Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Zegas and Lose: Some comics are worth the effort to seek out

Zegas #1
By Michel Fiffe

Michel Fiffe has style in spades, a really amazing vision that seems to be straining to be contained within the lines and colors of the printed page. Thick brushstrokes define somewhat cartoony characters, and attractively bright skies and cityscapes make for a beautiful world to be lost in, but then something will morph into weird tentacles and protrusions, giving things an organically weird vibe, a sense that anything can happen and anyone can dissolve into a heap of protoplasm at any time. It's a bizarre setting, an anything-can-happen freakscape, but Fiffe's sense of fun and deft character work makes it a place of fascination and wonder rather than some nightmare mind-prison.

In this magazine-size first print issue of his current series (which has been running as a webcomic for a while, although I believe this is all-new material), we follow the doings of brother and sister Boston and Emily, who seem like normal people living in the city but often experience strange, psychedelic occurrences that might or might not just be imaginary. The opening story is the highlight here, starting with Emily having a vision of the end of the world (strikingly and gorgeously depicted with bright slashes of black and red impacting the ground, cities being reduced to smoldering craters), then getting in trouble at her job, repaying a kindness from a street vendor, and chasing a strange thief through a video arcade. It's a nice combination of mundane and fantastical, with the chase scene being an excellent climax, the figures zipping across pages and around people and objects, the perpetrator eventually revealed as some sort of organic/mechanical creature, followed by a sweet denouement involving the vendor that provides excellent catharsis to the emotional highs and lows of the rest of the story.

Boston's story in the second part of the issue, which sees him accidentally ingest something that makes his face swell up (but not as grotesquely as some of Fiffe's other bodily transformations) isn't quite as arresting, but it's still pretty interesting, playing like an especially Fiffe-ian version of Pulp Fiction's adrenaline shot scene. The issue also includes two short pieces, one adapted from a found note that didn't make much sense to me, but seems like an attempt at visual poetry, and the other an amusing conversation between Fiffe's super and landlord, depicting them as abstracted conglomerations of shapes. As a whole, the comic is a pretty nice package, a large-scale showcase for Fiffe's fantastic artwork and his expert grasp of characters, the way they move through their lives, and their realistic conversations. If anything, it's a teaser, something that makes readers eager to read more of his work. Luckily, if they seek him out, they certainly won't be disappointed.

Lose #3
By Michael DeForge
Published by Koyama Press

If there were any doubts that Michael DeForge is the premier purveyor of disturbing visions wrenched from the unconscious married to unnervingly realistic depictions of modern angst, this issue of his one-man anthology series should put them to rest. Nobody else can create the viscerally creepy imagery that he does, full of weird (yet somehow familiar) creatures constantly oozing with perspiration, piles of oddly specific trash and wreckage, and dripping, mucousy tentacles, among other multitudinous horrors. There's much more to his style than freaky pictures though, which, as amazingly done as they are, wouldn't be all that unique on their own. No, it's the depiction of the raging feelings of inadequacy felt by modern man that really strikes one to the core.

In the main story here, "Dog 2070", a divorced father struggles to relate to everyone around him, from coworkers who worry about a cancer-stricken fellow employee to his own children, everyone seeming like barely-comprehensible alien creatures. DeForge paints a pathetic picture of a man unable to will himself into any sort of personal or professional success or even make a connection with any of the people around him, mired in his own self-doubt and crippling social anxieties. That this whole story is acted out by creepy anthropomorphic dog-creatures living in a ruined, post-apocalyptic world is just the icing on the cake. That window-dressing is all metaphor for man's inhumanity and the ruined state of the modern world, but the disturbing inability to relate to another human being is the terror that radiates from the story's core, and it's harrowing stuff.

Some other, shorter stories fill out the issue, including a scene in which an improv comedy troupe commits horrible acts in order to summon the subject of the audience's suggestions from a hellish portal, a story in which the idea of cute anthropomorphic depictions of animals is eviscerated as some ants mourn their lot in life as automatons helpless against the scourges of the world, and a horrific, completely alien scene plays out in which some creatures who pilot faceless husks meet, mate, and have their baby stolen by some sort of flying harpy. It's all striking, weird, bizarre, and gorgeously depicted. The easily-understandable iconography, viscerally disturbing imagery, and ominous feeling of creeping dread persist throughout, making for a wonderfully cohesive comic, even if its one that is almost too unnerving to experience twice. As one of comics' rising stars, DeForge continually reminds us why he's worth paying attention to, with this collection of visions beamed from his brain onto the page possibly being his best work yet.

Anders Nilsen makes a "Big" debut in Chicago

Tonight, I attended the release party for Anders Nilsen's collected edition of Big Questions, which is just being released by Drawn & Quarterly. Taking place at Chicago's Lula Cafe, it was a really fun event, not limited just to Nilsen signing books, but featuring readings, a Q&A, and some surprising added value from some of Nilsen's artist friends. Dozens of pages of original art from the book lined the walls, providing a close-up view of the work that went into the 12-years-in-the-making, 658-page book.

The event portion of the evening kicked off with a reading of a story by Kyle Beachy, who Nilsen described as his first intern, and whose new book The Slide features a cover illustration by Nilsen. His story was a really affecting piece about a man imagining the reason his father did something horrible in his youth, in a nice David Foster Wallace-influenced style. I'll have to look into more of Beachy's work.

Beachy was followed by a pair of readings by Zak Sally and John Porcellino, who chose to read from each other's comics, claiming to attempt to make fun of each other. Interestingly, Sally's reading of a section of Porcellino's King-Cat Comics was kind of flat, mostly consisting of verbally sounding out the sound effects and trying to describe the images (with Porcellino occasionally attempting to act out parts of the scenes), with any fun-making toward Porcellino already present in the story, which was about him working so hard on his comics that he didn't do any laundry, eventually wearing pajama pants and knock-off Crocs, his car breaking down on the side of the road, and him later lining his hole-filled shoes with newspaper. But then, when Porcellino read from Sally's Sammy the Mouse, he brought the house down with his hilarious rendition of the dialogue, doing different voices for the characters and making funny faces and gestures. Who would have expected Porcellino to be the better entertainer of the two?

And then it was time for the man of the hour. Nilsen did a slide show along with his reading, showing a large number of images from the book (and some of his other works), giving a mini-history of his career, and reading a few short sections of the comics themselves. It was really interesting stuff, with Nilsen describing how he ended up falling into comics after his art school professors, coming from more of an abstract expressionist school, frowned upon his attempts at narrative in his art. His first real attempts at comics were in pamphlets for a short-lived band in which he performed as the singer, and later a picture book he made for his younger sister about a turtle trying to make a cross-country trip to his little sister's birthday.

After art school, Nilsen moved to San Francisco and was mostly doing installation art, but he also had some sketchbooks, many of which quickly filled up with drawings of birds eating seeds and talking to each other, making for short comics leading to quirky punchlines. Later, he moved to Minneapolis to attend grad school at the Art Institute of Chicago, and he decided to make a minicomic of his bird cartoons, which became the first issue of Big Questions. He didn't seem to think it would lead to anything, but some people reacted well and found it rather funny, including a coworker and an employee of Minneapolis's Big Brain Comics. This reception led Nilsen to do a second issue, which sold well at conventions like SPX, encouraging him to keep going.

The second issue is notable in that the cover features some inset panels of a bird flying, which was the first "strip" without a punchline, making it the point at which Nilsen decided to weave more of a longer story around these conversational comics. He started to add human characters, such as an old woman who scattered the seeds the birds were eating, and an "idiot" who was inspired by an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem which described spring as "and idiot scattering flowers".

The cover of the third issue was also the first one in color, and it sparked an interest in design, which, due to art school prejudices, Nilsen had previously considered to be a sort of ugly step child to "real" art. He began experimenting with ways to present ideas coherently, marking a big leap forward in storytelling. He started figuring out how to string the strips together into a longer story, such as a bomb falling but not exploding, leading to birds deciding it is a large egg which they need to help hatch, or a bird being dragged underground, an unfamiliar situation for a creature of the air. Unfortunately, this turned out to be very inefficient storytelling, with the big images forming plot points that turned out to take years to resolve. For instance, Nilsen was worried that people would consider the plane crash that takes place in the story as a commentary on September 11, but since the issue where the crash happened didn't come out until 2005, nobody said anything.

Nilsen went on to read some portions of the story and discuss other aspects of his work, such as his interest in "old-timey" illustration, and answered questions from the audience. A comment on cliffhangers led him to mention how much he liked Tintin, which he noted ends literally every page on a cliffhanger, which is a great way to build tension. From a question about how he learned storytelling, he revealed that he basically taught it to himself through making the series, remarking that self-publishing lets you pretend nobody is actually paying any attention to what you are doing, so you can figure things out as you go.

When asked about his influences, Nilsen blanked, but he was able to come up with several names, including Tintin creator Herge; Chester Brown (especially his earlier work in Yummy Fur); Porcellino, Sally, and audience members Paul Hornschemeier and Jeffrey Brown; Sammy Harkham; and Linda Barry. He also draws influence from non-comics sources like music and film, and always tries to pay attention to other subjects, like history and philosophy. Another audience member noted an Edward Gorey similarity, and Nilsen agreed wholeheartedly, noting the artist's facility with cross-hatching, weird, dark stories, sense of sexuality, and ability to blend the funny and the devastating to make his stories work on multiple levels.

One person asked whether he had done any study of birds, or based his bird characters on any actual bird behavior, but Nilsen stated that he had little interest in birds, and if anything, the crows in the story were influenced by the similar characters in the movie Dumbo. However, after he started the series, he began to notice birds more, and started paying more attention to them. He remarked that Chicago's Humboldt Park is a great place to bird-watch, recalling a time that he saw a heron catch a fish and then play with it, letting it drop repeatedly out of its mouth and catch it before it entered the water. He encouraged everyone to become bird watchers as well.

That marked the end of the questions, leaving plenty of time to browse, socialize, buy material from the table that Quimby's Books had set up, and request signatures from Nilsen. It ended up being an excellent evening, fun and funny, informative and fascinating. Myself, I haven't read Big Questions yet (my copy is in the mail), but after this, I can't wait to do so.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Little Nothings: I think they're somethings

Link: I forget who, but somebody pointed out the cartoonist Seamus Heffernan to me, specifically the excerpt from his soon-to-be-released Xeric-funded comic Freedom, which is excellent, and has me really wanting to read the whole thing. It's historical fiction, set prior (and maybe eventually during?) the American Revolution, and just the few pages previewed there demonstrate a real facility with storytelling. This guy is someone to watch.

Little Nothings, volume 4: My Shadow in the Distance
By Lewis Trondheim
Published by NBM

Lewis Trondheim is a pretty great cartoonist, and his ongoing series of journal comics is a wonderful demonstration of his skills. He manages to capture interesting, humorous moments from his life and travels and lay them out in panel form such that the essential comment, conversation, observation, or experience is perfectly communicated. Considering that most of the experiences being related here involve world travels, pretty much every page here is interesting and enjoyable, with Trondheim covering a wide variety of experiences, from travel and sightseeing to conversations and human observations. It's wonderfully done, just from a writing perspective, with the cartoonist's humor and particularly French viewpoint on life shining through even in translation.

And then there's the art, which is as much of a draw as the stories being told, if not more so. Trondheim starts from a goofy position, depicting himself as a sort of bird-man, and everyone else as some sort of animal-person, which is a delightfully odd conceit, but works quite well in terms of reader identification. Once you accept that Trondheim's version of reality is populated by strange animal-human hybrids, it's fun to see what sort of creature will pop up next, and they all seem to fit together as normal people, found wherever one travels.

And since those travels take Trondheim all over the world (he visits Utah, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Argentina, Angouleme, Germany, and the African island of Mayotte in this volume), he gets plenty of opportunities to draw the sights, which end up being beautiful representations of reality, grounding the goofy anthropomorphism in the real world and, along with the relatable details (that is, irritations) of travel, emphasizing Trondheim's feet-on-the-ground experiences. Trying to go off-roading in a rental car in a Monument Valley desert, viewing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans simultaneously from Tierra del Fuego, and remarking on the way Prague transcends its tacky touristy-ness from eight feet up are just a couple of the many moments that are wonderfully captured here.

And yes, the art which delineates all of this on the page is gorgeous stuff, fluid linework that manages to wring all manner of expression out of animal eyes, beaks, and snouts, and especially the absolutely beautiful watercolors that give such depth and texture to everything, especially the breathtaking skies:


The coloring also works excellently to separate Trondheim's borderless panels from each other and make them stand out on the page, as well as to emphasize his own individual character within those panels. There's an interesting recurring motif in which the colors encircle Trondheim, yet drop out in the center, leaving the area around him uncolored to emphasize a particular moment, or perhaps to isolate him against other people:

And I love the way the colors often fill a panel boldly, centering attention on the important details in the middle, but fade at the edges, seemingly depicting the fuzzy periphery of Trondheim's memories:

It's a beautiful-looking book, and while it's not exactly groundbreaking or "important" in what it captures, it's a wonderful example of the autobio/journal comic, capturing interesting, funny moments in the life of somebody who is so good at relating that sort of scene, whether real or fictional. After four volumes, one supposes Trondheim could keep doing this in perpetuity, and if he does, the comics will almost certainly be worth reading.

More examples from the book can be found at NBM's blog.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Kinky & Cosy: Not as descriptive a title as I was hoping

Kinky & Cosy
By Nix
Published by NBM

There's a pretty great tradition of European comics in all manner of genres and formats, and North America is pretty sorely lacking in what we get to experience of that output. However, as welcome as any new translated European release is, sometimes one wonders if there might have been something a bit better to import instead. While this comic strip collection from Belgian cartoonist Nix is nicely-designed (dig those googly eyes peeking out through holes in the cover!) and does have its charms, it's not exactly an example of sterling wit and brilliant cartooning that was begging to be unleashed on American shores. Instead, it's a pretty standard "evil kid" type of comic, following the title characters as they cause trouble at home, in class, and in various other social situations (cheating off each other's tests, that old gag where they sit on each other's shoulders and wear a long coat to sneak into a nightclub, that sort of thing), rarely moving beyond of expected behavior or doing anything outrageous enough to offend. It's mildly amusing stuff, mostly contained within three-panel strips, staying within recurring situations and variations on punchlines. The occasional bits that break out of this structure are the most interesting parts: photocomics starring the cartoonist and his pals dressed up as the characters, an extended storyline involving the girls' mother falling in love with the neighborhood recycling bin, a series of puzzle pages at the end of the volume. Of course, there are also a series of Dilbert-esque strips in which the mother complains about not being able to work her office computer, so not every deviation from the norm is successful. The art isn't anything to write home about either; solid black outlines around fairly crude characters, blank backgrounds, mild grotesquerie without anything especially disturbing. It's kind of mediocre, but it is at least a decent example of the rhythms of Franco-Belgian humor, different enough from what is usually published on this side of the Atlantic to be somewhat notable. It would be nice if it was funnier, better drawn, more offensive, etc. though.

For more examples of individual strips, check out NBM's blog.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shorties: Porn, Teens, Birds, and Elephants

Chester 5000 XYV
By Jess Fink
Published by Top Shelf

Well, this is certainly a pornographic comic. Yep, it's a full-on, hardcore, penetration-and-ejaculation sex-fest, and one that does its job, at least when it comes to stimulating arousal (TMI?). But luckily, it's a really good story as well, full of nice, stylish artwork, humor, and character development. Plus, it's pretty unique, being a steampunk story about an inventor who builds the eponymous robot to pleasure his wife so he can have more time in the lab, only to see her and Chester fall in love, leading to jealousy and retribution, all with sexy complications.

As naughty as all this is (and I can't emphasize the naughtiness too much, with most of the book being taken up by sex scenes that last dozens of pages), it's great to see Jess Fink's style unleashed, as she distorts her figures in orgasmic pleasure and surrounds them with expressively decorative panel arrangements, but still making every emotion and action perfectly clear while keeping the story completely wordless (outside of sound effects, of which "Vert!" is an unforgettable addition to the lexicon). It's a lovely object, and while it's not for kids (or prudes), it's a really fun read and a great example of the unlimited potential of comics.

The comic can be read online at Fink's site, but I recommend the physical version.

By Ludovic Debeurme
Published by Top Shelf

Maybe it's the European tradition this comic comes from, but it takes a little getting used to. The borderless panels aren't laid out in a consistent manner, so each page has a unique arrangement of cloudlike images that do read intuitively, but are definitely different from the comics norm. And within the panels themselves, the thin, somewhat bobble-headed characters live lives of quiet desperation, such that there doesn't seem to be much going on for a fair portion of the story, at least at first. But sticking with the story yields rewards; French cartoonist Ludovic Debeurme quickly establishes his teenage characters, an anorexic girl and a somewhat delinquent boy with an alcoholic father, then, after letting readers cringe at their awful lives for a while, throws them together and lets the inevitable young romance blossom.

While it's very cute and romantic and everything, what's nice about the book is that it doesn't end with their escape from their lives. They quickly and believably connect (Lucille's appreciation of Arthur's goofy teenage antics makes perfect sense for someone who has been forced into an environment of life-or-death seriousness), and it does seem like running off together will solve all their problems, but Debeurme sticks with them and shows that emotional issues don't instantly disappear when one runs away from them, and maturity doesn't instantly bestow itself on one either. Lucille still struggles with anorexia, and Arthur is still antisocial and prone to anger, and while their attempt at a new life is appealing, it seems doomed to fail. Interestingly, the book ends on a "to be continued", so while the story does come to something of an end, Debeurme evidently still has more to tell about these characters. This thick volume is a quick read, but it feels pretty substantial, and it's nice to see such confident storytelling in a style that isn't often seen on this side of the Atlantic.

By Pascal Girard
Published by Drawn and Quarterly

Pascal Girard is kind of a jerk, but at least he recognizes it. Or maybe he's just exaggerating in his self-deprecation, portraying himself as an arrested adolescent still mired in popularity contests at his ten-year high school reunion. Either way, he comes off as a doofus who obsesses over his perceived coolness (both in the past and the present), starts exercising just so he can lose weight to look good to his old friends, stalks girls he used to have crushes on (even though he currently has a girlfriend), cheaps out on the beer he brings to the reunion, attempts to ingratiate himself by bringing along some pot, and almost skips out on the whole thing, even after all his frantic preparations. It's not a pretty picture, but it is a funny one, with Girard making himself look like a fool, capturing his uncertainty and worriedness through the jittery lines of his artwork and delivering plenty of comeuppance to himself as he constantly fails in his attempts to make himself look cool. It's an amusing portrait of a near-universal experience, a relatable depiction of the way returning to your roots can make you fall into old roles, even as you are trying to demonstrate how you've risen above them. One comes away from the book wanting to spend more time with Girard, even as he's endeavoring to make himself look like the worst person in the room.

Elephant Man
By Greg Houston
Published by NBM

Man oh man, Greg Houston's comics are hilariously weird and silly, full of grotesque imagery, funny names, dumb jokes, random plots, and constant absurdity. This one takes the form of a superhero parody, but the parodic aspects are kind of weak and halfhearted (Stupid codenames! Corny catchphrases! The old "nobody recognizes Superman when he wears glasses" gag!), with the real appeal being the exuberantly odd art and humor, the book full of ramshackle storytelling that seems to consist of whatever Houston felt like drawing next, scratchy lines cohering to form crazily distorted characters (even those that are supposed to be good looking sport jutting foreheads, squinty eyes, protruding teeth, and greasy hair), word balloons and captions full of irascible, rambling text, and any chance for silliness being jumped on and flogged to exhaustion. It's a pretty unique sensibility, and Houston certainly seems to be having a ball coming up with funny concepts like a villain who is a walking punchline, being the fused-together body of a Rabbi, a priest, and a duck, or a group of girl vigilantes who sport baroquely detailed hairstyles, as if the hairstylists of the court of Louis XIV worked on the cast of Jersey Shore. It's a stupid comic, but purposefully so, with the "hero" apparently attaining his fame purely out of pity, the villains being incompetent morons who only commit crime out of jealousy, and pages filled with wonderfully detailed grime and ugliness. This is a highly entertaining bit of nonsense, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

What I Did.
By Jason
Published by Fantagraphics

Of the three books collected in this volume, Hey, Wait... is a really evocative portrait of how childhood experiences can affect one throughout his entire life, and The Iron Wagon (which adapts an early-twentieth-century Norwegian novel) is a pretty good murder mystery that makes good use of Jason's deadpan style, but it's the middle entry, Sshhhh!, that really sticks with me, immediately jumping to the top of my favorites among the cartoonist's works. It's a silent comic, making excellent use of Jason's facility with pantomime as it follows a bird-man throughout his life, taking an absurdist approach to events that somehow makes things like a baby arriving via mail or a skeleton following the main character around seem relatable and poignant. The universality of the circumstances that Jason depicts is what is so striking here, so that even though the character is inhuman and inexpressive, we recognize things like the acceptance of death's inevitability, the loneliness of lost love, or the combination of pride and sadness felt when a child leaves home. Being one of Jason's longer books, the chapters of the story accumulate until the bird-man becomes a sadly human figure, somebody scrabbling to maintain his unique person-hood under the assault of life. It's sad, wonderful, exhilarating work, a great example of how amazing Jason is at what he does, and how nobody else can do it like him.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti: I wouldn't give their troubles to a monkey on a rock

A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti
By Rick Geary


Rick Geary's "Treasury of Victorian/XXth Century Murder" books never fail to be fascinating and educational, presenting meticulously researched information about violent incidents from the past, both famous and lesser-known, then exploring the surrounding circumstances engagingly and enjoyably, making for an quick, yet comprehensive, history lesson for those of us who want a taste of old-school salaciousness. There's something about Geary's grim, quiet presentation that brings the events to life without being sensationalistic, yet also seems kind of alien, with odd-looking people acting out terrible scenes that seem as foreign to us due to their inhumanity as their period garb and setting.

This particular case is especially interesting since it was notorious on a worldwide scale, yet seems to be little more than a footnote in the present day. A payroll robbery and double murder led two anarchist-affiliated Italian immigrants to be arrested and charged, even though their guilt seemed pretty unlikely at best, with the subsequent guilty verdict being a result of anti-immigrant prejudice at its worst. Seeing the events play out, marching unrelentingly toward what was almost certainly a wrongful execution, is kind of banally horrific, a miscarriage of justice that would seem unthinkable in modern times, if we didn't have plenty of examples of exactly that sort of awfulness filling the news daily (those will have to wait a while for Geary to get to them).

Whether one can draw a direct line from past horrors to the present is arguable, but Geary isn't interested in making any sort of social or political statement; he's just laying out the facts, and he does as remarkable a job of it as always, filling pages with maps, diagrams, informational text, timelines, and recreated images of the various people involved, pacing it in a perfectly steady flow of information that makes the reader feel like they understand the ins and outs of what happened, even if it must be a simplified version of a complicated tragedy, one that was confused by poor memories, lies, rumors, protests, and myriad other factors.

It's also wonderfully illustrated, although there's not much here that one wouldn't expect after reading most anything else by Geary. The texture given by closely-spaced parallel lines, the blank faces, the frozen moments; it's as excellent as always. I particularly like the emphasis on details provided during the trial, like an inset magnifying a bullet being held by the coroner:

And the goofy details that show up here and there make me smile; it seems like Geary is slipping a bit of humor into such a steadfastly dry relation of events with panels like the second one below:

Whether you're interested in the details of history or just like to see good comics storytelling, this is a really good book, one that educates and fascinates, and kind of outrages, even when the events depicted are nearly a century old. That would be a remarkable accomplishment on its own, but when it's just one example among many, you know you're in the presence of great talent.

Groo watch: Sergio Aragones Funnies #2

These days, most of Sergio's Groo cameos come in the form of something in the background of one of the regular "Sergio in his studio" intros, or on a page of something he's illustrating, but it's still fun to spot them wherever they appear. For instance, here's Sergio at a convention, with a "Groo Game" on his table:

I'd love to play that, if it's real. Next, in the answer page to the issue's games, we see a neat Groo statue (along with one of The Sage!) at Sergio's feet:

And finally, and most oddly, there's a Gogurt ad illustrated by Sergio taking place at a comics convention, and Groo can be spotted on a poster:

There's one other appearance, and one that is actually more of a real cameo than an image-in-an-image, but it's on the cover of the next issue, so I'll wait until then to make note of it. More obsessiveness next month!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Miranda Mercury: Strong? Check! Female? Check!

Miranda Mercury, volume 1: Time Runs Out
Written by Brandon Thomas
Art by Lee Ferguson
Published by Archaia Entertainment

Several years ago, the first issue of what was intended to be a comics miniseries (or maybe even an ongoing series?) came out, and it was very promising, in its exciting action, fun sci-fi ideas, and enthusiasm for comics storytelling. One of the more interesting ideas was that it was labeled as the 295th issue of a long-running series, a quick way to establish a huge amount of backstory for its world and characters and lead up to a big 300th issue spectacular. Unfortunately, further issues never materialized, due to various personal and professional reasons (more information is available at, for the curious). Until now, that is, with the release of a hardcover "collection" of the entire miniseries, promisingly branded with a "volume 1" to indicate that more will be appearing in the future.

It's especially nice to see that while the initial issue was good, the creators have only gotten better in the intervening years, making the final book a well-written, slick, brightly-colored portion of the title character's life. She's a space-traveling adventurer, fighting for good in a future full of alien thieves, doomed planets, corrupt superhero law enforcement, time raiders, and psychotic villains. She's a strong female character in the best sense of the word, a smart, incredibly capable hero who always succeeds in her fight for good through sheer force of will. Aided by Jack Warning, her teen-genius sidekick who seems to be as amazing as she is, their adventures are pretty fantastic, with them constantly shooting rayguns, flying around on hover-bikes and pterodactyls, operating sci-fi machinery, fighting monsters, and just plain being awesome.

While the external threats seem to get most of the focus, there's an internal conflict that provides some interesting exploration of the characters, demonstrating that while Miranda is heroically altruistic, she's also stubborn, focused on her goals to the point that she neglects to take care of herself, which leads to a volume-ending cliffhanger, and what might be a continued look at what drives her and how she can balance her work, personal issues, and family. Between all the inter-dimensional fistfights and planet-saving chases, of course.

Miranda is a pretty great character, all calm competence and quick-thinking action, keeping her personal struggles internal and letting Jack do most of the emoting for her. What's especially nice is that her race could go completely unremarked; as it should be (and hopefully will be in the future), skin color has no bearing on her heroism. However, writer Brandon Thomas includes at least a few references to racism, or at least discrimination and xenophobia (hey, the future isn't perfect), before a final-chapter revelation that suddenly brings race front and center, with Thomas optimistically demonstrating humanity's potential when pointless, arbitrary prejudices are removed. It's a pretty moving statement, and it makes for a fascinating underlying theme beneath all the action and adventure.

If there's anything to complain about here, it's that sometimes the stories move so fast, it can be difficult to tell what exactly is going on. Luckily, this is more a feature than a bug, with the creators never standing still long enough to allow anyone to get bored, forcing readers to stay light on their feet and keep up with the breakneck pace. Layouts, action, and sometimes even plot points can be tough to interpret, but this comes from ambition rather than clumsiness, and if we're being generous, it fits within the conceit of the long-running series, assuming that readers are familiar with this world (er, galaxy), these characters, and they way they work. When Miranda and Jack are apparently miniaturizing an entire planetary civilization and coaxing a sun to migrate to a new location, this can seem obtuse, but when a mission to capture a smuggler leads to Miranda being wanted by authorities and pursued by a team of superheroes, it's exhilarating, providing the sense that anything can happen before you can even realize it. It's innovative, modern storytelling, seemingly catering to the ADHD set but actually forcing close attention, and even coming up with interesting formal ideas like missing (that is, stolen) panels and spatial reorientation of pages. There's always plenty going on here, both on and under the surface.

For anybody who was waiting for more of this story, this is a real treat, collected in a gorgeous hardcover that is designed to the hilt, the story beginning on the inside front cover and never letting up, text pieces introducing each chapter so that the stories can begin in the middle of the action, bright colors popping off the page and providing a futuristic look, clean, dynamic art propelling the eye across layouts, the whole thing working pretty amazingly well as a great bit of pure comics storytelling. This book was definitely worth the wait, and hopefully it won't be another several years before another volume sears its way into our consciousness along with it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Finder: Voice: You find yours, I'll find mine

Finder: Voice
By Carla Speed McNeill
Published by Dark Horse

For such a complex, long-running series, Carla Speed McNeill's Finder is surprisingly open to new readers, easing them into the weird sci-fi society of the domed city of Anvard and getting them acquainted with the characters without seeming like they've missed too much to understand what is going on. In fact, this late volume might be the ideal entry point, which is a pretty remarkable accomplishment, and probably even more so in that while McNeill's includes plenty of explanatory endnotes that point out details in the art, relationships among characters, and descriptions of the intricacies of the world, none of them are necessary for understanding or enjoyment of the story itself; in fact, they are best experienced as a bonus to read through after the book itself is finished, a sort of behind-the-scenes DVD extra that isn't essential, but is full of neat, interesting information.

It's a testament to the richness of McNeill's world that it seems so full of activity, detail (both futuristic and street-level-grimy), and, well, life, that the things going on in the backgrounds and corners of the panels could be spun off into their own compelling stories. However, here she focuses on Rachel Grosvenor, who, as the story begins, is competing in a sort of beauty contest to be granted membership in her clan, the Llaveracs, one of several tightly-knit (both genetically and socially) groups that form the ruling class of society in this world. She ends up losing something important, leading her to embark on a quest throughout the levels of both the city and civilization which are well below what she is used to experiencing, as she tries to find one Jaeger Ayers, who turns out to be the regular lead of the series but is surprisingly absent here. His presence still looms large over the story, but this particular Finder tale is more about Rachel and her continuing maturity, which makes for a fascinating journey through McNeill's fully-formed ecosystem, seeing her navigate threats that are physical, social, and even mental, with the result being that she "finds herself" rather than the object she thinks she is seeking.

This is all very satisfying stuff from a world-building and storytelling level, but what's really stunning here is McNeill's artwork, which fleshes out the world beautifully through gorgeously detailed settings which are given rich depth and texture with her trademark dense cross-hatching, and character art that is some of the best in the business, fluid movement meeting solidly physical violence, expressive faces convincingly demonstrating exactly what information needs to be conveyed to the reader. Rachel, especially, is a marvel of emotion and nuance, from the way McNeill captures her brushing her hair behind her ear:

To the way she converses on her futuristic brain-implant cell phone by making a familiar phone gesture:

To the wide variety of expressions that make their way across her face (and also her body, with posture telling as much as facial expression, along with hair that ranges from meticulously coiffed to unkempt and unruly) as she ends up in a bevy of unfamiliar situations:


 And finally, as she ends up at the end of her rope and just lets her emotions out in a powerfully expressive scene:

It's some pretty amazing work, and McNeill is at the top of her game here, throwing in some Jaime Hernandez exaggerated reactions and Dave Sim expressive lettering, while making this comic steadfastly her own, a fully-formed vision of a speculative society and characters that seem as real and three-dimensional as somebody you meet walking down the street. While it builds on years of previous stories, this is a wonderfuly deep stand-alone work, and one that will certainly prompt readers to seek out any- and everything else she has done. They won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Wizard Chicago 2011: Comics to read

Yes, comics were acquired at the recent comic convention, and here are some words about them:

God Hates Astronauts #1-2
By Ryan Browne

The superhero genre has pretty much become a dead end, an endlessly recycling series of convoluted plots and ridiculous conflicts, with even the "innovative" or "satirical" seeming tired and played out by this point. If there's anything left, it's full-on absurdity, and that's what Ryan Browne is doing with this webcomics-turned-print series, to hilarious effect, making his characters profane, moronic, squabbling, violent doofuses with stupid powers and ugly costumes, fighting over petty things and doing nothing much of any worth or positivity. It's laugh-out-loud funny, full of silly gags, jokey sound effects (a personal favorite is "Fucked!"), and nonsensical details that are funnier for their lack of emphasis, like Dr. Professor, the moustache-sporting Rhino scientist. The escalating nastiness that happens to the ostensible hero over these two issues is pretty horrifying, yet more imaginative, memorable, and gross than any number of Geoff Johns dismemberments, while still being gut-bustingly funny. This is great comics, full of personality, silliness, and really nice art. Get in on this party now before Browne gets gobbled up by the corporate comics machine.

God Hates Astronauts can be read online, but I recommend purchasing the print editions, which are really nicely done. Also recommended: Blast Furnace, Browne's other ongoing webcomic, which is written off the top of his head, with new pages appearing daily, planned to continue for a full year.

My Deadbeat Dad
Written by Ian Boothby
Art by Nina Matsumoto

This handmade minicomic introduces a compelling idea that may or may not ever receive a follow-up, but even in this small space, it does receive more than just a basic introduction, which is nice. The story follows a girl whose parents are divorced but whose dad signed a really binding custody agreement that still gives him visitation rights even though he is dead and in hell. That's a great idea, and writer Ian Boothby (of various Simpsons comics) could have just described it and stepped back, happy with a job well done, but he does come up with some nice ideas regarding the ramifications, including the reason why the version of hell seen here is kind of cartoonish rather than horrifying. Artist Nina Matsumoto (also of some Simpsons comics, but also her own series Yokaiden) turns in some nice art, especially the screen tone shading and a few bits of fast-moving action. If we're lucky, we'll see more of this story someday. Here's hoping.

Do Not Disturb My Waking Dream #2
By Laura Park

The autobio comic has long been the red-headed stepchild of the indie comics scene, easily-mocked as full of boring, self-centered, trite observations about the daily lives of artists as if they are interesting to anyone but the creators. Interestingly, this minicomic fits that description to the letter, but Laura Park is such a good artist that even the hastily-sketched depictions of unremarkable activities are fun to read, just to see how well she can make simple shapes and shading do so much to convey her emotions, insecurities, joys, and irritations. It's delightful stuff, sometimes seeming like stream of consciousness "this is what I did today" journaling and then skipping to well-realized strips capturing funny or memorable moments, then zooming out for more detailed images that demonstrate an excellent facility with cross-hatching. The simple minicomics format is perfect for this sort of thing; what might not fit well in a slick hardcover works wonderfully on simple white stapled paper, a wonderful little collection of moments from somebody's life, presented without any attempt at profundity or self-importance, just a record of stuff that seemed interesting enough to get down on paper, and is definitely worth a look, if only to examine how good Park is at dashing this stuff off and making it cute, enjoyable, and visually appealing. Any longer work from her would be welcome, but keeping it short, sweet, and simple has its appeal as well.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wizard Chicago 2011: Pictures of Groo

One great thing about attending conventions for me is the chance to obtain more entries in my sketchbook, which bears the theme of what might be my all-time favorite comic, Sergio Aragones' Groo.  Here's what I came home with this year:

Nina Matsumoto provided a cool pose, effortlessly mixing her style with Sergio's.

Pia Guerra did a nicely cartoony depiction of both Groo and Rufferto. I especially like Groo's hands and feet here.

Tom Scioli added his own particular style to his drawing. Interestingly, he mentioned recently thinking about Groo when trying to come up with other non-serious barbarian comics like his webcomic American Barbarian.

Mike Norton did a sort of super-deformed Groo, then surrounded him with foliage, which was especially fascinating to watch him draw, as he seemed to nonchalantly wave a brush pen around the page and ended up with all that moody shrubbery. When his tablemate commented on that, he said it was because he felt bad about the poor drawing (nonsense, says I!) and wanted to add value, or something.

Sean Dove contributed a wonderfully cartoony depiction of Groo. I really like this one, especially the facial expression.

Lilli Carre did this one, which might be one of my favorites ever, just for the humor. Also, she didn't do any underdrawing, just laid the whole thing down in ink without any room for error. Color me impressed.

Finally, Jeremy Tinder did this goofy pose. After finishing, he said, "I don't know what he's doing. Yoga, I guess." I love it.

I don't think I'll ever get tired of getting these sketches. I just love watching the artists do their thing, seeing all the different techniques and ideas and marveling at the skill as they manage to turn a blank page into a fun image in a matter of minutes. Even if I can't really make art, I can sure appreciate it.