Sunday, September 26, 2010

CLiNT: Mark Millar, such a provocateur

One link: I thought this comic made some interesting use of the browser format to do the sort of thing that you can only do online, while still remaining a comic.  Does that make sense?  It actually ran a bit slow for me, but I think it's an interesting experiment, at the very least.

CLiNT #1
September 2010

Mark Millar has made much noise (as he is wont to do) about this new magazine which he runs (or at least lends his name to), which functions as sort of a "lad mag" combined with a comics anthology, containing pictures of sexy girls and supposedly provocative articles alongside serialized chapters of creator-owned comics.  The interesting thing about it is, it's like a Western equivalent to a Japanese manga anthology, containing serialized chapters of comics for a low price (£3.99, or $6.30 American as of this writing).  This might not be out of the ordinary in the UK, the land of 2000 AD and such magazines, but it's pretty novel on this side of the Atlantic.  And it's not a bad package, either, although it will most likely turn off anybody not in its target demographic with its obnoxious tone, locker room humor, and supposedly provocative articles about topics like Charles Manson's plans to murder half of Hollywood (along with ones that are kind of boring, like one about the guy who dubs Tom Cruise's voice into Chinese), but for fans of Millar's comics, this is probably a better way to experience them than in their comics pamphlet form.  The issue contains eight pages of the first issue of Millar and John Romita, Jr.'s Kick-Ass 2, the entire first issues of Millar and Steve McNiven's Nemesis and Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards' Turf, and two new series, the full-length Rex Royd, by Frankie Boyle, Jim Muir, and Michael Dowling, and a three-pager called Huw Edwards' Space  Oddities, by Manuel Bracchi.  One's opinion of them will probably vary depending you how well one's sensibilities match up with Millar's, but it can't be argued that it's not a good value and a stylistically cohesive package.

As for the comics themselves, they're mostly rather well-done, and since Nemesis and Turf are already available, and Kick-Ass 2 is a sequel, they're not really anything new.  Turf is the most compelling of the bunch, featuring a story about a family of vampires trying to take over Prohibition-era New York, organized-crime-style, with a POV character who is a cute girl reporter, and promised complications from aliens stranded on Earth.  It features Tommy Lee Edwards' always-excellent art, and while there is some inconsistency in the narrative captions, which are sometimes from the reporter's point of view and sometimes delivered by an omniscient narrator, it seems put together really well, and looks like something to follow into further issues of either this magazine or the regular comics series, or the inevitable collection.

Millar's comics are not so interesting, but fans of his might differ; as always they certainly deliver exactly what one would expect.  Kick-Ass 2 is more of the same kinda-enjoyable stupidity of the first series, with Hit Girl training Kick-Ass by beating him up; I'm sure there will be more swearing and pummelings to come.  Nemesis is another of Millar's high concepts, a "what if Batman was evil?" bit of nonsense in which lots of ridiculous action, pop-culture references, and posturing comes together in a dumb plot that is nonetheless kind of enjoyable in its excess.  Steve McNiven is doing something different in his art here (or at least his colorist/inker is), going with a less-polished, sort of gritty style rather than the slick sheen he has covered everything in in his previous works.  It's interesting, if not necessarily great.  As with anything Millar does, this is fairly stupid, but put together in a way that will still, more likely than not, be pretty fun.

The new comics don't fare quite so well, seeming somewhat amateurish compared to the slick, professional product of their peers.  Huw Edwards' Space  Oddities (named after a BBC news personality, although I had to look him up on Wikipidia to find that out) is a short, inconsequential couple of pages about a trucker fighting a zombie, over before it even seems to start.  Rex Royd is about a security guard who works for a supervillain (standing in for a well-known character with similar initials) that discovers that he is actually his boss in disguise.  It's not a bad idea, although it seems to be trying a bit hard to push the envelope in terms of language, sex, violence, and drug use, when said envelope has already been pushed hard enough that if one was to replace the naughty words with $%!#, it could be a regular Marvel or DC comic.  That is, they wouldn't complain content-wise, but you might hear about the ugly art, which looks like the angular, shadowy work of somebody like Nick Stakal, who is more associated with horror, and is not the typical smooth, colorful spandex style.  It's not very appealing at all, and what action there is is nearly incomprehensible, making for a wallow in dim, imperceptible grossness.  Not very enjoyable at all.  With better art, it could possibly be kind of interesting, but it's more likely that this will be an afterthought alongside its more recognizable neighbors.

It's not a perfect magazine, obviously, but it's got its own personality, and people who like that sort of thing will probably like it (surprise, surprise).  Still, it's a good example for the kind of good-value comics anthology that would be nice to have in the American market, and for that reason alone, it deserves to succeed.  Let's hope there are enough Millar fans out there that it manages to make some money and spins off a version centered around the sensibilities of somebody with better taste.  May I suggest Matt Fraction, or Brian Azzarello?  Yeah, that's the ticket.  Make it happen, somebody!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Love and Rockets: Soaring ever-upward into the pantheon

Love and Rockets: New Stories #3
By Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez

The Hernandez brothers have been making excellent comics for so long that another installment of their long-running series might seem unremarkable, but the current format, which sees 100-page "issues" released annually, makes each release notable, a little book of good material.  And this one is really damn good, with a typically surreal and horrifying story from Gilbert and an excellent bit of character work from Jaime.  Isn't it awesome that stuff on this level is what we've come to expect?

Gilbert first:  I gotta say, the more I see of the current run of "Teenage Killer" stories, the less interest I have in the character.  Her story in this issue is the low point, and while it has some interest, mainly in the abrupt scene shifts and what might be some meta-commentary, it doesn't seem to go anywhere, much like Gilbert's story in last year's issue.  I am interested in that meta aspect, which sees a young actress complaining about only being able to follow in her great aunt Fritz's footsteps, telling the same stories over and over; is Gilbert tired of following his group of characters, ready to break out and do something different?  He does seem to be doing his most interesting work lately in the related books like Speak of the Devil and Chance in Hell (some of which get mentioned here, along with a story from MySpace Dark Horse Presents); maybe he would be better served to just go in that direction completely?

He kind of does exactly that with his other story in this issue (although, as with the aforementioned works, it is referred to as a movie within the larger Gilbert universe), which is a sci-fi tale that sees three workers fucking around with the animal-people denizens of the land in which they are installing some sort of equipment.  It's weird, nasty stuff, with the "civilized" humans thinking little of mistreating the natives, starting out by making fun of them or manipulating them for their own amusement, and eventually escalating into horrific rape and murder.  It seems like it could be a symbolic statement about how first-world countries treat people in the third world as sub-human, or maybe a statement about animal rights, but an offhand statement by one of the characters that "Everyone's all worked up about helping the Haitian earthquake victims, but not a peep about any Chilean earthquake relief efforts" seems to point toward the former interpretation.  But whatever you want to read into it, it's a striking, horrifying story, full of the signature harsh linework, inky scribbles, and pools of black that Gilbert does so well, with the scariest details being the grinning characters who don't seem all that disturbed by their own depravities.

Jaime, on the other hand, has managed to keep his own cohesive world of characters alive for as long as the series has been running, in something close to real time.  He has two stories, here, with a "present day" tale of Maggie hanging out with old pals Reno and Ray split apart and bookending a flashback story to Maggie's youth that is pretty powerful.  It's a fascinating look at Maggie and her siblings as they lament moving away from their old neighborhood so that they can live with their father, bickering and teasing as kids are wont to do, and only barely cognizant of the troubles that are taking their toll on their parents' marriage.  It's an effective way to place readers in the point of view of the kids, painfully aware of the emotions that are going right over the characters' heads.  There's also a plot involving the abuse of Maggie's younger brother Calvin by an older boy that is horrifyingly realistic, the predator enticing the prey with the air of knowledge and worldliness that comes from being a few years older, and the pain being inflicted displayed all too openly on the younger boy's face.  It's harrowing stuff, and it comes to a boil along with everything else, eventually exploding in a way that makes Maggie's mother's reaction understandable but still just awful and sad.  

That flashback is kind of the centerpiece of this issue, although it informs the latter-day story in interesting ways, highlighting the way Jaime has managed to build such a compelling cast and let them grow and develop such that they are as real as any of the readers by this point.  Jaime's art is so casually excellent by this point that it's easy to miss his subtle touches, like the way characters move so naturally, or how he shifts the reader's view around from different angles to keep a conversation from being the same panel repeated over and over.  And the way he makes the characters age so realistically, adding width to their faces and bodies, including extra lines on faces only when necessary, is so graceful that it's hardly noticeable, but kind of mind-boggling when you realize how obvious it is that these are the same characters at different ages.  It's quiet excellence, easy to take for granted, but amazing work all the same.

Yes, it's another great issue of one of the best comics series of all time; what else is new?  Jaime and Gilbert are rightfully revered as all-time great creators, but the fact that they are still pumping out incredible work and bettering themselves, sure to keep doing it for as long as possible, should make readers celebrate their wealth and fortune.  Even if everybody else quit, we would still be pretty lucky.  Long live Love and Rockets!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Collection catchup/manga emasculation/graphic novel grotesquerie

Links:  Dean Haspiel is serializing his first novel, Post-Disaster Adventure Chronicles, online; here's the first chapter.  It's about "the day money stopped"; sure, I'll read it.

Also serializing online: Mark Andrew Smith and Matthew Weldon's graphic novel The New Brighton Archeological Society.  Check it out, it's pretty.

Online, but not serialized: Lucy Knisley's new minicomic, Salvaged Parts, which is all about her recent breakup with her boyfriend.  It'll cost you $2, but it's worth it.

Twin Spica, volume 1
By Kou Yaginuma

This manga series has been getting a lot of praise as a good sci-fi series, and also some complaints about the cutesy cover art, but from what I can tell regarding this first volume, that image of a big-eyed, red-cheeked girl holding sparkly stars in her hands is a pretty darn good example of what is to be had inside.  Maybe things tend more toward hard SF in future volumes, but this one (which, as with most manga series, is concerned with introducing its concept and characters, so isn't necessarily indicative of future quality) is all shojo emotion, seeing a teen girl named Asumi strive toward her goal of being a spaceship pilot by entering the Tokyo Space School.  All the conflict here comes from interpersonal relationships, beginning with Asumi's father, who she thinks will disapprove of her choice for tragic reasons that are explained later on at the most dramatically appropriate moment.  Later, when she gets to her entrance test, we see her try to get to know and cooperate with her fellow applicants, who run the gamut from friendly and supportive, to curt and withdrawn, to obnoxious and self-centered.  It's obvious where the main thrust of the series will be, and that's in the emotions, friendships, and rivalries between these kids, along with what seems like some well thought out sciencey stuff.  Should be fun.

The volume also includes two "flashback" chapters to Asumi's childhood, although I suspect they were actually published first, as a sort of "try out" for the series, and they're also quite good, cranking up the emotion and sadness to incredible levels.  After the reveal of what happened to Asumi's mother and why her father might not want her to go to space school, one would expect tear-jerking stuff, and Yaginuma doesn't disappoint here; it's very well done, especially at conveying little Asumi's honesty and difficulty understanding what happened, as well as her father's continuing sadness and tired exasperation at the ordeals of single fatherhood.  Yaginuma does an excellent job here of writing believable characters, and the art conveys their lives really well, with the only oddity being characters' puffy hands that make it look like everyone is wearing dishwashing gloves.  It's a pretty nice-looking book, and it reads really well too.  We'll have to see where things go in future volumes; I bet it's up.

By Matt Kindt

Sometimes, writing about a book that you find to be just okay, rather than somewhere closer to the ends of the quality spectrum, can be pretty difficult.  I'm finding that to be the case here, with Matt Kindt's Vertigo graphic novel about a guy named Sam who experiences two lives in what seem like alternate timelines, which is a good concept but has an execution that left me somewhat cold, for reasons I'm having trouble articulating.  It does start out well, with Sam living through a terrible day that sees the apparent collapse of society due to terrorist attacks and natural disasters, then waking up in a world where none of that happened.  As the story progresses, he switches between worlds each day at the same time, with his two lives contrasting each other, eventually finding some connections between the two and facing some sort of decision about which world he wants to choose to continue in.  The early going is pretty interesting stuff, as he ends up doing some awful things in order to survive in the apocalyptic world, then comes back to what seems like a pointless existence in the other reality, barely able to function in a job he hates and a relationship with a woman that seems more interested in accumulating furniture and decorations for her apartment than anything else.  It's a fascinating contrast, looking at the complacency of modern life and how it would shock us to have to suddenly fight for our lives and cope with everything we know changing, and then how, after dealing with that upheaval, what it would be like to be thrust back into the previous lifestyle.  Kindt does a great job of illustrating the scariness and violence of the apocalyptic reality, as well as the dull boredom of middle class life in the life that's more like the "real world", and he uses some interesting techniques to differentiate the two, like a color scheme (if you can call it that; there appear to be only two colors used in the book, a dark blue and a light tan) that switches the dominant shade depending on which reality is being depicted, allowing for some nice ways to depict memories of one world experience while in the other, or attitudes and emotions that Sam is experiencing showing how his lives are bleeding together.  There is also a sort of "news ticker" that runs along the bottom of each page, incorporating the page number in each headline, demonstrating what is important to people in each reality; one mostly features celebrity gossip, while the other is a constant stream of death and violence.

This all works really well, but where Kindt stumbles, as far as I can tell, is in trying to wrap everything up and give meaning to the experience.  Sam ends up discovering a person who seems significant in both realities, and he sets out to determine what is going on, eventually leading him to a course of action that could determine which life he wants to live.  It seems like an attempt to give the whole story a complete dramatic arc, but it ends up seeming less like a natural progression, and more like an ending that was tacked on.  It might have been better if the story had stayed more down-to-earth, with Sam taking action that affects his own life and working to incorporate what he had learned and how he could change his life into both realities, without ever resolving which one would survive.  The dramatic, exciting ending does fit a world in which life as we know it has already ended, but I still found it unsatisfying.

But who knows, my reaction might not necessarily reflect anyone else's, and the book certainly drew a reaction.  It's got some great stuff, with some expressive art and a nice format, but it's just not what I wanted it to be, I guess.  How's that for an objective judgment?

The Unwritten, volume 2: Inside Man
By Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Well, this series continues to hit my metafiction-loving buttons, although with this second volume, it gets more like a typical Vertigo series, one with on ongoing mystery as to what the hell is going on, and lots of barely-explained supernatural forces jerking people around.  It's still pretty cool though, with it's main character, the Harry Potter knockoff Tommy Taylor discovering his powers as a fictional character made flesh and freaking out as crazy shit keeps happening, like Frankenstein's monster just wandering into the story to compare notes, or him and his pals ending up in the middle of some sort of ghostly Nazi memory.  There's some fascinating ideas about the power of fiction and how people experience it, with a chapter involving two kids who get so caught up in the Tommy Taylor books that they think magic is real, and their father becoming near-hysterical as he insists on the magic of imagination and childhood innocence in the face of evidence that what it is going on is not good.  The bit with the Nazis is pretty strange too, with Tom and his companions confronting Joseph Goebbels (or some facsimile of him) in a living nightmare that came about because of his distortion of the novel Jud Suss into an anti-Semitic propaganda film.  And perhaps best of all, the final chapter takes a break from the main narrative to visit a world of cute animals like something out of A.A. Milne or Beatrix Potter, where a foul-mouthed rabbit turns out to be a man who was trapped in a fictional narrative, which turns out to be a really creepy fate.

Two books in, and it's not all that clear what this series is going to be about, as Tom is only just discovering his true nature and whatever undefined powers he has.  Maybe he's eventually going to settle into a series of quests into pieces of literature, meeting other fictional characters and fighting whoever the villains are that are shaping the world through fiction, or maybe Carey and Gross are going to go in a completely different direction.  Whatever the case, as long as they keep exploring the ways fiction affects the world and coming up with crazy metafictional ideas, I expect I'll be powerless to resist their thrall.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Two movies, one comic-related, and one kind of comical

Webcomics links: Check out this cool comic from Dan Hipp: Piggy Brown, Piglet Detective.  Also, Jim Rugg has placed his Rambo 3.5 minicomic online for download, so read that one too.  And hey, I also liked this one from Box Brown; it's an adaptation of a poem from a forwarded email, a message for Jehovah's Witnesses to not marry outside their faith.  It's sad, in that people actually think this way, but also funny in how it piles worse and worse anguishes on its protagonist, who committed the sin of marrying an unbeliever.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird
Korea, 2010, Directed by Ji-woon Kim

The Asian Western seems to be a growing genre, or at least one that comprises more than one example (the other being Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django, which is totally awesome), and that's a good sign, at least if the subgenre remains so damn entertaining.  This one is a stylish mix of East and West, taking a definite influence from its Sergio Leone namesake, although the central character here would be the Eli Wallach one, a goofball thief (played by the vampire priest from Chan-Wook Park's Thirst) who gets his hands on a treasure map and ends up being hunted by three or four different factions, including gangs of various levels of evil, a bounty hunter (the Clint Eastwood role, made somewhat less iconic by a funny-looking moustache), and even the Japanese army.  There's some crazy action (starting right away with a pretty cool train robbery), tons of shootouts, a lot of great cinematography, and a nice Ennio-Morricone-with-Asian-flair score.  It's really interesting too, being kind of hard to place historically, with Western fashion and guns alongside more modern stuff like motorcycles, trucks, and phones.  It's probably not meant to be accurate at all, but there's a bit of discussion of the Korean struggle for independence from Japan, so it's got something of a nationalistic feel that Westerners (or maybe anybody who isn't Korean) won't really get.  Whatever the case, it's tons of fun, with standout bits being the bounty hunter character spending a large portion of a shootout swinging on ropes above a town and shooting bad guys one-handed with a rifle, the thief wearing an old-fashioned diver's helmet to ward off bullets, a final three-way showdown that ends more "realistically" than the Eastwood/Wallach/Van Cleef version of the same, and a seemingly endless chase scene in which tons of guys haul ass on horses after our hero across an empty desert as he drives a sidecar-equipped motorcycle, the bounty hunter (in another display of badassery) takes out most of the army assholes who are bringing up the rear and shooting random guys with machine guns, and ending in a series of huge explosions when another division of the army starts firing big-ass cannon shells at them.  It's pretty nuts, a great time all around.

The Losers
2010, Directed by Sylvain White

As with most any adaptation, it's hard to be objective when you're a fan of the original version of the story, and as somebody who read every issue of the comic book series this movie was based on, I can't help but make the inevitable assessment that "the book was better".  This certainly isn't bad for what it is though: a stylish, enjoyable, exciting action flick, with slightly less of the political commentary that the comic had, amounting basically to "powerful, secretive dudes manipulate world events for their own gain".  The story has been revised to remove any hint of Middle East conflict, instead centering in Columbia and various United States locales, and the bad guy (played with oozily nasty smarm by Jason Patric) is just some CIA guy named Max, rather than the shadowy force behind all evil done in the name of intelligence organizations.  The cast is pretty good, although Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the leader of the eponymous team of presumed dead/framed for treason special forces badasses as a smirking joker rather than a tough, dedicated man in charge, and while Zoe Saldana might be one of the hottest women on the planet, she can't quite manage believability as the secretive, tough-as-nails Aisha (again, removing the Middle Eastern origin tones her down a bit, making her seem like one in a long line of tough black women), although she looks cool when firing a bazooka from the hip.  Everyone else is pretty good though, especially Chris Evans (who seems dedicated to only starring in comic book adaptations, from all across the spectrum of the medium; what's he going to play next, Ichigo from Bleach? Archie? Tintin?) as the team wiseacre; he gets all the best lines, and really throws himself into scenes like the one where he sings "Don't Stop Believin'" along with his headphones in order to clear out an elevator. And the action is pretty nice, full of explosions and shootings and whatnot, with lots of camera zooms and shiny "isn't this cool?" style, but still clear and easy to follow, unlike most of what passes for action these days.  The Jock illustrations (most of which seem to be original, done for the movie) in the opening credits are a nice touch too.  I don't know if it made enough money to continue as the franchise that it wants to be (it ends with a pretty obvious plan to continue into at least one more installment), but it's nice enough as it is.  The comic itself was little more than a solid bit of action, so a slightly dumbed-down Hollywood version is probably the best thing anybody could expect.  I would probably watch a sequel, sure.  Make it happen, somebody.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Minicomics mayhem, part one

Elsewhere:  I reviewed Brain Camp, a young adults' graphic novel illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks, at IndiePulp.  It's pretty good.

And here is the first of at least two collections of reviews of various minicomics I've obtained recently:

Stories, Volume 3: "Catch Me If You Can"
By Martin Cendreda
Buy it from Quimby's

This affecting little story is one of the things that minicomics do so well, conveying a short story in an attractive package, a pure bit of the artist's essence, direct from his mind to yours.  Or, it's an opportunity for a creative person to goof off and experiment, seeing what works and giving readers a glimpse of his process.  Either style is worthwhile, but this particular example falls into the first category, a beautiful little story about a man and his daughter eating ice cream cones and playing together, and when he turns away she wanders off, and the next thing he knows, she's grown older.  And older.  And then he dies.  The end.  That sounds ultra-simplistic, but it's done so elegantly here, a basic concept conveyed perfectly without any words, the cute, playful images going straight for the gut.  It might be something that hits harder for actual fathers (or mothers), but it works so well here, with Cendreda capturing the love between parent and child through expressions and body language.  When you have to wipe away a tear after reading it, you know he's done his job well.

Monday, Part One
By Andy Hartzell
Buy it from Global Hobo

Andy Hartzell's 2007 graphic novel Fox Bunny Funny was a pretty fascinating bit of symbolism regarding sexuality and lifestyle choices, and with this minicomic, which is the first chapter of another book in progress (although it should be noted that this first minicomic is dated 2004, so it predates the more well-known book.  So far, three chapters have come out, apparently forming about half of the complete story), he shows that he certainly hasn't exhausted his idea factory.  The story here picks up in the Garden of Eden, on the titular day after God's post-creation day of rest, and while Adam and Eve are happy, they're wondering what's next, figuring out their brand-new world, how it works, and how they fit into it.  The snake (sporting a weirdly square, human-like head on his regular skinny body) shows up and sows doubt about God, saying his creativity is all played out, prompting a trip to "the birthplace" to see what God is up to.  He ends up being a grumpy artist type (and another weird design, with a single eye atop a pyramid-shaped head, and a beard that turns all pointy when he gets angry), upset at the snake's criticism, sure that his best work is still ahead of him. It's an interesting take on the Judeo-Christian creation myth, establishing personalities for the characters (Adam loves the simple pleasures of their world, like the funny monkeys, but Eve is less happy, unsure whether the sun is going to come back up after it disappears for the first time, although she does love the peaceful beauty of the garden, especially the lion laying down with the lamb) and coming up with a quirky plot conflict in which we wonder what God's next move is and how it's all going to lead to the expected moments with the apple and the banishment.  What Hartzell's ultimate message is remains to be seen, but his enjoyably chunky art and expressively odd take on a well known story should make it really neat to see him get there.

Weird Schmeird #2
By Ryan Cecil Smith
Buy it from the creator

Here's another thing that minicomics can do that others can't, at least not without being expensive: provide a unique, one-of-a-kind object.  This booklet comes in a plastic bag that is decorated by the artist (with a pink paint that doesn't show up well on my scanner, but looks really nice in person), adding an extra touch of craft as Ryan Cecil Smith embellishes the images on the cover.  There's also a laser-cut cardboard insert with which readers can punch out and assemble their own package-delivery-related toys:

Luckily, the inside of the book matches the creativity of the presentation, containing "two exciting comic stories and one boring one".  The first two are full of crazy energy, with one following a trio of bicycle-riding spies as they rescue a fellow agent who has been captured and held prisoner at a secret ninja training camp.  The story is an explosion of motion and excitement, with panels angling crazily all over the pages, characters crashing into each other and bikes racing and jumping everywhere.  It's pretty awesome:

The second story is an entertaining horror tale in which two teenage girls wander into some dangerous woods and get menaced by an evil witch/mad scientist.  It's enjoyable stuff, full of moody shadows and idiosyncratic character art.  Finally, the "boring" story is an autobiographical tale of Smith working in a college mail room and chatting with the drivers who make deliveries.  It's kind of interesting, although the opening diagram of the workplace is probably the highlight, demonstrating Smith's Dan Zettwoch influence most strikingly.  There are also some sketchbook sections that show off some really nice art drawn in India and Japan; the whole thing is a pretty great encapsulation of Smith's style, showing off his chops and indicating a wide range of different directions in which he could go with his work in the future.  Whatever the case, it should be lots of fun to go along with him for the ride.

Trubble Club III
By Al Burian, Thorn Brandt, Lilli Carre, Joshua Cotter, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Lucy Knisley, Rachel Niffenegger, Bernie McGovern, Onsmith, Laura Park, Grant Reynolds, Becca Taylor, Jeremy Tinder, Marco Torres, Nate Beatty, Jose Garibaldi, Corinne Mucha, and Aaron Renier

This minicomic collects the output of a "secret" group of Chicago cartoonists who meet regularly to jam exquisite corpse style, with one person drawing a panel at a time, adding up to a truly bizarre series of comic strips (you can see some examples at their official blog).  Some of the contributors are recognizable, such as Lucy Knisley, Laura Park, or Aaron Renier, but they all seem to get subsumed into the whole, becoming concerned with grossness and bodily functions and often cruel death.  Some strips take on a narrative as people add subsequent images, while others remain a parade of strangeness, but the talent of most all involved is clear, as they all reproduce each other's images and put their own spin on them.  The best are ones in which a concept is presented in the initial panel and everyone else runs with them: a man saying "Look what the cat dragged in" leads to a series of gruesome Garfield jokes, and what starts as a series of weirdos spouting non sequiturs like "I sneezed on my cheese!" leads to a pretty hilarious punchline.  If you're receptive to seeing what artists get up to when they're screwing around (and probably drinking), this is totally worth a look.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Comics get big again

Comics: A Section of the San Francisco Panorama (McSweeney's Issue 33)

This "comics at a large size" could catch on if even publishers outside the comics mainstream are trying it.  McSweeney's has done comics stuff in the past, most notably the Chris Ware-edited thirteenth issue of their quarterly anthology, so for them to include a comics section in their San Francisco Panorama newspaper edition of the series is a natural idea, as is selling it separately, for those of us who have enough news to read already, thank you very much.  It's a really nice-looking section, full of comics big and small from artists well known and more obscure, and even including a kids' activity section, an "infotainment" page about tide pools, and a pull-out Chris Ware "Rocket Sam" strip with one of the paper models that you can cut up and build, if you're so inclined.  The odd thing, however, is that while several name cartoonists contributed, few of them seemed to bring their "A" game, turning in strips that aren't especially noteworthy.  It's pretty odd when a two-page Erik Larsen Savage Dragon comic is the most entertaining thing in the, uh, section.

Daniel Clowes leads things off (if you don't read the strips inside the "COMICS" title flap first) with "The Christian Astronauts", which isn't bad, but it's hard to tell what he's doing with this tale of the titular family, who have fled a dead Earth to roam the stars and come across a deformed former friend.  There's a bit of interest in the barely-spoken relationships between the characters, but there's little of the expected Clowes bite, especially considering the expectations raised by the title.  It's possible that he's noting the modern Christian tendency to separate themselves from "the world", anything that doesn't agree with their beliefs, and do their best to protect their children from these influences, but even with the space, Clowes doesn't do much with the idea.

Art Spiegelman doesn't fare much better, turning in one of his collage-ish strips that's all about Fredric Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent, using well-known comics imagery to tell the story very simply.  It seems like there might be something to the idea that since the Victorian era, childhood has been revered as a "protected zone" in which kids are isolated from the evils of life until they are ready to face them, and comics violated that supposed safety.  But Spiegelman manages to quickly turn into the aging crank, complaining about modern society. Yawn.

Even Chris Ware's complicated center spread manages to disappoint, although it certainly looks pretty amazing, full of little details and oriented in different directions such that it takes a long time to figure out how to read, and even more to actually squint hard enough to see the increasingly tiny pictures.  The story itself (which, given the title of "Putty Gray", a riff on Ware's characters Rusty Brown and Chalky White, could be an over-my-head spoof of his own style, but I don't think so) is pretty rote Ware stuff though, contrasting a space-travel-obsessed kid's imagination toward science with his adult self's own loneliness following his divorce.  Why, it's as if the isolation of space is like the barriers surrounding the human heart!  Haven't we seen Ware do this sort of thing before?  His recent issues of Acme Novelty Library have been expanding into more complex emotional territory, but this seems like a step backward.  Some of the margin-filling bits don't work all that well either, like a series of gag panels focusing on Putty's aging father's alcoholism and dementia, a classic Ware juxtaposition of style and substance that doesn't make the impact it should, given that there's nothing leading up to it.  Still, there's a nice scene of Putty's childhood neighborhood laid out in architectural detail, and a series of tiny circular panels chronicling the disappointments and drudgery of Putty's adulthood are effective, with longer and longer sequences of panels seeing him just sitting in front of a computer.  But this is strictly beginner Chris Ware, like a boiled-down version of parts of Jimmy Corrigan, when we know he's grown capable of so much more.

I'm not sure what to make of Jessica Abel's faux-adventure strip "True Tales of the Early Colonists", which seems completely pointless, possibly being an attempt to portray the middle chapter of a serial, but not being interesting enough to capture the imagination and make the reader want to know what happens next.  And Ian Huebert's "The Fuser in Divide and Conquer" is a fairly ugly bit of strange superhero stuff about a three-headed guy who fights an evil genius; it's kind of unappealing.  Other strips from notable creators aren't bad, but they're nothing special, like Seth's "Accidental Composition", in which he walks across a railroad bridge and looks at some rocks, or Ivan Brunetti's "A Childhood Story (c. 1973)", in which he remembers having his tonsils out and then going to his first day of school.  Keith Knight's "The K Chronicles" is a standard strip from that series, about the frustrating negative perception of rap music, and Gabrielle Bell's "Walking Around Greenpoint" is like most of her Lucky strips, seeing her wander through her life and think about stuff, with the best panel being one filled with a cloud of musical notes when an ice cream truck disrupts her thoughts.

There's still plenty good here though, like Gene Luen Yang's "Toast-O-Tronic", about a couple of kids who use their dad's toaster/robot to fight off a bully.  Jon Adams' "The Optimist" is a typically harsh bit of cruelty directed toward a would-be fiance proposing to his girlfriend.  Some of the strips on the kids' page are really fun, like an instructional feature (again illustrated by Adams, but written by Jenny Traig) on how to fake an illness in order to get out of going to school, or Adam Rex and Mac Barnett's "How to Sneak", which is pretty funny, with some cute breaking of the fourth wall.  Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve" is enjoyable too, taking the opposite of the expected approach (which would be something about whiny, unlikeable hipsters) and telling the story of a struggling superhero named, yes, Optic Nerve, who does do some whining, but comes off as a lovable goof rather than a jerk.  Plus, it might just be due to my current personal circumstances, but I like the ending.  And the aforementioned "Savage Dragon" strip ends up being goofy and fun, with a brain-floating-in-a-jar supervillain bickering with the girl he kidnapped before the hero busts in and starts wrecking shit up.  It makes a good use of the space, with lots of rubble being stylishly strewn about; I'm not big in Erik Larsen's work, but if that series is anything like this, I might consider giving it a try sometime.

The best strip is almost certainly Alison Bechdel's "A Story About Life", in which she takes her childhood habit of playing the "Game of Life" board game by herself and making up stories about the different "players" and their lives, then spins that into a consideration of nonfiction writing, in which real people are reduced to pieces on someone else's board.  All this is presented similar to the game itself, with the panels (if you can call them that; many are simply text) winding through the space of the strip to make a snaking path like the spaces on the Life game board.  It's an elegant design, and Bechdel makes it work, even splitting into two possible paths at one point to contrast writing about life with actually living it.  The whole piece only takes up a third of a page, but aside from Chris Ware's contribution, it's the most engaging one in the section, demonstrating Bechdel's innate grasp of how to convey information and make dry concepts interesting.  If only everyone had the inspiration she had, this might have been a comics section for the ages, rather than a decent showcase for large-size comics art with a few standout parts.