Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Random recent reading: I like a lot of things

Elsewhere: The Team Cul de Sac Favorites zine which I contributed to (along with numerous other comics criticism luminaries) is now available for mail order here. It's for a good cause, so please check it out!

Kickstarter link: Eliza Frye's Regalia looks really good, and the incentives are pretty reasonably-priced. Cheap, that is.

And here's some shorter stuff, since I did want to talk about these but can't be bothered to flesh out my thoughts sufficiently:

Anya's Ghost
By Vera Brosgol

Sometimes a YA book comes along that smashes boundaries, attracts readers of all ages and stripes, and gives the descriptor "all ages" true resonance. Unfortunately, this graphic novel probably isn't it, but it's still pretty darn good. Vera Brosgol turns in a nice story about Anya, a girl who befriends a ghost, starting out as a fun supernatural friendship but devolving into a tense showdown as the spirit begins to exert her own twisted personality. What's most interesting though is how the plot conflict manages to expose the worst aspects of Anya's personality, especially her emphasis on outward appearance, adoption of antisocial attitude in order to seem "cool", and rejection of her family's ethnic heritage. Anya ends up being a really well-drawn character, believable as a normal girl faced with both the mundane travails of teenagerhood and a sudden need to defend herself and her loved ones from a threat that only she can understand. Brosgol's art is perfect for the story, with thick, nicely rounded brushstrokes detailing Anya and her friends and family, and a dead-eyed creepiness infusing the ghost from the beginning and eventually turning into a terrifying air of menace. It might not be setting the world on fire, but it's fun, exciting, gorgeously-drawn, and meatier than it seems at first glance, exploring the world of teenagers in a frank, interesting manner, demonstrating how the darkness within us all can break free if we're not careful. Hopefully readers will recognize their own ghosts along with Anya, and the world will become a better place. Or maybe they'll just experience an enjoyable read; that result is also acceptable.

Wonton Soup 2: Hyper Wonton Soup 2 Twoton Soup: The Quickening 2...Soup
By James Stokoe

It might seem odd to praise a book for its lack of cohesiveness, but somehow James Stokoe managed to turn that into a virtue in this second volume of the adventures of Johnny Boyo, space trucker and sci-fi chef extraordinaire. While the first installment was a fairly straightforward shonen-manga-style competition story with a bit of romance, this one sees Boyo and his cohort Deacon set off on a transport job, get ridiculously high off an alien drug, crash land on a jungle planet, then set off in search of fuel so they can get back to work. That might work well enough as an adventure plot, but Stokoe takes every opportunity to get sidetracked, whether on a wildly psychedelic drug trip, a flashback to Deacon's history of Sex Bear husbandry, or even a scene of political uprising taking place among the microbial life forms in Boyo's stomach lining. Stokoe's imagination is one of his greatest strengths, and he puts it to full use here, detailing all manner of wackiness in his inimitable style and keeping readers highly entertained throughout, such that you don't care what's coming next, you just want to see Stokoe detail it with high energy, dynamic action, and a lighthearted touch. Between this series and his current Orc Stain, he's really demonstrating his essentiality to the comics landscape.

Psychiatric Tales
By Darryl Cunningham

It can seem pretentious to dub a book "important", but for people with personal investments in mental health issues, anything that might change people's attitudes and educate people in the oft-misunderstood subject is essential, something to be recommended highly. That's exactly what Darryl Cunningham has created here, a collection of stories either culled from or inspired by his time working as a nurse in a mental health facility, covering subjects like dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, as well as discussing famous sufferers of mental illness, the effects of suicide on patients as well as their relatives and caregivers, and Cunningham's own struggles with depression. As an informational book, it's related in a simple and easy to understand manner; Cunningham's experiences were obviously an essential resource for him. The art takes on a simplistic, semi-abstracted style, perfectly capturing the off-kilter, just removed from normalcy struggles of the mentally ill, emphasizing this through the use of altered photographs that are often zoomed in and pixellated. But what's probably best of all is the entreaty to end the stigma that surrounds mental illness, since it is an affliction affecting a part of the body, no different than something like heart disease. Anything that can sway people in the name of this cause is worthwhile, and worth annoying somebody with the aforementioned label. Important? Yes, it certainly is.

Empowered: Ten Questions for the Maidman
By Adam Warren and Emily Warren

Since the next volume of Adam Warren's "sexy superhero comedy" isn't due until 2012 (sheesh!), it looks like this one-shot will have to tide us over until then, and luckily, it's pretty much the pure stuff, even though half of its contents are drawn by a guest artist. It still works though, because it's all Warren, from his verbose dialogue style, to his goofy ideas, to his loving skewering of superhero tropes, to his exciting action. It's a pure, concentrated dose of Warreny goodness, and I totally dug it, of course. Surprisingly, my favorite parts were probably the section that gives the comic its title, in which the incredibly competent and terrifying Maidman appears for a TV interview, explaining his motives and methods, why he dresses the way he does, and the strategic use of panty-flashing during battle. The latter (and really, the whole character) are a great thumb to the nose of the conventional line when it comes to superheroines and the arguments that are usually trotted out to explain why they dress so skimpily and are drawn to pander to the lingering male gaze. It's a hilarious reversal, one that points out just one aspect of superhero comics' stupidity, and then revels in it.

And Warren isn't just doing a Bendis-style talking head segment intended to infodump his character's motivation; there ends up being a reason behind the interview itself, and it all leads to a satisfying conclusion. Emily Warren (no relation) provides the art for this half of the story, and she ably rises to the challenge, detailing her scenes in a satisfying, yet not slavish, mimicry of the other Warren's style, and fleshing them out with some nice color work. The five o'clock shadow on Maidman's face is the winning touch for me, but the doily-filled backgrounds and emphasis on the hero's package are great touches as well.

And Warren himself does his usual thing on the rest of the book, telling a more straightforward Emp tale in which she suffers self-doubt and learns to use Maidman as an example to live up to; it's as fun as ever, and it's a chance for the regular characters (Ninjette, Thugboy, Caged Demonwolf) to all show up and do their thing (drink, fuck, monologue). Really, this is a combination appetite-whetter and existence-reminder, ensuring that readers don't forget about the series during the long wait in between volumes and getting them excited for that next installment to drop already. More series could stand to follow Warren's example, in that aspect and many, many others.