Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Art of Running

Steve Prefontaine died in 1975 at the age of 24, but he left behind a legacy rare for a modern track and field athlete. He attended college and ran track for coach Bill Bowerman, a hugely influential figure and co-founder of the massive athletic shoe company Nike. He also competed at the 1972 Olympic Games and did not win a medal, but what he did was capture many people's attention with his approach to running and outspoken ways. He became a celebrity of sorts, almost like a rock star, but a car accident cut his life and career short. His rise to fame and untapped potential have fascinated people for decades, and his life has been portrayed in not one but two bio movies released as major motion pictures.

The Art of Running is in part another telling of his biography, done this time as a graphic novel, but it is also a look at his life and beliefs in a way that get at the man and his motivations. I can tell from the well detailed artwork, the attention to specific life episodes, and the way his thoughts are delineated that this book is a real labor of love. I appreciated how the book focused on various aspects of his life, not just his later successes and international presence but also his early days where he learns to run and encounters many interesting personalities, chief among them his coach at the University of Oregon.
I felt that overall the book succeeded in showing a reader (even one who did not know who Prefontaine was) much about his life and times as well as what it was about him that made such an impression. The quotations that kick off each chapter went a long way in establishing a definitive line of thought that unified the narrative. This biography was not just a dry portrayal of facts but a fleshed out, compelling portrait of an extraordinary person.

The only drawback for me about this book lay in the way it ended, and I am uncertain if the creators quite stuck the landing. The scene where he died was a little bit vague for my tastes, with an abrupt transition from a scene of a car crashing to a magazine cover tribute. If I did not know his story I don't think I would have understood quite what was going on. In a way, his death was accidental and somewhat nebulous because of contrasting accounts, so perhaps that vagueness was intention. I think that it certainly creates enough curiosity that an interested reader would seek out more information, but I could also see it leading to some disappointment at the unclear ending of what has been up to the that point a very well crafted set of events. I won't way that the book was ruined by any means, because I quite enjoyed it; I just felt that one key sequence came off a bit wonky.

This book was funded as a Kickstarter project by the husband/wife team of Matthew J.J. and Megan Crehan. Matthew is a running enthusiast, author, and comics creator who is best known for his revival of the British "Tough of the Track" character Alf Tupper. Megan is a photographer and, as far as I can tell, has no other comics credits. The artwork, done in pleasing, realistic, and simple painterly style, is by Sigit Nugroho.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Jonathan Gault called it "a fitting tribute to the man and a nice resource for anyone looking to learn (or re-familiarize themselves with) the story of Steve Prefontaine." Matt Rasmussen wrote, "The storytelling is solid and I found the artwork mesmerizing." Richard Bruton opined that this book hit "that happy medium of storytelling and fact, and doing it with style, picking the best elements and presenting them well."

The Art of Running is available directly from Matthew Crehan here (he is in the UK, so international shipping rates to the US would apply).  He also has preview pages and more information on his website.

A review copy was provided by the authors. Thank you!

Monday, May 25, 2015


Nimona tells the tale of heroes, villains, intrigue, adventure, dragons, magic, and science. It looks like a sword and sorcery yarn, but it is so much more than that. It follows the titular character, a young female shapeshifter who seeks out the land's most nefarious villain, Lord Ballister Blackheart, so she can become his sidekick and wreak some serious havoc.
As you can see from even the brief excerpt, this book has an excellent sense of humor, timing, foreboding, and storytelling. I know it is a debut book but it seems much more an assured and mature work, where the creator has a firm handle on comics conventions.

On top of all this excellent craft, the story itself is full of much suspense, and it is subversive in the best possible ways. Almost nothing, from the vile villain to the golden boy hero Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin to Nimona to the protective Institution of Law Enforcement is as it seems. This book is full of complicated, interesting characters, unexpected plot twists, and I do not want to spoil much about the story, but I can say it was one of the most gripping and entertaining books I have read this year.

Nimona was originally published as a webcomic by Noelle Stevenson. She has drawn a few other comics, but this is her debut graphic novel. She is also known for co-writing the series Lumberjanes from Boom! Studios. She talks about comics and her work on Nimona in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Tasha Robinson called it "a fleet-moving, breathless story." Ana Grilo gave it a "Perfect" rating and playfully wrote, "OH YOU BEAUTIFUL BEAUTIFUL BOOK LET ME HUG YOU FOREVER." J. Caleb Mozzocco smartly commented that "Stevenson uses the conventions of popular fantasy, science-fiction and superhero narratives to explore the way in which society imposes labels and roles on us all." Jenn remarked that "the world Stevenson crafts is quite brilliant. Set in Renaissance times, but with the technology of modern times.  Truly brilliant."

Nimona was published by HarperCollins, and they have a sample and much more here (or you can just skip right to sample below):

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Originally published as a series of 14 mini-comics by Oily Comics, Moose tells the story of Joe, a put upon high school student who has to face a relentless, sadistic bully aptly named Jason.
Joe goes to great length to avoid Jason, walking to school instead of taking the bus, eating lunch in closets, trying to stay out of his way, and getting detention for his troubles, but Jason goes to equally great lengths to find Joe and dish out his violence. I found those parts with their confrontations to be especially unsettling and horrific, but there is also a certain brutal realism in how this tale is paced and artistically rendered.

Sporadically, Joe finds solace from this cycle in nature, and there are a few excellent wordless scenes where we are privy to him connecting with nature and having some wondrous, if also scary, experiences.
Joe fantasizes about taking vengeance on Jason, but he really does not think he has has much recourse. I don't want to spoil the way this book ends, but something occurs that gives Joe the upper hand suddenly, and how he uses this opportunity is pretty gut-wrenching. I really liked how gray everyone in this story is eventually painted, with the "good guys" not always seeming so good, nor the bad ones as bad (or at least they have their own troubles, I guess I might say). For what could easily be a two-dimensional story there is some real complexity and depth.
As you can tell from the excerpts, the artwork is pretty stark, with seemingly simple lines packing much emotional punch and also an economy of motion. I felt that the storytelling was excellent in heightening drama, setting scenes, and establishing personalities. Like another Oily Comic I read, TEOTFW, Moose was a visceral and moving reading experience for me.

Moose is the creation of Max De Radiguès, a Belgian comics artist who tweets updates about his works here. He was a 2009 Fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and his newest projects are called Bastard and Rough Age. He speaks more about his comics work, inspirations, and creative process in this interview.

There are sparse reviews for this book as of yet, but the ones I have read have been positive. Alec Berry called it "a well-crafted, chilling read." Rob Clough praised the book, stating that "De Radigues' trembling but clear line and angular character design is perfectly matched to the subject matter." Clough also added that the "characters, though simply-rendered, are lively and bursting with emotion."

This collected volume of Moose was published by Conundrum Press. They have more info about the book here. Because of the brutal language and violence in this book, I would recommend it for mature readers.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Pretty Deadly, Volume 1: The Shrike

Pretty Deadly defies easy categorization. It's a sort of mystical western, where fabled animals and reapers of death manifest as humans and have gun- and sword-fights. The overarching framework is that of a butterfly telling a skeletal rabbit a story. 

This story involves an aged, blind gunslinger named Fox escorting a young girl (Sissy) who dresses like a vulture across the west. She is exceptional for some reason, and she is being pursued by a couple of reapers, Deathfaced Ginnie and Big Alice, who have their own agendas.

Also, there is another guy named Johnny Coyote who seems to know a lot about what is happening and who also cavorts with prostitutes. As you can probably tell, there is a lot going on, and much of it takes on dimensions of both myth and spaghetti westerns. I am not going to pretend I caught everything on my first go-round with this book, because there is much to take in, but the tale was intriguing and the artwork gorgeous. Probably the worst thing I can say about this book is that it used montage as a storytelling technique a couple of times, and I found those particular layouts difficult to follow. Otherwise, this book was an enjoyable, brisk reading experience.

Many of the reviews I have seen about this book liken it to Sandman and/or Preacher, and I guess it does have some superficial similarities to both (as in it deals with myth, and it is a western). They also like to remark that this story is remarkable for how much it is not like other comic book narratives. But I think those comparisons and remarks damn this book with faint praise. It may not be like much out there now, but it is not entirely an original type of story. Nor is it exactly derivative of other books out there. It is a pretty original take on a familiar story, told in an interesting and complex way that demands to be revisited.

Pretty Deadly is the creation of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Emma Ríos. Eisner Award nominee DeConnick has written a bunch of comics for various companies, though she is probably best known for her work on Marvel's Captain Marvel and her sci-fi women-in-prison series Bitch Planet. Ríos has done a bunch of work for Marvel as well and is known for the series Hexed. Both creators speak about their work on this series in these interviews (DeConnick, Ríos).

The reviews I have read of this volume have been largely positive. Keith Dooley wrote that they have created a "memorable mythology" that "has the capability to instill both wonder and horror." Phoebe Salzman-Cohen commented that the genre-mashing here was not always that successful though she is still "curious to see what happens in the second set of issues." Lina concluded that "this book just demands a re-read and doesn’t find itself wanting the second go around."

Pretty Deadly is published by Image Comics. These five issues collected here are the only ones out so far. You can read more about the series here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 1: The Faust Act

The Wicked + The Divine is a comics series from Image, and this volume collects the first five issues. The concept behind it is that every 90 years twelve gods become mortal for two years. During that time, the gods manifest as celebrities, the ultimate in pop stars, and they entice, entertain, entrance, and inspire humanity in various ways. The tagline points to the way this series approaches the ideas of legendary gods and postmodern celebrity: "just because you’re immortal, doesn’t mean you’re going to live forever."
As you can see, these gods bicker, cavort, revel, and carry on in the ways lots of celebrities do. They also have to navigate and contend with the media coverage. The cast is a diverse one, culled from many pantheons. The main players are Luci (Lucifer), who is a hard-edged pop star (like P!nk maybe?); Amaterasu, who is sort of like Britney Spears or Taylor Swift; Baal, a Jay Z or Kanye type, Sakhmet (a catwoman); Odin, who looks like he's in Daft Punk, and the Morrigan, who is the gothest of goths.
The main plot revolves around a murder mystery, with Luci (naturally) being the prime suspect. Her acolyte Laura thinks she is being framed though, and lots of complications ensue when other forces and players enter into the picture. I have to say that I enjoyed the crisp, clean art, the various plot twists, and the cheeky humor, though there are times I feel there is a forced "coolness" (I am old, so I don't know what it's called today) where some of the characters just come off as being insipid jerks.

This book is the creation of Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matthew Wilson. Gillen and McKelvie have many credits in comics, and they have also collaborated on a number of other works, including the creator-owned Phonogram and Young Avengers from Marvel. Wilson has tons of comics credits and also is a host of the War Rocket Ajax podcast. All of the creators speak about their work on this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have leaned positive but with reservations.  Don Ventura was intrigued but called it "beautiful to look at while being uneven to read." Doug Glassman called it a "love it or hate it" book and wondered if it "would possibly make a better television series than comic book." Jean-Luc Botbyl generally enjoyed it and wrote that the series "has a lot of potential, but definitely has a long way to go."

The Faust Act is available from Image Comics, and they provide more info here. The series is ongoing, and is currently at issue 10. Issue 11 will conclude the storyline began here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse was released in France in 2010, and it was a huge success there. 5 years later, we Anglophones are finally getting to see the book in our language. The main character in this book is Zoe, a young woman who works as a model at car shows. She hates her job because she gets leered at all day, and when she gets home to her stoned and negligent boyfriend things are not much better.
The fanny pack only adds to the creep factor.

One day while eating lunch, she catches the eye of a reclusive man and learns that he is an author. After they meet, she gets drawn into his life, which brings new passion, mystery, and a surprising romantic triangle. I know that this book might sound like a cheesy romantic comedy, but I think it also transcends the genre with its twists and turns. All I can say is that I felt very sucked into the story.

I did find the narrative very compelling and surprising, but the things I love most about this book is its artwork, with its geometric shapes and stylistic figures. Such work is deceptively simple looking, but the elegant lines easily communicate emotion and movement with grace and impact. I also enjoyed the interplay of the coloring, which varied from bright and garrulous to muted and reserved depending on the scene. I found myself lingering over many of the images and going back over them to drink in the linework and colors.

Pénélope Bagieu is an accomplished artist and graphic novelist in France, where she was awarded the high honor Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for her contribution to the world of art and literature. She has drawn many different comics, the most famous being Joséphine, and also had them adapted into films. She is something of a Renaissance woman, active as a musician drumming in a band and also blogging about her many works and travels here (in French). If you are interested in learning more about Bagieu and her work (and why wouldn't you be?), check out this great interview with her at The Mary Sue.

I really enjoyed this book, but reviews I have read have been mixed. Kayla Farber gushed, "I highly recommend this book. It’s so relevant and humorous and poignant." Nick Smith wrote "As I read this book, I was drawn into the story bit by bit and before I knew it I was hooked and when it was over I was sad.  Very sad.  Distraught even that there was no more to be had." Sam Quixote was more negative about the book, stating, "It’s well-drawn and quite well written but plotted like a cheap and trashy romance novel that floats off into fantasy-land by the end." Emily at Pop Kernal also had some reservations and concluded that although "this novel does not reside in my top lists, it was admittedly an enjoyable, light read for a Wednesday night."

Exquisite Corpse was published by First Second, who has a preview and much more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!