Friday, September 28, 2012

Yet More Gags From David Ziggy Greene

Where's North From Here? is a new collection from British cartoonist David Ziggy Greene, and this book is a testament to the way his storytelling chops have developed. It's a one-man anthology filled with gags, non sequiturs, and longer, silly stories.He mixes a rubbery, bigfoot style of art with a line that's fairly thin and delicate. He's not afraid to go grotesque or exaggerated in his quest to sell a joke. There's one story ("Sleeper") whose entire punchline is dependent upon Greene drawing a guy sleeping on a train in a series of hilarious, contorted poses. Greene will go a long way in order to sell a joke, but it's his longer pieces that pack the most punch in this book.

For example, "Rubber Sandwich" is an epic tale of a table tennis champ turned policeman being forced to go undercover in order to discover who's been killing the top table tennis contenders. It gleefully spins cop procedural stories and cliches on their collective ear while mostly being about table tennis. "Picacho El Diablo" is about a young woman who seeks out a goat on a particular mountain in order to rescue her mother from the god of the underworld, a story that gets increasingly frenetic as the young woman has a strict deadline in order to appease the god. The punchline (which comes after a series of ever more grisly gags) reflects why we should never try to fool the gods, because their sense of humor is especially dark. "A Complex Machine" is a bit of comedy-body horror that "warns" about the dangers of alternative medicine. Greene's ability to make gross drawings funny is at the heart of his appeal. Finally, "Snow Trap" is a low-speed chase story involving some stolen vinyl and a city-stopping snowstorm. Once again, Greene exploits a genre trope and flips it around in amusing fashion, while still staying true to the way a genre story is paced and plotted. That's true even in the dramatic, surprising ending that helps lead to an excellent snow-based gag.

The rest of the book consists of shorter gags and one-page strips reflecting gigs that Greene's band played. Those strips are rendered more realistically than his other comics, but they're also much sketchier and looser. They do a nice job reflecting the raw energy surrounding a show and provide interstitial material that allows the eye to rest a bit before plunging into the next bit of silliness. All told, Greene's work is getting sharper, tighter and more substantive as he continues to develop as a writer and artist. His next step, I think, is working out a longer comedic story with a group of memorable, distinctive characters.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Klezmer

This article was originally published at in 2006.

Continuing my look at First Second's fall line of books, Joann Sfar's Klezmer is the best of the bunch. Sfar is a master of characterization, creating fully-formed and intriguing people out of thin air. While his narratives are basically just an excuse to have his characters interact, it doesn't matter because his witty dialogue creates a very smooth flow from page to page. His sketchy art is accentuated by his bright and sometimes vulgar watercolor stylings, creating an expressionist atmosphere for his characters. While there’s a certain exuberance on each page, Sfar does put his characters through some rough times. This leads to a bit of excitement on the page as well as philosophical reflection by his protagonists.

The setting here is Eastern Europe after a war. A group of ex-soldiers turned klezmer musicians is gunned down by a rival band. Klezmer essentially is a Jewish variation of blues: an uptempo, rhythmic music that frequently centers around one's misfortunes and tribulations but also on small joys. It's party music, soul music, and money could be made from performing it. That's why a band that served a particular village killed a traveling band even though they were all fellow Jews: this was a gig no one wanted to give up.

The lone surviving member of the original band exacts a form of musical revenge in a memorable scene, and one by one we're introduced to what would become the foundation for a new band. We meet a young man thrown out of his yeshiva for stealing a coat, a woman fleeing her small village because she doesn’t want to get married, a gypsy who comes close to dying at the hands of a lynch mob, and a twitchy ex-student who plays the violin while sleepwalking. Along the way, Sfar has his characters leisurely discuss scapegoating (both of Jew and Gypsy), the alienation that small town life can produce, what it means to be a Jew, and above all the joy of music. The book ends on a cliffhanger, as the newly formed band (after several of them threaten to kill each other) is offered a gig that’s too good to turn down.

The use of color is what makes the book so visually appealing, especially when he applies it non-naturalistically. Instead, color reflects mood, atmosphere and a sense of danger or excitement. Sfar doesn’t overdo it, interspersing the brighter segments with extended scenes in snowy forests. He saves his most vivid colors for scenes at night, especially when his characters are performing. Color is a key to how he manages to depict music on the page.

I have a particular interest in comics about music and am interested to see how each author solves the problem of how to portray sound in a silent medium. Sfar is aided by having characters teaching each other new songs or how to play an instrument in the first place, so there’s extensive use of onomatopoeia. Beyond that, Sfar manages to convey the camaraderie amongst musicians, and this is truly what’s at the heart of the book. The most intriguing character is Yaacov, the former student who’s thrown out of school. That rejection, despite the fact that he was a Talmudic prodigy, leads him to renounce his faith. An encounter with a group of blind believers in a cave is part of a fascinating sequence that reveals while he may be done with being a Jew, Judaism wasn’t quite done with him. Sfar reveals in his notes that Yaacov is in fact a variation of the cat from his excellent The Rabbi's Cat, and that the characters here are the flipside of the religious, studious Jews from that story. The cast of Klezmer have either abandoned or been thrown out of the environments that were central to their faiths and cultures. Becoming musicians was both a way of establishing a new community while still maintaining (even grudgingly or exploitatively) their connections to their old culture.

Sfar speaks to the idea of ethnic vs. religious Judaism in his comments, and the whole purpose of telling a story about a klezmer band was done in order to talk about the memories of particular strains of Jews that no longer exists. In many ways, the book is about its setting and milieu as it is the main characters; the city of Odessa in particular is vivid and exciting. Playing klezmer today is a way of honoring and sharing old memories and stories and doing this across cultures.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Manga Round-Up: Murakami, Mizuki

Let's briefly look at a variety of manga that have come my way in the past couple of years:

Stargazing Dog, by Takashi Murakami (NBM). This was a best-seller in Japan and has an inviting, easy-to-read quality that no doubt made it a success for NBM's translation. It's a book that's fundamentally about happiness, as the titular dog is one that "stare(s) at the stars wistfully, Just as we all wish for something that we will never possess..." The plot is bare-boned: an abrasive man who preferred to let others make decisions for him finds his life fall apart in short order, as his wife leaves him, he loses his job and he learns he has a serious heart condition. All he has left is his intensely loyal dog, and he drives down the coast until he runs out of money and winds up dying in a snowy field. His dog never abandons him and winds up dying at his feet. Murakami tells the story from the point of view of the dog, who is both oblivious in telling his life story as well as incredibly perceptive. The further we get to the end of "Daddy's" life, the longer Murakami stretches out the narrative, as the man, though near death, actually feels his burden lifted in part because of the companionship of his dog. The dog gives him structure, responsibility and another creature to talk to, even as he knows the end is near. He pawns all of his possessions to save his dog's life at the vet. No one in the book may be close to achieving that ineffable happiness, but I think "Daddy" comes the closest in his last days, as the dog (of course named "Happy") provides him a powerful sort of unconditional love in his lowest moments.

The second half of the comic sees this story told through the experiences of the man who lives on the property where "Daddy" died, man who has himself lost everyone in the world dear to him and remembers how poorly he treated his own dog until the end. It's a redemptive arc that pulls every heartstring imaginable and leaves the reader on an upbeat note of sorts, even if it's just a way for the senseless death of one man to provide caution and meaning to another. This is an incredibly manipulative book, and I found myself wishing that Murakami had left things off at the death of the dog instead of adding on this second narrative. If "Daddy" was a schmoe of an everyman that revealed the ways in which we are dependent upon others in so many ways but was otherwise unremarkable, then Okutsu's life story is given way too much ink as a boy who had a lot of bad things happen to him. Even worse is the way Murakami sets him up as a social worker that tries not to get too close to his clients, and then has him abruptly make a dangerous journey to find out more information about "Daddy", information that proves to be life-altering. In other words, I believed the story in the first half of the book but found myself confronted by bald artifice in the second half. Still, the fact that Murakami had the guts to create such a downbeat story that contained almost no leavening moments at the start of that story makes Stargazing Dog a fascinating read.

Drawn and Quarterly continues to slowly reprint the best of the gekiga ("drama manga", more or less) masters in dribs and drabs. While there's been some controversy as to the quality of Yoshihiro Tatsumi relative to his peers (in Japan, he's mostly an obscure figure), there's no doubt that Shigeru Mizuki is a living legend. Credited with being the first to do yokai (spirit) manga in a series of popular books, he was drawing important books well into his 60s. The most recent release from D&Q, Nonnonba, was done when he was 55 years old and was a sort of coda to his celebrated career. In the same way that Tatsumi's A Drifting Life was about his early career in comics, so to does Nonnonba give Mizuki's "origin story", if you will. One thing that's obvious in reading this story is that Mizuki is obviously a much better storyteller than Tatsumi. His characters are more interesting looking for starters, but he just has a deft way of weaving themes and plot threads in and out of episodic storytelling.

Magical realism is the conceit at the center of the book. Mizuki grew up in a rural village with an elderly neighbor nicknamed "Nonnonba" ("grandmother" or "elderly aunt" roughly) who was a devoutly religious Buddhist who also was quite knowledgeable regarding local yokai lore. To her, these things were as real and a part of everyday life as the ground and the air. Spirits were everywhere, revealing glimpses of many thousands of other worlds. Mizuki depicts their existence as real but hard for many to see or believe. Some of them wind up being relegated to what are later revealed as dream sequences or things he draws to entertain others. What makes this book such a treat is that while it's ostensibly about his creative process and the things that influenced it, it's really about a child learning about pain, tragedy and disappointment. It's also about that same child learning about loyalty, independent thinking and love. Young Shige is forced to grow up fast in a household constantly threatened by money woes and the death or abandonment of two unique girls in his life. He also has to negotiate what it means to be part of a social group, what it's like to be shunned from that group, and how to play his own game when it comes time to confront them again.

What makes Mizuki's depiction of the Yokai that plague his life so fascinating is how mundane so many of them are. While they must all be respected, some simply want you to move out of their way while walking, while others eat dirt off of ceilings. One of them, a squat hairy yokai with bulging eyes,  winds up becoming a friend of sorts to young Shige, appearing at various times to give him advice, warnings and even heavenly tours. Mizuki's character design is incredibly expressive; Nonnonba has big lemon-shaped eyes and her face is scored by wrinkles surrounding those eyes.  Shige himself is more ordinary-looking, an Everyman that readers can look to when navigating the wonders that are encountered in the course of the story. Mizuki also balances the more grim aspects of his story with lots of gags. For example, a wart on Shige's hand turns out to be a yokai who offers to help him with math in exchange for not getting rid of it. It turns out that the wart plans to take over Shige's entire body, leading to a crazy chase scene and Nonnonba having to tattoo him in order to get that yokai to ignore him. That entire sequence was told in a frantic, funny and propulsive manner that reminded me a bit of Carl Barks. Indeed, this book feels like part Barks, part Charles Schulz, and part Charles Addams, put into the blender of Mizuki's background believing in the reality of everyday spirits. The backgrounds (whom some say were done by assistants) are incredibly and richly rendered, but they blend perfectly with the cartoony and exaggerated character designs we see throughout the book.

Mizuki's work has been called nostalgic by some, but that's only really true in the sense that he's choosing to write about his childhood. And while his childhood was obviously very important to him, he doesn't back away from its less savory aspects: being held hostage by a robber, having his best friend sold into slavery, seeing his beloved cousin die of tuberculosis, watching his parents squabble over money and being ostracized by his peer group. That latter storyline is one that is perhaps the backbone of the group and the one most reminiscent of Schulz. He's in a neighborhood gang that wages "war" against neighboring gangs and eventually winds up being considered for Boy General. When he loses out on the job on a technicality, he's shunned by the new general, but his friendship with an odd girl who also sees yokai as well as advice from a spirit allow him to cope and eventually come back into the group on his terms. It's very much a rite-of-passage story, but one where opting not to act is as important as actually doing something. It warmly depicts a number of relationships without relying on sentimentality. It's beautiful to look at and fun to read as the reader gets a sense of true cultural history; the yokai are merely reflections of human fears and neuroses. It's great for English-speaking readers that this comic has been translated, even if some of the lettering transpositions are a bit clunky. D&Q will be printing some of his classic genre work in upcoming months, and I'll be curious to see how those hold up.

D&Q's first translation of Mizuki was his 1973 book, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.  This is one of many virulently anti-war books that he's written, based on his own experiences in World War II as a member of the Imperial Army. It's a brutal, unflinching and unrelenting account of what it was like to be a grunt whose life was in the hands of a group of officers who treated their men worse than animals. While Mizuki clearly has little use for concepts like patriotism and glory, much of his critique is built around the Japanese practice of suicide attacks. The book details his attachment of troops as they are sent to an island in Papua New Guinea and told to hold their position while several hundred thousand other troops were on other nearby islands. Their commanding officer (drawn as a cross-eyed simpleton fanatic) orders a suicide attack on the Allied troops after they start to lose ground. When another officers suggests that if their goal is to hold their ground and buy time, then the sensible thing to do would be to retreat to higher ground and use guerilla tactics, forcing the allies to come to them. The superior officer won't hear of it, essentially sending hundreds of men to their death for no reason.

The officers do little to earn the love of their men. Rookie soldiers are beaten mercilessly and for no reason; indeed, one sergeant even says that a rookie is like a mat: it's better the more you beat it. Thus, the soldiers are put in a position where they are told to die for no good reason, by men who have done little to instill loyalty and refuse to go down with them. The point Mizuki is making is that it's one thing to go all-out to protect one's home or go down fighting as part of a group of men whom have shown you loyalty, but it's quite another to fight for men who would treat you worse than the enemy. As disturbing as that initial suicide charge is depicted, what happens after a company of men manage to survive is even worse. That's because they were already reported as dead during a suicide charge (a charge that higher-up officers regarded as obviously stupid and wasteful), and having survivors would only set a bad example to other troops. It's a story so incredible that it has to be true, but it provides an interesting and much more humane look at the Japanese armed forces in the war.

My father was in the American navy in the war, and his assignment was to be a landing-craft gunner in the planned invasion of Japan. Despite the Americans firebombing any number of cities, it wasn't until they dropped the atomic bombs that Japan surrendered. Invading the mainland was something no American had any stomach for, given the Japanese predilection for preferring death to surrender. Mizuki's book reveals that this honor-driven system had limits, and that ordinary soldiers may well have been intensely loyal to their country, but they had little patience for the hypocritical and senseless bullshit from their commanding officers. Like in any war ever fought that wasn't directly tied to protecting someone's home, the enlisted men were simply fodder for the machinations of megalomaniacs, the privileged and those who let abstract ideas interfere with the very basic precepts of humanity. The ways in which the commanding officers used guilt to make the lower-ranked officers commit suicide as a way of atoning for their retreat and then sent the enlisted men back out on another suicide mission was awful in every sense of the word. It's hard to even understand in one sense, but when one crosses the line into thinking of people as things, then it makes perfect sense. War demands that we treat others as objects-at-hand in the Heideggerian sense, but this is an extreme rarely seen in the history of armed conflict..

The main problem with this book is that the cast is simply too big, and Mizuki's character design too simplistic, to coherently tell the full story. It's hard to keep track of characters because the designs are often too similar, simple or under-drawn. I get that Mizuki was trying to show the sweep of destruction and the sheer capriciousness of their environment (one man died by choking on a fish that he was trying to swallow whole), so that any character introduced could be dead on the next page, but it made for a highly diffuse reading experience. Mizuki does try to focus in on a few key characters (a medic, a sergeant, an enlisted man who lives until the very end of the story), but the interchangeability of the characters in the first half of the book weakens the impact of the second half. At 362 pages, Mizuki blunts the impact of the experience with the length of his account, especially since so much of what happens in the first half of the book is so repetitive. The trademark use of simplified characters and detailed backgrounds is not always entirely effective, in part because so many of his character designs feel undercooked to me, in sharp contrast with the memorable designs in Nonnonba. Still, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths possesses enough unique qualities to make it one of the best anti-war books I've ever read and a fascinating document of a desperate and unraveling military force willing to do anything to keep its troops in line.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sequart Reprints:: Ordinary Victories 2

This review was originally published at in 2008.

Manu Larcenet's Ordinary Victories 2 is about a man trying to find his way in the world. Marco Louis was able to escape the lifetime of hard labor and the horror of war that his father experienced thanks to his skill as a photographer, but he had his own series of struggles to transcend. The two separate books that make up this collection see Marco struggling with the suicide of his father and later becoming a father himself. Marco's main struggle in life was in creating, building and sustaining connections. Becoming a photographer, in a sense, was a way to keep the world at a distance. In addition to simply being able to control the way the world looked in his camera, photography flattens its subjects, making them simpler to engage. Despite that tendency to have the mediating presence of a camera as his crutch for understanding the world, Marco had the eye of a poet; he couldn't help but capture the essence of people in his work.

The first story, "What Is Precious", finds Marco dealing with the aftermath of his father's suicide. Trying to understand his father's life became his desperate mission for any number of reasons. What it boiled down to was "knowing who I am must come through knowing who he was". However, he's foiled in his attempts at understanding because his father left no easily interpreted clues as to what drove him. What's worse is that the journal he kept was used to record what seemed to be the most banal, trivial observations that seemed to have nothing to do with his life. There were no mentions of his feelings or (more importantly to Marco) his family.

The other factor that drove Marco to try to understand his family was the pressure placed on him by his girlfriend, who very much wanted to have a baby with him. Marco panicked at this notion, partially because the idea of becoming a father started his mortality clock. The larger reason, he notes, is that doing so is "renouncing one's life as an imperfect man in order to become a fantasy figure who has no right to make mistakes." He then wonders, "Who was the man trapped inside my father?" After finding out some details about his father's time in the Algerian war, Marco starts to understand why his father had to "let beauty go and preserve what is precious", seizing upon the trivial as a way of staving off madness.

Both of the stories in the book deal with transition. There is nothing static depicted in Marco's life, even in the quieter moments. Even as he rails, fumes and fusses about change, he finds ways to cope. That's because he learns how to communicate better, be it with his girlfriend, his mother or his therapist. Larcenet contrasts Marco's process with those of other characters who don't fare as well, like his brother (who keeps his grief bottled up until he leaves his family and goes on benders) or his mother (whom he overhears spilling her guts to her dead husband at his grave site). While a lot of transition is painful, events like the birth of his daughter or the publication of his first photography book evoke feelings of enormous contentment and pride.

The publication of the photography book is a key story element, because it was the most tangible way for Marco to establish a connection with his childhood. The photos were of the workers he had known all of his life: those who worked with his father. While his mother admonished him not to romanticize his "roots", his friend and photo subject Pablo noted, "When it's not hideous, life is wonderful". That sentiment pretty much carried over every day as Marco stumbled his way through fatherhood, having to learn a new kind of communication on the fly that was alien to him. The second story, "Hammering Nails", concerns that struggle amid the theme of abandonment. Once again, transition crops up, both in terms of Marco becoming a father and the workers being forced out of their jobs as the face of France changed. Fathers who walked out on their children are a running device in the book, and Marco himself was tempted more than once to escape. He doesn't seriously consider this though, and he realizes that one reason why is that his father is reflected back in him--and his father never left. He's become happier than his father because his art of photography has enabled to him take a certain poetic outlook on life, and he notes that "poetry is the only way to notice what is precious".

Larcenet's art is cartoony and expressive. His characters are stubby, knobby creations with big noses, often flitting in and out of darkness. Larcenet is the master of the pregnant pause, stretching out narratives with silent story beats that allow the audience and his characters to really chew over what's been said and done. Another interesting device he uses is devoting entire pages to Marco's photographs, accompanied by Marco's deepest thoughts on matters that trouble him. These monologues have a powerfully lyrical quality to them that show how much studying his own work enables Marco to process and come to terms with the world. Larcenet is witty and varies the mood of the piece so that it became neither too introspective nor too slapstick. That wit shines through in his drawing as much as it does in the dialogue. There's a warmth in Larcenet's work that welcomes the reader in, but the questions he raises offer a challenge as well. We don't just read of Marco's life, we find ourselves asking the same questions he did, and that's why Ordinary Victories 2  lingers in one's mind long after it's been read.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Next Level: SPX 2012

As I say after every Small Press Expo, it's possible for different fans to experience the show in entirely different ways. The show has now reached such a scope that it's become nearly impossible to see and experience everything, from programming to the tables themselves. The most obvious divide is between the webcomics crowd and art-comics crowd. It's not so much that there's active enmity between the two groups, but rather that the two are almost entirely invisible to each other. That made this year's Ignatz Awards ceremony to the art-comics side of the fence, because the patter and in-jokes of the presenters came almost exclusively from the other side of the fence. Not everyone appreciated it (and one especially awkward attempt at performance art was met by loud heckling), but while I found those antics to be baffling myself, it was clear that half the crowd was enjoying it. Given that the show's programming skews heavily toward the art-comics side of things, the Ignatz awards and the subsequent entertainment (Super Art Fights) served as a sort of balancing act.

That said, there's no question that this was as a fine a show for proponents and practitioners of art-comics as has ever been staged. Thanks to a number of savvy logistical decisions made by executive director Warren Bernard and his crew, this was a show that ran smoothly and maximized the time and money of every participant. The presence of art-comics legends like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, Adrian Tomine and Francoise Mouly provided the proverbial rising tide that lifted all boats, as virtually every artist I spoke to reported solid to record-breaking sales. An enthusiastic crowd that was mustered by the tireless efforts of the SPX staff was rewarded by what was easily the deepest roster and greatest quality and variety of comics I have ever seen at a show. For the first time, I actually found myself scrambling at the end of the show to go find an artist I hadn't seen or a book I hadn't picked up; usually, the last hour or two of the show sees me retracing my steps in an effort to find something interesting.

My SPX journey began on the Friday before the show. Actually, preparations for the show started several months before that. Last year, SPX announced a partnership with the Library of Congress where representatives from that institution would comb the floor and selected minicomics, self-published comics, original art, flyers, Ignatz Award nominees and other publications that otherwise would skip the LOC and be lost forever after their initial print run. The idea was to forever preserve this art form that any citizen could then examine in the future or scholars could peruse. A few months before the show, Warren Bernard called me up and asked me if I'd like to be the guest curator for the Library of Congress for this year's show. I didn't hesitate for a moment on this and began the research and considered what sort of book I wanted to include. Essentially, I wanted unique expressions crafted at a high level that the LOC reps might otherwise pass over for any number of reasons. I also wanted books that I knew were about to go out of print but felt it important to include. I contacted a number of artists and publishers beforehand to ensure that they'd dig around for rarer items, and they filled out a permission form. Collecting the books and the forms added some extra work to my already-packed SPX schedule, but gathering these books and knowing that this part of the collection would be listed as selected by me was a serious responsibility that I did not take lightly.
The author is third from the left, in the back. Photo by Warren Bernard.

Bernard also invited me to a tour of certain key holdings of original comics art at the LOC. I was able to meet with the librarians to hash out a game plan prior to most of the guests arriving, which was especially useful since they had a printout of what they had collected in 2011. I also told them ahead of time what I was planning to collect. They proved to be a dedicated and sharp group to work with, and I felt privileged to be associated with them. The guests rolled in, a lineup that included the special guests mentioned above along with Dean Haspiel, Nick Abadzis, Charles Burns (in town just to hang out at the show), the Fantagraphics crew of Eric Reynolds, Jen Vaughn and Jacq Cohen, programming director Bill Kartalopolous, Alvin Buenaventura, Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik and several others whom I did not know. It was a treat to stare at originals by Crocket Johnson, Otto Soglow, Milt Gross, George Herriman, and Gluyas Williams. Abadzis and I spent a long time looking at the remarkable, big single panel cartoons of the latter, whose clear-line style mixed with insane but cartoony detail made these originals a feast for the eyes. Observing an original of Soglow's, Jaime Hernandez saw a smudge amdist the otherwise perfect and elegant line and said "That's what I like to see.  He's human!" I told him, "Jaime, people don't think you're human!" Bernard then took us to the air-conditioned vault and showed us nearly three dozen unseen Will Eisner WWII posters that he wrote and drew. Featuring the character "Joe Dope", these were guides on what not to do as a soldier. They came straight from the front to the LOC--not because Eisner was a big name (he wasn't, at the time) but because the Army wanted to preserve war-related art and posters. As a result, the posters were in absolutely pristine condition. Eisner really worked in a bigfoot style in these posters, something that one historian said would spill over to his post-war work.
Dean Haspiel and Warren Bernard.

Following that event, I went upstairs to see Dean Haspiel's reading and presentation regarding his donation of his minicomics collection to the LOC. With a small but engaged audience, he read "Beef With Tomato" and his recent "The Last Romantic Antihero", encouraging the crowd to make sound effects. He and Bernard then did a back-and-forth regarding the collection he donated (over 600 minicomics, dating back to 1997 or so), several of which were on display.

Before I get to some bullet-point thoughts about SPX itself, here's my list of comics that I chose for the Library of Congress. The only rules is that the artist must have attended the show at least once and that the book didn't already appear in the general collection.

Lose #1-4, by Michael DeForge. This was perhaps my most important get, because #1 and #2 are out of print, and DeForge has said that he has no intention of ever republishing them. Fortunately, the wonderful Annie Koyama scraped up a couple of the last copies for the LOC. #4 debuted at SPX.

Blindspot #1-2, by Joseph Remnant. One of the best cartoonists under thirty made his first appearance at SPX, and these comics are a document as to his development as a highly skilled artist.

Stitching Together & Ed Choy Draws James Joyce, by Annie Mok. Mok is another bright young star making her SPX debut.

Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga. The fact that the Library of Congress did not possess a copy of the greatest library police-procedural of all time needed to be immediately rectified. I believe Shiga's one and only appearance at the show came in 2002, which happened to be Sparkplug's SPX debut as well.

Sundays, volumes 2, 4 and 5, edited by Chuck Forsman, Alex Kim, Sean Ford and Joseph Lambert. Forsman was unfortunately out of volumes 1 and 3, but it was important that the anthology that is the standard-bearer for excellence and innovation from the Center for Cartoon Studies be represented in the LOC's holdings.

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories, by Julia Wertz. This is Wertz's best book to date, and I was happy to write a blurb on the back of it. Each of the three long narratives tackles a different topic (her employment history, her lupus diagnosis, and her loving relationship with libraries), all of which are treated with her trademark goofy and acidic wit while treating surrounding issues (like her alcoholism) with a sort of matter-of-factness that neither diminishes their seriousness nor plays them for sympathy. I hope she and Koyama have a long and fruitful publishing relationship.

Pornhounds #1-2, by Sharon Lintz and various artists. Ignore the salacious title: this is a sensitive and frequently hilarious memoir about working as an editor for a porn publication and a later battle with breast cancer. Lintz is a real talent.

1999, by Noah Van Sciver. Everything's coming up Noah these days, with an Ignatz nomination for The Death of Elijah Lovejoy and the release of his Abraham Lincoln book The Hypo from Fantagraphics. I didn't want the LOC to overlook this excellent mini originally published by Retrofit Comics.

Cross Country, by MK Reed. This is my favorite of all of Reed's minicomics work, collected in a single volume as it details the ups and downs of driving across America with a boss you despise. Reed is another fine writer who's been making quality minicomics for years.

Three #2-3, edited by Rob Kirby. This is one of my favorite anthology series edited by a veteran of the queer comics scene with a tremendous eye for talent. The third issue, featuring Ed Luce and Carrie McNinch, is worthy of Ignatz consideration next year.

Yearbooks, by Nicholas Breutzman. One of the most talented and promising young artists debuts with a knockout punch of a comic.

Good Minnesotan #4, edited by Raighne Hogan & Justin Skarhus. This beautiful and provocative art object is precisely the sort of thing the LOC needs to have in its collection.

The Complete Talamaroo, by Alabaster. This is a hilarious, gorgeous and unsettling comic by a newcomer who imbues it with art-object qualities but an underground sensibility.

There were other books that I considered, but I ran out of forms and ran out of time. I'm proud of the eclectic nature of this selection of books that represents a variety of styles, approaches and backgrounds.

On to the show itself. Bernard is a smart guy who knew that SPX needed some tweaks, and he did not hesitate to implement them.  #1: Add 50% more floor space but only 20% more exhibitor space. Result: nice wide aisles that never faced bottlenecks and allowed for folks to stop and talk. #2: Accept credit cards at the front door and add two ATMs to the floor itself. Result: much more cash in the hands of the attendees, who seemed eager to spend it on the bounty set out before them. #3: Move programming to bigger rooms and upgrade the tech in each room to allow moderators to show more art. Result: well-attended, smoothly-run panels with intriguing content, all of which were recorded. The same thing was done for the Ignatz awards, as most everyone who wanted to attend was able to in a room that was still packed. The only snag I encountered the whole weekend was getting the wrong badge at registration, which proved to be not much of a big deal.
L to R: Glyn Dillon, Sam Arthur, me, Nick Abadzis, Luke Perason, Ellen Lindner. 
Photo by Stephen Betts.

I had the first panel on the first day of the show: "British Comics: Does It Translate?" I moderated a panel that included fantastic young cartoonist Luke Pearson, Strumpet co-editor Ellen Lindner, NoBrow copublisher Sam Arthur, Nick Abadzis and Glyn Dillon. The latter two debuted books at the show (the collected Hugo Tate and The Nao of Brown, respectively) and represented the older guard of UK alt-comics professionals. After getting past the requisite discussion of what the British comic scene is like at the moment, I was able to focus in a bit more closely on each artist. Lindner nicely represented the self-publishing and grassroots arm of UK comics. Pearson talked about how being able to walk into a bookstore and discover works by Chris Ware and such was his inspiration as an artist; years of penetration into that market has borne some great fruit. Abadzis discussed the three current projects he's working on while Dillon talked about what drew him back to comics after years working in the film industry. Finally, Arthur eloquently discussed the origins of NoBrow and their status as not merely a British publisher, but an international one. That was the real takeaway from this panel, that these cartoonists are part of a worldwide comics community that is drawn ever closer thanks to the internet and a series of cooperative publishing ventures.

Time for some bullet points:

* As has been reported elsewhere, most exhibitors reported record sales. Fantagraphics had their best show ever by 5pm on Saturday. Anecdotally, the most successful artists were those that had previously appeared at the show and brought new work. The exceptions were Koyama Press and NoBrow, but both whetted US audiences at prior SPXs thanks to Chris Pitzer and AdHouse distributing their comics. The fact that NoBrow sold out of so many books despite their relatively high price point is a testament to their astounding production values. The other UK table (SelfMadeHero, with special guests Nick Abadzis and Ellen Lindner) also did quite well. Many artists debuting books were able to sell them all, including Lilli Carre', Chris Wright, Noah Van Sciver, Ed Piskor and others. Koyama had debuts from DeForge and Wertz along with a gaggle of other cartoonists.

* In general, audiences seemed quite amenable to plunking down $10 to $20 for a nice, thick compilation of work or a book of new material. Steve Seck and Morgan Pielli (both regulars at the show) were rewarded for their diligence by flying through sales of their collections.

* Too much material out there to pick a book of the show, though certainly Chris Ware's Building Stories debuting at SPX loomed large over the show. I think this SPX may have been the Year of the Anthology. SP7 (the Garo tribute issue) looks fantastic. JT Yost's Digestate boasts an impressive list of creators. The new issue of Puppyteeth looks promising. Anthologies like Irene and Wings For Wheels (both organized by CCS alums) look great. NoBrow 7 debuted at the show and #6 was nominated for an Ignatz. The Harris Smith-edited Jeans was excellent.The first volume of the new issue of Monster debuted at the show, as did the Georgia-centered anthology Bezoar.

* One publisher I unjustly overlooked in my preview was Tom Kaczynski and his Uncivilized Books. He was debuting Gabrielle Bell's The Voyeurs at the show (with Gabrielle, who also made her first appearance here in 2002). Watch his website carefully over the next few months, because he will have some interesting announcements to make.

* Chuck Forsman's Oily Comics table was a big hit. With multiple new titles and several debuts, he seemed to be moving comics pretty quickly. He said that one customer told him, "One of everything."

* There were simply a head-spinning number of debuts at the show: Frank Santoro (Pompei is so incredibly beautiful and simple), Renee French, Aidan Koch, Adrian Tomine and many more. Beyond the programming, beyond the socializing, beyond the bells and whistles, this was a great SPX because the artists made sure to bring their A games to the table. Comics' incredibly deep bench was on display at SPX 2012, and that inspiration and preparation was rewarded by the rising tide of Clowes, Ware, Tomine and Los Bros lifting all boats.

* I dubbed Jaime Hernandez the King of SPX after he took home three extremely well-deserved Ignatz awards. After getting shafted by the other major comics awards shows, it was great to see him relishing this moment. Presenting Promising New Talent with Gilbert, he admonished the crowd to never, ever quit making comics. When he won Outstanding Artist, he simply said "See what happens when you never quit?" I spoke to him briefly about the new issue of Love and Rockets and how much I enjoyed Tonta, whom I dubbed "Bizarro Maggie". He said that we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the future.

* The only other panel I attended was Drawing The Perverse, which was more or less the Comics-As-Poetry or anti-narrative panel. Narrated by Bill Kartalopoulos, it featured Renee French, Warren Craghead, Aidan Koch and Keith Mayerson. Craghead's evolution as a cartoonist was especially fascinating and quite useful considering that I'll soon be doing a profile on him. French is a great storyteller and did a great job taking us through her process of flipping between hating narrative and embracing it. Mayerson has bounced between the comics world and art world for quite some time, while Koch's "erasure" technique is fascinating.  I only wish this panel could have gone on for another hour.

* There was no critics' panel this year, but I did enjoy spending extended time with Marc Sobel (we go back to the days of's first incarnation) as well as talking to Joe "Jog" McCulloch (who did not recognize me without my hat on), Sean Collins, Ken Parille and Chris Mautner. I also got to meet Tom Spurgeon for the first time, which was a pleasure given how much support he's given me over the years and how generally inspiring I find him to be.

* I regret not being able to make it to the tables of the following: Sally Carson, Cara Bean,  Jimmy Giegerich, Becky Hawkins, Celine Loup, Christann Maccauley, David Mack, Cody Pickrodt, and Jen Tong. I regret not being able to say hello to Eleanor Davis, Lauren Barnett, Alec Longstreth and Dina Kelberman. I just ran out of time. So it goes. Conversely, I was happy to discover the work of Olivia Horvath and Cathy Johnson.

* The show will have a hard year's guest list, though if I know Bernard he will certainly try. If this year's theme was alt-comics stars of the 90s, look perhaps for more of an 80s theme next year. As for tweaking the show, they'll obviously need more ATMs on the floor. I'd still love them to bring more of an art festival flair in the form of a room dedicated solely to displaying original art (which could be sold at the end of the show). Beyond that, everyone seemed to get what they wanted at this year's SPX, as Bernard and his team helped create an environment that was both warm and intense.

* One takeaway from the show is that people made a lot of money thanks to individual resources being pooled by the comics community along with grassroots activism. The last time there was a lot of optimism about comics was about five or six years ago, when book publishers were falling over themselves to publish comics. As always, depending on a corporate structure to bail out an artform is a devil's bargain at best. What this SPX proved is that platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo really work because cartoonists are motivated to get their projects done. Consider SP7 or Burning Building Comics--both of these elaborate, ambitious comics were crowdfunded and the results were spectacular, creating something that fans wanted. (Jeff Zwirek told me he sold out of them at the show.) At one point, Annie Koyama was leading distribution man supreme Tony Shenton around the room in an effort to get him acquainted with a variety of artists who might become future clients. The alliances between micropublishers like AdHouse, Koyama, Secret Acres, Retrofit, Sparkplug, Tugboat, NoBrow, La Mano, Uncivilized Books, 2D Cloud, etc. are a big reason why they're all experiencing enough success to keep going. They're going out and helping each other cultivate new readers, often one at a time. In much the same way, the staff at SPX not only did a wide publicity blitz, they engaged social media (Michael David Thomas in particular) in order to encourage curious fans to come to the show.  Again, one potential reader at a time. It's not easy and is in fact annoying to have to do something outside of sitting down and creating art, but motivated publishers are willing to do the work.

* Speaking of motivation, the generation of cartoonists under 30 seems to be featuring a number of artists who are essentially sold out to comics. They may have other jobs, but it seems like the majority of their free time is spent trying to get better. The result is that a lot of cartoonists are getting better, and getting better quickly. Part of this may be due to art schools helping to instill a real work ethic into cartoonists (CCS is a great example) and show them that they will get better if they relentlessly draw, write and think. Beyond that, there are more young artists who are totally in love with the medium and want to be great. I saw a photo of Michael DeForge and Luke Pearson together, two artists under 25 years old. Those two have already proven to be excellent cartoonists, and they're just getting warmed up; I look forward to revisiting that photo in ten or twenty years. More than anything, this generation seems to understand that comics aren't a get-rich-quick scheme, that they might never make money doing it, and that their audiences might be relatively small. They're doing it anyway, and for the right reasons, and they're willing to work to make it happen. This isn't pie-in-the-sky optimism regarding comics: it's just the facts. SPX 2012 was a reward for a hell of a lot of hard work.

* Finally, the best-titled book of the whole show was (obviously) Lisa Hanawalt's Sell Your Boobs, who will one day become rich and famous.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Children Are The Future: Only Skin

The subtitle of Sean Ford's debut book (with Secret Acres) is "New Tales of the Slow Apocalypse". What appears to be a slow-moving mystery story does indeed turn into something that approaches the apocalypse, at least what what one would call the apocalypse in its small desert town setting. The key to the book's success is that Ford works big--the book is 8 x 11", which allows Ford the room to show the reader the desolate and beautiful vistas of the desert as well as the majesty and danger of the nearby forest. This also allows him to get expressionistic at times, rendering a fire and burned-out trees in the forest with a sort of charcoal smear. His character work is simple, mostly using small circles, vertical dashes or dots for eyes. The eccentricities in his character design make up for his weaknesses in rendering the human form and having a firm grasp on the ways in which people move in space and relate to each other. This is less pronounced in the action scenes (where forward momentum carries the figures and story forward) than in the book's many quiet moments, though the increasingly bizarre nature of the book as it proceeds mitigates that a bit.

Only Skin is about a young woman and her pre-teen brother who return to this small town in order to search for her missing father, who ran a gas station. The book feels like a cross between a David Lynch film and a Gilbert Hernandez story. Like in the former, there's an interest in small town living, the occasional surreality of daily life, the darkness beneath the surface of reality, the nature of evil and the feeling of being in the hands of forces beyond one's control. Like the latter, there's an interest in human relationships, the ways in which people can hurt each other, betrayals, eccentric character portrayals, wide-open spaces, and the enigmatic and evasive but always looming sense of menace that pervades every page. Ford's aim is to keep the reader off-balance as to what's really going on in this story. Is it a conspiracy story? A horror story, complete with don't-go-in-the-woods tropes? A conventional murder mystery story? A story about disaffected teenagers? Without revealing the specifics of the plot, Only Skin turns out to be a highly conventional story in terms of exactly what happens, when and why, but that conventionality proves to be highly disturbing. More disturbing, I'd say, than if it was a purely supernatural horror story.

Like both Hernadez and Lynch, Ford spends a lot of time developing the book's extensive cast of characters. The plot unfolds through their interactions, rather than the characters existing solely for the sake of the plot. The reader is forced to determine which of these characters will prove to be important (if any of them) and why. Will it be the conspiracy-obsessed bearded man with a blog? Will it be the meek newspaper man who may be doomed to the same medical fate as his father? What role does the young woman who bursts, half-dead, into a diner and then collapse play? Is the weirdo who helped run the gas station who professes to rarely sleep a part of this? What about the jilted ex-wife of the forest developer who disappeared into the forest, or her slightly creepy son? By focusing on their conversations, conflicts and history in progress, Ford continues to keep the reader both off-balanced and intrigued, as those glimpses may or may not contain important information. What they really do is expand the world of the story and flesh out every character in small but significant ways, making the final fates of most every character something that's important.

Though Ford tosses out a lot of red herrings that prove to be narrative dead ends (both for the reader and the characters in the story who are trying to unravel its mysteries), those red herrings wind up having narrative and thematic resonance down the line. Indeed, the most obvious red herring (that the disappearances are part of a police/developer scheme to raze the forest for timber sales) is the sort of hypocrisy that winds up being the flashpoint for the real perpetrators of the disappearances and murders. Ford doesn't go so far as to suggest that the killings are justified, putting the town's resident conspiracy theorist in jeopardy when he starts sympathizing with the killers. Ford also distracts the reader with a giant piece of magical realism: a ghost that looks like a Pac-Man character who lures the younger brother of the protagonist into the forest. That ghost character is equal parts hilarious, ominous and menacing, and its real identity winds up being a key to the resolution of the story.

Speaking of that resolution, while there's an ending to this story, it's not exactly a happy one. Indeed, things feel more like the protagonists are happy to escape with their lives instead of triumphing over evil. Certainly, given the source of the mystery, no one in the story can feel great about the way things play out. Not every character makes it out of the forest, either, and who lives and who doesn't winds up being suspenseful until the bitter end. The final scene, involving the boy and his ghost, is both strangely touching, deeply weird and a bit disturbing. With his debut book, Sean Ford brings a world to life that's both mundane and horrific, crushingly dull and frighteningly beautiful, and full of relationships both broken and healing. His sense of sweep and understanding of how to portray shocking, stunning images carries the book. As he matures as an artist, he'll become more adept at giving his lower-stakes, lower-key character scenes the same kind of impact.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Stop Forgetting To Remember

This article was originally published in 2007 at
The first comic I read of Peter Kuper's was something he did for Vertigo in 1995, called The System. It was a wordless tale of tension alongside the quotidian in New York city, done in an innovative spray paint/stencil style. Kuper's visuals have always been a huge part of his appeal, but they've always been firmly rooted in his storytelling skills. These twin strengths have allowed him to have an extremely prolific and wide-ranging career as an illustrator, political cartoonist (especially as a co-founder of World War III Illustrated) and humorist (he took over for Prohias on MAD's famous "Spy Vs Spy" feature). All of that aside, I was most struck by a series of short stories he did years ago for Fantagraphics called Stripped. These were autobiographical stories, done in Kuper's eye-popping style. While they were mostly about his teen-aged years and his frustrations with sex (ie, not getting any), he manages to dodge the sort of whining present in this kind of story. His imaginative art also made every panel a joy to look at, as his expressive techniques made it easy to accept the characters suddenly shifting into anthropomorphic states.

While I've always enjoyed whatever he happened to publish, I always wondered why he seemed to have abandoned his more personal stories. As it turns out, he didn't abandon it all--it just took him a long time to flesh out the stories to book form and find a publisher. By using a clever and touching framing device, Kuper does something unique in the sort of autobio comics I read--he balances the over-the-top adventures of his youth with the perspective gained from fatherhood & responsibility. The title of the book refers to Kuper's emphasis on keeping a continuity of memory and identity into adulthood, where one doesn't deny or distance oneself from their past experiences and beliefs. This notion was put to its ultimate test when he became a father and its overwhelming demands, and he was sometimes found wanting--especially when trying to preserve a life-long friendship that was slowly disintegrating.

Stop Forgetting To Remember contains virtually everything in Stripped, omitting only a few dream comics and a 1-page strip or two. There's also a story from a Dark Horse anthology, which details his world travels, and a political cartoon from World War II Illustrated. The framing device adds depth and resonance to the original stories. The story begins as Kuper's alter-ego, Walter Kurtz, is about to become a father. That momentous event (and making love to his wife), gets him thinking about desperately trying to lose his virginity as a teenager. What I enjoyed about Kuper's autobio over a decade ago still holds true today: there's a strong narrative flow, it's hilarious, and it's reflective without being self-pitying or indulgent. It's clearly Kuper's goal to entertain the reader as much as possible while revealing embarrassing secrets about himself. We see Walter morph into a bunny-man when he's frightened and into a worm when he's pathetic.

It is fitting that Dennis Eichorn wrote the introduction for Stripped, because this writer of the Real Stuff autobio stories is known for his vivid, often violent recollections of sex, drugs & rock 'n roll. Kuper's older autobio has a lot more in common with Eichorn than Harvey Pekar, the master of the quotidian anecdote. Kuper dips into the Pekar playbook with his framing device, using key moments of reflection to act as keystones for his delving into the past. Meeting with a life-long friend before his baby was born leads him to think about a love-hate relationship that was particularly memorable. Meetings with his friends would grow to become one of the focal points of the story, something that wasn't immediately evident when the framing device was introduced.

Kuper uses a clever bit of visual shorthand to guide the reader's eye in the story. Stories of his youth are in a reddish-brown, and present-day accounts are in black & white. What's interesting is when the two blend on the page. When his wife is about to give birth, she seemingly seems fine until the pain really starts to kick in. Then we see her head in red--on fire in one panel, looking like "The Scream" in another, and made of snakes in another. The phrase "it's going to change your life" is repeatedly rattled off to them about having a child, a truism that eventually starts to inspire terror. When the child was born, and "your dad just became a friggin' greeting card"--and the next panel is father, mother and child in red with hearts as a Hallmark card.

The birth of his daughter inadvertently drives a wedge between Walter and his friend Adam. Adam and his wife couldn't conceive, and this pain was made worse when Walt couldn't help but get excited about his daughter--and ignore his friend because he had so much on his plate. Adam had always emphasized that their friendship was strong because it was based on the here & now and not just the past--and their friendship was now "past" in Adam's eyes. Kuper takes us through a brutally honest look at the highs and lows of marriage and fatherhood, including his wife's postpartum depression & lowered sex drive, the fears surrounding his child (heightened by 9/11), the way his child simultaneously delights him and drives him crazy, and his sadness over the loss of his friendship. The way that fatherhood affects his professional career is also an important side-story--especially since this autobiography was the project that had to sit on the back burner more often than not if he was going to pay the bills.

When he finally gets the book ready to shop around, his new frustration was finding the right publisher. He was either rejected outright or asked to gut his story. One publisher wanted to emphasize the "wormboy" character for marketing purposes and play down the sex & drugs--and "resolve" his friendship with Adam! Downplaying these stories falls into the kind of lies that so many people feel like they have to tell to themselves in order to "protect" their children, when in fact it's a way of creating their own unassailable authority. By denying their pasts, it's easy to issue orders and platitudes to their children rather than engage in honest discourse--with both their children and themselves. Another running subtheme is the inevitability of children growing up and separating themselves from their parents, and Kuper's bittersweet acceptance of this. When his daughter doesn't want him to kiss her goodbye at school because it's "embarrassing", Kuper knows it's the end of an era. This is reflected by an intermittent device about a mother bird and her hatchling, who flies away at the end. It's perhaps laying it on a bit thick, but Kuper's sheer sincerity is moving and his bawdy trips into the past lighten the proceedings when they threaten to get too treacly. It will be interesting if his ability to "stop forgetting to remember" will continue as his own daughter experiments with sex, drugs and challenging authority as her father did--but that will be another story. The story that Kuper tells here is beautiful, inventive and ridiculous, and sometimes all three at once.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Latest Batch From Silber Media

Brian John Mitchell's micro-mini comic publishing empire marches on, as he published something like two dozen new comics a year at minimum. As always, each comic measures about 2 x 1.5 or so inches and comes in its own individual plastic slip-case. Each comic features one page per panel and most of them tend to have very simplified art. The tone ranges from silly genre stories to thoughtful, philosophical comics. Let's move from silly to serious. The dopiest comic in the bunch is Star #2, wherein a musician just barely escapes being turned into a sacrifice for a demon after a one-night-stand gone horribly awry. Kurt Dinse's drawings makes this one worth a look. Built #2 and Worms #7 are both sci-fi stories involving escape. The latter is distinguished by Kimberlee Traub's thick but simple line and a wonderfully disgusting premise (a woman who gains enormous powers from being infested by intelligent worms) while the former is pretty much just a "girl and her robot" story. Pow Wow #1 is about a healer who draws disease out of him and has to put it somewhere else, and his decision to do this to the trees results in Evil Forests.

Moving on to the more serious comics, Shimmer is a balance between comics and poetry that is more than a little rough on both counts, which is not much of a surprise considering it's a reprint of one of Mitchell's first comics from nearly 20 years ago. Lost Kisses #23 is the latest issue of what remains my favorite series of Mitchell's. It's a stick-figure existential howl that may or may not contain autobiographical elements, as it's about the laments, musings and witticisms of a ruminating stick-figure man. This issue finds him with time travel powers, which encourages him to think back to when he got a girl pregnant when he was a young teen and his regrets about the death of the mother. Mitchell creates laughs amidst the tension by juxtaposing witty word balloons with serious narrative captions. Finally, Mitchell's interesting REH (Robert E Howard) is a fascinating biographical trip through Howard's own personal journals and correspondences. This is really a story about a young man and his mother, as Howard finds himself confined to his home in order to care for his sick parent after his father left for business purposes and was essentially always missing. Andrew White does some very interesting work in this comic, abstracting figures in later issues in a way that gets across more information than a standard naturalistic drawing might in the same situation. Considering that most of the images here are static, White does a lot to make this comic much more interesting-looking than Mitchell's other comics. Seeing Howard grapple with the love he feels for his mother against his desire to explore and experience the world is fascinating, as he continually tries to talk himself into what a privilege it is to do this. At the same time, he feels guilt every time he leaves the house to go to a movie or even take a walk, always fearing the worst. I'd love to see Mitchell and White eventually collect this in a format that better shows off what White's doing on the page.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Project Romantic

This article was originally published at in 2007.
Design is growing to become increasingly important for comics as they continue to move into the bookstore market. In addition to having great stories, comics have to come in an attractive package. My favorite designer in comics is Chris Pitzer, the publisher behind AdHouse Books. The comics he publishes and edits are, without exception, absolutely gorgeous. I hesitate to call them “art objects” because while attractive, the covers and layouts are in service to the work. What I like best about Pitzer's eye is his understanding of simplicity in design. He has the spare eye of someone like an engineer, trying to build something that brings out the most in the form and function of a work. That lack of fussiness and business allows the reader to relax into the work and gives each artist a chance to have their work read on their terms.

Nowhere is that made clearer than in the three anthologies that Pitzer edited for AdHouse. The first, Project: Telstar, was printed in a sort of metallic blue ink and had science-fiction themes. The second, Project: Superior, was about superheroes. Project: Romantic takes on the romance genre with a number of different twists. In general, much of the work that Pitzer publishes falls into the category of “new mainstream.” Narrative takes precedence over thematic concerns, and that narrative is fairly straightforward. A lot of the comics that Pitzer has published have been “indy” takes on genre subjects, meaning that the usual narrative concerns have been subverted for other goals. That was especially true in the first two “project” anthologies, both of which were quite pleasant to look at and read but didn't linger for very long in one's memory. Part of that I think was due to the limitations of the sci-fi and superhero genres. I don't think either genre is elastic enough to work when stretched too far from their original constraints, especially when the nuts and bolts of superheroes or sci-fi are ignored in favor of other concerns.

This is why Project: Romantic is such a success, because of the elasticity of the romance genre. In fact, the artists in the book take the somewhat vague notion of what a “romance” story is and many of them attach genre trappings to them. My favorite submission by far was that of Joel Priddy's. He's published far too few comics since his stunningly beautiful debut Pulpatoon Pilgrimage a few years ago, but he does contribute a series of stories called “Sweetie 'n Me”. He takes standard romance tropes like couples talking alike, jealousy over past lovers and special birthday dinners and attaches them to a couple who happen to be mad scientists. Priddy makes great use of color for these little 3-4 page vignettes, which are perfectly designed and executed. I could read a book full of these strips and not tire of them.

Another reason why this book is so successful is that Pitzer took great pains to use artists with as many different styles as possible. From Scott Morse's animation-inspired expressionism to Austin English's primitivism, from Junko Mizuno's manga stylings to the Ditko-inspired strip by Adam McGovern & Paolo Leandri , there's something in here to appeal to every taste. As a result, not every strip will be equally effective for every reader, but I found them all to at least be pleasant. One of the more clever stories is “When I Was A Slut”, by emerging talent Hope Larson. It's an intricately constructed story about a young woman hoping that one of her online contacts will truly desire her, and the unusual twists and turns that occur as a result. T Edward Bak's “Trouble” is another slice-of-life story, this time about a pair of teenage girls. One is clearly in love with the other, who is thinking of leaving town with a sleazy guy. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and the garishness of the colors is a nice match for the melodrama of the situation.

The best adventure-related story is “Sewer Girls”, by Kaz Strzepek. Strzepek's stuff reminds me a bit of Brian Ralph's in terms of its content, feel, and non-ironic treatment of its subject matter. This story is about a post-apocalyptic world where all of the woman have turned into mutants and the remaining men are slowly going insane. When one boy finds one normal girl and they go on a date, it seems like a happy ending for everyone. It wound up being a grisly ending instead, in a grimly hilarious fashion. Another entertaining story about love gone wrong is “Hello, Eddie” by Roger Petersen. It's about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the Chicago Cubs' first baseman who becomes heartbroken when he's traded to the Phillies. She winds up shooting him in his hotel room when the Phillies come to down, but not for the reason you might think. Petersen's clear-line character design is enormously appealing, and his use of color was quite clever: it was Cubs' blue when the player was in Chicago, and Phillies' red when he was traded. It didn't hurt that the bright red perfectly matched the anger of the woman, the blood on the player's chest when he's shot, etc. It's a perfect little confection of a story, precisely the sort of story that's such a pleasure to discover in an anthology.

 There are four humorous stories worth mentioning. MK Reed's “Mrs Jeremy Dellorso” is a ridiculous story about a woman whose boyfriend literally turns into a bear one day. After he mauls everyone the night he meets her parents, she absurdly declares “Oh Jeremy, I can't stay mad at you.” What I love about this strip is that it takes the cliches of wedding stories and changes just one element to make it hilarious. Evan Larson's “Cupid's Day Off” is exactly what it sounds like. Except that it's not really about Cupid (he mostly gets drunk off-panel), but rather his assistant, who goes crazy with his bow and arrow. Suddenly, all sorts of crazy matchups are made: a dog & a cat, a man and a tree, another man and his sandwich, an alien & a football, and a mummy & a leprechaun are all immediately seized by lust. Best of all was Batman and a roll of toilet paper. When Cupid catches up with her and is about to fire her, she fires on him and the inevitable happens—they wind up married in the next panel, with all of the couples she helped get together in attendance. “Even Monkeys Know About Love After A Hundred Years”, by Randall Christopher, is essentially an illustrated stand-up routine about love that's a series of funny non-sequiturs. A typical line is “And when you're in love does not the sun shine brighter? Does not music sound so much sweeter? Does not Pantera start to sound like John Mayer? And John Mayer like Burt Bacharach? And if you're stupid enough to put on Burt Bacharach will you not find yourself wearing a silk robe, lying prostrate, and weeping before a gilded altar of Cupid?” Finally, Josh Cotter's comic timing was superb in four one-page strips about dating in the animal kingdom. The best is a hare and a tortoise. The hare talks about what a great time she had on their date and wondered if they could do it again sometime. After three silent panels, the tortoise finally says “I feel like maybe we're moving too fast.”

Project: Romantic doesn't push the envelope of comics and isn't in any way cutting edge. There's not much profundity to be found in these stories, and in fact many of the stories that go in that direction fall flat. The anthology is just pure entertainment, coming at the reader in a dizzying variety of styles & approaches, and edited by a designer with a great eye. Most of the entries leave the reader wanting more instead of saying “Is that it?”, which to me is the mark of a good anthology. For a book that's so much fun, there was a lot of substance here instead of mere style, which is my difficulty with anthologies like Flight. I attribute this to Pitzer, who seemed to work hard to have a lot of stories that had the strong hand of a writer rather than just a lot of visual pyrotechnics.

Monday, September 17, 2012

From Web to Print: Tyrell, Poland, Garrison, Stipetic

Today's column will focus in on book collections of a variety of webcomics, from gags to continuing series.

Gary #1 and #2, by Tyrell Cannon. This is a comic told from the point of view of the memories of Gary Ridgway, the "Green River Killer". The comic is told without other commentary or judgment, letting the images and memories speak for themselves. Cannon's essential point here is that while Ridgway was a serial killer, he also carried out a normal routine and engaged in what seemed to be loving relationships. He was a divorced father who spent time with his son, though it's strongly implied that their relationship wasn't exactly close. He remarried to a woman who was clearly in love with him, possibly because she was drwn to the fact that he was quiet and unassuming while she had a big and loud personality. Cannon doesn't speculate as to what led Ridgway to brutally rape and murder prostitutes and then dump their bodies by the river. Instead, he implies that Ridgway was always filled with this enormous rage connected to what he saw as a series of humiliations, a rage that he sublimated without finding proper release. Killing provided some kind of bizarre release for him, a release he didn't find anywhere else, and that seems to be the key to his pathology. As a psychopath, he could fake having feelings and acting like a relatively normal human being, but it seems clear that he never actually felt these things in actuality. Cannon does seem to say that at certain points, the psychosis was more pronounced than at other times. He may well have experienced something approaching actual happiness in being with his second wife, but the urge to kill never truly receded. Cannon is unflinching in portraying violence in this comic, which is crucial because to shy away from it would tempt the reader into sympathizing with the book's main character. However, Cannon is also careful not to portray Ridgway as a monster or a super-villain or to make him an exciting character in any way, shape or form. He's a defective human being whose essential flaw was hard to detect. Whether that flaw was genetic or something caused him to snap is the question, because Cannon suggests that the line between human and predator can be surprisingly thin, and that it's not always easy to tell which is which. His realistic art is functional if plain, fitting squarely into his unsensationalistic approach in telling this story.

Robbie and Bobby, by Jason Poland. Poland's been drawing this "robot and his boy" for nearly a decade now, and the actual webcomic uses a variety of color and GIF effects to punch up his work. Lacking that in this collection of new comics and some archival material, Poland's cartooning just isn't strong enough to sustain an entire collection. His line is inconsistent from strip to strip, with some looking hastily scratched out and others more polished. In terms of the humor, the feeling that I couldn't shake was that Poland was trying too hard to be whimsical and charming, and I frequently found the strip to be grating. The bottom line is that too many punchlines were duds, and the promised warmth between the two characters seemed stilted and artificial. I didn't see either of them as real characters, but rather as simple joke-delivery devices, and their weren't enough good jokes. The one exception was the little girl nemesis of the boy Bobby; the strip inevitably got meaner when she was around, and that meanness seems to be Poland's strength as a writer.

Jakey The Jerk, by Chris Garrison. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this comic. Most "funny" webcomics tend to leave me cold, and the title of its original source material (Zoo Laffs) didn't fill me with a lot of confidence. However, Garrison is a talented cartoonist with strong fundamentals, and he really knows how to draw a funny picture as well as design a memorable character. I see a little of Sergio Aragonnesin his character design, and like the master he has the ability to create funny images while maintaining solid composition as well as a sense of gesture and character interaction. This is also a cleverly-written comic, featuring a muscular and tempestuous little ram trying to score with women and failing because of his absurd displays of machismo, until getting a gig with a famous folk singer who wants to go on a mountain hike. This is the best story in this collection of shorts, with some genuinely lovely cartooning complementing the jokes and the actual chemistry that these two have with each other. This is good solid, humor work that pays attention to both the craft of cartooning as well as the craft of humor that stays close to its premise and livens it up with a number of flourishes.

14 Nights, Volume 1, by Kristina Stipetic. This is truly a unique romance comic, and while there's other things at work other than romance, there's no question that this book is about a particular relationship. The reason why it works so well is that Stipetic takes her time in establishing the lead characters and their quirks, but she's careful not to simply make them walking piles of odd behaviors. There's a specificity about their personalities that goes a long way in creating vivid, memorable portraits of the main couple in question. The main character is a surly Russian immigrant named Nikita. He works at a lab but in many ways is dependent upon his sister. There's a wonderful combination of near-Asperberger's tone-deafness about him combined with a simple natural bluntness. He has a prosthetic hand, is overweight and is relentlessly sarcastic. Stipetic also embues him with a certain naive sweetness; this character is filled with anger but also has a lot of love to give. He breaks up with his boyfriend Danny, whose being closeted becomes a problem for the out-and-proud Nikita. At his job, he meets the quiet and unassuming Lucian and goads him into going out with him, despite a significant secret.

That secret is the heart of the series: Lucian does not want to have sex. He had bad experiences with it when he was married to a woman and is afraid to deal with it again even as a relatively out gay man. This book is about the initial meeting and courtship between the two characters, the angry fallout when Lucian tells Nikita about his disinterest in sex, and the messy way they manage to make up. The result is a first volume that tells a satisfying chunk of story with a lively, scratchy and occasionally grotesque line. The lumpy Nikita is a character that Stipetic obviously loves drawing, given the way his glasses droop down his nose, the way his teeth curl into smiles or snarls that are equally alarming, and the bold way he simply occupies space that's almost a challenge to anyone who dares approach him. Lucian is drawn constantly looking down or away, his angular face often hidden in shadow. There's a striking verisimilitude about this story, even given the unusual coupling and backgrounds of its leads, which is a tribute to Stipetic's ability to create a sense of time and place. Though it first appeared on the web, the comic looks great in print and very much looks like something designed to appear in a book, rather than simply collected in print. The book ends on a significant cliffhanger, with no real hints as to how it might be resolved, which adds a bit of poignancy to an introductory volume of comics.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Show Must Go On: Drama

Raina Telgemeier's follow-up to her smash-hit Smile is Drama, a fictional comic based on some of her real experiences in middle school. As a young adult comic, this book is an unqualified success. One thing that Telgemeier likes to do as a storyteller is unveil her themes and explore her characters through a particular sort of linear process. In Smile, for example, her story is told through and around the issues surrounding her dental problems. The problem with that book is that the threads of her life weren't quite coherent enough to boil down in a story, and as a result there are odd tangents that feel out of place. In her new book, Telegemeier is able to explore characters and themes through the clever narrative construct of the life of a school play. She even throws in the conceit that the story we're seeing is a play, a funny device that she mercifully doe not overuse. It's just a clever reminder to the reader that what we're seeing is in itself a story, something constructed in a particular way with a beginning, middle and end.

I feel like Telgemeier's previous experiences in comics prepared her quite well for this book. Adapting the Baby Sitter's Club books helped her find ways to draw books with huge supporting casts and make each character look distinctive. Smile gave her ways to mine her own personal experiences and adapt them into narrative form. As such, Drama is a book filled with her own anecdotes and memories, but her experience was not that of Callie, the lead in this story. Instead, Telgemeier's memories provide an authentic framework for her characters and story to rest upon, allowing the reader to experience the unique highs and lows of managing a high school stage production while also managing teenage hormones. What Telegemeier does so deftly in this book is subvert and deflect reader expectations. Though the book begins with Callie being devastated after she kisses her long-time crush, only to be rejected when he gets back together with his bitchy and vapid girlfriend, Drama is as much about Callie's devotion to stagecraft and her friends than it is about relationships.

The first curveball is the introduction of twin brothers who also happen to sign up for the play. The boys are also Asian, a fact that is discussed briefly (especially regarding their academic expectations) but not presented as any sort of conflict. When one of the brothers is revealed to be gay, Telgemeier nonchalantly stakes out new ground in the young adult market, especially since his sexuality is very much presented in a matter-of-fact way and not presented as the lynchpin of a conflict. I'll be curious to see if there will be any blowback from the way sexuality and sexual identity is presented in this book from the usual conservative subjects, but I also get the sense that this book has the possibility to be important to a lot of young people for a long time.

Again, what makes this book appealing is the fact that Callie is not simply presented as a love-sick teenager, but as an energetic problem-solver who is far from perfect, but does her best to be a good friend. Much of the book does revolve around her friendship and potential romance with the other twin and the possibility of being asked to an eighth-grade dance. Telgemeier drops serious hints throughout the book that there may be a problem with one of the stage shows and that Jesse, the twin she has a crush on, would play a major role. Too shy to actually audition for the show despite his own musical talent, he does indeed help the show go on, but in a completely unexpected and hilarious manner. It's like Telgemeier decided to obey Anton Chekhov's old dictum about seeing a gun in the first act by turning the gun into a vase instead of having it fire a bullet; she consistently employs lateral thinking in subverting reader expectations in a way that feels completely organic as well as funny & charming. Speaking of charming, Telgemeier's line is as light and bright as ever. The dark and rich color palette she selects perfectly fills in the gaps in her pages in an unobtrusive manner. At the same time, her backgrounds have become richer and more detailed. Drama is a pitch-perfect story with unexpected complexity in its characters and a delightful number of surprises. I imagine it's going to sell a lot of copies and inspire a lot of people on its way to becoming a YA classic.