Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Rob Ullman, Stan Yan

This week's reviews are of material a bit lighter in tone than I've been reading recently. There's satire in the Harvey Kurtzman tradition with Stan Yan's THE WANG: WHO'S YOUR DADDY?  Also, I examine the breezy minicomics of Rob Ullman, which includes the sketchbook compilation TEENY BIKINI and the wordless romantic superhero comic THAT'S JUST SUPER (

Let's start with Stan Yan. This edition of THE WANG is the second graphic novel in a series, and so as a reader I was a bit in the dark regarding a number of the characters. Thankfully, a quick recap on the inside front flap along with the basic premise being easy to grasp made reading this fun. The introduction compares our hero (Eugene Wang) to Candide, which brought to mind a more modern version of the classic hapless innocent: Kurtzman & Will Elder's Goodman Beaver. Like Goodman Beaver, Eugene has only the best of intentions but not much spine and few wits, and he tends to wind up in situations that escalate in terms of his own humiliation and personal suffering. Yan's particular story interests revolve around humiliation in bed and in the workplace.

The story starts off with some heavy-handed attacks on business, the government, etc by one of Eugene's friends. Not knowing the character, it was difficult at first to tell what Yan was trying to accomplish here. Happily, the scene quickly changes to Eugene's ex-girlfriend (who dated his mom after they broke up!) fantasizing about a three-way with Eugene and his mom that disturbs even her. It was quite a jarring shift in tone and content, but that's what made the scene funny. From there, Eugene is derailed in his soul-draining job as a cold-call stockbroker despite his best attempts, attends a vapid sales motivational seminar, runs into fellow sales hustler Sue Ann Potts (who is even more clueless and helpless than he is) and tries to find out if his father (whom he's never met) was murdered. My favorite part of the book came when Eugene's ex-girlfriend (Kristin, aka "Chief") gives him a key to her apartment. This was done for one reason: if she's ever in an accident, he must come to her apartment and remove her vibrator before her parents come in and discover it.

Of course, this leads to the two of them getting into a car accident, and a gravely injured Kristin reminding Eugene of his oath. In the book's best sequence, Eugene (with a broken ankle and a bleeding tongue) walks across town, oath firmly planted in his head. Dragging his one foot and slurring his words, he scares a crowd who just got out of seeing "Dawn Of the Dead". The set-up, the timing and the ultimate (and multiple) payoffs of this sequence are fantastic. Not every gag clicks in this book, but this chapter builds on prior jokes and brings them to a head. The denoument of the book, where Eugene suspects that his mother may have killed his father, has its own share of pleasures and some genuine emotion.

The book is somewhere between gag book and and slice-of-life story. It reminds me a bit of what Terry Laban used to do in books like CUD and UNSUPERVISED EXISTENCE, and Yan's art even reminds me a bit of early Laban. The exaggerated characters and stylization remind me a bit of Bob Fingerman's MINIMUM WAGE stories, though Yan is not quite as accomplished an artist. At this point, I think Yan is a better writer than artist. I actually quite like his exaggerated caricatures: Eugene's absurdly long and out-of-place lock of hair, Kristin's grimness, his mother's gruesomeness. The problem is that his line is just too heavy at times. The comedy in some scenes is undercut by over-rendering and too much use of black. Some of the panel composition can be a bit cluttered, confusing some of the narrative at times. Fortunately, Yan's comic timing is unimpeded by these difficulties, and I'm quite curious to see how his style evolves. There aren't many artists employing Yan's brand of humor these days, and it's a welcome sight indeed.

Rob "Chappy" Ullman has long been one of my favorite artists in the minicomics scene. He's done autobiographical vignettes, stories about hockey players, slice of life comedy, and provocative sketchbooks. His clean line, expressive figures and solid storytelling skills make his work a pleasure to read. While not especially innovative either as an artist or a writer, Ullman can be depended upon for an enjoyable story that flows nicely and looks great.

Ullman is best known for his depiction of the female form. He manages to render a figure that's both realistic (unlike the vast majority of "good-girl" type artists) and appealling. He's sort of the king of minicomics pinups, and TEENY BIKINI is a great example. Straight out of his sketchbook, Ullman presents a variety of renderings of the female form. Some are finished and inked, and others are just pencils, but they're all expressive.

THAT'S JUST SUPER is equal parts superhero story and romance. That sort of story is a lot more common these days than they used to be, but Ullman really plays up the "romance" side of things here. What makes it clever is that it's a silent narrative, relying on Ullman's compositional skills to keep things flowing from panel to panel. The story is a simple one: a superheroine is at work when a monster attacks the city. A superhero that she has a crush on engages the monster, and she quickly changes to join him. The superhero ignores her and gets his ass kicked, but her ingenuity saves the day. However, the hero takes credit for her actions and rebuffs her totally. Crushed, she goes to a bar and gets drunk, and beats up some guys who see her as her alter ego on TV and make inappropriate comments. There's a cute finale that one can see coming, but it's still satisfying.

What makes it a fun read are the details. The action moves quickly and snappily, but my favorite panel is the aftermath of her bar fight. She gets kicked out with a wicked grin on her face, with one guy smashed into a TV and another with a pool cue shoved up his ass. My second favorite panel is when she gets home and regrets no longer being drunk; Ullman depicts this with her thinking of a bee flying out a window (the buzz is gone!). Every panel is loose and expressive, perfectly matching the subject matter.

Sometimes one likes to be challenged by a work, to engage it on its own terms and form an interpretation based on the text. Other times, one enjoys a work that allows a free and easy read. I think Ullman's greatest skill is creating compelling character portraits. Even in a wordless story, we get a nice sense of who the main character is. Ullman's only done one long-form work (GRAND GESTURES, from Alternative), but I'd like to see him do a more complex narrative that combines his expressiveness, use of character and impeccable design sense.

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