Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Minicomics, and others not so mini

So...Buttons #4
Written by Jonathan Baylis
Art by David Beyer, Jr., Thomas Boatwright, Fred Hembeck, Eric Kim, T.J. Kirsch, Tim Ogline, Paul Salvi, Noah Van Sciver, and Paul Westover

If you've read any of the previous issues of Jonathan Baylis' minicomics series, you know what to expect with this one: autobiographical stories illustrated in a range of styles, possibly adhering to a theme of some sort. The theme for this issue is "movies", sort of, along with various somewhat-tangentially-related anecdotes. Baylis alternates between talking about his history and discussing movies and directors that he likes, touching on subjects like the New York Mets, origami, his time as a Marvel Comics intern, Jewish comedians, King Kong, Robert Redford, Sam Fuller, Jim Jarmusch, Dino DeLaurentiis, and OCD M&M eating, always lending a personal touch, as if he's having a conversation with the reader, a sense enhanced by his on-panel appearances. It certainly helps to have a number of talented artistic collaborators; regular series artists T.J. Kirsch and Thomas Boatwright bring a nice, cartoony familiarity to their particular subjects (candy, Star Trek, and Redford for the former, Kong, Jarmusch, and Alfred Hitchcock for the latter), while Fred Hembeck brings the Marvel Bullpen to life wonderfully, Noah Van Sciver gives New York sports fandom a nervous, jittery energy, and Eric Kim lends placid romanticism to the subject of origami. It's really nice work all around, another installment of good autobiographical comics in the Harvey Pekar mold. Baylis can probably keep doing this for quite a while to come, and he definitely should.

More More Mores
By Joey Jacks
Self-published; buy it from Quimby's

I always hate to get into a pointless "is this a comic or not" argument (even with myself), but it's hard not to at least address the issue with this minicomic/zine, which consists entirely of abstract drawings like the one on the cover, without any narrative linking them other than similarity in style. But whether or not it's worthy of the label of "sequential art", it's still pretty fascinating, all sorts of weird shapes smashed together to make whatever the reader/viewer wants to interpret it as. Are these topographical maps? Alien landscapes? Circuit diagrams? Inscrutable flowcharts? Who knows? The level of detail, which seems random, yet calculated, forming different configurations on every page, makes for page after page of examination, even if you have no idea what you're really looking for/at. There's little like it, which makes Joey Jacks a minicomicker to watch; I'd love to see what else he can do.

Coffee and Beer Money
By Becky Hawkins

Becky Hawkins seems to be operating more in the stereotypical minicomics mold than Joey Jacks, filling her pages with autobiographical tales and self-analysis, in an appealing, if not exactly groundbreaking, manner. This issue of her "French Toast Comix" series sees her enjoying karaoke with friends, having adventures while working on a cruise ship, and lamenting her interpersonal skills and relationship difficulties. It's engaging stuff, especially when she relates an art-based epiphany or considers her unflattering depiction of herself. The shifts in artistic style are also interesting, some pages drawn simplistically and sketchily, others using rougher linework, some experimenting with heavy shadows, some filling in nice background details; she seems to still be trying out different instruments and techniques from strip to strip, sometimes just jotting down a gag or observation, other times putting together multi-page anecdotes, working toward a consistent, natural personal style. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for more comics from her; it should be interesting to see how she develops.

By Nick Edwards
Published by Blank Slate Books

Blank Slate's Chalk Marks series seems to be a less-artsy answer to Fantagraphics' Ignatz line, taking the form of large-size pamphlets with high production values, but containing more populist types of stories, in the sci-fi, fantasy, kids' adventure, character-based drama, and autobio genres. This particular entry by Nick Edwards is pretty excellent, a great dose of wacky cartooniness that fills pages with detailed whimsy and beautiful designs. It follows a boy named Nigel and his talking dinosaur Brian on an archaeological adventure  involving aliens, communicable diseases, and evil lizard-men, and it's funny, exciting, and adventurous in its cool use of the comics page, with the tails of word balloons and discriptive insets snaking expressively toward their objects, panel layouts taking unique forms like a tunnel winding across a two-page spread, and trippy inter-dimensional weirdscapes that seem like a cross between Steve Ditko and Brandon Graham. I wasn't previously familiar with Edwards, but after this, I'll be on board for whatever I can find by him, whether it's more adventures in this world (which is primed for further exploration, featuring likable leads, an arch-villain, a Basil Exposition-like dispenser of missions, multiple layers of secret civilizations and dimensions, and a sense of anything-can-happen fun) or something completely new. I hope I don't have to wait too long.

Monster Christmas
By Lewis Trondheim
Published by Papercutz

Lewis Trondheim is kind of a sure thing when it comes to making entertaining kids' comics, and this is no exception. This one is the second in a series (although, oddly, it is being published in English before the first book, perhaps in order to be out by the titular holiday) starring what appears to be super-deformed versions of the bird-creatures Trondheim uses to depict himself and his family in his diary comics, along with a four-armed, three-legged, ten-mouthed monster that sprang to life from the children's drawings and became a sort of family pet. This one sees them take a ski vacation, on which they end up meeting Santa and getting caught in the middle of a chase between him and another, more ferocious monster. It's funny and lively, told entirely through images accompanied by past-tense narration by the children, who relate all the details with a mixture of childlike wonder and incomprehension. Trondheim captures that kid's-eye-view of the action really well, the kids commenting on everything as if it's fairly normal, treating the crazy events as only slightly outside the norm, since most everything is new and exciting to children. The actions of the parents is especially well-depicted through this filter, with their irritation, exasperation, exhaustion, and fear conveyed mostly through captioned descriptions like "Dad says that to save Santa we'd risk getting ripped to pieces and smashed by the monster and that it might be dangerous. We say, 'Oh...okay.' So everyone gets back in the car to continue the trip". It's all wacky, lively, insightful fun, another entry in the growing library of good Trondheim comics for all ages that are available in English. Here's hoping for many more to come.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Homeland Directive: This could be a movie on paper, but somebody went and elevated it

The Homeland Directive
Written by Robert Venditti
Art by Mike Huddleston
Published by Top Shelf

Is the conspiracy thriller a very common genre in comics? Probably not, at least in the United States branch of the medium, so it's nice to see something a bit different from the norm, a sort of mainstream action-movie style of story, playing on the current era of heightened security and invisibly invasive lack of privacy to generate a feeling of paranoia and make a bit of a political point about the accountability of those in positions of power. It's a pretty smart, plausible story, seeing a fanatical Director of Homeland Security kicking off a complicated scheme intended to strengthen American security by murdering a large number of its citizens, with a doctor for the Centers for Disease Control suddenly caught in the middle of the plot and trying to survive a sudden target on her back, but somehow still bring down the bad guys with the assistance of a trio of men from the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy (the most dangerous government branch of all, apparently) who caught wind of what was happening and decided to team up to stop it, barely understanding its full scope themselves. It all ends up as a book-length series of tense conversations and confrontations, leading to an expected resolution that restores the status quo, while hinting that there may be some merit to the villain's schemes, a realization that the vast amount of information that exists for everyone makes those in power walk a fine line between privacy and security, ever-cognizant of the ethics behind their actions, since a momentary slip in the sense of what is and isn't allowable in the name of "protecting the country" can lead to disaster.

On the story level, the book works rather well, if it does end up with a bit more talk and a bit less action than a cinematic adaptation would probably feature. This might be an attempt at a movie deal (which writer Robert Venditti, who also penned The Surrogates, has experience with), but luckily, Mike Huddleston is too good of an artist to slap something generic onto the page in hopes of Hollywood lucre. He infuses the book with a sense of gritty realism, wonderfully delineating characters' expressions and body language with his brushy linework during the many dialogue scenes, and differentiating what could have been interchangeable Federal agents well, while realistically capturing Dr. Regan's confusion and fear as her life is suddenly turned upside down. Huddleston could probably make scene after scene of people talking lively and exciting using simple black and white art, but his color work here is especially exceptional, often sticking to a limited palette, but regularly shifting into expressive hues that add to scenes' mood excellently, and bursting into boldly eye-catching colors in scenes of action or violence. Or just when the tenor of a scene requires; when Regan is speaking at a conference just before being targeted, she is surrounded by garishly bright reds, blues, yellows, and oranges:

A scene in which she sits in a hotel room discussing her plight with the agents is more understated, but an intricate wallpaper design hangs in the background, emphasizing her disorientation:

It's an especially effective demonstration of a technique that seems to be gaining in popularity in comics these days (see also: Xombi, illustrated by Frazier Irving), with pages and individual panels often marked by a particular color scheme dependent on characters and locations, lending an immediately recognizable tone to each scene upon first glance:

In another great demonstration of artistic versatility, whenever the villainous Homeland Security Chief meets with the President (a faceless, unnamed version of Barack Obama), deep, moody shadows suddenly add layers of moral murkiness:

It's lovely work all around, although it starts to seem a bit rushed near the end of the book, as more and more backgrounds are composed of cut-out and pasted-together images of buildings:

This wouldn't be an issue, but its repetition, along with the obviousness of its artificiality, makes it stand out. But next to everything else surrounding it, it's hardly a dealbreaker.

As nice-looking as the book is (and it's really, really nice, some of the best coloring on a graphic novel this year), it doesn't quite rise above the level of escapist entertainment, even though it does feature something of a message. It's fast-moving, with a sense of danger and excitement, but never a full-on, white-knuckle, can't-put-it-down grip on the reader. It will probably make for a completely decent movie starring Naomi Watts or Nicole Kidman someday, but nothing that will inspire lines in front of theaters or multiple Oscar nominations. That's fine; moms and dads need something to read/watch too.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

24 Hour Comics Day 2011: Am I alive?













Thanks to Challengers Comics, the best comics store in Chicago, for putting on the event, and thanks to all the artist there for letting me use them as subjects. This is a crazy event, but it's one of those things I can say I did, I guess.

If you're interested in any of the mentioned artists, here is a collection of links:

Megan Ansbach
Ryan Browne
Don Cardenas
Sean Dove
Dan Glassberg
Tom Kelly
Dave Losso
Brian Mead
Christopher Mitten
Mike Norton
Chris Revekant
Alejandro Rosado
Luke Smarto
Chris Smits
Jim Thomas

(If I missed anyone or need to update any of those links, please let me know)