Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Collection catchup: Expectation vs. reality

No new comics this week, so here's something else to talk about:

The Winter Men
Written by Brett Lewis
Art by John Paul Leon

Sometimes you hear about a comic that's really good, but by the time you're interested, several issues have come out, and you figure it's best to just wait for the trade.  But then the series seemingly disappears for a couple years, making you think it's never going to get finished and will only be available through back issue searches, only to show up unexpectedly on a schedule again to finish in a sort-of-unplanned manner, and even get collected a few months later.  Well, that happened once, anyway, with this series, and now that I've finally been able to read the whole thing, it was totally worth the wait.  What a fascinating comic; if I had my way, this is what a whole lot more mainstream books would be like.  It's kind of tangentially a superhero book, but it's much more character-based than most of them, with nary a costume in sight and more emphasis on crime, society, politics (whether governmental or in other organizations), and friendship than crime-fighting.  In fact, the usual superhero stuff is nonexistent in this world, in which the creation of super-powered soldiers in Russia during the Cold War has led to the proliferation of gangsters, soldiers, and policemen with super-human abilities, although they seem to ignore them for the most part and just focus on their daily lives instead.  That means we get to follow Kris Kalenov, a Moscow police officer, as he investigates the kidnapping of a young girl who turns out to be the recipient of a liver transplant that granted her some of those special abilities.  He ends up going to New York and infiltrating some gangs there, then returning to Russia for a standoff in a remote military base, and when he finally finds the kid, the book is only half done.

That might be the point at which the series started experiencing delays, since it seems a bit off throughout the rest of the book.  One issue is a sort of "day in the life" story that follows Kris and his gangster pal Nikki (also an ex-super-soldier) around Moscow taking care of police business, then the plot veers off in the direction of a growing mystery about who is behind the governmental upheavals that had been going on in the background and an eventual confrontation with a diabolical mastermind.  The final special issue, which came out early in 2009 to finish off the series, opens with Kalenov saying "My little friends, I thought I would have more time to tell you how things ended up. But perhaps for now I will just tell you the good parts", and then brings in a major character who probably should have had more on-panel time before playing his part in the plot.  Still, it all wraps up quite satisfactorily, and it works really well despite its rocky road to completion.

The real reward here is more about the journey than the destination; just seeing the characters move through their fully-realized world is a wonderful experience. Lewis' dialogue style is quirky and enjoyable, sounding like the characters are speaking English with a Russian accent, with lines like "What is this, the 'standing around' holiday?" or "Do you imagine this childcare to be inexpensive?".  It works as a sort of emphasis that this is a foreign land, not the normal Western world readers are used to.  And John Paul Leon's art is gorgeously detailed and shadowed, with every panel feeling like it captures a real place, from snowy urban streets to cluttered junk shops to the halls of political power.  It's pretty amazing work, with characters that move and emote realistically, behaving like recognizable people.  They're characters that I want to spend more time with, and was sad to have to say goodbye when the story ended.  That's the mark of a damn good book.

I Kill Giants
Written by Joe Kelly
Art by JM Ken Niimura

While some books live up to their hype, others fail to meet the expectations after having praise heaped upon them, and unfortunately, that's the case with this story, which was originally serialized in a seven-issue miniseries, but probably reads a bit better as a whole rather than separated into individual chapters.  Joe Kelly can be an idiosyncratic writer, and it shows here, but while he fills the book with fanciful flourishes, his plotting is very straightforward, relating a relatively simple story but obscuring its center until he can reveal an emotional core.  It's pretty baldly manipulative, but it works pretty well for what it does.

That said, it would probably be a bit better without high expectations; in the end, it's kind of a banal look at a child dealing with the idea of death, dressed up in a fantasy metaphor that actually exists as a metaphor in the story itself.  That is, the main character, a quirky middle-schooler named Barbara, claims to be a hunter and killer of giants, with those monsters standing in for the ever-present spectre of death which she is dealing with at home.  The circumstances of her home life are hidden from the reader, leaving open the possibility that her fantasies are real, but it's obvious that she's suffering from some sort of tragedy, and the reality turns out to be kind of commonplace.  Sure, it's unfortunate, but it's not exactly extraordinary, and the way Kelly builds it up over the course of the book, even blacking out the text in word balloons in which characters refer to it, the truth turns out to be a kind of a letdown.  Although, if one tries to put themselves in the mindset of a pre-teen going through this, the level of drama is not inappropriate.  But the secrecy does oversell it, and depending on the reader, it might be too much.

In fact, said secrecy might obscure the rest of the story, which is a shame, since it's full of personality, both in the lively characters and the way they are depicted.  Artist JM Ken Niimura takes a somewhat manga-style approach, but it's much more sketchy and unfinished-looking than anything you're likely to see from Japan.  The art is clean and simple, except in the fantasy elements, which are suitably monstrous in the case of the victims of the title, and cute and silly in the goofy miniature fairies and creatures that Barbara sees everywhere.  Niimura also gives Barbara animal ears (with the species changing regularly), which seems inexplicable at first, until you realize that they're not meant to actually be visible.  The book is full of that sort of thing, and Kelly and Niimura really bring the relationships populating the story to life, and do their best to sell Barbara's predicament.  The fact that they mostly succeed certainly makes the book worth reading, but it's probably not going to change your life or anything.  There's nothing wrong with solid entertainment though; let's enjoy it where we can find it.

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
By Josh Neufeld

With this book, which was originally serialized online at Smith Magazine, artist Josh Neufeld did a ton of research about the 2005 Hurrican Katrina tragedy, and he relates some fascinating stories here following several individuals and relating their experiences.  Unfortunately, he also spends time with people whose stories aren't as compelling, making for an unbalanced read.  In an afterword, he states that he wanted to show how people from all walks of life were affected, and while that's a nice idea, it becomes obvious a portion of the way into the book that two of the five storylines, both of which follow people who stayed in the city and survived, are the interesting ones, and any time spent with the others is less worthwhile.

The real compelling material here sees a woman named Denise who spent the night of the hurricane alone in her apartment, and then was stranded with her family in the New Orleans Convention center along with a massive crowd who felt like they were being left to die by those in charge.  Elsewhere, an Iranian man named Abbas stayed in the city to mind his store with a friend while his family left for safety.  Between these two stories, we see what things looked like from the ground level, and everything else is little more than a reiteration of what the rest of the country saw on TV.  It's a shame that one character lost his comic book collection in the flood, but compared to having an old woman die in the street next to you (which happened to Denise), it's not as poignant as it seems like it's supposed to be.  It seems like Neufeld's intentions led him astray here, which is unfortunate, since the street-view material is so good, and nearly everything else distracts from it.

It might be the serialized nature of the comic that was the issue here; the project started one way, following the selected characters, and Neufeld was stuck with it throughout.  It's unfortunate, and the way the book ends, by jumping forward a year and a half from after the hurricane and its immediate aftermath, seems to leave out too much.  It's too bad; with more planning, this could have been a great bit of journalism.  As it is, the quality peeks through, but it's hidden by material that didn't need to be told.  It's not terrible, but it could have been better, and that's a shame.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

You'll Never Know: Hey, maybe I will

Elsewhere: I reviewed Punisher #12 at Comics Bulletin.  That's part two of the "Franken-Castle" story, if you didn't know.

Links: The second "season" of Dean Haspiel's Zuda series Street Code has started; the new content starts on page 61, if you've already read the first part.

And for today's Japanese bizarreness, Rich Johnston has posted a couple pages from an Alan Moore themed fan-comic, which reimagines the Magus as a Japanese schoolgirl.  Japan.

I missed this when it started, but Oni Press has been running a prequel short story (read it here in reverse chronological order) to Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt's upcoming fantasy Western series The Sixth Gun.  It's prose, with illustrations, and two bookend comics pages, and now I'm excited about the series all over again.

Hmm, Christmas apparently isn't conducive to a regular posting schedule.  Let's see if I can get caught up:

You'll Never Know, book one: A Good and Decent Man
By Carol Tyler

The list of excellent graphic novels released in 2009 seems to grow with every other book read, and this particular entry is one that stands out even in its crowded field.  Carol Tyler really makes a name for herself with this "graphic memoir", as the cover calls it, demonstrating an incredible grasp of storytelling structure and a layering of personal and historical incident into a complex, cohesive whole that illuminates her own life along with her subject's.  It's an impressive achievement, and as the first volume of a projected trilogy, it's indicative of the quality to come.

As for that subject, it's a fascinating one, an intimate, warts-and-all portrait of Tyler's father, one Sgt. Chuck Tyler, who served in the Army in World War II.  As with so many of the "greatest generation", it's essential to record their stories while they are still with us, and Tyler does a wonderful job of it, weaving her own history into the tale, along with some contemplation on how her father's history and their relationship affected her own life, especially her relationship with her husband, who had separated with her during the creation of the volume, causing her to be especially reflective on the subject.

This makes the book a sort of rambling, nonchronological discourse on her father, jumping around to different points in his life, with regular breaks for Tyler to relate what is going on with her and her teenage daughter and detail how her father came to tell her the story in the first place, which is important, since she tells how he was reticent to even talk about his wartime experiences at all for as long as she could remember.  The whole thing (or this first third of it, anyway), ends up having the quality of a tale told by a master storyteller, who makes the telling of the story and the circumstances surrounding it as important as the story itself.

That might be because the meat of Sgt. Tyler's war experiences are yet to come; as of the end of this volume, he still hadn't seen much action, spending most of the story talking about being stationed on a base in the U.S., courting his future wife, and working as a plumber in North Africa; he eventually went into Italy and Germany, and apparently had some difficult experiences that affected him for the rest of his life, but we'll have to wait to hear about that.  Instead, we learn about his time growing up, the beautiful love story between him and Tyler's mother, and many of Tyler's memories of him as a father.  It's a wonderful portrait of a complex human being, and after reading just this one volume, readers will feel like they know him, no matter what the title says.

All this would be quite nice on its own, but Tyler's gorgeous artwork really completes the package, bringing an aura of sensuality to every scene, whether it's an aside about the layout of her house or a detail from her parents' memory.  The way she conveys movement is amazing, with images flowing across the page and directing the eye through the panels even when they're full of captioned text, and really capturing emotions at the same time, as in this scene in which she recalls her father taking her to a school dance:

She packs the panels with information, often pointing out details with labels and arrows or adding swirls of colors to represent emotion.  She makes use of the entire page, with artwork extending outside of the panel borders and stretching across the gulf between pages.  This story doesn't sit still; it keeps moving, one scene flowing into another and one memory evoking certain emotions and vice versa.  The sections in which she attempts to create a sort of scrapbook retelling of his history might be the most restrained portions of the book, but they're fascinating nonetheless, with the description of how her parents fell in love possibly being the most arresting part of the story:

The whole thing is beautiful and gripping, and it's obvious that Tyler cares for her father and wants to capture the full extent of her emotions concerning him.  That seems like a tall order, but she manages to do a remarkably real-seeming interpretation of her thoughts and feelings, whether in the awed reverence of everything he's seen in his lifetime:

Or the remembrance of what an accomplished man he was, especially in how technically capable he was with carpentry and plumbing:

Tyler never stops laying on the detail, but she doesn't overwhelm the reader either.  She has a perfect control of pacing and structure, and the book holds together as a pretty amazing whole, full of personal reminiscence, diaristic self-examination, and attempts to capture a history that doesn't just seem like a random accumulation of memories, but a full portrait of a person and his life.  That's a pretty great accomplishment, and if Tyler wasn't on readers' radar before, she definitely should have everyone's attention now, since she's got talent to spare.  The next two installments of the story can't arrive fast enough.

Monday, December 21, 2009

This week, I'm early on the resolutions

I'm considering revamping what I do with these weekly preview posts, although that might be a strong word to use.  I feel like they're getting kind of long, with too much "Maybe I'll read this someday" commentary, so I'm going to try to only mention the stuff that I plan to buy or find especially notable.  Or if I think of a funny joke about something; I can rarely pass those up.  We'll see how it goes.

New comics this week (Wednesday, 12/23/09):

Beasts of Burden #4

Is it here already?  This is the end of the excellent miniseries by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, although I'm fervently hoping that it's not the last we'll see of the characters.  The series has seemed to be leading to bigger, scarier plots, but they're waiting ominously in the future rather than actually playing out yet.  From what I've heard, sales haven't been especially good, but hopefully the eventual collection will reverse that trend.  If you haven't been reading this, do so!  It is really, really good.

Chew #7

Having recently read (and written about) the first collection of this series, I've become a fan; it's fun, unique, and bizarre, and what I found notable is that each issue of the first five stood alone as its own story but fitting into a larger narrative, while still explaining its concept without expository.  One could conceivably pick up any installment and not feel left behind; if you haven't tried it out, I recommend grabbing an issue and giving it a read; it's easy to see why it's been a hit.

Chimichanga #1

Eric Powell!  He seems to be taking a break from The Goon for a little bit in order to do this miniseries, which he is self-publishing through his Albatross Exploding Funny Books label.  I think it's about some circus sideshow freaks, including the mustachoied little girl of the title.  I bet it will be raucous, goofy fun, and feature some really nice art.  Don't let me down, Powell!

Criminal: The Sinners #3

This series has been consistently good throughout its history, and this latest story is no exception.  Ed Brubaker is laying out the mystery methodically, but as always, I expect it will really start moving and the shit will hit the fan in later installments.  Pacing!  Gotta love it.

Crossed #8

I think this is the final issue in Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows' zombie-ish series, which, from what I hear has been pretty goddamn depraved.  I might check it out at some point, if I feel especially misanthropic.

Garth Ennis Battlefields Happy Valley #1

And speaking of Ennis, here's the latest miniseries in his line of war comics for Dynamite.  All of the previous stories have been quite good, so I expect this will be no different.  Art here is provided by PJ Holden, and the story involves an Australian commander leading a crew of Englishmen in a bombing squadron over 1942 Germany.  I expect many amusing accents.

Hellboy Bride of Hell One-Shot

The latest in Dark Horse's "single issue story" initiative, it's another Hellboy story written by Mike Mignola with art by Richard Corben.  I've dug their previous collaborations on the character, so I expect this will also be good.  Yea, verily, it shall rock.  Here's a four-page preview.

Last Days of American Crime #1

Rick Remender is writing this miniseries from Radical, with art by Greg Tocchini, and it seems like it might be interesting.  It involves a sort of sci-fi concept in which the US government is going to broadcast a signal that will inhibit anybody from committing crimes (which doesn't necessarily make sense without some explanation, but it might work as a storytelling conceit), but some guys got wind of it and are planning to carry out a heist just before the broadcast goes into effect.  Judging by the preview art, it looks to be a pretty nihilistic affair, full of sex and violence.  Could be a decent crime book; we'll see.

Punisher #12

Part two of the "Franken-Castle" storyline, by Remender again, with some really nice art by Tony Moore.  I only mention this because I should have a review up at Comics Bulletin tomorrow.  Find out whether I like it then!

Agents of Atlas Dark Reign TPB

The subtitle here might be a dissuading factor for some, if you're not interested in the tiresome over-plot that's been running at Marvel for the last year, but if you like Jeff Parker, I would still give this one a recommendation.  He does have his characters deal with Norman Osborn and company, along with the Avengers ("New" version), but he uses them well, and he's still advancing his own plots and telling good, fun, action-packed stories.  The art varies, but whenever Gabriel Hardman takes over, it looks great.  This collection also includes some short stories from various event tie-ins, and the issue of Marvel Adventures Avengers in which the Agents guest-starred.  Good times, at least in terms of mainstream Marvel superhero comics.

Alec The Years Have Pants Life Size Omnibus

Ah, finally!  The huge (640 pages!) collection of Eddie Campbell's autobiographical comics finally comes out, just in time to fit onto lists of the best comics of 2009 (and also the decade, natch).  Thanks, Eddie, like I wasn't already far enough behind.  I'm really looking forward to diving into this one, since I love his work.  It puts the various books in chronological order, includes some stuff that was either never printed or was previously only available in hard-to-find places, and features a new story that sort of brings things up to date.  So: awesome.  I expect greatness: don't let me down, Eddie!  Here, have a preview.

Atomic Robo Vol 3 TPB

Ah, I do love me some Atomic Robo.  This third volume of the series began with a story in which the character fought a giant supernatural creature that emerged from H.P. Lovecraft's head (literally), but who knows where it went from there, since I didn't read the later issues.  I may just have to just buy this to remedy that.  Also available this week: a new printing of the first volume, which I highly recommend if you haven't read the series yet.  It's full of funny dialogue and rousing action that spans the 20th century; don't miss out.

Dark Reign Sinister Spider-Man TPB

Another example of halfway-decent comics that tie in to Marvel's big, tiresome event.  This one follows Venom as he eats people, antagonizes J. Jonah Jameson, and starts a gang war.  Mostly lighthearted, at least as far as violent nihilism goes.  Chris Bachalo does some of the art, but not all of it; even so, it looks pretty nice.  I don't know if I would really recommend it, but if you want to sample some of the better stuff from Marvel these days, this is one to consider.

Fantastic Four TP Master of Doom

This is the end of the much-vaunted Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch run on the FF, and it kind of finished with a whimper, with neither creator fully involved in the final issue.  I wouldn't actually call it good, but it does feature some interesting ideas, and Hitch delivers some pretty nice imagery.  Worth a look for the curious, but don't expect to get a great value for your money.

Footnotes in Gaza HC

The other major release that's squeaking in under the wire at the end of the year, this is the new book by Joe Sacco, sure to be another great example of his journalistic comics.  This one looks at the the past 50 years of war and violence town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip.  Sure to be on a lot of lists of the best comics of the year, since Sacco is really fucking good at what he does.  I know I'll be reading it as soon as I can.

The Mighty Vol 1 TPB

So, this series from DC (which isn't part of the "DC Universe", or Wildstorm, or Vertigo, but stands on its own) is rumored to be pretty good, but maybe that's just grading on the curve compared to Outsiders and Titans.  I think it follows a superhero who is mostly a tool of the government/corporations, and maybe he's also somewhat mentally disabled or something?  Whatever the case, it's destined to only be a twelve-issue series, since it has been cancelled, meaning that this is the first half of the story.  I'll have to pay attention to reviews and whatnot to see if it's something worth seeking out.

The More Than Complete Action Philosophers TP

I certainly enjoyed this series quite a bit when it was being serialized; it was a funny, educational look at various figures throughout history, with Fred Van Lente explaining their writings in engaging, hilarious manner and some great cartooning by Ryan Dunlavey.  This book collects the entire series in one big volume, rearranging them into chronological order so you can see the development of philosophy through the ages.  Great stuff; I highly recommend it.

Olympus TP Vol 01

I'm not sure if this is an ongoing series or a miniseries, but here's the first collection, and I haven't heard much about whether the issues included were any good or not.  It certainly looked interesting, with some strikingly bright-colored art, and while the story didn't seem all that unique, it could have been decent, something about gods passing as mortals and fighting each other.  I guess I'm asking if anybody read it and if it's worth checking out.  Well?

Runaways True Believers Prem HC

I haven't been able to keep track of the various hardcover and softcover reprints that Marvel has been doing on this series, but here's the latest release (reprint?), if you're interested.  It includes the first story of the second volume, in which the team started fighting crime on their own in LA and ended up going against another team that consisted of former kid heroes who were in a support group to quit superheroing.  Enjoyable stuff that's worth reading if you haven't already.  I'd wait for a cheaper paperback version though, if I were you.

Sublife GN Vol 02

Fantagraphics has this latest short story collection from John Pham, with some stories following characters introduced in the first volume and others standing alone.  Looks like some interesting stuff here, some sci-fi, some post-apocalypse, and some modern urban street-level life.  I bet it's good reading, although I still need to check out the first one.  Fanta has the usual slideshow/preview.

The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD HC

Fantagraphics also has this latest book from Dash Shaw, which ties into (that is, contains storyboards, character designs, and scripts for) the series of short animated films he recently did for IFC.com (which you can watch here) and includes various other short pieces that ran in MOME.  That's a kind of odd combination; myself, I'm much more interested in the latter than the former.  Shaw is a hell of a talent though, full of ideas and energy; a chance to catch up on those stories that I missed by not reading MOME is one that I'll try to take.  Here: slideshow/preview.

Winterworld HC

Finally, here's a book that collects a comic I previously was not aware of: a three-issue miniseries by Chuck Dixon and Jorge Zaffino that was published by Eclipse in 1987.  It appears to be a post-apocalyptic story set in a new ice age, and this volume also includes a new sequel called "Wintersea".  For anybody who read this when it originally came out (or at some point in the twenty years since then), how is it?  Any good?  Should I try to give it a read?  Not that I want to add to my stack of book to read or anything...

And that appears to be the week, and also the year, at least in terms of stuff that Diamond is shipping to comics shops.  I've still got a bunch to read before I can attempt to formulate a Best of 2009 list, but I'm looking forward to doing so, since list-making is one of those activities that is compulsory during this season.  Also, I'll do more writing, since that is also expected of me.  Yes.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Driven By Lemons: As good of a chauffeur as anything in this book

Elsewhere: I've tried my hand at some music writing for The Factual Opinion's "best songs of 2009" countdown, which I encourage people to check out if only to follow the links and listen to some of the songs.  I'm terribly behind the curve when it comes to music, so listening to the nominees has been an eye-opener for me; there's some great stuff there.  I don't really know what I'm doing when writing about it, but it's an interesting exercise.  Enjoy, Brady addicts!

Driven By Lemons
By Joshua Cotter

When it comes to some of the more outre indie "artcomix", one complaint against them is that they can be pretty damn inscrutable, little more than a series of images that don't hold together well or add up to much of anything.  Of course, that could be a reaction to any sort of modern art, but the fact remains that most people come to comics expecting a story, and experiments with abstraction aside, many of those indie comics are lacking in the area of narrative, or at least taking an approach that can alienate those who aren't accustomed to their strangeness.  Luckily, if you're looking to bridge the gap between narrative and abstraction, Joshua Cotter's follow-up to Skyscrapers of the Midwest is here to do so.  It is presented as a reproduction of the sketchbook in which it was created, although if it was actually put together page by page in such a manner, that's a pretty impressive feat.  It's kind of inscrutable itself, with the opening pages including some dense, seemingly-glossolalic text, blacked-out panels next to ones full of masses of tiny triangles and squares, and captions that seem to describe a fractured mental state, but as one continues to turn the pages, a sort of story makes itself clear, seeing a truck plunge out of the sky over the Chicago skyline, followed by a bunny in a sort of space suit crawling out of the wreckage and having hallucinations in the form of pages and pages of scribbly lines and exploding shapes and colors.  Later, that same bunny (or perhaps a different one?) is seen lying in a hospital bed, barely moving, and listening to the sounds around him while having more hallucinations, eventually succumbing to an enveloping scene in which what seem to be different bunny-shaped versions of himself run through an oppressive mental landscape, jostling for superiority until the eventually merge together, then get stuck in some sort of structure while a sort of flaming-headed fox lectures them about emotion and reality, before they undergo another transformation, into a small red twig of a tree, that, after being urinated on by the fox, grows into a thick vine or trunk that plunges up into the atmosphere and seems to obliterate the odd mental machinery of the bunny's mind before withering back into a tiny branch.

Hmm, that description doesn't seem to make very much sense, which sort of ruins the initial argument, but one can only textually paraphrase the images so much; the artwork here really has to be seen to be believed.  Cotter pours on the intricate detail, whether in "simple" depictions of clusters of tiny triangles and squares or in the gorgeously textured depictions of the bunny and his "adventures", and especially in the way he seems to devolve into component shapes and scribbles:

And those "scribbles" aren't just random, childlike clusters of lines; they're intricately detailed as well; they might or might not contain any actual information, but reader's can't help but pore over them to try to perceive some sort of pattern:

The scenes of the bunny in his hospital bed are similarly arresting, although somewhat simplified, and enhanced through repetition, with slight changes from panel to panel signifying the passing of time and the bunny's blank mental state:

This simplicity and stillness contrasts with the rich detail of the bunny's hallucinations, along with the fluid sense of motion that they provide:

Not to mention the incredible sense of color that stands out so much from the black and white backgrounds; when the vine (if that's what it is) starts growing and coursing through the sky, it looks like a stream of blood:

So, yes, it's pretty visually amazing, and seems to have some sort of narrative continuity, but, to ask the ever-present question posed to challenging art by minds that are struggling to keep up, what does it all mean?  The beauty of abstract-style art is that it can contain any interpretation the viewer/reader wants to pour into it; my take on this would be that it is an attempt at a depiction of mental illness, or possibly a damaged brain (from a car accident?) struggling to recover some semblance of normalcy.  The early struggles of the bunny might be an attempt to fight the mental chaos of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or another affliction, culminating in a suicide attempt, which leads to the hospital scenes and the trip through the mindscape that the fox (doctor?) tries to bring under control.  This view is bolstered by the final scene, which sees the bunny out of the hospital and at home, but depicted as damaged almost beyond recognition and still not fully "normal":

The thing about mental illness is that it can seem glorious and amazing to those experiencing it, even while it is incredibly damaging.  Hence the incredible sense of detailed beauty in the hallucinatory excursions, contrasted with the crushing banality of "normality" in the hospital.  But at the same time, the oppressive chaos, brought to life through the scribbly shapes and what looks like complicated mental machinery, threatens to tear one apart completely, and the rebuilding process is long and hard, with the result being far from optimal.  It's a terrible situation to deal with, and Cotter's depiction of it is at turns horrifying, engaging, enthralling, and confusing, making it, even with its near-total removal from reality, just about the most effective depiction of mental illness possible.

But maybe that's not it at all; another reader might come at the book with a completely different, and equally valid interpretation.  Cotter's work here is so well done that it can handle different takes, and it can be fascinating to see what different people bring to the work and get out of it.  One could even just enjoy the uniquely arresting visuals, which are outstanding and gorgeous on their own, divorced of any attempt at meaning, possibly even just evoking emotion or memory in their visceral engagement with the reader's senses. It's a rich, beautiful work, like nothing else out there, and it shows what an amazing talent Cotter has for comics art.  Let's see how he can top this one.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Low Moon: Hey, a Gary Cooper pun, why not?

Elsewhere: I've got a review of the latest Fringe up at The Factual Opinion, but I apparently missed the deadline getting my Dollhouse review in, so that one won't be up for another day or two, I think.  Also, I contributed an entry to a list of the best graphic novels of 2009 to a site called Flashlight Worthy Book Reviews.  It's a pretty good list, also including entries from blog luminaries like Jog, Sandy Bilus, Brigid Alverson, Johanna Draper Carlson, and David Welsh, so check it out.

Links, all about Dash Shaw for some reason: Shaw has apparently gotten into the world of animation after his series of shorts on IFC.com, so he's tackling a bigger project, a feature-length animated film called Slobs and Nags, which is being produced by Hedwig and the Angry Inch's John Cameron Mitchell and features the same team of animators and musicians, plus the addition of Frank Santoro.  Wow, that's cool.  Here's Shaw's announcement, with a link to more information.

And since Shaw is super-prolific at the moment, here's a neat short comic that he did for Vice, called "The Haunted High School."  I liked it quite a bit.

Low Moon
By Jason

What's better than a new story by Jason?  Why, several in one volume, of course!  This book collects the titular serial story that ran in The New York Times Magazine, along with four other stories of a similar length, making for a good deal of great material, equal to two or three of the album-sized volume in which his comics are usually delivered.  And all the better, I say; the more of Jason's weird energy and quirky, poignant storytelling that I can consume at one time, the better.

Jason's style of storytelling probably needs no introduction, so suffice to say that I'm always beguiled by the weirdly relatable inexpressiveness of his anthropomorphic animal characters, and the way that he puts them in such fantastical situations yet still makes their emotions and actions seem real and believable.  It's kind of a mystery how well he's able to do it, crafting easy-to-follow stories in such a minimalist style, but luckily, they're incredibly enjoyable, so one can easily get lost in them, forgetting questions of craft and technique because those aspects become all but invisible.

The five stories included here all traffic in the same sort of alienation and unhappiness that is his forte, with some of them going off into (or starting from) more surreal directions than others.  "Emily Says Hello" sees a hapless assassin picking off a group of men one by one at the behest of the eponymous woman, who rewards him with sexual favors, but never actually emits any warmth toward him or provides an explanation for why she wants them dead.  It's pretty dark, but fascinating in the emotions it evokes and the way the story suggests so much happening beyond its panels.

"&" is a similarly downbeat tale, alternating between two men who are similarly pursuing futile goals: one trying to steal some high-priced artwork in order to finance an operation to save his mother's life, and the other trying to get the woman he loves to agree to his proposal of marriage by killing all the other men she chooses over him.  The latter storyline is pretty darkly comic, with its hero's quest spiraling more and more out of control with each subsequent murder, and the goal becoming increasingly distant as his object of affection keeps choosing others ahead of him.  As a counterpoint, the former story goes in a completely different direction, full of slapstick comedy like something out of a Marx Brothers' movie.  Jason switches storylines on each page, so the two moods get intertwined in a fascinating manner, jumping between light and heavy quickly enough to give readers whiplash.  And then he brings it all together in a perfect Jason ending, fading out on a lasting image that sticks in the memory hauntingly.

The title story is a bit less dark than those already mentioned, but no less rich in quickly-defined but interesting character interactions.  It's a Western, starting with a man returning to a town with an apparent grudge against the sheriff.  But, in typically quirky Jason style, it turns out that the dispute between the two of them involved a chess match that the sheriff won, and now the man has come back for a rematch.  It's rather goofy, the way the characters all treat the match as seriously as if it were a pistol duel, but the real richness of the story comes through the character turns, the way the sheriff has become a washed-up drunk and has a rocky relationship with the local schoolteacher, the bruised honor of his rival, or the quiet resolve the various deputies have in preparing the sheriff for his rematch.  It's fascinating to watch Jason put this all together, creating a sort of melancholy wistfulness and tiredness through the body language and sad inexpressiveness of the characters.  He manages to convey so much so simply, whether in a pained back-and-forth:

A surprised reaction:

Or the choreography of a humorous barroom brawl:

It's a darn good entry in the artist's long line of stories that keep the reader coming back to find new layers of the work.

The final two stories, "Proto Film Noir" and "You Are Here", aren't quite as good as the others, and they suffer a bit for coming at the end after the highs of the first two thirds of the book, but they're still quite interesting and full of the same surreality.  The former sees a caveman wander into a domestic scene and begin an affair with the wife, then kill the husband, but every morning, the victim shows up at the front door, ready to eat breakfast.  No matter how many times or how gruesomely he is murdered, he wanders in with a "Good morning!" and a resolve to do some gardening.  What does it all mean? Who knows, but it gives Jason a chance to come up with more darkly comic violence.

As for "You Are Here", it sees a bickering couple argue via blacked-out word balloons, followed by the wife being abducted by a big, green alien.  The husband then spends the next several decades building a rocket which he can use to find her, while his son grows up, builds a family of his own, and then repeats his father's mistakes (signified by the reappearance of black word balloons), ending up splitting with his wife and joining his father in the search for his mother in the finally-completed rocket.  It's a strange story, seemingly metaphorical for the way a broken marriage might seem inexplicable to a child, but not really holding together as well as most of these.

But even lesser Jason stories are still like nothing else in comics, and considering the quality of the book as a whole, there's little to complain about here.  It's another great example of the strange alchemy that Jason has mastered, drawing readers in to compelling tales of people caught up in oddly familiar situations, even when they're dealing with something that's off-kilter from reality as we know it.  That's the Jason touch, and long may it continue to grace our pages.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Collection catchup: waiting for a few months can make for a good payoff

Ongoing series aren't always best when read in chunks rather than issue by issue, but that seems to be the case more often than not these days, so here are a few that I've gotten up to date on recently:

The Umbrella Academy, volume 2: Dallas
Written by Gerard Way
Art by Gabriel Ba

Wowee, there's definitely no sophomore slump here. The first volume of The Umbrella Academy was a pleasant surprise, a smart, fun take on superhero, sci-fi, and dysfunctional family tropes, something nobody was expecting from a writer known more for being an emo rock star than, well, a writer. But while that story was a good introduction, this follow-up might be even better, deepening the various relationships between the characters, explaining more of the complex backstory, and throwing one crazily awesome idea after another onto the page, never stopping to allow the reader to catch their breath. Plus, while the series is being presented in standalone storylines, it's become obvious that long-term plotting is in effect; scenes that weren't fully explained last volume lead to the plot here, while other bits are obviously setting up more stories in the future. It's put together beautifully, and it's tons of fun to read.

The plot here, indicated by the subtitle, manages to involve the assassination of JFK, along with the real reason for Number Five's reappearance in little-boy form; two psychotic, cute-mask-wearing, time-travelling assassins; a possible end to the Vietnam War that involves a giant mummy; the afterlife; and the world blowing up. It all happens at the series' signature frenetic pace, and Way seems to toss several ideas onto the page for every one he uses. At one point, three characters travel backward in time to stop JFK's killing, but the next time we see them, it turns out that they went back too far, and ended up spending three years fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, which in any other comic could have made for several issues of adventures. It's the kind of thing that could be filled in later, but will more likely be left up to the imagination of readers, which makes for a surprisingly satisfying read. Way trusts us to keep up, so he doesn't hold our hands and over-explain every little thing. For all its super-cool trappings and reveling in violence and gore, it's really a very mature bit of storytelling.

And it's incredibly fun to read as well, with funny, incisive dialogue, exciting action, and something incredible to look at on every page. Gabriel Ba outdoes himself here, filling the world with details like characters who happen to be monkeys, crazy futuristic technology, cool supernatural effects, Viet Cong vampires, and tons of grotesque killings. His depiction of life after death is especially striking, and the subtlety of emotion that he manages in his simple depictions of characters is pretty incredible. And the action! Just check out how well it works just in this one panel of a fight between Number Five and about a hundred guys from the future:

Just look at how well all the motion makes sense there, as we can follow the hopping child and see where he is shooting and how he is taking on all his attackers. It's gorgeous, and every panel of the book works this well, presenting clear action, dynamic motion, and images and colors that pop off the page. I love this comic, and I can't wait to see what Way and Ba have coming next.

Bonus: Check out Ba's homage to his collaborator Rafael Grampa's cover to their comic 5! Awesome!


The Boys, volume 5: Herogasm
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by John McCrea and Keith Burns

Well, this comic is just plain dirty. It might be the closest thing to superhero porn you're going to find in "mainstream" comics, but while Garth Ennis does seem to be trying to provoke and offend, it's not really all that shocking if you've read most anything else he's written. He does seem to be having fun coming up with goofy sex acts and just general depravity though; this sort of thing is kind of right up his alley. The miniseries might have seemed like a sort of step away from the ongoing series for what passes for an "event" in the world of this series, but it actually ends up being pretty important, eventually dropping the sexy shenanigans and focusing on the concerns of the greater plot. This might be a case in which waiting for the collection wasn't the optimal reading experience, since, from what I understand, it functioned in effect as a way to make the series biweekly for six months, alternating with issues of the regular series that took place after the events seen here but with the two storylines playing off each other. A scene in which the superhero group Payback (a riff on the Avengers) are tasked with doing something about the Boys particularly seems like one that pays off later, but while trade-waiters like me won't get to see the results until the next volume, readers of the monthly issues saw that happen within a few weeks. It should still work though, just not at the optimum level. It's hard to figure out the best way to read these things these days, isn't it?

Anyway, the general air of superhero satire continues here, with the series still functioning as a savage, disgusted take on the whole idea of the genre. Ennis seems to be looking at this as what superheroes would be like if they really existed, an idea that's been done before over and over, but comes from a cynical modern viewpoint that sees nothing positive in the enterprise. We wouldn't have benevolent do-gooders, but celebrities and brands wholly owned by corporations and governments, doing the bidding of the rich and powerful and caring not one iota for the little people. It turns into a scary concept, and Ennis is really selling that here by showing how the superheroes are starting to feel that they don't have to been held back by the dictates of human morality and law. Which is where the real message of the series comes in: it's not just about the comics industry, but society itself, in which rich individuals and companies hold all the power, considering themselves above everyone else and free to do whatever they want, no matter whose lives are destroyed in the process.

This consideration of real-world power is emphasized by the continued looks at back-room politics of Halliburton-esque corporations who are making inroads into control of the United States government, and interestingly, Ennis includes the actual Halliburton in the comic. It seems like an odd choice, to plug a real-life entity like that into a fictional story, but it startles one back into reality, reminding us that the inhumane actions being depicted here are representative of things that are actually happening. The use of the events of September 11 functions in the same way, putting real-life blood on the hands of these fictional representations of those who wontonly murder innocents.

One could probably talk about other aspects of the story as well, like the art or character developments, but while those work well enough (although I thought it was funny that John McCrea seemed reluctant to show much male nudity, while fill-in artist Keith Burns draws dongs-a-plenty), that metaphorical aspect is what I think is most important, giving the series its real satirical bite. You can come for the jokes and the dirtiness, but hopefully you'll leave with a consideration of how your life is affected by this type of activity. And I don't mean the sullying of your precious superheroes, either.

Chew, volume 1: Taster's Choice
Written by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory

This series has sort of been the comics success story of the year, at least in terms of mainstream, direct market, non-big-two comics, and reading it, it's easy to see why: it's entertaining, accessible, and really nice-looking, along with being pretty unique. And that accessibility might be its strongest point, considering how unique it is; it's about a cop (and later federal agent) who gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats, which leads him toward some cannibalistic tendencies in the name of pursuing justice. And that's only one of the odd ideas that writer John Layman tosses out here; there's also a backstory involving the FDA becoming the leading anti-crime organization in the United States following an outbreak of bird flu the leads to the outlawing of poultry, a love interest who has found great success as a food critic due to her ability to describe tastes so well that people actually experience them when reading her reviews, and also aliens, apparently. There's action and banter aplenty, mysteries to solve, secrets, reversals, betrayals, and conspiracies, but it's never complex or hard to follow. In fact, the five issues collected here are all stand-alone stories, easy to pick up and read without feeling lost. It's a surprisingly approachable book, and a hell of an entertaining one to boot.

Layman does a lot of the work here, establishing characters' personalities through dialogue and (aside from brief introductory captions in each issue along the lines of "Meet Tony Chu...Tony Chu is cibopathic", and so on) delivering exposition organically rather than forcing readers to hear somebody explain the whole bird flu situation for their benefit. But artist Rob Guillory really fleshes out that structure and creates the oddball world of the comic, from the dirty back alleys where gangsters smuggle bootleg chicken to the paperwork-littered offices and gross evidence rooms of the FDA. He's got a style that resembles a more clean-lined and brightly-colored Ben Templesmith, which means that the characters aren't especially attractive, but they've got personality to spare. He comes up with some good effects for Tony's psychic impressions and stages some great action scenes too, perfectly balancing seriousness and comedy. It's a great book all around, and at a bargain price, hopefully it will get plenty of people on board for the series, since Layman obviously has plans for a long, involved story. I know I certainly want to see where it goes next.

That's it for the moment, but it looks like there will be more coming soon. Comics!

Monday, December 14, 2009

This week, only Jim Rugg excites me at all

Link: Kurutta has another Taiyo Matsumoto short up, called "Universe". Nice.

New comics this week (Wednesday, 12/16/09):

Astonishing X-Men #33

I'm not sure what's going on in the current arc of Warren Ellis' corner of X-land, but I think it has something to do with the Brood and sentinels made of meat. Or something? Weird shit, kinda gross, but possibly actually interesting, which is a standard the X-line often fails to meet. Whee!

Authority The Lost Year #4

Hey, how is this going? Keith Giffen and company continue Grant Morrison's run, and it probably continues to fail to impress. Wake me up when it's over.

Captain America Reborn #5

I guess this is late, which probably can go without saying when Bryan Hitch is doing the art on a comic. But however Captain America gets reborn, he's already showing up in other comics, so there's not a whole lot of tension as to whether the Red Skull is actually going to take over his body and do evil Nazi stuff with it. Enjoy, detail fetishists!

Champion One Shot

What's with the meme lately of superheroes getting sick of helping everybody and turning evil? You've got Boom!'s Irredeemable, and The Boys sort of hits on the theme, and now this one from Arcana Studios. Maybe it's a sign that people are sick of superheroes, which would sure be nice, since I know I am, and I require the rest of the world to fall in line with my tastes. Anyway, this comic looks to fall into that subgenre, and who knows? Maybe it won't suck.

Complete Alice in Wonderland #1

Leah Moore and John Reppion seem to be establishing a cottage industry of adapting classics to comics, what with Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and now this, which purports to be the first time that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and a "lost chapter" called "The Wasp in a Wig" are all adapted into one complete story. And they're going to manage to do that all in four issues, somehow. Enjoy, classic literature lovers who don't want to read the actual books!

Ex Machina #47

Almost to the end; how will Mayor Hundred meet his unfortunate downfall (which we know is coming ever since the first issue)? Hopefully it's not a Spitzer-style sex scandal, but you never know. I need to read that most recent collection...

Fables #91

The magical fairy tale stuff keeps on coming. New collection, please.

Forgetless #1

This is a new (mini-?)series from Image, about some girls at a nightclub who are assassins trying to kill some guy, or something like that. It seems like it might be interesting, and kind of stylish, with pseudo-manga art and nice colors. Maybe worth a look? Here's an interview with a few pages of preview art.

Godland #30

Edging closer to the finale. I'll miss it when it's gone; hey, how about another collection sometime soon?

Incorruptible #1

Speaking of Irredeemable (which I did, above), is it really time for a spinoff already? Mark Waid and Boom! seem to think so, with this new series that takes place in the same universe and features an opposite narrative arc: villain decides to become a hero. That's even less original than the main story; maybe Waid has a plan to do something interesting (which he's kind of doing with the other book, even if he's not setting the shelves on fire with awesomeness or anything), but it all seems kind of unnecessary to me. Not that any of what I talk about is ever really necessary...

Next Issue Project #2: Silver Streak Comics #24

Wow, this took its sweet time coming out, didn't it? This "Next Issue Project" seemed like a cool idea when it was announced, what, two years ago or so? But then after the first issue showed up, nothing, and considering the talent involved with this second issue, maybe most of the players lost interest. While the first installment featured creators like Ashley Wood, Mike Allred, and Jim Rugg, this one has Erik Larsen and Paul Grist as the "name" talent, along with Steve Horton, Alan Weiss, and Michael T. Gilbert, whoever they are. And while the whole idea is kind of fun, considering the only so-so results last time around, I think I can safely skip this one. Here's a preview, if you're still interested.

Nomad Girl Without a World #4

Sean McKeever is still telling tales of teenaged angst and mind control, sort of tying into Captain America and Marvel comics in general. Not terrible so far; yet another great recommendation from yours truly!

Spider-Man 1602 #3

Backhanded recommendation number two: as lame as the whole "Elizabethan Marvel Universe" idea is, Jeff Parker does his best to make it enjoyable. Maybe there will be some swashbuckling or something in here, to satisfy people who must have Spider-Man in every type of story they read.

Ultimate Comics Armor Wars #3

Warren Ellis keeps going with the robots fighting each other all over the world; it's pretty good stuff, full of cool technological ideas and nice action. If Ellis has to write superhero comics, this is probably the ideal way to do so.

Underground #4

Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber keep plunging their characters deeper and deeper into trouble (ha ha, get it?); this series has been very good, with the rock-climbing knife fight of last issue being very intense. See, this is what Parker should be doing, not wasting his creativity doing lame Marvel superhero nonsense. I'm sure he'll drop the good-paying gigs for more work like this now, because I requested it.

Art Of Ditko HC

Ditko is really hot right now, isn't he? IDW has this big hardcover collection of some of his lesser-known comics and art, edited by Craig Yoe and featuring essays from the likes of P. Craig Russell and John Romita, Sr. Looks like a good coffee table book, and hopefully quite illuminating on the man himself and his work. I really need to read more Ditko, so maybe I'll look for this someday.

Best Of Battle TP

Titan Books has this collection of a bunch of classic British war comics, featuring some titles and characters that sound pretty awesome, like D-Day Dawson, the Bootneck Boy, Major Eazy, Hold Hill 109, Darkie's Mob, Panzer G-Man, Joe Two Beans, Hellmann of Hammer Force, Fighting Mann, and Death Squad. Those names alone are good reading; I'd love to check this out. Also included is Charley's War, which I've heard is a great series from writer Pat Mills. Yep, another one of those reprints that would be good to have. Someday? Someday.

Black Jesus GN

This graphic novel from Arcana Studios is apparently based on an upcoming movie about a kid with special powers that gets hailed as a Messiah or something. Huh. That's about all I can tell about what it's about; maybe it's interesting? Here's a short preview, and you can also watch a trailer on Arcana's site which contains live-action footage that might or might not be from the movie. Yes, this exists; I don't know if I have anything else to say about it.

Boys HC LTD ED Vol 03 Good for the Soul
Boys HC LTD ED Vol 04 We Gotta Go Now

If you want to spend more money, here are the more expensive versions of these volumes of the series. I'm fine with softcovers, but some people apparently have to have those limited editions of their satirical superhero decadence.

Complete Little Orphan Annie HC Vol 4

I still haven't read any of this series, but I always hear it's good. Maybe I'll get to it someday. Here's another volume to add to the pile.

Connie Vol 1 Captives Of The Space Pirates TP
Connie Vol 2 Battle For Titan TP

I had never heard of this, but it's apparently a sci-fi newspaper comic strip from 1939 by Harold and Frank Godwin, following a sexy lady adventurer (you can see a couple example strips on Wikipedia). Two complete stories in each volume; probably some interesting reading. Your golden age of reprints continues!

Crypt Of Horror #7

I guess this is an ongoing series of reprints of classic horror comics? I don't know if I've ever heard of it before, but publisher AC Comics appears to have a bunch of stuff along these lines. This one is a thick collection, with work by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, and others. Neat?

Dead Run Vol 1 TP

Did anybody read this post-apocalyptic/zombie series from Boom!? I didn't. Is it any good? If I do end up checking it out, I guess I'll let you know. Somebody has to, right?

Drawing Down the Moon Art of Charles Vess HC

Dark Horse has this artbook about the fantasy illustrator who has worked on a bunch of good stuff, like Sandman and the Bone prequel Rose. I bet it's pretty. Not really something that I can afford, but I would pick it up and look at the pictures if I saw it on a shelf.

Engineer HC

I'm not sure if this is a collection of the previous issues of this series that came out or something new, but it garners some interest for featuring the work of Brian Churilla, who has gone on to do comics like We Kill Monsters and The Anchor. He's got a cool style, and the concept of this book, about a guy who fights other-dimensional monsters who eat spacetime with his cosmic pipe organ, is pretty awesome. This hardcover is only 10 dollars, so I'll probably buy it if I see it.

Gahan Wilson 50 Years Of Playboy Cartoons HC

Just what the title says. Here's the usual Fantagraphics slideshow/preview, if you need more info.

Giant Monster HC

I think AiT/PlanetLar originally published this Steve Niles/Nat Jones series/GN, but Boom! has it now, and I think this is their second edition. I still haven't read the thing, but it looked enjoyable enough, so maybe I'll finally give it a look.

Gravel Vol 02 The Major Seven

Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer are still plugging away at this series about their long-running William Gravel character, and I have yet to read any of this iteration of his adventures (which are apparently less strange than they used to be). Maybe I'll get to it someday, but I'll probably start with the first volume rather than this one.

Life And Times Of Savior 28 TP

Hey, here's another example of the "superhero turns bad" genre I was talking about up top. Maybe he doesn't go evil, but he suffers a disgrace or something, right? Or maybe I'm wrong; I haven't read it. I suppose I could give it a try someday, if only because I like the talent involved, J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Cavallaro. But I'm less and less interested in superheroes these days, so I would appreciate somebody who actually read it telling me what they thought. Is that too much to ask?

Nightmare World Vol 1 Thirteen Tales Of Terror TP

This is apparently a webcomic, along the lines of The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt, written by Dirk Manning and illustrated by various artists.. This volume would be the first print collection, although as I always say when it comes to webcomics, you can read it for free online. I don't know if it's any good, but there you go.

One Model Nation GN

New Jim Rugg! He's an illustrator I'm always excited to see new comics from, and this new graphic novel, written by Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols, looks pretty interesting, about a musical/political revolution in 1977 Germany. Cool. Here's an interview/preview, to whet the appetite.

Punisher Frank Castle Max Welcome To The Bayou TPB

Up until the current Jason Aaron/Steve Dillon series, I haven't followed much of the Punisher MAX comic after Garth Ennis' departure, but I think this story might be the best-regarded of the lackluster bunch, having to do with redneck cannibal types in Louisiana, or something like that. I bet having Goran Parlov on art helps. Maybe it's worth reading, maybe not. Or maybe I should get around to reading that Ennis run already...

Rocketeer Complete Collection HC Vol 1

I don't know if this counts as Golden Age of Reprints material, but IDW is collecting Dave Stevens' comic, with new coloring by Laura Martin. Maybe I'll finally get around to reading it now. Or maybe not; whatever, man.

Secret Warriors Vol 1 Nick Fury Agent Of Nothing TPB

I've read some of this Jonathan Hickman-written series here and there, and it's all right, I guess, but not really anything exceptional. Fairly standard Nick Fury spy stuff, with attempts at conspiracy and "everything you know is wrong". I was hoping Hickman would bring some cool, crazy ideas to Marvel, but he seems to just be doing standard superhero stuff. Now I'm hoping he gets back to his creator-owned work as soon as possible.

Thor Ages of Thunder TPB

This Matt Fraction-written series of comics were pretty good, retelling some of the classic mythology surrounding Thor and acting as a kind of origin for his Marvel adventures. Decent stuff, pretty good art, not terrible. There I go again with the backhanded recommendations. Enjoy, people who can't bear to read anything not published by Marvel or DC!

And with that note of derision, we finish the look at another week. Let's see if I manage to get some writing done this time around...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why I Killed Peter: If only another violent act here had also been metaphorical

Elsewhere: I reviewed Greg Houston's graphic novel Vatican Hustle over at Comics Bulletin. Man, that is one crazy book; I really dug it. Also, I did my usual blah-blah about Fringe and Dollhouse for The Factual Opinion. No Venture Brothers though, because I managed to miss last week's episode; I'll have to try to find it before the season finale this Sunday...

Why I Killed Peter
Written by Olivier Ka
Art by Alfred

Wow, this has to be one of the most disturbing comics I've ever read. Other comics might feature plenty of shocking material, whether it's gore, death, the supernatural, or any number of other horror tropes, but something like this, with a true story of just about the most awful thing that can happen in real life, is the stuff of nightmares, haunting the thoughts of readers who can't shake the understanding that this isn't some far-fetched attempt to scare, but a bit of all-too-real horror that continues to affect people every day. That terrible act: child molestation, which isn't a subject anybody wants to dwell on, but is one that we must realize harms those affected in life-long ways, as demonstrated by this autobiographical graphic novel written by French author Olivier Ka and illustrated by the singly-named Alfred. It's a striking bit of therapy on Ka's part, relating the childhood experiences that affected his life, especially one terrible incident in particular, and then moving on to show how damaged he was for decades afterward, until he eventually manages to get some closure through the act of putting it all down on paper.

Ka revisits several periods in his life, heading each section with "I killed Peter because I'm [age] years old", and relating a memory from that time. His parents were kind of hippie-ish, open to free love and extra-marital affairs, but he also spent some time with his grandparents who were strictly Catholic, filling his head with visions of hell if he commits any sin, including playing with his "peepee". As with any child, he's still forming ideas of sex and intimacy as he gets closer to adolescence. And then Peter enters their lives; he's a priest, but not a cold, strict, uptight one. Rather, he's joyful and prone to laughter, playing the guitar and spending time with the family without trying to convert them to his religion. He seems like a good friend of the family, and young Ollie spends his summers at Peter's summer camp, Happy River. It seems like a fun, carefree time, but there are ominous intimations even early on, at least in Alfred's art. The placid serenity of the woods is depicted with harsh swipes of black ink, as if danger is lurking in the shadows:

And Peter's scary dog looks like a ferocious beast:

Tellingly, the dog becomes something of a bond between Ollie and Peter, as the latter allows the former to walk it, something he does for nobody else. It's something scary that is shared between them and encouraged to keep separate from others, just one way in which Peter's relationship with Ollie gets creepy and weird in ways that a child can't quite understand.

And then the incident happens, with Peter proposing that he and Ollie sleep next to each other and rub each other's bellies, a disturbing idea that only becomes more so when we see it happen. Alfred's depiction of Peter's proposal is scary, with his juxtaposition of the massive older man against the frail child emphasizing the priest's disgustingly predatory actions, and the bright, sunny atmosphere of the scene acting as an ironic commentary on the darkness of the scene:

But that's nothing compared to the literal darkness of the actual molestation. It's a scene that is just awful and horrible, making the reader want to look away from the page, even though we don't actually see anything that happens; our view is limited to dark, shadowy images and Ka's narration:

It's ugly and terrible, and it stretches on for page after page, forcing us to wallow in the terrible event. While we'll never have it burned into the very core of our being like Ka, it's an approximation of his experience, a never-ending horror that not only seems to last forever, but lingers unforgettably in the memory.

After this, Ollie moves on with his life, but never really recovers from the deep emotional wounds of the experience. His parents split up, he drops out of school and has personal problems, but he eventually gets his life together, falling in love and forming a family of his own. But the scars are still there, as can be seen in incidents like a heated argument with friends who decide to have their child baptized, or a panic attack that comes over him when he enters the church at a friend's wedding. He starts to sink into a depression, experiencing nightmares that demonstrate the extent of his inner pain:

As with so much of this book, that sequence is incredibly effective, showing all the different ways in which Peter hurt him. This was a trusted family friend, and the way he used him in a perversion of an act of love and then cast him aside like garbage, it's no surprise that Ka was still reeling more than twenty years later.

Eventually, Ka decided that he needed to write down the experience, doing what he could to exorcise it from his system. This led to the book being made after he began working with Alfred, a friend and colleague, but the two of them decided to return to Happy River and try to get some closure. Little did they know that Ka would end up confronting Peter himself and forcing him to face the extent of his actions, but that's exactly what happened. It's a harrowing scene, with Ka placing us in his head as he faces the cause of his emotional turmoil, and rather than try to approximate it with linework, Alfred actually switches to photos, depicting the several pages of the confrontation as pictures that have been altered with moody colors to reflect the emotion of the scene:

That's how the book ends, with the note of, well, not triumph, but at least satisfaction that Ka was able to recover from his trauma and make the person who hurt him face what he did. Would that be enough for Ka to regain some semblance of sanity and continue with his life? Who can say, but what he has done here is a powerful work, exposing the extent of the damage that one person can inflict on another, and the total horror of somebody abusing their power on an innocent child. It's a scary book, but eventually a life-affirming one that shows how people can survive, even when subjected to the worst crimes imaginable. Ka has a strong voice, sure of his words, and he found a perfect collaborator here in Alfred, who brings a sort of European clear-line style to the characters, but also fills pages with gorgeous colors and emotional artistic effects without overtaking the story with his style. It's a great package, and if you can stomach its awful contents, it's one that shouldn't be missed.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Photographer follow-up: length-based art appreciation

In yesterday's review of The Photographer, I noted a sequence that played out over several pages that featured a continuing background, but I was only able to post a portion of the whole scene. However, I did figure out how to post the entire thing elsewhere and link to it, so you can see the full extent of Emmanuel Guibert's work (click to enlarge and see non-distorted):

This is actually nearly four pages of comics, with two panels per tier, but I separated them and laid them out horizontally to demonstrate the way Guibert makes the whole thing work as one long walk through a detailed landscape. It's pretty gorgeous, like one of those scenes in a Woody Allen movie in which two characters have a conversation while walking down a Manhattan sidewalk and the camera just follows them, never looking away. But what struck me was how well the changing landscape matches the mood of the scene; at the beginning, when the conversation between Didier Lefevre, the photographer of the title, and Juliette, the leader of the humanitarian mission to Afghanistan, is limited to a fairly benign subject, they are crossing smooth ground:

As they move into trickier cultural and religious matters, the terrain gets a bit more uneven:

But when Didier springs his news that he's going to leave the party and travel back to Pakistan on his own, the path gets especially rocky, befitting the change in mood to one of conflict and argumentation:

Note also how Guibert moves the characters up to the foreground at the most important moment, and how Juliette is cut off by the edge of the panel, caught completely by surprise:

We don't even get to see her reaction; she's so taken aback that she stops in her tracks. See how in the next panel, Didier has turned back to talk to her as she remains in place. Then they continue walking, but it seems less of an amiable chat than before, judging by the less-casual body language and changing positions of the characters. The pacing also works to convey the tension, with a big rock blocking our view for a moment, making it seem as though Juliette has paused to consider before making her decision:

She accepts that she can't control Didier, and he's going to have to manage on his own, as rash as his decision might be. At that point, the ground smooths out again, and it also works as a sort of fade-out, as they walk off into the distance and end the scene:

It's a great example of Guibert's command of the comics form; all this technique is subtle, not even noticeable unless you choose to look more closely and examine the workings of the art. This is just one scene in the book; the rest of it is full of stuff like this that demonstrates Guibert's storytelling mastery. He's certainly one of the current greats on the global scene. I can't wait to see what he'll do next.