Tuesday, February 27, 2007

100th post spectacular! Wherein I look at artcomix and such

That's right, according to Blogger, this is the 100th post on the blog. Of course, that includes "inventory" posts devoid of content, but who's checking? Not me! Being a comic fan, you have to celebrate multiples of 100; it's a rule. Actually, I could celebrate an "anniversary" every multiple of 25, but I'm not that meticulous.



Anyway, I'm looking at some artcomix (is that an annoying term? If so, sorry.), inspired by my recent reading of An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, which came out last fall. I also recently read (and sort of reviewed) The Best American Comics 2006, which I would have included here, but my wife took it back to the library. So I'll stick to the Anthology, although if I get on a roll I might break out my copy of McSweeney's #13, or maybe some Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes books. We'll see.

I'll try to stay positive here, looking at the stuff I like, but if I find something especially distasteful, I might not be able to contain the bile. First up: Maakies! I've never been a huge fan of Tony Millionaire, although I generally find his art appealingly grotesque. However, the few strips in this volume may have swayed me, with their offensive but hilarious humor. I like the way he emulates old newspaper strips, complete with goofy jokes in a tiny secondary strip at the bottom of the main strip. I might have to check out a collection of Maakies, or possibly Billy Hazelnuts. Here's my favorite strip from this collection (click to enlarge, or it won't be readable):



There's a Charles Schulz tribute section, mostly collecting stuff that I assume was done around the time of his death, along with a 1959 essay by Schulz called "Developing a Comic Strip". I especially like Art Spiegelman's and Chris Ware's entries; they both ape Schulz's style and iconography very well in tribute to the master. There's also a hilarious set of strips by R. Sikoryak called "Good Ol' Gregor Brown", which retells Kafka's The Metamorphosis as a series of Peanuts strips. It's awesome:



Peter Bagge has an enjoyable excerpt from Oedipus Junior. I kind of like Bagge; his cartoony characters are very expressive. This excerpt is only four pages, but it's a pretty funny story about the titular Junior (I assume) drawing a picture of a naked woman and then being ashamed of himself. We've all been there, Ed!

One of my favorite stories (if you can call it that) is "Here" by Richard McGuire, whose name I realize I don't recognize. Does anybody have any information about him? Anyway, it takes place in a single room, but we get glimpses of events that took place in the room in many different time periods, including some from before the house was built and the land was wilderness or farmland, as well as some from the future after the house has burned down and been destroyed. Some panels depict a single scene, while others have other squares inset in them showing events from a different time period; each of the panels or insets is labeled with the year of its origin.



It's a very affecting look at all the generations of people who inhabit the same space. I like it a lot, and I'll have to look for other stuff by McGuire.

Okay, time for some negativity. Can somebody explain to me what is supposed to be the appeal of Gary Panter's Jimbo stories? There's an excerpt from Jimbo in Purgatory here, and frankly, I find it impenetrable. I can understand the appeal of the design work Panter does; these pages are laid out very uniquely, but what the hell is supposed to be going on? The loincloth-clad Jimbo seems to be wandering through Purgatory and quoting from Dante (I assume, I've never read any of his stuff), although the text in the balloons is not exactly easy to read. Plus, I think there are other characters accompanying him, one of whom appears to be a Fryguy. I don't get it, and I probably don't want to.

Okay, back to the positives. We've got an excerpt from Charles Burns's Curse of the Molemen, and it looks pretty good. I've read Black Hole, which was great, so I might have to check this out. It's very creepy, with a weird-looking kid being interested in the apparent excavation of his neighbor's back yard. It seems the neighbor is looking for treasure in the guise of digging a swimming pool, but the kid sees a freaky creature crawl out of the hole at night. His parents don't believe him, and I'll have to get the book sometime to find out what happens next. I really dig Burns's art; it's heavy with shadows, and his realistic depiction of "normal" people really brings out the freakish look of the weirder characters. Good stuff.




Then we have "Young Ledicker", by Kim Deitch. I believe this is part of his new book Shadowland, which I will definitely have to read. The story here concerns young Al Ledicker, a kid with clown makeup who works in his father's dime museum. His father is working on a rain-making machine that he's trying to sell to the mayor. As the story proceeds, prostitutes, midgets, political corruption, and sexually-transmitted disease all enter the mix. It's pretty crazy.



Apparently, Shadowland details the life of Ledicker, and he's a nasty, mean guy. I can't wait to read it.

We've got an excerpt from The Golem's Mighty Swing, by James Sturm. I haven't read this, but I've heard it's good. It sure looks nice; I dig Sturm's clean art style:



There's an excerpt from Sammy Harkham's Somersaulting in here. I don't know if I've read anything by him; I think I've seen some of his art and liked it, but this doesn't really appeal to me. The characters are kind of lumpy. I'll have to check out something else he's done.

Next: an excerpt from Hawaiian Getaway by Adrian Tomine. I like Tomine, but man, his stuff can be depressing. But in a funny way:



I have a few issues of Optic Nerve, and they're pretty much like this. That's all I have to say.

Next we have a couple stories from the Hernandez brothers. "A Little Story", by Gilbert, is a cute story about kids in a Mexican town. I assume it's from his "Palomar" cycle. I really need to get that.



"Flies on the Ceiling" by Jaime, is a creepy, surreal story about a woman fleeing her past after she had an abortion, I think. It's kind of hard to tell (or maybe I'm dense). He's a master of his style of art, and he really communicates the troubled nature of her thoughts.



Both these stories are from the 80's; I assume they were originally published in Love and Rockets. Man, I can't wait to get the collections of those.

I haven't read much of Joe Matt's stuff, and I don't especially like what I've read, but I think I understand the appeal. There's an excerpt from The Poor Bastard here, and it's a good illustration of his talents:




He's a really good cartoonist, clearly expressing his characters' emotions. And he's pretty funny, especially when he's making himself look bad. Which is pretty much every panel. He's just such an unpleasant person to spend time with, I don't really want to read very much of his stuff. Short excerpts in anthologies like this are just about enough for me.

Another cartoonist whose work doesn't grab me: Seth. Not that I dislike it or anything, but there's not much to it that makes me want to read more of his stuff. I've read some good reviews of Wimbledon Green, so I might check that one out, but the excerpt of It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken in this book is kind of boring. It follows a guy (salesman?) walking around a small town with a briefcase and thinking thoughts. Yawn. The best part is when he stops to observe a kid who is acting out a parade along with his (the kid's) dog. I liked that bit. Oh well, maybe someday I'll read something by him that I really like.

Dammit, I'm trying to be positive in this review, but here's another slightly negative comment: I'm not especially enamored with Jeffrey Brown. He seems to specialize in whiny autobiographical strips about his relationships. The ones here (excerpted from Clumsy) are cute and kind of funny, but mostly boring. Maybe it's his art style that I don't like; it seems kind of rough and amateurish to me.



Okay, a more positive note: I didn't especially like the excerpt from John Porcellino' Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man in The Best American Comics 2006, but there's an excerpt here from King-Cat No. 63 that I do like, for the most part. It's autobiographical, and simply illustrated, but there's something about the way Porcellino renders it that grabs me. A short bit about his drinking "career" and a story about various barbers he has frequented were interesting and enjoyable. I dunno, it seems autobio comics have a thin line to walk, both with art and writing. Make it interesting and fairly fast-paced, but don't give too many details; other people probably won't find every aspect of your life interesting. And art-wise, well, that's harder to say. Be clear with your intent; don't make people guess at what you're trying to convey. Who knows, I might be off base here, but this is what makes autobio comics interesting to me. Anyway, here's an example of Porcellino's work:



Jonathan Bennett was another guy from Best American Comics that I sort of liked, but not completely. This book reprints Torrential, which appears to be a minicomic of his. It's pretty good, a short story about coming home from a rainstorm and being annoyed by his neighbors. Short but sweet. Here's a panel I love, where he takes refuge from his neighbors' loud argument beneath a pile of couch pillows:



Another guy from Best American Comics: David Heatley! He has a short comic here called "Northern California", which is an adaptation of a dream he had. It's interesting, but I liked his "Portrait of My Dad" much better. That's all I have to say.

Gabrielle Bell (whose Lucky I recently reviewed) has a short comic here called "Cecil and Jordan in New York". It's not bad, but the most notable thing for me was the use of color, since I had only seen her work in black and white. It's a nice touch.



Oh, and I liked the surreal ending to this strip. She's one to watch.

I'm still trying to gain some appreciation for Kevin Huizenga, but the comic he has here (an excerpt from "The Sunset") isn't helping. It's got some crazy energy, but I have no idea what's going on or what it's supposed to mean.

"Black Cherry" by Michael Dougan is a short story about working at an ice cream parlor and dealing with the eccentric customers who frequent the establishment, specifically a weird guy who always orders a black cherry soda. It's interesting and evocative, ending on a sad, melancholy note. I'll have to look for more stuff by Dougan.

Okay, we're getting close to the end of the book, and here's the really good stuff! We've got six stories by R. Crumb, with two being written by Harvey Pekar. I haven't read a whole lot of Crumb's comics, but after this I really want to check more of his stuff out. We've got the wordless "A Short History of America" (which I almost won in poster form on Ebay once!), which is excellent. Then there's "Uncle Bob's Mid-Life Crisis", in which Crumb freaks out when a fan sends him a checklist of every work he's ever done. Very funny; here's a great panel where he tries to gain some peace through meditation:



It doesn't work though; all he can think about is sex. That comic is followed by "Jelly Roll Morton's Voodoo Curse", a story about an influential band leader from the 20's whose life is ruined by a voodoo curse which may or may not all be in his mind. Very interesting, with some great art; he's good at varying his style to suit the mood of the story. Here's a panel I love of Morton's first wife pausing while talking about his death:



God, I love that drawing. In fact, I'm going to name it my current favorite comics panel. The next story is a hilarious rant called "Where Has It Gone, All the Beautiful Music of Our Grandparents?" In typical old-guy fashion, Crumb rails against the terrible music produced today (that is, in the early 80's when he drew this). He even gives a history of folk music, from the caveman days to the early 20th century. He seems to think that recording killed music, even though he loves listening to old records. It's a hilarious story; I love his exaggerated, cartoony illustrations. Here he is telling us what's what:



"Lunch with Carmella" is a Pekar-written story in which Harv tells a coworker about a crazy lady that used to work there. It's a funny, low-key tale (does Pekar ever tell any other kind?). Finally, Pekar writes "Hypothetical Quandary", in which he imagines getting rich and being able to quit his job and write comics full-time. Check out this really cool panel:



Man, Crumb can draw. I changed my mind; this is my current favorite panel.

Okay, we're in the home stretch. Next, we've got an excerpt from Soba by Joe Sacco. I love Sacco; he's the preeminent comics journalist of our time. This is one of his stories from the Bosnia/Serbia/Yugoslavia conflict, and judging from this excerpt, it's excellent. The titular character is a planter of land mines by day, and a hard partier by night. This story follows him and a fellow soldier as they hit the nightclubs to dance, drink, and pick up women. I love the sense of energy that Sacco brings to the proceedings; these people feel like they could die any day, so they're trying to live as much as they can while they've got the time.



I haven't read nearly enough of Sacco's work; the only full-length comic of his I've read is The Fixer (which was excellent). I really need to check out Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde.

Next, we've got "The Ethel Catherwood Story" by David Collier, from his book Portraits From Life (which I might have to pick up if I get the chance). The story is an interview with Joe Griffiths, the man who discovered and trained the titular athlete, a Canadian high-jumper in the 20's. It's a fascinating story about Griffiths reading a story about Catherwood in the paper and realizing that she had tied the world record for the women's high jump. So he traveled to meet her and convinced her to compete in the national competition. She ended up going to the 1928 Olympics, winning the gold medal, becoming an international celebrity, and marrying a millionaire from San Francisco. It's a fascinating story, and Collier really captures the people with his art while still adding some cartoonish expressiveness. Check out this scene from when Griffiths first meets Catherwood:



I won't go into too much detail on the last two artists, because they're two of my favorites and I'll probably do some sort of retrospective for each of them sometime in the future. First, we have several stories by Chris Ware, who I think is possibly the greatest cartoonist ever. There's an amazing story about Scott Joplin, the "King of Ragtime"; an excerpt from Jimmy Corrigan; "Thrilling Adventure Stories", in which Ware draws a superhero story but fills in the captions and word balloons with his own remembrances of childhood; and an excerpt from Building Stories (which I think will be in the next issue of Acme Novelty Library). Great stuff.

Finally, we've got "Gynecology" by Daniel Clowes. It's about a young, misanthropic artist named Epps. Not my favorite of his works (that would be Ghost World or Ice Haven), but it's interesting. At least you get some classic Clowes scenes, like this one:



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So, that's it for this book. It's an excellent anthology, presenting a good view of alternative comics. Unfortunately, I only like about 50% of the comics within, but that's an anthology for you. Quite a few of the comics are twenty years old or more (there's even an extensive excerpt from Maus), but I guess we have the Best American series to keep us up with newer stuff. Overall, I would recommend it, but keep in mind that I read it for free (thanks, Sarah!).
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Whew! Okay, that's enough for me for today. I might be back tomorrow with more of my usual schtick, if I have the energy.