Saturday, July 30, 2011

CCS Anthologies: Werewolf IV, Werepups, Kids, Visions of the Aporkalypse

Let's take a look at three recent anthologies by students and alumni from the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Visions of the Aporkalypse, edited by Kevin Uehlein. The theme of this very silly anthology was perhaps a bit too limiting: humans doomed by the revenge of the pigs. Most of the artists turned in the same kind of story: pigs (led by an all-powerful "swine-clops" figure) rising up, devouring or otherwise sacrificing humans. It's a pretty thin concept, made even thinner by an overabundance of pin-up pages, as opposed to actual stories. And of course, the revenge theme of an animal being bred for food makes some of these stories as subtle as a sledgehammer. That said, there were three stories that elicited a chuckle. Betsey Swardlick's "bacon-porn" story, while as subtle as that aforementioned sledge-hammer, was still funny in the extreme she went to in depicting a man sexually excited by bacon and the revenge his wife gets on him as a result. Nomi Kane's story about a pig king getting ready to sacrifice humans but being urged by a minister to spare the Jews (since they didn't eat pork) had a very amusing punchline (seems like everyone makes an exception for bacon, even pigs!). The best story in the anthology was Carl Mefferd's "Meat Is Murder", which features a group of anthropomorphic pigs liberating a human processing center...only to face a rather gruesome end when nature takes its course. All told, this was one of the lesser CCS anthologies I've seen, though as always its presentation was attractive and its design was clever.

Werewolf IV and Werepups, edited by Penina Gal, Betsey Swardlick, Josh Rosen & Nick Patten. This particular editorial collective has done a fine job of showcasing a wide variety of story types from what would seem to be a fairly limited theme. They wisely chose to end the series with their fourth volume after the third started to run a bit thin in terms of material, but piggybacked it with a minicomic aimed at kids. Given that a number of small press conventions tend to have kids looking for material aimed at them, it was wise of the editors to create Werepups. It's a lovely package, featuring (as always) glow-in-the-dark paint on the cover. It's a short anthology at just 32 pages, which again is a perfect length for its audience.

The line-up is a strong one, starting with Melissa Mendes' "Where-Wolf?". Already specializing in comics featuring the experiences of children, this story is a lark about a young girl trying to keep a bag of meat destined for grandma's house safe. When she invites her best friend to come along, she should have checked to see if there was a full moon out. Mendes' open page design is as reminiscent of children's books as it is comics. Penina Gal's "Crisis In Jamlandia" is another story with an open layout, this time two panels to a page. In her typically scratchy and expressive style, Gal tells a story of two twin musicians who befriend a group of werewolves who want to play in a band but are afraid to go out in public. Nomi Kane's clean line is a nice contrast to the prior two stories with a two pager about a wolf who is confused when he wakes up wearing a tie, only to make the horrible realization that he can turn into a human!

Colleen Frakes, who specializes in folklore and monsters, does a fun segment about "Werewolf Tips and Tricks", a handbook for dealing with lycanthropes that works because of her light touch and delicate line. After several stories that are mostly restrained, Betsey Swardlick goes broad with "Double-Team", a typically funny story featuring teen werewolves at a summer camp forced to play teen vampires in a soccer match. Her comics have a frantic quality to them, usually climaxing in some sort of loud bang-up or crash, and this one is no exception. Swardlick's work really came alive in the course of these Werewolf anthologies, mixing slice-of-life stories with the supernatural. Her scratchy pencils contrast well with Dakota McFadzean's "We Like The Moon", a Joseph Lambert-style tale of a girl wanting to see the moon with her dog but worried that it's too cloudy. This is a simple tale made clever thanks to McFadzean's page design, wherein the reader sees the moon in the top set of panels but the girl and her dog don't, thanks to the clouds acting as a very thick sort of panel border. In another clever device, everything the dog says about the moon winds up being true, including the rabbit in the moon who eventually blows the clouds away. McFadzean's storytelling solutions in this story are ingenious, making full use of the formal properties of comics without losing track of his narrative.

The last issue of Werewolf, is a solid send-off and an improvement over the third issue. What I like best about it is its varied tone, from autobiographical to genre adventure to slice-of-life humor to straight-up gag work to horror. Jesse Lonergan's "Battle of the Bands" was a cute series of riffs on genre types as indy bands, with groups like The Zombies singing about eating brains and The Mummies breaking of a Chuck-D style rhyme. The payoff gag, featuring a group's unlikely werewolf transformation, flatters Lonergan's compositional skills as well as his angular, cartoony character design. My favorite story in the book came from Annie Murphy, whose "Queerwolf" was an autobio story about going to an elementary school to teach comics and coming up against the way gender and identity get locked in at such an early age for children. She aims to break that up by working with the class on a comic about a female werewolf. There's a touching simplicity and sincerity to this story as well as a dose of humor that's not always a hallmark of Murphy's work. Murphy is an impressive young talent who hasn't published a lot of comics to date, but they're certainly all worth tracking down.

"Lock and Load" by Jon Chad is a typically well-drawn story by him that serves to provide an unexpected punchline to what seems to be a silly flub by its main character. Penina Gal's "Wolfsbane" benefits from her simple, stick-figure drawings and small panels. Quirky horror artist Denis St. John's "Mangia La Mia Carne" is a bizarre bit of fetish-fiction about a woman who is a bit too turned on by what wolves can do. Luke Eastman's "Knacker" is a visceral tale of an animal carcass collector who may not be what he seems. Only Ryland Ianelli's "The Curse of the Wearwolf" felt undercooked to me, with sloppy drawing and unclear storytelling. It felt like a last-minute submission.

Two of the series' editors, Swardlick & Rosen, have also turned in some of the most consistently interesting work in the series. The latest chapter of Swardlick's "FailWolves" serial finds the two twentysomething female werewolves meeting more of their kind but finding they fit in as well with other lycanthropes as they do with the rest of society. As always, her dialogue is witty (though a couple of spelling mistakes stood out) and her line is agreeably sloppy & expressive. She may not be a top-drawer draftswoman, but she is clearly a talented cartoonist. Rosen's werewolf hunter character is appealing both in terms of narrative possibilities as well as design, thanks to Rosen's clear-line style. At some point, a collection of the best of all four issues of the anthology would yield a strong volume. Collections of the serials from Swardlick & Rosen would also seem to make sense. The success of the anthology is a tribute to its editors' commitment to providing diverse material, while allowing each artist to do what they do best.

Kids, edited by Melissa Mendes & Jose-Luis Olivares. This is the strongest of the anthologies I discuss here, which isn't a big surprise considering that its lineup is similar to that of the Sundays anthology group. That includes Mendes and Olivares, who are the editors of this well-curated 64-page effort. The theme is simple: comics about childhood in its various incarnations. For many of the artists invited to contribute, writing about childhood was already one of their main storytelling interests, so doing a story for an anthology such as this was not much of a stretch. Mendes kicks off the issue with a wordless strip about a kid waking up in the night, quietly sneaking out of the house, and then dropping his/her pajama bottoms and dancing. The rubbed charcoal style resembles crayon and is a nice invocation of a story about a kid that involves some aspect of the sort of drawing a child would make.

Robyn Chapman's "Krissy's House" is done in her minimalist clear-line style, and it's an autobio story about hanging out at the house of a friend as a pre-teen. The tone of the story is purely joyful, even if Chapman's adult perspective makes her understand that Krissy came from an extremely poor family. Chuck Forsman's "Witch Beach" was a touching and strange story about a young girl who declares to her (witch?) mother that she had decided that she no longer needed parents and informed her of this. There's a great panel where her mother panics but decides to play it cool by telling her daughter Icky to go outside to see what her father was doing. In another heart-crushing panel, Icky tries to tell her dad the same thing but the broken man says "I'm really not up to the whole 'father' thing right now". However, Icky's proclamation makes him feel better, and the two then share a moment both absurd and intimate. Forsman's cartoony and slightly fragile line are key in how he wrings emotion from these encounters without becoming mawkish.

Nate Beaty's "LCB" is a bit of silliness about some 80s breakdancing kids busting moves, battling rivals and videotaping themselves for demo purposes. It shares the light touch found in the rest of the anthology's stories. Lydia Conklin's "The Kittens Hate You" is another story in a series of strips about the ways in which children can be cruel to each other. It's about a bunch of kittens in a barn and how two girls are each given a chance to hang out with them. When one girl's time is up, she imagines the kittens telling her how much more they like her--and a funny competition ensues as to whom can get the most affection on demand from one of the cats. As always, there's a scratchy ugliness to Conklin's style, as she refuses to idealize or make childhood seem cute in any way.

Alex Kim's story about a young girl who has an unspoken crush on an older boy who has a crush on her older sister does a lot of its storytelling without saying a word. The weird little girl has no way to verbalize her feelings in general, as she sets up a tent outside the house and growls at the boy when the boy comes around to try to talk to the girl. Kim's use of spotted blacks and his slightly vibrating line are his trademarks and they're put to good use here to lend a sense of the young girl's anxiety. An anthology about kids has to have a story by Joseph Lambert, and here Lambert contributes a two-pager about a pair of young brothers fighting sleep and each other. Lambert's lettering is a crucial part of his overall aesthetic, matching the outsized and exaggerated nature of childhood itself.

Melissa's sister Amy contributes a two-page memory of herself, her sister and their mother dancing outside in the rain. It's a lovely image, more of an illustration than a comic. The anthology then shifts from this realistically rendered story to Max De Radigues' more bigfoot, cartoony style in his depiction of a young boy discovering a witch in the forest trying to turn animals into children. It's not a scary moment, because he then reveals that he knows the witch intimately and even makes suggestions for success. It winds up being a wonderfully touching strip about familial connection with a gentle sense of humor.

Olivares' "Made of Sand" features tiny figures and small panels, mixing fantasy and magic. In it, we see a young boy who discovers a tiny princess in a sand castle who asks for a starfish. He finds one and sets out to bring it to her, only to find that the castle has been demolished. I love the way Olivares has his character close his eyes while walking, imagining a world opening up in front of him. James Hindle's "Trash Heap" is about a teenage boy who rebels against his parents and winds up making a friend on the street, and they're extremely close until the other boy tires of him and heads out of town with a rich girl. Hindle really gets at the ache of how teens attach so much meaning to the friendships and relationships, even if they don't quite understand how that attachment is frequently not reciprocated.

Once again, the anthology rarely presents the same style twice in a row, so the transition this time is to Dane Martin's scratchy, feverish line, anthropomorphic characters and absurd yet disturbing story ideas. Martin switches character perspectives in a dizzying and hilarious manner, displacing the upsetting narrative events he creates with a crazy transition. The final story is more autobio, this time by David Libens. It's another story with a fragile, scratchy line about the ways in which the roles of children and parents can switch in times of stress. Everything about this anthology is well-designed without being overly fussy; I love the touch of the photos of the contributors as children being posted on refrigerators (complete with magnetic letters that spell out "comics" holding them up) as well as the hand-stamped letters spelling out "Kids" on the cover in paint. Hopefully there will be future volumes of this anthology.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

You'll Never Know, Book Two: Collateral Damage

Carol Tyler's first volume of her masterful trilogy, You'll Never Know, establishes a journey that begins with a single question asked of her father as a teen-ager: "What was it like for you in World War II?" The answer to this question winds up being overwhelmingly complicated, involving her parents, her husband and her daughter in unexpected and frequently upsetting ways. When her father, a notably cold and distant (but frequently funny and always steadfast & capable) man, calls her up and starts ranting about "rivers of blood", it sets Carol on a quest to finally gain some sort of understanding and connection with him. At the same time, it leads her to an understanding of why she wound up in dysfunctional relationships with men who were emotionally withholding. The book ends with Carol hoping for a breakthrough with her father Chuck but instead gets faced with him ranting at her mother, Hannah.

The book is titled "You'll Never Know", a phrase that takes on a number of different meanings throughout the book. It's Chuck & Hannah's favorite song, for starters. It refers to the average person not knowing that Chuck was a solider who faced horror. At its core, it speaks not only to Tyler's inability to truly "know" and connect with her father, but how impossible it is to every truly know another's pain, self and emotions. The second volume is titled "Collateral Damage" and it aims to get at the damage that Chuck unknowingly causes to his wife and children.

Throughout the first volume, "A Good And Decent Man", Tyler makes a point of noting that her father lives up to that subtitle and refuses to blame him for her own mistakes with men. The second volume begins with her frantically driving to Indiana to see her parents and to make sure that her mom's OK. Unsurprisingly for a couple that made a habit of bottling up emotions (only to have them explode from time to time), both pretty much act as though nothing has happened. Carol sees a house and a couple in bad shape, with mice having eaten through their pantry. Her mother's stroke diminished her activity and mental capacity, while her father always expected this sort of work to be done by his wife. An unbelievably harsh dismissal from her father comes on the heels of the true reason why he called her and started talking about the war: his belief that the army owed him disability money. Her "failure" to prove this for him brought about all sorts of unkind cuts and brought Carol to one of several crises points in the book.

That particular crisis brings a lot of unpleasant feelings about her father to the surface. Tyler admits the resentment she feels for her father's distance, cutting comments, disinterest in taking care of her, crazy mood swings and most damning, never showing or expressing love in any tangible fashion. This is one of several emotionally brutal sections of the book, as Tyler condemns herself for her own dumb choices made once free of her parents as she became a self-fulfilling prophecy of what her father feared: a wild child. It's almost a relief for the reader when Tyler turns back to the sepia-and-olive drab tones of the "photo" scrapbook section of the book depicting his tour of duty. The high spirits and tomfoolery of the first book are replaced with hellish depictions of not just combat, but being placed in a position where his men have to destroy the lives and livelihoods of civilians.

A seemingly innocuous scene of chatter with her cheery teenage daughter is a portent of something far heavier later in the book, as Tyler recalls how she came to leave California after her husband left her for another woman. A full-page, light-hearted drawing of the pair floating outside their apartment building as they head downstairs takes on a double meaning considering that later section of the book. In a narrative sense, the interlude reminds readers that Carol at this time (in the early 2000s) is still holding out hope that her ex will return to her, as much as for the sake of her daughter as herself. It's a crucial scene for a book that, up until this point, is much more fractured and all over the place than the first volume.

The next section of the book is a long account of when Tyler stayed with her parents when his father battled cancer but somehow built a house from scratch out in the woods. It fills in some blanks in terms of their personal narrative (especially in the way it fills in the picture regarding the true state of her mother's health) but otherwise merely serves to support and amplify the points she makes earlier in the book regarding her father. The next segment of the scrapbook ends with Chuck (thinking that the war was nearly over after D-Day) being mustered into fighting the brutal Battle of the Bulge. That segment ends with Tyler getting a fateful phone call.

The last two sections of the book are a devastating one-two punch, especially to any reader with children. Much of this book falls into a holding pattern, going back and forth about Tyler's mixed feelings about a complicated man. It's an assessment of the collateral damage that she took on as a consequence of his experiences, as well as what her mother went through. Forget about getting her father to say that he loved her; Tyler would have accepted a simple "I'm sorry" for his failures as a parental figure. That said, even a complicated relationship is better than no relationship, as the chapter regarding cancer underlines.

When a parent is faced with the prospect of their child having a serious illness, it's a devastating feeling. When it's mental illness, it's an even more helpless sensation. In a section marked by red panel borders, Tyler talks about the time her daughter was first caught violating school rules and then finding drugs, alcohol and razor blades in her backpack. Much more disturbing was her daughter trying to jump out of a window, claiming "the bird man" told her she could "suck in air by jumping". Carol literally had to tackle her daughter to bring her back inside before she took her to the ER. That experience causes Carol to think of her mother's own tragedy: the death of her young daughter.

This is where Tyler reprints "The Hannah Story", which is simply one of the greatest comics short stories of all time. It's about her mother living with Chuck's family during wartime, and it was not exactly a cozy set-up. Chuck's mother was a hateful woman who had it in for Hannah and even pronounced a curse on Ann, their first child. Two years later, Ann died in a hospital after scalding herself by accident. It's the way the story is structured that makes it so brilliant, as it's staged as a conversation in a garage between Carol, Hannah and Carol's sister Virginia. A long-buried pain finally spills out as Hannah finally talks about the burden she had been trying to forget all these years. But pain can't be forgotten and emotions can only be tamped down for so long: they always emerge somehow. There's another bit of collateral damage reported here, as Chuck slaps Hannah until she stops crying about Ann. Unburdening herself of the pain allowed her to remember the brief but beautiful moments she spent with her daughter, a moment she managed to achieve when she saw Carol give birth, asking "Don't I have a right to the good parts of her life...beyond the pain I feel." The final image of the story, featuring an oriental rug with the features of all the Tyler children, is bright and hopeful, and the final line "Hannah--whose name will forever cradle her daughter's" is drawn with a heart around "ann". Tyler's light and expressive touch makes this moment powerful and resonant without being mawkish.

Thinking of the story makes Tyler realize that her daughter is still alive and in need of her. Back at the apartment building to change her clothes, she catches sight of the window she almost jumped out of and is horrified. At the end of the first volume, Tyler used Hitler as a character designed to represent the toll of war itself. At the end of this volume, Hitler returns in the person of "the bird man" (in the person of the Eagle of the Third Reich), gloating over Julia's near-death experience. If there was a sense of feeling overwhelmed at the end of the first volume, the second ends in anger. Tyler took the time to process her grief over her childhood in this book, but its real power is in how she comes to terms with that quickly when the life of her daughter is concerned. There's a certain hokeyness in the way Hitler is used here so literally, but Tyler earns that on-the-nose metaphor with the wringer she puts herself and the reader through in the course of the book. More than anything, this segment once again circles around to the book's title: she didn't know her daughter was having these suicidal/psychotic thoughts, and there was no way she could have known.

Visually, Tyler's style is unique in the comics world. Only Vanessa Davis comes close to doing the sort of thing she does in terms of using a painter's sensibility while drawing comics. The scrapbook design of the book is just one of many remarkable decorative touches she adds. Color is tremendously important both in a narrative sense (identifying key times and characters) and an emotional sense (modulating feelings felt on a page in an expressive style). The complexity of her page design (changing formats on an almost page-to-page basis) is brought to earth by the simplicity of her character design. The result is what feels like an ornate, powerful and cohesive sketchbook/journal. Even when the story goes off an a tangent, Tyler always manages to tie things back into the main narrative. Jumps forward and backward into time never obscure the main narrative through-line. Visual call-backs abound in the book, both to the first volume and to key sequences in the book. Most impressively, Tyler manages to bring a static kind of craft (a sketchbook) to life with panels that crackle with energy and movement. There are no easy outs or answers in Tyler's attempts to create, maintain and understand connections with her loved ones, so I'll be curious to see what kind of conclusions she winds up with in the last book of the trilogy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Talking Tardi

Let's examine the recent (and welcome) spate of English translations of books by the great French artist Jacques Tardi. Thanks to translator Kim Thompson's tireless efforts and an American audience that may finally be opening up to French comics, there have been five Fantagraphics translations released to date, with two more due for imminent release and others in the pipeline. Tardi is an interesting figure because he felt comfortable writing mainstream material like detective stories, mysteries, fantasy and even science-fiction (though usually of a period nature; The Arctic Marauder, for example is a steampunk book) as well as more experimental and mature fare. No matter what the subject, his books always have a density and meatiness to them that rewards multiple readings. I'll briefly examine each book roughly in order of narrative complexity. Here's a link to my review of the other Tardi book that's been released in the last year or so by Fantagraphics, West Coast Blues.

The Arctic Marauder. This was Tardi's third graphic novel, done back in 1974. This was a bewildering read, combining elements of Jules Verne, G.K. Chesterton and a feverishly-rendered scratchboard style. In contrast to Tardi's more rubbery, visceral style, the images in The Arctic Marauder look carved out of a page. The density of the inking and hatchwork and the moodiness of the grays conjures up a forbidding, dangerous world of instant death at sea. After a while, it felt like Tardi cared less about his story than the opportunity to draw incredibly cool-looking ships, machines and battles at sea. In a book that's already pretty short (just 63 pages), The Arctic Marauder feels quite padded. The book's saving grace is that Tardi doesn't seem to take much of it that seriously. Indeed, his narration is so over-the-top that it spills over into being straight-up purple prose. The plot, such as it is, is paper-thin. What isn't immediately obvious comes out of nowhere, and the characterizations (and their reversals) are frequently baffling. That said, the ending (featuring the villains making a daring get-away in their quest to menace the world) was a bit unexpected, and the narrator's final statements add to the tongue-in-cheek nature of the story. Fans of Tardi's more mature works might be disappointed in the story but will certainly be taken aback by the sheer beauty of its images on page after page.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Volume 1: Pterror Over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon. This book, collecting the first two volumes in the series, was previously translated and published by NBM & Dark Horse in the 1980s (thanks to Tom Spurgeon for that particular tidbit). Like all of the previous attempts to translate and publish Tardi for the American market, it was met with indifference. In an interview with Spurgeon, Kim Thompson offered a few theories as to why he thought this was. Essentially, the most mainstream of French novels were too genre-oriented to draw in American art-comics audiences but were too weird for the average American mainstream comics fan. That weirdness, in my view, has to do with a visual approach that's taken for granted in Europe but is jarring for American audiences. There's a tradition of bigfoot and even slightly grotesque character design paired with rock-solid naturalism in terms of the action and backgrounds in European comics that starts with comics aimed at kids and is not unusual to see even in comics aimed at adults. Art-comics audiences might dismiss the cutesiness of the bigfoot drawing while mainstream audiences have never been kind to that sort of art crossing over into their genre stories.

What's changed is the rise of manga's popularity in the US. Cutesiness (as interpreted by an American) in serious stories is a given for many such comics. At the same time, the reputation of artists like Jack Cole (a classic bigfoot stylist) has risen in the past two decades in the art-comics crowd. The proliferation of artists fusing art-comics sensibilities with genre stories has no doubt made Tardi more palatable for American audiences, especially with Lewis Trondheim finally breaking through in the US. Tardi's cranky female adventurer Adele Blanc-Sec has starred in nine albums written & drawn by the artist, and they've been his most popular creation in France.

The books are period pieces set in early 20th century Paris, and while there's much about them that's predictable and formulaic, Tardi throws in bizarre narrative monkey wrenches at unexpected times. For example, the first story in this volume ("Pterror Over Paris") quickly establishes the book as a sci-fi mystery with conspiracy and murder thrown in as well. However, we don't meet the series' titular character until page ten and don't learn her real identity for another ten pages. Even at that, the reader is given little information as to who she is, what her motivations are or even if we should be rooting for her. This first story, concerning a pterodactyl hatched & mentally controlled by a man's mental powers and a murder subplot that attaches itself to the main narrative, is dizzying to the point of incomprehensibility at times. The reader is introduced to nearly two dozen characters in quick succession, many of whom prove to be turncoats within a page or two of their introduction. Major characters continue to be introduced up until nearly the end of the story. As an American reader, the slightly goofy & grotesque character design (lots of funny-looking facial hair and eyes, for example) make identifying the many characters a chore. That said, the pluck and cantankerousness of Adele herself make her a compelling hero.

The second story ("The Eiffel Tower Demon") is far more assured than the first. Of course, one must bear in mind that these stories were originally published in the mid-1970s and thus were some of his early work. This story was a lot clearer and sharper in terms of its narrative than the first without eschewing any twists and turns. This story of a lost Babylonian idol eventually turned into a plot to wipe out the populace of Paris using the plague, once again touching on anarchist conspiracies like Chesterton might have. Characters from the first story weave their way in and out of this one, adding additional color and complexity without cluttering up the plot. Tardi even has characters like Adele and one of her compatriots summarize the plot up to that point a few times in what seems to be a service to the reader; the dim-witted policeman who winds up saving Adele even notes that "it's all a bit confusing" when everything's explained to him! Like in his other adventure books, the protagonist manages to triumph but it's not a clear win for good over evil, as several malefactors either escape or face no repercussions whatsoever. I'll be interested to see if Tardi was able to ratchet up the level of excitement in this series another level as he got a better feel for the narrative world he created. In any event, he certainly does create a world; I've never seen an artist who could draw such solid seeming buildings, bridges, stones, etc while still never letting the reader forget they were looking at a drawing. In terms of sheer comics drawing ability, he has to be in the top ten of all time.

It Was The War Of The Trenches. Some of this book was originally serialized in the old Drawn & Quarterly anthology, but it has a far greater impact appearing in one collection. Tardi listed a number of sources that he drew from for this book about the common soldier's experience of World War I, but I thought that Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front may have been the most important. That book lays out quite clearly that what I call the "Throckmorton factor" was in full effect for that war. That's a reference to the famous Bill Mauldin cartoon wherein an old, rich man sitting in a parlor says, "I say it's war Throckmorton, and I say let's fight!" It was a war manipulated by those who would not fight for reasons that no one really understood. What it came down to was a bunch of guys in a hole fighting a tedious, agonizing battle. Fighting and gaining ground was, at its essence, just another job. The problem was that this was a brand new kind of warfare, further complicated by new and deadly technology like mustard gas, flamethrowers, incendiary bombs, grenades, tanks and fighter planes. Suddenly, no one really knew how to do this job.

Tardi gets at the brutality of the battle, the absurdity at the heart of the conflict, the hyprocisy of ideas like patriotism and honor in the face of officers who were opportunists and the desperate brotherhood that formed between soldiers. He keeps the stories grounded in a series of unconnected vignettes about a variety of soldiers that flow into one another. Tardi sets the tone with an opening salvo of a story about a French soldier named Binet who thinks long and hard abou the France he's been charged to defend and how much he hates the people who live in his old building. He bemoans the idea that an accident of geography has set him on this course, cursing every moment he's there until he dies alone when investigating the fate of another soldier. It's an incredibly nihilistic story that is astonishingly beautiful to look at; Tardi's inventive page composition features a wordless center panel that's set off the from the rest of the page that draws the eye in and summarizes the action on the page.

That story sets the tone for the rest of the book. In the trenches, concepts like good and evil are outmoded since neither is punished nor rewarded. Instead, there is only life, death and the random chance that determines which you get. Tardi spins tales of a soldier who is captured by a German when he gets separated from his company, only to be executed as a traitor when he's discovered again. Another story features men trying to give themselves gangrene in order to get off of the front, with highly mixed results. Throughout, the viciousness and hyprocrisy of the officers and the brutality of the military police are excoriated by Tardi in a style reminiscent of a far more vicious Bill Mauldin. Only the last chapter of the book, which tallies up the numbers of the dead and the money spent on the war, is too on-the-nose. Keeping the book at a human level is what makes it so effective. The true revelation of the book, as noted in the first story and throughout, is that most of the soldiers were barely adults. They were forced to grow up quickly, but Tardi never lets the reader forget that these tales of grizzled soldiers are really just boy's stories taken to their logical, horrible extreme. World War I left a wound that never quite healed right, a conflict so barbaric that new international laws had to be created to prevent its excesses from occurring again. In page after relentless page, Tardi aims to make the reader never forget what can happen when the jingoistic fantasies of the powerful consume the lives of the powerless. As proof of Tardi finally conquering America, It Was The War Of The Trenches just won two Eisner awards at the 2011 Comicon: for best reprint of international material and best reality-based work.

You Are There. This was is by far my favorite of Tardi's books that have been translated to date. Written by Jean-Claude Forest, this psychedelic social satire is given its power thanks to Tardi's line that embodies farce, horror, dementia and eroticism in turns. The book's protagonist is quixotic figure named Arthur There who lives on top of the walls that encircle every house in a small French village called Mornemont (alias "The Land Within" and literally "dreary mountain"). Though his family historically owns the properties there, they were swindled out of everything years earlier. The only victory There won was to have the walls built and have the people of Mornemont pay a toll every time they wanted to leave home, though he notes at the beginning of the book that his lawyers were working hard to win him back everything.

The resolution of that story alone would have made this book oddly charming, as the hatted, thin and angular There is a magnificent triumph of character design. With his long, thin face, he almost resembles Stan Laurel. However, You Are There contains enough plot details for five books and character arcs for another five. Arthur winds up as the unwitting pawn of France's prime minister, who is in danger of being voted out of office and desperately tries to find a way to come back into power after this happens. Arthur has regular conversations and debates with the captain of a grocery barge who happens to be the only merchant who will sell to him. Most importantly, there is Julie, the daughter of one of the Mornemont families. She's in turns bawdy, foul-mouthed, charismatic, and sexually transgressive. She's presented as both childlike and wise beyond her years, understanding and anticipating complex events before they even occur. Her connection to the prime minister (as a child, she was a lover to him but fascinated him most with her piss play) and Arthur make her the books' pivotal character in many ways.

This is satire in the Rabelaisian or Swiftian sense: hyperbolic but earthy. The pretentious are ever reminded of their status as human beings obsessed with sex and bodily functions. The seemingly ignorant have lessons to impart on their hypocritical betters. Poor Arthur is somewhere in-between: as the book unfolds, we discover that he's not just eccentric but entirely unhinged and delusional. At the same time, he's a victim of the manipulations of others, though not without pity and mercy of his own (as his friendship with a Mickey Mouse-reading boy attests). While crazy, he's still a sympathetic character. The same can certainly be said of Julie, who is also unstable and damaged in some respects, yet has achieved a freedom of movement, access and belief through this process. She fears no one and loves Arthur, perhaps because he is a true innocent.

The political machinations in the other half of the book in retrospect are hilariously oily, with the Prime Minister hatching a plan that's sort of the reverse of The Mouse That Roared: after he is defeated, he plans to retreat to what will be regarded as the sovereign state of Mornemont. A variety of ministers, writers, back-stabbers, libertines and secret agents swirl around all of this activity, all of which winds up backfiring in an amusing but still tragic way. It's all nonsense, really, compared to the ways in which the desperately damaged Julie and Arthur are trying to make sense of their lives.

In the end, Julie and Arthur experience interesting turnarounds as characters. The restless Julie decides to return home in an effort to rescue and care for the lost and innocent. The xenophobic and routine-driven Arthur is unleashed on "the machine" that hurt so many for no reason at all, frantically rowing a dinghy to Paris and carried away on the waves of fantasy and destiny. It may well be a doomed enterprise, yet Arthur always did manage to triumph against the odds. In a political landscape where delusion is the currency of the land, who can say what would happen when Arthur made the scene? The last image of the book, with Arthur rowing, inspired by the image of his old grocer/captain friend, is one of many hallucinations that are given a deliberate firmness by Tardi. Just as he imagines the young boy to be surrounded by waves of books, or the townspeople to have giant clippers arrayed to trap him on the wall, so too he imagines this scenario. Of course, the book posits that truth is far stranger and more demented that fantasy or delusion, as the townspeople dressed up in costumes coming to lynch him, the decadent nature of the political world or the grocer's own bookshelves will attest. Even if Tardi didn't write this comic, I'd still say it's his greatest work. He creates a world that is fever-dream vivid and populates it with characters one imagines you can see, hear and smell. His character design makes this world simultaneously sad and hilarious in a way that the written word alone could never capture. You Are There is relentlessly powerful, silly, tragic and beautiful in the ways it captures both the betrayal of and irrepressibility of fantasy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

New Review @ TCJ: Level Up

Here's a link to a new review at the Comics Journal: Level Up, by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham.

Sequart #33: American Born Chinese

This review was originally posted at back in 2007.

Ultimately, the moral of AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is not especially profound. Gene Luen Yang's three storylines converge to deliver the message of be who you are. Resist the urge to assimilate. Be proud of your heritage and stop trying to deny it. What makes this such an enjoyable and effective story is the way he tells it. Yang throws three competing narratives at the reader, all of which wind up converging in exciting and unexpected ways. One of them is a slice-of-life account of a young Chinese-American student who moves to a new town and finds himself on the receiving end of his almost entirely all-white class. The second storyline involves a mythical monkey-king who is denied access to a party in heaven and responds by trying to elevate himself to a higher class of deity. The third storyline involves an all-American high school student who is tortured by his (inexplicably) Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, the personification of every negative Chinese stereotype imaginable.

This narrative strategy is what prevents the book from devolving into a heavy-handed exploration of both racism and self-hatred. By starting with the colorful tale of the Monkey King, Yang begins the book on a fantastical note. The story then shifts to Jin Wang, the young Chinese-American boy who only wants to fit in. Yang deftly folds humor into what is clearly a painful story to tell. Some of the humor winds up having unexpected repercussions, like when Jin Wang tells an apothecary's wife that he wants to be a Transformer when he grows up, and she tells him that he can do it easily, as long as he doesn't mind losing his soul--and he eventually does.

What really gives the book its power is Yang's shockingly awful Chin-Kee, a stereotypical buck-toothed, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned simpleton. This use of this out-of-nowhere boogeyman of a racial stereotype who comes along once a year to humiliate his blond & blue-eyed cousin Danny is an audacious choice by Yang. The use of a stereotype to attack stereotypes is a risky move, but the same technique of alternating narratives that breaks up the tone of Jin Yang's story serves to provide relief from Chin-Kee. He's funny and horrible and while clearly a satiric figure (who later serves a very specific and unexpected purpose), he also seems to be a bit of a cathartic exercise for the author.

Jin Wang meets a new boy in his class named Wei-Chen, who was sent to America from Taiwan. Jin initially wants nothing to do with him, but they eventually become friends. Meanwhile, we follow the Monkey King's saga as he's punished by god and buried under a pile of rock after he tries to be anything but a monkey. Things escalate from there in each of the three storylines as things go very wrong for all of our protagonists, but it's Jin selling his soul that proves to be a key moment for all three narratives.

Yang is a skilled storyteller, even if his art is so slick at times that it deflects emotional resonance. The stories are deceptively simple, but minor details later take on greater significance in clever ways. The end result is an examination of some very real and painful issues successfully integrated with memorable characters. I'm not sure the catharctic ending is entirely earned, but there's no question that the structure of the plot, the interweaving of the storylines, and the sheer power of attacking racist tropes with an outrageous satirical figure make this a compelling read.

Monday, July 18, 2011

New CCS Minis: Barrett, De Radigues, Christensen, Forsman, Burger

Time for another round of comics by alumni and former fellows at the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS).

The Stag #1 and #2, by Andrew James Christensen. Christensen just graduated this past year and this is the first work I've seen from him. These are the first two issues of a three issue series about an old man living in a snowy, post-apocalyptic environment on an island. Christensen uses a strict four-panel grid on a square page so as to alert the reader that every panel should receive equal emphasis when the eye passes over them. The panels are large enough to absorb at a quick rate so as not to linger too long on any one image. Christensen's line is simple, skillfully creating solidly composed panels with a minimum of fuss. The story is equally simple, as the old man negotiates what is clearly a tediously familiar environment until he runs across and accidentally kills a stag with a disturbingly human face. The second issue sees him going about his usual rituals after introducing the delicacy of stag meat, but his actions have repercussions that leave him wondering what's really going on. The most interesting aspect of the comic comes when he mounts the stag's head and begins talking to it as though it were a friend. I'll be very curious to see how the issue concludes and what direction Christensen pursues as an artist. It's clear that he has a great deal of potential.

Uitke and the Lucky Penny, by Jan Martyn Burger. Burger is another recent CCS grad who is also a puppeteer. This comic is a lovely story featuring Burger's gorgeous, feathery pencils and clear but strong line. The story concerns a girl named Uitke who finds a penny that allows its bearer to receive wishes. She discovers that each wish has its price, even those that weren't requested for herself. The wishes she made for her uncles (a thriving bakery and an invention that works) turn out to be disasters, and while the spirit she first meets that understands the nature of the penny tells her that something can't be unwished, Uitke learns that she can still help. The comic has the rhythm of a fairy tale, weaving in and out of its cleverly-rendered and dreamlike images into the mundane and troublesome realities of everyday life. Burger notes that the story evolved from family-spun tales and it's these little details that stand out, like the interaction between the girl's family members, the way the house is designed, the ancient forest and the way the girl's grandfather scolded her for flying in the house. Burger allows for a lot of silent beats in this story, adding a sense of the stillness of nature to the story. That stillness winds up being the dominant aspect of this comic, as one's allegiance to the land and family turns out to be more powerful than any wish. Burger seems like a natural to do a kids' comic for the likes of Toon Books, First Second or Scholastic; the languid nature of his storytelling makes for a nice contrast to the "louder", brighter and more frenetic styles of many comics for children.

Snake Oil #6: The Ground Is Soft, by Chuck Forsman. This is Forsman's best comic to date, and that's saying something considering the impressive output of his young career. Visually, Forsman has evolved out of his Chester Brown/Sammy Harkham stylizations and has found a style that's more fragile and stripped down. There's even a touch of Charles Schulz to be found in this story about a boy named Oliver and his relationships with his mother, father and step-mother. Set in some unspecified medieval civilization, the mini consists of a number of smaller vignettes that are scrambled chronologically, though both beginning and ending are clearly delineated. What I love most about this comic is what is not said or shown. Oliver's father Arthur is a soldier who is rewarded for his service with a second wife by the priesthood. All he hopes for his son is for him to become a priest instead of a soldier, but he is incapable of showing any form of affection. Along the way, Oliver must endure a variety of baffling and humiliating formal (including riding in "the goat boat", which is exactly what it sounds like) and informal (the unwelcome advances of that second wife) rites of passage. Oliver is Forsman's best-conceived character, with his pile of unkempt hair depicted in a few scratchy lines. The nature of the painful, doomed relationship between father and son is rendered all the more tragic given that both parties wanted to please the other but could never figure out how. The time-jumping nature of this story underscores the ways in which old wounds continued to stay fresh.

Moose #1 and #2, by Max De Radigues. This is a new, continuing series from the talented Belgian with the delicate, fragile line. De Radigues specializes in stories about teenagers, and this series focuses in on a young man negotiating the harshness of a cold climate. That harshness extends to nature itself, as he runs away from an unseen threat in the first issue, vaults a fence in a snow-covered environment, only to vomit as he tries to gasp for breath. That purging seems to energize him, even as he's still in the freezing cold. The second issue finds him avoiding taking a school bus and once again braving the snow to take a shortcut. He encounters a moose who looks like he's about to stomp him but instead is spared. Of course, when he gets to school he is not spared by his daily tormentor, who chokes him and draws a dick on his forehead. These are absolutely beautiful little objects and De Radigues' trembling but clear line and angular character design is perfectly matched to the subject matter.

Oak and Linden #3, by Pat Barrett. The rest of the artists in this article are notable for their restraint and spareness of line. Barrett goes in the other direction, using thick brush strokes and lush imagery to tell his stories. In the third issue of his one-man anthology, Barrett opens up with "Hicough & Belch", an extended adventure/argument between two blocky, bulbous creatures. The simple, cartoony gray-scaled creatures form a Mutt & Jeff kind of duo against a naturalistic background, arguing about nothing less than the meaning of life. The loose, elastic nature of his characters, their casual bawdiness and their odd patois give this comic a sort of Pogo/Krazy Kat quality. The other story is the second installment of a serial called "Petrified Girlfriend", about a young woman who gets cold in her boyfriend's bed and literally stops moving. This issue flashes back to the beginning of their relationship and then flashes to the woman waking up in a dense forest. This story is all about sweep and shock, as Barrett slowly rolls back a number of reveals until he unleashes a splash-page stunner that pushes the remainder of the story. If his first story showed off his chops in building a story around a conversation, then this one illustrates how well he can tell a story with visuals alone. I'm still not exactly sure what kind of artist Barrett will eventually choose to become, but he certainly has the skills to do whatever he wants.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Help Fund The Sequential Artists Workshop

Tom Hart & Leela Corman's new venture, the Sequential Artists Workshop, is seeking funds to seed their new comics school in Gainesville, FL. Please check out the varied and remarkable rewards at Indie Go-Go and considering making a donation. Hart is a great teacher and this has the potential to be a great resource for those interested in another option in pursuing their craft. There's only a day left to get to their goal of $7000 and they're about $1400 short.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sequart #162: Reich 3-4

This review originally appeared at in 2007.

The first two issues of Reich focused on the basics of notorious psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich's early adult life, creating a narrative that tried to navigate between the extremes of opinions regarding his life and work. Issues three and four mostly flash back to his childhood and the roots of his obsession with sexuality and difficulty with intimacy. After the flashbacks end, we begin to see how Reich's work intersected with the culture of Germany between the world wars, and the way it essentially broke down to freedom vs. control.

Artist Elijah Brubaker takes a risk by basing most of these two issues on a short autobiography by Reich about his childhood. Brubaker acknowledges this in his essential endnotes, noting that there's no way to prove certain of Reich's claims, like losing his virginity at age eleven with a family cook. What was obvious was that Reich's obsession with sex and sexuality bloomed from a very early age (which, as he notes, is not unusual for a child who grows up on a farm). The reasons for his obsession with exposing sexuality as an open topic of discussion also became clear, given his mother's affair and the brutal nature of his father's jealousy. Of course, that insight came at a steep price: the development and nurturing of his own emotional intimacy.

By focusing on orgasm and sexual health as an essentialist issue, he blinded himself to the emotional complexity of human relationships. His dogged belief in the liberating power of orgasm took an interesting turn with the rise of fascism in Austria, as communists clashed with Mussolini-funded thugs. Reich saw a clear line between the oppression of patriarchy that plays out both on a state level and within marriages with sexual repression; the latter became an instrument by which the former was able to use fear, terror and violence to snuff out human freedom.

This issue felt like the end of the prelude, and that the action in the story's narrative will soon ramp up. Brubaker is taking his time continuing to establish Reich's complexity as a human being and putting his ideas and experiences into historical context. One thing I like about this series is that it takes advantage of its nature as a periodical. Brubaker ends each issue on a cliffhanger of sorts, and each issue feels like a complete story even as it's part of a larger narrative. That's because Brubaker is able to skillfully end each issue at the end of an emotional story beat. For example, at the end of issue #3, the story ends with Reich's father discovering his mother's infidelity and demanding that young Willhelm tell him everything he knows. Brubaker's highly stylized, expressionistic art wouldn't look out of place with the art in Vienna at the time. His use of sharp angles and shading on faces adds a frequently painful depth to the largely sober and restrained narrative voice. It's exciting to see Sparkplug's willingness to publish periodicals in an age when more publishers eschew the traditional comic book format, and one can sense that Sparkplug's Dylan Williams will let Reich take as long as he needs to finish his story.

Blue Cheer: Reich #8

The eighth issue of Elijah Brubaker's series about the life of Wilhelm Reich, Reich, starts to get at the heart of the concepts that Reich was best known for. After throwing out hints about his more unusual methods, theories and devices by way of exploring his childhood and early clinical career in earlier issues, Brubaker fast-forwards to 1946 and introduces us to Reich's orgone box. If the past two issues established Reich in America as a man with a persecution complex who spread that paranoia to his children and assistants, then this issue reveals that sometimes paranoids have real enemies. Once again, Reich is presented as a tragic hero. He's a visionary with any number of enlightened views about sex, gender and repression. At the same time, the lack of affection he received as a child made him cold, reserved and defensive within his own relationships.

Issue eight sets the beginning of the end into motion for Reich, as a hatchet job interview leads the Food & Drug Administration into action to investigate the potential quackery of Reich's orgone box. Essentially, Reich believed he had discovered a visible form of life energy called orgone. He inadvertently built a box that "accumulated and amplified" this energy, which he believed had "healing effects". In conjunction with "the proper psychological outlook", Reich asserted that orgone therapy could heal anything. As always, Brubaker is sympathetic to Reich's position in some respects while still retaining healthy skepticism. A key scene in the book features Albert Einstein, to whom Reich appealed for support. Einstein flatly rejected the science of the orgone box, and anyone with a scientific background can see that while Reich's methodology was sound in terms of the scientific method, his foundational premise was greatly flawed. Reich's stubbornness didn't allow him to reconsider his premises and simply repeatedly ran him into the same set of flawed results.

Brubaker skillfully plays that scientific rigidity of thinking into Reich's emotional rigidity, as one of his daughters scolds him for rebuffing the visit of another daughter on a day he had a toothache. Reich's view of human relationships is so reductionist that he fails to see just how irrational he can be even as he decries others for being neurotic. As the rain begins to fall at the end of the issue, FDA agents show up at Reich's door. They are clearly looking for someone to rake over the coals, and Reich's lack of flexibility as a researcher and human being make him a perfect target. His hubris and arrogance will wind up being his undoing, and this issue is the calm before the storm. As always, Brubaker's moody and angular drawings throw the character's emotions into sharp relief; his use of shadow in particular evokes despondency and uncertainty, while a careful use of cross-hatching and naturalistic drawing in places and objects anchors his pages and gives them weight. Chester Brown continues to be an inspiration for Brubaker in terms of the slightly detached storytelling style, the heavy research into a controversial historical figure, and the extensive use of end notes. Brubaker is more expressive than Brown's tighter style inspired by classic cartoonists, but makes his idiosyncrasies as an artist into his signature as a storyteller.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Top Shelf's Swedish Invasion: A Survey

I thought I'd take a (belated) look at Top Shelf's "Swedish Invasion": a group of translated graphic novels and anthologies from the Scandinavian country that has had a long and varied comics tradition. These books mostly came out in early 2010 and made a splash at MOCCA that year.

Swedish Comics History, by Fredrik Stromberg (Swedish Comics Association). At just over a hundred pages, and with most of that space given over to illustrations, there's not much room in this book for a thorough critical examination of Swedish comics. Stromberg takes the reader by the hand and whips them through nearly 150 years of cartooning while occasionally dropping the odd tidbit that discusses why the comics are important and how they fit into the larger context of Swedish culture. My favorite example of the latter was the decline of a certain kind of comics magazine thanks to the invention of the safety razor. The magazine was popular in "shaving parlors", an institution that died out when the razor was introduced. As a brand new reader of most of the comics in this book, I would have especially appreciated more of the latter. There was rarely a sense of what made the comics in the book uniquely Swedish, though that may be well part of the point. As a smaller country that's plugged into both European and American culture, it's no surprise that so many of the comics discussed in this book feel derivative of other comics scenes. Sweden was even affected by Frederick Wertham's anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent, to the point where comics were widely reviled.

That said, comics clearly holds a unique and ferociously loyal place in the hearts of many Swedes. Unsurprisingly, Donald Duck is as big in Sweden as he is in the rest of Europe, and it was interesting to read that this comic still sells over 100,000 copies a week. I was fascinated to read about the Swedish Comics Academy and the Swedish Comics Association, the latter of which was apparently largely responsible for legitimizing comics as something more than entertainment for young children, partly through publishing its own magazine. Its headquarters, Serieteket, is not unlike the Hicksville Lending Library in that it specializes in comics and holds the annual Swedish Small Press Expo. Combined with Seriecenter, a building that houses studio space, educational space, and office space for cartoonists. The Academy lobbied the government and convinced them to create grants supporting cartoonists.

The most frustrating thing about the book is that Stromberg gives little critical weight to the comics and creators he introduces. The section at the end about autobio comics and comics by women is tantalizing and well-illustrated, but I received no sense of who the truly significant and original artists in Sweden are. The end result is that this historical survey is more useful as a reference tool after having actually read some of the artists discussed than as a critical guide. The book is excellent in that regard by providing names, dates and which comics have been translated into English. I would recommend reading this book in conjunction with the In The Shadow Of The Northern Lights anthologies, as it helps provide a bit of context.

The Troll King, by Kolbeinn Karlsson. This strange, beautiful book looks like something Secret Acres might have published. In particular, there are similarities between Karlsson's work and that of both Eamon Espey and Theo Ellsworth. This book features a series of loosely-connected vignettes about a forest filled with strange inhabitants, all under the watchful eye of a benign but enigmatic lumpen creature with what looks like a carrot for a nose. The wavy lines of detail give the comic an almost vibratory quality at times, while the eye-popping use of color lend a dreamlike, psychedelic quality to the proceedings. The stories feel like comforting dreams and disturbing nightmares at the same time. The larger narrative concerns two mountain men (who describe themselves as Ewoks) who are lovers and are gifted with twin sons by the Troll King. That gift winds up being one that they cannot actually possess, as the sons grow to reject their fathers' ways in a sequence that was heartbreaking, strange and disturbing.

My favorite sequence involved a dwarf getting swept up into the magic of the forest; here, Karlsson abandons black lines to allow the color to fully saturate the page. The only blacks here are for negative space, which makes the incredibly vivid colors pop out all the more, creating the atmosphere of a waking dream that marks true psychedelia. Another great sequence found an anthropomorphic carrot taking a soak in a public bath before winding up as a tree. Karlsson's art evokes the same sense of wonder and imagination of Ellsworth's intensely-rendered dreamworlds while also carrying the grotesque and visceral quality of Espey. Like Espey's work, strange & ugly boys figure prominently in the narrative, and strange rituals are at the heart of the story. Like Ellsworth's work, the ultimate source of the narrative is a positive presence, even if his motives don't always seem immediately evident. The Troll King is a startling, unsettling, and ultimately life-affirming book that spins a mythology that is at once alien and familiar.

The 180 Days of Simon, by Simon Gardenfors. Peter Bagge did a blurb for the back of this book, and it's fitting since the Simon of this autobiographical diary comic is sort of a real-life Buddy Bradley. This book is essentially a Swedish version of K. Thor Jensen's Red Eye, Black Eye, in that the artist travels around the country, staying at the homes of total strangers who have agreed to take him in after he made a request on the internet. Unlike Jensen, who made the stories of others a primary focus of his narrative, Gardenfors makes everyone else part of his own adventure. Gardenfors is also a popular rapper and that bit of notoriety gets him the attention of a number of young women eager to sleep with him--including a couple of underage girls whose parents (incredibly) are amenable to him staying at their homes. All the while, Gardenfors balances his feelings about another artist that he's in love with for his project.

Gardenfors is hilariously self-centered, trying to squeeze as much sex, drugs, fun and weirdness into his journey as possible (in part, I'm guessing, so that he has something interesting to write about). Along the way, Gardenfors manages to draw death threats from an overprotective brother of a girl he has sex with, get savagely assaulted by some young punks, lose out on a bunch of money, fool a TV crew into thinking a friend of his was making sacrifices to Norse gods and do all sorts of drugs. By the end, he manages to solve all of his problems with solutions that drop out of the air. Any American artist reading no doubt started screaming with jealousy when Gardenfors gets the equivalent of $40,000 from a government grant. Gardenfors' highly stylized and simplified figure drawing style removes some of the salacious and sensational qualities of the content and plays things for laughs, even if much of his behavior is less than amusing. Indeed, the cutesy nature of his figures becomes cloying after a while. Essentially, this is the story of a fellow who's kind of an asshole who happens to get luckier than he deserves at times, but at least tries to make some of the jokes at his own expense. To his credit, more of his jokes are hits rather than misses, and the two-panel-per-page pace of the book makes this a breezy read.

Hey Princess, by Mats Jonsson. Of all the three solo "Swedish Invasion" books, Hey Princess was the one I was most skeptical of when I started reading it. Autobiographical comics by 20-something guys about their relationships, heartbreaks, humiliations and pop music are standard fare in the American comics scene and have been for over twenty years. Indeed, Jonsson lists Joe Matt and Seth as his primary influences, and he named the book after a pop song by the 90s band Popsicle. While there's a bit of Matt-style self-deprecation, Jonsson's book reminds me more of the work of his peer Jeffrey Brown. There's the same shabby line that invites intimacy, the same chronological focus on relationships and the same obsession with music. The blunt honesty regarding his own feelings of sadness and focus on the physical particulars of his relationships is reminiscent of David Heatley--another cartoonist who employs a simplified style. Most of all, Jonsson's comics remind of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity.

That novel's hero was not only obsessed with music and why his ex-girlfriends dumped him, but the role that pop music played in the actual break-ups. Similarly, Jonsson slowly pieces together patterns regarding his relationships while making sure to pepper these accounts with anecdotes that aren't just humiliating but also hilarious. He begins the book with an account of his first sexual encounter that also happens to describe the way in which he asks his girlfriend to tie him up and how she complies. Jonsson structures the book around the women he sees from age 19 to age 24, mixing in his ambitions as a comics editor, his life as a scenester/hipster type, and his relationships with his friends and rivals. While at first I felt the book was entirely derivative of better autobio artists, Jonsson eventually won me over.

How did the book change my mind? First and foremost, while there's some distance between the Jonsson who drew the stories and the Jonsson who experienced them, he's careful not to draw too distinct a line between them. Too often in confessional autobio, the artist looks back in contempt on old personas and opinions, positioning themselves as being more enlightened now (I'm thinking specifically of David Heatley here). While Jonsson gains some hard-fought perspective by the end of the book, it's not at the expense of the account of his past exploits. Second, Jonsson really gets at the feeling of being a young person in Sweden in the 1990s. The more specific he gets in terms of his details, the more vivid and relatable his story becomes. Those details prove to be important when he's trying to understand his own feelings and desires. At the same time, Jonsson captures the feeling that Sweden is a small country and that it's not hard to throw oneself into the scene if some effort is exerted. Third, Jonsson is really funny and gets funnier as the book proceeds. In particular, his depiction of his arch-rival Marcus Gerdin, a sleazy DJ hipster, is hilarious--down to the character design (with an elongated head) to the anecdotes themselves. There's also an anecdote about Jonsson and his friends defacing an Aaron Carter poster, only to have to deal with 9-year-old pop star happening upon the poster and becoming upset. The way Jonsson tells the story (as an anecdote within a larger story) was clever, as was his afterword where he discusses the grim lesson Carter learned about the price of success. Jonnson's sloppy line and slightly grotesque character design eventually becomes endearing, especially with the way the book is formatted: two panels a page, which lets each story whip by quickly.

Most importantly, Jonsson gets at why he's so attracted to "indie girls" (as in indie rock). In a sense, they are living personifications of the aesthetic perpetuated by indie rock. In other words, the fantasies found in Brit Pop or pop music in general espouse the perfect moment, captured in three minute bursts. Being able to have a relationship with a girl who embodies that ideal was something that Jonsson simply couldn't resist, until he finally saw how destructive this was after he dated a 17 year old girl who lied about her age. He experienced one night that was a series of perfect moments with her, a night that could be encapsulated by a pop song, and stayed in an otherwise terrible relationship because of the weight that one moment continued to possess. That concept is captured by the book's cover, a photograph of two lovers laying on autumn leaf-strewn grass. That's a perfect moment, one that he was trying to manufacture again and again, until he understood that this very attempt would wind up destroying any real chance of a relationship. This insight, delivered with the easy grace, humor and good will that he accumulated throughout the course of the book, provides a nuanced recapitulation of the book, one that adds a layer of depth to each chapter without being too reductionist.

From The Shadow Of The Northern Lights, Volume 1, edited by Johannes Klenell. Readers curious about Swedish comics would be well advised to start with these excellent, wide-ranging and visually exciting anthologies. Essentially featuring the all-stars from long-time Swedish alt-comics stalwart Galago, Northern Lights manages to pack the work of 26 cartoonists of varying styles into 200 pages. What's remarkable is that every story feels like a complete unit and that no cartoonist is shortchanged in the process of assembling the anthology. Karlsson, Jonsson & Gardenfors all make appearances, but what distinguishes both anthologies is the preponderance of female cartoonists. Klenell plays up the "Scandinavian angst" angle of these comics in his introduction, invoking the long winter months and Galago's place reacting against popular culture and reactionary politics. There are some strains of that, though the influence of American underground comics, alt-comics and mark-making are in far greater evidence.

Art by Loka Kanarp

Highlights of this volume include Anneli Furmark's story about an artist attempting to alienate and isolate himself from his friends and loved ones (she may be known to North American readers from her appearance in Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #5; it's drawn in a scratchy, dense style with scribbly, expressive figures. David Liljemark's "Henry says" is about two friends having a conversation in a cafe', with one man detailing his ups and downs with an enervating female friend. This was done in a cute, almost superdeformed cartoony style with a thick black line. At 13 pages, it's one of many stories in the anthology that's given the space to really breathe. Fabian Goranson's 21-page freakout reminds me a bit of the sort of thing Zak Sally does, in that it depicts a mental and emotional breakdown of a desperate character depicted as a monkey. The range of visual styles is dizzyingly impressive, especially when the main character starts to hallucinate and the images break down into psychedelic and cubist images.

Art by Knut Larsson

Liv Stromquist's minimalist line and sharply satirical point of view made "I Was Stalin's Girlfriend" an especially amusing entry, as she draws from history to reflect on the monstrous and yet particularly male aspects of Stalin's reign in the way he treated his wife. Loka Kanarp's "The Party" depicts a socially awkward young woman given a social lifeline that is later cruelly yanked away from her, downplaying her pain in a series of quiet, meditative panels. On the other hand, Asa Grennvall's "A Useless Fag Hag" employs autobio to explore her feelings about the time she had a gay man as her best friend (pointedly noting that even though he was gay, he was still a man and less was expected of him in terms of hard labor) and how shabbily she was treated by his friends. The line is loose, crude and expressive, befitting the emotions she's venting. Malin Biller's "Motorcycle Emptiness", an account of her time in England working menial & demoralizing jobs in a starry-eyed attempt to meet a famous musician, uses a touch of the grotesque in describing the horrible people she meets.

Art by Marcus Ivarsson

In terms of visual pyrotechnics, Knut Larsson's creepy, densely rendered nude figures remind me a bit of Renee French's rendering style, but with an aesthetic that is otherwise all his own. There's a stark, otherworldly beauty to his strange images that lingers in one's memory. Marcus Ivarsson's "Nemesis" is a dense, psychedelic story that reminds me a bit of Jim Woodring in the way its anthropomorphic rabbit protagonist negotiates his environment and a life full of woes. Tom Karlsson's story about a character telling his son how he came to be through the recounting of a dream was affecting, strange and rendered in exacting, powerful detail. The one sour note in the anthology was Henrik Bromander's story of a sister manipulated into a situation where she was gang-raped by a gang of motorcycle toughs. The crudeness of his line actually ameliorated some of the more disturbing aspects of the story, but this felt like an underground artist looking to shock for shock's sake. In a book filled with visually and intellectually challenging & honest work, this story felt adolescent in comparison.

From The Shadow Of The Northern Lights, Volume 2, edited by Johannes Klenell. The second volume expands the line-up with a number of new names who are mostly women. Indeed, 16 of the 36 contributors are women, which is highly unusual in any comics anthology that is not specifically focused by gender. It's clear that in Sweden, the alt-comix movement has bridged the gender gap much more quickly than it did in the US, though the gap is certainly closing there as well. Unsurprisingly, given that many different cartoonists, the styles are all over the map. In some ways, this volume is a bit less tight and focused than the first volume. The stories are generally shorter and more scattershot, even as the physical appearance of the book is much more appealing. Many of the pieces are in color, for example, and there are more visual pyrotechnics to be found. Certain aspects of the book are less appealing; the book lacks a page providing more information about each contributor and also omits the name of the artist at the top of each page, which was quite helpful for a reader new to Swedish comics in the first volume.

Art by Loka Kanarp

That said, the array of talent and approaches is still quite impressive, making this a dense and occasionally challenging anthology. The transitions aren't quite as smooth as in the first anthology, but getting jarred from time to time wasn't entirely a bad thing. The anthology is clever in the way it uses Joakim Pirinen's "Drafted For Life" as a kind of interstitial comic, with each chapter popping up throughout the book as the protagonist is being reincarnated but must make every life decision for its new life ahead of time. There's a dark but cartoony quality to Pirinen's line that imbues it with a certain comic energy. I mostly won't touch on stories by artists I reviewed in the first volume. One exception is Knut Larrson's "Forest Boy", which retains the fantastic detail of his story in the first anthology and adds a layer of deep, rich color to the crazy proceedings.

Art by Ruben Dahlstrand Vargas

Joanna Hellgren's pencil drawings and the way she draws children is reminiscent of Amanda Vahamaki, down to the lettering and word balloon style. The density of her pencil drawings adds to the sense of mystery and dread surrounding this story of a young girl reluctant to go cliff diving and the strange secret the waters hold. Stina Johnson's minimalist use of watercolors lends a fragility to her account of a childhood spent with a mother who was a seeker--politically and spiritually. Johnson's use of her mother's divining rods to find her eyeglasses is an especially amusing gag. John Andersson makes the most of color with his character taking a trippy walk in a garden at evening-time, flipping through a variety of realities and identities along the way. The vividness of the color makes this one of the most visually appealing strips in the anthology.

Art by Coco Moodyson

A flip between transitory states and pure naturalism is not an uncommon segue in the book, as the next story, Coco Moodyson's "I Remember My Mother's Lovers And How They Used To Touch Her" demonstrates. This is a Jesse Reklaw-style autobio catalog of events that reveals deeper truths, told with wit and bite. Her character design is amusing, as she depicts a variety of the titular lovers mostly from the point of view of her as a child and how they benefit or annoy her. One of the laugh-out-loud strips in the page is a story from Sara Graner, who depicts a male author being interviewed about his feelings regarding "the boom of male writers during the last 500 years", brutally satirizing the sort of questions feminist artists face on a regular basis.

Art by Fabian Goranson

Karolina Bang's "Cowgirls" is proof positive that the women in this anthology approach comics from a number of different angles; this one is a lesbian cowgirl sex romp, complete with strap-on dildos, rendered in a sketchy but expressive pencil style. This is one of several stories depicting sex as a (mostly) joyful romp, including one of the longer stories in the book, "Pornographic Saxophones". This collaboration between David Liljemark and Ruben Dahlstrand Vargas features rubbery and lively art in its depiction of a love affair between two musicians gone horribly wrong. The woman, an avant garde free jazz saxophonist, accidentally records herself blowing sax while having sex with her lover. Impressed with the result, they release the record and put together a career that draws a few hardcore fans. When she wants to go to the next level with a live sexual & musical performance, he balks and their relationship soon ends. The tragic end of her career and life obsesses the man in fascinating and unhealthy ways, eventually breaking up his marriage and leaving him the same fragile state his ex-girlfriend wound up in.

Art by Benjamin Stengard

Lennart & Fabian Goranson's "When The Devil Created The World" is a funny account of a conversation between god and the devil prior to the creation of the universe. Of course, who's responsible for what winds up being surprising, and neither creator emerges without blame in this story that looks like a bar crawl bull session gone horribly awry. Later in the anthology, we go from satire to horror in Benjamin Stengard's "Twin", a story of two boys rendered densely in pen & ink. The story starts with an understanding that this is about one of a pair of twin boys who falls ill and dies. Stengard takes a sharp left turn in returning the twin, only this time he's massively deformed. The true horror of the situation is the way in which their mother tries to assure everyone that things are perfectly normal. Niklas Asker's realistically rendered and pained "Under Sheets" takes a turn for the strange and dreamy, making a story filled with the typical yearnings of the lonely into something oddly beautiful.

Art by Emelie Ostergren

The two stories that stuck with me the longest were Loka Kanarp's "The Find", an oddly stirring story about a woman who picks up a guy and goes back to his apartment. She undresses him, fellates him and brings him to orgasm--all while keeping on her clothes and flatly refusing to undress. This is a smart story because of the clever way Kanarp addresses objectification without lecturing; the woman at the end simply asks the man to imagine what he wants her to look like and then close his eyes. The other story, Emelie Ostergren's "You Make My World Go Round", is five pages of exciting lunacy, as a fey-looking man is manipulated by masked creatures into trying different sets of clothing and different identities. Ostergren creates the sort of hallucinatory world matched only by Karlsson in Swedish comics, one that possesses its own rules and logic. What I like best about the "Swedish Invasion" is that it's helping to cross-pollinate two different comics traditions. While the work of many Swedish cartoonists may well have its origins derived from various American & European traditions, there's no question that those traditions have mutated into fascinating re-interpretations and new brand new takes on old tropes. There's a certain brutally honest frankness about these comics, both in terms of expressing one's emotions as well as one's id. It will be interesting to see what kind of mark these books make on North American audiences and how that will wind up carrying back over the Atlantic Ocean.