have to make myself do that anymore. I'll start wherever I feel it makes the most sense to start. When I wrote my review of A Serious Man the other day...well, I'm pretty happy with it, but it occurred to me maybe it's time to start writing about form first. Of course this is harder with movies you're seeing in the theater, since you don't have them in front of you to flip through, and until I'm a paid film critic there's no way I'm taking notes at a movie theater, man.
* That Kentucky library that fired a couple of employees for improvised censorship of Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill's Black Dossieris moving relevant graphic novels to the adult section. Which is where a lot of them probably belong, so that's fine. It just really grinds my gears that a couple of bluenoses took it upon themselves to remove books from a library that they worked for. Barbarians at the gates.
* Someone beat World of Warcraft. Seriously, someone did every single thing there is to do in the game right now. Unlike my esteemed colleague Rob Bricken at Topless Robot, who brought me word of this, I actually am impressed by that. That's a fucking achievement. But the comment thread is less about what the guy did and more about whether or not we should make fun of him, or anyone. As an example of nerd etiquette in the field, it's fascinating.
We tend to think of the breakdown of civilization as a rather stark affair. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and before long everything's a burnt-out husk and people in rags and/or leather underpants are scavenging the wasteland for canned peaches and guzzoline. In keeping with Fort Thunder's general aesthetic project of information overload, Multiforce imagines the contrary: a replete Ragnarok, a jam-packed apocalypse.
A loosely linked narrative about the warring citizens of a massive mountain redoubt called Citadel City and the even stranger places above and below it, Multiforce's serialized strips (they originally appeared in Providence's visual-noise bible Paper Rodeo) concern themselves primarily with bigness. A giant meets an even bigger giant, who meets an even bigger dragon; little dudes ride around inside the head of a huge dude; skeletal characters dwell in structures and even cities that are shaped like their own skulls, suggesting a preexisting being of almost unimaginable proportions. Half of the book's narrative juice comes simply from stringing the book's two protagonists (and the reader) along until the next massive step-up in scale can be revealed. It's like the comics equivalent of a zoom-out, only suggested through sequential juxtaposition rather than an actual ratcheting back of the viewing plane (that actual technique is seldom if ever used here, to the best of my recollection).
The creatures, which are as gorgeous and inventive and inner-eight-year-old awesome as you'd expect from the product of a man who nowadays makes a living by creating prints of demons and shit, are a constant game of one-upsmanship as well. Brinkman lays this out in an introductory strip, in which we watch a monstrous character who's super-proud of his awesomely dangerous bionic arm--"I HAVE THE MOST ULTRA ARM IN THE UNIVERSE"--promptly get his clock cleaned by the book's main, inscrutable antagonist, Battlemax Ace. He's a battle beast with an axe for one hand and a mace for the other. Yeah, it's that kinda book. And it's Battlemax Ace's unstoppable rampage that brings Citadel City crashing down and provides one of the book's few genuine narrative and logistical throughlines as he smashes his way through opponent after opponent and level after level. His awesomeness is too powerful to contain.
In many ways these beasties and their navigation of craggy subterranean spaces recalls Brinkman's landmark collection Teratoid Heights, but that book's wordless fervor gives way to Brinkman's loosey-goosey verbal hijinx--his characters bumble around and talk smack like a crudely lettered cross between the Muppets and the stars of a stoner comedy. So the moments of sheer visual poetry stand out in even starker relief--our heroes flying in a sinuous, continuous curve through a Marc Bell riot of a carnival; a dropped head bouncing and rolling down a massive page-tall mountainside; the aforementioned giant skull. But the main takeaway is a set of civilizations so obliviously concerned with their own business and jaded about their potential annihilation that they're all pretty much fiddling as Citadel City and its environs burn (and explode and implode and collapse and cave in and get smashed by Battlemax Ace and so on). Our heroes even leaven their soaring last-page getaway with a snort of "yea right." One, two, three, what are they fightin' for? Don't ask 'em, they don't give a damn.
The first few minutes of The Road, director John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's relentlessly bleak post-apocalyptic novel, tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the rest of the movie. A handful of stand-alone shots metonymize everything the world is about to lose: pretty pink flowers, a soulful-eyed horse. (Viggo Mortensen really has a way with horses on camera.) It's manipulative and obvious, I suppose, but it works. Then the mysterious disaster occurs, and before we cut to the opening titles we hear the most memorable lines from the book as Mortensen's nameless protagonist quickly fills his tub with water while his nameless wife looks on: "Why are you taking a bath?" "I'm not." Man was I ever stunned and devastated by that line when I first read it; launching the movie with it is super-smart. Finally we get to the main business of a man and his son trudging through the ruined world, and as Mortensen's narration kicks in, it's almost difficult to believe how careworn and ground down he sounds. Every line is delivered like he's been on the receiving end of days' worth of beatings attempting to extract information he's told us a thousand times he doesn't have. We see his craggy, scraggly face, his mouth set with a skull's teeth, and it's like if Aragorn were wandering around without hope in a world where Sauron got the Ring back. But then you notice the utterly conventional score by Bad Seeds Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and it's like ugh, Oscar bait, thanks for playing, goodnight.
Aside from the overscoring and one sequence of bogus suspense involving a then-faceless antagonist that's shot like something out of a Lifetime movie, there's nothing bad about The Road. But aside from Mortensen, and a series of holy-shit casting decisions that end up giving us a World Tour of Wonderful Actors from the Great HBO Dramas of the '00s, there's nothing about it that feels essential, either. The Tracker-esque ruin and squalor is shifted into that slightly bluish prestige-movie color palette. Charlize Theron's role is nowhere near as beefed up as rumor had it but nor does it do much but establish that there's a gorgeous blonde movie star who can also act in the movie (I didn't buy her fate at all, particularly compared to Mortensen's reaction to it at the moment and remembrances of it in the future). The moments of horror are kind of expected and bland, except for a couple toward the end that are combined with pathos. And throughout, that score, telling us exactly how to feel at any given moment. I kept imagining the movie without music, like the Coen Brothers' McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men--everything would have improved like (snap) that.
But this film lacked that film's confidence, both in itself and in its audience. Which I sort of understand. I mean, the subject matter here is even more brutal, which the film does a good job of establishing through intermittent scenes of the Man's casualness about exposing the Boy to dead bodies. Life has really broken down, and I appreciate the need to give us some outs to dealing with that now and then. In fact I actually applaud the film's elision of two of the book's most difficult scenes, involving a dog and a baby; I spent the movie dreading them, simply unsure if I'd be able to take them, and I fortunately didn't have to. (This also set up a pretty terrific final couple of shots.) Still, on the level of the look and sound of the thing, I was just getting too much reassurance, reassurance that I was watching a motion picture that would address, in ultimately satisfactory fashion, the big questions. The movie seemed to see its job as one of softening the blow. Even though I'm getting to the point (as I realized throughout the screening) where I sort of feel like something's gotta give with my whole constant rubbing-my-face-in-life's-ceaseless-awfulness thing, I don't think that satisfaction was what I was looking for.
1) Another "War"! Civil War, Silent War, World War Hulk, War of Kings, The Sinestro Corps War, the "War of Light" meta-story in Green Lantern and Blackest Night, the Invincible War and Viltrumite War in Invincible, and there's surely more I'm missing.
2) I like J.G. Jones, but, um...
3) This event seems to be patterned after the way Blackest Night, a line-wide event, spun out of Green Lantern's Sinestro Corps War, a franchise-based event. The difference, though, is that Sinestro Corps War was hugely popular, whereas I seem to be one of very few people who are following and enjoying the whole New Krypton/World Without a Superman mega-story.
Carnival of souls--Special "This Was Supposed To Go Up Yesterday, WTF" Edition
* So I made it to the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival after all! I wrote a lengthy con report for Robot 6. It was a pretty terrific show, and being able to swoop in and out with a round-trip travel time that isn't a whole lot longer than going to visit my mom when it's trafficky out made it even better. Read the report, and then also read Heidi MacDonald and Rickey Purdin's reports, and check out Heidi's photo parade. Meanwhile, con organizer challenges Heidi's characterization of the show as not being the progeny of Jack Kirby. Interestingly, he says the organizers reached out to "mainstream" artists in vain. Jesus, can you imagine if they persuaded John Romita Jr. to show up? He'd be greeted like a god-king.
* I put together an alt-horror update for Robot 6 that tracks recent developments in the worlds of Renee French, Hans Rickheit, Tom Neely, Benjamin Marra, Al Columbia, and Josh Simmons.
* Tucker Stone reviews the decade in comics so we don't have to. Seriously, his capsule characterization of the fates and fortunes of each of North American comics' many branches is masterful. Great ending, too. A must-read, dare I say it.
* Matt Maxwell says goodbye to World of Warcraft in part one of what augurs to be a genuinely epic series of posts (if his con reports are any indication). Matt has been playing WoW since it was in alpha, and his history lesson is delightful for an outsider like me.
* Real Life Horror: Remember those three prisoners who coordinated their suicides at Guantanamo Bay? Looks like we straight-upfuckingmurdered them. Ever feel like that kid at the end of Stephen King's "The Jaunt"?
* Grant Morrison Batman news galore today: He's doing a miniseries called The Return of Bruce Wayne that chronicles the character's battle through the timestream to return to the present day. He'll be a caveman and a pirate and a cowboy and a Victorian-era guy and a noir private dick, apparently. No complaints. Each issue will be drawn by a different artist--let's just hope Philip Tan's off the table. Here's a USA Today interview with Morrison featuring all of the usual Morrison-interview antics.
* Also, Andy Clarke has been announced as the next Batman & Robin artist after Cameron Stewart. The sample art looks lovely, certainly a better fit than you know who as far as dudes drafted to work on the book with no history of collaboration with Morrison go. There are actually quite a few very impressive artists at DC right now, but they tend to be squirreled away in unlikely places: Clarke had been toiling on the little-read series R.E.B.E.L.S., while today I was once again knocked out by the art of Cafu...who's doing the Captain Atom back-up stories in the apparently not very popular Superman-less Action Comics (which like the whole Superman line is actually quite enjoyable!).
* More BCGF con reports, from Frank Santoro and Jessica Campbell. This thing was a hit. And the lack of junk stood out even among the likes of SPX and MoCCA.
B.P.R.D.: War on Frogs #4
John Arcudi, writer
Peter Snejbjerg, artist
Dark Horse, December 2009
I never thought I'd see the day where I'd be happy that Dave Stewart didn't color a Hellboyverse book. But on this New Comics Wednesday, the best colorist in the front of Previews finds himself stranded in Brown Town in the pages of Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba's Vertigo series debut Daytripper. And he's left colorist Bjarne Hansen to absolutely kill it in conjunction with artist Peter Snejbjerg in this concluding issue of the gap-filling series of glorified BPRD one-shots. Generally he hews close to Stewart's long-established palette of full blues, reds, and greens, designed to contrast against the usual washes of black (and if I'm not mistaken derived from Matt Hollingsworth's work in the initial Hellboy miniseries). But in the issue's spectacular climax, he adds flourescents that wouldn't look out of place in Tron; it's something we've never seen before in Mignola World, and the effect is a stunning way to suggest the Otherness of what we're looking at. Further, Snejbjerg's art, already a winning riff on Guy Davis's model that smoothes out some of the rough edges in favor of a wispy vulnerability, is put through a focus-blurring filter, as if poor Johann Kraus's view of the next world literally can't be visually comprehended. It's a lovely, clever, and chilling way to drive home the story by John Arcudi, which is yet another tale of one of our ostensible heroes realizing he's in way, way over his head but continuing to struggle simply because the alternative is unbearable to contemplate. The quality control for this ever-expanding franchise during the course of this decade is one of contemporary genre comics' minor miracles, and this issue is a happy example, and by happy I of course mean melancholy and pessimistic as Hell.
I have a friend from college who every time I talk to him we'll just end up talking about comics and music and movies, and then I'll hang up and my wife will be like "Did you tell him about our new house?" or "I saw on his girlfriend's LiveJournal they got a new dog?" and I'll just have to shrug my shoulders, because there was no way we could fit topics like that into our discussion of Dragon Head or John Romita Jr. or whatever. This massive autobiography is like that: It's about the joys of pure unabashed obsessive nerdery, the almost physical pleasure of talking and thinking and writing about and working on nothing but the art you enjoy. That makes it an easy book to like. So does Tatsumi's appealingly simple and direct art, which like a McCloud thesis in action presents Tatsumi and a galaxy of manga-pioneering stars as lovable little caricatures you never get sick of watching and rooting for. And so does the history lesson about the Japanese comics industry that it inevitably teaches. Comics as a mass medium, comics as a legitimate art form, book-format comics, comics in a variety of genres for a variety of age groups and interests--nearly everything the American comics industry is only now achieving, and in some cases may actually never achieve, Japanese comics had already done decades ago. It's like if we'd fought World War II against Hicksville.
The thing is, much of what makes it such an easy book to like also makes it a hard book to love. Tatsumi's relentless focus on manga, its omnipresence as the focalizing device for the story, left me scratching my head about whether other aspects of his life really did intrude upon his writing and drawing as perfunctorily as he shows them doing here. I mean, just as an example, was this dude really that uninterested in getting laid throughout his teens and early 20s? There are of course a couple of nods in that direction but they just make the relative absence all the more conspicuous. Early in the book his family plays a larger role, which makes sense because he lives with them. But his brother (and frequent coworker and collaborator)'s illness, his parents' loveless marriage, his father's ne'er-do-welling--did they just go away?
What's more, the book is more about the business of manga, and making a living in it, than it is about the art itself. For every page-long disquisition about the nature of the mature "gekiga" style of comics storytelling Tatsumi helped pioneer, there are dozens about catching a train to drop a manuscript off so that he can collect a paycheck from a publisher before they declare bankruptcy or whatever. That sort of thing is a lot of fun, don't get me wrong--when I wrote my oral history of Marvel Comics I could have sat in Joe Simon's apartment and listened to him ramble about him and Jack Kirby fighting with Martin Goodman for hours--but it's not going to have the impact that really digging into what made young Tatsumi tick as an artist could have had.
Indeed, the book just picks up with li'l Tatsumi already a hardcore manga fan. We never learn what hooked him to begin with, and that's an absence that's reflected, in its way, right up until the end: The story cuts off abruptly as Tatsumi, literally swept into a violent protest against the government by a surging crowd, connects the anger of the protesters to the ingredient he'd felt had gone missing from his own work. I assume this was the last moment Tatsumi doubted his career path? Or perhaps it was the last moment he felt blocked as a writer or artist? It's not clear why after 800-odd pages, this is where it all ends. Like the action kicking off in medias res in terms of Tatsumi's love of manga, it's an odd lacuna.
One of the insights we really do get into Tatsumi's gekiga is that it's intended as a type of minimalism, a sort of off-kilter spareness traceable to cinema and hardboiled American detective fiction. (Its lack of text made it an easy target for bluenoses, who said that any comics page that was two-thirds wordless or more was automatically immoral.) And the book's definitely economical in the sense that it's a no-nonsense flow of images and text smoothly propelling us from one thing to the next as Tatsumi's career progresses. But the constant narration rarely gives story or reader a moment's pause. Couple it with the "on this day in history"-type panels featuring highlights from Japan's cultural and political evolution during this time, and it's easy to feel like you're skimming a life rather than drifting through one. (Which reminds me, if this is what passes for A Drifting Life for Tatsumi, whose sole, laser-like focus throughout is drawing manga for a living and who busts his ass day after day and year after year to make it happen, I'd hate to think what he'd make of me!)
I think A Drifting Life is a fine book. (I definitely like it a lot more than the kind of ham-handed violent O. Henry short stories I've read by him.) Reading it is a lot like plowing through a long run of a serialized comic in one go: It's a delicious, I wanna say tactile experience, and the subject matter guarantees it's time well spent if you love comics enough to read a blog like this one. You'll recognize a lot of yourself in it. But I suspect that that recognition comes at the expense of revelation.
City-Hunter Magazine #1
Fantasy Empire Magazine Co., December 2009
$3, I believe Sold out at PictureBox
I have no way of contextualizing this thing. It's not Powr Mastrs, it's not even a smaller and stranger but still-quite-obviously-a-minicomic minicomic like Core of Caligula. It's billed as a "zine," and there's a comics sequence, yeah, but it's mostly illustrations and sketches and doodles and a couple of goofy prose pages and a blown-up xerox of a piece of an issue of USA Today. As such? I still really enjoyed it. C.F. gains more from inscrutability than just about any other working cartoonist; at its best his stuff already has an air of mystery to it, so when stripped even from the relatively loose standards of his "proper" comics, the way he writes out phrases like "MANSION SOFT DRINK" scribbles them out, writes them over again, and follows them up with a stand-alone image of a person walking past a fancy-looking window toward a soda machine, say, takes on a whole new weight. Who the hell is "LUCIO" and why is his name taking up half a page? What does any of it have to do with those rather sexy bondage pin-ups--one of them in full color? Beats me, and that's quite fine.
The things I could make sense of tickled me, at any rate. The titular strip, set up with a prose introduction by "editor" "Mike Rennet" (does he exist? does it matter?) about the need he felt to discover the big city when he moved to it, follows around a little dude in a memorably C.F.-ian jumpsuit as he walks around the city and just stand around in various places. It's kind of Pythonesque in its vibe, though I'm finding it difficult to convey. All I know is that I laughed. Same with the second text piece, an editorial from Rennet about how if you live in the city you have to live it up:
Now if you're reading this thinking I'm standing still in my own poison, mortified by my past and terrified of my future, you've got another thing coming. And that thing is my scared, angry fist, smashing through your apartment wall. Your messy, overpriced, uncool, apartment... wall. You're going to shrivel up; because you don't know anything about how to work this city, man.
It ends with an exhortation to check out the author's Facebook page. I got my $3 worth out of this and that's all the context I need.
* I don't care how much Joe Lieberman makes America his Snooki in the Jersey Shore reenactment that is his horrid, horrid life--any day with new webcomics by Kevin Huizenga, Hans Rickheit, and Anders Nilsen is a pretty good day.
* Wow, the writer's bible for Batman: The Animated Series. I think virtually every week I worked at Wizard, when we'd go out to lunch at the Palisades Mall, I'd go into Best Buy and just stand there and covet the DVD box sets for that show. At one point I think I bought them but returned them the next day because I realized I wouldn't get a lot of re-watching out of them. But for a long time, that was my favorite ongoing interaction with my favorite superhero.
Learn how The X-Men’s Wolverine has evolved over the course of the past four decades and what each version of him says about both the people working with the character and the way audiences respond to variations of the same masculine fantasy. More so than most other superheroes, Wolverine has a particular appeal to insecure young men as demonstrated in overcompensation involved with the character, to subtle aspect such as how large people draw his claws…
If that doesn't sound like a fine way to spend your Thursday evening then motherfucker I don't know what to tell you. Buy tickets here.
* Is it just me or are a lot of altcomix heavy hitters doing webcomics lately? After yesterday's powerhouse Huizenga/Rickheit/Nilsen trifecta, today you've got new comics at Vice from Sammy Harkham, Dash Shaw, and Johnny Ryan, plus my favorite installment so far in Nick Bertozzi's long-running series of bizarre little captioned illustrations.
* Five years and 2,000 pages of MOME! Congratulations to Eric Reynolds, Gary Groth, and the many contributors--that's a real accomplishment, and MOME has provided me with a lot of enjoyment and food for thought over those years.
* Brandon at Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader? is right, and actually righter than he admits to being, in the aforelinked piece about how constant cliffhanger endings really fuck up the rhythm of 22-page serialized comics. They look lovely and read well but how I wish Sweet Tooth and Daytripper were graphic novels.
* Look at the bait-and-switch shit Marvel used to pull by hinting Wolverine would be in a comic in the '90s. (Scroll down to the last cover.) Outrageous! Thank you, Cool Kids Table, the people need to KNOW.
* Meanwhile I screwed up my earlier link to the CKT's Nova cover gallery so here it is again. And here's the first installment in what augurs to be a lovely series of posts in which the CKT crew recalls comics that meant a lot to them for each year of the decade.
Feeble Minded Funnies/My Best Pet
Lane Milburn/Noel Friebert, writers/artists
Closed Caption Comics, December 2009
$7 Buy it from CCC
Hey, they can't all be winners. The overall Closed Caption Comics aesthetic, to the extent that one can be pinpointed, has long appealed to me: handmade, rough-hewn, silkscreened, markmaking shit, the ballyhooed stylistic dead-end of Fort Thunder in action, you know the drill. In particular I've become a big fan of Lane Milburn's mix of muscularly drawn monsters and uncomfortable humor, gags that yuk it up until it's too late and you realize how black things have gotten. That takes a real precise mind and hand to pull off. That's not what you get in Feeble Minded Funnies, Milburn's half of this flipbook minicomic, however. Instead he apes the broad humor and colloquial rhythms of the undergrounds: parodic violence, torrents of obscenities, a hapless protagonist called Pukeball making his way through a disapproving world while narration hammers his satirical plight home, all that sort of thing. It actually got to the point (right around the swipe at an outdated grim'n'gritty superhero stereotype) where I wondered if this isn't actually a parody of underground comix. You'd have to be a lot meaner to make that sort of thing work, though. Actually, has anyone ever done a really nasty parody of the undergrounds? I could use one. Anyway. Milburn draws the bejesus out of it all--someday I want to sit and just watch how he puts the bodies of one of his goons together on the page--but the stories and jokes his awesome drawings inhabit here fall flat.
On the flipside you have Noel Freibert's My Best Pet, which is the story of a sociopathic child who tortures his pets to death told in a sort of camp faux-EC mode. Longtime readers of this blog can no doubt imagine my reaction. I really hate being so predictable about animal-cruelty gags--apparently this even came up in the humor-comics panel at SPX when I wasn't even there--but for real: another cat in the fucking microwave? What is it that people get out of drawing cats being blown up in microwaves? Are there people who enjoy...okay, that's a loaded term. Are there people who get something out of comics in which cats are blown up in microwaves? These are not rhetorical questions at all, by the way. I'm a person with a very high tolerance, a need even, for nihilistic horror, but this I don't get. Like I'm fond of saying when I come across this sort of material, I'm okay with it when I feel as though the artist is attempting to elucidate something about cruelty. But the whole point of this comic, and it's actually quite entertaining in this regard, is that it's just going through the motions. Friebert depicts the asshole kid's parents' discussions about his plight without even bothering to put them on panel--it's just panel after panel of exposition, like they can barely be arsed to show up and play their role in the strip. That's very funny. And yet we get the cat's oblivious mewlings as it's placed in the microwave and its subsequent screams of pain in painstaking detail. I mean, fuck that, right? I'm not the only one?
* Forgot to link to it the other day, but Noah Berlatsky followed up his post on the problems with the TCJ.com relaunch with one focusing on Gary Groth's irksome "welcome" essay. It's funny: Many of the things Gary says about how hard it is to find critics online--and I mean literally find them, like the logistical process of locating critics--and how shitty nearly everything he managed to find was, he said before in the SPX Critics Roundtable in 2007, to widespread dismay on the panel (and in my case, in the audience). I mean, that's pretty clearly his fault, not the Internet's fault. I really figured the reaction to his statements of that sort at the panel, and the subsequent move of the Comics Journal from print to web in the first place, meant that he'd educated himself enough to change his mind. Guess not. It's a bummer, because Gary is usually a rigorous thinker.
* I was inspired to do this by several recent brouhahas in comics. To wit: This simplifies things to reductio ad absurdum levels, I'm sure, but it seems to me that the vituperative manner in which people are explaining that Marvel's Girl Comics is a terrible idea is in fact evidence that it's a great idea. I'm old enough and liberal enough to know that "affirmative action" is not inherently pejorative. All these comment-thread geniuses either deny institutional biases or shrug their shoulders and say whaddayagonnado, and then assert that any effort to redress this--anything other than women just up and writing superhero comics, just like everyone else, right this very moment--is sexism or reverse sexism. But the playing field is not level, and that assertion is ridiculous.
* Also this, from the aforelinked Heidi MacDonald post:
1) We really, really really need to move beyond Power Girl’s breasts, girls. It’s totally a distraction from actual progress. To the point where one prominent female blogger who blogs about those chachas all the time can’t even praise a female cartoonist without comparing her to a female body part. Isn’t it better just to sneak in mentions of female creators as if they were, y’know, NORMAL? Like I just did today elsewhere on this blog?
it looks like Marvel doesn't know what to do with its Incredible Hercules series. I hate to backseat drive companies because I've barely made like sixteen dimes from working in comic books, but at some point it seems that if well-regarded series after well-regarded series is broken on the rocks of a market that won't respond to them, you should start to look at changing the game board to be more receptive to such series as opposed to picking up a game piece you think might work better.
Look, people who get mad at me for ragging on movies based entirely on their trailers and previews (cough Robin Hood cough) -- that's what trailers and previews are for. They're made so you can see what a movie's like, and hopefully, make you want to see it. Bottom line, there's nothing in any of the Avatar promos that have ever made me want to see it -- although, as discussed, the movie's biggest draw is something that can't be portrayed over a 30-second TV commercial.
Picking on the kind of people who get butthurt by posts at a site called Topless Robot is some low-hanging fruit, but I'm always game for sticking it to nerds whose low self-esteem and sense of entitlement drives them to paroxysms of rage any time anything they read doesn't perfectly reflect their own preferences.
Tunde Adebimpe, writer/artist
Suciotone, December 2009
I can't find anyplace to buy it--let me know in the comments if you know of one
I'm not going to lie: I checked out the comic Tunde Adebimpe was selling at a table at BKCGF because of his day job. But come for the "Staring at the Sun," stay for the, bright, fun, and effective painted fight comic. Printed on thick, glossy paper, Adebimpe's paints really leap off the page as they illustrate his simple set-up, subtitled "A Few Notes on Being and Not Being Myself": A pink horse guy and a green bird guy (his name's Myself) square off from the left- and right-hand side of each spread in a boxing match narrated by a strip of playfully metaphorical first-person text running across the bottom. The anthropomorphic fighters are built like characters from an all-ages boxing video game, and indeed the simple two dimensional plane of the action reinforces that feel: Since all they can do is move forward, move back, and punch each other, it's easy to feel like you've got a ringside seat to an all-action button-masher/slobberknocker. When the combatants land a blow, their wounded opponents explode with color at the point of impact; a similarly visually explosive cut to a pair of audience members ("prospective employers, future ex-wives") manages to convey the roar of the crowd with similar effectiveness. Adebimpe's writing bounces along with the hardboiled patter of an old-school sports columnist: "That's when I decided to step in...and Reagan '84 the poor jerk"; "It was our pan, and we were flashing." In the end one of the fighters is declared the "WINNAH!" by knockout, which depending on how much you're willing to play along with the Myself/Not Myself metaphor could Mean Something. But really it's an exercise in convey action and movement through color and telling a story with a memorable voice--and a successful exercise at that. I hope to see more.
Oh the weather outside is frightful, but falling in love with a girl you met at Bible camp is so delightful
I'm told this is just a fortuitous coincidence, but on this very snowy Sunday Tom Spurgeon has posted an interview with me about Craig Thompson's Blankets, the very snowy and very good graphic novel. This is part of a whole series of interviews Tom's doing with various writers and critics, each one focusing on a particular "book of the decade." I was surprised how much I enjoyed Blankets after several years away from it--if anything I appreciate it even more. It's really different than most of what's out there! Anyway I hope you enjoy the interview.
Wow, what a turnaround I made on this book in the space of a few pages. One of the perils of being so hung up about spoilers that you go into a book without even knowing what it's about is that oftentimes it turns out you've got an idea in your head of what it's about anyway, and that idea can be wrong. My only experience with Tardi was his adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette's daylight-noir West Coast Blues, so when I saw a guy in a bowler hat standing there in a graveyard on the cover I figured "okay, a period-piece crime novel, like The Black Diamond Detective Agency or something." Instead, right from the first page, you just get smacked with this torrent of verbiage from this daffy annoying tall skinny guy as he runs around atop the walls of some crazy little village opening gates for people. What the fuck is this?
It's an absurdist satire, is what it is, and a pretty terrific one. And good God is it French. Once I realized what was up, my dim memories of Jarry and Ionesco and Beckett flickered one by one back to life. Delusions of grandeur, farcical authority figures, goofily symbolic names, talk talk talk that says nothing, all atop a fundamentally ridiculous premise.
Arthur There, the heir of a long-defunct line of aristocrats, has lost his ancestral estate but gained the legal right to erect walls between the properties of all the people who now live on it and control their comings and goings. Only by "control" I mean "run when they ring a bell for him to open the gate." A Strangelovian element is injected when the president of France, on the verge of losing his bid for reelection, settles upon the unique legal status of There's labyrinthine fiefdom as the perfect pretext for setting up a rival government-in-exile. He'd heard of the place thanks to Julie Maillard, the squint-eyed and slatternly daughter of the neurotic There's chief rival--she once had a watersport-heavy affair with the President, though now her sights are set, for reasons obscure even to her, on There. And some other dudes too. It's easy to picture it as one of those long-form fourth-season Monty Python episodes, with Eric Idle as There, Michael Palin as the President, and Carol Cleveland as Julie, if that helps.
So like I said, once I figured out what was up--once I realized that the dialogue was overwhelming and annoying on purpose, once I realized that the characters were deliberately ridiculous and their motivations purposefully flimsy and absurd--I was all the way on board. Kudos for that must go to Jean-Claude Forest's full-bore commitment to writing like that. After a while it feels like the most natural thing in the world to watch There talk to himself on the verge of hysteria for paragraph after paragraph. But the real magic is in watching what Tardi does with Forest's set-up. The fool's kingdom of Mornemont is an unforgettable comic-book locale, and the riot of walls and fences and gates that crisscross it provide a perfect visual hook on which to hang the similarly profligate dialogue and nonsensical story. Tardi's lanky design for There; his recurring motif of vertical stripes everywhere from the gates There opens to the wallpaper of his comically tiny house; his use of tall rectangular panels and layouts that emphasize the page's verticality; truly masterful rainstorms and snowstorms--it's seriously a master class on creating a sense not just of place but of a claustrophobic, chaotic, unsustainable state of mind. It isn't hard to see this on your bookshelf next to Brian Chippendale, Mat Brinkman, or Hans Rickheit: environment and emotion are one and the same here as there. What's more, the main effect is so clear that the contrasts are all the stronger: Mornemont's white walls with the President's black curtains; There's googly eyes, stovepipe limbs, and funereal suit with Julie's bovine expressionlessness, swooping curves, and frequently nude white body; the sealed-off snowglobe isolation of Mornemont throughout the book with the sudden border-smashing invasion by the outside world at the book's climax. It's a parade of comics effects astutely selected and deftly executed. Killer stuff, and more fun than you remember it from French class.
Comics Time: Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys Vols. 1-3
Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys Vols. 1-3
Naoki Urasawa, writer/artist
216 pages, Vols. 1&2
200 pages, Vol. 3
$12.99 each Buy them from Amazon.com
I don't like to read manga series until I have the whole thing. It's not like superhero serials that are ongoing in perpetuity, or TV shows where the same thing is theoretically the case--these stories are serialized but they're of a finite length, and I find that if I try to read a little here, a little there, I end up forgetting half of what's going on by the time I catch up with later volumes. This isn't really the fault of the material, mind you, it's just because I'm not terribly bright.
Anyway, sometimes needs must, and so I found myself reading the three volumes of 20th Century Boys I have in my possession at the moment. (Without having Vols. 4-6, or god help me, without having finished Monster, since I'm missing about six volumes in the middle of the run and totally can't remember what happened in the three or four volumes I already read. Like I said, not the sharpest knife in the drawer.) And this probably comes as a surprise to no one, but they're a lot of fun. The story's like a cross between Stephen King's It and the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway attack, with thirtysomething go-nowhere convenience-store franchisee Kenji discovering that the heroes-and-villains game he helped concoct as a kid is being used as a how-to manual for murdering people by a shadowy cult, most likely led by one of his childhood friends. The drill so far is one of watching bodies pile up and the revelations slowly accumulate, often in sublimely unexpected ways. There's at least one supporting character who gets offed way before I'd have seen it coming, a lot of the secrets are way more out in the open than I'd have expected them to be at this stage in the game (a lot of "so, now you know that I know what you know"), there's a wooly subplot involving a psychic bum, there's a very cool t-shirt-ready symbol for the death cult...a thrill a minute, baby, and dammit, I wish I had the other three volumes.
That said, I think what prevents the Urasawa I've read from springboarding off its obvious proficiency with genre into the realm of genuinely great art is that his actual art, his drawings, are strictly functional. Actually, that's not quite the word for it. "Strictly functional" implies "merely adequate," and it's more than that. The visual storytelling is crystal-clear, which is a huge help for a mystery translated from a foreign language with its own cultural cues. The character designs are easy to keep track of even as childhood friends are reintroduced at a dizzying pace. The line is as slick as manga gets, retaining energy during quieter scenes like a coiled spring that boings back up during confrontations and action sequences. But it only has style in the sense that, say, your basic Hollywood thriller has: The goal of the art is to stay out of the way of the story. I'm reminded of Pia Guerra's work on Y: The Last Man--Urasawa would never draw anything that stiff, of course, but that kind of nondescript conveyor-of-information-type art is the sort of thing that works really well for a comic with this kind of broad civilian appeal. Are you here for an art class, or are you here to find out if Kenji can save the world?
* Tom Spurgeon keeps rolling out his holiday interview series on the books of the decade: Here's Bart Beaty on Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and here's Kristy Valenti on Peter Maresca's reprint of Winsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland strips, So Many Splendid Sundays. In both cases we have critics touting the greatness of works for which there was massive popularity and acclaim but against which there's been something of a backlash. Of the two I think Valenti does a better job in making the case for Nemo's greatness--I would have liked to hear Beaty argue for Satrapi's art beyond his assertion that the book's gradually improving draftsmanship mirrors Marjane's personal growth. But the story of Persepolis's reception in France and what it's meant to L'Association was something I'd never heard, and it's fascinating.
* So does Ron Rege Jr and he's always posting lovely images like this one on it.
* Aside from strange TCJ.com messageboard-style digression about the evils of assembly-line corporate comics that equates collaboration with corruption, this Ken Parille piece on Daniel Clowes's Ice Haven--in its original form as Eightball #22, probably the best single issue of any comic ever--is quite good.
* Future time travelers have my permission to revisit me at any point throughout the preceding few years and read this to me aloud, punching me in the face once per word.
Comics Time: Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys Vols. 4 & 5
Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys Vols. 4 & 5
Naoki Urasawa, writer/artist
200 pages, Vol. 4
216 pages, Vol. 5
$12.99 each Buy them from Amazon.com
There are two major developments in these installments of Urasawa's cult-conspiracy thriller. The first is the introduction as a secondary protagonist of Wolverine. The gruff longhaired badass who plays by his own rules but has a heart of gold and so on--named Shogun, in case you didn't pick up on his awesomeness--was technically introduced in Vol. 3, but here we find out who he really is, get an origin story involving a wise old sensei, and connect him to the main thread of action. The second major development, which is interesting because it upends the first, is a big honking shift of the whole territory of the story that came waaaaaay quicker than expected. I won't spoil it beyond the spoilage that is announcing its existence, but it's what longtime watchers of Lost might call a "game-changer." And if you opt to look at Shogun as the Sawyer figure instead of the Wolverine figure, that may be even more helpful in terms of establishing just how expertly Urasawa plays with genre tropes, insofar as these same tropes would later be key to the greatest work of American pop/pulp fiction this decade. 20th Century Boys has a lot in common with Lost, a neutral observation that doubles as an endorsement.
PS for readers of the series: The first lyrics in T. Rex's "20th Century Boys" are "Friends say it's fine, friends say it's good." Ha!
* Tom Spurgeon's interview with Chris Allen about Powers is my favorite installment in that books of the decade series so far. The way Chris unpacks what made that book such a stand-out, its place in Bendis's oeuvre, the stuff he says about Bendis's later Marvel work, the line about the three-man superhero-crime subgenre--really phenomenal. Meanwhile I'm saving Shaenon Garrity's take on Achewood until I get around to a long-planned catch-up session with the strip.
* Jog's Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival con report, part two of which is now up, is sort of like a holiday fruitcake in that there's all sorts of shit jammed in there. Scans from various manga, an interview with Tucker Stone reviewing various comics, his own reviews of stuff he got at the show, actual con-report material here and there...
Didier Lefevre, story/photographs
Emmanuel Guibert, writer/artist
Frederic Lemercier, colors/layouts
First Second, 2009
$29.95 Buy it from Amazon.com
The high point of The Photographer is literally the geographical high point of The Photographer. After chronicling a Doctors Without Borders mission into the war-torn country--then occupied by the Soviet Union--lensman Didier Lefevre makes the ill-advised decision to leave his more experienced Western colleagues and return through the mountains to Pakistan alone. Abandoned by guides who barely knew the way themselves, Lefevre finds himself stranded at the summit of a mountain pass. In the gloom he desperately tries to make it through by nightfall, and is reduced to beating his exhausted, dying horse until he realizes neither of them can go any further. He bivouacs beneath his horse's body, melting snow in his mouth in an attempt to stay hydrated, cursing his recklessness and the fecklessness of his escorts. Realizing that he will most likely never make it down the other side of the mountain, he writes a note to his girlfriend and then takes the most beautiful, dramatic, and chilling photographs of his journey, capturing his emaciated horse and the nightmarish wasteland that surrounds them, believing in his heart that they are the last things he will see. In the several pages that chronicle this most dire stretch of Lefevre's memoir, artist Emmanuel Guibert manages to capture the photographer's initial panic at being left alone in an unfamiliar place, contrasting his nervous movements and increasingly desperate drive to move on against the cold and motionless stones of the land and small dwelling where he was abandoned. And as Lefevre and his horse reach what he believes to be their final resting place, they are depicted solely in silhouette, black against the icy twilight blues provided by colorist Frederic Lemercier. The effect is a perfect evocation of Lefevre's Sisyphean plight--frantic effort colliding with unyielding futility and ultimately despair. Gorgeous, frightening, powerful comics.
Alas, it's one of the only sequences in the whole of The Photographer's 288 pages to which any of those four words apply. The story of Lefevre's trip into and out of Afghanistan is plodding journey through a featureless wash of minutiae about his companions, their hosts, their jobs, and the land. Obviously, the choice to leech the proceedings of nearly any drama--save for Lefevre's near-death at the mountaintop and a trio of gut-punch accounts of war-wounded children, nothing cuts through the haze of tedious detail--was a conscious one, meant to evoke the reality of life in a desperately poor and brutalized country, and how no grand Orientalist gestures are possible, only the quotidian work of traveling there, setting up shop, and treating those who can be treated. However, a flawless evocation of boredom is still boring.
Meanwhile, memoirists of conflict like Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman have shown that dull horror can make for compelling comics. But Guibert's work here is tough to classify as comics at all. Yes, there are panels, word balloons, caption boxes, but his visual contribution is essentially an unending series of stiff minimalist portraits that look like they were produced with a photoshop filter, or one of those dreadful animation projects that take live action footage and boil them down to a "cartooned" style. They demonstrate the story rather than tell it. Even on top of Guibert and layout artist Frederic's lack of attention to image-to-image flow or to the composition of a page, big blocks of narrative text and the interspersal of Lefevre's actual photographs all but prevent the effects of accumulative or juxtaposed meaning that are so crucial to the book's nominal medium of comics. Backgrounds are frequently dropped altogether, replaced with a baffling, uncommunicative palette of pea green and acidic yellow; one rare sequence where backgrounds were present stands out for its wrongheadedness, with rocky terrain all but obliterating the conversation in which Lefevre argues the head of his expedition into letting him return by himself. That Guibert had it in him to produce that knockout climax makes the lack of energy and life in the rest of the book all the more depressing. Nobly intentioned though it may be, bad comics is bad comics.
* Speaking of Ware, the latest Our Comics Decade post at The Cool Kids Table features Jimmy Corrigan, which is the "Comfortably Numb" to Acme #19's "Stairway to Heaven" or vice versa depending on what mood I'm in. Also, the story of how Ben Morse ended up at Wizard, which is one of the better stories of its kind.
* A Field Guide to Lovecraftian Fauna. Or flora, or whatever the hell those things are. My favorite bit right now is a toss-up between the advice on what to do if you encounter a shoggoth and the way to tell the difference between Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath.
* Related: A couple of quick things about Abhay Khosla's latest essay. First, it's a lot easier to score points off of opinions when you ascribe them to "Internet" than it is when you properly attribute them to, say, Tom Spurgeon. Second, discovering that certain kinds of comics no longer deliver the same thrills you got from them when you were a younger and less experienced reader and subsequently proclaiming that Comics Has Failed Me This Year is neither news nor analysis, it's flounce.
You'll Never Know is a memoir about creating a memoir. In it, the affable but scatterbrained Carol Tyler, buffeted by her separation from her cheating, indecisive husband and by her own memories, finds solace in attempting to construct for her father a scrapbook chronicling his military service during World War II. As becomes clear during a climactic dream sequence in which Hitler proclaims that the trauma inflicted on her father during the War warms his heart from beyond the grave, doing this is much more to Tyler than an attempt to set the historical record straight or satisfy her own curiosity (though it is both of those things as well). It's the product of a realization that something vital was taken from her father, whom she sees as hard-working, lovably ornery, and an incorrigible cut-up, yet also distant and damaged in a way that suggests a missing puzzle piece she might be able to reconstruct.
Therein lies the problem. So personal is the project to Tyler that in some basic ways it fails to translate to the reader. Her dad, Chuck, is a gruff dude to be sure, but funny and lively. He's apparently a brilliant handyman, a helluva dancer, he swept the hottest girl in the base's secretarial pool off her feat, he tears it up at the Pop Hop to which he escorts Carol as a teen, he's undyingly romantic toward her mother, and most importantly he eventually unloads his previously unspoken military memories for her not once but several times--and yet Tyler insists upon the notion that the horror of his experiences in Italy broke him. It's just not present in the text. In recounting the plot just now I realized how very similar it is to Art Spiegelman's experience with his own father in Maus, which is a solid point of comparison--compared to the nightmarish psychological scarring the Holocaust inflicted upon Spiegelman's parents, and how painfully Spiegelman evokes it, what Tyler's up to in her depiction of her father remains obtuse.
Tyler's confidence in the face of this lacuna is reflected in her buoyant but ramshackle art. Her comics' landscape layout and dashed-off line and lettering (complete with blue-pencil guidelines) evoke a mid-tier slice-of-life webcomic; they're pleasant and likeable, but they make this very serious and personal project feel slightly airy and inconsequential. They're not helped in this regard by their presentation as a supplement to the actual scrapbook she's putting together for her father, nor by her presentation of herself in an always slightly humorous fashion even when literally prostrated by her husband's infidelity and departure. Transitions and juxtapositions, too, feel under-considered, from the cuts to and from her own life story to this volume's abrupt cut-off point. I'm not saying her familial war story needs to be the unrelenting legacy of horror that was Maus--their experience was and is different and so should be Tyler's book about it. But the effect of her writing and drawing serves to cut the tale's gravitas off at the knees. I know it's a story she needed to tell; I'm not convinced it's a story that needed to be told, or perhaps more to the point, that I needed to hear.
* I don't know what to call what it is that Matt Maxwell does, but he's the best there is at it, and now he's doing it about His Comics Decade.
* I tried to buy Avatar tickets today and almost did but for discovering that in two of the three IMAX theaters available in NYC, the "IMAX" label is utter hogwash. That is some serious bullroar right there, man.
I did pretty good this year in terms of reading what I wanted to read, but there were still a bunch that slipped past me: GoGo Monster, Crossing the Empty Quarter, George Sprott, Footnotes in Gaza, Map of My Heart, What a Wonderful World, The Book of Genesis...Still, at some point you gotta fish or cut bait, and the CBR and Robot 6 best-of submission deadlines gave me an excuse to fish.
There were many many many great comics released during this final year of comics' greatest decade. I think you'll enjoy the ones above, which I enjoyed more than all the others. Woo!