Friday, May 20, 2016

Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World

There have been a great many cartoonists who have had a huge impact on the world, and even some failed ones (like Hugh Hefner) found ways to still truck in comics and be successful. This book Masterful Marks tells a number of biographies about these titanic figures, using comics as the medium and a number of notable contemporary creators as authors. Many of the stories told here are superb in terms of their topic and also by their execution. Peter Kuper's bio of Harvey Kurtzman was cleverly and masterfully composed in ways that incorporated his subject's signature style in the narrative. But my favorite one was by Drew Friedman about R. Crumb, which conveyed Crumb's influence and also contained a good number of personal anecdotes about his encounters with different comics creators. It was a beautifully drawn essay with lots of fun flourishes and lively storytelling:
The other entries were as diverse in style as the subjects they cover. Many of them focus on hard luck tales of creators being cheated out of their creations and the fortunes they wrought. I really enjoyed Mark Alan Stamaty's take on Jack Kirby as well as Ryan Heshka's beautiful artwork on the entry about Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster:
Other stories focus on those who found fame and fortune through art, including entries on children's book author Dr. Seuss, celebrated caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and the progenitor of the macabre Addams Family, Charles Addams:

What was also excellent for me, an old fogey who knows a lot about comics and their creators, is that there are also some entries about folks I had never heard of, like Lynd Kendall Ward (who created the first graphic novels) and Rodolphe Töpffer (who created the first comic strips). The only real clunker in this book for me was the entry on Walt Disney, because it basically amounted to a few pages of an adult talking to a child with little action or creative use of comics to convey a narrative. It was like reading an encyclopedia entry, only in word balloons. Happily, all of the other entries in this book were much better, most being remarkably excellent.

Common in the critiques of I have read of this book is that it is not very diverse. There are no woman represented as subjects in the book, and Osamu Tezuka is the only creator represented from a non-European background, but I still think that there is much here among the biographies to inform, delight, and surprise those unfamiliar with many of these figures. I also think that such an absence also acts on a commentary about the history of comics, when many minority groups were not given entrée.

Monte Beauchamp edited this book and also authored four of its entries. He is a graphic designer, illustrator, author, and editor who has won multiple honors, including the Richard Gangel Art Director Award. He is best known for his long running anthology of comics and art Blab!, but he also has written a number of books about popular culture, including ones about Krampus and vintage matchbook cover art. Beauchamp speaks more about his work and choices in writing/editing this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book praise and describe a collection of mostly strong stories. Don Simpson called it "a slick and attractive compendium of drawing board history told in a diversity of current styles." J. Caleb Mozzocco commented positively on the "Murderers’ Row of great contributors and collaborators" who worked on this book. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "There’s always a hit-or-miss quality to such projects, and some question over the selections, but what’s great here is really terrific."

Masterful Marks was published by Simon & Schuster, and they have a preview and more here.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Black Magick, Volume 1: Awakening

A lot of comic book series to day seem like pitches for cable series/movies, and the plot of Black Magick certainly seems like a workable concept for a good number of media narratives. The difference here is that this series is exceptionally well crafted and works as an excellent collection of comic books. It stars Rowan Black, a detective and witch, who works hard to keep her lives separate. That peace is threatened when a man takes hostages and demands only that she come talk to him. I will not spoil what happens, but those events precipitate a whole lot of mystery and intrigue.
 

As you can see from this excerpt, the artwork is phenomenal, the dialogue crisp, and the characters and situations are utterly compelling. The only real critique I have to offer is that this volume ended too quickly, and I was left wanting to be able to pick up and keep reading immediately. Alas, this volume collects the first five issues of the series, and they are all there are so far. I am looking very forward to the continuation of this story.

Black Magick is the creation of two established comics professionals. Eisner Award winning writer Greg Rucka has written novels as well as tons of comic books for the big two companies, not to mention his creator-owned series Lazarus, Queen & Country, Stumptown, and Whiteout. Artist Nicola Scott has worked primarily for DC Comics, drawing Secret Six, Wonder Woman, and Earth 2. Rucka speaks about his work on the series here, and Scott does the same in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about it heap praise on this book. Doug Zawisza called the series "gorgeous, scary and mysterious." Chris Downs added this praise, "Image have become synonymous with quality in the last decade and Black Magick can stand proudly amongst the very best of their titles." Pharoahmiles wrote that "this creative team soars."

Awakening was published by Image Comics, and they links and much more available here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Hippopotamister

Hippopotamister straddles the line between being a picture book and a graphic novel, and it contains a wonderfully drawn, funny tale with a positive and meaningful message. If you or a young reader you know is looking for a book starring adorable animals who frequently find themselves in silly circumstances, this is it. I found the artwork to be absolutely charming and some scenes really made me chuckle.

The story revolves around a hippo living in a run-down zoo. His friend and neighbor red panda decides to go and live among the humans and returns with tales of great success. So, the hippo decides to join him out there. However, hippo quickly learns that red panda's tales of success are clearly exaggerated.
Hippo, though, turns out to be pretty versatile and skilled. Still, the duo bounces from job to job, with humorous and disastrous results, and over time they learn both what they are good at and what they struggle with. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that finally both find a situation that plays to both of their strengths and they find themselves gainfully employed.

Hippopotamister is John Patrick Green's first graphic novel. He has drawn a number of other books for children as well as the mini-comic Teen Boat! written by Dave Roman (Astronaut Academy). He speaks at good length about his creative process on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and stated that "Green's characters burst with personality, his comedic sense shines, and his visual storytelling skills are solid." Johanna Draper Carlson elaborated, "although the story is aimed at younger readers, this is something I can certainly relate to, from needing to find a new occupation to a past-its-prime business making its “employees” unhappy to the way that Hippopotamister learns something valuable from everything he tries." Kirkus Reviews summed up by calling it "A charming book with a solid message about changing one’s life through hard work, imagination, and openness to new experiences."

Hippopotamister was published by First Second. They have a preview and much more available here.

Thanks, Gina, for the review copy!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Alamo All Stars

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I could rename the "Best Nonfiction Graphic Novel for Younger Readers" honor the "Nathan Hale Award," because his books are consistently great and blow me away. He's the Wayne Gretzky of nonfiction comics, head and shoulders better than everyone else.

So, he's got a lot to live up to, and I have to say that he succeeds with his latest, Alamo All Stars. It's name is a sort of misnomer, because so much of it deals with the social and historical context that led up to the battle at the Alamo, but it is a highly informative and engaging book. I read it at an auto shop while waiting to have a tire replaced (which should take less than 3 hours IMHO) and I laughed out loud no less than 3 times. In public. So what I am saying that this book is not only a great read in terms of form and content, it's also genuinely funny.
I loved seeing biographical sketches that breathed life into a number of names I am familiar with but know little about. From the cruel, proud Santa Anna to the reactionary, belligerent William Travis to legends Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett to "Once Again" Juan Seguin, I felt I really got to know the major players in a memorable way. What is more, Hale added a wrinkle to the usual book framework, a second narrator, Vicente Guerrero, who gives his insights from the viewpoint as a Mexican. There is so much to love about this book, and it is a worthy addition to the Hazardous Tales series. If you are new to it, you can check out my reviews of past volumes here, here, here, here, and here.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been celebratory. The Comics Alternative's Andy Kunka praised "Hale’s ability to put forward a complicated geopolitical conflict in ways that are engaging and even, at times, gently humorous."  Esther Keller concluded, "Give this to readers who are fans of the series, to that reader who loves history, or any graphic novel fan. This book will surely be a hit."

Alamo All Stars was published by Amulet Books, and they have a preview, video, and more info here.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Patience

Dan Clowes is one of the most respected graphic novelists in the US, with such past successes as Ghost World, Wilson, and Mr. Wonderful. Clowes' many works tend to focus on disaffected, curmudgeonly, misanthropic, intelligent, and intensely introspective loners, as does his newest work Patience. The difference is that the protagonist Jack Barlow fell in love with a woman named Patience. The rub is that he loses her under tragic circumstances, but instead of merely being eaten up by his sorrow an opportunity opens up. He discovers a person who has discovered the secret to time travel, and so Barlow steals it and goes back to prevent the tragedy from happening.
Of course, nothing goes smoothly, and his interference causes all kinds of ripples in the time stream, and affects Barlow's memories and experiences. Also, he ends up going to different points in time, and he learns things about Patience and himself that perhaps would be better left unknown. Instead of turning into a fantastic sci-fi yarn, the book instead becomes a cerebral exploration of love, relationships, and the lengths that people will go to protect their loved ones. This book has all the potential to be something out of a Ditko Dr. Strange story or a James Cameron movie, but the narrative ends of being mundane and weirdly grounded. Still, this is a complex work that demonstrates a masterful grasp on artistry and storytelling, a well made book, but not one of my favorites by Clowes.

All of the reviews of this book I have read comment on its complexity, maturity, and evocative narrative. Etelka Lehoczky was very pleased with the fact that "Clowes does create another lonely, obsessed male character here, but instead of brooding endlessly over the woman he's lost, Jack does something to help her." Jacob Brogan called it "a surprisingly calm work, probably Clowes’ most confident and clear-headed book to date." Kathleen Rooney wrote, "The book's self-awareness and sympathy make it more than just an exercise in the mixing of genres, but it's in this unabashed mixing that Clowes creates a story that is as transcendent as it is upsetting — and affirming."

Clowes speaks about his inspirations and work on this book in this interview.

Patience was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they have a preview and much more here.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Oven

The Oven is a pretty short book, but it sure packs in a lot of interesting ideas. The plot focuses on Syd and Eric, a young couple who have left their totalitarian bubble city, where the government dictates who can and cannot have children, to live more deliberately in a utopian, desert community. There, they plan to settle down, farm, and have their own family, but the reality is way more complicated than planned.
In this future, the environment is treacherous, and the sun will literally fry you if you stay out unprotected. The couple has to learn to do things in pretty primitive fashion, from getting their food to making clothes. They meet their neighbors, a hippie Earth mama named Maggie, her husband Bear, and their slightly grating children. I think their relationship opens up a bunch of potentially interesting points about gender roles, parenting, and the socioeconomic politics of living an eco-friendly life versus being a sort of eco-tourist.
Of course there are complications, and Syd and Eric's resolve gets tested multiple ways. When I talked about this book with my graphic novel class, some of the feedback I heard was about how this book played out a bunch of expected gender situations, such as where the woman gets to deal with circumstances while the man gets to pick and choose when to be serious. I can see that point, but I still feel this book has a lot of interesting aspects that make it ripe for discussion, especially about what constitutes freedom and how it is exercised. Additionally, I was certainly impressed by the economy of the artwork and story. I felt the story just purred along, and much was established and happened in a short amount of space.

This is an impressive graphic novel from Sophie Goldstein, a recent graduate from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont and Ignatz Award winner. She has published one graphic novel prior, Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, a webcomic compilation collaboration with writer Jenn Jordan. She speaks a lot more about The Oven and her career in this interview.

The Oven won two categories at the 2015 Ignatz Awards: Outstanding Graphic Novel and Outstanding Comic, so it should come as no surprise that it has received quite a bit of praise from reviewers. Laura Sneddon called it "perfectly paced" and added that "the subtleties within demand re-reading." Tom Murphy wrote, "Using an economy of narrative and graphic style, Goldstein creates a powerful story that forces readers to question their responses without offering any easy answers." Zainab Akhtar concluded that it was "another strong and complex entry into Goldstein’s oeuvre."

The Oven was published by Adhouse Books, and they offer a preview and more here. There are profanity, some nudity, and adult situations in this book, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Founding Fathers Funnies

Peter Bagge is one of my all time favorite comics artists. He is an award winning artist with decades of comics to his credit, including the seminal alternative comics series Neat Stuff and Hate and his editorship of the underground comics holdover anthology Weirdo. He has also created a number of graphic novels, including Woman Rebel, Apocalypse NerdOther Lives, and Reset. More recently, he has been a frequent contributor to publications like Reason magazine (see his collection Everybody is Stupid Except for Me) and Vice Magazine (the Musical Urban Legends column).

Founding Fathers Funnies is a collection of previously published shorter pieces that together weave a rich and profane tapestry about the lives of famous colonial Americans. What I like best about these episodes, aside from the fact that they are hilarious, is that they are both factual and full of personality. Too often we get homogenized or puffed-up portraits of these figures, but Bagge takes all the air out of their sails while adding his voice to historical events and participants' mannerisms.
The result is a bunch of memorable and thoughtful pieces that made me ponder the circumstances of the American Revolutionary War. Certainly, these folks all had their various accomplishments, but I found it refreshing to read about an insular, contemptuous "Virginia mafia" (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), a caustic and carousing Ben Franklin, and an economical, pragmatic Paul Revere. Consequently, many of these guys (John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine) come off as really smart but also just plain unlikable. The lack of reverence really allows the reader to think about the actual people and events that took place, and I thought it cast a new light on some  well-tread material.

Finding reviews for this book proved to be quite a task, but the ones I did find were positive. Pat at Project-Nerd wrote, "The book’s cartooning and storytelling is excellent, but what I love most is that Bagge also writes an afterword featuring all of his footnotes throughout the collection." Chad called it "a brisk" and "rib tickling" collection.


Founding Fathers Funnies was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and much more available here. This book features profanity and some sexual situations, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle both.