Monday, March 30, 2009

Tapping the Well: Complete Peanuts 71-72

Rob reviews the latest volume of Charles Schulz's THE COMPLETE PEANUTS: 1971-72 (Fantagraphics).

The latest volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS finds Charles Schulz still at his peak, having completed the transition of the strip from its 60s heyday. While Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy were all still major characters and each had their own story arcs, they no longer dominated the strip the way they did in the 60s. What differentiates this volume from 1969-70 is that Snoopy as a fantasy figure also recedes a bit more into the background as well. This volume sees Schulz begin to really explore the possibilities inherent in Peppermint Patty, gives her a foil in Marcie, introduces the last outsider character in the strip in Rerun and gives Sally Brown a star turn.

Over twenty years into the strip, Schulz remarkably recycled very few of his jokes (there's one about Lucy and bugs that seems a bit familiar) and instead seemed to try to find new ways to amuse himself. The result was that his strip felt like several different overlapping strips in one, depending on the day. When he wanted to go with laugh-out-loud gags, Sally was his new go-to character. Her combination of naivete, obliviousness and blind rage made her perfect as a mouthpiece of malapropisms. While Lucy's rage was always a constant of the strip, Sally's anger was more unfocused and harmless, even if she was earnest in presenting her views. Strips where she panicked about missing Easter vacation in January, vowing that her teachers would "never get me to tell all I know" about oceans and misunderstanding that this wasn't a threat, writes a theme about the 4th of July because she's "a victim of programming", calls a dinosaur a "bronchitis" and erroneously comes up with a backstory for "forest strangers" point out her earnest cluelessness. Her real star turn came in a strip where she was forced to go on a field trip to an art museum, and warns a fellow student to "try not to have a good time...this is supposed to be educational". Schulz even went so far as to vary his visual approach just a bit with her, bugging out her eyes in one strip or making thicker black dots to indicate her being stunned.

Schulz was not satisfied to just crank out gags like this. He spent much of the volume exploring one-on-one relationships between many of the characters: Snoopy/Woodstock, Charlie Brown/Lucy (a perennial favorite), Charlie Brown/Peppermint Patty, and Patty/Marcie. Schulz dropped a surprising number of pop culture references in other strips, though never seemed comfortable enough to spend much time with them other than as one-offs. The strip where Linus is depressed because Bob Dylan was about to turn thirty was especially strange. There are also some extended fantasy sequences with Snoopy, unveiling his "Joe Cool" persona, but this doesn't dominate the strip during this period as much as the prior volume.

Peppermint Patty still felt like a character crossing over from a completely different strip whenever she appeared, but Schulz had managed to find ways to wrap her life up into virtually every other character in the strip. She still talked and dressed differently than everyone else (sounding way more modern than the others), but while she was every bit as aggressive as Lucy, she lacked her relentless narcissism. The extended stories with her and the clueless Charlie Brown make up the heartbreaking center of this book. She made up her mind that he had a crush on her (a clear displacement of her own feelings), while C.B. was still so hung up on the little red-haired girl that he couldn't figure out what was going on with Peppermint Patty. This played out when the two of them went to a carnival together and he inadvertently hurts her feelings, when Patty brutally dismisses him to Marcie when she wasn't aware that he was listening, and during one of the brilliant summer camp sequences when Peppermint Patty meets the little red-haired girl and realizes that she can't compete. Unlike the obnoxious Lucy, we really feel for Peppermint Patty when she suffers, because she really puts herself out there more than any other character.

Introducing Marcie as her Linus-figure was a stroke of genius and a cementing of Peppermint Patty's status as one of the major characters in the strip. Marcie acted as friend, adviser, catalyst and tormentor (always calling her "sir" certainly touched on P.P.'s issues with her own femininity, later played out in a memorable run of strips where she challenges the school dress code). It was interesting that Schulz was able to introduce such vivid characters about halfway through his run on the strip, characters whose quirks made them very different from the bland Shermy, Violet and Patty. At the same time, Marcie and Peppermint Patty weren't one-note jokes like Frieda or 5. One wonders how much potential he saw in these characters from the very beginning, or if his process of integrating them into the strip was more serendipitous.

Snoopy's antics seemed a bit tame here compared to prior volumes. Joe Cool was Schulz' interpretation of the modern college student and was more mildly amusing than really funny. There's lots of interplay between Snoopy and Woodstock (who is now Snoopy's secretary, bringing up a whole new world of jokes), including a couple of walkabouts. There's a bizarre sequence where Snoopy has to go off and aid a beagle named Thompson, who meets his end at the hands of a pack of rabbits. The funniest Snoopy bits involve his fascination with the "Six Bunny-Wunnies" books and their author, Helen Sweetstory. Snoopy becomes obsessed with the author, is crushed when he finds out she's a cat lover, travels to find her home and later writes an unauthorized biography of her. Schulz tosses in a few sly pop-culture references here in the titles of their books, like "The Six Bunny-Wunnies Join An Encounter Group" and "The Six Bunny-Wunnies Freak Out", the latter book getting banned by Charlie Brown's school.

There are still plenty of familiar strips featuring the old reliable characters. Linus' arc featuring him trying (and briefly succeeding) to give up his blanket addiction through Snoopy is a particular highlight. Lucy managing to get a promised kiss out of Schroeder if she hits a home run, only to turn it down when she does as a victory for women's lib, was both hilarious and topical. Lucy and Charlie Brown have plenty of great "psychiatric help" gags (though the booth increased in price to 7 cents in some strips). Charlie Brown's adventures at camp were now dependable yearly highlights, with Schulz understanding that repetition is the key through humor with Charlie Brown's tentmate saying nothing but "Shut up, and leave me alone!" The balance Schulz struck in this volume is as perfect as it would get: a perfect blend of fantasy, whimsy, jokes, heartbreak, topical references and sturdy characterization.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Three Views of Escapism: The Eternal Smile

Rob reviews THE ETERNAL SMILE, a collection of three short stories written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Derek Kirk Kim (First Second).

With THE ETERNAL SMILE, Gene Yang cements his place as a sort of O. Henry of comics. He has a knack for setting up quickly identifiable characters and situations, then turns them on their head with a clever twist. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE had three apparently unconnected short stories that dealt with identity, shame and trying to fit into a foreign world that linked together in unexpected and touching ways. There were times in which the story's elements felt a bit too on the nose, a bit too heavy-handed in pushing its themes, yet there was no denying Yang's skill as a storyteller. THE ETERNAL SMILE has a number of the same virtues and problems, as it presents three stories with vivid characters, wholly unexpected plot twists (reality twists, really) and sometimes pat handling of the notion of escape and escapism. Yang is aided by the stunning visuals of Derek Kirk Kim, who draws each story in a style so dramatically different that it's hard to believe that it was the same artist all along.

The first story, "Duncan's Kingdom", was originally published a decade ago by Image. The concept is as strong and clever as ever: a young knight is sent to avenge the death of the king, hoping to win the hand of the beloved princess in marriage. All is not as it seems, as young Duncan wins a bit too easily and is faced with the bizarre specter of a bottle of something called Snappy Cola. Aided by the mysterious, masked Brother Patchwork, he starts to question his world and finds it crashing down around him. The story is undone at the end, without revealing its twist, by an unearned and treacly sentimentalism. The character details dumped on the reader toward the end just felt cliched, as Yang stacked the deck in creating the reasons behind the escapist scenario.

If "Duncan's Kingdom"'s main thrust is the way escapism can literally imprison someone, then "Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile" is about how a dream can ultimately push you beyond the limitations of your life. This story starts as an affectionate tribute to the Scrooge McDuck stories of Carl Barks and then starts to uncomfortably twist the greed of his stand-in (an anthropomorphic frog named Gran'pa Greenbax) until the story careens to a halt after a shocking acts of violence. Kim's skill really carries the story at this point, simultaneously making the violence both cartoony (and hence funny) and visceral (and thus shocking). The story is successful because it subverts the familiar elements of Barks ("profitable adventures", over-the-top set-ups, cute sidekicks and most especially a pool full of cash), taking them to their logical extremes. That level of attention to detail extends to the way the story's colored (evoking 4-color comics) and even the "cover", mimicking old Gold Key Disney comics. The real twist of the story (beyond the obvious deus ex machina halfway through) is that it's a scathing parody of religion-as-corporation and corporation-as-religion (specifically, Disney). Gran'pa Greenbax's burning desire to swim in a pile of cash winds up masking another, more primal desire--one achieved to the great surprise of the story's antagonist.

The most successful story overall was "Urgent Request", a story about a meek programmer named Janet who is pretty much made to feel utterly insignificant by everyone around her. Kim's visuals once again really stand out here, using a cartoony, blobby character design and a violet wash that gives the story a certain solemnity until the story turns and we are smacked in the face by vivid color. The story's about Janet falling for the old "Nigerian prince" internet hoax and plunging a bunch of money to a grateful "prince" in Africa. Feeling special for the first time in her life, even though deep down she knew it was all a lie, Janet goes all-out in her identification with Africa and imagines a romance with "Prince Henry". Yang walks a careful line with Janet, making her a sad sack that we can't help rooting for because she's trying so hard, but avoids making her completely pathetic. Even in the moment of what should have been her greatest humiliation, the good will that Yang built up for Janet allows him to instead make this a moment of transformation.

This story spells out Yang's view on escapism, that it's less an abandoment of how things really are and instead a different way of looking at the world, a shifting of perspective. Sometimes, this shifting of perspective blinds one to what's really going on, while at other times this shift is the only way one can extricate oneself from misery. Sometimes taking oneself out of character (and the story one's created) is the only way to achieve the happiness we seek, and sometimes creating a new story is what's needed. Yang implies that it's how active one is in applying this perspective is how positive it winds up becoming. Duncan's story was one of passivity, something that he had to shed. Gran'pa Greenbax was spinning his wheels in pursuit of happiness and had to think laterally and take a leap of faith to extricate himself from his life. Janet Oh created a reality around a hoax presented to her and made it become a sort of incubator for the person she wanted to become. For Yang, it all boiled down to faith in something beyond our immediate narratives and selves: escape as an activity, not a soporific.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Anthology Round-Up

(This article was originally published in Savant back in late 2002.)

The anthology comic has a long and storied tradition in alt/underground comics. From the early days of the Zap Comix collective (Crumb, Spain, Rob't Williams, et al) in the late 60's and early 70's to the recent outstanding Drawn & Quarterlies, a number of the most important comics of the last 30 years first saw light in an anthology. Art Spiegelman's MAUS ran in RAW, the seminal 80's anthology that he co-edited with Francoise Mouly, along with many other cutting-edge comics. Contrasting its formalistic precision was Robert Crumb's WEIRDO, a grab-bag of expressionistic outbursts of id that Peter Bagge later edited. Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics took up the banner in the 90's with ZERO ZERO, an extremely eclectic book that featured long serials by Kim Deitch and some outstanding short pieces by Joe Sacco, among others. The aforementioned DRAWN & QUARTERLY is no longer quarterly, but its beauty as an art object combined with its exposure of European artists recalls RAW. The hippest and most beautiful might be Jordan Crane's NON. Finally, one can't forget groundbreaking all-women's anthologies like WIMMEN'S COMICS.

The anthology series is an extremely difficult sell these days, so most anthologies that are published tend to be yearly affairs or self-published labors of love. In the last six months, there have been an astonishing number of interesting collections released. They range from polished, bookstore-ready collections of well-known talent to self-published, hand-crafted creations consisting of up-and-coming artists. The fact that most stories in anthologies tend to be short and self-contained is both a strength and a weakness. If you don't like a story, just wait a few pages and you get another one. But sometimes one can feel cheated by just getting a few pages of an appealing artist. There are ways around this, however. For example, some anthologies feature extended stories by some artists (like the "Monsieur Jean" stories in D&Q) with shorter features by others. Another way is giving anthologies a theme. Much like a rock 'n roller having to find an interesting way to use three chords, limiting an artist's subject palette can lead to interesting results if you pick the right theme. The editor becomes crucial here, since they not only have to pick the right combination of artists, they must arrange the stories in an order that makes sense. In looking at the following works, how well the anthologies hang together as a whole will be considered, as well as a few standout stories (good and bad).

Beginning at the handmade, art object end of the spectrum, we have issue #5 of TYPEWRITER. The comic itself is 4x4, with a cardboard cover that is hand-fastened with clips. When you pull out a tab, the thing opens up to reveal a series of sections, each one folding up like a map. You pull out a section to read a complete comic, and then flip it over to read the next section. The content varies wildly, though in general most of the stories are dominated by images rather than strict narrative. The art tends towards the primitive, spearheaded by "cute-brut" enthusiast Ron Rege', Jr. A wildly imaginative designer, his style can be an acquired taste. At the other end of the spectrum is the Carrie Golus-Patrick Welch team. They did a straightforward history of an old theatre's history, with each image depicting a different year and state of either glory or decay. Golus' eye for describing detail always is good for a fascinating read. There's also a bit of slice-of-life, Jessica Abel-style, with Johnathan Russell's "Abercrombie Type". The centerpiece is David Youngblood's "Baby Grumpus" strip, a wacky retelling (of sorts) of the Moses myth of a baby being sent down the river that gets merged with bizarre creatures, tribal masks out of Picasso and other assorted weirdness. A lot of the stories seemed to lack much substance, just being quick one-offs; the page from the Shiver Bones Group is an example. Everything in here is at least worth looking if not exactly compelling, but the disparate nature of the stories and lack of stylistic cohesion make this kind of a jarring read. Interesting, but not essential reading.

An anthology with a similar feel but a radically different look is STUDYGROUP 12 #2. The cover is a beautiful silkscreened design from Zack Soto with jagged edges. The contributors are a grab-bag of artists from Highwater, Hi-Horse, Kramer's Ergot and other minicomics circles. There are a lot of things in here that aren't even really comics per se, such as Souther Salazars primitivist collage/poetry pieces, or sketchbook drawings from David Lasky & Marc Bell. Soto did a nice job arranging the stories in the book, alternating longer narratives with bizarre interstitial pieces by Salazar. The narratives all have a taste of the absurd mixed with a certain creepiness. Mat Tait contributes a tale of a teen trying to retrieve a certain object from an apparently dangerous blind woman--and what he has to do in order to get it. The story is very understated yet horrific, with an unspoken sense of menace surrounding it. The most clever story is "Wakaru", where artist Peter Conrad provides a meditation on language and its meanings. A man gets into a car with a man speaking French; the translations into English are then seen on things like t-shirts, road signs and cigarette packs. The most absurd piece is from Andrice Arp, a tale of a giant cat that has the moon clinging to its head. Wordless pieces from Sammy Harkham and Soto are the other main highlights. As a whole, it's more coherent than TYPEWRITER, but the sketchbook material and some of the cruder works detract from the more interesting long narratives. One gets the sense that it might have been a stronger work if it was 10-15 pages shorter than its 80.

HI-HORSE is perhaps the quirkiest selection in this group. Unlike everything else I'm reviewing, it's a standard-sized pamphlet, published roughly twice a year. The contributors have been pretty much the same from issue to issue--it's really more of a collective than a standard anthology. The four artists who usually contribute include Andrice Arp, Howard Arey, Joan Reilly and Bishakh Som, though #4 also has a story by Olivia Kate Schanzer. What I like most about this series is that while the styles of each artist contrast sharply, each artist shares a common sensibility. The stories all have a smart, ironic and often absurdist slant. The standout of the group is Arp, the best draftsman of the group. Her "Turnip's Progress" serial is a bizarre parody (of sorts) of Pilgrim's Progress, complete with Old English font and a 19th century-style illustrative style. My favorite writer of the group is Reilly, whose "Catharta" uses super-hero tropes to tell of a young woman who has the power to hear and solve other people's emotional problems in her role as a bartender. Som contributes a moody coming-of-age story with a sci-fi backdrop, while Schanzer tosses in a hilarious account of grade schoolers being taught by a Black Panther who encourages them to commit "insurrectionary acts." This book is a pleasure to look at and read and is created by skilled hands.

MEATHAUS #6 is another example of an anthology with many different styles but a common sensibility. Begun as a way for students at New York's School of Visual Arts to stay in touch after graduation, it's blossomed into one of the most graphically interesting collections around. Many of the contributors who started the anthology actually did not have an extensive comics background, instead having studied animation or illustration. It showed in the early issues, because there simply wasn't much narrative hung around the pretty pictures. The original members have gotten much more adept at making interesting stories and have recruited a number of new members. There's no surprise that Tomer Hanuka and Dash Shaw both have strong entries here. Shaw has a series of interstitial parodies of Bazooka Joe comics that are hilarious. Hanuka tells a charming little tale of a circus freak with a loving family and stable home life. There are a lot of surprises here, like a virtuostic piece from Tom Herpich, weaving in a brutal fairy tale about captured sprites and jackass-headed men with the pathetic mother imagining it. His sparse pencilling style captures the fear and lust in every panel and makes them palpable. Becky Cloonan contributes a nice-looking piece about being away from loved ones that is interesting for the way she uses shadow and contrast. Mu Dufaka turns in several hilarious stories done in a scratchy & scribbly style that reflects the mad energy and ideas therein. There are few clunkers in this volume and it reflects a group of artists who are serious about their work. It's also nice to see an almost completely fresh set of names in this book; in the alt-comics world, there tend to be a lot of the same people in anthologies. Editors Chris McDonnell and Stephen Q Stardog really have taken this book to another level.

Turning to a somewhat more lighthearted approach is BOGUS DEAD, a themed anthology with an impressive list of contributors culled from minicomics, Highwater and the crowd. The theme is simple: zombies are roaming the earth and mankind is doomed. Draw the human reaction to this. Based loosely around George Romero's DEAD series of films (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD being the first), the results range from silly to ponderous. Standouts include Graham Annable's tale of a murdered zombie rising up, buying an airplane ticket, flying to a remote location, finding his killer and killing him with the same weapon, flying back, and crawling back into his grave. All very matter-of-fact and deadpan. Gabrielle Bell has a hilarious account of zombies in a hip San Francisco bar and beating them off with art installation objects and a copy of McSweeney's. K Thor Jensen has an amusing tale of a grad student turned zombie who finds himself alone and realizes that he can bring about peace in our time between humans and zombies--if he gets the chance. Megan Kelso continues her hot streak with a quickie about Alexander Hamilton rising from the grave and eating a Wall Street fat cat. Three of the creepier pieces are from Robyn Chapman, Kevin Huizenga & Ted May and Jenny Zervakis. Chapman tells a story of a woman whose sister-in-law rises from the grave--with her brother wanting to know why his wife killed herself and their baby. Huizenga & May retell the story of Red Riding Hood, this time with zombies. Zervakis stays close to the spirit of the film in a story where she winds up in a survivalist bunker and gets bitten--but this winds up saving her from an attempted rape. There's a lot of forgettable material in this anthology, but the theme prevents contributors from taking things too seriously or too lightly. The craftsmanship is very strong here and the common theme allows the different styles to mesh well. Perhaps not for all tastes, but it's interesting to see genre fodder mutated into something very unusual.

The most lighthearted of all these anthologies is GARLIC, whose content is so frothy at times that it threatens to float away. Fortunately, the list of contributors is the cream of the minicomics scene, dominated by the gang. Despite the fact that most of the stories were one-offs and played for laughs, I couldn't help liking it. The theme had something to do with it: it's a comic entirely about garlic. Each story had to involve garlic, one way or another; the issue is the first in a series of anthologies about food. Beyond the inspired silliness of things like Dave Kiersh's "Vampire Silliness" and Souther Salazar's out-there song-comic "Radical Garlic", there were a number of quieter pieces. John Porcellino proves once again that he's the king of reflective, emotionally powerful stories that somehow aren't overly sentimental. Jenny Zervakis plays it completely straight, simply describing how much garlic means to her Greek relatives and even offers a recipe. The weirdest piece is John Hankiewicz's "Garlic Soup", a story about a man's personal odyssey after eating a bowl of especially powerful soup, where the images and text often seem unrelated. While most of the contributors are quite talented,most of the pieces here aren't necessarily the best example of their work, and some look practically ripped out of a sketchbook.

If GARLIC suffered from a certain sloppiness and silliness (even if that was part of its appeal) while sporting a stellar lineup, ORCHID doesn't make any of these mistakes. There are seven stories here, adapted from Victorian short stories or poems. The subject is horror, and the artists create a frightening atmosphere throughout. ORCHID opens with a bang with "The Story of the Demonaic Pacheco", adapted by Lark Pien and Jesse Reklaw. The story concerns a man who awakens under a gibbet and who hears a tale of terror from a man who is damned by sleeping with his stepmother and daughter, and is told with a wild, expressionistic flourish that matches the melodramatic tone of the tale. Gabrielle Bell, whose line has a Jason Lutes-like clarity to it, adapts a story called "Tobermory", about a cat who learns how to talk. He talks a bit too much, exposing the foibles of a Victorian household. Ben Catmull turns in a brief, spooky tale abouta haunting.

The book's real tour-de-force is Kevin Huizenga's "Green Tea", a nightmarish and sweat-inducing tale of his alter ego, Glenn Ganges. Ganges recounts a time in college when he was working feverishly and drinking green tea, when he suddenly started seeing hallucinations of a dog that he knew was going to harm him. He then comes across an account of a reverend who had a similar experience, with a demonic monkey that followed him around and eventually started speaking to him. Huizenga's deceptively simple style is at its peak here, playing with light and narrative in a masterful fashion. There's not a better story in this bunch.

The rest of the book does not impress as much as the earlier stories, but there's still a lot to look at. T. Edward Bak contributes a beautifully-drawn adaptation of a rather hackneyed vampire tale. David Lasky's adaptation of Poe's "The Raven" is Lasky at his most conceptual--there are panels with narration--but no actual drawings in the panels! The aggressive formalist later gives us an image of a raven cut across panel to panel. This is a unique approach to such a familiar work of literature. The book winds up with Dylan Williams doing a story about a doomed marriage called "The Man With The Nose." While he's a good storyteller (as anyone who reads his REPORTER series knows), his slightly ragged line felt out of place here. Overall, ORCHID is a superb example of artists both appreciating and transcending genre. Williams and Catmull both clearly have a firm hand as editors, with the book's feel being consistent even as the style and tone changing from story to story. The order of the stories was absolutely perfect, and everything is worth reading.

Mainstream publisher Dark Horse has been putting out single-issue anthologies under their creator-owned Maverick line, and they went for a real full-sized anthology this time around. HAPPY ENDINGS is a themed anthology revolving around that very idea. There will be a few names familiar to mainstream readers here, like Sam Kieth, Brian Bendis & Mike Oeming and Mike Mignola. Kieth and Mignola contributed some pleasant fluff, while Bendis shows that his intentionally funny comics are much better than his crime or superhero comics. MEATHAUS contributor Farel Dalrymple contributes a beautiful-looking, whimsical story about a boy and a blimp, while Craig Thompson's intense story will surprise those only familiar with his GOODBYE, CHUNKY RICE. The highlights are two pages of grimness from Harvey Pekar & Joe Sacco and the best work I've seen from Frank Miller in a long time. Miller does panel after panel of endings, most of them not exactly happy. His piece is playful but also raw with anger, creating some amusing and disturbing images. Overall, this is a worthy anthology though a bit like drinking lite beer--frothy, but not substantial.

Fantagraphics has returned to doing an anthology comic, sort of, with their first two SPECIAL EDITIONS of THE COMICS JOURNAL. The line-up is mind-boggling, with virtually every artist on their roster contributing something in one or both of the volumes published so far. The comics are just part of the issue, with the rest of it containing the usual sorts of interviews and features that TCJ normally runs. The bonus is that the comics are mostly in color, which is quite a treat in some cases. The problem here, as it is in many of the bigger anthologies, is that even though you might have big names contributing to your anthology, it doesn't mean that they're going to do their best work. Some artists simply aren't very good at providing interesting 1-3 pages stories. This volume's theme was "Cartoonists On Music" and it did produce a more interesting response than volume I, which was the very meta "Cartoonists On Cartooning". Many of the artists either weren't interested in grappling with the issue, spent the space whining about the comics industry, or babbled on about aesthetics in ways that weren't very interesting (Linda Medley's strip still gives me nightmares).

Writing about music gave the artists a chance to express themselves a bit differently. The book reads better if you're familiar with each cartoonist and what they normally do, because otherwise the strip to strip variation can be a bit jarring. (Of course, any transition to or from a scatological Johnny Ryan or Rick Altergott strip is automatically jarring.) There were a few biographical pieces, most of which were quite well done. Chris Ware contributed a beautiful, sad piece about an African-American singer named George Johnson who earned money singing an offensive "race record", and who fell on hard times when new recording techniques made him superfluous. Ware's design and the way he carefully couched the narration in dialogue, leading up to the strip's ultimate point was effective and heartbreaking. Ivan Brunetti used his more stripped-down style to relate the sad tale of chanteuse Francoise Hardy, while Craig Russell pulled out all the stops and pyrotechnics in discussing composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Both were quite effective in their own way.

Some played it for laughs, like Roger Langridge's clever punchline to a frustrated artist gaining inspiration through music or John Kerschbaum's demented rhyme about a man who can't get an annoying tune out of his head. Sam Henderson found a way to bring it all back to comics in his strip where music enjoyed the status in American culture that comics do today. Arnold Roth contributed a couple of pages of music-related gags and Peter Blegvad's ingenious "Anatomy Of A Hit" drawing uses multiple layers of meaning for an array of puns and visual gags. Others talked about music inspiring them, like Mary Fleener's encounter with Joey Ramone; or Carol Lay nearly getting into a fight with Slash. The best stories used music as both backdrop and focus for deeper feelings. That includes Phoebe Gloeckner's exquisite tribute to Janis Joplin with her own character, Minnie; and Megan Kelso's eloquent and understated ode to the waltz.
A lot of the pieces simply didn't resonate with me, even by artists whose work I normally admire. The pieces turned in by the Hernandez Bros. Seemed slight and rather rushed, while Michael Kupperman's strip was only mildly amusing. Robert Crumb turned in a nice-looking but silly strip about a dirty song his daughter once taught him. A lot of the artists here frankly didn't have much to say about the subject, which is a problem with all-star anthologies: the stars are more important than the work provided. That was the case here to some extent, and I think trimming a lot of the published strips would have created a stronger work overall.

SPX 2002 practically deserves a column all its own due to its size and scope. This is the first time that the anthology created to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as part of the Small Press Expo has been restricted to a theme. In this case, the theme is biography. Editor Tom Devlin did a superb job of mixing wildly different styles about a truly odd group of subjects. Generally, the stories about lesser-known figures turned out to be the most interesting. Some of the stories had an unfortunate tendency to lapse into "high school book report mode", making the book somewhat text-heavy. If you're looking for a flashy, innovative design, this isn't really the place to get it. On the other hand, SPX 2002 has an impressive array of familiar artists as well as a host of lesser-knowns and newcomers, with very few true clunkers in the bunch.

Josh Simmons contributed a text-heavy but fascinating piece about Ernest Bellocq, the photographer who created some famous shots of prostitutes in the Storyville section of New Orleans. Simmons cut through a lot of legends but even he didn't have all of the information about his subject. This led to an interesting discussion of what pornography is and how the way the subject is presented changes the context of the photo. His illustrations range from realistic to cartoony, with an excellent eye for design. Another fine piece was turned in by the team of Jim Ottaviani and Rachel Hartman. The tale of the mathematician Bourbaki, who influenced cryptography, was told in the usual chummy Ottaviani style, using a clever framing device and coming up with a great ending. Hartman's whimsical art is perfect for the piece. The great R.Sikoryak told three tales of Rasputin in the style of early 20th century newspaper strips; these pages were just jaw-dropping in their level of detail.

Other standouts include Paul Hornschmeier's time-fractured take on St Francis of Assisi as suffering from dementia; Martin Cendreda's minimalist take on turntable artists Invisible Scratch Piklz; Laurenn McCubbin's tale of an escort named "Jane"; Jamie Tanner's superb rendering of vignettes from artist Egon Schiele's life; Rob Ullman's visceral account of unstable hockey goalie Terry Sawchuk; Jon Bennett's clever rendering of Don Leslie, inventor of the Leslie Speaker; and Alison Taylor's evocative story about "Carolyn Keene", who wrote the Nancy Drew Mystery series.

The theme of the anthology turned off a lot of creators and some readers, though the sheer variety of subjects should prevent boredom. Interesting choices of mediums, like Chris Pitzer using cut-and-paste clip art to discuss a designer and Tod Parkhill using Space Invaders-type graphics to tell the story of an Atari programmer keep the book from falling into a rut. The stories may not be the best example of the works of the artists featured, but I was fascinated at the ways they approached the theme and had to find ways to solve the problems that it raised.

The last book in this survey is ROSETTA, which in many ways is by far the most ambitious anthology on this list. Comics Journal critic Ng Suat Tong put together an impressive lineup of both new material and reprints. The result is something is a cross between Jordan Crane's anthology NON and DRAWN & QUARTERLY. In particular, there are a number of European artists featured here, and not just from France, either. The quality of the contributors is unquestionable (with the exception of perhaps one or two artists), but the fact that the anthology is unthemed and has so many excerpts from larger works makes it a somewhat jarring read. It also doesn't help that two of the longer pieces had been printed before elsewhere. I also wasn't particular thrilled by smaller details like the intrusive interstitial introductions and the lack of page numbers. I'm harping on the details a bit simply because ROSETTA has a chance to be one of the best anthologies ever--the overall level of talent is that impressive.

Miriam Katin's piece about her memories of drinking condensed milk and facing anti-semitism ring with a sweetness and sincerity lacking in many such memoirs. Nick Bertozzi's own take on the many views of Mt Fuji, incorporated into a city story about a missing child was a showcase for his formal cleverness. Michael Kupperman's two strips were both absolutely hilarious, a perfect tonic to some of the more serious strips in the book. Renee French had an ingenious strip displaying different body parts, types of food eaten and mail received and other clues that let us identify a particular sort of stranger. The big discovery for me was Malaysian artist Lat, whose autobiographical account of his school days absolutely sucked me in and left me wanting much more. This was both a strength and weakness of the book: there were simply too few complete stories in here. Some of the excerpts did little more than tantalize me. If these were serials, that would be one thing, but it bugged me that I was only getting a taste of some of these artists.
Some of the better reprints here included a Megan Kelso story that first appeared as minicomic Artichoke Tales #2, a Dave Choe story about Palestine that was first published in his own Bruised Fruit, and a very clever Matt Madden strip called "Tinubu Square" that plays with narrative in an amusing fashion. Really, the only absolute clunker in the book was Swiss artist MS Bastian's strip "Bazooka Joe", a nightmarish, headache-inducing comic that was virtually impossible to follow.

ROSETTA was not the most satisfying read, even if it did have some of the best material. Hopefully the next volume will need to rely a little less on reprints. Despite my reservations, this book is a must if you want to become acquainted with talent outside of the United States, or if you're not very familiar with alt-comics at all. In fact, it's almost an alt-comics primer of sorts, with the visual inventivenesss of David Lasky providing an impressive show of formal techniques. Unlike the TCJ SPECIAL, ROSETTA is a good indicator of what kind of material these artists create, and for that reason I would recommend it above all of the others on this list for novice fans. In that sense, the anthology truly lives up to its name, providing a key to a segment of comics that many aren't even aware of.

A last note: there are many other anthologies that have come out within the last year that I didn't get to touch on. Kurt Wolfgang's LOW-JINX anthology deserves a column of its own, especially with its fourth issue out (featuring the work of alt-comics artists from when they were children). The Monkeysuit gang produces an engaging and accessible book about once a year. KRAMER'S ERGOT is an anthology along the lines of STUDYGROUP 12. If you're interested in learning more about alt-comics, anthologies are an excellent place to begin.

How To Find These Comics:

TYPEWRITER #5 is $5, available from Popzero Productions. Email editor David Youngblood at

STUDYGROUP 12 #2 is available from editor Zack Soto while supplies last. Email him at .

HI-HORSE #4 is $3. Check out their website at, which will give you further instructions, or send them mail at

MEATHAUS #6 is $7 and available from Meat Haus Press. You can buy it straight from their website,, or send money to 184 Kent Ave Apt 322 Brooklyn, NY 11211. Contact them at

BOGUS DEAD is the brainchild of Jerome Gaynor and is currently being distributed by Alternative Comics. Go to for the skinny; the book is 10 bucks and its ISBN is 1-891867-19-9.

GARLIC can be had from editor Sean Duncan if you email him at Check out to get a good look at some of the stories in the anthology.

ORCHID is a bargain at twice the price for just 8 bucks. Happily, it is being distributed by Diamond. Go to to learn more, including previews of every story. Contact publisher/co-editor Dylan Williams at or write to him at PO Box 10952 Portland, OR 97296-0952.

HAPPY ENDINGS is published by Dark Horse Comics (part of their Maverick division) and thus should be available in those comic shop thingies. It's $9.95, and more information can be found at The book's ISBN is 1-56971-820-2.

THE COMICS JOURNAL SPECIAL EDITION Volume 2 is of course published byFantagraphics and should be available at fine comic shops everywhere. If it isn't, you can order it from Diamond or go to FBI's website at For those interested, its ISBN is 1-56097-473-7.

SPX 2002 is a charity book published by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. At $9.95 for over 300 pages, it's quite a bargain. It can be purchased at Mars Import but should also be in any good comic shop. That Mars Import link is

ROSETTA is a hefty $19.95 and is available from Alternative Comics. This just came out at fine comics shops everywhere a little while ago. You can order it online here: For the curious, the ISBN is 1-891867-22-9.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Compulsion and Repulsion: Ho!

Rob reviews the collection of "morally questionable cartoons" by Ivan Brunetti, HO! (Fantagraphics).

No other artist in the history of comics has worked out their misanthropy and self-loathing on the page quite like Ivan Brunetti. His collection of enormously foul and laugh-out loud hilarious single-panel gags, HO!, gathers material from earlier books HAW! and HEE! as well as presenting uncollected strips and new material. It's interesting to compare this work to his earlier comics reprinted in MISERY LOVES COMEDY. His drawing has become ever more refined, precise and abstracted from reality. The sort of nervous energy that forced him to fill up pages and add in torturous amounts of detail has been set aside (possibly because drawing in that style was so painful and painstaking) in favor of presenting just enough information to sell his nihilstic gags. The last strips in the book, where his characters have been reduced to neatly-drawn circles and other geometric figures, are among the most interesting to look at, almost taking on the appearance of diagrams as opposed to more traditional cartoons.

This change in formal technique has a significant impact on the overall aesthetic experience of reading these comics. There's a kind of dissonance that occurs when reading these cartoons, given the relative cuteness of the drawings vs. the raunchiness of the punchlines. Brunetti rarely goes for the obvious gross-out in the plastic qualities of his drawings; blood, guts, gore, and rape are made cartoony and even slightly abstract with his style. This does not provide a softening effect for his gags. Indeed, if anything, it makes them hit all the harder because the eye is so firmly drawn into his panels and never slides off the page--a scenario that happens for me, at least, when looking at the gross-out work of S. Clay Wilson, for example. There's an exquisiteness in the way he composes each panel to sell his gag, selling it just very slightly with background detail in a way that doesn't clutter up the panel but makes the gag just a little bit funnier. The drawings are reminiscent of old-school gags in terms of their set-up and appearance, just gone horribly wrong. If the bulk of the gags from his SCHIZO work was inspired by the mechanics and rhythm of daily strips like "Nancy", his HO! comics then are more reminiscent of "Family Circus". Working in this format forces Brunetti to drive home gags in a quick and devastating fashion.

In the preceding gag, Brunetti sells the joke with the exaggerated good-bye waving of the character. We get just enough background to establish the scene, and Brunetti delivers the dark punchline on the strength of the text. In the next cartoon, Brunetti raises the stakes for one of the darkest entries in the whole book. We are presented with a brutal scene and a punchline both dependent on the visual information given and deliberately turning the scene on its head; the hacky punchline is given gut-punching weight. The cuteness of the drawings themselves and the familiarity of the composition (having someone burst into a room unexpectedly with a confused expression is the set-up for a million gag strips) further induce a visceral reaction on the part of the reader. I simultaneously laughed and flinched at this strip, a reaction that I imagine Brunetti himself felt when drawing it.

The nastiest, and perhaps funniest, strip in the book follows this paragraph. It's been said that much of humor is born out of cruelty. I'd agree with that, and further note that humor is also a way of addressing power and power imbalances. Brunetti's focus on sex in his strips zeroes in on this idea of sex as a series of power relations in the form of abuse, humiliation and degradation. In the strip below, the punchline is a standard sexual insult for a clearly weak-willed male partner (the men in his gags are either predator or prey), who is preparing to turn the tables in the most explosive manner possible. He can't quite do it yet, however, as he's still afraid of his sexual partner, and that fear and sense of humiliation is what makes the strip funny. Brunetti sells the gag with tiny details. By giving the woman a certain heft, he implies her physical power and influence over the skinny, bespectacled man--clearly a weakling. The sweat beads and tremor lines are a dead giveaway for his role in the relationship, making the punchline that much funnier.
This collection is a punishing one at times, given the darkness of so much of this material. It's not exhausting in the way Brunetti's old SCHIZO strips were, in part because he is so much more restrained here and less obvious about the way he aims his venom at himself. While these gag strips are obviously not autobiographical, the misanthropic humor they showcase is very much in line with Brunetti's autobio comics in terms of both form and theme. Forcing himself to work in a single-panel gag format tightened his focus, with each strip yet another needle jabbed into the eyes of his viewers. Brunetti's enormous discipline and talent as a cartoonist shines through in this collection, using familiar techniques and twisting them around in gags that Brunetti was obviously compelled to draw, even as he recognized how over the edge they were. These are ideas that needed to not only be committed to paper as a way of flushing images out of his mind, but had to be shown to others so as to fully process the image.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Short Reviews: Travel, Beeswax, Angst, I Saw You...,

Rob offers up a number of short reviews of various comics. Included are TRAVEL by Yuichi Yokoyama (Picturebox); BEESWAX #5 featuring the comics of Lydia Conklin; ANGST, an anthology of Norwegian comics from Jippi; I SAW YOU..., an anthology of missed connections stories edited by Julia Wertz.

Yuichi Yokoyama's TRAVEL was a stealth "best of 2008" comic for many. It's a comic that is of interest strictly due to its formal innovations, which make up the entirety of the story. It's a silent story about three men who board a commuter train, and then get off the train at the end and look out at a waterfront. The end. This book is all about the journey, as Yokohama stunningly plays with time, motion, light and perspective in mind-bending ways. As the train is in motion, the three men are also walking forward, tugging at the reader's eye and daring it to keep up. There are weird, unexplained tensions felt among the characters and the people they encounter, but much like anyone's experience riding a train, we can only guess at the stories of those around us.

ANGST is a collection of short works from a variety of Norwegian artists, translated into English. Jason is the biggest name featured here (with two stories I haven't seen elsewhere), but in general this is a varied and beautiful anthology. It's perhaps structured and edited a bit haphazardly, but it's obvious that this book is an attempt to get the works of its featured artists out to an English-speaking audience. The number of approaches in this book are remarkably varied, with each artist pulling from almost completely disparate sets of influences. While the entire collection is strong, the main highlights include a strip by Lars Fiske & Steffen Kverneland and their quest to rediscover the works of 20th century Norwegian cartoonist Olaf Gulbransson; a hauntingly weird strip called "Borre is Dead" by Odd Henning Skyllinstad featuring anthropomorphic penguins; and a hilarious silent strip by Knut Naerum titled "Liberation", about an animal lover's good deeds getting punished. I had the rare experience of wishing this anthology was longer when I finished it, and there was little in the way of filler or perfunctory material. I hope that Norwegian publisher Jippi publishes further volumes.

Up and coming cartoonist Lydia Conklin was the featured artist in the fifth issue of BEESWAX, a mixed-media literary magazine that features poetry and short stories as well as comics. She continues to specialize in comics about children and the societies they form around each other, as well as the deep sense of mystery and awe between children and animals. Conklin has the uncanny ability to tap into the psyche of children, as seen in strips like "The Quietest Meal of the Year". That strip features several scenes of kids at summer camp holding utterly chaotic court, living their lives out loud. Then it switches to one of the girls at the table back at home, eating in silence, clearly suffocated by being forced back into an old role by her parents.

"The Hair" is a grotesque but funny strip about a girl chewing on a strand of her hair until it's tied so tightly around her tongue that she has to go to the emergency room. After it's removed, she finds that she's become hooked on the experience--a form of self-exploration and self-mutilation of sorts and one that clearly baffles adults. "One Second" sees a girl encounter a dog at camp, their eyes locking for a moment and then moving on. One can sense the girl knowing that the dog is looking at her, knowing that the girl is looking at it. That kind of mutual self-affirmation has even greater power considering that it felt like a secret or a mystery, that humans and animals aren't supposed to have these sorts of encounters. A similar feeling emerges from "Lubi", only this time it's tinged by a loss made more painful in that others around the girl protagonist didn't feel it as well. Finally, the two related "Riley" strips feature a girl who is moved to England and the extreme discomfort and alienation she feels, especially with her sole friend who is clearly in love with her. These strips don't quite have the same emotional power as the other stories from Conklin, who is most effective when her subject matter (and line) is at its rawest. It's that emotional rawness and unsentimental presentation of how children think and act among themselves that has made Conklin's comics debut such a forceful one.

I SAW YOU... in general has a very high hit to miss ratio, given that editor Julia Wertz had an open submissions policy. The way the anthology was structured was both a strength and weakness. The concept is simple: cartoonists adapting "missed connections" ads. Wertz provided the artist with a bunch of ads and they chose one to illustrate (or did something on their own). Those ads tend to be equal parts funny, sad and pathetic, which is the perfect blend for cartoonists. The strips that were most successful were the ones that turned the text on its head in unexpected ways--either for humorous or horrific effect. The least successful strips were the most straightforward; on their own, they were fine, but that cumulative effect of that much sameness led to pages and artists blurring together.

Given that constraint of theme leading to some repetition, this is still an unusually strong collection with a number of standout entries. While making notes on the article, I name-checked nearly two dozen different creators whose strips stood out. Damien Jay's was the most formally clever while still working in the spirit of the assignment. His strip flowed from character to character, as they "spoke" their ad to their intended, and then moved on to another obsessive person. Ken Dahl and Laura Park both mined similar territory in their multiple strips, matching ridiculous prose ("let's try to show each other the full 'stick'") with misanthropes, losers, and creeps for an experience both comedic and unsettling. That realization that these ads are an expression of obsession and not necessarily something to be flattered by was brought home in Sarah Morean's funny strip about her own secret admirer and the eventual sinking feeling that she was being stalked. Mike Wenthe & Isaac Cates reversed that realization when someone who placed one of those ads on craigslist gets a vicious reply that sets him straight.

Robin Enrico and Damon "The Ink Lab" Brown have entries that are interesting mostly because of their extreme stylization. Enrico cleverly depicted a flirty arm-wrestling match as though it were a video game (a go-to graphic specialty of his), while Brown used unusual angles and line thicknesses combined with a deliberately busy use of word balloons to show us a bustling street-side encounter. On the other end, Gabrielle Bell and Kazimir Strzepek delve into the nature of human connections, with Bell relishing a conversation that resulted from her reaching the wrong person over the phone and Kaz using a seemingly unconnected narrator for a character rushing into work, only to deliver a crushing blow at the end. The layout for both strips is entirely conventional, but both artists thoughtfully explored the anthology's theme in interesting ways.

Most of the best strips in the book are played for comedic effect. Some of them work because the drawings themselves are funny, like Colleen Frakes' hilarious drawing of a hockey player as crush object or Peter Bagge's evisceration of text with his over-the-top stylings. Other strips with great punchlines include those by Jesse Reklaw, Lisa Hanawalt (who also contributes a funny drawing), Tom Hart, Wertz herself and Joey Sayers. Sayers takes an image from an ad and runs with it in the most absurd way possible. There are at least a dozen other worthwhile strips in this anthology, which has contributions from a great number of the most talented young cartoonists working today and a number of veterans as well. If the theme intrigues a reader in any way, then it's certainly a must-read.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

On The Precipice: Berlin, City of Smoke

Rob reviews the latest collection of Jason Lutes' work of historical fiction, BERLIN: CITY OF SMOKE (Drawn & Quarterly).

Jason Lutes' series BERLIN is one of the last holdouts in the world of alt-comics in terms of its serialization. The first issue of the series debuted in 1996 with a different publisher (Black Eye Press) and he's released a new issue every fifteen months or so ever since. The painstaking nature of both the research involved in thinking about Berlin between the world wars along with Lutes' exacting clear-line style have made it a slow grind in terms of its production, though Lutes did step up the frequency of each issue as he neared the end of volume 2. In terms of style, it's one of the most easily approachable of all alt-comics, recognizable as a Robert Altman-esque blend of different characters' stories and the ways in which they intersect. Lutes' dedication to clarity on the page means that one can either linger on individual images or zip down a page and still take in the information needed to understand the story. Of course, the subject matter in some ways is a bit obscure, at least at first, until one sees that Berlin's decay and eventual embrace of fascism is a story that's been repeated any number of times, in any number of places.

Lutes aims at telling the larger story of the tremendous upheaval in Berlin through a number of characters from all walks of life. There's the pacifist journalist Kurt Severing, who can see what's coming from the fascists but feels helpless to stop it. There's Horst, whose wife Gudrun was drawn to communism and killed by police in the May Day riot that ended the first volume. There's Marthe, the naive art student drawn into a relationship with Kurt and later finding herself exploring other aspects of identity and sexuality. There's Silvia, Gudrun's daughter who became a runaway after the riot and who falls in with a scavenger. This volume introduces an American jazz band ("the Cocoa Kids") on the road in Berlin, eventually connecting them with a minor character from the first volume and some unexpected plot twists. We see Berlin through the eyes of rich and poor, communist and Nazi, educated and street-smart, cynical and romantic, idealistic and world-weary. Lutes weaves the events of history and lets it flow and wash around his characters, some of whom are directly involved with the events and others who prefer to ignore it altogether.

The title could refer to any number of possibilities, but my take relates to how one can't grab on or hold on to smoke. It appears, it may linger, but it eventually dissipates. One simply has to wait for the smoke to clear, as it were, revealing harsh truths. This book ends with the National Socialist party having gained a majority in the German parliament, a harsh truth that was about to have grave effects. In the meantime, this book deals with that lingering smoke: nights spent in jazz clubs, days spent with fellow pacifists or communists or artists in cafes and parlors--all of whom spoke passionately but to no end; days spent not having to worry about how the world was going to immediately affect you. As in smoke and mirrors, it's all an illusion. And it perhaps alludes to the Reichstag going up in smoke a couple of years later, allowing Hitler to seize total control.

If Lutes has remarkable control over the flow of each character's story and how he drifts from one narrative to the next, he's a bit more clunky when introducing new characters. That was certainly true in the first few issues of the series as well as when the jazz musicians were introduced; as a reader, I felt the author's narrative hand nudging me and telling me "Look! New characters! They're introducing themselves to you!" It stands out because Lutes otherwise is a paragon of restraint in his storytelling, making acts of violence all the more visceral when they do occur.

The slow pace of the story allows Lutes to delve deeply into each character's inner life. Even the most brutish of characters have moments of tenderness, like a scene where Horst is bathing his on and daughter. Severing seems to be the closest thing Lutes has a mouthpiece in this story, but he's also portrayed as increasingly weak and ineffectual--both as a viable lover and as a difference-maker in his world. One interesting formal trick Lutes employs on occasion is showing the reader a crowd scene, revealing the thoughts that grip each character at that one moment in time, and then follow one character from that group and their thoughts into the next scene. Those thoughts range from thinking about food, sex, going to the bathroom to quite deeper thoughts. It reinforces Lutes' sense of trying to capture a series of moments in a specific time and place, that this could be anyone's story in the city.

BERLIN features an interesting premise and setting, a rich array of characters, and a complex storyline rife with room for discussion of all sorts of ideas. None of this would be effective without Lutes' amazing line. He manages to pull off the rare trick of using a line that is distinctive and clear without being overly slick. It's naturalistic but with a slightly rubbery quality that makes each page and each character feel like an organic entity. The city of Berlin itself is most decidedly its own character, from the crowded intersections to run-down buildings to blood-soaked stones. Lutes' line makes the reader feel the life in the city. No degree of "realism" in an art style can bring the past to life (something he jabs it in his depiction of the artists obsessed with Objectivism), but Lutes' organic style evokes a feeling of what it might have been like to have lived in Germany at that time.

The central theme to the book is how each individual tries to make sense of chaos. A number of characters, both educated and ignorant, are sick of the corruption and chaos of Weimar Republic Germany and so latch on to the tenets of National Socialism because it promises order. A number of Germans, resentful of the way the Treaty of Versailles defanged the nation after World War I, clung deeply to the notion of "Germany for Germans" and targeted immigrants and Jews in particular as their scapegoats. Marthe embraces the chaos, letting it sweep her along without questioning. Kurt clings to his ideals but despairs of his tools, eventually burning all of his work in progress because he came to realize that his words were futile in stopping the fascists. The Jewish characters close ranks around each other and their faith, while the idealogues (Communists and Fascists alike) employ the same sort of emotive, rabble-rousing speeches to draw support--both of which appeal to a central authority even as each preaches its own brand of brotherhood. At its heart, BERLIN speaks to the meeting-point of dogma and desperation and how the former appeals to those afflicted by the latter.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Imagining Local Legends: Beasts! Book 2

Rob reviews the recent illustrated compendium of legendary creatures, BEASTS! Book 2. It was edited by Jacob Covey and published by Fantagraphics.

The now two-volume Beasts! series has to have one of the oddest premises for a successful coffee table book that I've ever seen. Artists are given descriptions of legendary creatures (manlike and otherwise) and asked to bring them to life in their own style. The artists recruited for the book include well-known cartoonists, fine artists, illustrators, skateboard artists, children's book illustrators and graphic designers. Each illustration features a description on its facing page, told in an entirely straightforward fashion no matter how far-fetched the creature might be. The reason why these books work is because of the total buy-in on the part of the editor, artists and writers of the book. BEASTS! isn't simply a sort of arty Monster Manual; instead, it's meant as a sort of cultural anthropology project crossed with cryptozoology.

The creatures depicted here have a few things in common. Some of them seem to be genuinely odd animals that do exist but have remained elusive. Dan Zettwoch (who seems to have been born to do this sort of book) is one of the few artists who contributed an actual comic strip to the proceedings, brilliantly crafting one of his schematic comics to depict a vessel encountering the Kraken, or what we know as a giant squid. The existence of this creature has been proven, but but its aggressive tendencies are the stuff of legend. That speaks to a variant on the creatures in this book: things that might exist but whose form and behavior is greatly exaggerated. A creature's height, weight, number of teeth, and general ferocity no doubt increases in every retelling of that initial encounter.

The invention of some of the monsters can be seen as a sort of cultural metaphor to deal with shame, especially with regard to sex and sexuality. Others can be linked to a fear of death and the unknown, with the monsters becoming personifications of these concepts. These sorts of beasts become warnings against venturing out into the unknown, a corrective against curiosity. The more vivid the dread generated from a widespread belief in the concept, the more likely it is that deviant or insolent behavior can be contained. As such, BEASTS! 2 serves to document this historical, cross-cultural tendency as much as the monsters themselves.

Highlights of the book included Eleanor Davis' bannik, a creature that can help women tell the future but is otherwise ferocious; Jim Woodring's delightfully warped drawing of a scolopendra & a hippocamp; and Stephane Blanquet's unforgettable & disturbing satyr. Jon Vermilyea and Roger Langridge both contribute funny drawings (true to their own style), with Gene Deitch's serpentine iku-turso was done in the manner of his "sea servant" from his old Terr'ble Thompson strip. The editorial approach here was mostly hands-off, but Covey managed to arrange things so that the reader would get a fair share of variety in terms of tone. With humorists like Langridge and Peter Bagge being asked to contribute to the book, one knew that they would give us funny pictures even if there wasn't a joke, while others drenched their illustrations in gore.

The most successful illustrations in the book where those that were relatively easy to process for a reader. Some of them were just a little too busy, though the reader was rewarded with Dash Shaw's clever drawing of the Wivre, the text for which made very clear why the things in the drawing were occurring. At the opposite spectrum is the entry by Julie Morstad; her spare but haunting drawing of a selkie is one of my favorite in the book. In its own category is the illustration that Thomas Allen constructed: it was a photo of some playing cards cut and reconfigured so as to simulate the attack of Deer Woman, yet another monster preying upon human lust and sexuality.

BEASTS! allows each creator to interpret each creature's myth for themselves and determine what approach was best. Each artist chose their beast to best suit their own abilities and tendencies. This volume really dug deep into Greek mythology, some of the earliest recorded instances of the fantastic being used to explain the mysterious. This gets at the heart of why so many different cultures invented the same sorts of warning/danger figures. For a small or closed-in society, these fears can help bind a clan and keep everyone in line. Other figures are presented as obstacles for that culture's hero figures to overcome, which implicitly are metaphors for the triumph of a culture's virtues over its vices. BEASTS! mingles myths, warnings, fairy tales, correctives, and genuinely unexplained phenomena and allows its artists to run with them. The end result is a consistently beautiful, lovingly assembled book that forms a kind of metacommentary on the entire notion of the fantastic.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Idiosyncratic Expressions: Two New Comics From Sparkplug

Rob reviews two new comics from Sparkplug: JIN AND JAM #1, by Hellen Jo; and DANNY DUTCH, by David King.

In small press comics, the output from a publisher tends to reflect their own personal aesthetic, even when they exert no editorial control over them. That shows through in things like design and format, creating a sort of house style, especially when a publisher puts out a limited number of comics in a given year. For Dylan Williams' Sparkplug Comic Books, this couldn't be any less true. Williams' own work is frequently quirky and personal, so it's no surprise that he encourages the artists whose work he publishes to feel unfettered in the way they express themselves. The result is a catalog that contains very little overlap in style or subject matter, yet is all compelling. There's a sense of obsession that follows each artist's work from Sparkplug, as though they simply must get their ideas down on the page or else. For a comics reader who is a true omnivore, it makes reading Sparkplug's output especially appealing.

Williams is also unusual in that he prints a lot of pamphlet comics. Two fairly recent such comics, JIN AND JAM #1 and the first collection of DANNY DUTCH, couldn't be any more different in terms of visual style, narrative qualities or content. David King's DANNY DUTCH is somewhere between Steve Weissman's stuff and John Hankiewicz's (by way of Charles Schulz) in terms of the character design and set-ups of the former and the narrative abstraction of the latter. I remember seeing some of these posted online and not really being engaged by them. Reading a collection of the strips, what King was doing finally clicked for me. The strip has a sort of dizzying quality as King finds ways to simultaneously distance and engage his readers. He introduces these cutely-drawn, grown-up kid characters who are sometimes grappling with existential concerns and sometimes grappling with scatological humor (and often both at once). King loves grounding the absurd in a staid package, and occasionally taking the reader out of their comfort zone by going from a cute, iconic style to a more visceral, naturalistic style--usually to depict something horrible or stunning.

King's chops as an artist are remarkable. He's in total control of his line, presenting the reader with at least three different styles of visual representation: cartoony, stick-figure and naturalistic. Some of his strips have punch lines, but he's not afraid to simply relate an anecdote or emotional yearning instead of a gag. King's work is also surprisingly raunchy at times, but that raunch is restrained and made more powerful as a result of him chanelling it into resolving either an anecdote or feeling in each story. Some of the most pervasive emotions depicted include regret, loneliness, curiosity and camaraderie. One can't help but get swept along in this quirky collection of strips that speaks loudly through its quietude.

On the other hand, there's little that's quiet about Hellen Jo's JIN AND JAM. Like King (and in the tradition of Schulz), she's clearly exploring different aspects of her self through her various characters. King's characters seem to exist in their own world, while Jo's characters are very much grounded in a familiar sort of suburban malaise that they're reacting against. "Reacting" is a good word to describe what her young teens are doing in this story and how she depicts it visually. They're literally pushing, grabbing, punching and reaching for a life that has some kind of spark beyond the status quo. While King's strip has a deliberately flattened quality to the art (making us aware that it's very much a comic strip, and then subverting that awareness), Jo comes at the reader with all kinds of crazy angles and perspectives. There's also a certain propulsiveness to what she's doing, pushing the reader along the page.

The story is a simple and familiar one. Jam is clearly an outsider, thumbing her nose at authority (depicted as both brutish and buffoonish) whenever possible. Sitting outside a church with a friend, she meets Jin, who would seem to be a "good girl" until she swipes a cigarette as she's leaving. That sets up a time-honored scenario in alt-comics: a bunch of teens trying to get into see their favorite band play but getting denied. While that's straight out of the Jaime Hernandez playbook, it's really more of an opportunity to get these seeming opposites (but actual complements) together in an effort to figure each other out. The triggering event and highlight of the issue was a harrowing but hilarious fistfight between Jin and Ting & Terng, conjoined twins. One can sense the glee that Jo took in drawing the two of them fighting as dirty as imaginable; those scenes pop off the page. It's the visceral quality of this comic that separates it from other stories in this genre; Jo really has a way of positioning figures that makes the reader almost feel their sweat, breath and blood. It's an uncomfortable and in-your-face sensation, but one that makes for compelling reading.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Fending Off Stasis: Little Nothings 2

Rob reviews the latest collection of Lewis Trondheim's strips from his blog, LITTLE NOTHINGS 2: THE PRISONER SYNDROME (NBM).

Cartoonists are often known for living a sedentary, secluded lifestyle. By its nature, drawing is usually a solitary pursuit, demanding hours of labor. The great Lewis Trondheim, through his comics blog on his website, seems dedicated to being the exception to this rule. The strip that lends this collection its name discusses "the prisoner's syndrome" wherein a lack of activity leads to a further lack of desire for activity, creating a vicious circle that leads to stasis and intellectual death. Trondheim has always been interested in not just art but what it means to be an artist and how this relates to being a human being in general. In his "At Loose Ends" autobio strip, he obsesses over the relationship between age and creativity and how it seems to have affected so many cartoonists. His LITTLE NOTHINGS strips act as a diary strip, of course, but they also seem to serve a larger purpose. There's a lushness to his drawings and use of color that establishes that he's drawing and coloring simply to keep that act pleasurable. By the same token, writing about amusing, poignant or bizarre moments of his own life (even if he does take creative license with certain details) is an easy way to keep a creator's story-creating facility sharp. He's "drawing from life" in both senses of the phrase--drawing what he sees, and drawing from his well of experiences.

He's careful to draw himself on the move as much as he is at home. To combat prisoner's syndrome, he intentionally accepts as many invitations to appear at comics festivals as possible. Staying in motion and seeing new things seems to be key to him to stave off intellectual decay, and these strips are a sort of exercise he's sharing with readers. Trondheim expertly elicits an emotional response from each strip, be it laughter or sympathy. What separates him from most other journal comics is that he's hilarious and a master at framing small moments into punchlines. Some of that humor is physical, like the way he draws himself swatting at tiny insects. Other strips delve into his own fantasy world, delving into some paranoic daydream. Others are situational, dominated by his own internal narrative as he negotiates his world.

Of course, I'd urge anyone interested in this book to also pick up the first volume in this series. There are echoes of the first book that sound strongly in the second. For example, when his family took in two cats in the first book, he immediately worried about one of them dying, but consoling himself that the other would be around. He has to face up to the mortality of one of the cats in this book and how it relates to his internally generated belief in karma and bad luck. Another digression in this book concerns Trondheim's adventures as president of the Angouleme comics festival, an honor he received in the first volume. He depicts being in charge as not what it was cracked up to be--he can't even get an open bar at his hotel. When the torch is passed to a new artist at the end of the festival, Trondheim allows himself a moment of self-pity, even if he is winking a bit at himself while doing it.

That dry sense of humor is what I like best about Trondheim's authorial voice. It allows him to get away with all sorts of slapstick and physical humor without seeming too silly, and also allows him to write about more serious topics without seeming too ponderous. It helps that his style, depicting characters as anthropomorphic animals, is enormously expressive & clever without being cloying or too cute. His characters are his vehicles of expression, slightly abstracted for comedic effect, while his backgrounds are often lush and naturalistically depicted. With the characters, he wants us to "read" them in the context of a narrative. With his backgrounds, he wants us to look at them (and of course, he wants to look at them as well).

Of course, Trondheim lets us in on a little secret: one's life narrative is not the same thing as one's life. Details can be forgotten or omitted, or shaped to fit a story better. His partner calls him out on one strip where he depicts his family as deliberately "defiling tradition" by opening their christmas presents early. In a later strip, his partner provides more details, showing that the way Trondheim drew it omitted crucial context and information that changed the nature of the event. Trondheim drew a corrective strip but also fumed, "I can't even do what I want." That moment, and later strips where he's reading blog comments on things he discusses in past strips, reflects his own self-awareness about the difference between narrative and experience. As readers, we are fortunate that Trondheim is a master of connecting micronarratives and simultaneously embuing them with a wide range of emotional possibilities. He's a born storyteller and can't help but spin even the smallest moments into narrative, his mind in constant motion to combat the prisoner's syndrome.