Monday, June 21, 2010

It Was the War of the Trenches: War is hell, etc.

Elsewhere: I wrote about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus at The Factual Opinion.  I liked that one.

Links: A new Abhay Khosla comic!  I guess he did this as a minicomic to sell at a local convention, but he also posted it online, and it's as hilarious as you would expect.

Here's a pretty amusing webcomic: God Hates Astronauts.  Be sure to read from the beginning; it's a superhero parody, but while it starts out as a "ha ha, this is lame" sort of thing, with dumb names and powers and bears and such nonsense, it quickly changes into something weirder and funnier.  You'll see what I mean.

It Was the War of the Trenches
By Jacques Tardi

It has been said that it is impossible to make an anti-war movie, since the depiction of war onscreen necessarily conveys such an excitement and intensity that even death can seem entertaining.  That notion is debatable, but the same statement can be disproven for the medium of comics on the basis of one piece of evidence: Jacques Tardi's World War I graphic novel It Was the War of the Trenches.  By focusing on the sense of ever-present death and complete inability to survive through any means other than sheer luck, Tardi completely dispels any sense that war is heroic, or even a worthwhile endeavor.  It's a harsh, ugly look at the depths to which man can sink, with little in the way of redemption throughout.  It's persuasive enough that it renders most any other argument against war unnecessary.

The book collects a series of stories that were published in French magazines over the course of most of the 1980s and early 90s, making for a series of unconnected vignettes following the cannon fodder soldiers who dwelt in the trenches on the front lines of the war between France and Germany.  Tardi pulls no punches here, showing their grim, ugly existence, as they dwell in the mud and rain, subsisting on stale rations before periodically leaving their only relatively protected shelters for ventures into the barbed-wire-and-bullet-filled "No Man's Land", often dying horribly.  Each tale only lasts a few pages, as Tardi follows one soldier or another until their story, more often than not, reaches a bitter end, but he makes good use of the space each man gets, allowing them to narrate about themselves via captions or dialogue, making each individual seem fully realized and human, and all the more tragic when they are inevitably slaughtered.

This might seem like an endurance test, a litany of death upon death, but Tardi does vary his approach enough that each new tale is unique, presenting a fairly encompassing view of soldiers' experiences, although never venturing above the lower-most link on the chain of command.  Some men get a chance to leave the front lines and glimpse a life of normalcy before being sent back into the meat grinder; others get stranded in the crater-pocked wilderness and try to survive on their own; still others find themselves in bombed-out towns searching for food and safety.  We might get to see somebody's personal history or flash to their loved ones before the worst happens, usually quickly.  Or, somebody might get wounded and end up suffering horribly as they slowly die, alone in a muddy pile of fellow corpses.  The stories are fiction, but they are based in heavily-researched fact, and that much is obvious in every nasty detail that Tardi includes on the page.

No, reading this book is not an especially enjoyable experience, but it is a necessary one, an attempt to convey the way war cheapens human life, turning men into disposable objects, bullets to be fired at the enemy with no regard for their own right to existence.  There's a certain contempt on display for those who are in power and treat their men with such disregard, a disgust that the reader shares when the French officers order their artillery to fire on their own lines in order to force the men out of the trenches to attack the German lines, or, in a sequence lifted from the Stanley Kubrick film Paths of Glory, soldiers get sentenced to death for retreating from an impossible assault when ordered to take a German position.  One can't help but be horrified at the ugliness to which men will sink, whether they are fighting for their lives in the mud or giving orders from well behind the lines.

The book ends with a character giving a lengthy monologue that acknowledges all the various factions and nations involved in the war, displaying a sort of sorrow for all the people dragged into a pointless conflict, yet still containing a bit of dark humor at the circumstances that brought them all together.  He also rattles off some staggering statistics about the number of people killed and maimed, the amount of land and resources destroyed, giving a full picture of the damage that war can do.  It's a change from the intimacy of the rest of the book, a chance to zoom out and see the full effect beyond what is experienced by individuals, and it makes for a great bit of punctuation to end this slog through the depths of human ugliness.

Yes, this is an unpleasant book (even extending to the art, which does its job as well as everything else in making the war look ugly, muddy, dirty, and bloody; defining each character well but making sure to show the awfulness of their circumstances), but one that everyone should read, not only for a sense of history, but to see the horror of death and the suffering of those forced to partake in it.  The idea that people would be less likely to engage in war if they witness its effects is something of a pipe dream, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to open people's eyes to it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965: If that's pronounced "Zowie!", I'll agree

Elsewhere: I don't think I've linked to this yet: I reacted with revulsion to the season premiere of True Beauty, which means I might or might not keep watching. That's summer TV for you.

Links:  Ed Piskor is posting the entirety of his Wizzywig series of graphic novels webcomic-style, with a page every few days.  I've been wanting to read this one.

This series of autobiographical 3-D comic strips (sort of) by Warren Craghead looks really cool.  I see another "look what Matt made!" post in the future.

Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965
By Joe Kubert

Since Joe Kubert has been making comics longer than most of his readers have probably been alive, he gets a bit of leeway when considering the quality of his work.  Not to say that outright badness is excused, but some general clunkiness can go ignored, especially when there are so many frankly incredible examples of excellent artwork and storytelling on display.  The fact that he's working at all in his mid-eighties is already astonishing, and the level of craft in his art and dedication he shows in continuing to crank it out regularly is pretty amazing.

That said, this book is kind of an odd one, presenting a fictionalized account of an early battle in the Vietnam War that is nevertheless based closely on fact, which we know because a sort of reference dossier is included in the back of the book relating the real-life incidents as described by the men who experienced them.  But while Kubert changes names and probably fudges some details, he doesn't really make a great deal of effort to restructure things into a plot; instead, the whole story is little more than a series of events, described via narration and captioned dialogue.  The characters don't get reshaped into anything more than a series of interchangeable grunts either; they simply go through their paces like action figures, only slightly more momorable than the near-faceless hordes of Vietcong they end up battling.

But while that description sounds like a tedious exercise in fact-relation, the book is anything but, due to the fascinating things Kubert does with the art.  As mentioned, he foregoes the use of word balloons, relating everything via captions, which sets the art apart from the words, making for more of a free-flowing series of images, a feeling which is only bolstered by the lack of panel borders, which allows Kubert to spread the art organically across the page, one scene flowing into the next, the reader's eye swooping in elegant curves to match the lush greenery on display throughout.  One could conceivably ignore the captions altogether and manage to piece together the plot using only the images, and still end up pretty satisfied.

And to increase the difficulty level, Kubert's art is presented in "unfinished" form.  Actually, that's not completely true, since this is meant to be the final product, but the art remains uninked, raw pencils sitting naked and exposed, with "underdrawing" and guide marks still visible, allowing the viewer to see the process underlying the making of the images.  And yet, this doesn't seem amateurish or unfinished, but simply an expression that this is enough, no further embellishment is needed to get the idea across.  If anything, the elegant pencilwork communicates a down-to-earth roughness, befitting the dirty, bloody nature of the story's violent battle.  It's harsh and unforgiving, such that any mistakes would be even more obvious; luckily, Kubert doesn't make any.

No, he manages to take a bare-bones script and infuse it with life, making the jungle seem oppressive and full of secrets, giving characters emotion and expression, and filling action with motion and violence.  It's amazing, and it pulls the reader right into its struggle.  But while it might be difficult to do so, if one can take a step back and examine the art, it's like a miniature symposium on comics storytelling, full of near-invisible techniques for communicating information simply and succinctly, like the way depth can be shown by giving characters in the foreground more detail while simplifying them as they recede into the background:

Using contrast to guide the eye to the most important part of a scene:

Or the way looser shading can portray light, shadow, and definition, while denser scribbles of lines can represent smoke or darkness:

Of course, that sort of thing might seem obvious, but Kubert makes difficult-to-master techniques look easy, which is what comes from a lifetime of practice.  The fluid motion he manages to convey even in the midst of crowded scenes of rushing figures is something that seems a bit tougher to grasp:

As is his ease with facial expressions, which manages to differentiate characters excellently, while convincingly conveying a full range soldierly qualities like determination and righteous anger:

It's a master class in comics art, but one could be forgiven for not even noticing and just being pulled along by the velocity of the storytelling.  Kubert has put together a signature work here, one that should be studied for years to come.

If there's anything to wonder about, it's the lack of political comment, which here is mostly limited to American troops being limited to acting in an advisory capacity.  Perhaps enough time has elapsed that that pointless quagmire of an exercise can be another setting for tales of heroic derring-do, especially when placed at this early date, before things got really ugly.  No, the real complaint would probably be the glorification of war; while Kubert doesn't pull any punches when depicting death, the whole affair does have a heroic feel, with soldiers rescuing each other with exemplary marksmanship, or going out in a blaze of glory in defense of their fellow men.  It's kind of old fashioned in the way it seems uncritical of war itself, even while depicting its horrors.

But whatever your feelings about the book's ultimate message, you can't deny that it's a gorgeous piece of artwork, a great example of the talent that Kubert has honed over decades of work and now wields as an instrument of comics-making excellence.  He sets a hell of an example for the generations of artists that have followed him, and if there's anything right in the world, he will continue to do so for many more.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ten things I previously did not know about Wonder Woman

All taken from The Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia.

1.  Abu-Gita, an ape queen from Gorilla City, once tried to invade Themyscira, home of the Amazons, but Wonder Woman's use of the Lasso of Truth on her revealed that her faith in her gods was based on lies.

2.  Etta Candy, Wonder Woman's chubby sidekick, has a father named Hard , a mother named Sugar, and a sister named Mint.

3.  Wonder Woman once fought a group of flying shark-women who attacked Paradise Island after being mutated by a scientist named Gerta Von Gunther, who later saved the day by dousing their leader, Queen Sharkeeta, with "humanizing solution" that made her submit to being imprisoned on Reform Island.

4.  A villain named the Sinister Seer of Saturn once attacked Wonder Woman by sending a doll-sized replica of the heroine to Earth which then grew to gigantic size.  When Wonder Woman tried to stop it, it attached her to itself magnetically and blasted off back to Saturn, where the villain put her through challenges that involved her regressing in age to become Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot.

5.  Wonder Woman once kidnapped a boy and took him on a time-travel trip because he was bored in history class.  They ended up getting trapped as ghosts in Nero's Rome.

6.  A villain known as American Adolph tried to form a criminal empire and take over the United States, but was foiled when Wonder Woman was given a copy of his book, My War Against Society.

7.  A Leprechaun named Moon O'Day, who, despite being male, was a student at the Holliday College for Women, created a typewriter that could make anything typed on it come to pass.  This typewriter was acquired by a criminal known only as "The Boss", who used it to tell Wonder Woman to fly a kite around the moon.

8.  Wonder Woman once fought an alien robot named Princess No. 1003, whose disappearance from her home planet prompted an invasion of Earth by its other 2,785 robot princesses.

9.  There have been at least eleven different versions of Wonder Woman in all the various timelines and continuities of the past 70 years, including two different versions of the original World War II-era character, two different versions of Wonder Woman's mother Queen Hippolyta, at least two former Wonder Girls, two different characters named Artemis, and one of several versions of the villainess Circe.

10.  Wonder Woman once fought an evil wizard named Strogo, who lived on the Planet of Thought, which was populated by fairy tale characters.  He captured Wonder Woman as part of his scheme to obtain an element called "xium", which would power his black magic wand.  When Wonder Woman shattered the xium gem, everybody on the planet turned into a toddler.

That's a tiny sampling of the bizarreness on display throughout this massive tome.  If you want to be overwhelmed by decade upon decade of confusing, often tedious inanity, give it a read.

More proof that I am a nerd, of some sort or another

In yesterday's review of Super Spy: The Lost Dossiers, I mentioned a comic that required the reader to cut up the pages and rearrange the panels in order to be read, but I managed to cheat a bit, just to see what it looked like to actually do so.  I made copies of the relevant pages and cut those up, laying them out in the indicated pattern, with the following results:

There it is, all laid out on my basement carpet, and while it's not readable in this image, there are at least a few notable details, if you care to look.  It's fascinating to figure out which direction the story should be read in, with the action moving up, down, left, right, and diagonally, criss-crossing throughout the whole layout to make a grand whole.  It's a crazy, innovative use of space, with panels in the middle tracking cannonballs through their trajectories, stretching time out into tiny increments, while taking huge leaps through the years at the edges (note the family tree segueway in the far right column). The story involves a shipwreck, which, while taking place in the past, manages to lay a foundation for the short spy story that takes up the top row of the layout.  This makes for an interesting visual cue, with the history of the events lurking under the surface and forming a foundation for it.  Hell, even the layout itself vaguely resembles an upside-down ship.  It's an ambitious example of non-traditional comics storytelling, and while the story is pretty slight, it's as exciting for the possibilities it indicates as for the brief bits of action and violence it contains.  Let's hope Kindt continues to push the limits of comics storytelling in this manner, because it's tons of fun to experience.


While I was scanning stuff and goofing around with imagery, I made this animated version of one of the 3-D images from the book.  Enjoy, and try not to get dizzy:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Super Spy: The Lost Dossiers: Now found, along with various other material

Super Spy: The Lost Dossiers
By Matt Kindt

While this book might be billed as the second volume of a series, it's really more of a "DVD extras" bit of supplemental material, but for any fan of Matt Kindt's excellent graphic novel, it's essential reading, providing a glimpse at a few "deleted scenes", a bit of "making of" material, and some unrelated material (sketches inspired by movies, a story about a troupe of circus freaks) that might be unrelated to the espionage theme but still gives readers a chance to experience more of Kindt's similarly-styled work.  It's a slim volume, befitting its  status as a collection of odds and ends, but a fascinating one for those so inclined to experience it.

What's especially remarkable here is that Kindt's ability to craft compelling, realistic spy stories while weaving emotional threads into them and examining the human cost of a life dedicated to lies and murder remains even in such small doses.  A brief strip about a woman training to be a spy while planning to leave her husband is devastating, as is a brutally harsh tale involving a woman posing as a prostitute and helping a colleague make a prudent, but terrible decision.  A short story consisting only of seven panels (each covering one day of a week) sees a third woman use sex and trickery to help her side rain death down upon the other.  It's the same awful, affecting material Kindt covered so well in the original book, only a small example of what he is capable of, but no less impactful for its short length.

And in addition to the great storytelling on display here, Kindt's willingness to experiment and find new ways of telling stories using the comics form shines as well.  The aforementioned "seven days" story uses stereoscopic 3-D imagery, one tale is presented as an illustrated journal, the "carnival freaks" story is presented as a series of illustrations with text pieces written from the perspectives of each of the different characters, and Kindt even encourages readers to cut up the pages of one story in order to arrange them in the correct order for reading, along with fashioning a sort of pop-out comic using the image of a gun on the covers.  It's fun to read, even among all the emotional devastation.

This might be a sort of victory lap for Kindt, but he's earned it through dedication to his subject and pouring his soul into his characters, while still coming up with fun, fresh ideas about how to tell stories without sacrificing good storytelling and compelling characters.  If you're not already a Kindt fan, this book might not be strictly necessary, but it's required reading for those who were blown away by its predecessor, and it provides a great deal of anticipation for the many projects of Kindt's that are soon to come down the line.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Censorship! Or possibly prudish editing

Here's an interesting oddity from Peter Bagge's Other Lives.  In one scene, a character named Ivy is exploring the virtual "Second World", which seems to consist mostly of locales for online sex, and she comes across a disturbing sight:

Strangely, that second panel seems as if it has been enlarged and cropped, and the word balloon seems re-lettered, as if it was changed in "post-production".  What's the story here? Did Bagge go to far even for the "adult" imprint of Vertigo in his depiction of virtual perversion?  The world may never know, but we can always wonder, filling in the actions that bleed outside the panel borders with the worst depravities our minds can conjure.  Sweet dreams, everyone!

Friday, June 4, 2010

I still can't draw, but I can apparently trace

Here's an interesting project: Images Degrading Forever.  It's by Robin Blanchard, who, prompted by Matt Seneca of Death to the Universe (another interesting blog that I'll have to start reading), has posted five images from Dave Sim's Glamourpuss (Blanchard was featured in the 12th issue of the series), encouraging anybody and everybody to download and ink them, then send him the results.  He'll take the images people send and replace the originals with them, continuing to do so over and over, with the intent of making them, well, degrade forever.  I liked the idea, so I gave it a try with a drawing app on my Iphone, and here's the result:

There, now anybody who wants to try it has to draw over me!  This is a cool idea and a fun project, so I encourage anybody reading to give it a try.  Art!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Other Lives: Damn that newfangled internet!

Other Lives
By Peter Bagge

Peter Bagge's comics have an odd energy, delivered at a pitch for which "histrionic" would be too strong a word, but definitely more intense than reality, characters contorting their bodies over-expressively and making sure every feeling of theirs is known to the reader by explaining themselves to a great extent either by talking at length or filling thought balloons with their unspoken opinions about others.  It's a bit of an old-fashioned take on comics storytelling, probably standing out effectively against the wordy comics stories of decades past, but seeming kind of backward looking when compared to the increasing sophistication of the medium's current output.  And that's kind of fitting, considering Bagge's subject matter here, exploring the way the internet has affected people's social lives and personalities, but mostly bungling it by seeming to mistrust newfangled technology and dancing around the issue without saying much of anything.

Bagge does have the germ of a good idea here, but his exploration of it is pretty wrongheaded and unfocused.  The intent seems to be to look at people's perceptions of themselves both online and off, but the theme never coheres, focusing mostly on the character who uses the internet the least and veering off in other dramatic directions.  It doesn't help that none of the characters are at all likeable either, ranging from self-loathing and whiny to sociopathic.  Even if you're used to Bagge's usual hysterical body language, it's not an especially pleasant read.

Of those ugly characters, the main one here is one Vader Ryderbeck (a pseudonym for the too-ethnic Vlad Rostov), a journalist working on an article about the theme of the book, which allows him to introduce the "dual lives" subject but never delve very deeply into it, since Bagge is more interested in his personal life, including his family history, his relationship with his girlfriend, and his guilt about his past.  We never learn what he finds out or how he interprets it, although we do get to see some of it play out among people related to him, including Ivy, the aforementioned girlfriend; Woodrow, a divorced gambling addict who takes Ivy under his wing in "Second World", a fictional version of Second Life; and Javy, a mentally ill mama's boy who fancies himself a terrorist-busting cyber-cop.  None of these people have much in the way of redemptive qualities, with time spent with them making readers want to avoid contact with people online altogether (which might have been Bagge's goal).

Bagge seems to be trying for a more sweeping look at duality of personality, how people perceive themselves even when they disregard what they look like or how successful they are, exploring how assumed online personas can facilitate a blurring between fantasy and reality.  Woodrow and Javy seem to be the most negative looks at this idea, with the former presenting himself as a powerful king and unbeatable gambler online while his real life falls apart and becomes increasingly pathetic, and the latter becoming increasingly paranoid about terrorism and surveillance the more time he spends in virtual places that foster that sort of thinking.  Vader, on the other hand, has problems completely unrelated to the internet, unable to mentally progress beyond the disgust he feels at himself for a former weight problem and guilt over an act of plagiarism, along with a weird sense of entitlement that was taught to him by his grandfather, who was an aristocrat in pre-Communist Russia.  As for Ivy, she doesn't get much of a personality beyond being led around by either Vader or Woodrow, tagging along with the latter in Second World and waiting anxiously for Vader to get over his personal issues and marry her.  Unfortunately, Bagge seems most interested in Vader, exploring his emotional problems and issues with his father, which is interesting enough, but just distracts from the main theme.  There might be something there about people reinventing themselves and keeping secrets from others about parts of their lives they don't want to share, but it's just not integrated very well with everything else.

For anybody who has read a Bagge comic previously, his art should be familiar, with the usual noodle-limbed, gaping-mouthed expressiveness, every character slouched over and contorted into frantic emotion no matter the situation.  It works for the tone of the story, whether or not one agrees that said tone is the best choice.  There is a slight departure in scenes that take place in Second World, with the expressiveness dialed down to reflect the stiffness of CGI avatars, mouths usually remaining closed, and angles seeming a little less rounded (people even have elbows!).  In Bagge-world, it's about as cold and impersonal as things are going to get.

It's certainly not a perfect book, but fans of Bagge might enjoy it just for the chance to see his inimitable style. It's got plenty of problems though, and could have stood to be rewritten at the script stage, tightening up the plot, making the themes cohere a bit better, and maybe doing some more research on the subject rather than just proceeding from speculation.  If anything, it should make for an interesting relic of this particular moment in time (or really, that of about five years ago), when concerns about how the internet was changing society ran rampant.  That sort of frightened pontification already seems to be a thing of the past, as does the cultural cachet of virtual worlds like Second Life, now that everyone from middle-schoolers to grandparents maintain a presence on Facebook and Twitter.  A fascinating exploration of this subject could be made, but this certainly isn't it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Curio Cabinet: Yes, that is a fairly apt title

Curio Cabinet
By John Brodowski

While the indie comics scene was once dominated by whiny autobiographical pieces in which cartoonists bored everyone with their not-very-interesting lives (or so went the stereotype circa 2003), it seems to have been taken over by fantastical inscrutability, perhaps due to the inexplicable acclaim lavished on Gary Panter.  John Brodowski's doesn't necessarily fit into that aesthetic, but judging by this collection of short, mostly wordless pieces, his work has its own strange incomprehensibility, often seeming based on inside jokes or something that makes sense to him and nobody else.  He does have an interesting style, but the reader will probably be left with a sense of confusion rather than be especially entertained.

Most of the stories here seem to present an idea, before veering off into bits of weirdness that might be engaging if they made much sense.  One story sees side-by-side examples of apparent awesomeness, with animals laying down in front of a hunter, ready to be slaughtered, while elsewhere a giant pipe organ opens up to reveal a hooded motorcyclist who races across a series of ramps and comes crashing through a stained-glass window.  The hunter and rider are then revealed to be two nerdy guys sitting at a table (maybe they were telling each other their cool story ideas?); their skin subsequently melts off, and the skeletons high-five each other, sending hand bones scattering.  And that's it.  Huh?  Most of the rest of the book is like that too: a guy spends years making a squirrel suit, eventually leaving his family to live in the wild; a couple is out picnicking when the man is scooped up by a giant wolf-headed bird and dropped off at a cave to fight monsters; a bagpiper plays a tune that causes a dinosaur to rise out of the ocean and melt a nearby army with its roars (and the help of a rock band); a couple 70s guys are cruising down the road when a giant dog's paw reaches in from outside the panels and scoops one of them out of the page entirely; and, in what could be an affecting tale if not for another head-scratching ending, a man spends his entire life working in a mine, aging from page to page, growing older, and forming a family, before wandering off one night with what appear to be plant-like aliens who move around via tank tracks attached to their pots.  Who knows what all this is supposed to mean, if anything at all aside from whatever surreal imagery popped into Brodowski's head.

It is certainly interesting to look at, for the most part, every page full of gray-washed imagery, lumpy, ugly people wandering about and encountering weirdness.  The monster designs are effective, and some of the bits of surreality really stand out alongside the stiffness of the characters, but everyone sports such strange, leering faces, looking like inbred freaks with protruding teeth and heavy brows; it's hard to empathize with the plights of any of these subhuman goofballs.  The only place this has much of any effect at all is in the aforementioned story about the miner; he sports a rictus-like grimace throughout, as if he's in constant pain, which befits an apparent unhappy life slaving away in darkness.  Another fairly effective use of Brodowski's stiff figures appears in the closest thing the book has to a framing sequence, a series of one-page strips bearing the title "Cus Mommy Said So", which see Jason, of the Friday the 13th film series, wandering aimlessly around the forest near the summer camp where he died.  As with the rest of the book, the continuing story has a non-ending, perhaps meant to be a sort of prologue to his first appearance as the villain of the films, but the blankness of his hockey-masked expression makes for a sort of pathos, as if he doesn't understand what to do now that he has been resurrected.

Perhaps I'm making this sound like an awful slog of a read, but that might just be my reaction to its unexplained strangeness.  For readers who enjoy stream-of-consciousness surreality, this is probably the perfect comic.  If that's you, more power to you, but I do prefer to be able to understand what I'm reading rather than just hoping it made sense in the creator's head.  Perhaps Brodowski will deliver something like that someday, but for now I'm calling his work a miss.