Friday, September 20, 2013

New Versions of Old Books: Steinke, Bagge, Lafler

Let's take a look at some new collections and volumes of comics that I reviewed in their previous forms.

Big Plans: The Collected Mini-Comics and More, by Aron Nels Steinke. I reviewed the bulk of the contents of this book here and here. This collection of Steinke's early work looks great in this collection, especially his more recent stories. The earliest work looks a lot more uneven, especially in terms of the character design. The static nature of his storytelling also continues to be a distraction at times. Later in the book, Steinke makes his style work for him, incorporating beautiful and detail-oriented drawings to accentuate elements of the story in an unobtrusive way. Steinke presents himself as a figure in a permanent sense of agitation in this book, even more than he expresses anger. Indeed, he frequently holds in his anger until long after the object of his fury is out of sight and earshot. Steinke's use of interstitial pieces from short stories effectively serves to give some breathing room to the other pieces, especially since they tend to be his funnier works.All told, this book just feels like a dedicated cartoonist's first book: filled with enthusiasm, errors and a clear path of development and evolution made in public. His more recent comics about teaching really seem to be the right path for him, as he's able to merge his childlike exuberance with an adult's sense of responsibility and duty. When he collects those strips, I think we'll begin to see the fully mature phase of Steinke's career.

Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me, by Peter Bagge. In my review of the first edition of Bagge's political strips from Reason magazine, I noted that the longer pieces were more thoughtful and interesting than some of the shorter and punchier single-page strips that lacked the even-handedness of the longer stories. In this revised edition, Bagge dropped a few of those shorter strips in favor of adding longer stories, and the result is an even stronger book. Bagge is a libertarian in terms of philosophy, but is quite willing to take on Libertarian party points of view. While many think of libertarians as being gun nuts or obsessed with legalizing drugs (two points of view that show how libertarians dip into both right and left-wing ideas), Bagge's story "Brown Peril" highlights another important libertarian ideal: free and unimpeded immigration. Bagge actually does the work of a reporter and goes on the scene to political events, in this case a hispanic, pro-immigration march in Seattle. Using his quick, merciless wit, Bagge skewers those who are opposed to free immigration and reveals it as another form of othering. "Shenanigans" sees Bagge talk about the ways in which the oldest trick in politics (intimidating voters at the voting booth) was in display in Seattle when the Republican party had a schism between the old-school Mitt Romney supporters and the younger Ron Paul backers. Bagge was diligent in writing about how the backers of the other GOP candidates were in on the freeze-out at first, until they realized the Romney camp pulled a double-cross on them. Bagge really lifts the lid on the garbage pail of politics here, revealing it to be every bit as petty as one might suspect.

On a different note, I thought "Caged Warmth" was amazing. Bagge assisted a group of women in a minimum-security prison stage a musical performance by helping out with the art. The stories he tells are heart-breaking, especially when he relates his own emotions upon hearing the spoken-word testimony of one woman whose drug addiction drove a wedge between her and her children. Bagge still manages to highlight the humor of the situation while skewering his own sense of guilt in not being able to help these women, who are desperate for a letter of recommendation, a job, anything, once they are released.

The best new story t is "I.M.P.", a short biography of maverick critic and writer Isabel Mary Paterson, whose ferocity and wit made her the terror of the New York literary scene in the 1920s and 1930s. At one point a friend of Ayn Rand and a woman who was constantly amazed by the rise of technology as a way of man establishing its dominance over nature and fate, Paterson was an entirely independent thinker who owed no allegiance to any political party or system. Bagge manages to capture the essence of the historical literary figures mentioned while still maintaining his exaggerated, curvy and rubbery line and smart-ass sense of delivery. Bagge also has a knack for writing with affection about those he admires while presenting them warts 'n all. Wrapping things up with a funny strip about his relationship with Ayn Rand's works, this new edition from Fantagraphics is tremendously satisfying, even if (and perhaps especially) if one is at odds with Bagge's political beliefs.

Menage a Bughouse, by Steve Lafler. Steve Lafler was one of my earliest subjects for High-Low some years back, as I took an extended look at his Bughouse trilogy. Comparing the small print size of those comics with some of the original pages published in his Buzzard anthology, it was obvious that the Top Shelf editions looked cramped and small by comparison. This latest collection of all the Bughouse comics finally restores the series to a size that befits Lafler's character design and trippy detail. This was one of my favorite comics of the last fifteen years and a fine synthesis of Lafler's explorations into psychedelia, pulp storytelling, the world of music and the act of creation itself. It's jammed full of excellent drawing, memorable characters and a lively, joyful storytelling tone.

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