Monday, March 2, 2015

Happy Will Eisner Week, Day 2: Get Over It!

Day 2 of Will Eisner Week has me reading a graphic novel from a creator whose works in mini-comics are among my favorites.
I am a big fan of Corinne Mucha's publications, and I have featured her first graphic novel Freshman on this very blog. Her second one, Get Over It, is aimed at a more adult audience. It is about dealing with the fallout of a break-up, and it is at once bittersweet and entertaining. Part of what makes it work as well as it does is Mucha's sense of humor and her unique way of depicting the jumble of emotions and behaviors that follow. For instance, parts of the narrative turn into small vignettes or quizzes that highlight some pretty horrible moments.
And the proceedings are further highlighted in a series of dialogues between body parts that dramatize many of the feelings but also are pretty ridiculous and hilarious in their literalness. I know that much of the subject matter in this book could be seen as hackneyed or cliched, but I felt that the artistic execution, insight, and comedic timing elevated the enterprise into something special. Case in point:

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Megan Kirby commented, "Mucha’s constant use of wordplay, gags, visual metaphors, and childlike flights of fancy give her a self-aware edge." Tim O'Neil summed up that she "managed to turn her pain into something heartfelt and compelling, which is no small feat." Zainab Akhtar called her a "well-kept secret" and wrote that "Mucha maintains the auto-biographical sweet-spot, maintaining a balance between the personal and involved, without descending into narcissism, whilst hilariously dredging through the universal impulses and emotions of the post break-up period."

Get Over It was published by Secret Acres, and they provide a preview and more info here.

Because I love Mucha's work so much, I also bought and read this mini-comic, The Girl Who Was Mostly Attracted to Ghosts. It is also focused on relationships, in particular on a woman with a peculiar love-life problem: she apparently only wants to date unavailable guys. Mucha takes things one step further and just turns them into phantoms.
Certainly, there is a lot of metaphor going on here, but I love the playful way that the narrative is fast and loose about shifting from fiction to reality and back. This comic is not just a one note comedy, but a human story that is deeper than it would seem at first glance. I really admire how Mucha can make me alternatively laugh, think, and feel with her works. The illusion of simplicity in her work relies much on craft and forethought. Personally, I am very into her works. If you would like to learn more about her, Mucha speaks extensively about her works and comics career in this interview.

The Girl Who Was Mostly Attracted to Ghosts was also published by Secret Acres, but it is now out of print.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Happy Will Eisner Week, Day 1: Cochlea & Eustachia

This year's theme for Will Eisner Week is "Read a graphic novel." So in honor of this event, I am going to review a different graphic novel each day this week.

Will Eisner is credited with popularizing "graphic novel" as a term in his aim to publish (you can read more about the matter here). The legend is that he approached multiple publishers for his book A Contract with God and could not get his foot in the door saying he had a comic book for adults, so he shopped around a "graphic novel," and eventually he was successful. I am honoring his work to publish new forms with a look at a relatively new venue for publishing, webcomics. Cochlea and Eustachia is a author-produced work that was taken up and printed by a major alternative comics publisher, Fantagraphics.

Creator Hans Rickheit wrote on his website that this work "will be completely unencumbered by tempo, character development, plot, or logic." I would not go quite that far, but the adventures are pretty surreal, grotesque, and compelling. The book follows the exploits of two blonde females who wear domino masks, tops, and nothing else. Are they friends, sisters, or something else? I have no idea. But they are mischievous, not completely human, and they find themselves in mysterious circumstances. They are often pursued by weird creatures, like a mole-faced scientist or a giant chicken skeleton or a troublesome clone. The book has its own compelling logic, which thematically reminds me of a combination of Jim Woodring's dreamlike worlds and Phoebe Zeitgeist's random, titillating tribulations. 
 
 
Hans Rickheit is known for his prior work on the Xeric Award winning Chloe and his graphic novel, The Squirrel Machine. As you can see from the excerpt above, his art is full of clean lines and well rendered images. His balance of cartoon and reality makes his surreal stories even more affecting and disturbing.

The reviews of this book I have read tend to be on the positive side. Jason Sacks called it "a hauntingly lovely creation." Publishers Weekly summed up, "It’s deeply disturbing, and that’s just what was intended." Zack Hollwedel concluded his review, "The book won't be for everyonein fact, it probably won't be for mostbut this off-the-beaten-path tale fills a definite, albeit small, dark and fetishized niche."

This might not be a book for everyone, but its existence points to the grand result of Eisner's work, that today graphic novels of all sorts are being published. What was once a highly marginal text format now has much more status than ever before.

Cochlea and Eustachia continues as a webcomic. This edition was published by Fantagraphics, who have a preview and more here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula is a delightful and fun graphic novel for all ages. It stars a great number of interesting characters, the main three being the dutiful, overworked Princess Decomposia, the hypochondriac and finicky King Wulfrun who won't leave his bed, and Count Spatula, the vampire chef with a huge sweet tooth and a penchant for making desserts. The king is leery of this new chef, not only because of his generous use of spices but also because of how familiar he is becoming with his daughter. Decomposia is just happy to have someone to relate to and watch out for her.

Even though the setting is the underworld and the artwork is appropriately atmospheric in black and white, this book is still effervescent. As you can see from the excerpt above, the artwork is charmingly attractive, with simple linework that conveys action and emotions in very clear, concise manner. I also liked that the characters were not mere stereotypes but more complex and well developed personalities. But my favorite part of the book has to be its playfully oddball supporting cast, from an anthropomorphic garlic clove to a snooty werewolf leader to a blustery zombie general.

Writer/artist Andi Watson is best known for his series Skeleton Key as well as his more recent picture book series Glister and Gum Girl. He also wrote a number of Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books for Dark Horse. Watson speaks about his work on Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula in these two interviews.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Dan Kois called it "delightful" because Watson's "character design is elegantly simple, so these cartoony inhuman figures are able to feel and display a thrillingly human range of emotions." Norah Piehl called it "a winning story of love, death and desserts." Publishers Weekly summed up, "it’s a comic that will charm younger readers and adults alike."

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula was published by First Second, who have a preview and much more available here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

El Deafo

A 2015 Newbery Honor Book, El Deafo is a graphic memoir about growing up deaf. The author/illustrator Cece Bell was four years old when she contracted meningitis and lost her hearing, and this book chronicles how she dealt with her condition in terms of her family, friends, and her schooling. I thought it was a very informative and entertaining narrative, one that contained much insight about the experiences of some deaf folks.
What I most appreciated from this book is the level of detail regarding diagnosis, treatment, and managing this situation from the viewpoint of someone who went through these events. Bell places the reader squarely in the position of witnessing the confusion and disorientation that went along with the slow realization of hearing loss as well as the awkward, fitful steps toward treatment. She also lets us in to see the emotional roller coaster she went through, and how the people around her reacted. Some tried to overcompensate with volume or kid gloves; some tried to simply avoid her, but what she most valued (most of the time) was just being treated like a regular child. Sometimes, though, she found herself daydreaming about herself as a superhero who could transcend everything, the titular El Deafo.
 
Probably what I liked most about this book was that the author does not come off as some angelic protagonist but as a flawed and likable human being. She has static with her friends and family. Sometimes she throws tantrums or acts childish. Sometimes she takes advantage of situations, like abusing her ability to hear her teacher when she is outside of the classroom (even when she is in *gasp* the bathroom). She ends up using this particular ability to make friends with the students who want to horse around when the teacher is away. Cece is finding her way here, and she does not always make the wisest choices, nor do the circumstances always fall in her favor. I do have to say that much of the time however, she is pretty hilarious.
AVERT YOUR EYES!
Cece Bell is an accomplished illustrator who has created a number of picture books, including the Sock Monkey series, the 2013 Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book Rabbit and Robot, and Itty Bitty. I felt that her artwork is very colorful and clear in communicating emotions and feelings. And even though the characters are all depicted as rabbits, the story feels very human and real. I was always aware of how her characters felt, and these broad gestures played well in both comic and dramatic effects. She speaks more about her work on El Deafo in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about El Deafo have been full of praise. School Library Journal's Elizabeth Bird extolled its virtues thus: "Engaging and beautifully drawn, to say nothing of its strength and out-and-out facts, El Deafo is going to help set the standard for what a memoir for kids should be." In a starred review Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Her whimsical color illustrations (all the human characters have rabbit ears and faces), clear explanations and Cece’s often funny adventures help make the memoir accessible and entertaining." In another starred review Publishers Weekly summed the book up as "a standout autobiography."

El Deafo was published by Amulet Books. They have lots of information about the book here.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Snowpiercer: The Escape

I have read lots of high concept science fiction, but this book might be the most high concept of all. It is set in a dystopian future where nuclear war has destroyed almost all life on Earth and plunged the entire planet into an Ice Age. The entirety of humanity remaining is relegated to the Snowpiercer, which is a miracle of engineering, a train in perpetual motion. Class differences here are stark, with the destitute "tail rats" in the rear cars and the wealthy and powerful in the more elegant cars up front.
The plot follows a man called Proloff who comes from the back of the train. His encounters with guards leave him imprisoned in quarantine, but he escapes with a well-to-do woman who is fighting for better working conditions for the poor. They have a brief liaison, although their relationship afterward is pretty utilitarian and not very romantic at all. The mismatched couple are determined to get to the front of the train, and together they discover many secrets and hypocrisies. They may also be tools in a larger plot to radically change life on the train. I do not want to spoil much but I should say that this is not a happy story, and it does not have a happy ending.
This work was originally published in 1982 in France as Le Transperceneige, and it won the inaugural Angoulême International Comics Festival Religious Award in 1985. It was written by Jacques Lob, a prolific comics creator whose best known work is probably the superhero parody Superdupont. It was drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette, who later went on to create two sequels to this book, an assortment of humorous works, and a number of paintings. His style is sturdy, and where I think he excels is in his clear depictions of action and expression, which you can clearly see with the page below, presented without any words:
This edition of the book accompanies a recent movie adaptation featuring an all star cast that includes Chris Evans,Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris. I enjoyed the movie pretty well, but I have to say that it mostly uses the central conceit of this book and does not faithfully follow its plot. Personally, both are enjoyable enough, and there are novel portions of the movie I really liked (such as its schoolroom scene), but I prefer the ending of the graphic novel, bleak as it is.

Reviews I have read about this re-issue have been mostly positive. Rebecca Pahle wrote that this book presented an "engrossing, rich world I want to know more about." Bill Sherman praised the book and remarked that it was "dark and more than a little despairing." Rob Brisken called it a "marvelous entry into the genre, and one of Europe's finest comics works." In a more tempered review, Tom Spurgeon wrote, "While I imagine the reviews for the re-release will be mostly positive, the book had a hard time holding my attention."

This edition of Snowpiercer was published by Titan Comics. As you may see in the preview images, there are profanity, adult themes, some nudity, and violence throughout the book, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lazarus, Book One: Family

Lazarus is an ongoing comic book series, and Family collects its first four issues. The premise is a simple one: in the not too far future, class disparities are out of control, and rich people consolidate their belongings into compounds. Their ultimate possession is their Lazarus, a genetically engineered human that they treat like family but that is a consummate killing machine, defender, and warrior. The Lazarus's services are especially needed because the downtrodden people who live in the Wastes are always trying to scavenge and steal necessities, plus other wealthy families jockey for possessions and power.
 

I found the story in this book engaging and exciting. The characters are pretty unlikeable for the most part (think Kardasians but more bloodthirsty and duplicitous), but part of the joy comes from seeing how they maneuver and try to outsmart each other. The artwork appears to be photo-referenced, which is not always my favorite. Here it is well suited to the story though, particularly the action scenes, and I like its slightly gritty look. The whole enterprise reads and feels like a good, thrilling, perhaps not too deep, action movie.

This series was created by writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark, and it features colors by Santiago Arcas. Rucka has written tons of comic books for the big 2 companies as well as a number of his own works, including Queen & Country and Whiteout. He has won multiple Eisner Awards, and he also writes novels. Lark has drawn lots of comics as well, and co-creating this series with Rucka may be his largest claim to fame. Arcas has done most of his coloring for DC Comics. Rucka and Lark speak more about their work on this book in this interview. There is also a Tumblr dedicated to the series.

With one exception, most of the reviews I have read portray the book positively.  Publishers Weekly called it "top-notch SF worldbuilding." Scott VanderPloeg called it "a rewarding page turner." The reviewer at Collected Editions called it "a pleasant surprise." In a very different take on the book, Abhay called it "a uniquely obnoxious comic experience."
a uniquely obnoxious comic experience

Lazarus, Book One was published by Image Comics. There is a preview available here from Comic Book Resources. I suggest it for mature readers, as is it pretty violent and there is some adult language.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Sculptor

I have to say that I had a lot of expectations about this book. I have been reading Scott McCloud's work for years now. I have heard him speak, and he is downright smart and hilarious. Zot! was one of my favorite comic books as a teenager, and the series told powerful, affecting stories while also being exciting sci-fi adventures. It was also was my introduction to the world of mini-comics, with its back-up strips by Matt Feazell and others. He entertained me with oversized superhero parody Destroy! and perhaps set me on the path to comics scholarship with Understanding Comics, his book that uses comics to explain comics theory and semiotics. I was also very interested into his experimental forays into digital comics and 24 hour comics and was somewhat disappointed by his The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln as well as his follow-ups to UC. This book, The Sculptor, is a thick chunk of comics, almost 500 pages long, and people are talking about it with terms like "masterpiece" and "magnum opus." Also, he is getting featured in prestigious venues like The New York Times. So, like I said, "expectations."

To put it simply, this was one of the best books, graphic novels included, I have read. It made me think, kept me guessing, and moved me in ways that few books do. The final pages kept me utterly compelled but also full of dread because I knew the book had to end. When I was finished, I literally had goosebumps, something I can only say about a handful of comics, most recently I Kill Giants and Goodbye, Chunky Rice.

The set up is this: David Smith is an artist whose career is in the dumps. One day he is visited by a person who offers him the ability to sculpt anything that his heart desires, but the catch is that if he accepts this bargain he will only have 200 days to live. Not to spoil things too much, but he takes the Faustian deal and sets a very complicated set of events in motion.


I got all these images from io9 (see link below)

I found the story so interesting and intricate, with many twists and turns. All of that was amplified by the simple and affecting character design and further driven by McCloud's masterful and clear storytelling. He does small, emotional scenes well; he does wide city scenes well; he just makes some great comics here. I found myself drawn into the images completely, and the ending sequence of the book was completely engrossing and powerful. I cannot say enough great things about this book.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and wrote, "Drawn in sharp, sure-handed lines that jump from intimate blocks of wry but poignant interactions with other characters to dramatically realized city scenery, McCloud's epic generates magic and makes an early play for graphic novel of the year." Cameron Hatheway remarked that McCloud "practices what he’s been preaching for years, forever immortalizing himself in the pantheon of comic book greats." Kim, age 15 gushed, "This book was utterly brilliant. Even though it’s about two inches think, I finished it in a couple hours." Kirkus Reviews offered a more tempered view, summing it up as "Masterfully paneled and attractively illustrated but populated by archetypes."

A preview and much more is available here from The Sculptor's publisher, First Second. There is a different preview at NPR, and another at io9.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!