Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bodyworld: It's a wonderlaaaand...

Since it's bee a little while since I've done a straight review post, there's lots of links to clear out of the queue:

Elsewhere: At Comics Bulletin, I reviewed World War Hulks: Hulked-Out Heroes #1 and  Firestar #1. Since then, Marvel has decided to no longer send pre-release PDFs of their comics to review sites (it's a long story, which I'm sure Bleeding Cool or somebody has already covered), so that may well be the end of my writing for that site.  Probably not a big loss for them, but now I can concentrate on not writing for my own blog instead.

I also wrote about some episodes of Fringe and the movie Black Dynamite at The Factual Opinion, so I guess I won't be limited to this corner of the internet.

Webcomics links: Hey, the latest installment of MySpace Dark Horse Presents has a pretty great little superheroine story by Jaime Hernandez, along the lines of his recent stuff in Love and Rockets.  There's also a creepy body horror story by Simon Spurrier and Christopher Mitten, and "Englourioues Mask-Tards!!!" by Evan Dorkin and Hilary Barta, which is quite hilarious.  Good times.

In other Xaime news, What Things Do (which is turning into a pretty great repository for previously hard to find short comics by a variety of alt-comix creators) has a 2002 short story of his called "The Ghoul Man", and it's awesome.  I'm also digging Dan Zettwoch's "The Ghost of Dragon Canoe".  Comics!  On the internet!

Other miscellaneous links: Here's what looks like a pretty good comics blog: My Comic Book Crisis, written by a 47-year-old woman who recently discovered comics and dove right in, finding tons of great stuff to read and talking about it entertainingly.  Go, read.


By Dash Shaw

Any review of a Dash Shaw comic probably has to begin by mentioning that he's one of the most exciting talents of his generation of cartoonists, his relentless creativity, his drive to keep making and releasing new work, and any number of other plaudits.  But by this point, he has established himself well enough that reading his name on the cover of a book is enough to evoke all those reactions, allowing one to get down to appreciating the work itself apart from the whole cult of personality.  This is a good thing, because there is always a lot to process and consider in Shaw's comics; he's a fascinating creator, coming up with idea after idea, whether they're plot concepts to hang stories on, or formalistic ways of illustrating those stories through his artwork.   It's exciting to see what he does, and he has such an idiosyncratic touch that one never knows what's coming next.

This latest graphic novel is a collection of a comic that Shaw originally serialized online, and the volume itself is structured to reflect that, with pages oriented vertically and the spine at the top of the page rather than the side, making each double-page spread one long series of panels, as if the reader is scrolling down through the images in a web browser.  There are also fold-out maps in the inside front and back covers, allowing readers to use them like separate windows or tabs to check when necessary.  This is somewhat innovative, but also unnecessary, since it is certainly not essential to know exactly where in the setting of the story the various events are taking place.  Perhaps Shaw felt that he had to keep the geography straight and thought readers would share this feeling, but the regular images indicating map location do little more than distract from the story itself.  It is a bit of a window into Shaw's head though, showing what information takes primacy at certain points as he is relating a tale.

And that tale is an interesting one, following a quartet of characters as they experience a drug that provides empathetically telepathic abilities to its users.  In a near future that is hinted to be somewhat apocalyptic, or at least ravaged and ugly, one Professor Paulie Panther visits the bucolic town of Boney Borough, a sheltered villa free from the depravities of the rest of the world.  He's a researcher into various hallucinogens, and he's there to try smoking a newly-discovered bit of plant life.  His sojourn ends up affecting the lives of two students, dumb jock Billy Bob Borg and big-city dreamer Pearl Peach, and their teacher, Jem Jewel (Shaw certainly has a knack for coming up with goofy names.  Hey, it's the future!).  While there are interesting wrinkles in the story, that's about it; the whole thing mostly involves these four characters bouncing off each other.  As much as Shaw likes to play with neat ideas, he's also good at limiting his stories to small casts, defining his characters well, and exploring their emotional reactions to events as much as the events themselves.

So, it turns out that this plant has the effect of mentally connecting the smoker with whoever is nearby, such that they their thoughts, sensations, memories, emotions, and actions become intertwined.  Paul discovers this slowly, allowing Shaw to come up with some lowbrow comedy as he's figuring it out (the breasts he grows after being near Jewel are one particularly funny touch), as well as spend some time getting to know the other characters.  The whole drug concept gives him plenty of opportunities to experiment, and it's fascinating to see the different ways he depicts the characters getting inside each other's heads and experiencing memories that aren't their own.  He goes all out, superimposing images, swapping characters' positions to indicate how one is feeling another's sensations, mixing up distinctive facial features, overlapping descriptive words in remembered dialogue, and other new ideas on every page.

It's impressive work, but what's even more fascinating than the ideas of how to communicate this sort of information through comics is that the emotions underlying everything feel real, and one can relate to the characters and their lives even as they are going through such fantastical experiences.  The way Pearl sees Paul as an exciting rebel who can take her away from her small-town drudgery, or how she symbolizes a lost love for him are familiar and understandable, a wonderful way to make the crazy drug concepts fit in with everything else.

It's a great combination of emotional realism, science fiction concepts, and experimentation with the language of comics. Shaw is sure to cover all three areas, with new plot and setting ideas popping up regularly, like a game called "Dieball" that combines full-contact athletics with concepts from role-playing games like grid-based movement and a ten-sided die, or making the drug be a plot by aliens to make Earth easier to conquer by erasing humanity's individuality.  And the formal play is fascinating, both in the aforementioned inter-identity hallucinations, but also in ways of depicting emotion and memory.  The use of color is especially noteworthy, with Shaw alternating between flat, solid hues and then bursting into expressive flourishes, with paint splattered and swirled across pages in bold strokes.  It's gorgeous, exciting work that's full of life and energy, tons of fun to read and contemplate.

While Shaw had previously made his name with The Bottomless Belly Button and various short stories, this seems like a real defining work for his career.  He's full of ideas, and he has a drive to create, but he's also fascinated with the way people interact and emote, and he's constantly striving to come up with new ways to depict that part of humanity.  There might be some complaints, such as occasionally shaky figure work, but seeing the way he keeps energetically moving forward, pushing himself to create and get his ideas down on paper, small deficiencies are forgivable, the mark of a bright mind at work, one barely able to contain its contents.  It's a glorious thing to see develop, and with each new work, Shaw makes it clear that he's going to be one of the defining talents of this current golden age of comics.  Whatever is in the pipeline will be exciting to see, but the complexity and richness of his current work will be enough to keep readers occupied until the next career highlight comes along.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

C2E2 2010: It's all about the commerce

Since criticism is the primary purview of this blog, here are some reviews of items purchased at the convention.  Enjoy!

Oh No
By John Campbell

John Campbell's webcomic Pictures for Sad Children has a really strange style, with a minimalist approach to artwork and a rhythm that emphasizes a constant feeling of awkwardness, often along with a crushing sense of despair.  But it's also really funny!  This handmade minicomic (all the elements on the front cover are glued on) collects a bunch of strips from over the past year, and while they don't all work, with some being just strange rather than poignant or funny, it's a great sample of the comic, showing off its strengths and weaknesses.  How Campbell is able to wring such pathos out of his one-step-above-stick-figure characters is nearly inexplicable, but it's a perfect style for what he does, with the circular heads atop squarish bodies and simple lines for arms evoking downcast eyes, hunched posture, shame, sadness, despair, etc.  Conversely, that minimalism also works to make people doing terrible things (like parents making their toddler fall down and hurt himself over and over so they can capture it perfectly with their camera) seem blase and unemotional.  The pacing of the strips is effective as well, with silent panels often interspersed within scenes of dialogue for maximum awkwardness, or stretching strange monologues (like a pastor describing how God personally ensures everyone's suffering, or a airshow emcee describing the fighter jets bombing villages) out over several panels, with the lack of punctuation adding an extra bit of creepiness.  It's a weird comic, but if you share Campbell's dark, deadpan sense of humor, it's pretty great.

Outreach #1-2
By Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier has gained a good measure of success with her books like Smile or her adaptations of the Babysitters Club novels, and it's easy to see why, with her clean, expressive line and excellent character art.  She also does talks and workshops for kids, and these two minicomics collect some memorable incidents (which is probably too strong a word for what they are; "comments" or "exchanges" would be better) from such appearances.  Kids make great fodder for stories, since their innocence and openness often lead to hilarity, and that's exactly what Telgemeier demonstrates here, with her art making it all extra cute.  A boy can't think of any ideas for comics unless he can use swear words, or a girl insists on being called "Ketchup".  It's fun stuff, making Telgemeier's job and life look like a hell of a lot of fun.

By Erika Moen

Erika Moen's recently-ended webcomic DAR is tons of fun to read, due to her nice artwork and complete, uninhibited frankness about sexuality.  She doesn't hold anything back when discussing that part of her life, and this minicomic, subtitled "An Introduction to Girl-on-girl Lovin'", benefits from that approach, working as a cute guide to lesbian sex, from anatomical explanations, to toys, to the question of whether penetration suggests the "desire for a man", to health and hygeine, and even a short bit about gender identification.  It's all very informative, and presented with Moen's usual sense of humor, making it a fun read as well as an interesting one.  Made in 2005, the art is a bit different from Moen's current style, so those used to her depiction of herself might be a bit weirded out, but aside from that, the anatomical diagrams, drawings of sex toys, and images of people talking about sex are all pretty great.  If this is a subject about which you're curious, by all means, check the comic out.

Papercutter #12
By Rachel Bormann, Nate Powell, Joey Alison Sayers, Mark Campos, and Dalton Webb

This latest issue of Tugboat Press's anthology series features three interesting stories, although the obvious draw is the lead tale, "The Uncomfortable Gaze of Carlos Santana", by Rachel Bormann and Nate Powell.  Powell is the creator of the excellent Swallow Me Whole, and he contributes more of his excellent artwork here, although the story itself is a bit obtuse and hard to follow.  It sees a young woman and her father attending a Santana concert, during which she apparently has some sort of telepathic conversation with the guitarist while he is playing, desperately making up lies about why the two of them don't seem to be having a good time.  It's strange, but kind of funny, and Powell's art is as wonderful as ever, with lots of shadows filling the edges of the images, some great expressiveness in faces and bodies, and that amazing glare that Santana keeps shooting the characters, living up to the title.  It might not be an essential story, but it sure is entertaining.

The second story, "Pet Cat", is by Joey Alison Sayers, creator of the webcomic Thingpart, and it's amusing, certainly more so than the work that can be seen online (which seems like a less art-focused, less surreal, less interesting Perry Bible Fellowship).  It details the ever-changing authorship of a lame Garfield-esque comic strip called "Oh No, Pet Cat", which starts out being drawn by Sayers herself before being handed off to a guy who turns it into a Dick Tracy-style bit of drama and violence, then is inherited by his hipness-obsessed son, the syndicate itself, and eventually aliens attempting to understand human culture, and God himself.  It's cute and fairly funny, and while Sayers' simplistic style (which is like a more detailed, less effective version of John Campbell's round-headed people) might not be for everyone, it works well here.  Sayers might not be the next Nicholas Gurewitch, but hopefully working with stories longer than four panels will lead to more stories like this that are enjoyable and fun.

Finally, Mark Campos and Dalton Webb present "Root Cause" a Pogo-esque story about anthropomorphic animals with Southern accents dealing with life and love.  It follows a teenaged cat and rabbit as they worry about their boyfriends and consult the local wise woman for advice.  While it's pleasant enough, the story is pretty nothing that will change anyone's worldview or anything, but Dalton Webb's art is quite nice, lending a good expressiveness to the animal characters and occasionally offering a pretty image of a house or forest.  Enjoyable stuff; Webb is certainly a talent to watch.

That's what these sorts of small-press anthologies do well: offer interesting stories in a nice-looking package and introduce readers to new talents while providing creators with a chance to try the type of short story they might not do elsewhere.  Whenever they come out, they're almost always worth picking up.

Funrama Presents: The Mutant Punks #1
By Ryan Kelly

Ryan Kelly seems to be known for serious, realistic comics like Local, so this new book, which serves as an introduction to what he plans to make a long-running self-published project, is an interesting one, taking a humorous, satirical direction and attempting to go crazy with deadpan, anarchic, apocalyptic violence.  It doesn't seem to be a completely comfortable fit for Kelly, but he's certainly stretching and trying something new, and who knows where he's going to go with it.  The story, such as it is, sees a group of five, well, mutant punks, weirdos with superpowers and a desire to spread chaos throughout the modern United States, eventually bringing about its downfall and taking over the world.  Or something like that; the desire seems to be more to wreak havoc than anything else.  There's a weird air of attempted satire hanging over everything, as one character foments a riot between pro- and anti-healthcare protestors at the Texas capitol, the team attacks the Mall of America in order to bring down Western capitalism, and they eventually confront President Obama (shrouded in shadows as he usually is in DC and Marvel comics in order to provide plausible deniability) and nearly change their ways upon hearing one of his emotionally rousing speeches.  Kelly seems to be attempting to do something like Tank Girl here, an anarchic, violent bit of satire, but it seems kind of unfocused and strange, with the main male and female characters taking time out to discuss their deep love for each other and often seeming like morons who don't understand human communication whenever they encounter a non-punk person.  There's also a monster character who gives people lead poisoning and a cat who does nothing but laugh and throw bombs at people (he's called Bombcat), and some stuff about interdimensional travel or something.  I honestly don't know what to make of this or what Kelly is trying to do here or whether any future material will be readable, but it's at least interesting and strange, and pretty beautiful to look at, full of his great artwork.  He's as great as ever at drawing cute girls, and he comes up with some pretty impressive designs and bits of action.  So whatever he ends up doing, I'll be sure to check it out, even if I don't really understand it.

Tiny Kitten Teeth, Chapter One
Written by Frank Gibson
Art by Becky Driestadt

This this self-published pamphlet collects the first chapter of husband-and-wife team Frank Gibson and Becky Driestadt's webcomic of the same name, which features gorgeous painted art influenced by old-school animation and a kind of inscrutable story.  It does begin to make sense once you read a few pages and get into the atmosphere and rhythm of the thing, but the art seems to be based around the design of individual images rather than cohesive, easy-to-follow layouts, so one has to do a bit of work to be able to follow it.  The story concerns an anthropomorphic cat named Mewsli (who also has a pet cat of his own) moving to the big city of Owltown and falling in with the crowd there (especially a rich, charismatic owl and his dog friend), getting in adventures that involve drunken carousing that he can't remember the next day.  It's fun to read, mostly because of Driestadt's gorgeous artwork, which flattens characters out into two dimensions, but then places them in brightly-colored backgrounds full of angular detail, and somehow makes it all work.  She fills the pages with amazing designs, rooms decorated like the backgrounds of old cartoons (or new ones like Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends), buildings that feature more personality than most comics characters, figures that dance and swirl through the panels, forcing the eye to linger on them and suss out the crazy details of their movement.  Gibson's dialogue is fun too, with characters being as identifiable by their speech patterns as their distinctive designs.  And there are tons of fun ideas, like the way all the alcoholic drinks come in bottles also containing miniature boats.  It's enough to make up for the somewhat obtuse story (we only learn that Mewsli is in the city to attend college near the end of the book) and the outline-free speech balloons that can make it difficult to determine who is speaking.  Gibson and Driestadt definitely have a lot of talent, and given a bit more focus on storytelling, they could have something really special here.  But even as it is, it's unlike anything else out there, and considering the beautiful artwork, it's worth a read in any form.

Cursed Pirate Girl #3
By Jeremy Bastian

With the ever-growing complaints about the prices of pamphlet comics, one would think that five dollars for a 36-page pamphlet would be a bit steep, but that's certainly not the case here.  Jeremy Bastian crams so much detail into every page of his comics that that five bucks provide more content to the reader than any number of superhero comics pamphlets.  It's mind-boggling to see Bastian's work on display, with images bursting with so much finely-detailed stuff that one can spend hours poring over it to try to identify everything.  How he manages to do it is beyond comprehension, but everything is laid down on the page with exquisitely precise brush-strokes, and what's more, an overabundance of personality.  Bastian's mind is apparently overflowing with crazy imagery, and it's everywhere you look on his pages.  He's certainly crafted a world that allows him to utilize his flights of fancy, a fantastical sea filled with pirate ships staffed by monsters, mutants, and freaks.  Scenes of the deck of a ship see things like birds wearing eye patches, a pumpkin with feet, a six-legged frog sporting tattoos and a pistol, a sheep-headed fellow wearing a hat decorated with skulls and peacock feathers, a man with a hat that bears a miniature cannon manned by insects, and all manner of characters with disproportionate heads and limbs.  And that's just one panel!  Every page is like this, full of filigee detailing the grain of the ship's deck, the gunk covering the pots in the galley, the main character's swirling hair, and curling ropes and octopus tentacles that often form panel borders.  It seems like too much to process, but it never gets old; if anything, the rollicking story moves along like a great yarn crashing from incident to incident and seeing its heroine gamely bounce through her adventures with a preponderance of optimism and spunk.  This is an amazing comic, and while it is the final issue of the miniseries, it ends on a cliffhanger, portending a second volume, so readers don't have to worry about this being the end of Bastian's seafaring adventures.  If all is right with the world, he'll be able to keep making comics like this for a long time to come.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

C2E2 2010: Sketchiness abounds

As part of the unspoken agreement between fans and comics creators, when the former meets the latter in a public place, the latter is obligated to perform their craft as a reward for the former buying their wares.  So, here are the neat drawings that comics artists did for me at the convention:

John Campbell drew one of his typically minimalist characters, matching the contents of his minicomic:

Becky Driestadt did the opposite, drawing a deer in lush detail:

And a cute doggy, along with some flowers and an inscription for my daughter:

Lucy Knisley did a picture of her cat, which, since I am a stalker, I know is named Linney:

Matt Kindt added a nice scene with a brick wall to the title page of his new book:

Both Dave Roman and Erika Moen drew tiny self-portraits, although Moen took the opportunity to comment on the salacious nature of her minicomic Girlfuck:

Dash Shaw added more lines to his already complex character guide on the inside front cover of Bodyworld:

And Spike rendered a dinosaur having a birthday party, because why not?

And here are the additions to my Groo sketchbook:

Ben Templesmith said he was only able to do a quick sketch, which was perfectly fine with me, so he whipped out this drawing using only a Sharpie in a couple minutes:

I like the facial expression on this Erika Moen Groo:

Gene Ha was excited to be the first to do a realistic take on Groo:

Danielle Corsetto drew a horse, taking inspiration from the copy of Groo the Wanderer #62 that I had on hand for reference:

Ryan Dunlavey did a stinky, brutish depiction of the character:

Kevin Colden did a nice job, making the big guy kind of suspicious:

Katie Cook did one of her mini-paintings, a nice depiction of the character that's only about an inch high:

Raina Telgemeier can even make a mendicant seem bright and cheery:

Telgemeier's sketch finished out my sketchbook, and while I thought artists might be able to draw on the reverse sides of pages, Tony Akins didn't want to do so for fear of the ink bleeding through and ruining another sketch, so he drew a little mini "indicia" sketch on the inside back cover.  I thought it was pretty cool, with a bit of Frazetta influence:

After this, I decided to purchase a new sketchbook, and the only one I could find was much larger than the 6" x 9" one I had, measuring around 9" x 12".  Ramon Perez, who does the excellent webcomic Kukuburi, did a pretty amazing job on the first page of the new book:

Dave Roman, another big Groo fan, worked in some cheese dip:

And Becky Driesdadt showed off her animation-style proficiency with a huge image of Rufferto riding that horse again:

Those are some excellent additions to the collection; I'm building up quite the body of commissioned work here.  Thanks as always to the generosity of everyone who contributed; I love all of your work, and seeing you create these drawings was a revelatory experience.  Please, keep making great comics, and I'll keep reading them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

C2E2 2010: Panelling

Convention panel reports are often a fairly pointless affair, unable to replicate the experience of being in the audience for the publisher announcements or discussions between panelists.  For something like the Vertigo panel which I attended on Friday, it's probably best to read a detailed recaps like the one at CBR or the transcript of the panel at Newsarama.  One could similarly pay attention to Vertigo's blog for announcements and avoid this sort of thing altogether.  There's simply not much to add in the way of analysis (although I was interested to learn about Matt Kindt's Revolver, Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel's Cuba My Revolution, and the upcoming return of Shade the Changing Man in Peter Milligan and Guiseppe Camuncoli's run on Hellblazer, if anybody cares).  I would still recommend attending a panel like this if you're interested in seeing samples of what is coming out or hearing creators talk about their work, but reading summaries of the same from your computer screen just isn't the same.

This was the sort of issue raised at Friday night's comics journalism panel, which was another interesting discussion (to a point; diminishing returns set in around the time the subject turned to "mainstream acceptability", being taken seriously, the low barrier to entry when writing online, and that sort of tiresomeness), but one that probably isn't much fun to read about.  Noah Berlatsky probably has the best take on the talk, one which I wholeheartedly agree with.  As much as I'm passionate about comics, they're really not an especially big deal in the grand scheme of things, and maybe, considering that most of us writing online are doing it for fun, realizing that would be healthy.  I did think Brigid Alverson had some interesting things to say, having worked in real political journalism, as did Johanna Draper Carlson, who has been writing online about comics for about as long as that has been possible.  Also, Caleb Goellner's goofy, laid-back vibe was a good demonstration of why the site he writes for, Comics Alliance, is one of the better comics sites out there, offering lighthearted commentary on the industry and mostly out to have a good time.  So yes, art is worth taking seriously, but it's still usually kind of a frivolous pursuit, and while there are still issues worth considering and stories worth pursuing, who has the scoop on the latest development in Spider-Man's romantic life isn't the huge deal you might think it is.

Another enjoyable panel that probably isn't that interesting to read about was Saturday morning's AV Club discussion of how superheroes can comment on modern life.  I was a bit trepidatious going into it, since the AV Club's comics coverage is one of their weaker areas, but the discussion (between regular writers Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias) ended up being more about movies than comics, and their observations about how the post-9/11 atmosphere was reflected in superhero movies, whether brightly in the Spider-Man films or more darkly in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, was pretty good to listen to, at least from the perspective of somebody sitting in the audience.  The thing about this is, superhero comics have been addressing society for decades, spinning off into fractally precise takes on any and every issue that could be covered, to the point that they've just about worn out what can be done with the genre.  That whole area of exploration is still fairly fresh to film, however, so there are interesting concepts to consider, like whether reducing complex global conflicts down to easily-understandable symbols and having the good guys win unequivocally is morally troubling or worth the catharsis it provides.  That's the kind of discussion the AV Club does well, so while hearing me summarize it might not be worthwhile, I do recommend taking the chance to hear them talk if you get it, or at least reading the content they regularly provide.

So, is this post a waste of time, with panels being a good time to attend but pointless to describe after the fact?  I would hope the final one can be the exception, since I found it a fascinating look at the ideas and motivations of two of the best cartoonists currently working, Chris Ware and Dash Shaw.  The panel was officially supposed to be about creators who are published by Pantheon, with Chip Kidd leading the discussion, but it was really a chance to see the two cartoonists converse, discussing their work and querying each other about styles and techniques.  Kidd did waste everyone's time talking about his upcoming Captain Marvel book (not even a Pantheon release!), which, with its old-school superhero comics excerpts and pictures of ancient memorabilia, is diametrically opposed to the artsy work of his panel-mates.  But once he finished, the other two proceeded to blow minds with examples of their work and descriptions of how they go about making it.

Shaw came off as an especially fascinating figure, one driven to create and follow his muse wherever it leads him.  His latest book is a collection of his webcomic Bodyworld, but he also talked about his previous book, The Bottomless Belly Button, his animated series The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D., and shorter works like illustrations of frat party pictures, and, in what provided an anecdote that was a real highlight of the panel, a short story adapting an episode of the reality TV series Blind Date.

Shaw became fascinated with said show for the way it provided real human moments, how even though the environment was false and the participants were aware of the structured nature of their activities and the presence of cameras, they still said and did things that were inexplicable and compelling.  When stripped of the "humorous" on-screen captions added in post-production, Shaw finds the show to be quite moving, and that was what he was striving to capture in his comic.  Discussion of this story led to a crazy story in which Shaw became obsessed with watching episodes of the show that were catalogued on Yahoo, categorizing them through bookmarks into folders according to moments that he found compelling.  And then, heartbreakingly, he discovered one day that the episodes had all been taken down, and since then, he has been on a quest to recover whatever episodes of the show he can find, asking contacts in the entertainment industry to send any that they can find or searching for episodes on Youtube in a seemingly-futile attempt to reconstruct his precious horde of examples of human emotion.  If possible, at some point in the future, he would like to do an entire book of Blind Date adaptations, and while that may remain a pipe dream for now, he is able to use random Youtube videos to approximate the Blind Date feeling and get inspiration for the composition of his drawings.

Shaw also described some of what he is currently interested in, such as the way working in animation has interested him in breaking down movement into increments and how the time-consuming work of creating the complex painted colors of Bodyworld led him to a more simple, old-school style in which he printed the line art of his work on acetate and painted the colors on the back of the sheets.  He showed the animated "trailer" that he created for The Bottomless Belly Button, which was what started him working in animation, and talked about the attempts to do non-realistic color work, using the colors to capture the emotional feel of the scene, especially when adapting things like Blind Date.

And then it was Ware's turn, and his descriptions of his were were equally fascinating.  His next release will be Acme Novelty Library #20, coming out later this year.  It has actually been finished for four months, but the cloth pattern Ware chose for the spine of the book adds six months to the production schedule.  The issue will be a chapter of the ongoing "Rusty Brown" story, focusing on Jordan Lint, the bully who spit in Rusty's glove (an incident that actually happened to Ware as a child).  He showed a number of pages from the volume, and described how each page shows only a few seconds from Lint's life, stretching from birth through death, in an attempt to get inside the character's head.  In typical self-deprecating fashion, Ware described the story as "woefully pretentious", but it looks to be another amazing example of his skill with the comics medium.  He also showed a cover he did for Fortune magazine which was supposed to be on the Fortune 500 issue.  He accepted the job because it would be like doing the 1929 issue of the magazine, and he filled the image with tons of satirical imagery, like the U.S. Treasuring being raided by Wall Street, China dumping money into the ocean, homes being flooded, homes being foreclosed, and CEOs dancing a jig while society devolves into chaos. The cover (which can be seen here), needless to say, was rejected.  Ware also had some animation of his own to show, a short Quimby the Mouse cartoon done for This American Life, which almost led to work on an animated series for HBO with animator John Kuramoto and the actor Jack Black, but the deal fell through (much to Ware's relief) when the economy collapsed.

When the creators were done talking about their own work, they began conversing about each other's comics, which made for some of the most fascinating discussion of the panel.  Ware and Shaw asked each other converse versions of the same question regarding the production of work; that is, how does Shaw get so much work done, and how can Ware put so much care into every aspect of his comics?  It may be a simple age difference, since Shaw is young and enthusiastic enough to keep trying new things and move on to the next part of his work even if he isn't completely satisfied with one portion of it.  Ware, on the other hand, has settled into his style, knowing exactly what he wants to do, and he slaves over it until it is perfect, although he is never sure if it is any good or not.  He said that the storytelling itself is completely intuitive, but the aspects of it are very meticulous.  In fact, when queried by Shaw about the flatness of his coloring, Ware stated that he wanted to completely remove the human element of the drawing, using the images as "ideagrams" that keeps readers' attention on the comics stories themselves rather than getting lost in the technique of how the drawing was made.  Shaw, on the other hand, was interested in quick and dirty comics-making, citing the recently released Yoshihiro Tatsumi book Black Blizzard as an example of a quickly-made comic that was not an especially good story, but was full of great storytelling.  Both creators agreed that editing themselves was one of the hardest parts of cartooning, deciding what to keep in and what to take out of each story they create.

All in all, it was an incredible, enlightening hour, a chance to see two masters examine their craft and inspire anyone listening with their creativity.  Each new work they release is something to pay attention to, something that pushes the medium forward, and getting to see their minds in action was a treat.  That may be difficult to convey in a description, but hopefully a rough summary is still of interest.  Whatever the case, it was just one example of the excellent comics-related content to be had at C2E2, something that makes me excited to be a comics fan.  I'll be awaiting their next releases, and hopefully appearances at future conventions, with excitement.

Monday, April 19, 2010

C2E2 2010: Swag!

As with any convention, there was a mind-boggling amount of products which could be purchased.  Here's the haul that I ended up bringing home:

The top row includes a promotional poster for Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt's supernatural Western series The 6th Gun, coming out soon from Oni Press, a sweet print by artist Chris Burnham, and a print from Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey's series Comic Book Comics.  Just underneath those are a bunch of free giveaway comics from DC and Archaia.  In the bottom left is Ryan Kelly's Funrama Presents: The Mutant PunksJeremy Bastian's Cursed Pirate Girl #3, a CD from the band Kirby Krackle (with a cover by Jim Mahfood!), and Tiny Kitten Teeth and Tigerbuttah by Becky Driestadt.  Below the "Comics Will Win the War!" print, you can see two issues of Raina Telgemeier's minicomic Outreach, a local alt-weekly newspaper called Lumpen that features an interesting comics section, Tugboat Press's Papercutter #12 (purchased from Nate Powell), a  fanzine/doujinshi by Dave Roman called Ron Weasley and the Bloody Brilliant Day, Jon "Pictures for Sad Children" Campbell's minicomic Oh No, sampler minicomics from the webcomics Nedroid and DAR, the new fourth volume of Templar, Arizona by Spike, Matt Kindt's new release Super Spy: The Lost DossiersLucy Knisley's new book Make Yourself Happy, and Erika Moen's minicomic Girlfuck.  If all goes well, most of these will soon be reviewed here.

And here's a bunch of promotional material and giveaway shit that I received:

Of these, the items to point out include the poster for Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, the upcoming anthology miniseries that features a bunch of other creators contributing stories to David Petersen's epic series.  That looks like it will be amazing.  There's also the poster for Archaia's Fraggle Rock series, which will be illustrated by Katie Cook and Jeffrey Brown, among others.

Of the other items, I'll also highlight the flyer for the webcomic Brat-halla, which appears to be an amusing take on Norse mythology that casts several of the gods as kids in the others' care.  I haven't read enough to render any conclusive judgment, but the art is fairly appealing, and it seems pretty cute.  Check it out, if you like.

And I also wanted to point out an animated short film called The Lift, which featured some mighty impressive animation that was all done by one person.  The plot sounds like a riff on the sort of "old woman curses somebody for wronging her" story of which the movie Drag Me to Hell is probably the most recent prominent example.  Neat stuff, and possibly a talent to watch.

I only managed to pick up a small sample of what was available; there was plenty more to see and buy at the con, and if I had the money to spend, I certainly would have found ways to spend it.  Ah well, there's always next year.

C2E2 2010: Now this is a comics convention

This past weekend, the first annual Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo took place, and it was a hell of a time, exactly the sort of good time a mainstream comics convention should be, if you ask me.  The obvious comparison is the Wizard-branded Chicago Comic-Con (a.k.a Wizard World Chicago), but as was made clear last summer, that show's increasing irrelevance barely makes it worthy of consideration.  The non-comics-oriented, celebrity-focused swap meet atmosphere of that con was absent here, replaced by a well-laid-out show floor that was brightly lit by walls of windows looking out over downtown Chicago.  The time of year is a good choice as well, coming after the bitter cold of the Midwest winter but prior to the suffocating heat and humidity of the summer, hitting the sweet spot for seasonal weather.  Professional attendance was good, with almost all the major publishers putting together booths to show off their wares and talent.  Marvel and DC had their usual city-block-size emporiums, dominated by multi-story banners and featuring monitors blaring advertisements for their current movies, TV shows, video games, cartoons, etc.  DC's area seemed more creator-focused, with tables that were constantly manned by some of their top writers and artists, fans queued up to get a few precious moments with their heroes.  Marvel's area seemed more carnival-like, centered around a stage that regularly featured somebody barking into a microphone and excited crowds gathered around, an obnoxious scene that drove away any attempts at investigation into whether they also had much in the way of a creator presence.  Amusingly, they also had some stations demonstrating digital comics, manned by two booth babes as a way to convince someone, anyone to take a look.

Of the publishers that were not backed by major entertainment companies, most everyone else on the mainstream end of things had a presence, with Oni Press, Image, Dark Horse, Avatar, Boom! Studios, Archaia, and Top Shelf hawking their wares and creators happily greeting fans.  Archaia's booth had an especially nice setup, with the booth flanked by two sets of comfortable chairs arranged around coffee tables, atop which sat volumes of the publisher's comics, an encouragement to stop, rest, and peruse their work.

Above: Archaia's booth/reading lounge

One nice feature of the exhibitor/publisher section of the floor was a section that seemed dedicated to webcomics.  Several short rows of booths saw one webcomics talent after another, from the likes of PVP's Scott Kurtz and Girls With Slingshots' Danielle Corsetto; to a large Topatoco booth full of talent like John Campbell, David Malki, and Jeph Jacques; a rival booth from Zuda featuring Kevin Colden, Daniel Govar, and Bob Timony; and enough other people to keep those whose comics reading mostly happens online busy for most of the weekend.  Oddly, there was a sort of rival section in a different part of the floor that billed itself "Indie Island", giving itself a sort of tropical theme via a large faux palm tree.  Finder's Carla Speed McNeil and Templar, Arizona's Spike were located here, along with some others, and Spike complained that it was a slow weekend, which might have been due to the booth being overshadowed by the adjacent DC area and located in an odd, non-intuitive part of the floor.  If they return next year, they should try to be situated closer to that webcomics section, where they would be a much better fit.

Above: Some kids cosplaying Avatar: The Last Airbender

The artist alley section of the floor was another area in which to spend copious amounts of time, featuring a pretty amazing lineup of talent from the center of the mainstream to, well, the less-mainstream.  It's always enjoyable to wander down those aisles, looking at prints and original art and chatting up the professionals who create your favorite comics, and there was no dearth of talent here, whether you were looking for the guys who draw Batman and Spider-Man, creators of the non-superhero mainstream-ish fare of Vertigo, Wildstorm, Dark Horse, and the like, or even a few artists from a bit farther outside the center of the Direct Market.  Whatever the case, you're probably unlikely to find as many comics people to meet without making the trek to San Diego, and this is definitely the best group Chicago has had in years.

Above: Peter Gross draws Death

Perhaps best of all, at least regarding the setup of the convention floor, the celebrity/movie/wrestling/non-comics factor was minimized.  Sure, there were places where one could meet washed up actors, get their picture taken sitting in the Batmobile, or bid on props from the Iron Man movies, but those seems pushed off to the side or shuffled to the back of the convention hall, with comics being front and center in everyone's view, as they should be.  The dealer section is sort of a different story, with sword and apparel merchants mixed in with booths crammed full of stacks of longboxes, but anyone who ventures into that section of a con knows what to expect.

Above: The Vertigo panel, featuring (l to r) Scott Snyder, Michael Easton, Peter Straub, Bill Willingham, Matt Kindt, Peter Gross, Guiseppe Camuncoli, and Karen Berger.  Not pictured: Cliff Chiang.

While the main show floor was almost too much to comprehend with everything there was to see, other content was available in the various rooms and theaters surrounding it, with dozens of panels, screenings, and even a few concerts and "performances" taking place.  One could conceivable spend a fulfilling weekend just sitting in these rooms, listening to announcements and discussions, asking questions, and receiving giveaway swag, without even venturing into the main convention.  In short, it was a pretty amazing weekend, with a wealth of activity, sights to see, things to buy, people to meet, and comics to enthuse about.  Barring a more specific show that limits its focus to something like small press comics or manga, this looks to be the best comics convention that Chicago is going to have, and hopefully, it will get even better in future years.  A weekend like this can be tiring, but such "hardship" is worthwhile when it brings an enthusiasm toward comics with it.  Here's hoping for a great sequel in 2011.

Above: Dr. Girlfriend and some minions menace the costume contest

You can see more pictures on my Facebook page (even if you don't have a Facebook account) here.  More to come, including panel reports, swag, and reviews of purchases.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Won't you please come to Chicago..."

UPDATED!  I'll continue to add stuff below as I become aware of it.

As many are aware, the big comics event for this upcoming weekend (as opposed to every other weekend from the end of March through sometime in June) is C2E2, the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo.  I'm excited to be attending, so if anybody reading this is going to be there and wants to meet up (or try to bump into me by chance), feel free to let me know; my email address is over there in the sidebar.  As for the event itself, and those surrounding it, here are some of the highlights, most of which I'm hoping to attend or check out:


Vertigo Editorial Presentation - Friday 3:15-4:15.  A whole bunch of Vertigo editors and creators. Might be interesting.

Avatar Press - Friday 5:15-6:15. In case you always wanted to meet Brian Pulido.  Maybe worth going to hear some announcements?

Pantheon - Friday 5:30-6:30.  Chip Kidd, Chris Ware, and Dash Shaw talk about their upcoming Pantheon releases, I guess.  Hopefully some other stuff too.  I'll definitely try to make this one.

Chicago Gays in Comics - Friday 6:45-7:45.  I'm not familiar with the creators/commentators on this panel, but it might be an interesting discussion.

Mike Mignola Spotlight - Friday 6:45-7:45.  Hey, Mignola's cool, right?

Webcomics Town Hall - Friday 7:15-8:15.  Lots of good talent on this panel, including Erika Moen, Lucy Knisley, Danielle Corsetto, David Malki, and somebody or other related to Zuda.  Good times, I bet.

Old Media, New Media, Comics Media - Friday, 7:45-8:45.  Heidi MacDonald leads this one, with panelists Noah Berlatsky, Johanna Draper Carlson, Brigid Alverson, Ron Richards, and Lucas Siegel.  I'll go just to see if Noah can piss everyone else off.

Boom! Studios and Boom! Kids - Saturday, 11:00-12:00.  I've been enjoying a lot of Boom!'s recent output, so this might be an interesting one for announcements and such.

The AV Club Presents The Middle East and the City Streets: Superheroes in the Modern World - Saturday, 11:15-12:15.  I don't know about this one, but I do like most of the AV Club writers.  Their comics coverage is one of the few places where they don't do an especially good job though, so hearing them discuss whatever this is might just be awkward.

Del Rey Books - Saturday, 11:15-12:15.  Twitter has been afire with speculation about Del Rey's flagging interest in manga lately, so this might be an interesting thing for pestering their representative with questions along those lines.

Oni Press Panelmonium - Saturday, 1:30-2:30.  Try to get a glimpse of the final volume of Scott Pilgrim, or the movie!  And maybe other stuff too.

Jeff Smith Spotlight - Saturday, 1:45-2:45.  If Mike Mignola is worth watching, so is Mr. Bone.

Archaia All Access - Saturday, 1:45-2:45.  Archaia has been putting out some really interesting books, so this might be an interesting one for meeting creators and/or hearing announcements.

The Graphic Art of Chicago's Transit and Utility Posters of the 1920's - Saturday, 4:00-5:00.  Not really a comics-related thing, but it could be a good highbrow respite from everything else going on.

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art, and Culture - Saturday, 5:15-6:15.  This could be a cool discussion; I might be able to actually learn something!

Comics with Comixology - Sunday, 11:15-12:15.  I'm probably not going to be able to make it on Sunday, but I would go to this if I was.  There's supposed to be some big announcement, and they did give away an Ipod Touch at their Wizard panel last year, so there's your impetus to attend...

Meet the Locals - Sunday, 12:15-1:15.  I would love to go to this one too, just so I can be excited about living near some creators that I like (assuming any of them will attend).

SMILE...LIVE! - Sunday, 2:00-2:30.  I'm also sorry to miss this, which is a sort of stage adaptation of (portions of?) Raina Telgemeier's Smile.  I bet it will be fun.

The full list of panels can be seen here, in case I missed anything.

Related Events:

Green Lantern C2E2 pre-party - Challengers Comics, 8:00 pm Thursday
Mark Waid Smells Evil Party - Challengers Comics, 8:00 pm Friday.  I don't know if I'll make either of these, but I do like the guys at Challengers, so we'll see what happens.

Top Shelf Swedish Invasion Party - The Double Door, 8:00 pm Saturday.  Several artists in attendance, along with the Top Shelf crew, plus music, burlesque, and hopefully good times.

Creators and their comics:

Ryan Kelly is debuting a new self-published series called Funrama Presents: The Mutant Punks, and it looks really cool.

I'll be looking out for some of Top Shelf's new books, including Super Spy volume 2: The Lost Dossiers and James Kochalka's Superfuckers collection.

Oni has a new Jamie S. Rich/Joelle Jones book called Spell Checkers.

Jeff Smith will have the second collection of Rasl, for those who aren't buying the single issues.

Other artists I'll be looking to meet, and maybe score a Groo sketch from: Eric Canete, Hilary Barta, Cliff Chiang, Guy Davis, Colleen Doran, Ryan Dunlavey, Tom Fowler, Jim Mahfood, Ben Templesmith, and probably some others.  UPDATED to add: David Lloyd, Kevin Colden, Brian Hurtt.

If there's anything I didn't mention (maybe some of the "educational" panels, which could be interesting), or something you're planning to attend or watch out for, feel free to let me know.  It should be an exciting weekend!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hero Tomorrow: Why not today?

Elsewhere: I reviewed the Jonathan Hickman-written SHIELD #1 for Comics Bulletin.  Pretty interesting. Also, I tried (and failed) to understand the psychotic Lars Von Trier movie Antichrist at The Factual Opinion. Cinematic!

Here's something I never knew existed: Tim Callahan posted a Frank Miller-illustrated New Gods story from Walt Simonson's run on Orion.  I'm rarely all that interested in follow-ups to that milieu by people other than Jack Kirby, but this is pretty cool, combining Kirby's bombast with the clipped, hard-boiled Miller style.  Maybe I should give Simonson's stuff a try sometime...

Webcomics links: John Kerschbaum has a new comic on Act-I-Vate called Cartoon Boy.  Sure to be funny.

Gabrielle Bell has been posting her autobiographical Lucky strips online for a while, but I wanted to point out the story that she is currently serializing which started out with her talking about attempting to adapt Valerie Solanas' SCUM Manifesto to comics but has led to a story from her mom about how her friendship with Solanas led to a bizarre pot-selling incident in Japan.  It's pretty crazy and fascinating; check it out.

Hero Tomorrow
2007, directed by Ted Sikora

Apparently, the superhero has penetrated the modern psyche to the point that even indie movies about supposedly lovable losers can be all about the costumed freaks who wander around beating people up.  This particular example is an especially acerbic take on the genre, the Watchmen (in terms of cynicism towards the genre, if not innovative structure, compelling characters, or impressive visuals) of low-budget superhero movies.  It seems pointedly self-aware, with its main character being a wannabe comics artist named David with a girlfriend who works in a comics shop.  In a non-shocking twist, he starts dressing up as his own character, Apama (a terribly-designed mystery man supposedly derived from Native American mythology, although his creator states that he doesn't really care about specific tribes or anything), and fighting the lamest of crimes (pumpkin-smashing, candy-stealing teens, those dastards!), when he's not just wandering around the woods striking poses or hiding in bushes and peeping at women in their underwear.  And he's not any more inspiring out of his costume either, sleepwalking his way through a landscaping job for a friend and crashing in that same friend's basement, then mooching their food and spending all his money on comics.  He's a total loser, and not one of the lovable variety; it's hard to see what his girlfriend sees in him, although a late-film twist might reveal something along those lines.  It seems like pretty misanthropic stuff, although it's hard to tell if this is the filmmakers' intent, since everything is filmed with a light enough touch that it might all be intended as comedy and goofy fun-times.

To make matters worse, that intent toward comedy doesn't often pay off; while the situations seem as though they should be amusing in their pathetic-ness, there aren't many laughs to be had.  It's mostly a wallow in ugliness, from the horrific gray-brown, mohawked costume, to David's ridiculous dreadlocks, to his fairly poor, unfinished artwork.  Luckily, there are flashes of brilliance here and there, as in a dinnertime conversation between David and his girlfriend's mom, who asks reasonable questions about the origins of his poorly-defined character and gets screamed at by her daughter for caring.  And the highlight is probably a lengthy dream sequence in which David imagines attending some sort of play in which a squid leaves the ocean, begins living life in the city, and promptly gets beat up by Apama for no reason.  It's weird and surreal, with some impressively expressive puppeteering on the squid and rhyming narration intoned by a Christopher Lee lookalike in a wig.  Definitely the highlight of the film.

A certain degree of latitude must be given to low-budget productions like this; on some level, it's impressive just that they got made and are at all watchable.  In that respect, this film certainly succeeds, and even manages to shine here and there, but compared to the kind of storytelling available in many other mediums, especially the comics from which it seems to take inspiration, it comes up short.  Interestingly, while several scenes take place in a comics shop, the only actual comics mentioned (apart from David trying to pitch Apama to a publisher as "the next Wolverine") are Frankenstein Mobster and Astro City, and an on-screen appearance by Hip Flask.  Not exactly the cream of the superhero crop there, or even titles or characters which most people will recognize.  If the filmmakers were aware of much beyond the most basic of superhero tropes, they don't really make that apparent in the film itself.  They might have come up with a somewhat interesting take on the dysfunction necessary to dress up in a costume and thwart evil, but they didn't really succeed at crafting an especially good film around the idea.  Maybe next time.

If you're still interested in the film (and considering that it has received acclaim at various film festivals, you probably shouldn't take my word for it), the official site can be found here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Northlanders: Even Vertigo can do pretty colors

Northlanders, volume 3: Blood in the Snow
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Dean Ormston, Vasilis Lolos, Danijel Zezelj, and Davide Gianfelice

There probably isn't much to say about this third volume of Brian Wood's Viking series that hadn't been said about the previous books, but it's another good collection of stories, this time sticking with small, one- or two-part stories rather than longer epics.  But the focus is still on the humanity of these oft-mythologized cultures, looking at their daily lives and concerns of survival as much as blood and violence.  Danijel Zezelj illustrates one tale that focuses on women, who often get overlooked in all the macho sacking and looting, although they do get to participate in some bloodletting for once.  Davide Gianfelice's return to Sven, the main character from the series' first arc, is a nice follow-up to that story, full of nicely splattered blood and forbidding landscapes.  And the Vasilis Lolos-drawn "The Viking Art of Single Combat" is still one of the best stories in the series history (see this earlier post for a more descriptive review).  But the standout here might be the two-part recounting of the sack of Lindisfarne, which gets sumptuously brought to life by Dean Ormston, who did his own colors, bringing lush, painterly hues to the scenes of an abused boy longing for Vikings to come and take him away from the harsh acceptance of suffering that the Christian religion encourages.  Ormston overpowers the senses with huge splash pages depicting the kid's memories of his dead mother:

Or his imagination's image of the mightiness and power of the Norse gods:

And the violence and slaughter of the inevitable attack don't suffer in comparison either:

It's pretty beautiful, and quite emotionally powerful; the sort of thing this series can do really well.  I'm still happy to see Brian Wood stretching beyond his comfort level, and succeeding beyond all expectations with his well-researched, emotionally-realistic stories.  I hope it continues for a long time to come.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Joe and Azat: I think "Jonah Zot" would be a good pen name

Joe and Azat
By Jesse Lonergan

This fictionalized account of cartoonist Jesse Lonergan's time with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan is kind of different from your usual travelogue or journalistic book; it's more personal, more character-focused.  That's an interesting choice, but it works well for Lonergan.  The focus on interpersonal relationships allows him to bypass the informational dumps that characterize so many of these sorts of books, outside of a few pages of explanation of how Turkmenistan's dictator spent tons of money doing things like shooting his self-penned holy book into space or building a river through the middle of the capital city while the rest of the country languished in poverty. Instead, it's all about the people Lonergan's stand-in, Joe, encounters during his time in-country, especially his title-sharing best friend, Azat.  Azat is a wonderfully-defined character, always optimistic and full of energy, planning to get rich and achieve international fame, certain he'll marry the girl he longs for even if their different social status makes it unlikely, urging Joe to marry a Turkmen woman and stay in the country, and continually coming up with schemes to make money that don't actually have much planning behind them.  It's easy to see why Joe takes to him, and why Lonergan leaves "himself" mostly undefined, in thrall to the stronger personality who is in his element, gregarious and full of life.

How much of this is true does come into question, but even if Lonergan completely fabricated everything, it rings true, due to all the cultural details, like the etiquette regarding romantic relationships, the reason Joe stopped carrying a camera to weddings, the unfamiliarity with the basics of capitalism that came from decades of Communism, and the boundless optimism that can come from living without much in the way of resources.  The art is somewhat simplistic and cartoony, but it communicates emotion well, especially highlighting Azat's endless enthusiasm, Joe's bemusement, and the drunken anger of Azat's brother Merdan.  Most of the storytelling is pretty rudimentary, but effective techniques pop up here and there, like the people in a pile of photographs all speaking to Joe and demanding copies of the pictures, and a sequence at a wedding in which panels occasionally highlight Merdan drinking and looking angry, as if Lonergan is regularly cutting away from the action to shots of a fuse burning closer and closer to a stick of dynamite, with the expected explosion all but imminent.

It's a short, quick read, but one that works well for what it sets out to do, which is tell a personal story that highlights a way of life with which most Americans are unfamiliar.  The good part is that it doesn't seem like something that could only happen on the other side of the world, but rather a good, human slice of life that anyone can relate to, and if we learn a little something about other countries and cultures along the way, that's all the better.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Black Jack: More observations, less structure

Check this out: Connor Willumsen is posting his graphic-novel-in-progress, Everett, on his site as a webcomic.  I got a glimpse of this at MoCCA last year, and those first ten pages or so still blow me away.  I can't wait to see what he's got coming up.

Black Jack, volume 5
By Osamu Tezuka

This volume of Tezuka's "awesome surgeon" comic sees more along the same lines as the previous installments, and there are certainly some good stories, including return appearances by the proto-Kevorkian Dr. Kiriko (first planning to kill his own father, then later himself), the blind acupuncturist Biwamaru (he and BJ both go to one of those hermit-craftsmen to get their sharp implements forged), and the Black Queen, a female surgeon who can't quite manage to maintain our hero's aloof nature and devotion to medical excellence, perhaps due to all those pesky mood swings that women are prone to (women's lib apparently wasn't in full effect in 70s Japan).  There's an example of how dark Tezuka could be with a story of a "wolf girl" living in Communist Russia, and an especially weird story in which Black Jack operates on a ghost.  That's all well and good, but by this point, it's hard to find something unique to talk about with each new volume.  The stories are as good as ever, but it's a consistent level of goodness, so any commentary from the previous volumes would just be repeated.  So rather than reiterate previous praise for Tezuka's storytelling skills, I'll just point out a couple techniques that he uses that impress me.

For one, there's the anatomical cutaway.  Since there are often strange medical conditions that need to be explained to the reader, Tezuka will spend a page or two having Black Jack (or a disembodied narrator, which could be interpreted as Tezuka himself) describe whatever is going on with the patient, accompanied by an illustration:

But this being Tezuka, his cutaway illustrations are never dry diagrams, but rather cartoony bits of expressiveness, with the abstracted "model" often reacting in pain or disbelief to whatever is wrong with him:

As with everything he did, it's another chance for Tezuka to express himself and do something unique and unexpected in his stories.

I also like the simple, effective design of the main character.  The black cloak that he wears makes for a wonderful visual, often blowing around him dramatically as he makes a bold statement, observes some tragedy, confronts an opponent, or strikes some other dramatic pose:

It also makes for an excellent bit of iconography on which to end stories; the sight of Black Jack walking off into the sunset, having completed whatever monumental task was set before him this time, is often little more than a somewhat abstract black shape:

But with the readers having grown familiar with the sight, it's something recognizable and effective, a good bit of punctuation on which to end.

Finally, there's the occasional expressive flourish that Tezuka was so good at throwing into his stories, often to illustrate some emotional state or other.  He was always stretching himself to come up with new ways of depicting mental states, and one in particular is probably my favorite image in this volume, and one that caught the attention of the designer, since it ends up on both the back cover and the spine of this edition.  It's in a story about an actress/singer who was paralyzed in a car accident, and while Black Jack manages to operate on her spine and heal her, she still doesn't seem to be able to move:

It turns out that she was suicidal, feeling trapped in a demanding life of celebrity and exhausted by the constant demands heaped upon her by her fans and bosses.  That bit of information is what makes the image so striking; she's not just physically paralyzed, but emotionally as well, held down into a life that she doesn't want and unable to escape.  That distortion of her body and the "bonds" holding her down emphasize that, but the solid black of her image and her face make the oppression clear, and the shapes in the background suggest that it feels like something that is affecting her at a basic, cellular level.  It's a portrait of tragedy, and Tezuka sums it up incredibly effectively in this single image.

And that's what makes this series work so well: Tezuka's inventiveness and willingness to try anything.  The episodic structure gives him free reign to go in any direction he wishes, and if there's anything Tezuka wasn't afraid of, it was the blank page.  His stories might seem somewhat simplistic, but on closer look, there's plenty to get out of them, and each person will probably come away with something different.  Luckily, he produced so much content, we'll never run out of material to interpret.

Bonus: funny Pinoko faces!

These always crack me up.