Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza

I have to admit I am of a few minds with James Kochalka. I find his artwork fun and appealing, and there are projects of his I truly love, such as the first two Johnny Boo books, Monkey Vs. Robot, and especially his Superf*ckers (NSFW) series. Others, like Pinky and Stinky, I am lukewarm about, and some, like the later Johnny Boo books, have really disappointed me because I find them pretty shallow, ridiculous, and even mean-spirited at times. Still, I know the guy is prolific and maybe I am being too touchy about what he thinks people want to read. He was the cartoonist laureate of Vermont, so what do I know? I just want to get all that out there before I tell you what I thought of this new volume of his work.

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza is about a space superhero-type who receives a fateful phone call one day.
As you can see, he takes some things way too seriously, but at the same time this mission gets off to a shaky start when he decides to use his leftovers instead of a fresh pizza.
I am perhaps as ambivalent about this book as I am about Kochalka's work in general. There are some neat things here: a backpack that talks and shoots lasers, a kid in a giant power suit, and an adorable Space Invaders-type baby born from an egg. Regardless, even though I have been known to appreciate some mindless humor and cartoon violence this book mostly left me cold. I just cannot bring myself to root for the title character. He is incredibly stupid, frequently blows things up without any serious repercussions, and resorts to punching himself in the face repeatedly. There is nothing attractive about him, and perhaps I am not the target audience, but I find little redeeming quality in him and his oblivious and sometimes mean, dismissive ways. Maybe he's meant to be some sort of parody, but he just comes off like a dope and a bully. And in the end all his antics prove is that it is better to be lucky than capable.

This book's creator James Kochalka has won an Eisner Award, multiple Ignatz Awards, as well as a Harvey Award, and as I already noted he is the first person ever named Cartoonist Laureate for a US state (Vermont). He used to create a daily, online, diary comic American Elf and apparently still has updates there once in a while. He also has published a wide array of comics for all age groups, mostly through Top Shelf Productions. Kochalka speaks about his work on this book, its upcoming sequel, and his favorite kind of pizza in this interview.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is the color scheme. The artwork is simple and expressive, but I find the layouts and pacing a little too by-the-numbers. This is not Kochalka's strongest book, and although there are some silly bits that are entertaining, overall this book just is not my cup of tea.

Reviews I have read of this book range across the spectrum. Kirkus Reviews wrote glowingly, "Kochalka’s worlds are always winsome, strange and silly; this is certainly one of his stronger offerings." Publishers Weekly opined that the plot might be pointless "but fans of Kochalka’s brand of absurdity (or who want to watch the Glorkian Warrior punch himself in the face a lot) will still have reason to tune in." Sharon the Librarian offered her opinion that this book "is not my kind of humor," explaining that "the main character, the warrior, is the most unintelligent character that I have ever seen. Honestly, I know that it is part of the humor, and a relatively common tool, but this goes a bit to the extreme."

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza was published by First Second. They provide a preview and much more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

PS, Apparently there is a Glorkian Warrior video game in the works. Check it out if you are interested.
Oh, Gonk...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fantastic Life

(Warning: Today's blog contains adult language and is more Rated R than usual, but we are all adults here, right?).

A book about art, sex, postmodern theory, drinking, donuts, zombies, and art school, you say? Sign me up, I say!

Fantastic Life is a book that treads some familiar ground for me. In part it's  a depiction of art school as depicted in other works, like Dan Clowes's Art School Confidential, but it's also an examination of art, theory, and reality. Set in 1982 in Winnepeg, this book follows the travails of Adam, an art student looking to express himself, get laid, and figure out his life (not necessarily in that order). Sometimes he gets in over his head when it comes to hanging around intellectuals, and he is not always the smoothest individual.
Adam is pretty focused when he is drunk, but does not always grasp the situation. Or language.
His major issue for the most part is that he is confusing dream and reality. Sometimes he is rough and uneducated. Sometimes he knows what he is talking about. Sometimes he is in command of his artistic abilities. Other times he is totally making everything up as he goes along. Sometimes he is enjoying a donut at a Tim Horton's, and sometimes he is being tormented by flesh-eating zombies.
Like I said earlier, much of the territory in this book seems familiar, but what sets it apart for me is its execution. Set in the 1980s, it contains many cultural and musical references of the day, which along with the dialogue and situations indicate that this book is thinly veiled autobiography to some degree. I did not go to art school, but this book strongly conveys the feelings of being a young person in college and the anxieties that attend that period for many. Also, the artwork is excellently visceral, and not just in the zombie parts. The storytelling is clear and strong but there is also a painterly quality that drew me into this book as if it were another world. Taking everything in, I felt like I was in the smoky, dank bar drinking with friends, that I was in that house party winding through a labyrinth of stairs and rooms, and that I was engulfed by adolescent lust for naked models and other bodies.

The person behind all this artistry and craft is Kevin Mutch, a graphic novelist, digital artist, and painter. He received a Xeric Award in 2010 and is known for his webcomic The Moon Prince. He also has a career in design and was a long time art director the Canadian musicians The Crash Test Dummies (known by old folks like me for their hit Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, but I seriously love their first two albums). Mutch speaks about his influences and career here.

An excerpt from this book was featured in the 2011 Best American Comics anthology, and in general the book has received much praise. The reviewer at comicsbubble praised "its multi-layered content, fresh and bold line illustrations and well thought out characters." The Comic Journal's Sean T. Collins commented positively on the "way Mutch’s attention to detail, from the tits on down, solidifies and strengthens this book," and summed up, "It’s horny, heavy shit." He meant that as a compliment, I believe.

Fantastic Life was published by Blurred Books. About half of the book is available here for reading from the author.
Sounds like the perfect book for me. Target audience acquired.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Bad Houses

Bad Houses is a book about many things: young love, familial obligations, growing up, dealing with the past, and the connections between people's possessions and memories. It follows two young adults, Lewis, who works for his mother who organizes estate sales, and Anne, who lives with her mother who is a hoarder. They are both complex people in a narrative that powerfully and elegantly defines people's situations and contexts.
These two young people are trying to figure out how to live their lives and deal with the expectations of their respective single moms. Anne's situation is further complicated when her mother starts dating and wants her boyfriend to move in with them. So much of this book is involved with interpersonal relationships, and the powerful impacts that folks have on one another propels much of the plot. Certainly, events, some of them quite dramatic, occur, but what is more powerful and evocative here are the delicate and complicated interplay of people's various emotional reactions. The characters are well detailed both in terms of their back stories and their visual depictions. Take for instance this simple yet devastating scene at Anne's house.
I should also add that in addition to the characters and plot that the setting and context also play large roles, almost as if they were characters in the story. The town of Failin, Oregon where this tale is set is in decline, the site of an abandoned brewery and rampant unemployment. The past weighs heavily, and long forgotten events still have a profound and unexpected impact on the present. So much is interwoven into this beautiful and compelling narrative tapestry. 

The concept of interplay also applies to how this book is composed. It is one of those excellent kind of comics where the words and pictures coalesce so well and complement each other in telling this story. The background details, graffiti, and local signs are just as essential to the plot as the deft dialogue and intricate narrative. Additionally, this book oozes charm, personality, and humanity in the most beautiful ways. It is absolutely winning in execution.

This book's creators are both well accomplished for their solo works but here collaborate extremely well. Writer Sara Ryan is a full time librarian and an award winning author of young adult novels, including The Rules for Hearts and Empress of the World. She has also written a number of comics for various anthologies, including Comic Book Tattoo and Hellboy: Weird Tales. Artist Carla Speed McNeil is a Lulu, Ignatz, and Eisner Award winning cartoonist. She has been publishing her Finder comics series since 1996 and began the webcomic version in 2005. She has also illustrated a few other series, such as a run on Queen & Country, and she is editor-in-chief of Saucy Goose Press. Both creators speak about their inspirations and work on this book in this interview.

Bad Houses has received and well deserves high praise. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, calling it "a drama with true depth." Time's Douglas Wolk put it on his Top 10 Best Comics and Graphic Novels list for 2013. Reading Rants described it as "a well-told and astutely drawn story of fate and forgiveness." Hillary Brown opined that it is "more than just a tale of young love and the way life opens up when you find someone who clicks. The book operates in a kind of clockwork universe, a.k.a. a small town, where everyone is connected in some fashion." Its subject matter might not be typical graphic novel fare, but it is a unique and exquisite book.

Bad Houses was published by Dark Horse, and they provide a preview and more here.

Thanks to Sara Ryan for sharing a PDF of this book with me!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Bandette Volume 1: Presto!

I bet 99% of the reviews about this first volume of the Bandette series use the word fun, because dang it, this book just contains so much of it. It follows the exploits of Bandette, a young woman who is also a master thief with a cheeky sense of humor and panache. In addition to that simply brilliant set-up, the book also has a few other amazing qualities, including deft, witty dialogue; imaginative, taut plotting; and excellently composed and colorful artwork. Just take a look at that page and I dare you not be charmed.
Bandette's exploits and appearance belie an old-school, David-Niven-in-the-Pink-Panther type of thief, but the story is very much set in the present day, with the clever use of modern gadgetry and social media to coordinate efforts among Bandette's very large (for a secret thief, I gather) band of accomplices, who include a delivery guy, a band of street urchins, and a trio of dancers.
Plus, the series features further colorful characters, including colorful assassins, rival thieves, criminal masterminds, and the salty police inspector who begrudgingly collaborates with Bandette in times of crisis.
With all these characters and situations, there is the danger of a book like this trying too hard to contain too many "OMG THAT IS AWESOME" elements. But I am happy to report that this one brings everything together in an organic narrative that buzzes along in breathtakingly entertaining ways. This may be the most fun book I have read all year.

Bandette is another creation of husband/wife creative team Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. They have collaborated in the past on the web-series Gingerbread Girl and Banana Sunday, an all-ages graphic novel about a young woman who becomes guardian of three monkeys. They are both members of the Periscope Studio. Tobin has written a number of comics, notably many entries in the Marvel Adventures series. He has also written a novel about superheroes, Prepare to Die! Coover has also written and drawn the adult comic book series Small Favors, which has a strong following, and a number of short works for Marvel Comics. Coover and Tobin speak more about their work on Bandette in this interview.

Bandette won the 2013 Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic, and all the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Hillary Brown called it "wonderfully ephemeral." Publishers Weekly summed up, "This is a wonderful gateway comic for readers of all ages—one of the brightest, and most fun, comics of the year." Craig Neilson gushed, "I honestly can’t recommend Bandette highly enough to those of you who may fancy a change of pace from the overly serious, ‘grimy and gritty’ titles which seem to make up the lion’s share of comic book shelves these days."

The chapters in this book were originally published as 99¢ e-comics from MonkeyBrain, and you can keep up with the more recent episodes there. This book contains the first five installments, plus a bunch of bonus stories from some very talented artists as well as notes from Tobin and Coover about how they create the comic. It is a very well designed and purchase-worthy book, even with the option to cheaply buy the main narrative in shorter segments.

Presto! was published by Dark Horse, and they provide a preview here.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Persia Blues, Book 1: Leaving Home

Folks might remember me sharing the Kickstarter link for this work some time ago, and I finally got around to reading the physical book that I received after pledging my support and the project was funded. I am glad to report that the finished product is beautiful, unique, and quite compelling.

There are two narratives in play in this book, both starring Minoo Shirazi. The first occurs in the present in modern Iran, a strict, conservative, and oppressive country where being a free-thinking woman brings many frustrations and potential perils.
The other(?) Minoo lives in a fantastic world that melds history and legend into one. She is an adventurer in the vein of Conan, fighting the good fight against oppressors and evil magicians, contending against mythical beasts, and searching for meaning, shelter, and fortune.
The present day Minoo also has to deal with her family, mostly her overbearing father, who tries to encourage her intellectual pursuits, is just as frustrated at the current regime as she is, and wants to make sure his daughter is protected and prepared to deal with the realities of contemporary Iran. 
The conflicts of the past/present and East/West weave through both narratives, and they combine to paint a powerful picture of the many issues facing these individuals and the social systems in which they live. Certainly, this book touches upon many of the themes of  Persepolis and begs some comparison with its focus on coming up in a repressive society and also its explicit references to the ancient classical capital. Persia Blues is much more explicit with its symbolism and gives a sense of a past that is not simply utopian but also fraught with obstacles and oppression. Satrapi's book is slightly less nuanced, I'd argue, with regard to the past being set up clearly as the better alternative to the present, the good old days. The fantasy setting and lush painterly art style of the past in this book might convey that message as well, but that past is also presented as problematic in its own ways. In any case, I get the sense that these creators feel there are no easy solutions to these situations and that a simple return to an idyllic past is impossible.

In the end I cannot say for certain how the rest of this narrative will compare with that "modern classic." This book is part of an incomplete series, and  I seek more resolution. On one hand, this volume does not complete the narrative, and is the first of a proposed trilogy, and I am very intrigued to see how the parallel narratives play out and intersect or diverge in later volumes. On the other, the incomplete story makes me wonder where the creators are going and if all my theories about meaning are warranted. I have a difficult time not trusting them to stick the landing though, given how much nuance and meaning they have created thus far.

This book was created by writer Dara Naraghi and artist Brent Bowman. Naraghi self-publishes some of his work for Ferret Press, and he is also known for works from Dark Horse, Image, and DC Comics. I have met him at a comics convention and enjoyed his PANEL: Ferret Press anthologies. He is a friendly, talented, and thoughtful guy, and I wish him every success. Bowman is a freelance comics artist/illustrator, and you can view more of his non-comics art here. His dual art styles in this book are impressive, and I hope this book brings more attention to his artistic abilities. Both creators speak about their collaboration generally and specifically on this book in this interview. Naraghi speaks about the book and the process of using Kickstarter to fund it in this interview.

A 2014 YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens Nominee, Persia Blues has been well reviewed. John Hogan dubbed the book "a huge treat." CBR's Greg Burgas called it "a solid beginning with a lot of cool cultural tropes that we don’t usually see because we’re not reading comics about Iran." Win Wiacek summed up, "Engaging, rewarding and just plain refreshingly different, Persia Blues looks set to become a classic in years to come."

There are previews, author information, and a whole lot more at the book's official page. This first volume was published by NBM.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


This book begins with a tender, wistful series of events that culminate with an adult son going home to visit his ailing and dying father. Familiar friends and out of touch siblings reconnect. Remembrances are shared, gossip is exchanged, and forgotten memories come back to light. I would say all of these experiences are all too human, but they are all shared by a family of chickens.

Elmer is set in a fictional world where chickens have suddenly developed advanced intelligence and status as citizens equal to humans. Of course, painful memories of the past where their kin were farmed, butchered, and eaten colors their behavior and interactions, and sometimes human-chicken relations are tense.
Jake on his soapbox.
The main character Jake Gallo is sort of a malcontent.
Note for educators: This book contains a few obscenities.
He lives apart from his family and has some resentment directed toward his movie star brother Freddie. While home, Jake learns much about his father Elmer, with whom he also had a contentious relationship. His attitude is tempered some when he is given a book his dad had been writing. The book contains personal accounts about the early days of consciousness, the struggles of chickens gaining equal rights with humanity, and Elmer's fears/joys of getting married and having a family.

Elmer's account is very personal, and in many ways this book is a story about family dynamics and growing up. However it is also a clever analogue of civil rights struggles, with a huge population trying to gain equality, having to deal with prejudice and changing social norms. It is difficult not to think about the similarities between real-world homophobia and the AIDS epidemic and the bird flu scare in this book, when distrust got mixed in with survivalism, with horrific consequences. Seeing chickens in these roles just makes the sense of dehumanization that often accompanies such events and struggles that much more palpable. It is also not a quick jump to see issues of race, class, and religion in the way that chickens had to assimilate themselves into workplaces, social institutions, and even marriages.
Jake is not so accepting when his sister falls in love with a homo sapiens.
I found so much in this book to think about, and in addition to the magnificent plot and characters that I have mentioned above, I think that  this book is memorable for its fantastically evocative and detailed art. These chickens express so much emotion facially and through their actions. The pages are so well composed and rich with meaning. They reflect as much joy, horror, love, violence, hatred, growth, and courage as any historical epic, and it is difficult for me not to agree with the cover blurb from Adam David, "It's the Great Filipino Novel, with chickens." This book is far-ranging, dense but not obtuse, and I daresay universally affecting.

The creator of this impressive mix of world building and parable is Gerry Alanguilan. Alanguin has been making comics since the mid 1990s, and he is known for his original series Wasted as well as inking a plethora of comics for Marvel and DC. He also has a YouTube channel where his "Hey Baby" video has received more than 5 million views at this point. He speaks more about his career as well as his work on Elmer in this interview.

Elmer was nominated for an Eisner Award, and has received many accolades. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and noted it was "a peculiar but engaging work that deserves attention." CBR's Greg Burgas called it "a brilliant comic book – an original way to examine prejudice, in turns wryly amusing and terrifyingly tragic." Library Journal summed up, "Strongly recommended for teens and up in classrooms as well as libraries." I think the book is superbly executed graphically, portraying powerful themes and situations that linger with me still.

Elmer has its own dedicated blog. It was published in the US by Slave Labor Graphics. They have a book trailer and more information about it here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Trans-Pacific Partnership and "Free Trade"

I know I have not read or reviewed Economix (yet), but I wanted to share this new, topical comic from its creators Michael Goodwin and Dan E. Burr. It's about a treaty currently being discussed behind closed doors, and it will have a large impact on the US's and world's financial futures. I encourage you to check it out.

Also, if you like what you see and read you can also check out the duo's book here. I hear it's quite good, and I am eager to read it!

Thanks to James Bucky Carter for sharing this comic with me!