Monday, December 31, 2012

Clenching and Unclenching: Reich #9

Reich #9 is the first issue of Elijah Brubaker's long-running series for Sparkplug published after the death of Dylan Williams, thanks in part to a Kickstarter campaign that provided needed funds to keep the publishing concern going. This issue reminds me of the old saw, "Even paranoids have real enemies." Reich was kooky and saw enemies everywhere, but the fact is that the FDA and FBI both came after him for his theories and devices, not to mention the way he was treated by the medical and psychiatric fields. At worst, Reich was an eccentric who had some interesting ideas and observations, even if his conclusions made some huge leaps in logic. However, in 1950s America, being a sex radical was dangerous business, especially if one's handiwork moved beyond theory and into practice, as with Reich's therapeutic orgone boxes. Brubaker is quick to point out the hypocrisy of 1950s America with regard to sex, as the brutish head inspector sexually harasses his secretary in the most blunt manner possible.

Reich's downfall came in part because he viewed himself as nothing less than a crusader against forces that spread "emotional plague", fortified by the emergence of atomic energy mixing with orgone radiation to create "deadly orgone radiation". It's a quixotic quest at best, in part because even Reich doesn't comprehend the dangers of nuclear energy, as his playing around with radium suggests. It's even more quixotic when one considers just how alone Reich was in his quest and the considerable might and influence of the forces arrayed against him. That's especially true when the government got some of his friends and helpers to betray him; one of them through romantic means. Reich may have been an egomaniac and difficult to get along with on a personal level, but he certainly didn't deserve the storm that came his way. Indeed, even as the rain at the end of the book signaled a triumph for Reich, the rest of the book saw a lot of darker, metaphorical stormclouds building against him.

As always, Brubaker's character design is eccentric and superb, creating people on the page who are somewhere between caricature, naturalism and dynamic naturalism. With furrowed brows, disheveled hair, loutish double chins and blank stares behind glasses, Brubaker quickly gives the reader everything they need to know about a character without them uttering a word. It was also interesting to see Bill Steig make a surprising guest appearance in this issue as a confidante and friend of Reich's; I had no clue that they were connected. I do wish Brubaker was still doing the Chester Brown-style endnotes that were featured in earlier issues, because I would have loved to have learned more about the backstories of several characters introduced in this issue. This issue marks a turning point in the series, and I sense future issues will quickly delve into the fall of Reich and the way he was persecuted. I admire Sparkplug's continuing devotion to the format of the single-issue continuing series, and Brubaker makes sure that each installment is its own unique entity in terms of both content and form.

Friday, December 28, 2012

CCS Anthologies: Wings For Wheels, Stranger Knights, Irene

Stranger Knights #3, edited by Bill Volk.The latest volume in Volk's quirky, genre-oriented and comic pamphlet-formatted anthology is tighter in focus and all the better for it. Volk's own stories revolve around an institutionalized team of super-heroes called the Stranger Knights, who have their own hierarchies and politics to contend with along with threats. In "The Capsule's Promise", Volk turns around the time-worn theme that an alien crash-landing on earth might be friendly by having one of the Knights try to engage it peacefully, only to discover that when it shouts out "Kill Everything!", it means it. "It Grows Among Us" features the dense but simplistic art of Casey Bohn with Volk's story. This is an on-the-road story featuring the Search and Detrucktive going after a food-stealing thief, only to find things aren't what they seem. Bohn's heavy use of blacks and chunky line remind me a bit of the work of John G. Miller, the Scottish cartoonist. Mary Soper's linework in "Incantrix X" is crude and derivative of mainstream manga, but it also has a certain charm and energy, along with an energetic sense of humor. The most polished piece in the book is Bryan Stone's "The Orb of Shalla", a sort of cross between fantasy, sci-fi and high adventure. As a cat woman and a robot hunt for a priceless artifact in the jungle, they are pursued by a creature who actually wants the horned piglet they've picked up as a pet. Stone caps the story with a funny punchline and keeps the reader interested with clever and clear character design. Stranger Knights is lightweight work to be sure, but Volk is slowly but surely figuring out just what he wants this book to look like and feel like. There's certainly a place for smart and funny genre fiction, but it will take time to sand off some of the rougher edges of the anthology. Volk is already adding clever elements like fake ads and a more thoughtfully considered sense of design to the proceedings, as he and his collaborators are clearly dedicated to getting better in public.

Wings For Wheels, edited by Nomi Kane. This is another lightweight but enjoyable anthology with excellent production values. It's a tribute to Bruce Springsteen and his music, and the cardboard cover plus the comic with painted grooves designed to mimic a 45 are both quite clever. Todd McArthur's "A Clarence Clemons Christmas Carol" was the most inessential story in the book in part because of its nonsensical premise (a ghostly Clarence Clemons, the former sax player for the E Street Band, telling the author to spend money in the form of the Dickens story?). Much better was Josh PM Frees' "The Boss Don't Stop", which is about the experience of being carried away by music in the form of a lunatic at a karaoke bar belting out "Born To Run" despite crashing through a table and losing volume on his microphone. Jen Vaughn's "This Town" tries to connect up a younger girl's taste in music with her mother's in the form of Springsteen in a fairly obvious way. Editor Kane's take on the same idea, "Home Is Where The Boss Is", is a better attempt at getting at the idea of a cross-generational appreciation for Springsteen's form of grassroots-inspired Americana and the ways it extends and deepens into adulthood. Pat Barrett's "Growin' Up" takes on this concept from a different angle, trying to justify his own hard-youth bona fides despite growing up in Connecticut by comparing his upbringing to Springsteen's in New Jersey by trying to lump them all together as the tri-state area. This leads to dueling fantasy Springsteens that his friends bring to life, hilariously personifying the ways in which we attach ourselves to our musical heroes. Finally, Jen May's interstitial drawings were a nice touch, especially the final one which details her history with an iconic (and to her troubling) t-shirt image.

Irene, edited by Dakota McFadzean, DW and Andy Warner. This was a strong anthology mostly from recent grads and current students of CCS. That's an interesting editorial board in that each of the artists has radically different approaches to the comics page. McFadzean uses a cartoony style, DW is a mark-maker in the Fort Thunder tradition, and Warner uses a naturalistic approach. McFadzean's "Skeletons" continues his interest in the intersection between small-town life's stresses and the supernatural, especially with regard to children. This story of a friendship fraying because one family is moving away perfectly captures the ways in which kids interact (especially young boys) while creating an unnerving supernatural subtext. Warner's "Come Into My Heart" is the story of an acid trip shared by two teens, culminating in a confession disclosing abuse by the troubled boy. Warner's page and panel design break up the story nicely, but the story gains its real power by his wordless, tight close-ups on the characters at the end. While there's a crisp precision present in his character design, they're also organic enough to allow the story to flow.

DW's collaboration with cute-figure-drawing Rachel Dukes is demented, hilarious and gripping all at once. It's a spy/assassination story drawn in the style of cute, Pokemon-style critters. Levels of denial and disavowal figure into this story of a Daymaker teaming up with a vicious Kid to take down Death Dude, with the price being some baked goods. DW plays it totally straight, building up an intriguing mythology from the ground up while Duke's loose, simple style is perfectly suited for such a story. Jonathan Fine's "Endswell" and Nate Wootters' "Blueberry" bookend the anthology in more ways than one: it's the gritty reality of the boxing ring versus the horrific fantasy of a father forcing a creature on his son, as well as warmth and trust in the face of adversity vs. abject betrayal. Fine's line is clean and naturalistic, while Wootters employs a more cartoony but densely-hatched approach. They're fit nicely into the anthology's overall themes surrounding family, betrayal, and secrets. I hope to see future volumes.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sequart #62: Elfworld

Elfworld was first conceived of by Jeffrey Brown, best known for his autobiographical comics. Fans of Brown will also know that he's fond of doing skewed takes on genre conventions as well. His Bighead is his version of a superhero character (adapted from stuff he used to do as a kid), and his upcoming Incredible Change-Bots does the same for The Transformers. On the Comics Journal message board back in 2004, he solicited entries for an anthology dealing with sword-and-sorcery type fantasy tales from fellow indy artists, to be called Elfworld. For a variety of reasons, he abandoned the project, but it was taken up by San Francisco artist Francois Vigneault, who started his own publishing concern (Family Style) for this and other projects. Most of the entries in this volume came from that original solicitation by Brown, in a nice-looking package edited by Vigneault and designed by Jonas Madden-Connor.

It's clear that the audience for this book is supposed to be indy-comics fans, and there are a few big names in here, like Brown, Martin Cendreda, Souther Salazar and Ron Rege'. It's unfortunate that their contributions are among the weakest in the book--single or two-page strips that don't really go anywhere. The problem with doing this kind of story is that a straight-up parody is going to be as tedious as one that slavishly adheres to the trappings of the genre. Cendreda does a parody of indy comics with his, with an elf character falling into the same kind of "lonely-boy" loser situations as one might see in some typical autobiographical comics. Even at just four pages, it feels like the joke was beaten to death in the first panel or two. The same went for Ansis Purins' "Gnome Gathering", which tried to meld fantasy with Freak Brothers-style humor. While the final joke about eagles was clever, this was another story that beat the same concept into the ground on page after page.

The stories that work best here are the sort that take after Lewis Trondheim's approach in Dungeon. There, the sword-and-sorcery stories are ridiculous but told with a straight face, and the humor comes out of the situations that arise rather than with easy parodic targets. Walking the line between understanding what makes the genre work and how to transcend its limitations isn't easy, and only a few of the artists in Elfworld got it right to my eyes.

The best stories by far were "Adventures In Mead", by Matt Wiegle, "Basilisk" by Kaz Strzepek, and an untitled story by K. Thor Jensen. Wiegle's story is spaced interstially throughout the story, and involves a drunk fighter with an uncanny knack for killing everything in his path. As we learn as the story proceeds, this ability isn't necessarily helpful. Wiegle's art is beautifully scratchy and cartoony, a nice balance between the strip's violence and its goofiness.

Jensen's story is familiar: a group of adventurers in an underground cavern looking for a fabulous lost city. This tale has a lot going for it. First, Jensen's art style resembles classic Elzie (Popeye) Segar here--a perfect model to emulate in terms of melding humor with adventure. Jensen's secret weapon here is his spot-on dialogue, especially with one member of the party whose constant complaining and skepticism about everything winds up saving them. This was one of the few stories in the book where the characters and situation were interesting enough for me to want to see more of them. Jensen takes the adventure seriously, but his funny art lightens up the action. It's a perfect compromise between the two sensibilities seen so often in this book.

"Basilisk" is a fantastic story about a smart-ass researcher trying to find the legendary basilisk near a small town. The creature is supposedly part-bird and has the power to turn anything it gazes upon into stone. The researcher talks a kobold in a bar to take him to the where his party encountered the creature so he could draw it. The basilisk turns out to be both more and less than what was expected, and the story's ending has a delightful twist. This story has it all--humor, a deep vein of D&D/fantasy references (I especially liked the appearance of a beholder), and a liveliness to its line. It's both funny and exciting, with a great final punchline. I don't think it was a coincidence that Strzepek was able to succeed here because of his comfort with stories that deal with fantastic elements. It was clear which artists were in their element and which weren't in this volume.

There are several other stories that pretty much took on a serious approach to the subject that didn't do enough to entertain as pure genre stories, or else tried to inject a "poignant moment" into fantasy settings. The one other story I did want to note was Erik Nebel & Jesse Reklaw's "The Little People", about a sort of blob-couple. The male is always off on some kind of quest, leaving his mate behind, and never gives her any details. Years later, when she and their son finally leave them, the real reason for his vagueness came out and it's not clear if he's a raving paranoid or had good reason for his actions. It's not quite as accomplished or interesting as the best stories in this book, but it's still clever and visually interesting. The story is quite grim, but it's balanced by the fact that the blobs are funny-looking.

Overall, this book falls prey to some of the traps that indy books tackling genre subjects fall into, but there are several stories that transcend these difficulties. When dealing with the same topic, story after story, there's a certain numbing effect that can take over for the reader. At the same time, the stories that manage to capture the theme in a unique manner are all the more memorable. Writing genre fiction creates a certain set of limitations and expectations for an artist, and it's a testament to an artist's skill if they can create something truly memorable given a reduced palette of storytelling options. There will be a second volume of Elfworld in 2008, and it'll be interesting to see which artists return and what new voices Vigneault brings in. While I appreciate Vigneault's attempt to bring a variety of approaches (serious and otherwise), the next volume may work better as a whole if every artist successfully walks the line between genre fantasy and playfulness. The book was solicited through Diamond and is also available at Family Style's website at

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Quest: Year One

The format Ramsey Beyer chose for her diary comic, Year One, will be familiar to any fan of these sorts of comics. She lists Jeffrey Brown, Liz Prince, Ben Snakepit and others as influences, and one can see her mixing and matching their storytelling styles while in the process of developing her own. Her line is spare and cute, but not as cute as Prince's line. Indeed, the way Beyer draws teeth and open mouths adds a touch of the grotesque to the proceedings, echoing Joey Sayers a bit. What makes her a bit different from some of her autobio/diary comics-making peers is her thoughtfulness and self-reflection. Indeed, the entire project was a deliberate experiment not just to do a weekly autobio comic for a year, but to document her move to a new city (from Chicago to Philadelphia) and examine her feelings regarding the move. Beyer's ability to shift between whimsy, romance, art and the search for connections made this a unique snapshot for a person of a certain age running in certain cultural circles.

Romantic relationships are unsurprisingly a key aspect of this comic, but Beyer's approach is an interesting one. Like the best autobiographical cartoonists, Beyer gives the reader little in the way of background detail regarding her romances and friendships, providing the reader only with information in the moment. Diary comics are about life as it's lived, not one's winding backstory. In the course of the story, we learn that Beyer is seriously dating a couple of different guys long-distance in an open and straightforward fashion. This takes the "drama" out of her romantic life in narrative terms but adds a layer of something that's far more interesting, given the hurdles one must leap when trying to negotiate emotional terms with more than one lover. Beyer admits to being unsure about the concept of marriage but is refreshingly open to any and all ideas and freely admits to being uncertain about her future beyond her twenties.

Most of the comic is about the perilous balance between the naturally antisocial life of a cartoonist and a woman who left Chicago because of her inability to create many meaningful connections. Moving to Philly in part was a way of testing herself to find a way to reach out to others. Those connections are important not just because of her desire to reach out to others, but to actively participate in punk/DIY culture. One can really see the Ben Snakepit influence at work here, because his comics are as much a chronicle of his life in the punk community as it is about his own unusual living situation. For Beyer, going to zine & punk shows is part of her total ethos and aesthetics as a human being, both as participant (for the former) and spectator (for the latter). Beyer balances these weightier matters with "dialogues" she holds with her dog, which serve the purpose of adding a little comic relief while allowing her to put her own thought process in the spotlight.

Beyer is working more in the mold of Brown in the sense that she's not looking to be funny or add punchlines to each of her weekly vignettes. She mercifully dials down the cutesy factor when talking about the men in her life. She's matter-of-fact about her beliefs in interests without being dogmatic about any of them. Working in real time meant that she got noticeably better as the book goes on, making her line thinner but more confident and her figurework more convincing. I often speak of artists needing to get better in public; Year One was Ramsey Beyer's way of trying to get better both as an artist and as an individual. I hope she continues to explore form and formats as she continues her cartooning career.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Kid Lit: Super Grammar, Bird & Squirrel, ChickenHare, Amulet, Cardboard

Here's some more short reviews of recent comics for kids.

Super Grammar, by Tony Preciado & Rhode Montijo.This isn't a comic at all but rather a textbook teaching the basics of grammar through the use of super heroes. It's brightly colored, and its figures are simple and bold. It's definitely a bit of shtick, sweetening the medicine of learning grammar with superhero trappings. For example, every example is something you might see in a superhero comic (or perhaps more pointedly, something you'd see in a superhero movie). I'd be curious to see if this is actually being used in classrooms as a supplement, because it's certainly rock-solid with regard to teaching the basics.

Bird & Squirrel: On The Run!, by James Burks. Burks has a lot of experience as an animator, and it shows in this frenzied story of the two unlikely, titular allies as they seek to escape being eaten by an inexorable, monstrous cat. The character design is reminiscent of the sort of thing one might see on Nickelodeon these days: boxy, exaggerated and simple. Burks is quite skilled as a cartoonist and the chase scenes are well-drawn and fairly funny. Beyond that, there's not much "there" there, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker. The characterization is one-dimensional and predictable. It's a book that's enjoyable but instantly forgettable.

ChickenHare, by Chris Grine. This is an adventure series with comedic overtones in the tradition of Bone. It's not surprising that fellow Scholastic stablemate Jeff Smith blurbed the book. Grine clearly had world-building on his mind when writing what was otherwise a straightforward story about two talking animals with unusual qualities trying to escape from a deranged taxidermist. Grine introduces mysteries and ambiguities about his characters and their world that he deliberately leaves unresolved, with an eye on expanding upon these ideas in future volumes. The titular character is tough and clever but not excessively so, and the design is fantastic, with rabbit ears, feathers on his arms and chicken legs. Grine does a nice job of balancing cute and weird in this comic in equal doses, combining them in unexpected ways. Grine is quite skilled at finding a way to inject life into his turtle sidekick, the monkey-like creature and horned girl they also find in captivity. He even manages to inject pathos into the character of the taxidermist and add some real emotional stakes to the proceedings while never forgetting to keep things moving while generating some laughs along the way. There's plenty here that's original and clever but also familiar enough for any kid to catch on quickly. I certainly wouldn't hesitate handing this to someone who had just finished Bone and wanted to read something in the same vein.

Amulet Volume 5: The Elf Prince, by Kazu Kibuishi.The earlier volumes of Amulet had a lot of padding as various pieces were being shuffled so as to set up betrayals and plot twists. The last volume revealed the true "big bad" of the series in order to set up the action and infodumps of this volume. Kabuishi actually makes those backstory drops the most interesting part of the book, especially when Trellis (the elf prince allied with Emily, the young keeper of a powerful amulet) goes back and discovers horrible things about the amulet. By this point in the series, Kabuishi clearly felt like he had already laid enough pipe earlier in the books and just assumes that his readers will remember the significance of every character and plot device. The problems I have with this series are threefold: 1) the character design of the human characters is dull and flat; they lie on the page like video game characters, 2) the protagonist of the series, Emily, is less a character than a walking plot mover, 3) the effects-heavy use of color on every page lends itself to the cold slickness that I found so offputting about Kibuishi's work in his Flight anthology. Kibiushi is clearly skilled and ambitious, and the book has the production values of a summer blockbuster. There's simply no warmth to be found in his work.

Cardboard, by Doug TenNapel. This was the first time I've ever had the sensation of a comic book yelling at me. Cardboard's high concept is very clever: cardboard with magical properties that comes to life when shaped into specific shapes. It's unfortunate that every other aspect of this book is shrill, manipulative, cliched and unpleasant. I've enjoyed aspects of TenNapel's books before despite their usual heavy-handedness with regard to family-related issues, but the characters in this book are startlingly one-dimensional and unpleasant. Even the art feels over-the-top and borderline grotesque on every page; how many bug-eyed moments did he really need to include on every page? Moments meant to evoke sympathy and sadness feel unearned and forced. The Lessons he aims to impart in this book are insultingly specific and obvious, down to the villain of the piece showing that he's reformed at the end when he gets a haircut. I won't even get into his regressive portrayal of gender. This is one of the worst books I've ever read from a skilled cartoonist.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Milt Gross/Will Elder

This article was originally published at in 2006.

Humor is a particular area of interest for me as a writer, and that's especially true for comics. Indeed, though the medium is capable of addressing any style or genre (as I hope I've showed in this column), the very name of the medium is indebted to its humorous roots. Despite (or perhaps because of) this fact, humorous comics don't often earn a lot of critical attention. I think this is in part because of the subjective nature of humor, but also because most audiences are subjected to the very bland humor found on the daily comics pages. Of course, those strips are handicapped by the tiny space they're given on the page, forcing them all to get by mostly by the force of the verbal nature of their jokes rather than the visuals. These comics are stripped of their energy, of their kinetic power. That energy was later claimed by super-hero comics; at their best, they make the reader fly from panel-to-panel as the story whips the eye through the story.

It wasn't always so. Milt Gross was an early comic strip star, known best for the "Yiddishisms" in his comics. In 1930, he did a book called He Done Her Wrong. At the time, there had been some books published that can only be called the earliest graphic novels. Lynd Ward's God's Man was one of them--a silent, woodcut-looking comic about very Serious Matters. Gross sent up the trend with his own wordless comic book, subtitled "The Great American Novel (With No Words)". Gross uses the book format to burst out of the constraints of the strip. There are full splash pages, images that are free of panels, images that dance around central panels and multiple images on a page when Gross wants to speed up the action. But everything in the story is in motion. The very first page has a still image, of a bar in a small snowy town somewhere, with dozens of footprints leading up to that. The next page sees the action explode, with men and women dancing, drinking and smooching.

Gross is far from a master draftsman. For his purposes, however, that's not important. His sometimes-sketchy, sometimes-rubbery "bigfoot" style is perfect for the tone of the story and the way he leads the reader along. If images seem to bend a bit weirdly as they fly across the page, it's only to create that illusion of movement. His greatest skill as an artist is his awesome compositional sense. The way he arranges every page for dramatic or comedic effect, his use of light and shadow, and how he chooses to speed up or slow down the action is masterful, and is the key to the success of his gags.

The jokes themselves aren't exactly what I'd call sophisticated, but they are clever. He makes use of familiar stereotypes as a shortcut for getting across information quickly and without words. The tall noble hero, the willowy love interest, and the curly-cue moustachioed villain all tip off the reader quickly as to what's-what. There's a later blackface joke that's clever in its execution but that's certainly uncomfortable to read now. There are also later caricatures of native americans and asians that form another clever joke. Overall, I'd say the use of the caricatures is not especially malicious, especially given the more virulent strips of the time, and the fact that Gross made a career of exploring those Yiddishisms. And of course, they're not the root of the humor here; they're as much a shorthand as any of the other familiar images he uses to quickly impart information.

The story is simple: a rugged hunter type in the great white north is lured into operating with a slimy businessman. Said villain manages to trick the singer girlfriend of our hero into thinking her beau is dead, and gets her to come to New York with him. The bulk of the book is concerned with the misadventures of that trio, specifically the Hunter's attempt to reconnect with his girl.

Along the way, Gross packs powerful image after powerful image into his pages. Even visuals not central to the gag are worth looking at. He also imparts drama and pathos into the book. There's an amazing page done almost entirely in black where the singer is waiting for her man to come back. We only see her silhouette in a doorway. At the top left of the page, we see that shadow waiting expectantly; time has passed in the second panel as her posture slumps a bit; in the third panel at the bottom right, we see her arms at her sides and her head down. It's a wonderfully striking page that serves both as emotionally powerful on its own and as a parody of "serious" comics.

A big part of the humor is tied to fighting and action. There's another amazing image of the hunter crashing through a church window, knife in hand, readt to attack his nemesis. The chase scene they have is hilarious, tearing the reader through the city. Another great sequence sees the mighty hunter entering New York. Immediately upon entering the city from a canoe, the triumphant hunter gets a can of paint dumped on him, whacked by a car, stepped on by a horse and kicked by a cop. In a wonderful bit of visual humor, he walks right by his girlfriend, with a big sign advertising a broadway play called "Fate" getting in-between them!
Another great sequence features the singer, abandoned by the villain and destitute in the city. She pleads her case at an office building, begging for a job. The man she pleads to has to plead her case to a higher-up, who repeats the story to another higher-up, who repeats the story to the board of directors, who then call her in to repeat her story to them. After waiting, she gets a scrubbing floors. Repetition builds the gag up, with him using that technique again of starting at the top left, using a central image, and then concluding in the bottom right hand corner. It makes it easy for the eye to follow and helps the reader tear through the pages, giving the sequence momentum. That momentum is almost musical, as the reader scales down a series of descending notes.

The story continues to build, with a wild climax where the villain literally has the hero tied to a conveyor belt on a sawmill, ready to cut him in half. Goodness prevails, and the villain gets his come-uppance, and everyone lives happily ever after. What's interesting to me about the book is its eventual impact. Gross was not the first "bigfoot" cartoonist, but it's clear that the visual vocabulary he helped to create had a huge impact on others. Jack Cole (creator of Plastic Man) was clearly influenced by a lot of these pages. Kyle Baker's You Are Here is almost a modern update of He Done Her Wrong. His dictum of putting a pretty girl, a chase scene or a fight on nearly every page is exactly the formula that Gross follows, and the use of New York as almost another character mirrors Gross as well.

Of course, the most immediate descendents of this early, manic comic strip humor were the creators of MAD. Harvey Kurtzman's satire was much more sophisticated than anything seen in comics up to that point, but it was up to his collaborators to provide a visual impact for his layouts. The greatest of these collaborators, to my eyes, is Will Elder. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that Elder was one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century. Fantagraphics put out a magnificent coffee table book on his career called Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art that reprints a bunch of classic strips, but there's a slim companion book that's been released called Chicken Fat, which is also worthy of one's attention. In some ways, Chicken Fat reveals even more of Elder's genius than the big book. It consists of "drawings, sketches, cartoons and doodles". The tossed-off nature of them is remarkable, considering how fully-formed they are.

A few things become quickly evident after examining the book: Elder can draw absolutely anything, in any style, with enormous skill. And he has been doing so for 70+ years, with little diminishment in either his ability or inspiration. It's like he's been hooked up to some cosmic art tap that comes bursting relentlessly out of his pencil and brush. The compulsion to draw is what made Elder so good so soon, along with a grasp of anatomy that's second to none. Not only can Elder draw anything from life, he can mimic any style of artist. A hilarious Norman Rockwell parody in Mad Playboy may be the single funniest image I've ever seen: There's a mind-boggling drawing of Popeye & Olive Oyl getting married (complete with the whole supporting cast) that looks like Elzie Segar rose from the dead to draw it. He also draws carcicatures every bit as lively and clever as a master like Al Hirschfeld. The fact that Elder can draw with so much technical skill is what allowed him to break the rules when he needed to--things still "looked" right no matter how exaggerated his drawings got.

Elder's own style is very much influenced by Gross. It's frenetic and in constant motion. And in the pages of MAD, Elder couldn't help but throw in little background drawings and jokes in addition to advancing the story as Kurtzman saw it. Those marginalia came to be called "chicken fat" by Elder. As Elder says, "Chicken fat is the part of the soup that's bad for you, yet gives the soup its delicious flavor". That marginalia was not central to the story, but it's a big reason why Elder stood out even among amazing artists like Wally Wood in the early issues of MAD.

Chicken Fat was compiled by his son-in-law, Gary VandenBergh. The book reads very much like a love letter to his father-in-law and a family affair in general. One can sense that there is no differentation between Elder the comic artist and Elder the person--he's always funny, always warm, and always a jokester. While sharply witty, his work doesn't have the viciousness or bitterness that marks a number of jokesters. The book features some early drawings (his mechanical drawings particularly stand out since that was a skill he rarely used in his stories), rejected gags from various magazines, sketch sheets and comic strip ideas that didn't quite make it.

My favorite bit was a strip called "Adverse Anthony" that he pitched to the Saturday Evening Post. While brilliant, it was way too demented for a conservative publication like that, which is a shame. Every one of the gags he had in the book for this feature were fantastic, and I'd happily read a whole volume of them. The title character was a killjoy dressed all in black, standing out against the lighter linework of the other characters--all of whom are not shaded. That draws the eye straight to A.A. and whatever grim or weird thing he happens to be doing. My favorite gag was an image of a ticker-tape parade. We see A.A. dumping paper from his office window to the parade below. Then we notice that it's from "Anthony Shoe Co.", his own business. Then we see that he's dumping paper from the suggestion box!

Fans of Elder will find a lot of wonderful surprises. There's a 1950 sketch sheet done at the height of his prowess as an artist, featuring a number of familiar-looking EC characeters. A proposed comic strip called "The Inspector" borrows a lot from Gross, especially in terms of its Yiddishisms. There's a series of lurid pulp-cover parodies in various states of readiness, the most striking being "Fearsome Future Fiction", with a naked girl under glass about to be devoured by giant crustaceans at a dinner table, wearing bibs! Seeing him work out problems of anatomy for a strip show what a tireless worker he is; while he may have a ton of talent, it's his relentless work ethic that made him great. Even Elder's recent, tossed-off doodles are wonderful to look at--gags in search of a venue.

There's plenty in this book for those not familiar with Elder, but I'd steer those readers to Mad Playboy first. A lot of the strips here feature some dated humor, especially those submitted for magazines like Playboy. This book is a behind-the-scenes look at Elder and his creative process and as such doesn't always feature his best material. That said, even Elder's most dated or flattest gags are still worth examining just for the sheer proficiency of their design and execution.

Looking at the half-finished drawings is not quite the same thing as a fully-realized Elder strip, because there's a weight that's accrued as you read one. Between the foreground gag and the numerous background gags, the amount of humor that Elder piles on has a cumulative effect on the reader. Any one gag may not be brilliant on its own, but that rapid-fire technique (used by Mel Brooks and the Zucker Brothers in films) allows the reader to retain the gags that they find funniest while forgetting the others. The trick is that Elder was able to do this while still making his pages a smooth reading experience. You could safely ignore all of the background jokes if you wanted to and just read the story, or you could read the background gags by themselves, or you could integrate the panel as a reader and do both--and it was easy to do any of these things. Like Gross, Elder is a master of composition and how the eye tracks across a page. There's no confusion for the reader in following the action on a page, which is crucial for a story that's trying to be funny. This style has been widely imitated, with modern cartoonists like Evan Dorkin being a prime example but with plenty of lesser artists trying it as well. Not everyone does it as well as Elder, and fewer still could produce at a rate like Elder did in his prime. If I was an aspiring cartoonist, Elder's work (in MAD, Playboy, and other Kurtzman collaborations like Goodman Beaver) would be my textbook, a model of how to translate one's personal comedic muse onto the page. The lessons are all there: draw from life, be versatile, be clear, force the reader into reacting how you want them to without them knowing it, and above all else: keep drawing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Passionella

This article was originally published at in 2006.

There’s a case to be made that Jules Feiffer was the first prototype of the underground/alternative cartoonist. A comics lifer, he started out as Will Eisner’s assistant on The Spirit and eventually wrote a number of Denny Colt stories. Like Eisner, he shared the feeling that comics were capable of being so much more than merely crude entertainment for sub-literates. The difference was that Eisner abandoned comics for a number of years to design illustrated training manuals for the army before he returned to comics in 1978, whereas Feiffer persisted and invented his own market.

While Eisner would later go on to write for a bookstore market, his art was always more accomplished and sophisticated than his writing. With Feiffer, it was quite the opposite. Though his art is lively and expressive, his minimalist & sketchy style was completely unlike what people expected from comics at the time. His drawings were just the frame from which he hung biting, nasty and incisive satire of modern life and politics. If Harvey Kurtzman wrote satire for kids in the pages of MAD, Feiffer did it for adults in the pages of his primary employer, the Village Voice. In the book’s introduction, Gary Groth mentions William Steig (among others) as influences for Feiffer. Given the tone of his stories, the sheer bluntness and exaggeration of line, another influence would seem to be James Thurber. Thurber was perhaps the most influential humorist of the first half of the 20th century, and it can be argued that Feiffer was the most influential in the second half. Both men were writers who drew, who loved the impact that their art provided when paired with their text.

This hardback collection (another beneficiary of the Peanuts dividend) collects a number of strips and stories from various magazines and an earlier book collection. Feiffer has dabbled in all sorts of media and has written a number of plays. “Superman” is both a strip and a play. The strip involves Supes getting deconstructed by a woman and winding up with an office job and a house in the suburbs. The play takes the concept a little further, but both have the memorable plea “But you will admit that I’m better than average?” “The Cutting Edgists” is a pointed attack on satirists of the day that he viewed as engaging in little more than harmless, self-congratulatory commentary that was not a real critique of society. It’s a dangerous exercise for a satirist to attack other satirists, but the play lands a number of direct hits.

Of the comics in this collection, the most interesting are the title strip, “The Lonely Machine” and “The Relationship”. The latter is a classic Feiffer silent strip: two lovers, sitting hunched over and despairing, with their backs to each other. When the man accidentally kills a flower and despairs even further, the woman feels his pain and there is a brief rapprochement. The feeling fades, as the two inevitably return to their initial solipsism. There is no real empathy here, just two people wrapped up in themselves. That self-centeredness is further examined in “The Lonely Machine”, a witty indictment of the “Playboy philosophy” about a man rejected by the world who builds a machine to love him and for him to dominate. Feiffer would do Michel Foucault proud in his analysis of relationships in the modern world as nothing more than power struggles. Any real attempt at feeling and empathy is discouraged by a philosophy that emphasizes materialism and false connections.

“Passionella” is a slightly more light-hearted tale of a plain chimney-sweep named Ella who wants nothing more than to be a movie star. Her fairy godmother (manifesting through a TV screen, of course) makes her beautiful and gives her a deluxe breast enhancement, and soon she becomes Passionella. Of course, the only problem is that she’s only beautiful during the evening, and must run off before the Late Late Show ends and she turns back into plain ol’ Ella.

Ella is lonely, however. When she turns to her Fairy Godmother, she is told “My field is strictly public relations. You’ll have to handle your own emotional problems”. She meets the perfect man, disaffected movie star Flip Charming. As Ella is obviously a Marilyn Monroe stand-in, so is Flip a James Dean clone. He encourages her to try acting in real roles, and so she talks her studio into a gritty, “realistic” film about a chimneysweep, which she acts in as Ella. When she winds up marrying Flip, she finds out that he has a secret too. The story is a clever attack on Hollywood that still manages to have a very sweet and funny ending.

The danger of collecting satire is its natural expiration date. Indeed, the weaker pieces in the book are those that address a particular time and place. Luckily, Feiffer’s commentary for the most part remains remarkably fresh. Alienation, jingoism and materialism never seem to go out of style.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fundraising for SAW (Sequential Arts Workshop)

I can't think of a better comics-related cause than to donate money through an Indiegogo campaign to the Sequential Arts Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville, FL. SAW is the brainchild of the great Tom Hart for an affordable school for comics education. He keeps tuition low for this purpose, and depends on donations and support from the comics community to help fund his fledgling school. I've seen the work of a few of the early students, and there are certainly some promising talents. The donation incentives are pretty amazing, so please consider a donation, great or small.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Kid Lit: Upside Down and The Shark King

Let's take a look at some other recent books for kids:

Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, by Jess Smart Smiley (Top Shelf). This is a charming, simply-rendered comic that combines fable and adventure in a story that has some real stakes. There's a strong James Kochalka influence at work here as Harold the young vampire hangs out with some real bats who enjoy pooping on humans. Whimsy goes hand in hand with danger as an evil witch seeks out an immortality potion, Harold worries about being alienated from his family after he loses his fangs at the dentist's office, and there are multiple situations where the odds seem against Harold's survival. This is a comic that's both relentlessly silly and eccentric; there's nothing cookie-cutter about Smiley's design sense, character design or plot choices. That said, the plot is remarkably straightforward in terms of its structure, including burying plot clues early on in the story, various fake-outs, and actual character arc-work. I sensed Chris Staros' hand in perhaps tightening up some of those plot elements, but Top Shelf left Smiley plenty of room to be as weird as he wanted to be, including using an especially lurid and gross color of green throughout the story. This book is a solid debut for Smiley, whose ability to walk the line between winking at genre material and constructing a compelling narrative bodes well for his future.

The Shark King, by R. Kikuo Johnson (Toon Books).  Johnson is an excellent illustrator who normally works in a naturalistic style. For this book, he softened that style up without losing any of his distinctively bold storytelling flair. Johnson, a native of Hawai'i, spins a tale of local myth Nanaue, the son of the Shark King. Bear in mind that this story is aimed at six and seven year-olds, yet there's nothing about it that talks down to readers. The soft approach he uses for his character design gives his characters a fuzzy and inviting appearance, even when disturbing things are occurring. For example, the jaws growing out of young Nanaue's back almost look cute when they snap at people, even if they are actually monstrous. The simplicity of the character design is offset by the complexity of the page composition, as it's filled with panels of differing sizes, tilting splash pages, inset panels, panels cascading after each other, panels without borders and other devices that take a young reader on a journey. Johnson is so good at providing intuitive clues in how to follow a page that even the more advanced of his page designs isn't hard to follow because of the absolute clarity of his character-dominated storytelling. The fact that the story (like most myths) does not end on an unambiguously happy note is another nice touch, one that hopefully will get young readers thinking. Johnson really excelled at this type of storytelling, and I hope he plumbs the depths of Hawai'ian folklore to tell more stores.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Kid Lit

This review was originally published at in 2008.
Children's literature has frequently employed the use of illustrations to entertain their audiences, especially younger kids. Recently, with the increasingly rising wave of comics appearing in bookstores and their overall success, there's a new trend that sees authors better known for their prose dipping into the world of comics. In some cases, that process is an organic one; in others, it feels more like a kind of marketing move. There's a sense of "how do we get kids to read our books" and someone hitting on the idea of "I know, we'll use comics!" as the solution. In this article, we'll examine two new books that take a slightly different spin on this tactic, as they intersperse illustrated text with comics.

The Fog Mound 3: Simon's Dream (Simon & Schuster), by Susan Schade & Jon Buller, is aimed at readers 8-12 years old. It's a testament to the skill of its authors and the overall charm of the project that I was quickly able to understand the story despite not having read the first two books and get wrapped up in its delightful characters. The book alternates between comics and illustrated text on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but even the non-comics chapters are designed so well that that its illustrations flow in and out of the text quite smoothly. The whole process feels organic, as though the needs of the story dictated the transition rather than an arbitrary set of starts and stops dictated by the structure of the book.

The story is set in the future, as a talking chipmunk named Thelonious is trying to protect the Fog Mound, a sort of paradise for the intelligent animals that live on earth after all of the humans mysteriously disappeared. The book is a classic episodic quest, as Thelonious and his friends (including a tiny human scientist named Bill that they brought out of a deep freeze) seek their goal.  The team of Schade and Buller manage to create real excitement and wonder as they introduce wolfmen, flying sofas and an explanation of how the world ended. The book introduces a number of green themes (humanity winds up getting wiped out thanks to pollution) without overwhelming the reader or getting too pedantic. The reason the book works so well is that the plot and central mysteries, while engaging, are less important than the vividly designed characters.

On the other hand, popular fantasy novelist G.P. Taylor's series launcher for his Dopple Ganger Chronicles, The First Escape, is a mishmash of good intentions gone wrong. The taglines on the back of the book in praise of his work, "Hotter than Potter" and "The new C.S. Lewis" give away his intent here: a rollicking fish-out-of-water adventure with overtones of faith. The story follows troublemaking orphan teens Saskia and Sadie Dopple and how they were separated, along with their friend Erik Ganger. The story feels very familiar: like Harry Potter, the lead characters are orphans, though the orphanage they grew up in makes the story feel more like Charles Dickens than J.K. Rowling. The Dopple twins are bratty and bossy, and one senses that during the course of the series they will find ways to mature. Taylor skillfully manipulates his larger-than-life characters (including a demented stage magician, shrewish adoptive mother, and assorted greedy thugs) through the story, creating excitement and suspense.

There are two significant problems with this book. First, the characters feel mostly two-dimensional, more caricatures than fleshed-out creations. This is especially true of Erik Ganger, who is remarkably underdeveloped even though he's supposed to be one of the lead protagonists. The more thorny issue is that of its graphic design. The book careens from illustrated text to comics with little rhyme or reason, often in the middle of a chapter. It's jarring and hurts the book's continuity. There's also a highly annoying design choice, wherein the text periodically gets much bigger or stylized in the middle of the page. Obviously meant to be clever and eye-catching, it's instead distracting and silly. The book's press materials note that they were trying for a "manga-style" visual style, and the result is a mess. It's obvious that Taylor was not comfortable writing for comics, leaving most of the work to the artists with his text. However, the storytelling of Daniel Boultwood is bland at best and incoherent at worst, frequently bringing the story to a screeching halt when it should be ramping up. While I'm certainly no expert on manga, the art here feels like a bad combination of manga-like art and modern fantasy illustration, and it's not a mix that worked well. Beyond the fact that the art lacks storytelling clarity, Boultwood has problems with page-to-page and panel-to-panel transitions. That resulted in a lot of the images looking inert on the page. That was especially problematic because these sequences were supposed to be the most exciting in the book; instead, the chase scenes fell flat.

It's clear that this series is designed to be a big best-seller and it has the feel of being put together by committee to maximize its sales impact. Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to sell lots of copies, but the appeal of this book is blighted by its attempt to reach the widest audience possible. Of course, I could be wrong and teens could snap it up like candy, but I'm not sure this book will appeal to its stated demographic of 10-14 year-olds. If Taylor is trying to reach a larger audience by using comics as a sort of bait, I think this idea will backfire because the book lacks the elegance in design of popular manga series. On the other hand, The Fog Mound and its whimsical art will immerse its audience in the world it creates, one where the difference between text and comics is a line that no longer matters.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Beauty of Decay: Dockwood

Jon McNaught's design-heavy comics that employ simply-drawn characters and an extensive use of a beautiful but muted palette certainly brings Chris Ware to mind as an obvious comparison. However, I'd argue that their surface similarities are less important than the fact that they both share a dark sense of humor that's not afraid to be broad in unlikely situations. Both also have an eye for nature's beauty as an almost heart-breakingly sad phenomenon at times, in the way that beautiful things can be almost painful to watch. McNaught's Dockwood is explicitly about the season of autumn: the season of beautiful decay. It's a slow process of fading beauty, moving day by day until the leaves have fallen off the trees.

McNaught's book is all about process, slow movement and decay. The ways in which people deal with this as opposed to animals is carefully highlighted. At the start of the book, McNaught makes fun of the way he knows he's going to manipulate the reader by starting the day with a driver stopping in front of a billboard that has a beautiful woman on it that says "Summer Deals", and literally papering it over with an image that says "Autumn Bargains". Capitalism and advertising cease for no season, but I loved how McNaught literally plops a big sign that says "Autumn" into his narrative as a way of introducing his narrative.

The first story, "Elmview", follows the day of a kitchen porter at an nursing home. His day is based on ritual, timing and methodical execution of his tasks while trying to distract himself from his day through radio or TV (either or both are on throughout the book signifying that sense of trying to escape from the moment). That distraction i made clear by McNaught in how he alternates his panels between a commercial and a very brief conversation. A nursing home is an obvious setting for a story about decay, but McNaught distinguishes himself by depicting how each of the residents faces mortality in a different way: resigned and happy, constantly angry, deafly oblivious while puffing away on a cigarette. It's not a coincidence that the angry man yells at the cacophonous starlings outside his window as they prepare to migrate for the season; their departure is another sign that a season is ending. Eating is another frequently used motif, especially comparing how the people eat to how the animals find their own sustenance. McNaught loves to draw out small movements that are not significant to the plot but are relevant to his themes, but avoids getting bogged down by cramming as many as 30 panels on a page.

The second story, "Sunset Ridge", feels a teenage boy going about his evening paper route starting after school. Chronologically, it picks up where "Elmview" leaves off, as the boy is obviously an outsider with most of his peers, with the exception of a geeky chatterbox who soon leaves him to his route. The boy is unnerved when a woman appears at her door when he delivers her paper and gives him candy. It's not until he gets back home that the story's theme becomes evident: it's about the steady erosion of his childhood. Violent sequences from the video game he's borrowed from his friend are cut with  objects from his room, things that show he's very much still a boy even if his childhood is slowly fading away. There's a hilarious sequence at the end of this story where his video game character stops to admire the sunset in the game after a mission and watch the birds. Of course, the birds turnout to have fangs and there's little time for his character to waste, as the computer reminds him. It's a funny way of driving home those points about autumn's inevitability in an artificial environment. This is McNaught's first major release, and he certainly lives up to his considerable potential. Unsurprisingly, the production values from NoBroware first-rate, and McNaught's obviously dry sense of humor punctuates his beautiful, methodical storytelling.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Kid Lit

This article as originally published at in 2006.
The three comics I'm reviewing in this space are all for children, but the contexts for each are radically different. Kevin Pyle's Blindspot is a lush, imaginative graphic novel aimed at kids 9 and up. Sardine In Outer Space 2 is a collection of stories featuring the wacky adventures of Sardine, a young girl who happens to be a space pirate. The latest Nick Mag Presents is an all-comics special aimed squarely at Nickelodeon's target audience, roughly kids 10 and under.

Going in reverse order, the new Nick Mag can be found on any magazine rack. While it features comics versions of their most popular cartoon characters (Spongebob Squarepants & Fairly OddParents), it also features an array of strips from some of alt-comics' most interesting artists. Comics editors Chris Duffy & Dave Roman (the latter a cartoonist in his own right) have been providing a steady outlet for cartoonists for quite some time. It's odd to see someone like Johnny Ryan in here, considering that most of his regular work is so filthy, but his strips still work because kids like fart jokes more than anyone. It's a particular delight to see folks like Jason Shiga do his thing in here. Shiga loves embedding comics in choose-your-own-adventure frameworks, and so it was a natural for him to do a maze where he's trying to get the Fairly OddParents to grant him wishes to get a girl to fall in love with him. Even better is an algorithm he designed later in the book to determine your perfect mate--with the determining factors being things like "lots of hair vs the color green".

That's just one example of a strip that doesn't feel at all watered-down, even if it's not exactly what the artist would do with their own work. Brian Ralph's gorgeous "Twiggy Stumps" strip, about a boy trying to find a place to stay during the winter, has exactly the same look and feel as his Cave-In or Climbing Out strips. He's not the only ex-Highwater Books cartoonist in this issue. Jordan Crane (with the nom-de-plume Jane D'Rancor) did a strip called "Shortcut", which is in a style very similar to his recent children's book The Clouds Above. Underground legend Justin Green offers a strip about humanitarian ways to kill flies, done in the same washed-out style as his regular comics. The imagination and wit that pervades the personal work of the indy cartoonists here makes the issue a pleasure to read as an adult. I especially liked the humor in Craig Thompson's comics here; he had one page with four completely separate strips, all of which impact the other somehow. Ellen Forney's comic on how to make your own autobio strip is enormously clever, as is her smaller strip that ran along the bottom of several pages.

The best thing this issue does is give a nice outlet for gag strip experts and humorists. Along with Ryan, there's the highly-underrated Karen Sneider, Sam Henderson (with his regular "Scene But Not Heard" strip), Mark Martin, Evan Dorkin & Sara Dyer, Terry LaBan, Gahan Wilson and Michael Kupperman. The latter 's strip, "The Worst Comic Book Villains That Never Existed" could have been out of an issue of his Tales Designed to Thrizzle comic, including characters like Doctor Buckethead, Pants-On-His-Head-Man (the archenemy of Underpants-On-His-Head-Man), and the Crayoniacs. I've long felt that there was a need for a comics anthology that had nothing but humor strips in it, and Nick Mag is the closest thing we have to that at the moment. I honestly can't thing of a better way of getting kids to love comics than this magazine: it's appealing to both genders, it's funny, it's attractive to look at (they don't skimp on production values), there's a variety of styles & stories, and it can be enjoyed without having to understand a lot of backstory.

Sardine is what I would call minor work from two excellent cartoonists, Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert. . Sfar in particular is a huge favorite of mine. This collection of strips is aimed squarely at kids (even the flap on the front cover says "No Grown-Ups Allowed! (Unless they're pirates or space adventurers)"). In these stories, Sardine the space pirate travels with Captain Yellow Shoulder and Little Louie, having all sorts of adventures. They're in constant combat with the villainous Supermuscleman and mad scientist Doc Krok, always foiling their schemes. Each story is 10 pages long, just long enough to establish a conflict and resolution.

What makes the stories fun are the absurd set-ups: a comet covered in carpet, with a ruler that tries to force its visitors to buy some; a planet filled with flies that put bad dance tunes into its victims ears, the kind you can't get out of your head; a giant with video cameras inside its body; a lonely worm that creates a spaceship in a bid to make friends that only scares them off instead. When the stories move away from the oafish Supermuscleman (who gets outsmarted by Sardine so easily that he doesn't make for much of a villain), they're much funnier and weirder. For example, Sardine and Louie are able to save their friends in a flea circus from that video giant by going inside his body and playing soccer--that's because "wherever there's soccer, there's cameras".

The comics are more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. They're in the tradition of a Carl Barks, mixing adventure and silliness. The real highlight of these stories is Sfar's loose, vibrant style. While the character designs are simple and iconic, he still manages to pack an enormous amount of detail in a given panel. This makes his pages easy to follow (some of them have only two panels) but rewarding to look at. The use of color is another major component of the overall visual impact; they're kept bright, basic and even a bit garish. These stories occur in a fantastic world, and their non-naturalistic look and feel adds to the effect.

The main criticism I'd have of this collection is that there's a certain repetitiveness to the stories. Every story details some adventure or misadventure of Sardine and her friends, often against the same set of opponents. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's formulaic, but there's a sense of diminishing returns the further one gets into the book, even if each individual story is enjoyable on its own. From a child's standpoint, this probably isn't a big deal--if they like the stories to begin with. Unlike the Nick Mag, with its wide range of styles, this Sardine volume is best given to children who are already inclined to enjoy this sort of story.

The audience for Blindspot is entirely different, and not just because of the 9-and-over target group. This is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Dean, who retreats into army fantasies as a way of dealing with the alienation he feels in relating with other kids, his family's constant moving around, and the difficulty he has in dealing with authority. The irony is that he chose war and army scenarios as a symbol of rugged freedom, when the military is the ultimate form of regimentation. The key is that his understanding of war is what he reads in comic books, and these fantasies inform his playtime with his friends. Eventually, a frightening encounter with a homeless man snaps him out of his war fantasies.

What makes the book more than a routine exploration of pre-adolescent problems is the masterful use of color. Pyle employed single-color palettes during every real-life sequence, but his use of color was non-naturalistic. He used green (army soldier green) during every sequence where Dean and his friends were playing army in the forest, and used it once again towards the end to reflect a significant change for Dean. He used a light lilac to depict winter, but more importantly, a time of reflection and an attempt at understanding. An aqua-green represented times of crisis in school, or a sequence where he had to go to a child psychologist. Light blue represented both night and the sense of elation that turned into panic when he was faced with a homeless man angry at him and his friends for destroying his hovel--but really wanting someone to unload the story of his own life's misery on. Brown seemed to represent the times when Dean was most grounded in reality. Sometimes this was because of family difficulties, and other times because he was finally able to exult a bit in enjoying himself as a kid in the here and now. There are other shades for other encounters as well, but these were the ones that stood out.

The stand-out stylization that Pyle used came when Dean was deep in his army fantasies in his friends. The art would shift from the simple palette to one resembling old war comics--flat and four-colored, looking a bit like Joe Kubert or Dick Ayers 60's war comics. It was no accident that these sequences (meshing the kids' "play" dialogue into something resembling the dialogue from such comics) had color that was comparatively more vibrant, but in no sense was it meant to be realistic. In a later scene where Dean is at the psychologist's office, he slips into fantasy mode, with the page drawn like Dean's a soldier being interrogated. As Dean relaxes and realizes that there's no threat here, the fantasy fades and we him going back to a more realistic view of the situation.

Dean felt trapped as a child, and the forest where he played represented freedom. The life of a soldier as he saw it in the forest was the ultimate form of liberation: living on your own wits and toughness, righting wrongs, performing tasks that meant something. Being punished for doing poorly in school didn't mean anything to him. What slowly started to change him was seeing images of the Holocaust in a library book; the images of dead bodies started to interfere even with his war fantasies. While that shifted his fantasies, it didn't change his desire for solitude and self-determination. That didn't change until the homeless man (who boasted about his freedom) revealed the devastating details of his miserable life. Dean was finally able to leave that fantasy behind after that as his parents rescued him from the forest and he came to see them, and his life, in a very different light. He understood that there was a thin line between freedom and alienation, and how easy it was to cross that line.

The whole sequence with the homeless man is heralded by a typically clever use of color. Right before that, Dean was out with his friends, having fun on Halloween. He was just a normal kid, and it felt good. This was highlighted by the use of brown in this scene. After he says goodbye to his friends, we suddenly shift to light blue, with only a slight red-brown in the sky as the sun sets. It's the only time in the book that colors are mixed on a non-fantasy page, and here we see the warm feelings represented by brown start to fade into the ominous blue of the night, panel by panel. It's a transition significant enough to make up the bulk of the book's cover.

The understanding that Dean's change in his self was apparent when we see him playing baseball and the color is back to that army-green. Chasing a long fly ball, Dean is faced with his fantasy forest again, probably for the first time. He's finally come to terms with what it represented to him, and he was literally able to turn his back to it and move on. This point is hammered home in the book's final sequence, where Dean's family has moved again. In brown tones, he meets some new kids and befriends them, telling them that army play is "kid's stuff". It's perhaps a bit too obvious a cue after so much subtlety in this book, the only wrong turn in a comic filled with so many right choices.

Blindspot rewards multiple readings as one begins to absorb and understand Pyle's use of color and the subtle shifts in the story's tone as a result. Rite-of-passage fiction is a genre that's been mined quite deeply, but Pyle's sensitivity, skill and cleverness make this book a uniquely rewarding experience. I would recommend it in particular to junior high school students, especially boys.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kid Lit: Enfant Books From Drawn & Quarterly

One critique of some of the Drawn & Quarterly reprints and repackaging of classic children's comics from John Stanley, Tove Jansson, etc is that they were neither fish nor fowl. They weren't presented in such a way that satisfied collectors obsessed with preserving details of the original publications, but they also weren't quite kid-friendly either. Young children like to be able to hold, carry and manipulate their own books, and the large collections made this difficult. The format of Francoise Mouly's superb Toon Books line has revolutionized comics for kids, merging the practical but pleasing format of the best of kid lit with some excellent comics aimed precisely at its target age levels. In Drawn & Quarterly's new Enfant line, they've addressed some of these issues and have a new format to fit some classic (if obscure to American audiences) comics.

The short comics stories of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking are done in roughly Dr. Seuss dimensions and format: a hardcover that's around 10" x 7". The comics were drawn by original series illustrator Ingrid Vang Nyman, and the stories are wonderfully anarchic. The Pippi books are still quite popular in their depiction of The Strongest Girl in the World, and these comics capture Pippi's essential charm as an adventurer who lives outside the law. She's a sort of one-girl Marx Brothers troupe in that she can baffle the authorities through mangling language like Chico, employ a series of rigorous physical gags like Harpo and frustrate & outsmart the well-heeled through fractured logic like Groucho. Pippi is a walking adventure who subverts every typical environment she happens to wander into, be it the circus or school. There's a delightful crudeness to Vang Nyman's line, a flatness and almost naive quality to her line that brings tremendous energy to the proceedings. Pippi's disdain for authority has an almost acidic quality coming from Lindgren; it reminds me a lot of John Stanley's take on Little Lulu.

D&Q continues to market the Tove Jansson Moomin comics with a new format. They initially published those comics in big hardcover editions--ideal for adults, but less so for littler hands. To address this, they're releasing a series of 6.5" x 8.5" editions that cover a single story. The two sent to me were MoominValley Turns Jungle and Moomin's Winter Follies. These are perfect storytelling objects. Even with no knowledge of the cast, Jansson is able to quickly catch a reader up to speed in introducing the world of the Moomins. Jansson's line is wonderfully smooth and clear and her character design is impeccable. The simplicity of her figures is set against the naturalistic structures and lushly-depicted nature scenes, adding depth and atmosphere to her stories. There's a deep, almost vicious satirical streak in her stories that's aimed at adults but can be understood by children as well. Winter Follies is all about gender relations and the ways in which women are sometimes attracted by men who are disinterested in them. It's also a commentary on men and the ways in which they need to prove their masculinity. At the same time, it's also a brutal satire of the Olympics and the mania that surrounds it, as the Moomins decide not to hibernate during winter and instead try to enjoy winter's beauty. When they are hijacked into participating in sports events by the aptly-named Mr Brisk, the book alternates between satirical digs and convoluted sight gags.

Jungle starts with a drought that turns into a jungle thanks to some magic seeds and a nighttime downpour. The story satirizes those that don the title of expert, as plants come to life and zoo animals are "invited" to come live there by a troublemaker. Jansson was an expert at slowly and systematically raising the stakes over the course of a narrative, repeating themes and then subverting them. The animals all initially set out to eat the Moomins until fate sees them all saved in turn, making them loyal. The real danger for the Moomins turns out to be the zookeepers, who declare them to be hippopotamuses and threaten to have them carried off to the zoo. Luckily, the arbitrariness of classification saves them, as two scientists arguing over whether something was an animal or plant the whole way through the book wind up convincing the zoo. Jansson makes sure to add a healthy dose of adventure to the book along with humor, making it appealing on a number of levels. Hopefully, this line will be a financial success, because I'd love to see more books like this.

Friday, December 7, 2012

New Comics And A New Kickstarter From Dan Archer

Dan Archer is a busy man. Behind Joe Sacco, he's probably the most adventurous comics journalist in the world. He's very much into social justice, human rights,  and bringing problems related to oppression, poverty, violence and general wrongdoing by both the state and big business to light. He's currently in Nepal, trying to gather funds for an incredibly ambitious project. He's interviewing survivors of human trafficking and experimenting with the plan of disseminating materials related to avoiding becoming a victim of human trafficking (in comics form). He's also going to document this experience in real time at his website, which is a comics journalism first. The money will go to travel, translators, supplies, etc. Please consider checking out his kickstarter fund.

Archer drew and co-wrote (with Adam Bessie) a series of stories related to the ill-named concept of "education reform" in the USA, which is mostly an excuse to privatize and exploit something best left in the realm of public goods.  the first story, "The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum", contains a number of the sort of striking and provocative images that Archer's come to be known for. He and Bessie also break issues down succinctly and with impact, outlining the ways in which Milton Friedman-style naked capitalism turns schools into a test-and-drill culture where any thought of learning is snuffed out. In "Murky Waters", Bessie & Archer discuss what is the free-market fantasy: a landscape where prior economic structures can be stripped away and replaced entirely by a free-market solution. That became the case in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where public school teachers were (illegally) fired and a network of charter schools were set up. Archer cleverly illustrates the debate between a local advocate and a Stanford free-market think tank member, depicting them rowing a boat in opposite directions in one panel. An interactive version of the comic includes links to a number of other sources, providing quick reference to claims made in the article. The third chapter, "The Finnish Alternative", details the ways in which a state that astutely supports the welfare of children as a public good can provide an educational system built on a model that encourages learning through doing and experience (things that lead to actual learning) rather than rote test-taking. These are well-reasoned but pointed comics that match graphic clarity with the power and complexity of its ideas. I especially like the way Archer uses color to catch the eye without it becoming garish, though lettering was a problem in some of the strips as Archer started to run out of room.

On a very different note, Archer did a comic for the National Parks Conservancy Trust about John Giles, a man who tried to escape from Alcatraz in Escape From Alcatraz: The Lone Wolf Breakout. This one plays to Archer's skills as a historian, researcher and documentarian rather than an activist or polemicist, and he's able to coolly lay out the facts while still providing a narrative that's quite tense. The story follows a jailed train robber and murderer known for being a jail-jumper who took advantage of the privileges afforded him thanks to good behavior and sheer luck to engineer an escape attempt. Working the laundry detail during World War II, Giles managed to slowly construct a uniform, ID and papers that he hoped would pass the eye test once he slipped out of his detail. Unfortunately for him, his absence was noted quite quickly and he was found out, but he was very close to freedom. Archer's art has never looked better than in this comic, as he was clearly stretching a different set of artistic muscles. In particular, there's a flair and level of detail in his facial depictions that I hadn't seen before, and he also takes full advantage of being able to use color.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Lower Regions, Bluefuzz

This article was originally published at in 2007.

An interesting new trend I've noticed is alt-comics cartoonists approaching some old-fashioned genre stories with a great deal of affection. The most familiar example of this sort of storytelling is the Lewis Trondheim/Joann Sfar Dungeon series. They manage to take the hoary old sword-and-sorcery fantasy epic (reflected back and towards Dungeons and Dragons in particular) and tell stories that both celebrate and poke fun at genre conventions. Best of all, they do it with a straight face, allowing the inherent ridiculousness of fantasy tropes (and our inherent familiarity with them) to carry the humor, all while relishing the opportunity to engage in this sort of storytelling.

Alex Robinson is best known for his slice-of-life storytelling in Box Office Poison and Tricked! Of course, anyone who's read his comics will find that they're littered with genre and pop-culture references. His friend Tim Krieder, an alt-weekly cartoonist best known for his political cartoons, talked to him about fighting through cartooning ruts. When he asked Robinson what he really wanted to draw, he noted that he'd love to draw a sword-and-sorcery story that had the feel of an old D&D adventure: hack and slash fights, trudging through a dungeon, meeting weird monsters, etc. In essence, the goal was pure cartooning fun.

With Lower Regions, Robinson did just that. This book is entirely straightforward: a female fighter armed with a battle-axe walks into an underground lair with a companion on some sort of quest, fights all sorts of nasty monsters, and eventually completes her journey. The fact that the title of the book is a double-entendre shows that Robinson is approaching the subject with a bit of whimsy, yet the story itself isn't a parody. There are moments of humor, like when the companion is fried by a giant, fire-breathing cat and is brought back to life with a healing potion--and then flattened by a huge barrel. The sense of humor here is not unlike a group of gamers at a table coming up with ridiculous solutions to scenarios the game-master is throwing at them. There's a lightness in this work that's very appealing, where one can sense Robinson really throwing himself into the work and come up with a compelling, kinetic and visceral story. The storytelling problems inherent in fantasy fiction are completely different than the usual ones he faces, and one can see him relishing a very different kind of challenge, entirely on his own terms. The end result is slight and even disposable (it doesn't beg for multiple readings), but it was obvious that Robinson wasn't going for a lasting Statement--he was going for fun. It was a pleasure to see him stretch his cartooning muscles a bit, and it'll be interesting to see if this has an impact on his upcoming projects.

Jesse Reklaw's one of the most clever cartoonists working today. From his alt-weekly dream comic Slow Wave to his innovative autobio minicomics, Reklaw excels at subverting expectations. He finds humor in serious situations, and can lace a seemingly light-hearted premise (like telling the story of all the cats his family has owned) with memories of bittersweet and even traumatic events. So it's no surprise that his take on D&D-type storytelling, Bluefuzz The Hero, is somehow both a straightforward adventure with lots of cool twists and turns and a sarcastic take on same.

While Reklaw approaches the fantasy genre with the same kind of affection and intimate knowledge that Robinson does, his storytelling decisions are entirely different. Robinson doesn't use dialogue, relying entirely on his art to carry the story and especially its humor. He uses a style that's relatively realistic, at least to those familiar with fantasy art. Reklaw mixes an omniscient narrator with dialogue, and employs a loose, sketchy style to get across his action. His character designs are stripped-down and silly, but don't step into cheap parody. Reklaw has the narrator tell the story of heroic Bluefuzz as though we were already familiar with his most famous exploits, and instead opts to present a behind-the-scenes look at his story. Instead of a single flowing narrative, Reklaw chooses to chop up his story into smaller segments, each announcing a different episode of Bluefuzz's grand adventure. Bluefuzz himself has a blobby blue tone with a fuzzy head--the very opposite of a typical, muscular sword 'n sorcery hero.

There are two things in particular that I love about this mini. The first is the sardonic but matter-of-fact narration, as though it were told by a stoner. The second are intermittent, full-color splash pages that aren't part of the narrative, but rather are illustrative of a single scene--much like in a D&D Monster Manual. Bluefuzz himself is the sort of "brick" hero so prevalent in fantasy stories, a well-meaning oaf who can't be stopped. I noted earlier that Reklaw excels at subverting expectations. In each adventure, things don't turn out as the reader would expect: Bluefuzz is an oaf who only becomes a hero after being drubbed out of town, and the eventual conclusion to his adventures is a series of anticlimaxes. Even his heroics are a bit off-kilter: in a two-page spread where his most "famous" adventures take place, one of them has Bluefuzz playing an electric guitar attached to an amp.

It's a testament to Reklaw's talent that even this bit of fluffy fun is packed with great ideas, clever visuals and a lot of laughs. Though he's been around comics for awhile, it seems like he's really been taking his work to another level in the past couple of years. I hope to see him really bust out with a long-form work in the near future, because he certainly has the chops to pull it off.