Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Short Reviews: Jo Dery, Sleazy Slice, Grady Klein

Short takes on a few works: QUIETLY SURE--LIKE THE KEEPER OF A GREAT SECRET, by Jo Dery; SLEAZY SLICE #3, edited by Robin Bougie; and THE LOST COLONY VOL 3, by Grady Klein.

QUIETLY SURE--LIKE THE KEEPER OF A GREAT SECRET, by Jo Dery. This is another beautiful book from Little Otsu: well-crafted, well-designed and lovely to look at. Dery's art has a slightly immersive quality (not unlike Theo Ellsworth's approach) but also makes the reader look at the page perhaps more than read it. There's a loose narrative about a series of creatures searching for meaning or solutions to their woes, all of which wind up eventually crossing over into each other. There are actually some quite clever narrative touches to be found that coalesce after a couple of readings that evoke a certain wistfulness. Dery has the rare skill of being able to modulate the story's emotional content purely through her use of decorative flourishes. A shadow here, a lonely tree there and a set of background designs all serve to move the reader's feelings rather than just one's eye. This is a book about seeking what's missing in one's life: sight, a true home, knowledge, and how finding them is sometimes a matter of letting them find you. This is a book that in many ways is incredibly slight and manipulative by turns, yet is ultimately redeemed by an almost palpable sincerity that matches the artist's skill.

SLEAZY SLICE #3, edited by Robin Bougie. It's a Robin Bougie-led project, which means three things: 1) It will be impeccably drawn, with an emphasis on detailed linework; 2) It will have lots of sex; 3) It will be incredibly violent. Bougie's "Human Cows" gleefully shatters any number of taboos with this story of women used to pump milk to feed to cows in a world where cows are dying and the rich still need meat. Like most of the stories in this comic, there's a real bleakness and cynicism regarding sex and human relations. The brutal ending of this story reminded me a bit of what the Marquis DeSade used to do in his stories, but the upbeat Bougie still manages a nod and a wink in acknowledging the source material for this particular kink. Josh Simmons' "Cockbone" is no less brutal a story, but is filtered through his own surreal sensibility. Simmons creates worlds with his story that run on dark magic and dream logic as much as they do on rationality. He especially loves to play out twisted, hillbilly family dynamics in the form of a Candide-like innocent forced to run a gauntlet of misery. The story I enjoyed most was husband-wife team SCAR's "Wild Bessi", a bizarre and hilarious mix of wild west tropes and pornapocalyptic weirdness. A man on the run in the wild west encounters all sorts of weird and dangerous sex-related creatures: cowgirls who are part cow and part girl, centaur women with multiple genitalia, sex-crazed horses, dickworms, etc. It's the funniest story in the book, in large part because it plays it straight. Like most of the things Bougie publishes, the audience for this one is largely self-selecting: one look, and you'll know whether or not it's for you.

THE LOST COLONY, VOLUME 3, by Grady Klein. I hadn't read the first two volumes of this series and was prepared to be baffled and/or disinterested. Klein is also an animator by trade and it shows in his exaggerated character design, thickness of line and dependence on color for storytelling. When I often see a comic done by an animator, it's usually too slick-looking for my eyes to latch onto. I didn't find that to be the case with Klein's work, however, in part because of the eccentricity of his characters and the surprisingly dark story that he tells here. It's sort of like BONE meets NAT TURNER in this comic, dealing with a mysterious, hidden land teeming with secrets that happens to be a haven for escaped slaves, mystics and other outsiders. Like BONE, the central character is an innocent with a strong will who has some unusual connections to her home. However, the racial tensions in the story are always simmering and come to a head at the end of this story.

Klein pulls it off because of the way he positions Birdy, the little girl who is central to the story. Like most of the story's protagonists, she is not entirely sympathetic as a character, even though her heart's in the right place. She has a certain Dennis the Menace quality to her, especially when Klein draws her flitting all over the landscape in a single panel, as though she had clones of herself. The last connection to BONE is actually a connection to Jeff Smith's twin inspirations of Walt Kelly & Carl Barks. Like Kelly, the island swampland is its own character of sorts, informing the lives of every character. Like Barks, there's a constant propulsiveness to the cartooning, especially with regard to Birdy but with other characters as well. Klein transcends his influences with his own unique mythology and grounding of the fantasy elements of the story in history.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Adrian Tomine: Old and New

Reviewed are two recent re-releases from Drawn & Quarterly by Adrian Tomine: a new edition of 32 STORIES (a collection of the original OPTIC NERVE minicomics) and a paperback edition of SHORTCOMINGS (his most recent work).

It was a pleasure to compare the early and latest strips from Adrian Tomine, whose sheer ambition as a writer is a wonder to behold. In many ways, Tomine is the epitome of the neurotic, self-conscious, loner cartoonist stereotype. It's why so many comics fans give him so much grief: he takes himself and his work very seriously, making him an easy target for mockery. There's also the charge that he writes too much about the lives of so-called "hipsters" and/or too-obvious character stand-ins for himself, dipping into self-indulgence. I find these charges to be nonsensical, given that most of his strips featuring thinly-disguised stand-in characters are brutally self-deprecatory. None of his stories do anything to glorify the lives of hipsters. Indeed, what Tomine is the master of is distancing character from reader. Like his biggest influence, Dan Clowes, Tomine actively creates antipathy between reader and protagonist. He plays this antipathy for acidic laughs, especially in SHORTCOMINGS. Tomine's constant flattening of affect (both in word and image) creates a weird tension on the page where lust, guilt and jealousy are bubbling under. His greatest skill is making the reader want to read a story where virtually every character is awful yet totally believable.

Tomine's work is about authenticity and the way people desperately avoid authentic speech and action. The artist's eye and pen are harsh judges of inauthentic action, especially in himself. That shows in his harsh assessment of 32 STORIES, a new edition of his minicomic version of OPTIC NERVE. Tomine goes into great detail as to his reluctance to have this material reprinted because of its rawness, but relented if it could be reprinted in its original format. He didn't pretend that this approach was any less self-aggrandizing (coming in a fancy box and even featuring the Optic Nerve sticker from #4), but he did think it was a more honest approach--warts 'n all. Tomine's demolition of his own author's statement from 1995 is hilarious, as he calls himself out for copying Dan Clowes and David Mazzucchelli, being vain and having no sense of humor about himself. To that end, he reprinted an embarrassing photo of himself from his high school yearbook that someone tried to humiliate him with on the web a few years ago.

What stands out about these seven minicomics was his astounding ambition as an artist at a very young age, having published the first when he was sixteen. His earliest strips were crude but bursting with energy, dealing with small and often brutal moments. While the sort of emotional distancing that Tomine would make his trademark was present, these stories frequently had a visceral quality that would fade as his line became more sophisticated. They felt a bit like Tomine going through his R.Crumb/Julie Doucet underground phase. Still, his early autobio was frequently hilarious, especially when he started grappling with the idea of reporting "truth" in these stories. Early on, it became quite clear that, like many authors, Tomine revealed more of his true self through fictional characters than his own autobio persona.

Indeed, that latter persona was as deliberate and artificial a creation as any of his fictional characters. His character Amy was a combination of extrapolating the life of someone he saw at a bookstore and his own yearnings as a loner. His own self-caricature had an appropriately blank expression, his eyes always obscured by his glasses. That figure was an apt representation of the impotence he felt in expressing his rage; "Adrian Quits His Job" featured him apparently screaming at his own boss, his face dissolving in a bit of Ralph Steadman-esque scribble, until we see that such an expression of anger was simply a fantasy.

The fifth issue saw him start to move into his mature style, and the sixth issue featured two significant stories in "Smoke" and "Leather Jacket"--distilled but restrained expressions of despair and freedom with regard to relationships. The seventh and last issue saw him go into full-on Clowes mode in terms of both line and narrative style, but the best story was "Happy Anniversary", the kind of examination of a doomed relationship that would become Tomine's trademark.

Fast-forwarding to SHORTCOMINGS, we find Tomine's line and voice honed to a razor's edge. By this time, he had shed the slickness that had started to infect his work around the time of OPTIC NERVE #7, simplying and clarifying it while at the same time adding a level of sophistication in his character expressiveness and understanding of gesture and body language. Indeed, a big part of the storytelling in this book consists of body language belying actual speech, especially on the part of the putative protagonist of the book, Ben Tanaka. The story finds the stuck-in-his-ways Ben taking his girlfriend Miko for granted and not-so-secretly pining for sexual encounters with white women--his forbidden fruit.

The character of Ben is an obvious Tomine stand-in (they even share the same allergies down to olive bark), but it's a stand-in that feels almost like self-flagellation--or perhaps self-exorcism. It's a character that's a mass of insecurity, self-hatred, wheel-spinning and paranoia. His intelligence and lack of tolerance for fakeness in others (especially with regard to race) is constantly undermined by his relentless negativity and blindness to his own hypocrisy. With Tanaka, we get a character who engages in arguments with his girlfriend that have an almost painful verisimilitude, gets off hilarious and vicious one-liners but winds up being the butt of a particularly nasty joke, courtesy of fate.

The central conflict of the book is really Ben's conflict with himself and lack of willingness to embrace or even approach change. He doesn't want his girlfriend to explore her racial identity; he doesn't want his best friend to move to New York; he doesn't want to think about why he's managing a movie theatre instead of taking a hard look at his life. He not only doesn't want to think about the mire that his life has become, he wants everyone in it to stay mired with him. It's not til he comes to the final punchline of the book that he faces up to this fact, not allowing his best friend to speak ill of his now ex-girlfriend, saying "We all have our reasons".

What makes this book more than just a nuanced look at the end of a relationship is Tomine's fearless handling of race. He zeroes in on stereotypes, forbidden fantasies and desires publicly denied. Tomine plays these for awkward, uncomfortable laughs in brilliant scene after brilliant scene. His control both over his line and over character dialogue & interaction gives his comics a powerful tension between restraint and boiling-over passions. SHORTCOMINGS is proof positive that Tomine found his voice as one of the best naturalistic, slice-of-life cartoonists in comics. He's not a brilliant formalist, but rather sticks to his strengths and has refined them to a level that make every page and panel pleasurable to simply look at without reading dialogue.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Trip To Forbidden Planet, NYC

Wherein a visit to the fabulous minicomics aisle of one of New York's best comics shops is described and said minicomics purchased are discussed.

During my last trip to Manhattan, I wanted to be sure to drop by Forbidden Planet because I knew that Austin English was ordering for and stocking their minicomics aisle. English is an interesting cartoonist, critic and editor; his WINDY CORNER MAGAZINE combines all three impulses in a quirky, personal package. As a critic, he's introduced me to a number of artists that would later become favorites of mine (Juliacks and Lilli Carre', to name two). As such, I was curious to see what he might recommend for me to read from FP's huge selection. The aisle is organized by title and would take at least a solid hour to go through from top to bottom as a browser.

Dropping by on a busy Saturday afternoon (the already-cramped store was practically shoulder-to-shoulder in some spots), I was lucky enough to spot Austin right away. He was gracious enough to take the time to be my personal minicomics shopper: if he recommended it, I was buying it. There were some things that he recommended that I already had (like an old Megan Kelso mini or various issues of PAPERCUTTER), but I wound up with a nice stack of comics mostly by cartoonists I had never heard of. What follows is a set of brief impressions of the comics that Austin suggested for me.

RATTLETRAP #1 and #2, by Jerry Smith. This was one of my favorite discoveries of this batch. Smith crams dozens of panels on a page with minimalist artwork (barely even stick figures for most of it) as he relates mostly funny stories from his everyday life. Once you adjust to the rhythms of this comic, it becomes almost hypnotizing: one wants to read more and more. These comics' biggest highlights come when Smith and his wife talk to, tease and/or yell at each other. It's amazing how much affection one feels on the page for these characters despite their ultra-simplified depiction.

Romero Burruel's EMPTY #3, by John Frizzelle. This is a fascinatingly scratchy will-to-power of a comic. The main character is a down-and-out artist struggling to find reasons to keep going and rediscover discipline and passion regarding his art. After an initial dream, the comic shares his internal monologue on his tour through his distractions and excuses until he stands at a point where he's out of time and has to make a decision on what he's really all about. What I thought was interesting was his struggle with the conflation of being an artist with being bourgeois. Were the two inseparable? He eventually rejects the only idea of authenticity as living under a bridge, completely divorced from consumer culture, and comes to an uneasy internal truce. I'm curious if the other issues all deal with the same ideas, or if it's something different every time. I quite liked the way Frizzelle shifted between his scratchy art for his characters and the paintings the character created.

ASBESTOS WICK, by Eamon Espey. The cartoonist behind WORMDYE was one of my favorite discoveries last year. This mini is a collection of nightmarish, hallucinatory yet ultimately funny images depicting worship, dismemberment, ritual sex, myths, and rollicking high adventure. There's not a narrative, per se, but there is a disturbing internal logic that draws the eye to slowly peruse every corner of every page for all of the weird details. I'd recommend reading WORMDYE--and thoroughly absorbing its less straightforward sections--before reading this comic.

TALES OF BLARG #9, by Janelle Hessig. This is a jam-packed, old-school, rock'n'roll sort of zine. Hessig and friends expound hilariously on sex (best is "Ugly People I Wanna Do It To"), drugs, exhibitionism, weird desires, weird people they've met, people from bands they like, hipsters, crusties and much more about the world that surrounds them in Berkeley. It's a very personal zine that still seeks to entertain and/or disgust on every page--the perfect antidote to the more cloying personal zines of people like Nicole Georges. It's rare to read a zine that reveals so many embarrassing personal details that doesn't feel like tedious navel-gazing or whining. Hessig is someone who laughs at the world no matter the situation, and that's how things play out in her comics.

RAMBLE ON!, by Calvin Wong. This is another entry in the new school of alt-fantasy/gamer comics that includes stuff like DUNGEON, Alex Robinson's delightful LOWER REGIONS comic, Jesse Reklaw's BLUEFUZZ, the ELFWORLD anthology, etc. The hallmark of that school is a genuine affection for fantasy tropes and narratives, a good-faith effort at establishing same, and the sort of mockery for this genre that can only come from an insider. RAMBLE ON! succeeds on all three fronts, and throws in video-game tropes as well. The bard-like protagonist seeks membership in a band, has a guitar battle with an Ent that resembles Guitar Hero as much as anything else, and finally gains entrance. The backup story, about the quotidian affairs of an evil sorceror, was even funnier. Wong's art works because he's so deft at character design & interaction, as well as panel-to-panel transitions. The scratchy nature of his line adds some nice texture to these pages--not unlike illustrations from an old Monster Manual.

ESCHEW #1, by Robert Sergel. Simplicity is the key to this comic's success. Sergel uses a stark, bold style that reminds me a bit of John Hankiewicz's line, minus the cross-hatching. Sergel uses a clear, thin line in all of his work, and gives it depth in some strips by contrasting it with a lot of blacks and lightness in others by removing blacks altogether. The stories are funny vignettes that appear to be autobiographical, with "Thirteen Bad Experiences Involving Water" being the centerpiece of the issue. There's a dry sense of humor in each strip as Sergel never forces a punchline or ever uses a funny drawing; indeed, the source info for the gags is often in the title of the strip. There's nothing revolutionary about this comic, but it is a fine read by an artist who has very quickly found his voice.

NIGHT BUSINESS #2, by Benjamin Marra. Austin mentioned that Sammy Harkham told him how much he liked this one. Reading this book felt like someone had dropped a slapped-off comic from the black & white explosion of the 80s in my lap, and it's either a brilliantly deadpan parody of 80's erotic thriller cliches or an unabashedly gleeful celebration of same. Honestly, I don't want to know. It is pretty funny, in a crudely-executed way, but isn't the sort of joke I'd care to hear again and again.

PANPIPES #3, by Jesse McManus. This was my "what the hell is this" experience of this batch, not having read McManus's stuff before. These are weird fairy tales of sorts featuring goblins, odd children, anthropomorphic animals and other such creatures engaging in all sorts of violent shenanigans. This is a fascinating-looking series of drawings of characters in constant motion, with the slight sheen of someone who seems as though they're at home with animation as well as comics. There's a slickness to the weirdness, a clean line used for dirty purposes, not unlike a Kevin Scalzo. I found my eye falling off the page a bit because it was so slick, but it was sure fun to look at.

IN THE TALL GRASS #3, by Tessa Brunton. Brunton writes and draws some sharply funny autobio stories, told somewhere inbetween the style of Vanessa Davis and Julia Wertz. There's a great page called "Comix Fer Yer Wall" that pleasingly stacks a bunch of short strips of varying length (ranging between 2 and 8 panels), with subjects ranging from a crackhead's persistent phone calls to a memory of her "telepathic" babysitter to her dog's to-do list. Brunton uses shifting vantage points to her advantage: strips about dating, embarrassing anecdotes from her past, the perils of city life and what it's like to be a young person with no particular attachments. Brunton uses a scratchy style that focuses on her very expressive faces--eyes and mouths in particular.

CROOKED TEETH #2, by Nate Doyle. This is a mish-mash of brief stories, drawings, ramblings and other ephemera by an artist with a great deal of potential. Doyle's line is a bit rough and ramshackle at times, but the spontaneity of his line leaps off the page. A few things in particular stand out: the way he balances character against background (especially panoramic shots); the way he spots blacks to manipulate a story's tone; and the way he draws gesture, body language & character interaction. It's interesting to look at his work now, but I think it will be downright exciting to see it five years from now. Doyle is a fellow employee of Forbidden Planet, by the way.

WARMER, by Aidan Koch. Koch's smudgy style brings an almost uncomfortable intimacy and immediacy to the page. There's a deliberate awkwardness to the way she juxtaposes word and image that forces the reader to slow down and consider each image and the way they unfold over time. Koch's art is emotionally evocative as well; in this case, expressing exasperation and claustrophobia.

EGO, by Dunja Jankovic. Jankovic's star has risen rather quickly in the world of alt-comics, with a book just published by Sparkplug. She brings a fine artist's eye to her work, varying her visual approach from panel to panel: sometimes a stick-figure sketch, sometimes a cartoonish figure, and sometimes figures with naturalistic musculature. In "Addiction", that musculature proves to be an important part of the story as we meet a woman who hoards words and hauls them around; eventually the panel structure becomes part of the story as she "wins" a game of tic-tac-toe. "Plastic Bags" is even more striking, as it deals with a nightmarish scenario where a woman's own paranoia threatens to do her in. Jankovic dips slightly into Immersive Comics territory in terms of the way her art needs to be read, but not quite to the same degree given that text is still very separate from story. Anyone one looks at this mini, there's no question that Jankovic is a great cartoonist.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Crimes & Punishments: Low Moon

Rob reviews the new collection of short stories by Jason, LOW MOON (Fantagraphics).

LOW MOON feels like a sharp right turn from Jason's other recent work, both in terms of content and presentation. The previous Jason books from Fantagraphics have been softcovers, all done with a design sense that made each volume look similar. Debuting with a hardback seemed to be a bit of an unusual departure. Either artist and publisher wanted to start a different look for these volumes, or else perhaps Fantagraphics wanted to capitalize on the story "Low Moon"'s appearance in the Sunday New Times Magazine. It's certainly a move that makes some sense if that's the case, especially for the bookstore market.

The book itself is a strange read, with a number of tonal & emotional shifts that are sometimes jarring. There's always a touch of melancholy in everything that Jason writes, but there's a bleakness in some of these stories that I haven't seen since HEY...WAIT. For example, "Emily Says Hello" has a grim noir feel to it in a tale about a woman delivering a series of escalating sexual favors to a man in exchange for him murdering several men. Part of the deal involves the killer telling the victims, "Emily says hello". The story's structure is unusual for Jason in that he witholds more information than usual from the reader, and obviously quite intentionally so. We never learn how and why the couple made the deal, why the woman wants revenge, or even whom Emily is. We're introduced to a situation, are quickly made to understand the nature of the deal, have tension escalated through variations on the situation, and then are given an ambiguous but downbeat ending. There's no comic relief, no jokes, no turning ideas on their head like in all of his recent books--just a bleak and brutal set of power relationships. This is underscored by Jason's use of color in the story. Set solely in the woman's apartment, we see that all of her walls are painted black. This underscores that for all intents and purposes, she's already dead.

"Low Moon" is an extended bit of silliness, riffing off wild west tropes turned on their heads. This story was much more in the vein of books like THE LAST MUSKETEER, THE LEFT BANK GANG, and I KILLED ADOLF HITLER in that it mashed together several genre conventions and then flipped around a couple of key elements for comedic effect. In this instance, the haunted sherriff and the black hat riding back into town had a memorable showdown over a chessboard. A fight breaks out in the saloon over a bad cup of espresso. Horses are replaced by unicycles. Jason downplays all of the ridiculousness with a deadpan emotional narrative; every character approaches every (laughably cliched) situation with deadly seriousness. The pacing of the story in book form is a bit different than in its original format, which breaks up the jokes a bit more. It doesn't ruin the story, but it is a bit jarring for someone who read the strips in the Times. That said, the ending of the story actually scans better in the book than in the Times, where it fell a bit flat as a big final episode. Without that sort of external temporal pressure, the ending in the book feels natural.

"&" feels like a story whose genesis came from its ending: two strangers, sitting in a bar next to each other. With that image, one might ask: how did they wind up sitting next to each other, with such weary expressions on their faces? The story as such involves the two men taking desperate measures to achieve their goals. For one man, it's getting enough money to pay for an operation for his mother. For the other man (with a Chaplin-like moustache), it's getting a particular woman to marry him. The story, much like "Emily Says Hello", stacks gag on top of gag as the first man bumbles his way through a robbery and the other man resorts to increasingly byzantine schemes to kill off the woman's various suitors. When they finally attain their goals (and the woman exasperatingly saying "Sure, why not?" after a story's worth of flowery denails and appeals to friendship was a nice touch), they find things didn't quite work out as they expected. Both men were in a shaggy dog story and didn't realize the joke was on them until the end. This story was amusing but emotionally flat. Jason seemed more interested in the gag than in making the reader care about these characters, which felt a bit out of place for one of his longer stories. In something like SHHHH!, that thinner characterization didn't seem to matter much, but it made this story neither fish nor fowl.

"Proto Film Noir" is another story that works much like "Low Moon" in that it very deliberately deconstructs a cliched genre and puts it back together with several weird twists. Here, we are introduced to a caveman who happens upon a house with a lonely wife, and they inevitably (rather quickly, actually) have sex. In classic noir style, the interloper decides that it's time to kill the husband...only it turns out to be much harder than expected. Jason then pulls off another example of escalating repetition of a joke until we're rewarded with a punchline that's not only the best in the book, but it's also a last bit of metacommentary on the subject of film noir. Note the bright, cheery colors in this tale of repeated homicide, underlining the humorous nature of this story--as opposed to the grimness of "Emily Says Hello".

The final story in the book, "You Are Here", doesn't have much in common with the rest of the entries. Sure, there are genre elements (an alien kidnapping a man's wife and his subsequent, life-long effort to build a rocket and find her), but they're more background fodder than something Jason's commenting on. The centerpiece of the story is the son of the couple in question, and the way's in which his father's obsessiveness first alienated him and then later drew him in when he faced the same sort of relationship woes. The father's obsession clearly derived from guilt (he and his wife had quarreled before her abduction) an emotion he felt to the exclusion of anything else. I liked Jason's use of word balloons here: the arguments we're shown have just black blogs in the balloons, signifying that what they were arguing about wasn't relevant; indeed, such screaming matches frequently find two people arguing past each other anyway. The ending, unsurprisingly, was heartbreaking, even if there was a shaggy-dog character to the way the story was paced. What made this story so much more affecting than the others in this volume was that each detail the reader was shown added to the emotional weight of the narrative. When we see the boy avoiding taking girls back to his house, or quickly suggesting that he move in with a girlfriend, then avoid his father altogether with a variety of excuses, we can feel the character's alienation that was never acknowledged or healed by either party. It was those moments that packed more of a wallop for me than the actual conclusion of the story, the sort of moments that enriched books like I KILLED ADOLF HITLER.

"Low Moon" and "You Are Here" were both top-notch Jason, while the other three stories faltered at times in terms of execution, purpose, emotional depth and/or tone. I liked everything about the way Jason set up "Emily Says Hello", but it lacked the emotional resonance of his darker stories. "Proto Film Noir" was a goof of a story that was redeemed by its punchline. "&" didn't always seem consistent in the kind of story it wanted to tell. The stories are somewhat tenuously linked in that they depict crimes and punishments in various forms. The first and second stories are directly about both topics; the third story punishes the crimes obliquely, while the fourth story punishes the crime ironically. In the last story, both crime and punishment were a bit more abstract: the crime was alienation, the punishment was loneliness. All told, this is still a book every Jason fan should read, but it's one that I perhaps wouldn't recommend to a reader new to the Norwegian's work.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Work Ethic: Ghost Comics

Reviewed is GHOST COMICS, the new Xeric-supported anthology edited by Ed Choy Moorman and published by his own Bare Bones Press.

When I first became aware of the lineup of talent in Ed Choy Moorman's ambitious new anthology GHOST COMICS, I could hardly believe my eyes. Zak Sally? John Porcellino? Warren Craghead? Jeffrey Brown? Allison Cole? I wondered if the contributions of the bigger names would be strictly perfunctory, but (happily) for the most part, this was not the case. This anthology deservedly won a Xeric grant for its publication, and its stated purpose is as a benefit for RS Eden, a "multifaceted agency" that assists with chemical dependency and "correctional residential programs".

Its noble aims aside, Moorman put together this anthology around the theme of ghosts. He really managed to strike a nerve, because this topic evoked a startling range of interpretations. From the funny autobio recollections of Corrine Mucha to the straightforward myth-making of Sean Lynch to the comics-as-poetry of John Hankiewicz, I've rarely seen a themed anthology with this much variety and quality. One thing that no artist did was actually try to tell a scary ghost story, which I thought was interesting. The other interesting thing about this comic is how Minnesota-centric it is. This makes sense, given Moorman's time as a student at MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art & Design), but this book just goes to show how deep the roster of talent is running in that state. It's giving the cartoonist-rich cities of New York, San Francisco and Portland some serious competition for the best region crown already, even as much of its talent is still incubating. Fourteen of the artists in the book have direct connections to Minnesota, and a number of others are based out of another cartooning hotbed: Chicago. In particular, it was nice to see Will Dinski's "Mind-Mapping" as part of this anthology; I previously reviewed it in its original minicomics form and it's yet another solid effort from the artist who introduced me to the Minnesota scene.

Some other highlights of the book include Toby Jones' darkly humorous account of the death of his partner's mother and all the familial weirdness that insued; the ever-delightful Lucy Knisley's sharply amusing story of the dubious joys of capitalism; the welcome return of Allison Cole as she detailed popping ghosts like balloons; Hob's tale of a brontosaurus' ghosts staying on earth, looking for something mysterious; Moorman's own touching tribute to his family; Kevin Cannon's funny mash-up of architecture and the Transformers; Tuesday Passen dying happy; book designer Jenny Tondera's clever text/visual experiment with a ghost in the snow; and most especially the piece by Warren Craghead.

I greatly erred in omitting Craghead's name from the list of Immersive artists in prior articles on the subject; that is, those that play upon and around with the formal qualities of text in combination with image to force the reader to think about each letter of text and how it relates to both the other letters around it as well as the images. Indeed, Craghead was a pioneer in this regard. He also shares much in common with comics-as-poetry cartoonists like Hankiewicz, where the visuals form their own sort of rhythm and language that's meant less to be looked at than engaged by the viewer/reader. Craghead is distinctive because of the way he uses so much white space, using a small number of distinctive drawings to face off against the void. Here, the text, (spilling out on the page) comments on the way we see and experience ghosts as a sort of manifestation of memory and identity. The way images "rhymed" across pages and feelings were grudgingly exchanged created a delicious tension, forcing the reader to take in each detail as they were presented. The reader strains to try to get glimpses at that which is hidden as the cascading text has to be teased out a bit to understand--which is the whole point of the piece.

Moorman wisely kept it simple in this volume. It's a nicely-designed (Jenny Tendura was the graphic designer for this comic) book, but not distractingly so. The author isn't given a lot of bells and whistles, which mean that some pros came over their tables and gave them some ideeas. He ordered the stories well, always managing to balance longer stories with shorter ones that served as palette-cleansers. He balanced humor with adventure, lighthearted flights of fancy with grim drama, pondering the afterlife and mocking it. There's a healthy mix of just-graduating students and old hands here, and what's remarkable is that neither side suffers from the juxtaposition. My only regret is that Zak Sally didn't contribute something more substantive than a single page that was really just an illustration. I thought his page was poorly placed with the actual stories in this book, rather than as a spot illustration (like the David Heatley frontispiece). It's a forgiveable enough misstep, especially given that Sally was one of Moorman's teachers at MCAD.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Saturation: Tales Designed To Thrizzle, Volume One

Rob reviews the new collection of the first four issues of Michael Kupperman's TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE (Fantagraphics).

About a decade ago or so ago, I first became aware of Michael Kupperman's work in dribs and drabs. There'd be a few pieces here and there on random websites, perhaps a strip or two in an anthology. As a cartoonist and humorist, it was obvious that he was the total package: awesome chops, clever design sense, and a refined sense of timing for gags all served his absurdist sense of humor. Paired with his appreciation (and homage-laded appropriation) of the history of comics and illustration, he rattled off strip after crazy strip that worked on several levels simultaneously. The drawings were dense, beautiful to look at and often funny on their own--though he rarely relied on "funny drawings" to get across a punchline. He wasn't afraid to work at any number of levels to tell a joke: conceptual, scatological, deadpan or mining the fields of popular culture. Even when drawing a more conventional gag, Kupperman always avoided the easy punchline in favor of something that subverted the expected, often confusing his own characters in the strip.

His first collection of strips, SNAKE 'N BACON'S CARTOON CABARET, was one of the best books of this decade. It was unfortunately widely ignored, coming just a couple of years before graphic novel mania hit the publishing industry. That is perhaps the densest collection of gags I've ever seen; Kupperman insists on filling nearly every inch of space with either his main joke narrative, a throwaway gag or a funny decorative touch. Every inch of that page demands reader attention. In his earlier work, his cross-hatching was much more dense and his commitment to crafting strips in the style of classic comics made reading this book a sometimes dizzying experience. Reading the whole thing in one sitting was akin to having one's reality slowly rewritten with crazy new rules. Running out and looking for the nearest sex blimp suddenly seemed like a reasonable proposition. His work is sublime in the truest sense of the word, speaking to me as a reader in ways that can be discussed and broken down but not quite fully communicated in their Rightness. It's my ultimate goal when experiencing art, this feeling of sublimity, and while it's quite rare in general, it's even rarer when dealing with comedy. About the only other humorists who have affected me in the same way were the Marx Brothers.

With TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE, Kupperman actually had the perfect delivery system for his work. Each issue was just long enough to leave a lasting impression, but was short enough to not have that dizzying effect. The first collection of this series addresses that density of his work by using color. There are some pages where color is clearly just being used to provide some variation so as to soften the backgrounds and dense cross-hatching of the art. This is especially true when he reprinted some of his older work here, with that use of color being rather perfunctory and being used to balance out the page rather than enhance the strip. Those older strips are jammed at the bottom of newer gags to fill up space, giving the reader their money's worth on page after page. It's as though Kupperman is afraid to let down his readers if there aren't twenty gags crammed in on every page.

For other strips, the use of color is a revelation. This is especially true with gags that are parodies of children's book illustrations, advertisements or of old, mediocre four-color comics. He doesn't pile color on to strips where it would hurt, like his lovely Granpa strips that are as much flights of fancy as they are gags. The hatching and use of blacks look perfect as is. Kupperman is careful to try and retain the experience of reading each issue individually, both in how the original covers were kept in the reprint and the way he'd add a couple of purely decorative pages to either encourage a reader break or at the very least refresh their palate.

It's encouraging to see Kupperman go from being a cult favorite to someone who's started to receive a lot more attention and recognition. In particular, he's done work with the great Robert Smigel back on his much-missed (by me, at least) TV FUNHOUSE show, and recently had a pilot of SNAKE 'N BACON air on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim (it's currently available at their website). Hopefully this collection will draw yet more attention to a unique humorist and the Human Sneeze, Twain & Einstein, the Scaredy Kids, Pagus and the ever-licenseable Fireman Octopus. Kupperman saturates each page with crazed ideas, bizarre connections, and references that aren't really references. Even a reader who may not be familiar with what Kupperman's (often obliquely) mocking is still pulled full-tilt into the gag. No matter what the concept, once Kupperman's laid his hands on it, it's no longer recognizable as anything but his.

Friday, June 19, 2009

More Mini-Comics: Sobel, Viola, Bougie & Frank, Apt 307, & the MCC

Another interesting crop of mini-comics to consider, each of which couldn't be any more different from the next. Included are THE RED STILETTO, by Marc Sobel; SUNWARD by Jason Viola; APARTMENT 307 by Josh Blair, Noah Van Sciver, Pete Borrebach & Nick Marino; MAXIMUM SUPEREXCITEMENT #2 by Robin Bougie & Maxine Frank; and MINIMALIST COMICS COLLECTIVE #1, by Agnes Anger, C. Che' Salazar and Abel Jimenez.

SUNWARD, by Jason Viola. This is a curious little mini about a group of three friends, one of whom has become unstuck from gravity and threatens to fly off the face of the earth (and inevitably, as his friends note, into the sun). The way that the cartoony characters are introduced, the reader almost has a sense that these are established dramatic personae whom we should know all about. Viola plays it straight the whole issue, now matter how absurd the set-up gets or crazy the ideas become in trying to solve the bedraggled hero's dilemma. The most interesting thing about the comic is the way that whom the protagonist actually is shifts from page to page. Is it Dave, who's in danger of flying off? Is it the pensive Felonious Monk? Is it the rambling Sebastian?

I enjoyed the weirdness of the premise so much that I was a bit disappointed when there was a kind of explanation as to what happened to Dave that wound up being the on-the-nose receptacle of the mini's main theme. That theme was the need to define a direction to one's life before it slips completely out of control--especially when one is experiencing near-total freedom. The figure work is fairly simple and ranges from expressive to slightly stiff and clunky. Viola seemed to really enjoy drawing short-haired and chunky Sebastian; at the very least, he comes alive a bit more than the book's other characters. Viola does well with keeping things deadpan, and as a result, there's plenty of sly humor in this comic. It just could have done with either more or less control over its line: more would have given the book a greater sense of restraint, heightening the tension of the situation; less would have been a nice chaotic counterpoint to the artist's dry humor.

THE RED STILETTO, by Marc Sobel. This is the first mini written and drawn by my former Sequart.com stablemate Sobel. Sobel is best known for his ultra-exhaustive, issue-by-issue take on LOVE & ROCKETS, an effort that I hope is one day published in a more permanent form. Sobel brutally critiqued his own art on this mini at the link above, and he's pretty much spot on. The problem for me was not that he used too much photo reference (including some direct traces). The problem was that he didn't go far enough in one direction or another. That is, it would have been preferable to see a shaky but spontaneous & expressive line or go the other way and play up the story as though it was a series of photographs, emphasizing the still & stiff nature of the images. That would have been perfectly appropriate for this story, which was about images & memories, both lost and found. Instead, we got something in-between whose linework was indeed stiff and awkward.

That said, this was a cleverly designed and composed comic, especially for such an early effort. There's no question that Sobel is a fine writer, and he really went to town adding layer upon layer of metafictive aspects in this story. THE RED STILETTO is a story about one man's memories of his best friend growing up. This friend lost contact with him many years prior but had moved to get back in touch with him for reasons that were initially unclear. Much of the issue's narrative involved a reminiscence juxtaposed against the actions of the friend, some of which confirmed his beliefs and others of which belied them. The climax of the comic was a text short story that led the friend to want to reconnect, a story written by her father who had killed himself. The story was about missing motivation and ideas that haunt creators, and it seemed both autobiographical and prescient in unusual ways. The shock ending of that story and the shock ending of the mini itself mirrored each other, creating spectacularly violent endings for mysteries that could never really be resolved. It's obvious that Sobel already has a firm grasp on visual storytelling, and that it will simply be a matter of repetition and refinement. I'm eager to see what he publishes next.

MAXIMUM SUPEREXCITEMENT #2, by Robin Bougie & Maxine Frank. This is a sharply drawn bit of filth and fluff. Bougie is best known for his Cinema Sewer magazine, celebrating the sleaziest examples of grindhouse films and culture. He's also a fine cartoonist who isn't afraid to go to some pretty extreme places with regard to sex, violence, gore and gross-outs. This comic is a collaboration with Frank, one where the two artists traded off panels and sometimes collaborated within the same panel. The results are amazingly seamless, which no doubt reflects their similar sensibilities. The story is a mishmash of postapocalyptic shenanigans, rapacious sex slaves, maggot-inducing viruses and the destruction of all human knowledge. There's gunplay, S&M, worms exploding out of assorted body parts and an (anti-) heroine dressed smartly in an old WAC uniform. This is gleeful gross-out, not really meant to shock or disturb, but rather to point out "Hey, isn't this exploding head awesome?" This comic is a fun drawing exercise by the artists--no more, no less. Its potential audience would seem to be a rather self-selecting one.

APARTMENT 307, by Josh Blair, Pete Borrebach & Nick Marino, and Noah Van Sciver. This little mini-anthology hit upon a coincidence of circumstance shared by the three artists: they all lived in apartment 307 in each of the different cities they inhabited. Both Blair and Van Sciver complain about going up three flights of stairs. I liked Blair's visual treatment of this, using numbers and crossed lines to break up what is otherwise a mundane story. He's obviously not a very confident draftsman at this point, but he worked his way around that cleverly. Van Sciver engaged in a bit of navel-gazing here as he reflected on the ways in which his social anxiety has made him want to retreat to his room (and his stuff) more and more. Van Sciver's self-caricature is fascinatingly ugly, a point that he not only plays up in this story, but spreads to his art in general. There's a sloppy ugliness to his line that's starting to grow on me. I don't think he's really found his voice yet as an artist, but it's clear he's determined to do so. The Borrebach/Marino piece breaks up the introspection with a tale of why it's really best not to get involved in other people's business in Miami. It's a funny concept, but Marino's art manages to be both crude and drab.

MINIMALIST COMICS COLLECTIVE, by Agnes Anger, C. Che' Salazar and Abel Jimenez. This is the sort of comic that will draw a strong reaction from its audience, be it positive or negative. It's a conceptual exercise in comics narrative storytelling, with each of the three involved artists using a different technique. Jimenez crafts comics using only the most basic of geometric shapes as his characters, and they spout dialogue as though they were drawn in a perfectly naturalistic style. His are actually the most conventional comics in this anthology. Salazar uses text and panel-to-panel transitions to tell stories, a slightly more abstracted approach but still fairly straightforward. For Salazar, the iconography of the text becomes the image; words bend, dip and wrap around each other in a way that gives the reader information at both levels. Anger repurposes photographs to act either as word balloons or actual captions. Jimenez's comics are sort of like Matt Feazell's stick-figure comics taken to their logical end.

It's important to note that the stories in this comic aren't abstract. Indeed, with the exception of Anger's image-only comics, the storytelling is rather easy to follow. The grid on each page is standard, the Jimenez's drawings are obviously made with a simple computer program, and the lettering is also done by computer. The whole thing should be entirely dull to look at, and yet I found to be a compelling read. That was especially true in the stories where the three artists collaborated and combined their techniques. "A Typical Comics Story" combines Salazar's "expressive text" to create the characters and Anger's appropriated (but public domain) photographic images to create word ballons: text and image are cleverly inverted to tell a story that itself is a commentary on genre stories.

I think this comic succeeds because the artists made a deliberate conceptual choice to work using these techniques. It owes as much to dada artist Marcel Duchamp as it does any cartoonist. Anger in particular appropriates images with a particular (often charged) meaning and recontextualizes them in a manner similar to Duchamp and his ready-mades. In "Blink And You'll Miss It", horrific images literally blur into each other when the page is held up to the light; the formal properties of both page and image are integral to seeing these images in a new way.

Jimenez is much more playful, as in "Great Panels in Comic Book History", where he reduces motion and emotion from famous comics and breaks them down to circles and rectangles. The cascading rectangles depicting R.Crumb's "Keep on Truckin'" is particularly clever, evoking a different Duchamp work: "Nude Descending A Staircase".

Duchamp's work crossed a number of media, making it hard to ultimately classify as a particular sort of art or literature. His art was both funny and whip-smart, thinking through concepts and laying them bare in ways other artists never considered. It should be noted, however, that once he told a "joke", he rarely lingered on the same sort of material for long. Along those same lines, I'll be curious how long the thinkers from the MCC will be content to work using these same techniques. One can only tell the same joke so many times, even when it's deadly serious, before the punchline gets stale. That said, this comic was an enormously clever dissection of the relationship between the formal qualities of comics art and craft. Those who conflate the craft of drawing with the art of creating comics will no doubt be enraged by this comic, but its sheer audacity as both an act of provocation and meditation made me chuckle throughout. Hopefully we'll soon get to see what the MCC has in mind for a second transmission.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Comics Comics

COMICS COMICS is a publication that's a direct extension of its editors' interests. Dan Nadel's PictureBox is a publishing concern that's all about the margins of comics, works that are hard to classify. Like everything else Nadel publishes, COMICS COMICS is an expression of his love of comics and a manifestation of his desire to examine the medium with a fresh eye. There are few preconceived notions in COMICS COMICS, as the writers take on a dizzying range of what comics have to offer.

The first issue of COMICS COMICS was in a smallish magazine-style format. The second and third issues were printed on huge, 16" x 22" newspaper broadsheets. It's a format that's both a throwback to the newsprint era of comics and something that no one else is doing at the moment. Pragmatically, it's an ideal format since it allows full-page strips to be published in all their glory.

The best quality of COMICS COMICS is that one can enjoy it even when its articles or comics don't match up with one's aesthetic. For example, issue #2 features an extensive interview with P.Shaw, an artist whose work has never interested me. Nadel's line of questioning was revealing and gave me an appreciation for the artist I hadn't had before. In particular, Shaw's varying artistic approaches weren't just employed for technical reasons, but actively reflected his social and political interests as well.

On the other hand, there are times when reading it when it feels like the features were done exclusively for me. Tim Hodler's 2-part retrospective on Steve Gerber's career is a good example. Hodler's an exemplar of COMICS COMICS' willingness to dip into mainstream comics and emerge with unusual examples of expression. Gerber's weird work for Marvel is a perfect case for this sort of treatment. Hodler came to Gerber's comics as a new reader and he's quite perceptive in discussing the kind of bizarre muddle that marked them. Gerber was not always successful, but he was always willing to experiment and push the limits of mainstream comics.

Hodler was perceptive in identifying THE DEFENDERS as Gerber's most successful comic. It wasn't just because of the absurd situations the characters found themselves in and the way Gerber played it straight, but also because of Gerber's palpable sense of anger on the page. The comics were never didactic but were rather consumed by Gerber's sense of righteous indignation over corporate greed, commercial crassness and ecological destruction. Hodler also notes that while Gerber's comics were never massively successful, they touched a chord in readers who had never seen comics like these before and identified with Gerber's anger. Of course, the absurd elements were another part of the attraction; one never knew what was coming next in a Gerber comic, even though he had to hew to a mainstream formula. The only problem with the essay was that it was too short; I would have loved to have read his thoughts on Gerbers' other work.
Issue #2 has comics work by some of my favorite artists. Lauren Weinstein did a bizarre page reminiscent of her earlier, Vineyland-era work. One of my favorite underground artists, Justin Green, contributed an amazing, full-page "perpetual calendar" reflecting the months of the year as a sort of mobius-strip roller-coaster.

COMICS COMICS also likes to print rants, ravings and personal statements by well-known artists. Issue #2 featured a rant on Spider-Man by Peter Bagge, filled with blustery Bagge-isms that were hilarious. Issue #3 had a loopy essay on the meaning of life by Kim Deitch which was just short of incoherent, but still amusing. Nadel's own rant on the Masters of American Comics show was cutting and direct. He attacked the show in terms of how they chose the artists for the new canon, context for the audience and a lack of proper critical analysis. When he wonders why Lionel Feininger (a fine artist who did some comics) and Art Spiegelman (with only one significant work, though a great one, to his name as an artist) made it in, he answers his own question later in the article: because these are artists that the general art-audience will recognize their names. The show was a failure, because the curators didn't have enough faith in comics to present a show that was on comics' own terms—not the terms of the art world.

Overall, I found #2 more interesting than #3. The reviews were of a wider (and weirder) range of comics, including Dave Sim's letters, Wally Wood's CANNON, Golden Age Fred Kida comics, Moebius, and some things from other odd corners of the world of comics. Whereas the comics and books reviewed in #3 could have appeared in an issue of THE COMICS JOURNAL, like Doug Wolk's book on comics, assorted David Sandlin comics, Mutt and Jeff and some recent superhero comics. The reviews felt a bit less personal and much more perfunctory in this issue. The exception was Frank Santoro's mini-essay on Frank Miller's RONIN. Santoro noted that this was Miller's most successful work, one where he broke through his influences. Santoro also contributed an essay on color in comics in #2 that's interesting because it's from an artist's point of view.

The most disappointing article in #3 was Sammy Harkham's interview with Guy Davis. It felt more like an interview one might find in COMIC BOOK ARTIST than in COMICS COMICS, withDavis not having much of substance to talk about. That it was so dull was especially surprising because I generally like interviews conducted by artists, but this one was a had too much nuts-and-bolts methodology and not enough insight into the creative process. On the other hand, the transcript of a talk between Lauren Weinstein & David Heatley was enlightening both in terms of how they make their comics, but why. Both artists do autobiographical comics, but Weinstein discussed how many fictive elements she uses in her work to make her stories coherent. Heatley noted that he prefers to make his "David" character more of a blank slate, choosing to convey emotional truths and moods rather than worry about presenting himself as a character. Despite the fact that this is a transcript of an event with a time limit rather than a proper interview, both artists wasted little time in revealing interesting information.

Even if a feature falls flat, COMICS COMICS adeptly destroys the line between high and low in the comics art form. As appealing as the articles are, I'm drawn just as much to the ephemera: little side illustrations that often sardonically comment on the articles themselves, or odd little lists by the likes of Mark Newgarden. The ultimate mark of COMICS COMICS is that I can hand it to any comics fan, and no matter their interests or depth of knowledge, they will both learn something new and have an established belief challenged.

Sequart Reprints: Girls' Guide To Guy's Stuff

The Friends of Lulu is an organization that's always had a noble purpose but has faced a lot of controversy as to how its mission was carried out. Its mission statement is simple enough: "A national nonprofit organization whose purpose is to promote and encourage female readership and participation in the comic book industry." Its main problem is symbolized in some respects by its choice of mascot: a character made famous in comic books aimed at girls. To a large degree, Lulu's recommendations and publications have been in the "all-ages" category, comics meant to be read and enjoyed by girls and boys of any age. The problem is that many have perceived this as a form of infantilization of women who read comics. There have been plenty of anecdotes about members of the group being dissatisfied and ultimately quitting for this very reason. In particular, indy/alternative comics have often historically gotten short shrift from the organization when their subject matter doesn't fit squarely into fantasy/adventure type stories.

In recent years, it seems as though there's been a sea change with the organization. Pioneering and controversial cartoonists Roberta Gregory & Phoebe Gloeckner were elected to FOL's hall of fame. Perhaps more significantly, FOL is for the first time releasing an anthology that is not all-ages, but rather mature readers only. Editor MK Reed also made the decision that the anthology should only include women as its creators. To that end, she searched far and wide to assemble an eclectic group of artists, many of whom are being published in the US for the first time.

On the whole, the anthology is a success. This is in spite of its theme, "A Girl's Guide To Guy's Stuff". The theme is problematic from a feminist as well as an aesthetic perspective: it's limiting and even somewhat demeaning on the face of it. There seems to be an element of pandering to fanboys in order to get them to buy it. Fortunately, Reed gave each creator a lot of latitude in how they interpreted the theme. There were mercifully few strips that actually read like a guidebook (and they were uniformly the worst in the book) and instead there were a number of interesting discussions of gender, gender roles, personal connections and fond memories. While there were few stories that were brilliant and that lingered long after finishing the book, the hit-to-miss ratio was quite high. Given that there were very few established artists in this book, this was an impressive feat. Indeed, the only "name" artists in the book are Roberta (Bitchy-Bitch) Gregory, Lark Pien, Emily Flake and longtime minicomics maven Missy Kulik.

As noted earlier, the "guidebook" stories didn't work on any level. An artist like Lorena Caiazzo seems to be quite talented, but her story "Porn", regarding the virtues of porn, was only notable in that it appeared in a FOL publication. Bonnie Burton & Cynthia Cummen's "Star Wars Guide" was sad on many levels--and perhaps the saddest is that a woman would go out of their way to attract a Star Wars geek. Sheryl Schopfer's "Comics Are For Me" is an unremarkable account of a couple where (gasp!) the woman likes comics more than her boyfriend. Probably the worst strip is EJ Barnes' "Con Survival Guide For Women", which deals with the sad scenario of a comics geek bringing his girlfriend to a con when she has no interest, and the things she can do to amuse herself there. I suppose these stories are trying to throw a bone to mainstream fans who might purchase the book, but frankly these stories are neither here nor there. They certainly seem insulting to women who are already reading comics, and I'm not sure they'd do much for newcomers to the medium. Of course, it's difficult to fault artists who are trying to adhere closely to a theme, and I suppose a tightly-constructed book centered around this theme might have some value, but that's not the case here.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the stories that revolved around more personal anecdotes about men in their lives. Abby Denson's "True Tales of a Punk Rock Boy" and Tatiana Gill's "Oly" in particular had a sweetness and warmth to them that stood out. Chari Pere's anecdote about her father has a nice comic build-up and a great pay-off. Tessa Brunton's story about a family vacation with her brother and father did a nice job of hinting at the important particulars of her life growing up while illustrating the obsessions of the men in her family. One of my favorite stories in the collection was "The Miracle Season" by Rina Ayuyang, which combined her intense devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers with an affectionate look at her boyfriend, a non-sports fan who slowly got into the action during their recent Super Bowl year. Rina's ear for dialogue and humor makes this pared-down strip work nicely.

The meat of the anthology lies in stories that subvert or blur gender roles and expectations. That was often told in women who preferred "masculine" activities like watching sports or using tools, men who had more "feminine" interests, and the curious ways that gender blurred lines. When the theme of the book was thought of in this way--asking a woman what it means to be masculine or feminine--it suddenly became enormously compelling. The book starts with a shot across the bow of sorts: Hellen Jo's "Too Fucking Cute". It's a funny rant about a girl railing about cuteness and wanting to "be a dude".

The stories about sports provide a convenient shorthand for that blurring of roles. Lauren Skinner's "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" is a cute story about a woman attending a baseball game with her boyfriend, and his slow realization that her devotion to the game far exceeded any of his hopes. Vanessa Satone's "Desert Racing" is about a woman who uses extreme measures to win a desert road race, blowing up her competition to win. Debbie Huey's "I Heart Hockey" is a nice contrast between her cute cartooning style and her obsession with hockey. For her, hockey is a means of accessing her inner aggression and assertiveness. All three of these stories work because the woman in them evince behavior more typically associated with masculinity.

The book is at its most interesting when it addresses gender bending. Cathy Leamy's "Who Likes Neckties?" examines her own obsession with ties. For her, they're emblematic of a completely different culture and representative of the line between genders. She was fascinated by how men's expression in fashion is limited, and the tie allows them a small sphere of creativity. It's clear that this is her way of accessing her masculine traits, both conscious and subconscious. "One of Two Rabbits", by Vicky Hsu & Anita Cheng, is a visually striking retelling of the Mulan story--a woman who disguises herself as a man to become a warrior. The punchline to the story is a memorable one. Most interesting of all was Liz Baillie's "A Self-Made Man", about jazz musician Billy Tipton. In a story that jumps between eras, we see Billy at the end of his life and a surprising discovery made by those who prepared his body. It's a stunningly unlikely story, skillfully related by Baillie.

A pleasant discovery in this anthology was the work of several international cartoonists I was unfamiliar with. Poland's Agata Laguniak contributes "Figurines", a tale of a one-night stand that evolved into something more, in part due to her noticing something creative that he was involved in. Norway's Lene Ask has a story called "Brian From Birmingham", a tale of frustration told from a man?s point of view who has never known love. Her stretched-out figures have a crude liveliness that's clever and playful. Most amusing of all was Dutch artist Anneke van Steijn's "Not Here But Here", a strip where what seemed to be a series of public sexual acts turned out to be something more innocent. Her composition and angular figures fit the punchline perfectly, and she's one of several artists in the book who made me eager to see more of their work.
Along those lines, perhaps my favorite strip in the book was Julia Durgee's "How To Talk To Male Celebs". This was the one "guidebook" strip that worked, probably because its premise and execution was so absurd. Durgee is a fashion illustrator by trade, and her combination of bold composition and an acidic sense of humor make her a talent to watch. For anthologies that feature a lot of emerging artists, one always hopes to make a few new discoveries, and this book is especially promising in that regard.

Sequart Reprints: Best Comics of 2006

This was one of the best-ever years to be a fan of comics, no matter one's tastes or interests. Fans of classic comics delighted in the first volumes of deluxe collections of Popeye, Terr'ble Thompson, Dick Tracy and others. We also saw the newest volumes of Peanuts, Krazy Kat and Gasoline Alley, just to name a few. A new Jules Feiffer collection was released as a handsome hardcover. Fans of manga also saw tons of volumes printed in English, both originals and translations. Several big publishers jumped into the game with varied and interesting output, led by Pantheon and First Second. Alison Bechdel went from cult favorite to getting Time's nod for book of the year with FUN HOME. Top Shelf gambled and won with LOST GIRLS, which has been a huge commercial success and has garnered a lot of mainstream media attention. 2006 was also the year of the anthology. FLIGHT continues to be a huge commercial success, but the new volume of KRAMER'S ERGOT was the must-have item of the year for art-comics fans. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of the comics that I found the most enjoyable, most challenging, funniest, most thought-provoking or some combination thereof. These are the books that were the most sublime in the truest sense of the word--creating an experience that is difficult to capture with language, but one that I feel compelled to at least attempt to describe. I'm not going to include classic strip collections on this list; that will be a separate column. I'm also excluding minis from this list; while I've read a lot of good ones I don't think I've read enough to make a properly exhaustive list. This list is meant to capture the breadth of my comics reading experiences for the year, with some surprises along with the usual suspects. There are a few collections here and there that I haven't read in their new format (like Kevin Huizenga's CURSES) and some well-reviewed books that I haven't had a chance to read at all (LOST GIRLS, FUN HOME), so bear that in mind as you read one man's list:

MOME (Fantagraphics).  I just read the most recent volume (Winter 2007) and the series only continues to grow stronger. After a couple of issues of trying to find its footing, editors Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth have found a perfect balance of the original core contributors and selected newcomers. The most recent issue has an autobiographical piece from French comics giant Lewis Trondheim that is a perfect fit. Tim Hensley's hilariously absurd stories of teenage millionaire Wally Gropius get better and better--the deadpan images of girls literally killing themselves in order to get his attention, only to have a girl attract him by knowing obscure national anthems, combine 4-color flatness with pure dada. This is the book to buy if you want an understanding of the pulse of the work being done in art comics with a narrative bent.

AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS & TRUE STORIES (Yale Press). This is the book to buy if you're a student of cartooning interested in getting better, of if you're new to comics and looking for a comprehensive & instructively designed survey of the medium's possibilities. A true labor of love from editor Ivan Brunetti.

ASTHMA, by John Hankiewicz (Sparkplug Comic Books). I have a review of this in the works, but this is comics-as-poetry. Not in the sense of images set to verse, but in the way that images can create their own rhythm, the way that narratives can be formed out of the juxtaposition of images creating their own logic. Hankiewicz has astonishing control over both his line and his use of language, and that sharpness demands a reader's attention even if it can be difficult to crack the logic of some of the narratives. This collection displays his virtuosity from beginning to end, showing off a variety of styles and storytelling choices.

THE MOTHER'S MOUTH, by Dash Shaw (Alternative). From beginning to end, this was the most absorbing and compelling narrative from the enormously talented Shaw. He's a risk-taker and challenges both himself and the reader, and it all came together beautifully in this book.

LUCKY, by Gabrielle Bell (Drawn & Quarterly). This is autobiographical work at its driest and wittiest peaks. The subtlety of her line combined with the sharpness of her insights makes this a compelling read despite the mundane nature of some of her experiences.

GIRL STORIES, by Lauren Weinstein (Henry Holt). This book is a smorgasbord of lurid, hilarious and embarrassing details of adolescence, told with an array of clever techniques and bold storytelling choices. Weinstein combines an idiosyncratic sense of style, a demented sense of humor and a narrative voice that is unerringly honest.

DUNGEON, by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar and others (NBM).Trondheim is the rare artist who can turn out intelligent material with mainstream appeal as well as more experimental & personal comics with equal facility. DUNGEON, co-written with fellow French titan Sfar, manages to tell a farcical sword & sorcery epic that manages to simultaneously to mock and show affection for the form. The stories, told funny animal-style in the tradition of Carl Barks, are hilarious & violent but also very human. Please check out this excellent article for the French version of these books.

AMERICAN SPLENDOR 1-4, by Harvey Pekar & various (DC/Vertigo). Our man had an interesting graphic novel released this year (EGO & HUBRIS), marred slightly by the dull art. However, his new miniseries from Vertigo was mostly dynamite. This is old-school AMERICAN SPLENDOR, going back to his original self-published format of quotidian observations after several years of deviating from this with Dark Horse. The series includes old guard illustrators Dean Haspiel & Josh Neufeld along with some newer names, including Gilbert Hernandez, Hunt Emerson and Eddie Campbell. Not every collaborator fits with Pekar's narrative style, but even the failures are noble ones as Harv was able to work with a real budget and work with a new set of artists.

THE SQUIRREL MOTHER STORIES, by Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics). If I was forced to select just one book off the list, this would be it. This is a pitch-perfect collection of stories, attractively presented, from an artist at her creative peak.

KLEZMER, by Joann Sfar (First Second). Sfar's expressionist coloring and vivid characterization make this book a treat. I love his long digressions and tangents most of all, along with his explorations of music and the camaraderie of musicians.

SCHIZO #4 by Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics). Years in the making, the latest collection of strips from this master cartoonist was worth the wait. The strips range from biographies of individuals whom Brunetti felt some affinity for to straight autobiography to philosophical contemplation to nihilistic farce. Brunetti is a master of design and his palette choices are exquisite. This is a beautiful, hilarious, existential howl that is nonetheless much less bleak than his earlier work and much more refined. I can't think of many artists with Brunetti's chops who are more willing to experiment, change styles and branch out, nor an artist who clearly thinks as much about comics and their possibilities.

GET A LIFE and MAYBE LATER, by Charles Berberian & Philippe Dupuy (Drawn & Quarterly). GET A LIFE is the long-awaited collections of the earliest Monsieur Jean stories from these two collaborators. It's pitch-perfect slice-of-life stories that are funny, low-key and expressive. In my world, this would be the model for "new mainstream" stories. MAYBE LATER is the cartoon journal the duo kept during the making of one of their comics, and it's a wonderfully revealing look at the artist's struggle. Both of them are warm & witty, but I would especially recommend the former book as a "gateway" comic for new readers.

MINE TONIGHT, by Trevor Alixopolous (Sparkplug Comic Books). Alixopolous made the leap from doing some interesting minicomics to an ambitious long-form work, combining politics, noir elements and memoir. It's an appealing and unique mix, and his loose style keeps things lively and energetic.

THE LEFT BANK GANG and MEOW, BABY! by Jason (Fantagraphics). I'm planning a larger profile of this artist for 2007, but suffice it to say that his deadpan sense of humor and wild (but understated) imagination made him a favorite of mine with his very first comic translated into English, HEY...WAIT! Since then, he's unleashed a series of comics in various genres, all told with his anthropomorphic dogs, birds and cats (and Death). MEOW, BABY! is a collection of gag strips, often starring familiar faces like Darth Vader, the Terminator and Elvis in ridiculous situations. Charles Schulz is obviously a huge influence on the timing of his jokes and the body language of his characters. THE LEFT BANK GANG depicts Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald and other ex-pats in 1920's Paris--except that instead of being authors or poets, they're all struggling comics artists. Jason starts with that high concept and veers into a Tarantino-esque caper midway through, with brilliantly fractured storytelling and points of view that converge elegantly at the end. This was one of the most satisfying and amusing reads of the year by an artist who can pretty much do no wrong.

WE ARE ON OUR OWN, by Miriam Katin (Drawn & Quarterly). I've been reading the World War II reminiscences of this animator since she began publishing them in the MONKEYSUIT anthology. Her lush pencils depict painful, vivid memories and experience with just the right amount of distance needed. This book is about her mother doing whatever it took to avoid going to a concentration camp, and miraculously finding her father again after the war.

LA PERDIDA, by Jessica Abel (Pantheon). After a career spent specializing in short stories that gave us just a snapshot of 20-something youths, Abel's first long-form story takes some surprising twists and turns. At first, the story seemed like an ex-pat version of her usual story as a young woman named Carla goes to Mexico in order to find herself. Very quickly, however the story takes some unusual twists and turns as it becomes a suspense thriller.

BUT I LIKE IT, by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics). Sacco is one of my favorites as the man who brought a form of gonzo journalism to comics. Sacco goes deeper than soundbites as he lives in the community he's covering, telling the stories of those he meets. His presence in this story is less a matter of egotism than acknowledging the perspective of an outsider, and that presence is always self-deprecating. This collection of strips takes a look at Sacco's earlier days following around a band and drawing their adventures, as well as his experiences living off of doing poster work. My favorite bits revolve around his love of the Rolling Stones and the experience of being a fan. One doesn't usually associate Sacco with humor (other than short bits of comic relief), so it's interesting to see him use such a broad approach here.

PROJECT: ROMANTIC, by various (AdHouse). Third in a series from editor and publisher Chris Pitzer, this PROJECT was my favorite. Perhaps it's because this anthology was free of the genre restrictions of the first two (robots/sci-fi and superheroes), but there's a bold exuberance to the entries here. Joel Priddy's shorts about a husband-and-wife pair of adventurers/mad scientists are especially amusing. I'll be reviewing this in more depth in an upcoming column.

TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE #2 AND #3, by Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics). Kupperman holds the title of Funniest Man in Comics. Getting a regular venue for his brand of lushly-illustrated absurdity is thrilling news for fans of humor comics. All hail Pagus!

FORTY HOUR MAN, by Steve Beaupre & Steve Lafler (Manx Media). This collection of strips from BUZZARD didn't get a whole lot of notice, which is a shame. It's one of the funniest accounts of workingman tedium I've ever read, especially the ways in which our hero tries to liven up said tedium.

ART D'ECCO, by Roger & Andrew Langridge (Fantagraphics). I mention elsewhere that this was a great year for humor comics. Roger Langridge's line is so beautiful it hurts, while brother Andrew jam-packs this volume with puns on the obscure and familiar. The dense layering of jokes in this collection rewards multiple readings.

COMIC ART #8, edited by Todd Hignite (Buenaventura Press). There were a number of outstanding publications this year about comics and comics history. COMICS COMICS is remarkable, as was the Harvey Kurtzman book from Fantagraphics (both to be reviewed soon), just to name two. COMIC ART instantly became one of the best publications about comics the moment it was first published. Hignite chose to celebrate what he thought was great about comics, be they famous or obscure. His in-depth approach, sharp design and amazing visuals made each issue an event. Now paired with Alvin Buenaventura's resources and vision, this issue took the concept to another level. I'll have much more to say about this book soon, but the Richard McGuire article and supplement by Seth alone are worth the cover price.

The Ignatz line by various (Fantagraphics). In many other years, the Ignatz line would be hailed as sure-fire greats. In a year as strong as this one, they've fallen a bit under the radar. The concept behind them is simple: in partnership with Igort's Coconino Press, Fantagraphics is putting out oversized individual issues of comics by both American & European artists. Some of the Americans include Gilbert Hernandez, Kevin Huizenga & Richard Sala. David B, Igort and Gipi are some of the Europeans. Each individual issue is a beautiful, striking art object. I'm currently working on a comprehensive look at all 18 issues to date. These comics represent a perfect marriage of style and substance. If pressed to pick a single series, I'd take Igort's BAOBAB, a sprawling, dreamlike story that spans two continents.

DRAWN & QUARTERLY SHOWCASE #4, by various (Drawn & Quarterly). This one has one of Gabrielle Bell's best stories, an interesting entry from Martin Cendreda and a gloriously intricate Halloween strip from Dan Zettwoch, another emerging talent from the St. Louis area. All three got their start (and still make) mini-comics, and the care they show for their craft is strongly evident here. The showcase is sort of MOME's cousin, designed to showcase up and coming artists or artists not familiar to North American readers.

HOTWIRE, by various (Fantagraphics). In a year with many serious and distinguished anthologies, it was fun to see a collection filled with insolence and flat-out weirdness. This anthology seemed to be overlooked by many, but it's worth seeking out.

KRAMER'S ERGOT #6, by various (Buenaventura Press). This is advanced placement art comics reading. Editor Sammy Harkham pushes the envelope of narrative with his selections, intuitively knowing what fits and what doesn't in the one comic that most accurately reflects avant-garde comics of its era. I've only read about half of this mammoth volume so far, but it's every bit as challenging, frustrating, intriguing, infuriating and exhilarating as breakthrough issues 4 and 5.

ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #17 by Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly). Ware is the heavyweight champ of comics design, from panel and page composition to an exquisite use of color. This issue features the next installment of the adventures of his sad-sack characters Rusty Brown & Chalky White. We also get an installment of Branford, The Best Bee In The World, yet another put-upon Ware character. My favorite thing about the issue (aside from the gorgeous design), is Ware's insertion of himself as a high-school art teacher who gets high with his students and yearns to be cool.

LOVE & ROCKETS by Los Bros. Hernandez (Fantagraphics). I assume you're all reading Marc Sobel's column reviewing L&R from beginning to end, yes? I'm pleased to inform you that Beto & Xaime are better than ever. Jaime in particular has taken his work to another level; his "Day By Day With Hopey" was my favorite serial of the year. Gilbert has gotten a bit more esoteric with his long-running characters, but their stories came to an end this year. In his spare time, he unleashed the excellent new graphic novel SLOTH from Vertigo. It's easy to take them for granted after so many years of excellence and innovation, but both are still at the height of their powers.

LET US BE PERFECTLY CLEAR, by Paul Hornschemeier (Fantagraphics). A collection of short stories, humor and conceptual bits and pieces from an artist just entering his prime. Since he's mostly associated with downbeat, meditative stories, it's a welcome change of pace to see him go for laughs and cringes here.

DORK #11, by Evan Dorkin (Slave Labor Graphics). Another top humorist checks in with an impressive all-gag collection. The sheer hard work evident on every page and in every gag is palpable--Dorkin always goes to extra mile to get a laugh.

THE MAGIC WHISTLE #10, by Sam Henderson (Alternative). 2006 was a great year for fans of humor. Not only was there new work from Kupperman and Dorkin, but a huge new issue from the master of crude drawings & conceptual punchlines. Henderson is almost a humor theorist, fascinated with what goes into a joke, what makes it funny, and how to subvert reader expectations.

BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2006 by various (Houghton-Mifflin). A fine snapshot of the best naturalistic stories from 2005, as selected by Anne Elizabeth Moore & Harvey Pekar. Very different in intent and feel from Brunetti's anthology, and a welcome annual addition.

THE VAGABONDS #2 by Josh Neufeld (Alternative). One of the more thoughtful and clever voices in comics, this was the all-collaboration issue of his new series.

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS, by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon). While I enjoyed the first volume of PERSEPOLIS as much as anyone, I thought her chops weren't up to the rendering or design in the sequel. Her David B impersonation just wasn't accomplished enough to get across her story effectively. EMBROIDERIES was a nice bit of fluff but was really more of the same. However, CHICKEN WITH PLUMS is a huge leap forward. The structure of the story, about a musician who wants to die, is intricate and elegant. Her art is more refined and confident. While she probably got more acclaim than she deserved for PERSEPOLIS, I hope that this latest effort isn't overlooked.

110PERCENT, by Tony Consiglio (Top Shelf). Another longtime laborer in the minicomics trenches, Consiglio's first official graphic novel plays to his strengths: memorably broad characters, a ridiculous but humane premise, and a touch of pathos. Add to that his breezy storytelling style and comic timing, and you have one of 2006's hidden treasures.