Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Minicomics Round-Up: Krall, Turnbull, Viola, Ineke, Runkle, Jordan & Harada

Time for another look at a variety of minicomics that have been sent my way. Reviewed are RUNX TALES #2 by Matt Runkle; HERMAN THE MANATEE #1 & 2 by Jason Viola; THE SLEEP OF KINGS by Ibrahim Ineke; PRIZE #2 by Hawk Krall; INVASIVE EXOTICS #2 by Jack Turnbull; and MOULGER BAG DIGEST #2 by Rusty Jordan & Brent Harada.

RUNX TALES #2, by Matt Runkle. Runkle has a crude but expressive line, but these comics popped off the page because of his terrific design sense. In this large format comic (8.5 x 11), the standouts were "Nora Stories" and, oddly enough, a long essay on ranch dressing. With the former, Runkle's character design was key, especially with regard to the huge eyeglasses of the title character (they fairly overwhelmed her face) and the sleazy vagrant named Crow who somehow kept popping up in her life. Nora's exasperated but resigned body language was nicely related by Runkle, particularly in the way she looked exactly like a weirdo magnet--the sort of person freaks gravitate toward because they know they'll be tolerated. Runkle's comics essay on the virtues of ranch dressing leaned heavily on his use of white-on-black images and a clever use of fonts. Runkle was more than a little tongue-in-cheek in this essay, especially when he compared the dressing to semen and noted that many of the folks he waited on reacted to it much like a desired money-shot.

Runkle's own personal observations also had some amusing moments. "Wrestling With The Truth" was about his high school experiences as a wrestler, while dealing with the awkwardness of being gay in rural America. While that was the backdrop of the story, the meat of it dealt with what happened when he was thrown to the mat in practice and hit his head hard. He saw a vision where for a second, "it all made sense": a middle-aged woman, a ladder and other vague details. Runkle contrasting this to San Francisco goddess worship was hilarious, noting that this goddess was very much of her surroundings: "farm-hardened, sensible and the type that would hate new-agers". His story about a recently deceased friend of his was touching, funny and compelling, detailing the ways in which this trans friend embraced living. Runkle is a great cartoonist despite being a mediocre draftsman who plays to his strengths, understands how to compose a page, and focuses on his line expressing his sense of humor and point of view. The result is one of the more entertaining one-man anthologies I've read in quite some time.

HERMAN THE MANATEE, #1 & 2 by Jason Viola. At first glance, I thought this might be a series of cute strips about a manatee and worried that it might be a bit saccharine. Then I read the first strip and realized that it was about a manatee who was hit by a speedboat in strip after strip. It was the equivalent of reading a collection of PEANUTS wherein every strip featured Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. Varying the set-up to a situation with the same punchline every time is not easy, but Viola went through a lot of variations: flashing back to childhood, being deceived by god, playing Marco Polo, doing a Gorey pastiche, etc. By volume 2 of this mini, Viola started an extended narrative about the perils of having a protected pond, including being forced to pose for humiliating photos with tourists and being exploited for money. Viola is a good gagsmith with an appealing line who gets a lot of mileage out of being extremely cruel to his characters for no particular reason. Herman isn't punished because he deserves it; it's simply his fate to have his head hit by boats. While I can understand the difficulty of coming up with variations on a particular formula, I did think that Viola started to drift away from what made his strip successful when he went on to do the longer storyline. His attempts at satire were clumsy, but more problematic was that he was trying to turn Herman into a real protagonist. Sure, he still turned out to be a failure, but it still felt like an uneasy match of ambition and character. Herman is perhaps less like Charlie Brown (a sad-sack who is multidimensional) and more like Wile E Coyote, and the extended storyline felt like Viola was plopping him down into a story that didn't suit the character.

THE SLEEP OF KINGS, by Ibrahim Ineke. Ineke is a Dutch artist with a fine arts background who has recently started to move into comics work. His specialty is horror, but less an American sense of horror and more of a Japanese one. That is, the ideas presented and hinted at by the story are more awful than the standard American presentation of gore. There's also a bit of Lovecraft to be found here, in that evidence of something ancient & horrible is discovered with disastrous results. The story finds two boys playing sword and sorcery games in the woods. When one boy disappears for a bit, his friend finds him with his back to him, unresponsive--and surrounded by buzzing insects. What I liked about this story is that its horror takes place in broad daylight, with light and shadow cleverly deployed when an eclipse occurs. Ineke only hints at what's happening here: stones in a circle with some sort of mystic runes, and some type of demonic possession. All the reader needs to know is that both boys meet a terrible end in a story that moves leisurely but doesn't outstay its welcome.

Ineke's figures, especially in close-up, have a scribbly & energetic quality to them that made them come alive. Indeed, there's a spontaneity to his line that made reading this sort of story more entertaining than usual, given that I'm used to a certain slickness with American horror comics. There were some panels where he seemed to be losing a bit of control with regard to characters in motion (not surprising for someone from a fine arts background); panel-to-panel transitions as well as characters in relation to each other are things that I imagine he'll continue to improve on as he continues to draw comics. He's certainly an interesting artist, and I'll be curious to see how he would tackle a longer-form work.

PRIZE #2, by Hawk Krall. I first became aware of Krall's work in the pages of Danny Hellman's anthology TYPHON, with his "Summer of Seven-Eleven" story being a standout. PRIZE is a collection of shorter strips in three different categories: stories about working the graveyard shift at a 7-11, stories about living in squalid conditions with his art school roommates ("Living In Filth"), and tales from the kitchens of a big city ("Dirty Dish"). Krall's work is very much in the tradition of underground comics, with a particular focus on grotesque character design. Krall is a great yarn-spinner, especially when he zeroes in on the most sordid details. He plays up the absurdity of living with filthy roommates in a run-down apartment, of the frequently disgusting truth of working conditions in a kitchen, and the sort of people he encountered working in a convenience store. His ability to capture the characters he met and crystalize them in short order made strip after strip a hilarious experience.

Of the three different features, I thought "Dirty Dish" was the funniest and most original. They're presented as single-page strips, and it's a format that flatters Krall's style. Krall doesn't vary his line or panel composition much from strip to strip. With his longer stories, the reader is hammered in panel after panel by Krall's grotesque imagery, and the effect can be suffocating at times. "Dirty Dish" not only opens up the page a bit, it finds Krall concentrating on a single image or idea and playing that out. The strip also provides the reader a peek into the world of professional kitchens. Krall portrays it as an unrelenting series of hostile encounters, where the workers struggle to hold on to their sanity. He also made it seem like fun, at least in the sense that huddling in a foxhole develops camaraderie. Even in strips that seemed a bit cluttered, Krall's ability to escalate situations is the hallmark of his very sharp sense of comic timing.

INVASIVE EXOTICS #2, by Jack Turnbull. Turnbull's APOLLO ASTRO series of minicomics that he published before he went to art school positioned him high on my list of interesting young artists. His new series is a radical departure from those comics that clearly displayed his influences (Clowes, Ware & Tomine in particular) but still showed that his voice was one that needed to be heard. INVASIVE EXOTICS is a mash-up of a startling array of genres, including sci-fi, conspiracy fiction, psychedelic social satire, slice-of-life, and crime fiction. While not a direct influence, Matthew Thurber's 1-800-MICE is the closest point of comparison I can think of, though Turnbull's comic is not as tightly plotted or outrageous in its conceits.

Most stories involving satires of corporate America tend to fall flat, but Turnbull mutated an obvious visceral dislike of Coldstone Creamery (the one where the servers are forced to sing whenever they get a tip) into an over-the-top conspiracy story. I've always liked Turnbull's elongated character design, and the slightly bigfoot nature of his character design serves the story well. The villainous "Slimecold" CEO resembled a warped Bozo the Clown, with pointy hair that he used as corporate iconography. His scheme was to force out the residents of Brooklyn using a mutated form of killer ant that would cause them to flee, create gentrification and then provide the sort of Brooklyn where he could open up many more stores. He's opposed by a small cadre of eco-terrorist types, with the character of Jane Easewell being Turnbull's all-purpose satire of scientist-as-action hero. The first issue sees her go on a one-woman commando raid at a Slimecold lab in a sequence that's deadpan in its depiction but completely ridiculous. At the same time, there's a pastiche of slice-of-life romance going on in the backdrop that gets dramatically halted when the ant rampage story slams into it.

This comic is jam-packed with ideas, characters and crazy page layouts. At times I think it's too all over the place, as Turnbull seemed to want to draw every single idea he had had for the past several years in one series. The action scenes, while funny, didn't really work on their own visually because there's a lack of fluidity in the way he depicted motion. His figure-to-figure interactions also felt a bit stiff. The comics simply seemed rushed at times, with a slew of spelling errors and some cramped panels. That said, there was a lot to like in INVASIVE EXOTICS. Panels where you see ants who have been put to sleep with tiny little "zzz"s next to their head displayed just how loony Turnbull was getting here, while still positing the insects as a very real threat. Turnbull created caricatures that, while exaggerations, still have a lot of uncomfortable truths to them. This comic simply needs to be refined, edited and cleaned up; the energy, ideas and images are all there.

MOULGER BAG DIGEST #2, by Rusty Jordan & Brent Harada. This is a comic very much in the Fort Thunder tradition, with a big dose of Gary Panter. There is a kind of narrative at play here, on pages dominated by psychedelic character design that's mashed up much like a collage. The narrative involves ambling movements followed by utter stillness and a sense of characters constantly changing and pulsing into one another. What's surprising about this comic is the way my eye was able to latch on to the figures on the pages. Even the most jam-packed pages had a few images that seemed to pop out at the reader. I'm not sure what to make of this succession of images that combined figure and structure, other than I liked looking at it. It certainly felt like an object that was meant to be looked at more than read, especially given the oblique nature of its narrative.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Back to Zero (Zero): Mome #16

Rob reviews the 16th volume of Fantagraphics' flagship anthology, MOME, edited by Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth.

I had noted in my last review of MOME that it was starting to become a callback series to Fantagraphics anthologies of the past. In particular, we're starting to see more contributions from artists who submitted work to ZERO ZERO, a series that had some outstanding and unusual work from a variety of artists before getting canceled. This issue brought us new work from Archer Prewitt, Ted Stearn and Renee French. Prewitt contributed a "Funny Bunny" strip that was a bit more restrained than usual, but set the tone for the rest of the issue in terms of its raw, visceral qualities. There wasn't a lot that was delicate in this issue of MOME, and the few strips in that vein felt a bit out of place. The strips that stood out were either vicious, gritty or even borderline garish in presentation. Aesthetically, it made this issue of MOME different from the rest. Indeed, each of the issues post #10 or so have all stood out as individual statements, as opposed to the anthology's initial identity as an incubator for a select group of young talents. While that paradigm hasn't been in effect for quite some time, issue #16 felt like more like an issue of BUZZARD (a 90s anthology noted for weird juxtapositions) than any past issue of MOME.

For example, the Stearn piece (the first chapter of a graphic novel that will run in the anthology) was a classic Fuzz & Pluck story. The chicken and stuffed-bear duo are trapped on a boat, starving and antagonizing each other. When Pluck cuts off a bit of his own tail to use as bait, it leads to Fuzz nodding off and dreaming of a horrible scenario wherein Pluck keeps cutting off bits of himself and bleeding out, and Fuzz having all of his stuffing pulled out. It's a sequence that's simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, and added some gruesome laughs in a volume that mostly avoided that direction.

French's piece, also part one of a larger story, introduced us to a young boy living in a bizarre environment. With his sunken eyes and bowl haircut, he's a typically droopy and slightly grotesque French protagonist. This part of the story saw him walk to what appeared to be a cafe built into a giant, dead worm propped up on columns. He buys a poster that seems part-worm, part-mandala and ponders the existence of tendrils arising from water. No one is better at creating oblique environments that immediately shunt readers into new ways of seeing than French, and the first part of this story is no exception. She combined her usual fastidious, pointilist style with a looseness of line with regard to the character, giving him a sort of fragility not unlike her Edison Steelhead character from THE TICKING.

Todd Bak, in the second part of his epic storyline about Georg Steller, employed a similarly visceral storytelling style, with white on a black background helping to depict the desolate and hopeless Arctic landscape the explorer and his men found themselves in. The strip is part straight history (especially in the flashbacks), part philosophical musing and part mystical conflict with one's environment. Bak's comics are all about exploring environments that are at once beautiful, mysterious and relentlessly hostile. There's an interesting element of fatalism to them as well, as the characters feel inextricably drawn to their adventures, even when they know it could be their end.

The COLD HEAT strips, by Ben Jones, Frank Santoro and Jon Vermilyea, all leaned on the inscrutable side, forcing the reader to simply accept the images laid out before them and follow them as best as possible. The first strip, about a girl luring a jock to a sexual encounter with a demonic creature, keeps the audience off-balance by working entirely in shades of brown, pink and dark pink. When the jock is drugged, the way that pink and white were interspersed in the panels was dizzying, creating a desired hallucinatory effect. In the second strip, which is essentially a slice-of-life strip involving two aliens, the dullness of their daily life on a mission is juxtaposed against the garish colors of their environment. It feels alien, with the colors clashing so as to create dissonance for the reader. We're viewing someone's home, where they are comfortable--but the reader is made to feel decidedly uncomfortable.

That sense of discomfort can also be felt in the strips by Laura Park and Sara Edward-Corbett. Park tackles the horrific feeling of social anxiety in this strip head-on, as every encounter with anyone she meets winds up with her hearing the ways in which she is a failure, an asshole, an awful person. When it extends to her beloved pets and even animistically to objects in her apartment, she reveals that all she can hope to do is ride the feeling out. The blue-grey wash she used was a perfect way to illustrate these OCD & depressive thoughts. Edward-Corbett's contributions to date in MOME had been amusing but comparatively lightweight. This issue saw her submit some interesting autobiographical material from her childhood, recontextualizing her older strips about children. There's a coldness to her line that informs her strips that are about the ways in which children are cruel to each other, and that certainly held true for these matter-of-fact reminiscences. She simply presented a series of anecdotes that clearly held some meaning for her, but did so with no additional layering of sentiment. While both of these strips were comparatively restrained visually to the rest of the weirdness in this volume, they were no less visceral or harsh.

The three other color strips had different intents and effects. Conor o'Keefe did an extended take on his Winsor McCay riffs, deliberately attempting to evoke classic cartooning with the washed-out colors and simple line. His strips in MOME have mostly been a colorful contrast to other works, but they haven't really stood out until we got to see him flesh out his world a bit more in this issue. He also worked a bit bigger in this issue, with larger panels and bigger characters. He's not necessarily an artist whose work I turn to first when I read MOME, but he's occupying a very specific niche that works well when considering the issue as a whole.

Nate Neal has quietly been doing all sorts of interesting visually things during his tenure at MOME (his first strip in particular was a deconstruction of quotidian comics), and this issue found him creating a new sort of iconography for language. "Mindforkin'" was just that--a man thinking of various things he could do in a given day, the various events that could occur as a result of his actions, and his varied responses to those events. They are all told in a cartoony style that leaned heavily on color to provide mood and help the reader decode the symbology. The symbols he chose were not arbitrary; indeed, he created a language for this strip, and one can decipher bits and pieces of it both from repetition, a partial key on the first page and visual context.

Dash Shaw had the third color piece, a comic strip adaptation of an episode of the crassly comedic TV show Blind Date. That's a show that depicts a blind date and runs all sort of pop-up commentary along the way at the expense of the daters. Shaw took that formula, softened it with a sea-green wash, and stripped it of the snark. The result left only the pathos of the experience, with two people desperately looking for a connection but having vastly different ideas of what that connection might mean. That became especially clear at the end, when the woman is taken by the man, but he said he didn't feel a spark that he had vaguely defined earlier in the story. Shaw makes heavy use of shadow in this story, almost as if the reader is seeing the characters through a thick window. The effect is both distancing and yet strangely intimate, as though the reader was spying on a couple they cared about. This is a comparatively minor Shaw story in terms of scope and ambition, but it certainly fits into his recent interest in the use of color to drive narrative in different ways.

The stories that felt like odd fits were Nicolas Mahler's "Is This Art" and Lilli Carre's "It Was Too Hot To Sleep Indoors". Which is not to say that they weren't good stories, but rather that their presence here was jarring. That was especially true of Mahler's charming, minimalist story about being an cartoonist and having to prove to an IRS agent's satisfaction that this meant he was an artist. On the other hand, Carre's story was yet another home run in a series of home runs she's swatted as a cartoonist in the last couple of years. It's as though she and Shaw are in some kind of competition to become Most Exciting Young Artist, because the two of them love playing around with the language of comics, finding new and interesting ways to explore their themes of interest. In this issue, Carre's story is a quiet one about the yearning of a teenaged boy and the mysterious presence of an older girl hanging around him at some sort of beachside house. Carre's stories always have an element of mystery to them, as though there's a secret the reader is not quite privy to but we nonetheless experience during the course of the story. The mystery in this story was embodied in literally shedding skins due to sunburn, and the way we leave marks on others without understanding what we've done. The final image of a story done in greyscale is a striking one, with burnt-pink legs revealing the extent of a prank indicative of deep feelings.

One of the best things about MOME is that, as a reader, I feel like I'm getting work from each artist that's their "A" material. Carre' and Shaw have many other outlets for publication, but it's clear that they take a special delight in having an outlet for their short story ideas. Neal and Kurt Wolfgang have MOME as their primary outlet for publication, and clearly go all-out in every story. If early MOME had a flaw, it was that some of the artists were phoning in some of their contributions because they had so many irons in the fire. I'd like to see young artists like o'Keefe and Edward-Corbett grow more ambitious and perhaps even serialize a story in the anthology. Of course, seeing outstanding work from old favorites along with translated short stories of European artists has been another welcome trend for what continues to be a must-read book, issue after issue.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dream Team: Dungeon The Early Years, Volume 2

Rob reviews the second volume translation of the Dungeon: The Early Years, by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar and Christophe Blain (NBM).

Twenty-four volumes of the various DUNGEON books have been translated into English by the stalwarts at NBM, reprinted at smaller size in twelve editions. That leaves thirteen volumes still to be translated, with the Trondheim/Sfar team at this point writing the books and leaving the art to a variety of people. In addition to the three main storylines (Early Years, Zenith and Twilight), most of the untranslated volumes are in the miscellaneous "Monsters" category--stories that fill in cracks between other stories. Trondheim and Sfar love playing around with time jumping; indeed, in this translated edition, we go from volume -97 (of a lighthearted series that began at -99, reflecting the "early" notion of this story) to volume -84. That second story, "After The Rain", is a much more grim depiction of our hero, Hyacinthe, the future Dungeon keeper of the Zenith books.

One of my favorite trends in comics over the past five years has been the concerted effort made to translate Sfar and Trondheim's work into English and the way in which audiences have responded. Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics tried to do this a decade again with full-color translations of two books in the Lapinot (in English: McConey) series and then several issues of a Trondheim grab-bag series called THE NIMROD. The latter had some of Trondheim's best and most unusual work, but with the decline in the overall comics market and comics that didn't have any kind of genre-related hook, that series didn't do well. For the McConey books, it was proof that Americans just don't like the French album format. Those slice-of-life books were easily approachable and witty, but simply didn't draw readers in.

NBM took up the torch first with a black-and-white series that translated DUNGEON, ASTRONAUTS OF THE FUTURE and some McConey stories. With the rise of the graphic novel in bookstores and libraries, they switch over to smaller-format, full color translations, a strategy that has worked wonderfully. First Second came along and has translated close to a dozen works involving Trondheim or Sfar. Fantagraphics will be getting back in the game by finally publishing Trondheim's autobio classic APPROXIMATIVEMENT, most likely next year. There's still a ton of Trondheim work to be translated: VENETIAN BLIND, more LI'L SANTA, more TINY TYRANT, comics involving monsters & dinosaurs, and some more cutting-edge material. It's become clear that Trondheim & Sfar's genre material has found an audience, one that continues to grow.

A highlight of the Early Years story is the third member of this artistic dream team, Christophe Blain. With his SPEED ABATER, and ISAAC THE PIRATE books, he's proven himself as an artist who creates imaginative and exciting action scenarios. His art for DUNGEON combines the charming character design of Trondheim with a fluidity of movement that results in a work that's both funny and thrilling. Trondheim's art in the series was always better suited to more satirical stories (even when they were darker in tone), but with Blain we get the rush of adventure along with affectionate jabs at genre.

The first story in the volume, the aptly-titled "Innocence Lost", sees the ramifications of Hyacinthe's romantic dalliance with the serpentine assassin Alexandra. Manipulated into killing a man, Hyacinthe starts down a slippery slope from being a noble avenger of wrongs (as The Nightshirt) to a cynical aristocrat leading a double life as the head of the assassin's guild. Through it all, his real concern is his doomed romance, and this is another area where Blain truly excels. His GUS AND HIS GANG book was a similar mix of action and dead-end romance, and Blain was able to create pathos with a character who had been a mix of walking comic relief and hubris. The character's design, as a diminutive and cute anthropomorphic bird, made this especially challenging for Blain. By the end of the story, when we see Hyacinthe dress up in his Nightshirt outfit but see him visit Alexandra instead of going after criminals, it's clear that our protagonist has allowed his entire moral code to lapse for the sake of his love.

The second story is a much grimmer one and covers the eventual ramifications of his actions. Hyacinthe and Alexandra don't marry, and he keeps up appearances by marrying someone that his lover murders. As the story opens, the human price just paid for his double life suddenly become much clearer, and is complicated by a plot contrivance that forces him to deal with the woman he now both loves and hates. That contrivance (the potential destruction of the city thanks to faulty construction) is an entertaining side-story of its own, thanks to the almost robotic ruthlessness of Professor Cormor. He's the man trying to stop the construction who turns to Alexandra, who in turn agrees to help him if he'll help her get back with Hyacinthe. Things eventually go horribly awry, winding up with a downbeat ending that signals the beginning of what would become Hyacinthe's rule as the Dungeon Keeper.

This volume marked the first time I wished that NBM could have kept the larger page format. There are some spectacular action scenes that felt cramped shrunk down to a smaller size, and other pages crammed with panels that felt similarly claustrophobic. A lot of darker colors were used in this volume, which made those pages feel a bit muddy at times as well. In an ideal world, we'd get an "absolute edition" of DUNGEON on oversized pages and nice paper, but as a reader I'm grateful that we're getting this much Trondheim & Sfar in English. Trondheim and Sfar have taken the series into greatness by refusing to repeat themselves and have instead upped their degree of difficulty with ever-more complex plots and nuanced characterizations. DUNGEON has gone from being a bit of a lark to one of the greatest genre series of all time, affectionately spoofing and celebrating not just fantasy, but the investment of a reader into a world of fantasy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Embedded: Joe and Azat

Rob reviews the new book from Jesse Lonergan, JOE AND AZAT (NBM).

Jesse Lonergan's JOE AND AZAT occupies some unusual territory. Part of it is a slightly distanced account of a country under totalitarian rule like Guy Delisle's trio of Asian travelogues. Part of it features the sort of first-person reportage of someone who sought to become part of a community before telling its story, like Joe Sacco's work. There's certainly a sense of the sort of chaos and corruption that Ted Rall brings to the table in his comics. These are all important features of this story, but the real focus of the book is on a single relationship: the friendship between the narrator Joe and his Turkmen friend Azat. It's a friendship of remarkable tenderness on the part of both men, and this book seems like a tribute not only to that friendship but to the dreams Azat held so dear.

The book is "loosely based" on Lonergan's own Peace Corps experience in Turkmenistan after the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of the former SSRs fell under the influence of brutal strongmen, many of whom took their leadership cues from Caligula or Pol Pot. That bit of data quickly becomes a background detail of the book, along with the way daily life was often an ordeal. Part of the point of the book was the way Lonergan's stand-in Joe marveled at and struggled with the way Turkmen redefined logic and reality as a matter of course. Part of that craziness was the injection of the ideas of capitalism into a society that didn't have a lot of natural resources nor any understanding of how it worked after 70 years of socialist dictatorship.

Lonergan's line is decidedly unfussy and even cartoony. His figures are simple and expressive, and he varied the visuals through two strategies. First, he employed a variety of panel sizes and shapes, with the use of big circular panels to highlight drama, emotional tension or panoramic views. Second, he made extensive use of negative space both as a way of breaking up the page and creating transitions, as well as it being another method of heightening emotional tension. It's obvious that Lonergan really enjoyed drawing Turkmen characters, from their bulbous noses to their angular facial features to their complexions. Their easily-identifiable characteristics made them perfect for cartoon representation. Lonergan clearly contrasted the figure of Joe with the Turkmen, given that the character was blond, bespectacled and had sort of a weak chin. He was far from the ideal Hollywood American that the Turkmen imagined him to be, yet that was the way he was seen.

The synecdochic manner in which the Turkmen treated Joe spoke to the way that America represented something they desperately wanted to emulate without understanding how to do so. When the realization started to dawn that the Turkmen perhaps were not only not all going to be rich and famous like in the movies, but also in a sense left completely out of the cultural discourse, a sense of panic ensued. That sense of abjection, of being thrown down and marginalized, was embodied by Azat's brutish brother. He combined a sense of entitlement (riches and glory without work) and resentment of a lifestyle out of his grasp with a desperate sense of not just being left behind, but being forgotten. There's a funny but powerful scene at the end where Azat's brother punches Joe out at a wedding, and then embraces him when he learns that he's leaving, shouting "Remember me!"

Azat, on the other hand, is an inveterate optimist with boundless enthusiasm. For him, becoming friends with Joe was the equivalent of becoming friends with America. His approach was the opposite of his brother's--he didn't want Joe to do something for him, but rather wanted to present himself to Joe as a great ambassador for Turkmenistan. It wasn't fakery on his part, but a genuine desire to create a link between what he thought of as two great nations. His greatest fantasy was for Joe to fall in love with a Turkmen girl and remain in the country, their children growing up together as friends. That fantasy was due in part to Azat being forced to marry out of convenience instead of getting to marry the girl he loved. At least if he was with his friend Joe, he'd have some kind of love in his life.

Despite being the narrator, the character of Joe is very much a cypher. He wanted to experience another culture, but didn't want to do it as a tourist. At the same time, his desire for immersion had its limits, both in terms of involvement and time. He wanted an experience as part of the Peace Corps but not a conversion. Azat wanted Joe to want Turkmenistan to be his home, but Joe was only ever on a journey that had his own home waiting at the end. Beyond learning that he wanted a new experience, we learn little of Joe's desires or personality. He's entirely a reactive character, a reader surrogate who keeps people at a bit of a distance. There's a closeness that develops between Joe and Azat, but Joe knew their friendship had an expiration date in a way that Azat never wanted to admit. Lonergan's approach here is different from Sacco's in that his Joe character isn't simply there to collect the stories of other people, but to have his own experience and fulfill his own desires. The fact that these desires are presented rather superficially shifts the focus entirely to Azat as a protagonist.

Joe becomes, in some sense, the object of desire for both Azat and his brother. It was odd to read a story so heavily dependent on a single narrator that revealed so little about him, yet at the same time presented another culture to the reader through his eyes. It made the story resonate with tenderness yet still feel a bit cold and distant to the reader. Joe never really commits himself to the people who meets in Turkmenistan, and that lack of commitment on the part of the narrator led to a lack of connection to me as a reader. It's still a tremendously entertaining read, but it wound up perhaps being a bit breezier than the author might have intended. It's a fascinating book in a number of ways, flooding the reader with all sorts of visceral images, from the bazaars to eating to drink in huge crowds. What we are left with is a snapshot, not a fully formed and rounded image.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Joke's On Us: The Gigantic Robot

Rob reviews Tom Gauld's new book, THE GIGANTIC ROBOT (Buenaventura Press).

Tom Gauld's comics have often had the hallmark of juxtaposing frequently tiny, minimalist figures against vast backgrounds. His comics are frequently about futility and humanity's struggle for relevance as a cosmically absurd battle that can't be won. Gauld is best known for working small, with minicomics-sized entries for his stories that nonetheless focused on emphasizing small figures buffeted by forces stronger than they were. For THE GIGANTIC ROBOT, Gauld goes in the opposite direction, using an 8x10 format with image and text alternating on each page. That adds an extra layer of opposition to Gauld's narrative and creates a nasty comic tension that only escalates as the story unfolds and eventually collapses.

Gauld begins the book with the phrase "The war rages on.", but the facing page is almost completely blank, with only some rolling hills and a leafless tree providing any contrast to the all-engulfing white space on the page. In this comic, even the environment is insignificant in the face of the story. When we meet the people who convene for a secret project, they are minimalist even by Gauld's usual standard. They're little more than a few lines, slightly elongated. They're stretched out like a Giacometti sculpture, and their faceless nature certainly reflects the existentialist quality of the sculptor's work. They share that same hunched-over posture, the same long legs, the same sense of restlessness. They're walking and working, but to nowhere in particular and for no good reason, as we soon learn.

When the scientists create their gigantic robot superweapon, the first page upon which it's revealed sees the huge figure nearly fill up the entire page. This is where working big started to pay off for Gauld in this comic, selling the contrast between figures and environment. The robot is a huge Something, something big enough to fill a void. It represents a promise of action as an expression of pure will, a sense of mastery over others and the environment. Gauld then deflates the reader on the next page by revealing "The gigantic robot doesn't work." Here, the hunched nature of the scientists reveals their defeated and puzzled states as they try to figure out why their creation is immobile and one of its hands has fallen off.

Gauld then gets darker and darker as his joke gets sharper. The war ends, ending the need for the robot. The robot is no longer an expression of will but rather a monument to failure. We never even saw any evidence of the war, which made the peace insignificant. Each subsequent page features a heartbreaking image of decay as the robot falls apart further. Even as the reader is informed "Another war begins", getting up one's hopes that the rusting robot might eventually serve some purpose, Gauld pulls the rug out by finishing the sentence on the next page "and ends". He brutally finishes off any investment the reader had in this symbol of potential by simply having the narrator drift away, saying "Things happen elsewhere." and then cease altogether for the last two pages. Those pages saw the robot completely disintegrate and become part of the background.

The robot's fate is both tragic and comic. Its purpose was to be an engine of destruction, and it was not a bad thing that it never got off the ground in that respect. The robot was comic in that its creation and proportions were an act of defiance and almost hubris that was smacked down before it (and its creators) had a chance to exercise any kind of will to power. Ultimately, the secret weapon was abandoned by its creators and destroyed by the passage of time and the elements. It's a suggestion that no weapon of man could ever be as destructive as nature itself. Going a step further, Gauld suggests that any creation is doomed to eventual irrelevance and decrepitude. That said, Gauld in many of his comics has saved special venom for those projects of man's that glorify vanity, brutality and sheer vulgarity over beauty & self-expression, and this book is his most savage indictment of those former qualities. In THE GIGANTIC ROBOT, Gauld has created a beautiful-looking book about ugliness that is almost meta in the self-indulgence of the format. The simplicity of his line and the huge amounts of negative space he used in this book act as a sort of self-parody in parallel to the hubris of the scientists we see from a distance. In the end, the scientists no doubt went on to build some other pointless device in an effort to stop thinking about the fact that everything they will ever create will fade into oblivion--just like they will.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Inner Lives: The Mourning Star, volume 2

Rob reviews the second volume of Kazimir Strzepek's post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic, THE MOURNING STAR (Bodega Distribution).

Kaz Strzepek's MOURNING STAR series provides a number of visceral thrills and and an opportunity for readers to explore a carefully designed world. However, there are any number of genre comics that do much the same thing that aren't nearly as compelling. Speaking to him at SPX and trying to get a sense of his influences, he revealed that Megan Kelso's ARTICHOKE TALES (first seen years ago in the legendary NON #5 and soon to be published in its complete form by Fantagraphics) was the single biggest influence on this story. In particular, he was impressed that Kelso's clear line and cute character design could be used to tell a story that was in turns grim, romantic and thrilling. While he indeed took up those cues from Kelso for his story, he also picked up another element: creating a compelling inner life for every single character, be they hero or villain.

For example, volume 2 of the series of books opens up with what turns out to be an extended reverie by a character who was seriously injured in a fight with a bizarre assassin. The character is part of the Rule (the brutal, thuggish villains of the story), yet is treated as just another kind of protagonist by Strzepek. What was remarkable about this sequence (which was a callback to a tossed-off line in the first volume) was that it not only provided thrills and key plot information, it made the reader genuinely feel for the maimed guard. The sequence also took us on a tour of the daily lives of a group of thugs: they see themselves as the bold protagonists of a new world where force is the only currency. They're still capable of tenderness (the relationship between the chief lieutenant and his pregnant wife stood out), but crossing the line of murder and pillaging forces them into a permanent state of dissociation. It pushes them to create a rigidly-defined set of us-and-them, one where the Other is an object fit only for subjugation or murder. The sequence doesn't exactly make us sympathize with the Rule characters, but certainly makes the reader understand their point of view. It's life in theHobbesian state of nature: nasty, brutish and short.

The rest of the book finds Strzepek slowly tightening the varied character threads, getting the disparate protagonists in deeper trouble while pulling them toward the same place. The way that Strzepek creates not just scenes, but densely-packed environments, invites comparison to two other key influences: Brian Ralph and Mat Brinkman. Ralph has always preferred to let his environment dominate his narratives, engulfing the one or two protagonists who have to confront it. Brinkman goes even further with the way his characters and their environment don't have much of a sense of separation between them, with only constant movement differentiating the two. We never get a sense of the inner lives or motivations of their characters beyond simple survival and/or curiosity. With Strzepek, the characters drive everything with a complex set of motivations. Throughout the story, Strzepek creates lulls that allow for exploration of those desires, often in surprising ways.

For example, the dream-eating ghost-like character that has a symbiotic relationship with one of the heroes gets separated from his friends and winds up having his own set of adventures with others of his kind. Stzepek whisks the reader along on this diversion, having long imparted to the reader that he was in no hurry to get from point a to point b plotwise. These side adventures add a richness to the overall story that fits in well with Strzepek's sense of humor. In the style of Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar's DUNGEON series, Strzepek keeps things light with his dialogue even when the world he created is a grim one. That balance is perfectly struck with the character of the nameless Snipper-sniper, a deadly mercenary assassin who's almost impossible to kill. This particular character has amnesia, so he spends much of his time bumbling around until something challenges him to a fight, which he inevitably wins with a mix of brutality and comic timing.

There are quests in THE MOURNING STAR, but not a Quest, per se. The reader slowly starts to learn a bit more about what really happened to their decimated world, a plot point that is deliberately shrouded in mystery. The quests introduced are small: finding a lost loved one, finding a new place to live, recovering one's memory, climbing a brutal social order. We get hints of an overarching plot in this issue when we meet a group of rebels seeking to assassinate the mysterious leader of the Rule, but Strzepek never lets that interfere with having the reader concentrate on a succession of moments.

Visually, Strzepek creates a set of characters with cute features: simply designed faces, pointy ears and stumpy bodies. Like Trondheim, it makes the violence they engage in simultaneously shocking and hilarious. Strzepek adds a layer of dust and grime to his characters and their world befitting its status as wreaked by war and chaos. He alternates all-black background bleeds with all-white ones, sometimes doing so as to establish time of day and sometimes doing so as to establish mood. He favors a lot of small panels with close-up shots, creating a world that feels a bit claustrophobic. He never overloads panels with unnecessary detail, instead allowing the eye to fly across the page with his breezy dialogue or frenetic (but clearly-presented) fight scenes. That's due in part to the clever simplicity of his character design and disciplined use of spotting blacks. THE MOURNING STAR may owe a debt of inspiration to a number of sources, but Strzepek has succeeded in creating something that feels like an exemplar of a new, intelligent sort of genre comic instead of a simple knock-off.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pride and Prejudice: Aya--The Secrets Come Out

Rob reviews the latest volume of AYA, subtitled THE SECRETS COME OUT, by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (Drawn and Quarterly).

Some have compared the interactions of the cast in the AYA books to soap opera, and there are certainly some of those elements in the story. A better comparison might be an extended comedy of manners, much like a Jane Austen book. Indeed, the action in the AYA books, set circa 1980 in the Ivory Coast, depends mostly on the clash between new and old sets of cultural & gender expectations. Men behave badly and vainly try to relive their youths by taking lovers and trying to take on additional wives, but the women in their lives flex their own power. The younger women try to negotiate the lies that young men tell them while dreaming of a way out of small-town life. The gulf between children and adults is sometimes bridged in surprising ways while being broken irreparably in others. Pride becomes an impediment to intimacy, while prejudice emerges with regard to the very surprising reveal of one particular romantic entanglement. Through it all, the character of Aya is a level-headed heroine who navigates the craziness of her family, friends and village while always looking to her own figure.

What's fascinating about this book is the way it fully embraces the cultural specificity of the Ivory Coast during this period (years before civil war and deprivation struck the country) while making the characters and their situations relatable to anyone. There's almost a visceral quality to Aya's Yop City environment that Abouet relates in terms of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and temperatures. Oubrerie channels a bit of Joann Sfar in his work, both in terms of the expressiveness of his figures and the vivid use of color. Color is a crucial storytelling element in this book, especially with regard to the brightness of the characters' clothes and how that figures into identity.

The Aya books have character threads that cohere into a story, but not much of a master plot. In this volume, for example, the book revolves around a "Miss Yop City" beauty pageant that concludes about halfway through the book. The story's really about the desires of every character and how that leads to conflict when the secrets concealing their desires emerge. A young, single mother dreams of having her own restaurant. A hapless young man wishing to please his overly demanding father overhears him speaking ill of him and is crushed. A young woman dreaming of life in France puts perhaps a bit too much of her trust in a scheming lothario. A young man desperately wants to be able to love openly and will even leave the country to do so, hoping his lover will come with him. The lover of Aya's father gets fed up with a lack of attention for herself and the children she had with him, and exposes their affair to his wife.

Abouet tells these stories with a remarkably light touch, one that's matched by Oubrerie's cartoony style. No matter the difficulty or conflict, there's a way to deal with it. Aya really is an Austen-style heroine in that she takes it upon herself to inject herself into all sorts of problems of others--when they're not directly barking up her tree to do so. She's come to terms with that role, even as it interferes with her desire to be an intellectual. Indeed, her affection is boundless for those characters with the least means--both intellectually and financially. That's especially true of the family maid (one of the most vivid characters in the book) and a badly uneducated and gentle mechanic. She doesn't seek to dominate their lives, but rather gives them an opportunity to develop their own sense of agency and express their voices.

Aya has a bit of pride and stubbornness herself, but Abouet generally writes her as having the fewest foibles of any of the Ivorians we meet. I think this is partly because she's a gateway character to everyone else we are introduced to and partly because she's acting as a stand-in for the author. Abouet can't help but throw in a childhood recollection of seeing a child psychologist in France and then turning it around to how insanity is seen in Africa. She also has a couple of character relate recipes in an appendix, further adding a sense of longing for tastes and smells of a particular region.

While the AYA books are a celebration of a particular culture at a particular time, they are also a gift to non-African audiences. The delicate web of family and city is one that's more tightly woven than in most english-speaking cultures, for example. The small-town nature of Yop City is both a comfort and an occasional sense of frustration, especially for the young. Everyone is aware of everyone else's business, and there are societal obligations that can be as annoying as they are important. Abouet doesn't overly romanticize tradition and in fact takes the more sexist aspects of customs to task in this book. At the same time, Abouet is forgiving of even the most ridiculous of her characters and portrays them all as people simply trying to find a way to be happy. They may well get roundly chastised and publicly exposed, but it's more a matter of family squabbling than unforgivable offense. The pleasures are small in this slice-of-life series and not surprising, but it's the way they're woven together that makes each volume so satisfying.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

20 Years And Counting: New Minis from Henderson, Porcellino and Reklaw

Three of comics' mainstays from the 80s continue to go strong in publishing their work. John Porcellino just celebrated the 20th anniversary of KING-CAT, Jesse Reklaw publishes in every form of media imaginable, and Sam Henderson is looking for a new publisher with the slowdown at Alternative Comics. Let's take a look at three of their most recent minicomics.

TEN THOUSAND THINGS TO DO #5, by Jesse Reklaw. This is the penultimate collection of Reklaw's flickr-based diary comic. In going over quotidian details like meals and sleep time, Reklaw gave himself a structure so as to express feelings he had difficulty expressing in his day-to-day life. This is even more explicit in his COUCH TAG autobio comics, but the day-to-day measure of things like how much pain various parts of his body were contrasted with his impish, joking nature. One senses that his reporting on his pain was an organic decision, something that just grew out of his goal to have a daily diary comic. This issue found him trying to relax, going on a Hawaiian vacation to see his girlfriend's family and having fun with his mother and younger brothers on a visit to see him. As always, Reklaw worked with a four-panel grid, occasionally breaking his pattern to solve a particular storytelling problem. There's a sense that Reklaw simply didn't want to settle for just a standard accounting of his daily activities, and made a point of relating at least one funny anecdote, one moment with his girlfriend (though never any sort of explicitly emotionally revealing details), one moment with his cats or one moment with his friends. It's a distillation of his day, one where it seems that he feels a duty to his audience to entertain them, but also a duty to himself to get across some kind of emotional truth. It's his skill as an entertainer that makes each strip so dense and compulsively readable, but it's a tribute to his own honesty that he tries to relate something more.

KING-CAT #70, by John Porcellino. Porcellino's 20th anniversary issue is another moving collection of lyrical short stories, pithy anecdotes, gags about cats and emotionally intense memories. Porcellino's minimalist line is poetic, abstracting image as much as his zen koan-influenced text does the same to language. What separates Porcellino's work from other autobio cartoonists (including his many imitators) is the way he grapples with life so directly. That's both in terms of the way he addresses his battle with depression and despair, as well as the manner in which he engages his environment and finds small joys. "Meds" is a good example of this, as he opaquely refers to being in therapy, the process of waiting to get a prescription--and the nervous process after "I put the bottle on the shelf. I waited..."

Porcellino still manages to mine interesting stories from his youth. "(Do The) Pete Duncan" related a time when he and a friend used his dad's office after hours to make photocopies of their zine and a night when they got caught when the machine kept jamming. The incident was less important than their friends' recollection of the incident and the way they kept it alive as an inside joke, even recording a song about it. "Ruby Hill" comes at a memory in a different manner, as he looked out over at Denver, noting "The sky was up/The Earth was down/The last thing of which I was ever certain". The simplicity of his line added to its effectiveness, down to using the principle of the Golden Triangle in every panel to construct an image that drew the eye to its key elements, maximizing its emotional impact. "Wisdom Teeth" plays a memory strictly for laughs, making rare use of funny drawings. This comic is filled with shorter stories that span a life's worth of memories, making it an especially fine issue for those looking for an entry into his work.

MAGIC WHISTLE #11 1/2, by Sam Henderson. Henderson is on the short list of comics' greatest humorists, but hasn't received a lot of attention in recent years. Hardly anyone seemed to make mention of the most recent big issue of MAGIC WHISTLE #11, which came out last year. Henderson is funnier than ever, crafting astonishingly convoluted stories that are funny on several different levels: as funny drawings, as gags, as absurdist statements and as meta-humor. He and Michael Kupperman are geniuses at deconstructing humor, simultaneously telling a joke and mining further humor from even the silliest of gags by breaking it down. This mini featured a number of single-panel gags, like a man on a cross saying "The thing I miss most is sex with animals", a man holding some snotty cats who exclaimed "I've got to stop blowing my nose with cats!" and a flowchart called "Your Mind At Work" that followed the thought processes of a man who just stepped on a tack. While his gag work is solid, Henderson tends to shine most with his longer stories. This issue's "Fucking With Jasper" is such an entry, a shaggy dog story about a guy who has to stay by his telephone and the friends who keep upping the ante in how they annoy him. The ridiculousness of their actions was funny enough (including their utter lack of motive), but the defenselessness of the main character was even funnier--including a punchline that featured the passive guy mustering up a tiny bit of anger.

What separates Henderson from other humorists is that he's a conceptualist with a style of art that is funny-looking but crude enough to be off-putting to some audiences. I find the simplicity of his drawings, all in service to gags, to be beautiful and strange. The way he arranges eyes on heads (paired together on the same side of the face ala Picasso), the funny lumpiness of his unclothed bodies, and the slightly grotesque shape of faces and figures gives Henderson's comics a distinctive feel. He's a cartoonist in the tradition of James Thurber, with a deceptively crude line that anyone can latch onto. Henderson is an artist best suited for periodicals, but given the current market this obviously isn't a viable option. The next best thing for him would be a thick collection of his comics, perhaps printed on coarse, thick paper. A collection that simply reprinted the best of his longer stories, or at least sectioned off single page gags from the longer stories, would be an incredible volume.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Two Takes On Manhwa: Mijeong and The Color Of Earth

Rob reviews two notable manhwa (Korean manga) releases, MIJEONG by Byun Byung-Jun (NBM ComicsLit) and THE COLOR OF EARTH by Dong Hwa Kim (First Second).

Regular readers of this column may note a huge gap in a particular area: manga. This is for three reasons: 1) Typical manga has a slickness to it that makes it difficult for me to engage; 2) Typical manga tends to be genre material of a nature that doesn't interest me; 3) There are many, many other writers out there to tackle this sort of material. That said, there's a growing wave of alt-comics manga out there that have started to get english translations, and I will be addressing a number of those. In this column, I'll take a look at two manhwa, or Korean manga. Kim Dong Hwa's THE COLOR OF EARTH and Byun Byung-Jun's MIJEONG couldn't be any less alike in terms of story, even if they do share certain structural similarities.

THE COLOR OF EARTH is the first entry of a trilogy about a young girl's burgeoning sexuality and her widowed mother's reawakening sexuality. This 300-page book is told at a leisurely pace and is as much about the environment as it is about the characters. The design of the book is gorgeous, printed on coarse & uneven paper. Kim's figures are all in a clear-line style with simplistic & exaggerated facial expressions (the eyes being the most expressive), but uses an intensely naturalistic style with buildings (down to the most minute whorls in wood) and the countryside. What makes this book work is the page-to-page composition and the way Kim arranges his characters against the backgrounds with the reader feeling distracted by either. He creates a rock-solid structure in every panel in the way characters interact with each other and their environment.

And by "structure", I mean that almost literally. The way the characters are arranged against their environment forms a "golden section" in nearly every panel, balancing character and background, no matter how differently the two are drawn. The solidity of each page allows Kim to give his book a wistful quality that allows him to stretch otherwise thin plot points across the duration of the book. There's nothing revelatory about the book's subject matter or his treatment of it, other than giving it a slightly feminist bent. It's a book about young love, romance nurtured and delayed and the delicate balance between the sexes. The extended metaphor equating sex and flowers is startlingly obvious, but the characters themselves are quite aware of this, choosing to avoid the subject in a genteel fashion. The book is based on the experiences of the author's mother, and as such there's a certain sense of nostalgia for a simpler time and reveling in the roundabout ways romance was expressed. At the same time, Kim didn't ignore the baser aspects of desire either, mixing crude sex talk with starry-eyed romantic talk. I didn't feel much of a need to read the other volumes in the series; I get the sense that it will be more of the same. THE COLOR OF EARTH is a beautifully told, if entirely conventional, story. While the wisp-thin story faded from memory shortly after completion, many images still lingered.

If THE COLOR OF EARTH has a sentimental, traditional tinge to it, Byun Byung-Jun's MIJEONG feels distinctly modern (and even Western) by contrast. Byun is a stunning draftsman and character designer, but one got a sense of restlessness from this collection of stories. His previous book had been in a far cartoonier style, and MIJEONG seemed in some sense to be his attempt to prove to himself that he could work in any style. The restlessness of the artist did match up well with the restlessness of the characters, even if the intensity of his style made the emotions depicted on the page a bit too on-the-nose at times. Byun excelled in the few stories that had a humorous aspect to them, like "202, Villa Sinil", a story about a guy whose powers, unbeknownst to him, were inadvertently killing and maiming public figures. The climax of the story, where he accidentally destroys the earth, was one-upped by the Twilight Zone finale. Even if one could see it coming, it was still a funny capper. "Utility" mined an even darker vein of humor, as a group of children debated the best course of action after finding that a sibling committed suicide. Their worries about shame outweighing actual emotion and later confusion after being found out were slyly portrayed, and the scene where the parents walked in was hilariously executed.

The first story in the book was influenced by the film Wings of Desire, as we see an angel forlornly rescue a girl while ruminating over his own fate. For an artist of his considerable skill, Byun tends to overwrite his scenes a bit instead of letting the images tell more of the story. "Yeon-Du, Seventeen Years Old", is a considerably more ambiguous and rewarding story, about a traumatized young girl who kills a potential abuser and a desperate old man who knew her from her youth. It's the most visually restrained story in the book and one that plants visual clues that bear fruit later in the story. In "A Song For You", Byun goes to the trauma/sexual assault well one too many times, and the tortured use of watercolor to express emotion made the story almost unbearable. On the other hand, Byun sends himself up with "Courage, Grandpa", yet another story involving the assault of a young girl. This time, she was rescued by a young man that she eventually tracked down, much to the chagrin of a scenery-chewing cat that loved her.
Some of these stories have the feeling a Neil Gaiman or Jamie Delano-written Vertigo comic, as drawn by Steve Bissette or Dave McKean. Those tendencies are balanced by his own training and traditions, with the same sort of rock-solid structure on each page. There's a weird sense of idealization of women in this book as vulnerable, mysterious and ultimately tragic, even as he portrays men as pathetic, predatory and small-minded. This book felt like an author trying to shake something loose in himself and looking to a different set of influences and styles. This book distinguishes itself from THE COLOR OF EARTH in that it is modern, urban and squalid. Tradition had been long forgotten and animal urges threatened to destroy delicate beauty. Byun perhaps overplayed this point at times in this collection, but MIJEONG did act as an acidic counter to the other book's treacly qualities. Byun is certainly an artist whose work I'd like to see more of.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Art of Editing: An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories Volume 2

Rob reviews the Ivan Brunetti-edited AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS AND TRUE STORIES, Volume 2 (Yale University Press).

I've had a copy of Ivan Brunetti's AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS AND TRUE STORIES, Volume 2 (henceforth to be referred to as ANTHOLOGY 2) for a year now and have had trouble finding the right approach on how best to review it. Given the complexity of connections in the first volume, I thought that I'd carefully write notes after reading each entry. Then I thought it might be best to re-read the first volume. After several abortive attempts at doing both, I reread the introduction of ANTHOLOGY 2 and finally realized that all of these efforts ran counter to the spirit with which the book was created. Thus, I set about simply reading the book as quickly as possible, letting the connections and juxtapositions of each story register without slowing down or analyzing them too closely during this process.

The result from this approach was the experience of a book that, despite having no material in it from the editor, was as intensely personal as any of his own comics. There was a certain burden in the first volume of the anthology to put in certain well-known stories from well-known cartoonists. In a sense, that volume mirrored Brunetti's own course on cartooning: starting from single-panel comics & mark-making and working up to increasingly more complex narratives. While not making a value judgment on what type of expression was "better" or more sophisticated, there was clearly a progression of at least technique and complexity of form, one that any reader could follow.

This volume also had its own set of progressions, but they are more idiosyncratic and personal. Brunetti himself described it as a family album of sorts, and this concept was concretized as Brunetti juxtaposed older strips against newer works, creating a richer context for both. The first volume of the anthology had an extended tribute to Charles Schulz, the most popular cartoonist of the 20th century. That tribute was especially interesting because of the way Schulz affected so many different kinds of cartoonists, a fact that would be especially revelatory for the casual reader of comics. Everyone knows Peanuts; not every reader perhaps has a deep understanding of the elements of the strip that inspired so many. ANTHOLOGY 2 has an extended tribute to Harvey Kurtzman, a figure far more obscure for the casual reader, yet much more influential for several generations of cartoonists than Schulz.

Brunetti's introduction is brief and lays out several crucial pieces of information for those who might wonder why and how the contents of the anthology were selected. In addition to noting that his choices were personal, reflecting his own idiosyncrasies, he makes a clever comparison between comics and family. That metaphor allows him to note that he couldn't include all the "far-flung and distant relatives" (the most experimental comics), and that some would be "prohibitively expensive to fly in" (corporately owned comics that were nonetheless of interest) or "would not attend the sitting" (those artists who simply refused to have their material printed in the anthology). Brunetti also clearly expressed what drove him to make his choices: "formal experimentation, uncompromised subject matter, uniquely expressed mood, deeply felt theme, inventive drawing or sheer craft". Not every comic in the anthology necessarily had all of these traits, but knowing this ahead of time was an aid in understanding the way that Brunetti chose to link each entry. The Saul Steinberg cartoon, depicting each member of a family being drawn in a radically different style, was the perfect springboard for describing what Brunetti was attempting here.

Brunetti deliberately eschewed hard-and-fast categorization and sectioning in this volume. How and why the comics were sequenced was left not so much as an exercise for the reader, but rather as an opportunity to make connections on one's own. It allows the reader to let the works reveal themselves to them. While it is true that the most important references for any particular piece were the stories immediately preceding and following them, I thought there were some rougher groupings that tended to reveal themselves only after finishing a section and seeing a significant shift. As such, there were roughly nine different groupings to my eye in this 400-page tome.

The first section was from pages 1-47 and served as an introduction and ode to a number of classic cartoon tropes: funny animals, superheroes, gag work, and horror. Sammy Harkham's strip "Napolean!" was a great starter strip, given the way it addressed a chief concern of the cartoonist (iconic vs representational work) and turned it on its head when it's Napolean Bonaparte who's tackling this problem on a battlefield. Indeed, this whole section serves as both tribute and subversion of familiar cartoon imagery. Chris Ware's intricate gag work made for a nice connection, given the downbeat nature and innovative page design of his jokes. Going from his God/Superman strip to R.Sikoryak's hilarious "Action Camus" Superman/lit mash-up was an inspired choice. Michael Kupperman's deliberately stilted art style that recalled older comics for absurd effect is cleverly paired with Drew Friedman's ultra-realistic but grotesque figures. The fatalism of that strip made for a natural partner with Mark Beyer's crude "Messenger of Death" comic. In turn, themes of death, the afterlife and desire find a partner with Kaz's "The Tragedy of Satan". It's a spin on the devil as a sympathetic figure of sorts, forever denied his only desire in Kaz's trademark cartoony & feverish line. From there, it's short takes on horror (body horror especially, as detailed by Jayr Pulga and Renee French), deviltry (Mack White's deadpan nude nun/satyr story) and mystical experiences (Kim Deitch's Al Ledicker strip). The section ends after a series of grisly funny animal strips, the last one from an anonymous cartoonist.

These strips were all from contemporary cartoonists, and the way they subverted expectations naturally led one to ask for further sources of inspiration. That led to the Kurtzman tribute section, which made sense when one considers the deep impact he had both on popular culture and the underground cartoonists. MAD planted the seed of satire and questioning popular ideas in several generations, turning cliches and familiar tropes on their heads in ways no one had seen before. That opened the door for the underground generation and total, uncensored free expression.

While Brunetti obviously celebrates and showcases his influence in this volume, he also makes the case that Kurtzman was very much part of a continuum of cartoonists, as he included strips from Harry Tuthill, Milt Gross and Bill Holman that showed the debt owed to them by Kurtzman. After running a few early Kurtzman strips (nothing from MAD, alas, other than a classic Basil Wolverton cover), the reader is treated to twin tributes from Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. Those two artists couldn't be any more different aesthetically (as their editorships of WEIRDO and RAW, respectively, demonstrated), yet both cited Kurtzman as a primary influence.

Spiegelman's piece made for a smooth segue to a section devoted to comics formalism and the act of creation. Beginning with Spiegelman's most visually stunning work, "The Malpractice Suite", this section is all about different ways of approaching the comics page and understanding the medium. Comparing Spiegelman's "Dead Dick" to the fine artist Jess' "Tricky Cad" (which is in the Hirshhorn Museum) is interesting as a point of reference, given that Jess years earlier had done a painting that was a mash-up of Dick Tracy before Spiegelman used an even more surreal approach in his strip to make meaning elusive. From there, we get the comics-as-poetry of John Hankiewicz, a mixture of John Stanleyesque cartooning and naturalism from Tim Hensley, a play on "The Plot Thickens" by Bill Griffith wherein panels become smaller and smaller as the story becomes denser, and some stunning visual experiments from Richard McGuire and Gilbert Hernandez. From there, we turn to Jim Woodring's "Particular Mind", one of his dreamlike autobio pieces. This one's all about the act of creation and being an artist and what that means, especially in terms of one's sanity. That's driven home in David Collier's "Artist", about an artist who became an accidental acid casualty, only to meet up with Collier in a low moment for both men. One gets a sense of the cost of being an innovator. Someone who sees the world differently as an artist may well have trouble coping with all sorts of aspects of that world on a day-to-day basis.

The next section of the book is perhaps its most clever and directly didactic, as Brunetti flips from an older comic to a more contemporary piece, so as to allow the reader to draw a direct line between the two. It begins with obscure artist Eugene Teal's bizarre & crude strip about murderous frogs to Charles Burns' ultra-slick BLACK HOLE excerpt that featured an ominous frog dissection. A painting by Karl Wirsum had a figure that could have been part of Gary Panter's JIMBO stories, an excerpt of which immediately followed. The raw craziness of Fletcher Hanks was flanked by Paper Rad's calculated pop-culture crudeness and CF's sketchy, nervy violence. Charles Forbell's intricate "Naughty Pete" strip, about the relationships between children and their environment, was followed by Ron Rege's "We Must Know, We Will Know", about people and their relationship with knowledge. Concluding the section is a Winsor McCay dream comic followed by a stunning Matthew Thurber bit of dream logic. It should be noted that the contemporary cartoonists featured in this section are some of the most innovative and experimental (and some just plain out of left field) in comics today. That said, Brunetti demonstrated that no matter how experimental the strip, they all had predecessors of a sort in comics or fine art. Brunetti tightens the bonds of history in this section both between classic cartoonists and today's artists as well as fine artists, blurring the traditions of both.

If the preceding section was more deliberately intellectual in the way it was assembled, the next hundred or so pages were far more intuitive and personal. The first thirty pages (roughly from 146-177) are all about family, relationships and longing. It starts on the absurd side with Souther Salazar and Kevin Scalzo, then takes a plaintive turn with a Megan Kelso strip about what is left out of a family's vacation slideshow. We then get a run of diary comics, including a reproduction of James McShane's day recorded in ten-minute intervals, Laura Park's stunning and intricate strip about getting a pedicure, Vanessa Davis' hilarious evocation of small moments, and Onsmith's strip detailing memories that only features places, not people (and has a stunner of an ending). This run is about details, minutiae, and the ways in which these quotidian moments accrue meaning. Longing and desire, carried to frequently neurotic ends, mark the next four strips, featuring Joe Matt, Jeffrey Brown, Martin Cendreda and Dave Kiersh.

The Kiersh strip is about a sense of longing with regard to place, making a nice segue to the next mini-section, Brunetti's tribute to his hometown of Chicago. It begins in the suburbs with John Porcellino and a favorite dog that tied him to the city. Carrie Golus contributes a strip about an observation of youth in urban Chicago and a memory of her own youth in suburban Chicago with Patrick Welch. Jessica Abel's "Jack London" is a meditation on a drifting young woman's life as the city was covered in snow, while Cole Johnson concludes the section with a younger woman's memories of a forest. This section also acted as a sort of pivot point for the rest of the book, leading into a darker section on the ways in which friends & family can betray us, grief, loss and life and death struggles.

The section begins on a light note with Lynda Barry, and it ties into a consistent theme in her work: the ways in which self-awareness and self-judgment destroy our ability to create and seize joy. Family, time and place all figure prominently in this story about how a friend's judgment affected young Barry. That leads into a typically shattering story from Debbie Drechsler, about a girl and her best friend, and how the incestuous advances of her father destroy her joy. Diane Noomin is featured in a strip about three best friends and how she drifted apart from each of them. In that same, slightly crude style, Aline Kominsky-Crumb depicts her mother as a grotesque figure. Ariel Bordeaux's one-pager about an almost pathological need to seek validation in others is followed by Chester Brown's strip about what schizophrenia actually is. That sense of one's world breaking down is heightened by Anders Nilsen's minimalist, labyrinthine monologue touching on the death of a loved one and the ways it destroyed all sense of possibility. Joe Sacco took that feeling to another level as he detailed the raw struggle for survival in the ordeal a group of people from the Bosnian town of Gorazde had to endure in a time of war. Using that same intense, naturalist style of art, Phoebe Gloeckner's devastating "Minnie's Third Love" topped Sacco in terms of the intensity of suffering and betrayal that her teen stand-in suffered at the hands of adults and so-called friends, in the form of sexual abuse and drug abuse. The section concludes with Elinore Norflus' crudely drawn and darkly hilarious story about a woman calling a vicious suicide hotline and finally taking solace from a kind operator.

The focus changed from family and friends to time and place with high stakes. The excerpt from Brian Chippendale's NINJA takes the baton from Norflus in terms of the crudeness and almost OCD quality of the line. The stories are about sex and death, leading into Leif Goldberg's bit about two animals trying to brave a freeway to make it to the ocean. David Mazzuchelli's "Near Miss" sees a character worrying about the apocalypse in the form of an asteroid before heading out to the desert for a hallucinatory encounter, while Jerry Moriarty contributed a "Jack Survives" strip about the frustration of trying to experience a boxing match on TV and being denied it. Ben Katchor is the ultimate cartoonist in creating a space for characters to inhabit that becomes an entity unto itself, as he does in these stories about a fictional city filled with patron saints of jaywalkers, cryptic notes under tables waiting to be read and men who pretend every day is their birthday so as to take advantage of others. The sketchiness of Katchor is followed by the similarly loose style of Frank Santoro in a STOREYVILLE excerpt that flipped between character and scenery--both urban and pastoral. That sense of community is further explored by Dan Zettwoch in "Cross-Fader", one of his classic diagram comics that subtly gives us an understanding of a midwestern church community. Kevin Huizenga's "The Curse" keeps up that midwestern exploration but brings an air of creeping menace in the form of a starling invasion. Like Zettwoch, his story has a diagrammatic feel to it, with frequent asides to ornithological history reinforcing that sense of dread. Finally, Bill Griffith's "Is There Life After Levittown", about his youthful troublemaking in his dull suburban hometown, is very much about time and place--it's just a place that the writer couldn't wait to get away from.

That focus on one's teen years led neatly to the last section of the book (approximately the last hundred or so pages), which focused on youthful obsession, especially as it related to music and the process of creation, as well as the way the passage of time affects our relationships. The Harvey Pekar/R.Crumb piece about Pekar's obsession with collecting jazz records, ends with Pekar kicking his habit so as to finally become a comic book writer. Crumb's "That's Life", about obscure blues artist Tommy Grady, ends with young Crumb finding an obscure record by this guitar player who was shot to death after fooling around with someone else's girlfriend and getting it appreciated years after his death (albeit by a room full of white blues scholars). Brunetti then gives us another variation on this story, this time with Crumb's "Patton", about one of the legends of the blues. Crumb bemoans that his death went mostly unnoticed by the national press, but at least he managed to influence the entirety of 20th century blues and rock with his raw country playing. Crumb doesn't exactly romanticize these men and plays up their infidelities, lack of interest in other forms of work and hard-drinking ways. (In a sense, he identifies with these men who were imperfect human beings but great artists.) Crumb finishes this part of the section with a short story about trying to buy an old blues record from an African-American woman and getting shouted down about him trying to take advantage of her. It's an interesting story given that he didn't quite feel guilty about possibly exploiting her (because he really didn't have much money) but was haunted enough by the experience to record it.

The subsection featured the intersection of youth and old age, wandering and being sedentary, impatience and calm reflection--in other words, the way time passes. Carol Tyler's "Country Music" played on this idea cleverly on several levels as she was out in the country with her grandparents and heard the "music" of nature, but then got asked to put on country music (and it winds up being John Phillip Sousa!). Maurice Vellekoop's melancholy one-pager about the passage of time in a park was a perfect transition to an excerpt from Seth's CLYDE FANS, which dealt with a man's mother slowly slipping into dementia. Her being unable to remember him fully made her a little dead to him already; Seth's use of silver-blue gives the story a distancing effect.

That sense of distance with relation to memory and identity was flipped with the next piece, Adrian Tomine's "Hazel Eyes". It's a story about a young woman struggling with social anxiety and trying to create a new version of herself by imagining herself a different person when she stopped the car. That slicker line made it a perfect transition for the Jaime Hernandez story "Jerusalem Crickets", a classic about life on the road for a punk band and how one character tried to deal with the guilt of abandoning her best friend. Daniel Clowes' "Blue Italian Shit" was a stunningly self-deprecatory account of a man's youth and attempt to lose his virginity. In these stories, it's the little details of nights spent in bars and clubs and the desperate searches for connection therein. Connection and alienation are important themes for Clowes, as the excerpts from ICE HAVEN demonstrate. Working in a variety of comic strip and comic book style, Clowes shows us a child who keeps his desires pent up (but emerge in unexpected ways), a frustrated hack of a writer, a detective blind to the needs of his wife, and a teenaged girl who is simultaneously wiser than her years and enormously naive.

Brunetti concluded with an excerpt from Chris Ware's BUILDING STORIES wherein Nanna details her time as nanny in a story that distilled this idea of disconnection and flailing for meaning. This story brings to a crescendo Brunetti's suite of stories that marry a coolness of line with an increasing sense of desperation. Ware's pages are stunning both in their formal cleverness (with a number of recurring visual motifs) as well as the humanity he's able to express. The anthology ends on sort of an odd note, with an extended excerpt from the then-upcoming MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN by David Heatley, featuring portraits of both his mother and father in short strip format. I thought this was odd not for its inclusion, but for the length of the excerpts and placement in the book. Following Ware seemed a bit of an odd choice, especially given the ways Heatley went back and altered some of the original strips he published in the book in an act of self-censorship; it seemed a bit counter to Brunetti's desire for "uncompromised" material. On the other hand, the strips acted as a coda of sorts to the book, after Ware opened and closed it with his work, working in a number of themes found in the rest of the book.

That slight hiccup aside, this is one of the most challenging, exciting anthologies I've ever read. The Clowes cover is hilarious, with two figures with a thought baloon made of a cloud and street lamps and a word baloon made of an unusual ceiling lamp. Clowes explodes that image with a "Joe Bristolboard" strip about an artist trying to come up with an image for an anthology he's in (unpaid, but "it's great exposure!"), cleverly skewering every struggle of the alt-comics artist struggling with inspiration and self-esteem. No one is better than Clowes at satirizing his own profession while still sympathizing with its practitioners. The back cover image of a lonely cartoonist in his socks staring at his drawing board, surrounded by half-eaten pizza and other effluvia, is an image every cartoonist can relate to. If cartoonists are all members of a family with any number of distant branches, they are all united both by the despair of the blank page taunting them and the joy of mark making.