Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Indestructible Universe Quarterly #6 & #7

Morgan Pielli specializes in elegantly designed minicomics that feature unusual genre stories. Indestructible Universe Quarterly continues to be his grab-bag for anthology work, webcomics and other ephemera. Issues #6 and #7 finish up the first chapter of the forest-horror story "Driftwood", a classic nature vs man story that features logs attacking people and turning them into leaves. There's something wonderfully absurd about the image of someone being reduced to a pile of leaves surrounded by clothes. Along the way, Pielli interjects a myth about a cruel and clever bird and how the forest rose up against it, with the dawning realization that the bird was a stand-in for man. The final reveal of who is likely responsible for the forest uprising here is clever and surprising while being instantly recognizable. Along the way, I like the way Pielli explores horror-movie tropes. There's a touch of the grotesque in his character design, aided by his thick brush work.

The rest of the contents of #6 mostly consisted of material I had seen earlier, including two stories from his "Lightsmith" characters: werewolves and other shape changers engaging in training and troubleshooting of some sort. The ideas here are solid but the execution is sloppy, both in terms of the art (I had trouble making out some of the action on some of the pages) and overall execution (sloppy lettering and a significant number of spelling errors). Both stories simply feel rushed, as though Pielli was trying to beat a deadline for inclusion in the anthologies these stories first appeared in. The other story in the issue, "The God Snare", dips into the Jack Kirby playbook for the design of the giant, armored god figures he introduces. The contrast between these hulking, mysterious figures and the understated myth-telling of the narrative makes it all the more effective.

Issue #7 is perhaps the strongest of the whole series. With three four-page stories and a ten-page story, Pielli keeps his stories brief and crisp, giving us premise and conclusion for these EC comics-flavored stories of malice and horror. "Gold, Silver, Death" starts as a work procedural and ends with an intended victim of the a crime being one step ahead of the person who was going to harm him. "Picker" is about the process of becoming an archetype: the sort of person you see on a subway and think of in a particular way. In this case, perception is reality, as becoming an archetype strips one of individual thought and action. "Living Room" was a touch on the melodramatic side, beginning with the classic set-up of a man in a dark room who doesn't know which way to go and revealing he's a prisoner of a particularly inspired trap. It's less a story than a premise spelled out with some character details added on the back end.

Finally, "The Twisting Kiss" is probably the best story I've read from Pielli. It's a bit of body horror that begins with an interesting premise: a venereal disease much like herpes that twists one's lips into a number. No one knows how or why it started or what it means, until the climax of the story, which involves a grotesque transformation that turns intimacy into something altogether else. The final scene, where the protagonist's friend sees him jump into the ocean, is a chilling one, especially when he is reminded of a potential romantic hook-up awaiting him. The story is a clever way to blow up the terror of sexually transmitted diseases and fear of intimacy to an absurd but still horrifying extreme, recalling the work of Charles Burns a bit. There's a simplicity and groundedness in the way he portrays the friendship of the lead characters that adds a bit of emotional weight to the proceedings as well. Pielli could successfully fill up a book that leaned more toward the psychological and emotional aspects of horror; it's what he's best at right now.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Better Late Than Never: Top 50 Books of 2010

I realize that this list may likely be useful and interesting to no one but me, but it's been nagging at me for a long time to complete. Books that I haven't formally reviewed in a past iteration of High-Low will get a paragraph or two below; otherwise, I've provided links to all of my original reviews along with a brief description. 2010 was a deep year that had plenty of great comics by the usual suspects but seemed to lack a consensus #1 book. A strong argument could be made for any number of the books in my top twenty to be the #1 choice. There were also some lesser-known books that I hope might get a second look from new readers. I've excluded minicomics, broadsheets and some single issues from this list; you can see my choices there in this Comics Journal column. I also decided to exclude the usual classic cartoon strip reprints for this list.

1. Artichoke Tales, by Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. This is Kelso's master work: a meditation on war, ethnicity, and family relationships that pauses long enough to let the reader understand what's at stake in terms of its environment and doesn't provide any easy answers.

2. Mome #19, edited by Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. Reynolds hasn't done much cartooning in recent years, but the last few issues of Mome have felt like his own personal expression in the sense that they so precisely mirror his tastes and values as a cartoonist and editor. Each piece complements the next perfectly, with a one-two-three punch of Josh Simmons/Shaun Partridge, Olivier Schrauwen and Gilbert Hernandez opening up the issue. This issue is deeply affecting, strange and hilarious and provides a wonderful snapshot of the state of underground comics in 2010.

3. Love & Rockets: New Stories #3, by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics). A lot of praise has been heaped on this comic and justly so. The new iteration of the classic series and its 100 page format has seemed to reinvigorate "Los Bros", allowing them to present longer stories in a single issue rather than stretching it over months or years. Gilbert's "Scarlet By Starlight" may be my favorite of his "Fritz in B-Grade Movie" stories that seem to be his new personal obsession, because he compresses the action to a bare minimum of pages. The shock/shlock nature of this story of some scientists on an alien planet with a race of humanoid cat people was made all the stronger without any kind of first act set-up; Gilbert plopped the reader right into the middle of the action and expected them to swim. His "Killer * Sad Girl * Star" is the latest in his stories about Guadalupe's daughter, a simultaneously shrewd and innocent character beset by all sorts of sleazeballs in her potential career as a B-grade actress like her aunt Fritz. Like most of his post-Palomar stories, it's suffused with a highly bleak view of humanity, leavened only by the loyalty of family.

With due respect given to Gilbert's usual solid work in this issue, I have to concur with critical consensus and say that Jaime's "Browntown" (and its accompanying "The Love Bunglers") is one of the best stories of the year and probably the best of his entire career. There are two key takeaways from this story. First, while this is a powerful story on its own, even without any prior knowledge of Jaime's Locas characters, I found that as a long-time fan of his work that its impact was simply devastating. Jaime has always left large lacunae in the accumulated personal histories of his characters, and it was those gaps that always left the reader wondering how someone wound up in a particular situation. With his flagship character Maggie, the reader always knew that she was estranged from her family but didn't know quite why. Jaime quietly, subtly drops bomb after bomb on the reader as to this history and raises the emotional stakes when introducing us to Calvin, Maggie's younger brother and a heretofore barely mentioned character.

The second takeaway and the emotional core of the story is the way that a parent can trigger an emotionally crippling event through simple neglect or dismissal of their childrens' feelings. There are a couple of dominoes toppled in "Browntown" that echo through Maggie's entire personal history (the scene where Maggie simply repeats "I'm sorry" when her mother decries her for revealing a secret about her father is heart-rending and reminiscent of the two-page slapping sequence in Love & Rockets #50), but the more obvious cause-and-effect comes with Calvin. His loyalty to family is repaid with nothing but scorn, neglect and abuse. The result is both tragic and noble, warped and touching. Wrapping the secret of this storyline in and around the personal narratives of Maggie in part one of the story and Ray D in the second part was an incredibly effective bit of narrative sleight-of-hand, concealing the eventual jaw-dropping reveal. As always, Jaime's line looks effortlessly perfect, combining naturalistic and cartoony work from page to page and panel to panel. No artist captures the body language and behavior of children quite like he does, and he's also the king of gesture and depicting how bodies relate to each other in space. Love and Rockets is hitting its thirtieth anniversary and it continues to set a standard of excellence for comics.

4. Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint, by Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly). This is the fourth chapter of Ware's epic Rusty Brown story, the second of which focuses in on one of seven principle characters from the book. Because of that focus, it's easy to read each chapter as a stand-alone unit. Lint focuses on Jordan "Jason" Lint and marks the first time Ware has spent any time examining the inner life of a privileged Alpha male. When the reader was first introduced to Lint in an earlier chapter, he was a sullen, long-haired bully who tortured weaker kids and hit on every girl in sight. Like every other character in the Rusty Brown saga, Lint suffered emotional pain as a child that went on to inform every subsequent experience. In many ways, he has a lot in common with Woody Brown (Rusty's emotionally abusive father who was the focus of the previous issue) in that both of them were buffeted by forces beyond their control, in part because neither had the courage to take charge of their own lives. When it came down to it, neither had the courage of their convictions or their dreams.

The full array of Ware's formal tricks and techniques are on display here, illustrating not what is real but rather what is perceived and remembered. Each page represents a year from Lint's life; sometimes just a moment from that year, sometimes the highlight events of each year. The red circle that's been a repeating motif throughout this story once again takes center stage, appearing in Lint's first memories in various forms: his mother's breast, a light, his own penis, a flower, etc. The opening few pages of the book in particular are a tour-de-force as Ware takes on perception, memory and emotion as a child might understand them. What's remarkable about this book is the way Ware ties apparently throwaway bits into a larger narrative, like seemingly innocuous actions having dire consequences and misremembered events disrupting personal narratives. In particular, one positive memory Lint had ascribed to his deceased mother in fact happened with his despised stepmother. It was a poignant moment, but also a moment designed by Ware to alert the reader not to trust what they see. It's a lesson that bears fruit throughout the comic, as the self-deluding and self-pitying Lint ruins the life of any number of women as well as his children. He dies alone and unloved after suing his own son, after multiple attempts to reinvent himself as a good person that never quite take, in part because he never truly owns up to his mistakes. (There's a hilarious sequence where he tries to impress a potential girlfriend how little he cares about Nebraska football, only to secretly check the score of their bowl game and curse when he finds out they lost.) What's clear about the Rusty Brown narrative is that while Ware understands that abusive behavior has its roots in abuse (and he is sympathetic to their plight), he refuses to let these characters off the hook for their behavior.

5. You'll Never Know Book 2: Collateral Damage, by Carol Tyler (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. The second part of Tyler's masterwork focuses on her own mixed feelings about her parents (including feeling bad about having mixed feelings), the ways in which war continues to have an affect on her family relationships and present relationships, and a couple of devastating stories about daughters lost and almost lost. Tyler's work is just staggering, retaining a sense of optimism and cheer despite heartbreak and tragedy.

6. Make Me A Woman, by Vanessa Davis (Drawn & Quarterly). Here's my original review. Davis is Tyler's most obvious younger heir as the top memoirist in comics today. Their shared background as painters contributes to their unique, open-panel style. Davis' cheer steers the reader through her depictions of personal battles and discussions about her faith and background.

7. The Zabime Sisters, by Aristophane (First Second). This is the first work by the late Guadeloupean artist translated into English, and it made me immediately wish for the rest of his tragically small body of work to make that transition as well. Aristophane wielded a brush like no one save the masterful Blutch, alternating between dense and detailed images of his native land and the use of white space when it came time to focus on character drama. There's a deceptive simplicity in this coming-of-age story that flips between the titular trio of sisters and a group of boys. While there's a narrator's voice that slips the reader inside information from time to time (usually revealing secret knowledge or true feelings), Aristophane leaves unsaid the tremendous feeling of sheer, palpable ache on the page. Like in the autobiographical comics of Lat, Aristophane manages to convey his deep affection for all of his characters without indulging in sentiment or letting them off the hook. The story follows a group of kids during summer vacation, including the bickering but affectionate sisters, a couple of boys who are on their way to a fight, and various other social outcasts. Aristophane nails the ways in which kids fight, taunt and torture each other, raising the stakes in a fight until someone crosses a line. The ways in which the lines of the social order are drawn and re-drawn is exemplified by the sister who taunts a boy by refusing to give him back his father's broken pipe but later is in awe of him when he defeats a hated bully. Even at that, Aristophane's narrator is careful to explain that the bully has a lot of problems and the victory is a hollow one, even if that doesn't stop the victor from basking in glory. Aristophane's brushwork is dynamic yet clear, illustrating every emotion felt and every character nuance. This book could be classified as Young Adult fiction given its subject matter and restraint, which would make it one of the greatest YA comics of all time. It's certainly one of the best comics I read from 2010.

8. Curio Cabinet, by John Brodowski (Secret Acres). Here's my original review. To quote that review: "[Curio Cabinet is] series of stories where quiet moments quickly become outrageous and horrific in a way that is frequently ecstatic, and outrageous moments unexpectedly become calm and contemplative." Like much of alt-comics horror, this book works on a number of levels, not the least of which is as comedy.

9. Special Exits, by Joyce Farmer (Fantagraphics). It's no exaggeration to say that this is Farmer's greatest work, a semi-autobiographical labor of love about her father and step-mother's last years and her role in their lives. Farmer was perhaps the leading light in spearheading underground comics for women in the early 70s, organizing a number of all-woman anthologies and giving a number of female cartoonists early encouragement and exposure. I've read a number of autobio comics, but this is the first that ever addressed issues surrounding elder care and mortality in such a direct manner. There are no villains or recriminations in this book, save perhaps for Farmer's portrayal of doctors and rest homes featuring staff that are less-than-dedicated and compassionate. Indeed, this is a book about forgiveness, about accepting our families warts-and-all, about struggling with when to intervene in someone else's life and how to do so in a way that allows them to retain dignity. At 71 years old, Farmer has only gotten better as a draftsman, filling this 200 page book with lively, expressive characters in a manner that demonstrates the total command she has over the page. There's not a drop of sentimentality to be found in this book, as Farmer leavens her portrayal of her father, her stepmother and herself with moments of prickliness, selfishness and irrationality. In other words, this is the most human of character studies and the most humane of projects. I hope Farmer keeps cartooning until she's 100 years old or more, especially if she has a few more books like this in her.

10. Bodyworld, by Dash Shaw (Pantheon). Above all else, Shaw is an artist who seeks out projects that are challenges, problems to be solved. With each project, he seems to pick up a different skill set that can be brought to bear on future books. Bodyworld represents a multitude of formal challenges for Shaw that he takes on with relish. First, he had to think about how to format this strip in its original form, as a downward scrolling webcomic. Second, he had to think about how to reproduce that effect for print. Third, he wanted to explore color as a storytellling tool rather than a strictly decorative one. In terms of story, Bodyworld is one of the most successful of fusion comics, mashing up Dungeons & Dragons, science-fiction, high-school drama, psychedelia and humor. There are also any number of sly homages to other comics, like a nod to Archie Comics as well as several tributes to Steve Ditko. In terms of character design, body language and stiffness of action, there's a lot of Ditko to be found in this book. Shaw makes it all his own, however, jamming the reader first into the world of experimental forest town Boney Borough and then into a perceptual spider-web in how Shaw depicts empathetic telepathy.

Given his career-long fascination with formal experimentation, something Shaw isn't given enough credit for is his frequently wacky sense of humor. While there were lots of funny moments in Bottomless Belly Button and (especially) The Mother's Mouth, Bodyworld gives us the unforgettable Professor Paulie Panther, one of the most ridiculous characters I've ever encountered. The protagonist of this book, Panther is a hilarious satire of the drugged-out hipster, a pathetic, lonely worm of a man who is all bravado but little courage. Every line out of his mouth is gold, but the true highlight of the book is a fight between Panther and two security men from the local school. The two men are silly enough on their own (especially the nerdy, bespectacled Arthur "Death Artist" Ames), but their weaponry (sai and nunchakus) is straight out of a D&D game or a Frank Miller comic. There are any number of dramatic and even tragic moments in this book, but as a reader the moments that linger the longest for me are the funny ones.

Of course, the formal innovations are impressive. Shaw's dissonant use of color veers into the abstract at times, but it's ideal in attempting to depict the experience of not just hearing someone else's thoughts, but experiencing them experiencing your own thoughts and feelings. It's an interesting concept and one that reflects on the old existentialist idea that because we can never truly know another person's thoughts and experiences, we are essentially alone. Shaw flips that idea around by saying that truly knowing someone else would result in sheer chaos, to the point where we might be "infected" by others (which is what happens to the rebellious schoolgirl who falls for Panther). Shaw solves the downward scrolling problem by making the book a vertical read, with cardboard endpapers that flip out with D&D style maps (a grid with numbers and letters so the reader can quickly orient themselves to location changes). He also adds some amusing decorative elements (like "Bodyworld" being spelled out in what's supposed to be highlighter on the page edges, much like a high school textbook) and then goes to the trouble to craft an ironclad, straightforward narrative with a resolution that's initially a fake-out, revealing an ending that's far more sinister. When Shaw returns to comics (he's currently doing animation), I'll be curious to see what he tries next, but there's no question that this is a tour-de-force.

11. Gazeta, edited by Lisa Mangum & Maria Sputnik. Here's my original review. This is a dizzyingly visually diverse anthology featuring an international cast of artists, many of whom rarely see print in the US. The strong editorial hand of the anthology is what gives it its power and authority.

12. Gaylord Phoenix, by Edie Fake (Secret Acres). Fake takes inspiration from a number of different sources for an exhilarating and frequently bewildering Hero's Journey. Fake draws heavily from mythology, from the origin of his titular hero to the nature of the trials and tribulations he faces on the the road to self-actualization. The early portion of the book (as well as much of the figurework) seems to owe a lot to Fort Thunder-era comics, with Mat Brinkman's brand of environment-explorations, lumpy character design and crystalline decorative touches all in effect. Fake changes styles from chapter to chapter, opting for more psychedelic effects later in the book, as well going to color to represent an ascent to a higher plane. The Gaylord Phoenix was once an ordinary explorer who was bitten by a "crystal claw", transforming into his magical self but finding himself saddled with a blood-lust curse. That curse manifested when he met his soul-mate; after a scene of amazingly-depicted sex (where their penises are detachable tubes that look much like annelids), GP savagely attacks his lover. That begins his journey of redemption and reclamation of his memories, traveling from realm to realm and either fighting or screwing the various beings he encounters (and sometimes both). At its heart, this book is as much about gender identity as it is about sexual identity, as GP has to shed many false skins to get at the essential truth of its gender duality and see him/herself through his/her own eyes--instead of the eyes of others. This book is strange, spectacular and ultimately uplifting, even as it masks its ideas in mythological tropes and eye-popping visual effects. Fake is able to control the reader's experience thanks to the simplicity of his character design combined with the complexity of his page composition and decorative touches. While aspects of the book feel familiar, they are melted down and forged into a unique aesthetic experience.

13. Weathercraft
, by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics). Many refer to Woodring as comics' greatest surrealist, and while I think that term has taken on a somewhat vague meaning over the years, Woodring's work does actually bear more than a passing resemblance to the Surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s. Both are obsessed with a kind of hyperreality of confronting their audiences with strange images that have disturbingly familiar feel to them. The work of both is deeply symbolic and even Freudian. The work of both subverts language and creates its own reality. There is a powerful earthiness mixed in with shifting landscapes and bizarre images, as everything winds up coming down to the essentials of our existence as physical beings. Reading Woodring's comics is a deeply immersive experience, as the artist demands that the reader adjust to the reality he brings to life on the page, dropping the reader into the deep end of the pool of his vision. This visual shock treatment not only aides the reader in swimming in this pool, but also allows one to breathe the metaphorical water. In Weathercraft, Woodring's first long-form story about the Unifactor, the world in which chipmunk-cheeked Frank and his peers live, the effect is intoxicating as one is drawn into the world of the loathesome Manhog: his struggles, his epiphanies and attempts to evolve, and final comeuppance. As a reader, resurfacing from this world and trying to read something else brings about a dissonance that's the equivalent of the bends. Speaking of waves, it's Woodring's ever-present, vibratory line in the background of the comic that gives it such a powerful reality-warping quality. His line is so clean and precise that his bizarre creations have that much more solidity and weight, as though they were carved instead of drawn. While Woodring offers an FAQ at the end of the book and a description of each of the characters, they really don't prepare the reader for the experience of reading the book. Even Woodring can't get at the sublime nature of his work through mere discussion.

14. Habitat, by Dunja Jankovic (Sparkplug). Here's my original review. Jankovic is one of the greatest of the Immersive cartoonists, and this is a particularly intense series of whirling images of an artist dealing with a series of nightmarish and absurd travails at home.

15. It Was The War Of The Trenches, by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. This is Tardi's most extended statement on one of his personal obsessions: the nightmarish weirdness, waste and hypocrisy of World War I. It's my favorite of his comics that he both wrote and drew.

16. Wally Gropius, by Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics). There are any number of ways to read this comic and any number of its attributes to focus in on. It can be viewed as a warped pastiche of Harvey Comics and the work of John Stanley. It can be seen as a Will Elder-inspired zany farce, jammed with eye-pops and wordplay. There's a deeper commentary at work about culture, capitalism and intergender relationships. It's a towering accumulation of Michael Kupperman- style absurdity and dada moments. What I see it as is a European-style album with iron-clad plotting and a straightforward narrative that's disguised by all of these other features. The book's twist is supported at every turn by details that, at the time, seem absurd, horrific (like the shocking apparent incestuous sexual assault that occurs midway through the book) or even trivial. It's an adventure story where our protagonist is an unwitting dupe who almost blows everything but is saved (off-panel) by those who know better. Hensley accomplishes all of this with an aesthetic that is simultaneously familiar & strange, light-hearted but densely packed with information, and that delivers plenty of surface delights but also carries multiple meanings. Hensley's work is like no other cartoonist working today; in the pages of Mome (where it was originally serialized), this story acted as a sort of extreme palate cleanser that served as a highly effective break between entries. With the story all in one place, it's the book's fabulous design (oversized pages, hardcover, nice paper) that serves, like a shell game, to distract the reader from its weirder elements by making it seem like dozens of these sorts of books have been published before. It's Hensley's insistence to the reader that everything they are seeing is perfectly normal that gives so much power to its quirkier and darker moments alike. In a book with such a bright, overpowering four-color comic book scheme, it's funny to note that it's Hensley's restraint and understatement that make this book such an achievement.

17. Market Day, by James Sturm (Drawn & Quarterly). Here's my original review. This is a thoughtful, restrained account of working as an artist in a dying industry as well as a statement about mental illness.

18.Picture This, by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly). This book is a kind of incantation for creativity. It's a creative anti-virus, burrowing its way into one's brain in order to make its readers come down with ideas. It's a meditative guide to the healing powers of drawing. This book is a companion piece to Barry's stunning What It Is, her guide to writing. This book lacks the shock of the new, given that What It Is was a remarkable combination of memoir, collage, childhood art project, lecture and narrative. Picture This in many ways is much more straightforward in the lessons it imparts on not just different approaches regarding drawing, but also in terms of its theories. The central questions of the book are "Why do we draw as children?" and "Why do we stop as adults?" While that's partly related to the Two Questions of the first book that stymie creativity ("Is this good?" and "Does this suck?"), Picture This applies a metafictional narrative featuring her Ernie Pook's Comeek characters finding a book called Picture This that features a near-sighted monkey doing slightly inappropriate things while suggesting all sorts of mysterious art-related activities.

In many respects, What It Is was theory, while Picture This is practice. It's less interested in Barry's own story (covered in the first book) and is more concerned with seeing what kind of stories she makes now. Most every page features drawings, paper constructions and especially water color paintings done by Barry and her husband as a sort of automatic collaborative process (they did not speak about their paintings, they just did them). The book is broken up into four chapters, each corresponding to a season. "Winter" is all about shapes, encouraging the reader to create art by folding, cutting, gluing and smudging rather than drawing. This most basic of activities speaks directly to the way that the tactile, visceral nature of creating art has some surprising side effects. "Spring" is about all kinds of lines and curves one can make and the simple sensation of making marks on paper. Once again, Barry talks about how doodles can clear one's brain as a sort of meditative activity. "Summer" is all about color, featuring page after page of how a simple alteration of color can change the meaning of a page. (This is an aspect of comics that only the most avant-garde of cartoonists are really starting to understand.) Finally, "Fall" is about process, addressing how we access our ability to create and how to get to that place. The key quote is "The image world is not part of our mind--our mind is part of the image world". How do we get there? Through the repetitive and meditative action of taking pen or brush to paper, we induce that mind-clearing state. It is in that state where we are most capable of being fully creative, of tapping into the stories we have stored away. It's in the least intentional of states is where the artist not only can tap into motions and marks that are soothing and meditative, but also capable of producing marks (and stories) that can have the same effect on readers. This is what Barry does at her best.

19. Wilson, by Daniel Clowes (Drawn & Quarterly). Here's my original review. I see this as Clowes' take on the Sunday comics page for a feature drawn over many years, with most of those pages removed. It's a funny, nasty take on middle age and mortality that's not quite as powerful as previous works but still reflective of an artist at the height of his powers.

20.The Wild Kingdom, by Kevin Huizenga (Drawn & Quarterly). This is a third reworking of material that Huizenga's been developing for a number of years in various formats, but the addition of color and some new strips flesh out Huizenga's ideas in bold fashion. This book is about a series of hidden conflicts, most notably about nature vs technology and how this plays out in the obliviousness of man to his environment. More to the point, this book is about communication and language in particular. What I find interesting about the book is that Huizenga's critique of language, technology and civilization seems to be a Heideggerian argument. What I mean by that is that Huizenga, through a series of stories, strips, diagrams, gags and various combinations thereof, seems to be critiquing what the philosopher Martin Heidegger would say is a false view of looking at the world, one where everything and everyone is treated as "objects-at-hand". That's especially true of nature, as commodified and classified by the reference to the old "Wild Kingdom" TV show (nature as entertainment), the way that the suburban streets of protagonist Glenn Ganges are crossed with telephone wires, and especially in the series of gag strips addressing advertising in the latter half of the book. Heidegger posited that this inauthentic way of looking at the world was rooted in language itself, because this is our primary tool in trying to understand (and hence master) the world. In direct opposition to the comics where Glenn looks at phenomena qua phenomena (like his famous "The Sunset"), the strips here are all about the ways in which language is a trap that imprisons humanity (and by extension, all of nature). All of this is done with an incredible amount of wit and with no didacticism whatsoever; it's up to the reader to figure out what is being satirized and why.

21. Drinking At The Movies, by Julia Wertz (Three Rivers Press). Here's my original review. All of the usual funny nonsense from Wertz, this time with a loose structure that ties together the observational gags and touches on personal tragedies and difficulties. This was the first mature work of Wertz's career, and it's a positive augur for her future.

22. The Troll King, by Kolbeinn Karlsson (Top Shelf). Here's my original review. A strange and wonderful book from Top Shelf's "Swedish Invasion"; as I said in my review: "The Troll King is a startling, unsettling, and ultimately life-affirming book that spins a mythology that is at once alien and familiar."

23. Undeleted Scenes, by Jeffrey Brown (Top Shelf). Here's my original review. This is another great collection of autobiographical stories from Brown; quoting my review: "Undeleted Scenes is a kind of autobio comics Ph.D program, detailing one artist’s journey through trying to express himself in a number of different ways. While some of those experiments worked better than others, Brown’s work is remarkable in that he never lost sight of his overall emotional project, no matter if he was trying to get laughs or depict a poignant moment."

24.Werewolves of Montpellier, by Jason (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. Another great genre romance story by Jason. From my review: "Overall, this is a pitch-perfect, expertly-crafted story by an artist who is clearly working in his comfort zone. It’s remarkable to see a creator go to the same well so many times and yet continue to produce nuanced and powerful variations on the same themes."

25. Whirlwind Wonderland, by Rina Ayuyang (Sparkplug/Tugboat Press). Ayuyang's first book is a delight as she meditates on family and its connections as well as her cultural obsessions (like football and the TV show Murder, She Wrote). The highlight is "Crack O' Dawn", a long story that flips from magical realism in the depiction of Ayuyang's morning commute (complete with Brad Pitt as dance partner and symbol of dread regarding the responsibilities of impending motherhood) to a hilarious story about going to a function for distant and annoying family members. Ayuyang delights in her Filipino heritage and how it butts up against her identity as an American, especially in turning the spotlight on her parents. Ayuyang uses a scribbly, appealing line that gets better as she allows herself to make it even simpler for the later stories in the book. This is an assured debut from an artist who had been honing her skills for quite some time, elevating quotidian events into moments of great significance (and frequently, moments of great hilarity).

26. Palookaville #20, by Seth (Drawn & Quarterly). Here's my original review. Seth reinvents his long-running series in a handsome new format, complete with a bracing autobio tale, annotated photos and illustrations about an exhibit of his work, and the latest episode of "Clyde Fans".

27.From The Shadow Of The Northern Lights, Volume 2, edited by Johannes Klenell (Top Shelf). Here's my original review. This anthology of Swedish alt-cartoonists is notable for its variety of styles and the depth of its roster.

28.Little Nothings 3: Uneasy Happiness, by Lewis Trondheim (NBM). Here's my original review. This delightful autobio series finds the artist dealing with a welcome problem: his life is pleasant and offers few real obstacles. Trondheim draws out laughs by focusing on quotidian details and ruminating on his standing in life.

29. The Whale, by Aidan Koch (Gaze Books). Here's my original review. This wispily-drawn story uses erasure as a tool to dig at memory and loss; it's the spaces in-between and the details that fade that make this such an effective work.

30.. Solipsistic Pop Volume 2, edited by Tom Humberstone. Here's my original review. This is an elegant anthology that doesn't overthink its use of theme and instead concentrates on presenting each of its contributors in the simplest and most beautiful manner possible.

31.Young Lions, by Blaise Larmee. Here's my original review. This long-form narrative by Larmee is both a story and commentary on art, theory and artistic communities.

32. How I Made It To Eighteen, by Tracy White (Roaring Brook Press). Here's my original review. This is a simply-rendered, restrained and starkly beautiful comic about dealing with one's own pain.

33. Tales Designed To Thrizzle #6, by Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. Kupperman uses color to ground the reader and force them to dig into each panel as he creates masterpieces of absurdism and demented parodies.

34. Lemon Styles, by David King (Sparkplug). King's comics mix cute figures, strange gags, and the quiet, haunting poetics of John Hankiewicz. Lemon Styles features the return of his grown-up kid characters from his Danny Dutch comic, only on a much larger scale. The dimensions of this book (about 7x7") are unusual, bringing to mind some kind of strange, old printed artifact. At forty pages, one quickly becomes immersed in King's way of thinking and drawing, which is a disorienting but fascinating experience. King's style evokes deja vu, bringing to mind something familiar and old told in a strange, hypnogogic manner. This particular comic is roughly in two parts: a series of unconnected four-panel "gag" strips and one longer narrative. Both juxtapose a stillness of action with occasionally outrageous dialogue (like one strip where an otherwise austere man is writing an x-rated love note). In others, the dialogue is sometimes plaintive, sometimes lyrical, and sometimes abstract. The longer story is about loneliness and the reasons why people stay with each other, even when there's seething mutual resentment. This comic lingers in one's memory because of the control King has over the page. His cute, bigfoot figures have huge heads and exaggerated noses, dressing and looking like something out of the 1940s. The relationships between his characters range between convivial, desperate, puzzled and contemplative, as each one is trying to work something out on the page. Lemon Styles is an existential gag comic that is puzzling and rewarding to read as well as a delight to look at.

35. Lone Pine, by Jed McGowan (AdHouse). This is a curious blend of comics-as-poetry attached to a hard-boiled, deliberately cliched action plot. The book is a series of misdirections, bluffs and mirrors for the reader in an effort to get them to pay attention to its smallest, seemingly inconsequential details. It's about a young man in a forest who is being chased by some criminals, but he is able to evade them. His girlfriend is missing, but he's aided by a mysterious female benefactor who leads him through a series of clues. All the action and plot essentially take place off-panel; the real struggle here is between the protagonist and...not just his environment, but reality itself. The desolate weirdness and stillness in the book (both in terms of affect and environment) reminds me a little of a DeChirico painting, reflecting how alone the main character is. The only clue worth following is the instruction he's given by his benefactor: "Be a tree". In other words, be still and do nothing, but don't mistake this as mere passivity. Indeed, this is an insistent imploring on the part of the benefactor, that the only way to truly move is to allow oneself to be still long enough to become attuned with something outside oneself. The ending is abstract and open-ended to the point where it can be interpreted in any number of ways: actually crystallizing and disappearing, hallucinating that he's becoming an abstract form, his perception of the world becoming "true", or something in between. While nothing seems to happen in this story in terms of conventional narrative, I'd say that the protagonist goes on the world's most abstract and passive Hero's Journey, eschewing brute force action to eventually reach a kind of enlightenment. The beautiful use of light blue, black and zip-a-tone contributes to the overall, deliberately flat nature of the project as well as the emphasis of shape over character. This is a comic where the artist wants the reader to know that they are looking at marks on paper that form shapes. While the characters look bland and act bland, the shapes on the page are sharp and distinct. This Xeric-powered book is of a kind with other anti-plot books like The Whale and Young Lions, and I'll be curious to see what McGowan tries next after this experiment.

36. Studygroup 12 #4, edited by Zack Soto. After a six year delay, this anthology that's sort of a second cousin to anthologies like Kramer's Ergot and Blab! finally reappeared on the scene. SG12 has always been part comics, part sketchbook portfolio, so it's no surprise to see that true of this edition as well. Soto has also never shied away from giving emerging talent the spotlight, even if it made each issue uneven. All of this is true of the most recent issue, with its highs being some of the best short stories of the year and the lows being instantly forgettable. Trevor Alixopulos was the MVP of the anthology with three haunting, intriguing stories, and then appeared as a character with a great gag in a Vanessa Davis story. T. Edward Bak's "autobio" story is a hilarious parody of autobio and poetic comics, artfully mimicking their rhythms and verbiage with a deft touch. Other highlights include a welcome return from Richard Hahn in a perfect, open-aired first story of the book, an ingenious two-page spread from Michael DeForge trailing a number of characters across the page ala Lewis Trondheim, Jennifer Parks' creepy and atmospheric horror story and Jon Vermilyea's typical bit of nonsense involving a gang of anthropomorphic breakfast items. While there's plenty to like here, the anthology as a whole doesn't quite cohere as well as the other top anthologies of the year.

37.Bound & Gagged, edited by Tom Neely. Here's my original review. This is a gag-strip anthology featuring artists who aren't necessarily humorists; the results are fascinating across the board.

38. Flesh & Bone, by Julia Grfrorer (Sparkplug). Here's my original review. Grfrorer once again delves into fairy tale tropes to deliver a story that's in turns horrific, philosophical and funny.

39.Trigger #1, by Mike Bertino (Revival House). Here's my original review. An old-fashioned alternative comics pamphlet, Trigger is a one-man anthology with a relaxed approach to its storytelling and varied kinds of gags and narrative concerns.

40. Big Questions #15, by Anders Nilsen (Drawn & Quarterly). Here's my original review. Nearly a decade in the making, this is the final issue of Nilsen's existential epic about a community of birds and the interlopers who shatter their world. This issue is the aftermath of the violent and devastating events of the previous issue, which is fitting considering that the series' best moments were its quiet ones.

41.Hey Princess, by Mats Jonsson (Top Shelf). Here's my original review. This is a bluntly honest, funny and endearingly shabby and all-over-the-place autobiographical comic by one of the top cartoonists from Sweden.

42. Dungeon Quest Volume 1, by Joe Daly (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. Daly combines a deft eye for detail, a cartoony sensibility when it comes to character design, a talent for slacker-style dialogue and a delightful understanding of action tropes.

43. Newave!, edited by Michael Dowers (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. This is a fascinating historical document of how comics' underground movement continued to flourish through the zine and minicomic explosion of the 70s and 80s. While much of the content is highly uneven, one can see the careers of many future greats in their earliest stages and comics from cartoonists who never quite rose to that level.

44.How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less, by Sarah Glidden (DC/Vertigo). Here's my original review. This is an interesting first major work by an artist whose ostensible narrative (her reaction to going to Israel as a left-leaning American Jew) masks the deeper issue of her personal identity and how this plays out in terms of recalibrating her belief system.

45. Set To Sea, by Drew Weing (Fantagraphics). Here's my original review. This is a lush, gorgeous and even old-fashioned nautical fable that is modest in its ambitions and restrained in its storytelling from one of the best draftsmen in comics.

46.Dungeon: Twilight Volume 3 (The New Centurions), by Lewis Trondheim, Johann Sfar, Kerascoet & Obion (NBM). Here's my original review. The two stories in this volume are dramatically different, as one focuses on the usual outrageous & brutal political intrigues and the latter is a left turn that's as much a storytelling exercise as it is a work of satire.

47. Closed Caption Comics #9. The latest anthology from the Baltimore collective is actually the first I've managed to get my hands on. The loose theme is "your body", which most of the artists in this genre-bending book took to mean "body horror". The results are pretty uneven, though there are a few stand-outs. The chunky black lines of Lane Milburn in particular evoke EC horror and science-fiction comics. His sci-fi story features a female protagonist posed in such a sexually exploitative fashion that it felt like a parody of Heavy Metal. The story he drew that was written by Conor Stechschulte similarly parodies high school horror splatterfests, introducing a twist where a character not possessing her virginity winds up saving her life.

The real stand-out stories are by Noel Freibert, Ryan Cecil Smith and Molly O'Connell. Freibert uses a lot of white negative space in setting up a horror-mystery story about a young boy who is reared to come to a gruesome, mysterious end. The lack of detail and spare line lends the story a weirdly antiseptic tone that makes it all the more creepy. Smith's story is a slightly sillier, cartoony story about Hercules running a mountain top strength institute and a particularly disgruntled student. Smith expertly runs several characters through total communication breakdowns in a very amusing manner. O'Connell's incredible linework is among the best I've ever seen in the Immersive school, demanding total reader engagement in this story about a set of brothers on TV, their secretary, and the weird body horrors that seem to lurk everywhere. The way she emphasizes the decorative aspects of lettering in particular made this an absorbing read.

48. Temperance, by Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics). Malkasian's comics trade equally in darkness and whimsy, and this tale of cultural myopia, bellicosity and the lies that bind us together is no exception. Malkasian tends to keep one foot in grimy reality and one foot in fantasy, as a sentient tree and an all-destroying would-be father figure take center stage. The book is at its strongest when it focuses on life in Blessedbowl, a stone city whose citizens have been raised to believe that it's a ship sailing toward the enemies imagined by the malevolent and deceptive "Pa". Pa is a weird figure, at once an abusive monster who also takes on a veneer of familial kindness after convincing his victims that someone else destroyed their towns, an invisible enemy that only he can protect them from. Life in Blessedbowl centers around my favorite character in the book, the dumpy Minerva, whose lies have kept everyone in the city alive, including her beloved husband Lester, a man that Pa nearly killed 30 years earlier when he tried to prevent Pa from raping Minerva's older sister, Peggy. I thought the book's climax was perhaps too oblique for its own good but the final pages brought everything together as all the principle characters were reunited in an unexpected fashion. Malkasian's work reminds me a little of Renee French's comics in that they both are fascinated by the darker aspects of fantasy stories, have an exacting pencil style, and don't mind bending their comics to the grotesque side. Even amid the book's gloomiest aspects, there's always a through-line of hope to be found.

49. Three #1, edited by Robert Kirby. Here's my original review. This is a strong debut for this three-author anthology series that spotlights gay artists. Its unique and coherent point of view is due to the strong editorial direction of Kirby, who modulated his own content to fit in with fellow contributors Joey Sayers and Eric Orner.

50. El Vocho, by Steve Lafler. Here's my original review. This is a pleasantly rambling trip that mixes Lafler's typical psychedelic musings about art and life with romance, as well as a crime story. Its relaxed pace is its greatest asset, as Lafler is in no hurry to get from point a to point b in terms of plot and is more interested in getting to know the characters.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sequart #174: Inkweed

Here's a review of one of Sparkplug's best-ever releases, Chris Wright's Inkweed. This was originally published at

The last book I'm reviewing in the latest wave of releases from top-notch boutique publisher Sparkplug Comic Books is Inkweed, by Chris Wright. Publisher Dylan Williams once again provides a platform for an artist with a distinctive voice and style, collecting stories from a number of different places into one thematic whole. The gestalt of Wright's work may be as fully-formed as I've ever seen from a relatively young artist, with the stylistic choices he makes fitting in perfectly with his themes. The result is a comic that is unnerving, uncomfortable and relentlessly compelling. His work is one of contradiction: his figures are grotesque but majestic, scratchy yet imaginatively designed, and monstrous but recognizably human. Wright employs a scratchy, dense line jammed with cross-hatching and shadow. His figures are often distorted but expressive, and he never sacrifices clarity for effect. His use of gesture and body language makes his characters recognizably human even if they don't quite appear to be. The oddness of his figures is especially given context with the way he uses the eyes of his characters to guide the reader.

Wright's themes overlap, and he cleverly arranged the stories in the book such that one theme led to another. The first story, "The Unmerciful Gift", is about an artist who can no longer paint works that others can see--they simply look like blind canvases. The story is about sacrifice, obsession and the ultimate futility of that pursuit. Here, Wright's cross-hatching creates an emotional weight, a density where there is no relief for the reader. Wright observes obsession from a different point of view in "Tapestry", about an aging astronomer who desperately reaches out to his young female assistant. The desperation is not born simply out of loneliness, but out of the terror of his increasing realization of his insignificance in the face of the infinite. In the end, she leaves and he has no choice but to continue to try to chart the abyss that he studies every night. The way Wright contrasts the astronomer's bravado by day (asserting how much more scientists now understand) with his terror at night was the story's master stroke.

"Snake" and "Truth" both look at love from different points of view. The first as a form of temptation that no one can avoid, and the second as an actively pernicious force that we nonetheless are endlessly drawn to. In both tales, Wright creates a vaguely mythical, fairy-tale type background for the stories. Those two shorter stories prepare for the true gut-punch of the collection, "Urn". It's Wright's most devastating and masterful short story, with an introduction that piques interest and warns us that tragedy is ahead, but the reader could not possibly be prepared for what was to come. The story is about "love", but it's really about the many things we call love that are really something else. It's about guilt, lies, self-hatred, self-deception and the way all of these things come home to roost in the end. The most devastating part of the story is that the most despicable character is also the only fully truthful one.

Inkweed is also about creation and destruction, slipping between the stories of gods and artists. "The Sea Demon" essentially presents a set of dilemmas not unlike faced by the other artists in the book. "Rags and Turpentine" is interesting because it features one of the few characters in the book that is at the height of his creative powers, only he doesn't know it. An artist in love (or probably lust), he's conflicted by his desire for a woman who is also an artist and the possibility that he doesn't even like her work. Like many of the characters in Inkweed, the artist character gets drunk as a response to his surroundings. The loopy panel design reflects his wobbly orientation. Wright balances the philosophical, probing nature of his stories with visceral, earthy concerns that often put the lie to many of the characters' beliefs.

That tension between mind and body is at the heart of Wright's stories. In particular, Wright gets at the disconnect between the two, as his characters don't always understand their own motivations or don't figure it out until it's far too late. Wright modulates pleasure and pain here, as there are many ridiculous, laugh-out-loud moments to go with the melancholy or horrific ones. The intersection between obsession and desire is painfully evoked by Wright's art, and his unusual character design sucks the reader into this world where "he who learns must suffer", where journeys of discovery come at a terrible price.

Sequart #72: Bookhunter

Here's another old review of a Sparkplug comic that I greatly enjoyed, in support of Dylan Williams.

One reason why I love comics is that one occasionally runs into a creator producing art that would only work as comics. I prefer not to use reductive terms like "pure cartooning", but I have a great appreciation for many artists who rethink this idea of making marks on paper for a narrative intent and come up with different angles. One such artist is Jason Shiga, an artist who simultaneously manages to have a cult following in the world of comics and a broad following in the larger culture. He's been contributing his odd choose-your-own-adventure comics for Nickelodeon magazine for some time, and his twisted sense of humor has been perfect for that venue. He's also crafted a series of minis, collections and odd art objects that elicit nothing less than sheer delight.

Shiga has a degree in math and works as a librarian in his day job. Coming from that point of view, he views comics and storytelling quite differently than most artists. At the same time, that point of view is in tune with what all great gagsmiths and storytellers must do in creating a narrative: state a premise or problem and then go through the process of solving it. If Shiga reminds me of anyone, it's Lewis Trondheim, whose intuitive approach in boiling down conflicts in pursuit of a gag always leads to satisfying and sometimes unexpected conclusions. Shiga's approach appears to be more studied, but the mechanics of his process drop out on the page thanks to his absurd (and often surprisingly dark) sense of humor.

Shiga's created comics that are visual palindromes, complicated (and violent) choose-your-own-adventure comics, and comics that are problems that have to be solved. In his longer-form work, Shiga displays his facility for writing taut, tense stories that use genre trappings for unexpected results. Double Happiness was about an Asian man who grew up in a mostly caucasian community who goes to live in an Asian community where he feels equally out of place. This comic isn't about teaching some kind of lesson in identity or acceptance--it takes several sharp and shockingly violent turns to an ending that is unsettling. Fleep begins with an incredible premise--a man awakes with no memory, finding himself trapped in a phonebooth that's been covered in cement--and works as a sort of logic problem, as the man uses his possessions to try and find a way out. His ultimate identity is the kind of twist that was there all along but was cleverly hidden from the reader.

Shiga's art is simultaneously utilitarian and idiosyncratic. He uses crude, blob-like figures that somehow manage to capture emotion and expression with great sensitivity. They way these cute figures provide a counterpoint to the sometimes savage violence seen in his stories makes reading his comics all the more jarring. The cuteness of his figures is always played straight, however, and they usually fade into the background of one's mind as the reader gets involved with the story.

His latest comic, Bookhunter, is perhaps his most ambitious integration of image, figure and story. The plot of the book is simple: it's a police procedural about a stolen book and the team that tries to track down both book and thief. It's the details of the story and the variables that Shiga alters that make this one of the best comics of 2007.

First, the book is set in 1973 Oakland. Shiga is clearly inspired by the look and feel of 70's cop pictures, and the sepia tones he uses throughout the book are meant to invoke that era. With the look and feel of the book established for the audience, Shiga changes just one variable that turns out to be a major curveball: the existence of the Library Police. That is, an entire branch of the police force dedicated to tracking down rare book thieves and the tomes they plundered. This team at times must use SWAT-team tactics but also employs high-tech (for 1973) forensic science and the latest in technology. Despite the ridiculousness of this premise, Shiga plays it straight as the library police goes through its detailed and painstaking process of trying to figure out who committed the crime.

Shiga ups the ante by making the theft "three concentric locked-room mysteries", tackled by Agent Bay and his team. Shiga takes obvious delight in constructing the mystery, having a team attack it and cracking it through equal parts hard work and luck, and do it with technological limitations that would be unthinkable today. As a librarian, it would seem that Shiga would be quite well-versed in the history of library science and security, and so when thinking about how this crime could be committed, ran through all of the possibilities in his head. Whether or not he was an expert in early-70's library security protocols, his authorial voice is so confident that it's not important.

The tropes found in 70's cop movies are touched on here, mostly as a way to add tension and dynamism to the story. The book begins with a sort of mini-feature of another case that Agent Bay and his team were solving, and ends with a spectacular and hilarious act of violence that immediately sucks the reader in. From there, we move on to the main story, starting with Bay and his team speeding to the scene of the crime. The team investigates the crime scene, analyzes evidence, finds clues, and begins to understand that this may have been the perfect crime. The relentless Bay pushes his team, follows hunches and long-shots, and uses every resource available to him (including a primitive internet). The search for the thief resolves in spectacular fashion once again, and Shiga's art once again adds a touch of the absurd to the proceedings even if the events are played straight. Shiga then adds an additional twist and climax that make this an enormously satisfying read.

The simplicity of Shiga's style doesn't obscure the spectacular quality of his composition. Cinema is once again both an inspiration and an object of parody, like in the mute scene near the beginning of the story where Bay observes a day in the life of this library. He's asking questions but Shiga leaves out the dialogue, almost like a camera wanting the viewer to concentrate on the visuals of a scene. It culminates in a 2-page panorama shot of Bay standing at a rail
overlooking the rest of the library at a dizzying height, reminiscent of the famous shot of the Library of Congress from All The President's Men. Shiga borrows from film in this comic, but one could never imagine this comic as a film.

There's no one else quite like Jason Shiga. The way he looks at comics as problems to be solved gives them a kind of narrative tightness that draws the reader in immediately and holds them. Combining that sort of precision with a delightfully loose line, warped sense of humor and fiendish sense of timing makes him one of my favorite creators.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sequart #37: Mine Tonight

In support of Sparkplug, here's another old review of one of their releases from Trevor Alixopulos. This is from 2006 and


Those that follow the minicomics scene will observe that geography plays a large part in forming artist support groups. These groups provide encouragement and critique for young artists and play a part in their development. The recent development of a sustained book publishing beachhead in the world of comics has suddenly made being an art comics practitioner potentially lucrative--or at least something that could pay the bills. Look at Raina Telgemeier. She went from self-publishing minis to getting a story in an anthology, which led her to get a contract to do graphic novel versions of the Babysitter's Club novels for Scholastic. Then there's the FLIGHT crew, who took a chance with a full-color anthology that has become so successful that the third volume was picked up by Ballantine.

In recent years, those loose associations have yielded some interesting results. In St. Louis, the USS Catastrophe crew of Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch and Ted May have not only served as a focal point for minicomics distribution, they?ve gone on to much wider regard. Huizenga and Zettwoch in particular are rising stars for Drawn & Quarterly and the cutting-edge Kramer's Ergot anthology. Huizenga also has a series for the prestigious Ignatz line at Fantagraphics. In Chicago, the Holy Consumption group of Paul Hornschemeier, Jeffrey Brown, Anders Nilsen and John Hankiewicz have also taken the art-comics world by storm. Three of the artists have regular gigs in Fantagraphics' wide-reaching Mome anthology, and between the four of them, have comics published by Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Dark Horse, Sparkplug Comic Books, Top Shelf and Buenaventura. Just a few years ago, they were honing their craft in minicomics. Thanks to their talent and a broadening market, they're now significant figures in the comics world.

As a writer, critic, editor and general observer of the comics world, I make it my business to track the most promising minicomics artists. Not only to determine who might produce great work in the future, but because the minicomics themselves are such an engaging and immediate form of the comics experience. Emerging from a West Coast group of artists that includes Jesse Reklaw, Andrice Arp, Lark Pien, Thien Pham, Jason Shiga and others, Trevor Alixopulos has shown an astonishing learning curve in recent years. He's gone from making crude but promising minicomics where he was clearly working out his influences to developing his own voice.

That voice is hard to characterize. There's an edginess, a certain paranoia, that surrounds his best work. In particular, a long minicomic called Dread was a big step forward for him. Mine Tonight manages to combine all of his interests in one cleverly-designed format. It's part paranoid political thriller (albeit with a 21st century twist), part love story, part dream journal, part history lesson, part autobio comic. It's got the feel of noir fiction and slacker/punk stories. The art is loose and expressive, with a moodiness belied by his exaggerated figure drawing. The nervousness and anxiety that his characters feel is expressed nicely through sweaty faces and a sense of claustrophobia. The whole package works, and the result was a story that was a genuine joy to read.

The story follows Lukas Blum, the sort of lost soul not unfamiliar to noir stories. Except Blum followed a run of dissolution by hooking up with an unusual political machine, headed by mysterious Hungarian financier George Miklos. Miklos is a thinly-veiled version of George Soros, the billionaire who donated money to groups like in support of John Kerry. Blum had met him at the last great moment of American protest: the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle. That event looms large in the book, as Blum flies to New York to put a plan of Miklos' into effect. That plan is for Blum to find 5 million dollars that Miklos has hidden in a shell organization and get it to Kerry's campaign in order to help him win the 2004 election. Despondent, adrift and confused, Blum contacts the one person he knows in New York: cartoonist Trevor Alixopulos.

The book takes plenty of side trips and diversions, as Blum reads a weird strip by Alixopulos in a weekly newspaper, we get detailed accounts of dreams that are haunting Blum, and we see a story by Alixopulos about his own involvement at the WTO protest. It's clear that the experience was a significant one for him, but that he also went through a long period of disillusionment and confusion. He also is clearly self-deprecatory towards his own career up to that point; one senses that he regretted wasting time on trivialities but that he's past that point now. Through his own character and that of Blum (a sort of alter ego), this book feels like the author taking stock of his career. There's a certain wistfulness here, but also hope for the future.

While the book has a noir feel and plot, Alixopulos subverts the reader's expectations at every turn. The culmination of his mission is deliberately anti-climactic, partly because of the electronic age we live in. Blum has every opportunity to act the tough guy, but can't bring himself to do it, and falls in love with a woman who's the key to completing his mission. In the end, the book was really about the possibility of reinvention and ends on a hopeful note.

Sequart #167: Hot Breath of War

This weekend, I'll be republishing some old reviews of various Sparkplug comics. Today, it's a pair from Trevor Alixopulos. This review originally ran on

Trevor Alixopulos struck a nerve with his paranoid capitalist spy thriller Mine Tonight, and he follows that up with war parables in The Hot Breath of War. His style is more eccentric and playful than usual, channeling Jules Feiffer and Elzie Segar into his work. He's always had a loose and expressive style, especially with regard to his character design, and he unleashes that here on pages that are mostly have just one or two panels each. Alixopulos' opening salvo is his invocation of a Thomas Paine quote noting that "He who is the author of war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death". This book is as much about the collective consciousness of a society as it is about war itself, and what happens to its citizens when times become warped beyond comprehension.

There are six separate stories in the book and they are loosely connected in terms of theme. Roughly speaking, the stories break down into stories about soldiers, stories about victims and stories about life during wartime. The two stories about a pair of soldiers, "We Are Defeated" and "Vallodolid 1936", couldn't be more different in terms of tone. The former is political satire as slapstick, as Alixopulos is at his most playful, culminating in a punchline and a plop-take. Body language is one of Alixopulos' greatest strengths: his characters are always slumping, leaning, slouching or falling forward. The exception is "Vallodolid 1936" where a communist soldier fighting during the Spanish Civil War is captured and sent to die before a firing squad. As the chapter nears its inevitable conclusion, the art becomes more realistic and the prisoner stands ramrod straight, defiant in the face of death and meaninglessness.

The two stories about victims, "There's A Monkey On My Back..." & "...and His Breath Is Hot" read more like fairy tales or parables, albeit without a moral. The former story takes a child who resembles Huck Finn (or perhaps Dennis the Menace) and forces him into a mythic journey. The narrator guides the reader through the story and simultaneously deconstructs it. The boy comes to what appears to be a happy end, at least in his own mind, but the doomed expression on the faces of those who save him tell a different story. "...and His Breath Is Hot" mimics the action of a stage drama, as a soldier returning from war meets a girl dragging her dead mother away in a wagon. The formal nature of their dialogue and the give-and-take between the two characters is deliberately stiff and awkward. The reality is that there's really nothing left to say for the girl and the soldier.

The life during wartime stories, "A Journey Into Time" and "Data Recovery" find Alixopulos on his most familiar and firmest ground. These are variations on the sort of urban romances he's been writing for quite some time, only far bleaker. "Data Recovery" finds our protagonist skipping out of his night shift job in a desperate attempt at seeking connection in a world that's become increasingly unreal and meaningless. In an echo of Hurricane Katrina, he finds that the party and subsequent hook-up he gets into are really the last revel before the apocalypse, as the ocean sweeps away his city. As much as the protagonist is looking for connection, he's also looking for something to do, trying to forestall boredom (and hence oblivion) in the face of the chaos he encounters.

"A Journey Into Time" interweaves the stories of three characters, including a carefree anthropomorphic cat. The cat lacks the desperation of the other characters, flowing freely along life's tide to create a balanced existence. The girl in the story is seeking human connection even as she must cut herself off from a relationship that was in danger of wrecking her own sense of narrative. The man in the story is an agent of crass materialism, seeking to possess what is not his and threatening to destroy what he can't have. He possesses an enormous sense of entitlement, wanting what he hasn't earned because he figures it's owed to him somehow. The specter of war looms in this story from two servicemen who run a bar (one horribly injured) to the sense that this feeling of entitlement is what keeps wars running.

The overall effect of this book was somewhat scattershot. It took a few readings to really grab on to it, to not only absorb each story but try to contextualize them in relation to the others. That effort is more than worth it, especially when one understands the way Alixopulous not only is paying tribute to classic cartoonists but also recontextualizing familiar war iconography. Sex is a key undercurrent of the book. In Freudian terms, this book is very much about the eros and thanatos drives, and the way the latter affects and pathologizes the former. Alixopulos' greatest feat was creating a work that is very much a political statement that avoids didacticism, one that examines issues from a variety of viewpoints but that allows the reader some flexibility in playing with these ideas. While it's not quite as crisp a read as Mine Tonight, I think Alixopulos was deliberately trying for a much different effect. His passion for dissecting issues related to global politics has become perfectly integrated with his understanding of how best to depict them in comics form.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Another Way To Help Dylan Williams

This is a release from retailer and friend of Dylan Williams, Jason Leivian, owner of Floating World Comics in Portland, OR:

"Dylan Williams would never ask any of his friends to do a benefit like this. Not his style.

Sorry Dylan, I know you said no gifts, but your friends love you too much and you're just going to have to accept this present.

A few days ago Tom Spurgeon and others sent out a call for people to support Dylan by buying Sparkplug Comic Books. When I heard how serious the situation was I felt shock and sadness. Felt a little helpless, then I think yesterday we all got the same idea at the same time. Gotta do something to help our friend. Jim Rugg emailed me last night about putting together an art fundraiser show which I'll start organizing this weekend and I'll have more info on Monday.

In the meantime we're going to have a benefit sale at Floating World next Monday and Tuesday, August 29th - 30th.

We're going to donate 100% of our proceeds from those two days to Dylan's medical care (Dylan has no health insurance). We'll have a special section of Sparkplug books for you to check out but the sale includes everything you buy on Monday and Tuesday. "

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Dylan Williams Needs Your Help

As anyone who is Facebook friends with him knows, Dylan Williams is very seriously ill and could use the help and support of the comics industry. The cartoonist and publisher of Sparkplug Comic Books indicated that beyond getting good vibes of support from his many, many friends, he could use financial support in the form of people ordering books.

It's no secret that Sparkplug has been one of my favorite publishers over the past decade, as Dylan has really put his money where his mouth is in publishing work that he truly loves. Please consider stopping by their shop and ordering some books, comics or minis. Williams has been distributing books from like-minded souls for quite some time, so chances are there's something you've missed. Please consider buying something from my suggested shopping list below, or anything that strikes your fancy from their extensive catalog.

Here's a quick baker's dozen or so of Sparkplug's greatest hits:

1. Asthma, by John Hankiewicz. One of the greatest books of the past fifteen years and the best example of comics-as-poetry.

2. Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga. A hilarious and exciting homage to both 70s police procedurals and library practices.

3. Gay Genius, edited by Annie Murphy. A top-notch assemblage of talent mostly unknown in wider comics circles.

4. Orchid, edited by Dylan Williams & Ben Catmull. Sparkplug's first release contains work by a number of cartoonists who would have a big impact, like Kevin Huizgena and Gabrielle Bell.

5. The Heavy Hand, by Chris Cilla. A dizzyingly inventive book, one of the best of 2011.

6. Inkweed, by Chris Wright. A collection of short stories united by Wright's scratchy line and monstrous character design, along with his bleak but humanistic outlook.

7. Department of Art and Habitat, by Dunja Jankovic. Inventive and oppressive "immersive" comics about a woman facing the terrors and ennui of work and then home.

8. Rock That Never Sleeps, by Juliacks & Olga Volozova. A delightful and strange series of interpretations of a town related to memory.

9. Whirlwind Wonderland, by Rina Ayuyang. A lovely collection of autobiographical short stories.

10. The Hot Breath of War and Mine Tonight, by Trevor Alixopulos. Fascinating and cleverly cartooned stories dealing with politics, sex, war and living in the modern age.

11. The Airy Tales, by Olga Volozova. A series of lovely, immersive fairy tales of a sort.

12. Reich #1-8, by Elijah Brubaker. This is a biography of controversial psychologist and researcher Willhelm Reich, told as objectively as I've ever seen.

13. Christina and Charles, by Austin English. English's first long-form comic is still my favorite in the way he depicts music and familial relationships.