Monday, July 25, 2011

Groo watch: Sergio Aragones Funnies #1

As a certified Groo fanatic, I scour every new Sergio Aragones comic I read for appearances by the mindless mendicant, and the first issue of Aragones' new ongoing one-man anthology series yielded two results (that I saw). First, in a puzzle page taking place in a comics store, somebody has brought in one of the surely worthless issues of the series for Sergio to deface:

And on the back cover, he makes an appearance in the background of a costume party:

Yup, good Groo times. So when is the next miniseries coming out?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Art What I Like (even if it makes me want to puke): Jim Woodring freaks me RIGHT THE FUCK OUT

While I continue to be somewhat stymied in my attempts to interpret Jim Woodring's Frank comics (he claims that they, or at least his previous book, Weathercraft, are explicable, but I'm often kind of clueless, although his latest, Congress of the Animals, does seem to be about unfulfilling work, attempts to "find oneself", more unfulfillment among bad influences (possibly due to drugs and over-indulgent art), and eventual peace due to finding one's soulmate), I don't think I'll ever stop marveling at the amazing artwork he fills his books with. It contains some of the most solid and tangible representations of fantastical objects and events I've ever seen, along with a deeply unsettling atmosphere, something that either creeps me out or turns my stomach to look at it. There's something about the plantlike growths on animal creatures, the gaping orifices, and the plentiful eyeballs that, while obviously unnatural, goes a step further into a visceral gut-punch, somehow keying into a subconscious urge to look away.

This aspect of the work has been present in other Frank stories I've seen, but Woodring seems to crank it up to near-unbearable levels here, as Frank travels away from the comforts of home and into a strange land, encountering strange (even for him) creatures and weird landscapes. Probably most horrifying of all are some men who have no faces, but rather gaping holes in their heads with a spherical object rolling around inside, a sight which seems to sicken even Frank himself:

Later, Frank gets sent on a crazy hallucinatory trip, giving Woodring a chance to break out of his usual grid for some more creepiness:

The final panel there seems especially awful to me; the distortion of Frank's mouth and lips is something that strikes me as terribly painful and nasty.

Later, Frank comes across a constantly-morphing beastie that tries to swallow him up into its conglomerated structure, and it's another unnerving Woodring creation that really grosses me out. What's especially impressive is the way he communicates its shape-shifting nature, never depicting it the same way twice, as if it is a roiling mass of mouths and eyeballs, tentacles and protrusions:

But no matter what the freakiness that Woodring delivers in these pages, they all fit right into the world, seeming like solid objects and beings interacting with one another. The signature wiggly-line shading gives everything a real volume and heft, and maybe that's why it's all so creepy. As obviously unnatural as everything is, it's all so well-drawn, it looks like it could leap right off the page. If that's not a frightening thought, I don't know what is.

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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Art What I Like: Burn, NYC, Burn

The latest collection of DMZ, Collective Punishment, is a good one, but that's not really anything surprising, at least from the standard the series has set for itself. The thing that I really dug about this particular volume was the art, all provided by guests rather than regular artist Riccardo Burchielli, and since this point in the long-running plot is seeing the merciless bombing of New York City by the US military, they all get to show off their own particular takes on the fiery destruction of the most famous city in the world. It's harrowing, arresting, gorgeous stuff (almost) all around, an awful, beautiful spectacle.

The one exception, unfortunately, is Cliff Chiang, who limits his large-scale destruction to a cityscape engulfed by orange clouds:

But everyone else takes the opportunity to dazzle with their destruction. Andrea Mutti eclipses Chiang's idea by rendering the skyline in silhouette and degrading the image to the point that the buildings look like burnt husks of themselves, making for a simple and horrifying image:

David Lapham does something similar in one image, making the whole city seem to be ablaze while death rains down out of the sky:

But he also includes a more visceral, apocalyptic image, including both the cause and effect of all the horrifying destruction in one breathtaking splash page:

Danijel Zezelj provides a long view of the city, and his rough-yet-detailed style takes the aforementioned "burnt out husk" idea and turns it into a city-wide bonfire, with the skyscrapers seeming like the protruding bones of Manhattan turned to smoldering embers:

But for my money, nobody beats Nathan Fox, who turns a birds' eye view of the city into a horrifying inferno, death raining down from above like nonchalantly destructive hailstones:

But he makes the rooftop view even more horrifying, an urban hellscape of flames and explosions:


DMZ has often been a harrowing read, bringing the foreign idea of war home to Americans, but rarely has it been so dismally horrifying, so full of widespread death and destruction. These artists have really risen to their task; I doubt I'll ever forget the awful sights they've shown me.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Garden: I hope this isn't offensive

Links: Ryan Browne, creator of the hilarious God Hates Astronauts, has a new webcomic called Blast Furnace, updated daily seemingly wherever his muse takes him. Check it out, if profane goofiness is your thing (or even if it's not).

Also, Christina Strain, whose color work I've really enjoyed on books like Runaways and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, has a new webcomic called The Fox Sister, apparently based on Korean mythology. It looks really nice.

By Yuichi Yokoyama

This is completely uninformed speculation, but reading this book makes me wonder if Yuichi Yokoyama is autistic (or, as my wife, an elementary-school educator, would say, "on the autism spectrum"). This is the only one of his books I've read, but from what I've seen and read about him, he seems to try to eliminate any sort of emotion, or even humanity, from his comics altogether, instead focusing on interesting physical constructions, designs, and motions. It makes for some fascinating art, a near-obsessive detailing and exploration of his mental creations, with so little in the way of narrative that at least this book can barely be said to have a plot or characters at all.

Well, that's not really true, since there are dozens of "people" (or human-like figures, at least) populating this book, and the story, such as it is, has a beginning and, if not an ending, at least a stopping point. We follow a group of figures as they wander through the eponymous garden, which is actually an expansive man-made area full of strange buildings, objects, and terrain, all there for unexplained purposes. There seems to be an urge to explore and question everything that is seen, but it's all done completely without affect, as the people describe everything they see in what seems to be a monotone ("We've now arrived at a round pond." "There are jagged objects floating in the water." "This embankment is made of bags of some sort." "There are strange mountains over there."), occasionally asking "What could the purpose of this be?" without ever receiving any answers. And that's the whole book, 300 pages of strange shit that eventually just ends.

As the characters might ask, what could the point of this be? Yokoyama seems to have an urge to delineate the odd geography filling his head, but without any emotional aspect to the presentation, simply conveying information as if it's being recorded from some sort of alien transmission. It's fascinating stuff, often grouped in collections of things that look like other things (structures shaped like houses, artificial trees and mountains decorated in varying patterns, "rivers" full of flowing balls, and so on), detailed from multiple angles, and using the comics format to verbally describe objects, depict motion, and indicate other sensory input through ever-present sound effects.

Then there are the characters, scores of interchangeable (in terms of non-existent personality) figures that take what seems to everyone but Yokoyama to be every conceivable form aside from regular human. There's a man with a coin-shaped head, one made of balls, one whose body looks like an umbrella, one with a pyramid head and a hairy cloak, one made of rocks, one whose body is a board with a human-shaped cutout, and all manner of head shapes, patterned bodies, and other wackiness. As with the landscape itself, these seem like designs clogging up Yokoyama's head which are begging to get out onto the page, and this rudimentary narrative, with its cast of hundreds, provides the opportunity to do so.

Whatever the reasons for the book's existence, the imagery that Yokoyama has managed to pull from the ether and finely explicate on the page is, for the most part, gorgeously bizarre. There's the occasional object or action that doesn't quite read like it is supposed to, but most everything makes sense, from the houses on wheels to the giant wave of photographs, and they provide plenty of opportunities for meticulously detailed scenes, even within the uniform line weights and expansive white space that Yokoyama favors. Scenes such as the one in which everyone falls down a steep, sandy slope:

Are obsessively detailed, with rows of near-identical guys all tumbling in unison. But even more arresting are the occasional bits in which Yokoyama plays with appearances even more, such as when the group is surrounded by soap bubbles:

It's a strange combination of otherworldly and mundane, with the fascinating thing being that the otherworldliness comes from something most everyone has experienced, while the mundanity comes from the inexpressiveness of the impossible characters. Maybe this is Yokoyama's particular artistic genius: that he manages to flip our expectations in such a way that the weirdness seems normal and the normal seems weird.

Whatever the case, it's a strangely compelling read, with the reader turning pages eagerly to find out what will come next, even though they know it won't make much sense. It's an abstract sort of storytelling, even though the words and images are understandable, since Yokoyama manages to use them to create something inexplicable and beautiful. It's weird shit, but of the sort that accumulates in the brain and invites attempts at analysis, even when it's obvious that no explanation will ever come.