Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Shape of Ideas

Social media made me read this book. I follow this book's author on Instagram and also saw a shout-out to this book on Twitter from one of my friends, so I thought I would check it out. First off, let me say that it is not a traditional graphic novel in terms of telling a single narrative. It is more like a collection of chapters that revolve around and extend specific themes. So what I am saying is that this book is full of chapters that operate like pieces of jazz music, with comics riffing on motifs. And each comic is a meticulously constructed gem. This is not a book to plow through but one to bask in and savor.
 
As you can see from the excerpt, these comics are clever and cerebral. The artwork is colorful and clear, slightly reminiscent of Tom Gauld's style (to me at least), which I feel is a wonderful thing. I loved this book's playful, inventive qualities, and I feel that it has much to offer in terms of inspiration, advice, or understanding for aspiring artists or those who appreciate the arts. A few of the entries may seem redundant, but most are noteworthy and unique. And there were quite a few sections that I felt were phenomenally well executed. There are far more hits than misses in this book.

The man behind this book, Grant Snider is an orthodontist by trade and also well known for creating Incidental Comics. His work has appeared online and also in many prominent venues like The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review. He speaks about his work on this book and in general in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly summed up, "The tongue-in-cheek wit and self-deprecating style make this a pleasant introduction to the joy and frustration of making any kind of art, and the beautifully designed presentation—with a charming die-cut cover—is a fine proof of concept." Andrew Jarman called it an "incredibly unique and wonderful graphic novel that I absolutely loved." Kevin wrote, "While there is some repetition of ideas here, Snider’s exploration of the creative mind through comics and graphics will surely make you contemplate the wistfulness of creativity, and perhaps inspire you to make your own."

The Shape of Ideas was published by Abrams ComicArts, and they have a preview and more information available here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Paper Girls, Volumes 2-3

Today, I look at the next two installments in the Paper Girls series (my review of Volume 1 is here). These two trade paperbacks cover issues 6-10 and 11-15, and the fact that I read both may spoil the fact that I found much here to keep me entertained and involved with this title.Still, won't you stick around and see what I thought about each in detail?
Volume 2 takes the girls 28 years into the future to 2016. There, at least one of them runs into her future ("old") self, and they all search for the lost member of their quartet. Along the way, a few more clues about who are chasing them get dropped, though much is still left unanswered. Mostly, the girls find out that they can't always trust everyone (even other versions of themselves) and learn about "foldings," times and places that line up just right to allow time travel to happen. Each chapter in this volume ends with a revelation, and the ending cliffhanger was a good one.

My favorite part of this volume, apart from the excellent artwork, continues to be the clever dialogue and relationships between the girls. They might not be the closest of friends, but they do get along in their own ways. And they are biting and swift in their judgments. Also, there are a bunch of jokes in their observations of future life that I thought were funny. Overall, it was a pretty brisk, fun book that left me wanting more.
Luckily, Volume 3 just came out so I did not have to wait to see what progressed. In this book, the girls end up in about 10,000 BC, a prehistoric period when people are pretty primitive and rough. The quartet meet a young woman, her baby, and three men who want to steal that baby away. Also, they also meet up with another time traveler who fills in some more information about what may be happening. This installment is more action-packed, with lots of disappearances, chases, large animals, and combat with stone weapons. And I quite enjoy seeing how each of the different volumes is set in a different historical epoch and has its unique flavor.

In the end, I enjoyed reading these books. They tell a story that is simultaneously slow to develop and efficiently plotted. I say slow because I am three volumes into this series, and I still do not definitively know what is going on. However, much transpires in these stories in a short time, and I feel that each chapter unfolds in seemingly effortless fashion. Also, although the plot may tread on some material common to other scifi tales, those elements remain fresh and exciting. I genuinely want to know what happens next, and I feel like I read each of these books as if I am devouring them. The worst thing I can say about them is that I felt they read too quickly. And I want more. Now.

These books are a collaboration between by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang. They both are comics industry veterans who have won multiple awards over the course of their careers.Vaughan's many writing credits include the series Saga, Y The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways, which all feature strong character work, high concept stories, and suspenseful pacing. He has accomplished much over his career, both in comics and in other media, such as when he was writer and producer of Lost. His track record of creating smart, fun, and exciting series is intact with Paper Girls. Chiang is known for his exceptional work on a number of DC Comics titles, most notably Wonder Woman and The Human Target. Both creators speak about their work on Paper Girls (and there are spoilers - beware) in this interview.

Paper Girls won the 2016 Eisner Awards for Best New Series and Best Penciller/Inker, and all of the reviews I read of it have been positive. Thea James wrote that the second volume "continues to impress and delight." Heather Duff opined, "This series continues to be awesome, it looks good, the girls are brilliant sassy characters." Shelby Luebers called the plots "funny and curious" and also complimented that "the girls are real."

Paper Girls is published by Image Comics, and they have previews and more about the whole series here. It will resume publication in November. These books do contain a fair amount of profanity, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle that.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is a provocative title for a book that is not as titillating as it is confessional. This rare, autobiographical manga was originally published online on Pixiv, where it gained a wider readership and popularity. Although there are a couple of sexual interludes in the latter pages of the story, what it mostly entails are the ruminations and observations of a 28-year-old woman on her life and circumstances. Kabi struggles with finding herself, both in terms of her family and friends. She seeks the acceptance of her parents, though feels she falls way short of their expectations. She bounces from job to job, seeking friendship and social capital, though not really finding either.
All of these situations have a crippling, debilitating effect on her, all of which she expounds on in great detail. I found this to be a very personal and revelatory book, and I feel that I learned much about her situation, more about what it feels like to come of age in Japan, and also about the business side of becoming a manga artist. Many of the events of the book are also unsettling and discomforting, but I found the whole enterprise to be fascinating and quite moving.
Eventually, Kabi makes arrangements to visit a "love hotel" for a session with a female prostitute. It is a sexual scene for sure, but it is also a very emotional time that exposes many other pains, hangups, and thoughts she has. Far from being fulfilled, she is left with more questions than when she began. In all, I was shocked to see how far-ranging and introspective this book was, and it was a powerful read.

This book's creator Nagata Kabi is fairly new to the comics world, and she apparently has another manga she is working on called Solo Exchange Diary. She talks about her works and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Shea and Derek from The Comics Alternative called it the apparent "manga of the year" and added, "This is a manga all about self-discovery, a diary-like account of the author’s attempts to understand herself within the context of her culture and her yearning for what she calls 'next level communication.'" Kat Overland called it "a wild ride from start to finish." Aria wrote, "I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by this – but I was."

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness was published by Seven Seas Entertainment, LLC, and they have more information about it here. As should be clear by now, this book is intended for mature readers.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Comics Squad: Detention!

I recently read this third installment of the Comics Squad series (see my reviews for Lunch! and Recess!), and I loved the range of stories focused on that time of day reserved for atoning for misdeeds, detention. Some of these stories seem autobiographical, some are more fictional, one recasts classic Greek mythology, and another follows some microscopic organisms. And the creators involved are some of the tops in comics, including a number of prominent award winners and best-sellers.

I don't think there is one bad story in the bunch here, but I did have my favorites. Victoria Jamieson told an fun and unexpectedly touching story about a new girl in school whose unconventional detention is to help out in a kindergarten classroom. There she has a few encounters with a rambunctious and unruly student who gives her a couple of runs for her money but also teaches her something interesting. I also very much enjoyed George O'Connor's Greek mythology-infused tale of Sisyphus. It was chock full of mythological references and pad puns (two of my favorite things).
The rest of the stories are mostly in the humorous vein, and some also had some inventive touches. I really liked Ben Hatke's short exploration of imagination in his tale about a boy getting in trouble for having a cell phone in school and then having to invent ways to pass the time without it. I have also liked his art style, but here it is looser, which was a nice change of pace. I also thought Jarrett Krosoczka's Lunch Lady comic featuring the Breakfast Bunch was thrilling and fun, though I was bummed to find out it ended on a cliffhanger. Hopefully, that story gets picked up in the next volume of this series.
With all of the great things going on in this book I should also write about two things that may put people off: 1. There is an agenda to sell more graphic novels to younger readers. They are clearly cross-promoting other series they publish (Lunch Lady, Babymouse, and Squish). Personally, I feel this volume would make an excellent "gateway book" to further reading, and I like much of what I have read from those particular series. So the commercial push does not bother me much, and I feel introducing readers to other tales they might like is actually one of the book's strengths. 2. A lot of the stories share the theme of going to detention for drawing in class. I know I had my own run-ins with teachers about when and when not to draw and can relate, but I feel like the joke gets a little stale by the end of the book.

Still, I very much liked the range of tales here as well as the variety of topics and art styles. This collection is a fantastic anthology for young readers, and I think it would be an excellent classroom library book.

I had a difficult time finding reviews for this book, but the one I did find, written by Heidi Grange, who stated that "all the stories are quite absurd, but thoroughly engaging and entertaining and bound to be enjoyed by many young readers."

Comics Squad: Detention was published by Random House, and they have a preview and more available here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga, Books 1 & 2

Today I am writing about two books that contain more than 600 pages of comics each following a creator-owned character that originated in 1984.
I have read the adventures of Usagi Yojimbo before, mostly because his creator Stan Sakai worked on a ton of Groo comic books I read when I was a kid. But it has been years since I have checked in on him. Luckily, Comixology Unlimited has the first two books of The Usagi Yojimbo Saga available to borrow, and I got to read a great many of these wonderful stories over the past few weeks.

The plot mainly follows Miyamoto Usagi, a samurai living in 17th century Japan (during the Edo Period) who has lost his master and now wanders the road alone. He has a code of ethics, and he seeks to help those in need and often finds himself embroiled in interesting situations. What I find most impressive about this series, it features "funny animals" but they are some of the most human and evocative comics I have ever read. Sakai is masterful at creating tense situations and full characterizations in very short order. His artwork is impressively detailed and smooth, and the economy of his storytelling is superlative. He can portray small scenes of poignancy equally as well as large scale battles. Just check out this preview:
 
 

The tales in these books range from one-page gags to multi-page episodes to one multi-chapter epic (called "The Grasscutter"). I was shocked and amazed to see how much material was incorporated from all these disparate episodes into one long narrative in Book Two. The scope and scale of the world-building here is nothing short of remarkable. I feel that these books are masterpieces of comics, and what is more they are accessible for readers of almost any age. And apparently I am not in the minority here, as "The Grasscutter" stories won one of Sakai's five Eisner Awards. If you read comics and have never read Usagi Yojimbo, you should make time to do so immediately.

You'll be glad you did.
The Usagi Yojimbo Saga was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more info about the series here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vague Tales

The joke is that there is nothing vague about Vague Tales. It's chock full of comics that will melt your face off. Actually, that is not true - it is more of a bunch of comics that comment about how such extreme experiences have become cliched and vacuous.

Much of Eric Haven's past work trucks with archetypal comic characters and settings, and this book is no different. The main narratives star a brooding, crystalline alien named Psylicon, an evil witch named Ruin, an apocalyptic barbarian named Pulsar, and a sorceress named Sorceress. And eventually, the stories all bleed into each other. Ruin attacks the Sorceress; Pulsar defends her; Pyslicon is mysteriously aloof but intercedes in an unexpected manner. The whole enterprise is reminiscent of old cartoons like Thundarr the Barbarian or Masters of the Universe, only skewed with a touch of absurd realism. Haven is obviously poking fun at these story and character conventions, but it is also apparent that he also enjoys them and takes great joy in casting his own stories using them.
 
Thinking, in the Mighty Marvel Manner!
And if this book were simply comprised of those adventures, I'd simply say it was some sort of parody or homage to that genre of comics. But there is also the hulking, angry blonde man featured on the cover, whose presence is almost entirely unrelated to the way-out adventures. This guy mostly stands or sits around his house, gazes out the window, or knocks back some drinks, until a weird thing happens toward the end of the book that places him directly in the action. I am not going to spoil it, but they change the tone of the story and make it more of a commentary on contemporary fandom and/or media.

In the end, I feel that this story is more an exploration of the constant drive for bigger, better, and more extreme experiences that abound in popular culture (in the USA anyhow). The culture is driven by more intricate and complex special effects, blockbuster movies, and innovative video games. The net result, I am extrapolating from Haven's tales here, is that each amped up moment in the end leaves people empty. Or maybe it is the nature of such escapism to leave people unfulfilled. Mostly, stuff gets blown up just for the hell of having a big explosion, narrative be damned. What is clear is that those grand moments lose any kind of nuance or impact, forgotten in short order. All is spectacle, and the chase for such experiences is ultimately fruitless. Or maybe that is the more intellectual way of looking at the book, and I should just appreciate it for being a bunch of fun, crazy stories and not look for anything deeper.

That I got this much out of a relatively short 75 pages is noteworthy in itself, speaking to the great craft that went into these various narratives. This book is beguiling, silly, confusing, thrilling, and fantastic. Like much of Haven's prior work, it is also impactful and unforgettable.

I have been a fan of Haven's for a while. I have read all of his works, including the series Tales to Demolish and his books The Aviatrix and Ur, which was nominated for an Eisner Award. His comics are short, distilled, potent pieces of storytelling. They are weird, provocative, and delightful. His art style here reminds me of a combination of Fletcher Hanks, Herr Seele, and Jim Starlin, full of wonder and weirdness. Also of note, aside from making comics he was a producer for the popular show Mythbusters, which may account for his relatively sparse publication record. Haven sheds much insight into his work in this interview.

I had a hard time locating any reviews of this book, but the one I did find was laudatory and thoughtful. Rob Clough wrote that these stories amount to "images of a man-child, and it seems that Haven is satirizing that tendency toward indulging this sort of infantile fantasy as much as he is celebrating it."

Vague Tales was published by Fantagraphics, and they have a preview and more information about it here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Motor Crush, Volume 1

This book is another I got at HeroesCon this year, and it's by the same creative team behind the recent, very fun Batgirl revival. Here they have more leeway to write and draw as they please, as this is a creator-owned property. Motor Crush follows the exploits of Domino Swift, a phenom competing in an international motorcycle racing league. She reluctantly takes part in the business side of racing, which includes participating on social media and making sponsors happy.
 
 

Also, she has a secret night life where she competes in illegal and dangerous street races where the winners obtain Crush, a rare and valuable substance that supercharges ordinary motors. The rub here is that for some reason Domino is able to take Crush herself, and instead of dying she gains superhuman attributes. Over the course of this book, we get to see the effects of her lifestyle on herself, her family, and her girlfriend. Also, Domino begins to learn more about herself and how she came to have her special abilities.

I loved the energy and artwork of this book. The story is quirky but it hums along at a good clip, and the images really pop, conveying action and characterization in excellent fashion. There is a lot going on in this book, but I have to say that it was all very compelling and thrilling to read. And it ends on a breath-taking cliffhanger that left me hungering for more of this series.

The creators behind this book are Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr. All of them are involved in plotting the series, and Tarr and Stewart create the artwork. Stewart is an Eisner and Shuster Award winning artist/writer who has worked on a number of different comic book series as well as his webcomic Sin Titulo. Fletcher is a veteran comic book writer, and Tarr is an illustrator who is relatively new to comics. The trio speak of their work on this book and series in this interview.

Most of the reviews I read about this book were positive. Mara Danoff wrote, "The characters endear themselves quickly and never appear one dimensional." Nico Sprezzatura summed up, "If you want fast-paced, candy-colored cyber-motorpunk, then Motor Crush is the comic for you." Rory Wilding felt the story took a while to get up to speed but still concluded, "Although the narrative occasionally falters, Motor Crush expands on some of the ideas the creators explored in their Batgirl run and has fun with this colorful futuristic bike-centric action book."

Motor Crush, Volume 1 was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview and more info about the series available here. This book collects the first five issues of the series, which will resume in September with a six-issue arc. I would recommend this book for more mature high school readers and anyone older.