Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Alcoholic

Jonathan A. has a problem. That much is apparent as soon as he wakes up in a station wagon where a particularly amorous dwarf woman lives. Things only get worse when the police arrive. This situation seems to be why the word tragicomedy was coined. It would be a funny situation, a punchline, if it did not happen to you, but it also shows the precipitous drop Jonathan has made. From this moment, the story shifts in and out of the past, showing the times he first started drinking, his escapades in high school and college, and various other indignities. At various times he experiences the joys of waking up in a garbage can, defecating in his pants, and having to hide out buried in the sand under a pier in Asbury Park to avoid arrest. Jonathan is clearly an alcoholic, but he is an addict in other ways, too. He indulges in crazy sex and different types of drugs as well.

The Alcoholic explores the effects his drinking has on his relationships as well. In particular it shows how much effort goes into hiding his alcoholism from his great aunt Sadie, his closest relation. It also shows how he fixates on a particular ex-girlfriend, whom he renames each time she moves to a different city. All of the pressures of hiding and pining away take their toll on Jonathan as he keeps finding different ways to lose jobs and alienate people. Along the way, he does find a creative outlet in writing, and at least these experiences are good fodder for his work.

By now, you may be asking how much of Jonathan A. is based on the writer of this graphic novel Jonathan Ames. He is not letting on, stating on the book jacket that there is only a "coincidental resemblance" and that Jonathan A. is "entirely fictional." Ames is a author who has published a number of novels and written a column for New York Press over the years. His work tends to focus on interesting sexual relationships, his love for boxing, and autobiography, especially his childhood experiences. Most recently his work became the basis for the HBO series Bored to Death. The art is by Dean Haspiel, a native New Yorker who is probably most famous for his collaborations with Harvey Pekar.

Most reviewers have liked The Alcoholic, commenting on its mix of humor, beauty, and sadness. Bryan Young called it a "very sad, sweet story of a writer finding himself." Andrew Wheeler said that "it’s a great depiction of the mind of an addict." Shathley Q comments on how well Ames and Haspiel complement each other, so that readers can see the story as a series of realistic yet distorted moments. Alissa Tallman writes a great essay on the interplay between addiction and autobiography in this graphic novel.

The Alcoholic was published by Vertigo. Here is a 6 page preview of the opening pages posted at the MTV blog.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Beast of Chicago

H.H. Holmes is a considered by many America's first serial killer, and his story has been told and retold numerous times since his death in 1896. It was featured in the tabloids of his time, a feature in Harper's Weekly, a number of documentaries, and most famously of late in Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. Born Herman Mudgett, Holmes assumed numerous identities, wives, and avocations. As Holmes he operated a pharmacy on the south side of Chicago that he obtained by murdering the previous owner once her husband died of cancer. Across the street from this site he had a 3-story "Castle" built to house tenants upstairs and businesses, including his pharmacy, on the lower level.

By many accounts a charmer and a lady's man, Holmes lured many people into what was later called his "Murder Castle." The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a celebration of the 400 year anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World. It was a huge draw to the city, and put Chicago on the map as a major metropolis and an industrial and cultural mecca. It also drew a great number of travelers to town, people who had no local connections and who needed a place to stay. Holmes was more than happy to accommodate tourists, but some of them were never seen again.

Authorities noticed a high number of missing persons after the Exposition, and many of them were last seen in the south part of Chicago. Facing bankruptcy, Holmes had long left town with his Castle sealed shut. It was not until about a year later when Holmes was arrested and investigated on counts of insurance fraud and suspicion of murder that that the authorities began to piece together his trail and crimes. When they finally got to his Castle and explored what was in it, they were horrified by what they found. Holmes was tried, convicted, and hung. To prevent graverobbers stealing his body he was buried in cement.

Holmes's story is captivating in its gruesome details, and it is told here by Rick Geary as part of his A Treasury of Victorian Murder Series. Geary has been doing illustrated graphic work since 1977, and his work has appeared in numerous publications including works from DC Comics, Heavy Metal, and Fantagraphics. Here, he delves into the historical research necessary to tell this tale with all the touches of the time period. He also provides bibliographic resources and his own maps of the main sites. His crisp black and white art portrays the story boldly and in sharp detail.

Reviews of the book are mostly glowing. Michael Vance says it is "Highly Recommended." Johanna Draper Carlson says it is her favorite volume in the series. On a different note, the reviewer at Top Graphic Novel Reviews says that the storytelling was not appealing, more akin to an illustrated book than a graphic novel. Personally, I felt the story was extremely compelling and well rendered though it did seem more journalistic than novelistic. A wider array of reviews can be found at Goodreads.

A preview is available from publisher NBM.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Sword, Volume 1: Fire

There are lots of stories where someone finds out that everything they know is wrong, but The Sword shows how great they can be. Dara Brighton is a paraplegic college student at home with her family one night when three mysterious strangers with supernatural powers break in. They keep calling her father Demetrios and demanding that he turn a sword over to them.

When he refuses to acknowledge what they are saying or possessing any sword, they kill him and then turn to killing his family. They do not kill Dara but leave her without hope of escape in a burning house. As the house collapses she falls into a space underneath the foundation and finds a sword sticking in the ground. When she grasps it, she is instantly imbued with incredible power and can again walk. After she escapes this wreck, she begins to piece together what has happened, beginning with the possibility that her father was over 3000 years old.

The Luna Brothers, Jonathan and Joshua, are both graduates of the Savannah College of Art and Design. They have created a number of comics series through Image Comics, including Ultra and Girls. More about their work can be found at their official site. More about their views and thoughts on The Sword can be read in this interview or this one for the Onion A.V. Club.

The Sword originated as a monthly comic book series that began in October, 2007, and it is still being published. In the end, there will be four collections of the story, and the following volumes will be Water, Earth, and finally Air. Reviews have been largely enthusiastic. Eric Rupe called it a "must read." Nina Stone called it "a thrilling, original, edge-of-your-seat, read with compelling yet easy-on-the-eyes artwork." More reviews can be read at Goodreads.

Read the first issue of the series here for free.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Road to Perdition

Before it was adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, Road to Perdition was a graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins, a mystery writer with years of experience writing short stories, comic books, novels such as his Quarry series, and the Dick Tracy newspaper strip. The art was provided by Richard Piers Rayner, a British artist whose meticulous style takes time to produce. He has done a range of work for Marvel, DC, and this book's publisher, Paradox Press.

The plot of the book follows Michael O'Sullivan, an honorable and efficient assassin for a mobster, as he is left bereft of allies after the death of most of his family. Left alone with his son Michael Jr., he strives to travel undetected to mount separate attacks on the parties that have wronged him. His years of experience working in organized crime give him a great many resources to gather weapons and wealth while also striking where his enemies would hurt most. In seeking his revenge, he crosses paths with John Patrick Looney, a real life gangster who operated out of Rock Island, Illinois. The actual Looney appears to be a colorful character from various accounts. He was also quite brutal at times, as is seen in the multiple attempts he makes to stop O'Sullivan's vendetta dead.

Road to Perdition is inspired by the classic manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, which follows the exploits of a traveling assassin and his infant son in feudal Japan as they try to get revenge and regain their family's honor. Only this tale is set in the Depression era US Midwest, with cameos by Eliot Ness, Al Capone, and a few other notables. The popularity of the book and movie spawned a sequel series of graphic novels, called On the Road to Perdition, with art by José Luis García-López, which told of events that ran concurrently with the original tale. Additionally, there are two prose novels that depict Michael Jr.'s life as he ages and begins his own career, first as a soldier then in organized crime.

Critics generally enjoy the book even if many offer that the story itself is not a very original one. Bruce Kratofil enjoyed reading the book, even with limited experience reading graphic novels. Time Magazine's Andrew D. Arnold said that the book was "a neglected work of smart, tense, hard-boiled crime comix with more going on than just the usual violence." David Kozlowski called it "a solid, fast read." If not original, at least the story is well told.

A preview of the book is available here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


A lot of small towns have a place that attracts urban legends. In Sloth, that place is a lemon orchard where serial killers are said to bury the bodies of their young female victims. Or maybe there is a mythical goatman who is looking for some poor soul to take his place prowling the grounds. Three teenagers, Miguel (whose nickname is the title of the book), his girlfriend Lita, and best friend Romeo, go into the orchard late at night with a video camera hunting for a glimpse of any supernatural creature.

Mostly, the story revolves around the relationships between these three. Miguel lives with his grandparents after his drug-addicted mom mysteriously disappeared. At the story's beginning he slips into a coma because he can't deal with his life, and he remains in that state for a year. After he wakes he finds a different world where people have matured a bit and gone in different directions. As he gets back into his routine however the trio happen upon something in the orchard and their lives take several turns in reality. By the end of the story, the reader has to wonder what really did happen with these people.

Gilbert "Beto" Hernandez wrote and drew this fantastical coming-of-age tale. He is most famous as part of the Hernandez Brothers, the creators of the long-running and celebrated comics series Love and Rockets. He has won multiple Harvey Awards during his career, and in 2009 he won a United States Artists Fellow Award in Literature. He is also a co-creator and co-star on The Naked Cosmos, a low budget TV show about an eccentric prophet.

As many of Hernandez's works, Sloth has been well accepted. Critic Bill Sherman stated that Sloth "is arguably the cartoonist's most self-realized work to date." Walter Biggins called it "graceful" and "mesmerizing." UTEP graduate student Cira Montoya also celebrated the book and provided some ways that teachers may be able to use it with a class.

More information and a preview can be found at the book's official page from publisher Vertigo.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Maus: A Survivor's Tale Volume 2: And Here My Troubles Began

In 1992, this volume won a Special Award Pulitzer Prize, marking it as one of the most celebrated graphic novels ever. Maus II continues the narrative began in Maus I, and nowadays both books are typically published together as a package. Here we see the continuing relationship of Art and his father Vladek as they alternately bicker, share moments, and work on this oral history. Vladek is getting older, and he is trying to put more of his life in order, but he is also being overwhelmed by powerful emotions. The bulk of Vladek's account here is his time spent in Auschwitz, the largest German concentration camp.

Spiegelman calls the place Mauschwitz here to keep with the thematic representation of his narrative, but the real place was the site of torturous labor and death for almost all who entered. This slideshow begins to show what conditions were actually like inside the camp. Today, many of the building still stand, as a dual museum/monument to past events. Through his resourcefulness and luck, Vladek manages to survive his horrible ordeal, and the moments where the prisoners win their freedom are almost more troubling as they are happy.

Reviews of Maus II are almost universally positive. Ty Burr at Entertainment Weekly gave it an A+. There are many 5-star ratings for it on Goodreads. Aside from the Pulitzer Prize, it received a National Book Critics Circle Nomination in 1991, and Spiegelman was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1990 to foster his artistic ventures.

Spiegelman has gone on from Maus to create a great number of other comix work, most notably of late, In the Shadow of No Towers, his account of the 9/11 tragedy and its aftermath.

Some preview pages are available here from the book's publisher, Pantheon.