Saturday, May 21, 2016

I Hate Fairyland: For pretty good reasons

I Hate Fairyland, Volume 1: Madly Ever After
By Skottie Young
Published by Image Comics

Skottie Young is one hell of a talented cartoonist, able to bring a liveliness to his characters and settings that make his images really enjoyable to look at. While he usually works in a cute, expressive style that's fun and kid-friendly (as evidenced by his regular "baby variant" covers for Marvel or his work adapting the Oz books), it seems like he might have gotten tired of the kiddie stuff and wanted to unleash his id, and I Hate Fairyland is the result.

With this creator-owned series, Young still works in a cutesy style, but he twists it into an exuberant nastiness, telling the story of Gertrude, a little girl who gets transported to a magical kingdom and sent on a journey to retrieve a key that will allow her to go home, but instead of a quick, exciting adventure, her quest drags on for 27 years. When we join her after all this time, she's a jaded, profane, hard-edged force of nature, rampaging through this magical world in her ever-futile search for her magical MacGuffin, but still stuck in the body of a six year old.

That setup gives Young a chance to just go nuts with violence and come up with all sorts of crazy variations on this type of portal fantasy story, filling the world with weird creatures and landscapes, and then having Gertrude destroy them in ever more inspired ways. His cartoony expressiveness goes so over the top that it becomes grotesque, and each new issue of the series gives him a chance to see how far he can go. If Gertrude faces some sort of barbarian character, it's not enough to give him one or two giant battle-axes; he needs 10 huge weapons strapped to his back. If Gertrude gets maimed in a fight, she doesn't just have a black eye, she looks like she's been run over by a steamroller (luckily, by Fairyland rules, she's able to shrug off most any bodily harm). It's pretty hilarious to see what sort of craziness Young will come up with next, and since he's obviously having so much fun, the reader can't help but go along for the ride.

Young also works in plenty of good running gags, like the way Gertrude manages to kill a succession of cute narrator characters, or how her constant swearing is replaced by terms like "muffin fluffer" or "what the spell". And the driving plot of the book works well too; rather than just being a violent rampage through a magical world, he gives Gertrude obstacles to overcome and enemies to face, all leading up to a climactic conflict that's pretty satisfying while also setting up an interesting direction for future volumes.

Overall, this comic ends up being highly enjoyable, if only because Young's exuberance is highly contagious. His funny, mean-spirited take on these familiar tropes is tons of fun, and it's a great way to exorcise demons and push back against the cutesiness of these types of stories. I'm excited to see where he goes next, and with the imagination that's on display here, I expect it will be great fun to accompany him on his continuing journey.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Kitchen: Another nail in the Vertigo coffin

The Kitchen
Written by Ollie Masters
Art by Ming Doyle
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo

Remember when the Vertigo label on a comic book used to mean something? It's not that every comic released by DC's mature readers imprint was great, but there was a certain level of quality to be expected. And there were many pretty great comics, from the early days of Sandman, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Shade the Changing Man, through to 100 Bullets, Transmetropolitan, Y: The Last Man, and Fables. But these days, the imprint seems to be a victim of the continuing terrible management decisions made by DC (including the recent kerfuffle surrounding the firing of longtime Vertigo editor Shelly Bond), and if you want an example of how far Vertigo has fallen, The Kitchen is a perfect example.

The premise behind this series seems solid: in New York in the 1970s, three members of the Irish mob get sent to jail, and their wives end up taking over their business dealings, which leads to lots of power struggles and violence. It would probably make for a decent movie (although more of a middling crime drama than a prestige picture), but in this form, the story just kind of sits there on the page, without being very engaging or making the characters and their motivations compelling.

So: there's Kath, who starts out as the ringleader that convinces the other two women to take up their husbands' business while they're indisposed, mostly as a way to make ends meet for their families (although I think Kath is the only one with children, and they remain pretty much unseen until they play into a climactic moment between her and her husband, so there's not really anything in the way of stakes to get the reader on board for why they need to do this). Raven, Kath's sister, is initially hesitant, but somewhere down the line she turns ruthless and violent, a character arc that happens without much in the way of motivation. As the third member of the crew, Angie starts out kind of scared, but she quickly becomes enamored with the lifestyle and seems to revel in the violence.

As the plot proceeds, it takes all the turns you would expect: meetings with more established mafia figures, deals struck in order to solidify power, assassinations of rival gang members, and so on. When the husbands are unexpectedly released from prison (for no real reason other than dramatic purposes), this kicks off a war as the wives fight to keep their hard-gotten gains from being taken away from them. This is supposed to be the moment of actualization, in which they are faced with the choice of going back to their old lives as housewives or continuing down the path that they have forged as independent women (while the book is set in the 70s, the era of Women's Lib, there's little acknowledgement of the politics of the era; the time period is really just an excuse for costuming choices). Instead, it seems like they're going through the motions; there has to be a big enemy to face in order to have a dramatic climax, and while the series does throw in some late flashbacks in an attempt to flesh out the women's relationships with their husbands, it's too little, too late in the way of character development.

So there's little to speak of in the way of plot or character, but gangster stories are all about style, so if the execution is good, sometimes shakiness in other areas can be forgiven. However, as much as I think Ming Doyle is a pretty good artist, either this type of story is not her forte, or she was too rushed to turn in work that added much to the series. While much of the art is fine, with fairly realistic body language and facial expressions, there are many bits of awkwardness that draw attention away from the impact of the story and leave the reader with the feeling of watching mannequins trying to mimic human actions and failing. This includes characters that don't seem to be able to drink from glasses correctly:

Doors being kicked in with oddly stiff legs:

Punches that look like hands being awkwardly thrust into people's faces:

A sex scene in which the characters' legs don't seem to follow any recognizable human anatomy:

And all manner of choreography that doen't make sense, like this bit in which a guy is apparently backhanding Kath with his left hand while somehow bruising her right eye:

Doyle also seems to struggle with guns, which often don't seem to fit into characters' hands very well. Here's a bit in which a character shoots her lover, and she apparently manages to hook her hand through her purse's handle, pull out the gun, shoot it, and then remove her finger from the trigger between panels:

And here's another odd moment, in which I think what's supposed to be happening is that the man is being hesitant about shooting the woman, so she takes the gun away from him, but it comes off more like the gun just jumps from one person to another between panels:

If the man is supposed to be hesitant, his forceful manner in the second panel seems to go against that idea, leaving any hesitation to be (poorly) demonstrated by the depiction of his hands in the third panel. Or maybe he was surprised when the phone started ringing, giving her the chance to grab the gun? If that's the case, the blase sound effects don't help; they don't seem like a jarring, distracting interruption. Instead of a loud "BRRRRIIINNGGG!" it's almost like someone is standing off-panel and saying the words "ring ring".

The book is full of strange moments like this, little continuity errors like a guy who in one panel has a gag over his mouth but doesn't in the next, or characters that are much too easy to confuse with each other (in one bit involving a truck heist, I was sure that a character that was hiding in the truck was the mob boss that had hired the women, but that apparently wasn't the case). The dialogue is often poorly edited too, full of phrases come off as stilted rather than realistic like "Stay the fuck out've this, lady!" (why make "out've" a contraction, since the character is saying "out of" rather than "out have"? Wouldn't "outta" sound better?). And while I'm nitpicking, why is the image on the book's cover made to appear as if it has been creased? Is it supposed to be a magazine pinup that the characters posed for that somebody tore out and folded up to keep in their wallet?

It's this kind of poor quality control that seems indicative of a huge drop in Vertigo's fortunes. I can't believe somebody in the editing department looked at this book and said, "Yes, this is exactly what we want to publish." I don't think this was ever going to be a great series, but its failures on nearly every level, from plot, to characterization, to art, to basic copy editing, are kind of astounding when coming from an imprint that used to be synonymous with a certain level of quality. With this pointless dreck, I think I can officially say that those days are over.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sacred Heart: The kids either are or aren't all right

Sacred Heart
By Liz Suburbia
Published by Fantagraphics Books

Is Liz Suburbia the next Jaime Hernandez? That may seem like a bold claim, but with this graphic novel, Suburbia cements herself as a great cartoonist who seems to be following in the path laid down by Love and Rockets, creating a believable sense of place and capturing her characters' emotional lives, while inserting just a bit of the fantastical. This book is an assured debut, and it sees Suburbia mature from a creator of interesting minicomics into a full-fledged talent that will hopefully be delivering quality comics for years to come.

This book follows the lives of several teenage characters in a small town, but it focuses mostly on a girl named Ben and her relationships with the kids around her. She has a platonic friendship with a boy named Otto that morphs into something else, but isn't necessarily a deeper connection. She also worries about her sister, Empathy, who she doesn't see as much as she would like, and she nurses a crush on a popular boy who seems to be out of her league in more ways than one.

As the book progresses, Suburbia mostly just lets us see Ben and the other kids' lives play out, and we watch as they fall into and out of relationships, worry about dumb stuff like who is going to which party, and congregate around the requisite local rock band. But there's something odd and kind of sinister going on under the surface: dead bodies keep showing up, and the kids seem oddly accustomed to this happening. Plus, it takes a while to realize this, but there don't seem to be any adults around. Is this taking place in modern-day America, or is it actually post-apocalyptic (possibly after the Rapture)?

Suburbia mostly leaves the answers to these questions ambiguous, which allows them to function symbolically, making teenage issues like fitting in, growing up, and forming adult relationships seem like the most important thing in the world, which is exactly how they feel to someone at that age. But she doesn't hit readers over the head with all of this, instead opting to leave things mostly unsaid and just let us watch as the kids live their lives and try to figure out their place in the world.

And that's where the book really shines. These characters all seem fully realized, acting like actual teenagers who are still figuring out who they are. Sometimes they're obnoxious and dumb, and other times they demonstrate real love for each other; in other words, they seem almost painfully real. And we don't just get this feeling about the main characters; Suburbia often creates montage scenes that check in with a number of kids in the community, demonstrating that each and every one of them is someone worth caring about:

I especially like how this isn't just an exercise in teen angst or boredom (although the characters do spend time laying around and watching movies); Suburbia makes these kids' lives seem fun as they get excited about the next concert, party, or school dance. The kids drink alcohol and have sex and just goof around, enjoying the freedom that youth provides. The future may not be certain, and things get more uncertain and ominous as the book heads toward a close, but they'll enjoy their lives while they can, which seems like an appropriate outlook for the future in 2016.

I haven't talked much about the art here, but it's a key part of what makes everything work, from the relatable setting, to the body language, to the slightly surreal feeling that pervades throughout. One thing that I love is the way Suburbia depicts music, with the sound created by a rockin' band taking the form of blobs of energy emanating from the stage:

Everything in this book is just incredibly well done, creating a story and characters that are relatable while still remaining a bit off-putting, which, as an adult, is kind of how I view teenagers anyway. There's plenty here to marvel at, and Suburbia handles it all with such assurance that I can't help but feel that I'm seeing a cartoonist in complete control of their medium. If she's this good her first time out of the gate, I can't wait to see what she does next.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Two Brothers: Putting the "novel" in "graphic novel"

Two Brothers
By Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
Based on the novel The Brothers, by Milton Hatoum
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Comics don't get much more "literary" than this, do they? Of course, this book borrows its pedigree somewhat from the source material, a novel by the Brazilian author Milton Hatoum, but it's kind of an outlier in American comics, focusing on the sort of material you usually get in novels by somebody like Jonathan Franzen: the history of a family and their internal conflicts over a few decades, with lots of symbolism and a bit of historical import. And that's cool; comics can always use more in the way of literature for adults.

Luckily, with two great creators like Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba on board (there's no indication who drew what, although most of the character art looks like Ba's work to me), this is still a pretty great read, even though its origins are pretty clear from the ever-present narration. But while much of the plot and internal emotions of the characters are relayed through text, Moon and Ba use the art to bring it all to life quite beautifully, creating a wonderful sense of place in the small Brazilian town of Manaus.

So, the plot: interestingly, while it centers around the eponymous brothers, Yaqub and Omar, a pair of twins born to a Lebanese family, the two of them aren't really the main characters, or at least they're the ones about whom we're not as privy to their internal states. Instead, we see them through the eyes of the rest of the family, especially their father, Halim, as well as the book's narrator, who isn't revealed as a servant boy who lives in the household until several chapters in.

If you couldn't tell from the cover image, there's a rift between the brothers, with the more studious Yaqub spending a good portion of his childhood in Lebanon after Omar attacked him and scarred his face in a fight over a girl. On Yaqub's return, the two of them are quickly at odds, but not overtly. As their mother's favorite, Omar ends up being a no-good playboy and layabout, and Yaqub commits to his studies, eventually leaving home again and moving to São Paulo to become a successful businessman, but never letting go of his antipathy toward his brother.

And so things proceed, with grudges and emotions simmering over years, Halim (who, as we learn in a chapter that flashes back to his and his wife's early relationship, never really wanted children) getting more and more angry at how his sons turned out, his wife Zana focusing more and more on lavishing attention on Omar while he wastes his life on alcohol and loose women, and the narrator trying to understand how he fits into all of this (he believes that one of the twins is his father, but his mother, a native Brazilian servant who grew up working in the family's home, won't confirm or deny his suspicions).

And through it all, we see the city change as it grows from a seaport (riverport?) focused on fishing and shipping into something more modern, with industry supplanting poor people's homes and starting to squash the more creative parts of the culture. Some later chapters are focused on student movements that get cracked down on by the authorities, and this probably has more relevance to Brazilians who understand exactly what events are being referenced here, but it's still evocative of the changes to world culture that took place in the twentieth century.

And, well, that's about it. There aren't any earth-shattering moments of personal discovery or dramatic revelations that undercut what happened earlier; it's just the story of a family that tore itself apart across several decades while their country changed around them. It's sad, but that's literary fiction for you.

It's still a beautiful book though, with Moon and Ba bringing Hatoum's imagery to life in ways that make the setting feel incredibly tangible, whether they're depicting the vibrant Amazonian foliage that seems to burst with life and color even in black and white:

Or the bustling activity of the town's port:

While the narrative text drives much of the book's plot, Moon and Ba don't rely on it to tell their story; they're happy to use wordless sequences to provide a much more visceral sense of action and emotion when it's called for, as they do in a scene in which the narrator's mother takes him on a boat trip up the Amazon to visit her home village, and they get caught in a storm on the way home:

There's another excellent sequence late in the book in which the narrator has a sort of panic attack related to some of the violence that he witnessed:

These are just a couple of the examples of great comics storytelling that Moon and Ba deliver here; they're certainly not just illustrating a text story, but using the medium to its full extent. I really do wish we had more comics like this in the United States, but until we do, this is one of the ones that can sit on shelves alongside all of the literary award winners. It's that good.