Sunday, December 30, 2012


This is a tough book to explain because it has a lot going on. Ichiro is a young son of a Japanese woman and American GI who finds himself in Japan for his mom's job. Unbeknownst to him, the move may be permanent, which bothers this lifelong New Yorker. Dealing with the change in geography as well as his father's death, Ichiro is helped acclimate by his grandfather, who shares with him a great many stories about Japanese and Chinese history and legend as well as about his own family.

That's about half of the book. The rest involves a plot with a mischievous, shape-shifting raccoon who takes the form of a tea pot and traveling to the spirit world where Ichiro sees the results of an on-going struggle between legendary figures Amaterasu, Lord Yoritomo, Hachiman, and Susano. This fictional war has overtones that mesh with the events of World War II and also the Iraq War, where Ichiro's father was killed.

Apparent from all I have described is that this book has plots within plots, and that its mix of fictional and real world concerns makes for an interesting presentation. Themes of loss, loyalty, betrayal, war, pride, and identity undulate like waves throughout. I felt this was a complex, thoughtful book that left me perplexed in places but also willing and eager to reflect and reread. I am not sure all this material coalesces in a satisfying manner, but this is certainly a book that begs to be read more than once.

This book's creator Ryan Inzana is a designer and illustrator whose work has appeared in advertisements and magazines. He has also produced two other graphic novels, Johnny Jihad, a fictional account inspired by John Walker Lindh and the Columbine shootings, and an adaptation of Stud Terkel's Working, written by Harvey Pekar. I thought his artwork and storytelling in Ichiro was strong, with good use of color and line. The size, format, and excellent paper quality also added to its luster. Inzana speaks about his work on this book in these two interviews.

Reviews I have read about Ichiro have been mixed, commenting on its strengths and drawbacks. The reviewer at Literary Treats "applaud[ed] his creative approach at tackling such a disturbing, emotional subject matter" and also added that this is a "great graphic novel for anyone who wants to learn more about Japan, or about the Japanese side of World War II history." In a lukewarm review Infodad commented that this book "simply tries too hard to do too much – it has well-done moments but is not, as a whole, especially compelling."

Ichiro is published by Houghton Mifflin. There is a preview available at Amazon.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Our Movie Year

Harvey Pekar was well known for his autobiographical comics, particularly his decades long series American Splendor. He became a fixture on Late Night with David Letterman, and eventually his idiosyncratic voice was portrayed in the 2003 film American Splendor directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and starring Paul Giamatti. This movie won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Fim Festival and also brought Pekar an unprecendented level of fame and attention. This graphic novel mostly chronicles the year the movie broke.

With its pages, Harvey worries about his post-movie life, fearing all the attention will go away and he will be seen as a flash in the pan. He also details his many travels (sometimes telling the same tale more than once), brushes with famous folk, and obsesses over care for his cats, house, and bills while he is gone. Ironically, maybe the most affecting stories, about a vet visit for a cat and another about a saltwater aquarium doomed by a power outage, have nothing to do with the movie. Also, the last third of the book contains a number of various and sundry works Harvey wrote about celebrities and musicians from the past as well as his selections for the movie soundtrack, making for an interesting, if disconnected, hodge-podge.

This book was illustrated by an all-star team of Pekar's collaborators, including R. Crumb, Frank Stack, Gerry Shamray, Gary Dumm, Ed Piskor, and Dean Haspiel. Their different styles cast different tones for the stories and events, echoing the look of past American Splendor comic books and also the metanarrative of the film. Pekar, who wrote the stories in this book, died in July of 2010, and his life is properly celebrated in this obituary.

Reviews I have read of this book have been on the negative side, perhaps due to comparison with the usual high standards set by Pekar's other works. The Onion A.V. Club's Tasha Robinson wrote, "The results are scattershot and even sometimes impersonal, which is unusual for Pekar's work. It seems incongruous that his world-hopping and his celebrity encounters should so often be humdrum, while his detailed recounting of an hour spent waiting for a tow truck is so involving." The reviewer at Grovel commented on how the book is uneven but "despite its faults this is a great companion to the movie, not least of all because it goes further behind the scenes than even the movie itself did." Kevin Forest Moreau concluded that this book was a weak offering in the American Splendor corpus, "somewhat intimidating and, yes, padded."

This book was published by Ballantine Books.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Graphic Canon, Volume 2: From "Kubla Khan" to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Graphic Canon is an ambitious project that began earlier this year with the first of a projected trilogy of tomes. It has garnered positive attention from a number of prominent sources, including The New York Times, and this the second volume ranges roughly from the Romantic to Victorian literary eras. Not all of the entries are sequential art, and some are stand alone illustrations or text pieces with a few illustrations. Most of them have not been published before. This volume focuses more on British literature than the prior one, which was more international, but it still contains a number of winning entries from exciting creators, including established figures as well as up-and-comers.
Among my favorites are:

As you can tell, there is a lot of ground, both in terms of content and styles, covered within these pages. Most of it is not for young children, but other than the inclusion of an excerpt of Venus in Furs, nothing is beyond the ken of typical high school students. It seems that editor/provocateur Russ Kick played it a little safer with this volume. Maybe he is saving up "the good stuff" for the final volume, which will be more contemporary in scope?

Reviews I have read about volume two might not be as positive as they were about volume one, but they are still strongly in its favor. Emphasizing the worth of this book, Publishers Weekly wrote, "Apart from containing insightful introductions and wonderful artwork, these selections have a not-to-be-underestimated pedagogical value that educators will no doubt find invaluable in bringing classic works of literature to a 21st-century audience immersed in visual culture." Glenn Dallas offered a more tempered opinion, calling this collection "pretty hit-or-miss, depending on the source material and the artist," adding, "but it’s still an impressive sampling of historical and literary touchstones." Buzz Poole concluded that most of what is in this volume "exceeds expectations for how it absorbs familiar texts and shapes new lives into them, reminding readers how words read in a book can color so much of life that exists far beyond the page."

The Graphic Canon, Volume 2 is published by Seven Stories Press. A YouTube preview is available from the editor. Also, a number of preview images are available here from Brain Pickings.

Thank you, Gabe, for the review copy!

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Unemployed comedian/actor Guy Krause gets the opportunity to do what many people would like in this graphic novel: to go back and change his past. He is approached to volunteer for an experiment in virtual reality where he can relive experiences and change their outcomes. Imagine being able to go back and ask out that crush that never was consummated, to mend relationships with estranged parents, to make those changes to avoid that horrible divorce, to make that bet to strike it rich. Guy gets to do all those things and more, and if things go horribly awry, he can hit the reset button and try again.

What makes this book interesting and not just a riff on Groundhog Day is not just that Guy is unstable and unpredictable to the point where he jeopardizes the experiment, but also that there is a mystery as to how the programmers know so much about the intimate details of his past and another as to who exactly is backing this experiment and why. Some of these questions are addressed by the end of this book but some remain clouded. It is a stretch to say that the characters here are likeable, but they are very human, relatable, and intriguing.

Many of the themes in this book are common to the work of Peter Bagge. In the more than three decades he has been working in comics he has explored the mundane realities of people's lives, the outcomes of their choices, and the effects of changing trends and technologies. His series Neat Stuff and Hate are seminal alternative comics works, and his more recent stuff such as Apocalypse Nerd and Other Lives remain topical and relevant. Bagge talks more about his career and work on this series in this interview.

Online reviews I have read about this book have been on the positive side. James Hunt wrote that there is "a strong, traditionally structured story at the heart of this issue and plenty of directions in which it could develop." Chuck Suffel called it "an interesting book, witty and weird," that is enhanced by Bagge's "unique art style." Rob Wells commented that  "Reset isn’t exactly hilarious, but these two comics raised quite a few smiles, and even a few sniggers." Emmanuel Malchiodi wrote that this book was "both funny and engrossing."

Previews for each of the individual issue are available here from the book's publisher Dark Horse.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Please consider funding this project

Dara Naraghi and Brent Bowman are comics creators whose latest project Persia Blues is about a young woman trying to reconcile the past and present in Iran. It will be gorgeously illustrated, well-researched, and well-written, tackling big issues about identity in entertaining and provocative manner. The book is the first in a trilogy to be published by NBM.

This book is a huge undertaking and in order to compensate the artist for all the time spent on research and study, there is a modest Kickstarter funding drive going on. There is less than a week remaining to pledge money to this worthy project, and rewards include signed books, original art, getting yourself drawn as a character in the book, and more.

Here is a link to the Kickstarter page.

Here is a link to some of Brent's artwork in progress.

This seems an excellent project to me, so I hope it reaches its funding goal.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tribute to Spain Rodriguez

Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez, a prolific and seminal underground comix artist who produced work over five decades died November 28, 2012. He published one of the first underground comix series, Zodiac Mindwarp, and was probably most famous for his creations Trashman and Big Bitch. His social views showed through in his many counter-culture works, including his recent biography of revolutionary Che Guevara. A list of his various works can be found here, and his thoughts have also been well expressed in this interview about his Trashman series. Spain's artistic chops were well-honed from decades of drawing and creating his own works, which can be seen on his official website (note: NSFW).

Here is his obituary from The New York Times (also where I got the image above). This collection of thoughts, remembrances, and reflections from a variety of his colleagues, readers, and collaborators from Tim Hodler at The Comics Journal is an excellent celebration of the man. The Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon also has amassed a number of links to various tributes.

RIP, Spain.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Happy 55th Birthday, Peter Bagge!

Famous for his swirly, frenetic, and cartoony style, Peter Bagge is a groundbreaking and prolific comics artist whose work helped define and steer the comics art scene after the underground comix period. His editorship of Weirdo as well as his series Neat Stuff in the 1980s led to his work on Hate, and were instrumental in ushering in the alternative comics scenes of the 1990s and 2000s. His works have also appeared in numerous non-comics venues, such as Reason magazine and the notoriously over-the-top tabloid The World Weekly News.

Early in his career, Bagge was published by Robert Crumb in Weirdo and was eventually named editor of that alt-comics precursor. He went on to publish Neat Stuff at Fantagraphics, giving readers a number of different characters and storylines. Among his observational humor and parodies were the brash, annoying Girly Girl, the pathetic man-child Junior, the oblivious Goon in the Moon, the grating shock-jock Studs Kirby, and dysfunctional suburban family The Bradleys.

After this series ended, Buddy, the eldest Bradley son, went on to star in Hate, which along with Dan Clowes' Eightball, is considered one of the major alternative comics series of the 1990s. The early issues of the series followed Buddy as he moved to Seattle and navigated the nascent grunge scene. This series is notable because it shows Buddy aging as it goes along. It is still published today on an annual basis, with Buddy now being a father and cantankerous business owner in New Jersey.

Although Bagge has spent the majority of his career on his own creations and on his own terms, he has had a few forays into the two big comics companies. He wrote and Gilbert Hernandez drew nine issues of the comic book series Yeah!, which was a fun, gorgeous look at a pop band who happened to tour in outer space, for DC Comics. At the same company, he wrote and drew the comics industry parody Sweatshop. He also did some work at Marvel, producing the very interesting and provocative, if not-well-received-at-the-time, The Egomaniacal Spider-Man and The Incorrigible Hulk, which was shelved for a long time before it was finally published in an anthology.

Today, Bagge remains creative, topical, and independent with his work. He has worked on series such as Apocalypse Nerd, a survival story set in the Pacific northwest after a nuclear attack from North Korea. He has also explored the effects of technology on people's lives in the graphic novel Other Lives and series Reset.

In non-comics arenas, Bagge has published a strip about Bat Boy, The World Weekly News's mascot. In that insane run, Bat Boy has all kinds of adventures, gets elected president of the US, and eventually ends up marrying Beyoncé (who, it turns out, is actually a Bigfoot). In a more serious vein, Bagge has been a contributing editor and cartoonist for Reason magazine for a number of years now. This has been the primary forum for his work that details his Libertarian views, and a bunch of his strips have been collected in Everybody is Stupid Except for Me. Bagge talks more about his work and views in this interview.

In 2010, Bagge won the prestigious Inkpot Award for his achievements in comics. He also won Harvey Awards in 1991 for Best Cartoonist and Best New Series for his work on Hate. For his various works over time, he has also been nominated for multiple Eisner Awards.

On top of being an accomplished comics creator Bagge has also been an active musician, for years in a band called the Action Suits and currently in Can You Imagine? Check out their MySpace page for more of their songs, especially if you like a 1960's pop sound with a lot of harmonies.

Is it clear yet that I am a huge fan of this guy? I wish him a very happy birthday!

Monday, December 10, 2012

One Dead Spy

This first volume of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, fittingly enough, tells the tale of Nathan Hale. It is also written and drawn by Nathan Hale. Hale was a Yankee spy during the American Revolutionary War who is probably best known for his famous last words. In this book, just before he is hanged, something magical happens, and he is given full view of American history. To stall his inevitable end he starts telling stories to a talkative hangman and a priggish British proctor, beginning here with his own. Those two make great foils for each other and for Hale as well. This situation sets up a sturdy storytelling engine, as Hale acts as Scheherezade, setting up a series of books. Its first sequel was released simultaneously, Big Bad Ironclad.

Adding to a narrative delivered in enjoyable fashion, Hale also provides copious back matter, including a reading list for future research. He also provides a section for fact-checking, run by babies(!) and a bonus story about Crispus Attucks. This book surely does not skimp on information about the people and events of this time period.

Creator Nathan Hale already has drawn two graphic novels, Rapunzel's Revenge and its sequel Calamity Jack. He has also drawn a variety of children's books, including Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody and The Dinosaurs' Night Before Christmas. He shares his publications, news, and fun artwork via his blog.

Reviews I have read about this book thus far have been very positive. Travis from 100 Scope Notes gushed, "Full of thrilling moments, engaging historical information, and boundless creativity, this is what graphic novel nonfiction for kids should be." Kirkus Reviews called the book, "An innovative approach to history that will have young people reading with pleasure." Brett Schenker wrote that "it’s great to be able to read something that’s entertaining for both kids and adults (and educational)!" Mike Pawuk at the School Library Journal concluded, "With Nathan, the Hangman, and the British Soldier, the mix of humor, adventure, and historical facts makes this an engaging historical series, and I can’t recommend it high enough for all libraries."

One Dead Spy is published by Amulet Books. There is a preview available at Amazon.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Saga of the Bloody Benders

Based on shocking true events, The Saga of the Bloody Benders tells of a family that settled in Kansas as a result of the Homestead Act of 1862, calling themselves the Benders. The beautiful young daughter Kate was beguiling to many men, and she also worked as a healer and a medium, displaying a disturbing connection with the spirit world. The family opened a small grocery store and an inn on a main travel route, and many of the people who came through the area with money in their pockets to stake their own claims stayed a night there. Many of them were never seen again. Months later, when investigators finally zeroed in on the goings-on of the Bender family, they disappeared and were never found.

The horrible evidence of their deeds was all that was left, as no one could even determine the family's identity. The murder weapons and grisly corpses contributed to a gruesome, sensational tale that spread across the US. The story of the "Bloody Benders" fascinated many, and legends have arisen about their identities and their final fates. The mystery of the Bloody Benders still continues to intrigue people to this day. Currently, director Guillermo Del Toro is working on a motion picture version of the story.

Rick Geary is an acclaimed and accomplished comics creator whose attention to craft is evident. As with many of the volumes in Treasury of Victorian Murder series, this book is meticulously researched and detailed. I particularly liked his many maps and house diagrams in this book, as well as the many scenarios he presents about the possible circumstances and identities of this "family." Coupling this verisimilitude with expert pacing and storytelling, Geary did an excellent job of creating an ominous, foreboding tone while maintaining a journalistic style.

The Saga of the Bloody Benders has been an well regarded book, with a section excerpted in Best American Comics (2008) and it also being named a YALSA Great Graphic Novel. Accordingly, it has been reviewed well. Andrew Wheeler praised it for Geary's "lively art – particularly the very expressive faces of his characters – and his amazingly useful diagrams and maps makes his work unique and compelling." Publishers Weekly called the art "exquisite" and the writing "riveting." Andy Shaw was a bit more lukewarm about the book, enjoying the art but criticizing the writing's "dry but authoritative tone, which leaves it feeling like a decent dissemination of the known information on this mysterious, murdering family."

Here is a preview from the book's publisher NBM.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Powers, Volume 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?

In a world where superheroes are real, Retro Girl is the world's most acclaimed superheroine, part Supergirl, part Wonder Woman in power, stature, and popularity. Shockingly, this seemingly invulnerable, god-like being turns up dead on the street one morning, and it is up to the police to figure out what happened. Is her death connected to the mysterious graffiti "Kaotic Chic" that is appearing all over town? Was it the act of a supervillain bent on revenge? How did anyone even manage to harm her in the first place? These are the mysteries that the police, primarily main characters Christian Walker and his new partner Deena Pilgrim have to tackle.

Most of what's interesting about this book, to me, lays with the interactions between Walker and Pilgrim. He is obviously a dark character with a past who is strangely familiar with the typically aloof superheroes, and she is strong-willed, spunky, and perhaps just a little too willful and insightful for his liking. Consequently, Powers reads like an R-rated, mismatched buddy-cop book that just happens to be set in a superheroic world.

This volume and series was created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming. Bendis is a very successful comics writer best known for his use of dialogue and a multiple Eisner Award winner. He has been one of the primary architects of the Marvel Comics universe over the past decade, writing Daredevil, Ultimate Spider-Man, Alias, and The New Avengers among other titles. He also has a number of original series/graphic novels to his name, such as Goldfish, Jinx, and Torso. Oeming has worked on a number of comics series, though he is best known for his work on Thor as well as his original series Bulletproof Monk and Mice Templar

Most of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive, though not always overwhelmingly so. Andy at Grovel praised Bendis's "snappy and tense" dialogue as well as Oeming's "deeply characterised" art style. Ken Zeider admired the book and wrote "Powers does a great job of bringing the Film Noir genre into comic books, and if you love mysteries you’re going to love this book." Alex Bernstein cautiously recommended the series' potential, stating that it "could easily be one of the strongest and most compelling books on the market. I just wish the creators would stop trying to be 'cool' and start exploring the hearts and minds of their cast."

Powers has been a well received series in general, winning an Eisner Award for best series. Also, it has been the subject of some pilot attempts for adaptation into a TV series. Currently it is under development for FX.

Who Killed Retro Girl? has had a varied publication history. Originally an Image series, currently it is published under the Icon imprint of Marvel Comics.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pete and Miriam

Pete and Miriam are twenty-somethings who are lifelong friends, and this book shows many episodes from throughout their lives. Flashing back and forth through time, we see them go to film school, date different people, go trick-or-treating, meet, pull pranks, drink, dabble in punk rock, and deal with high school. There is no single narrative thread, but we get several impressions about them and their lives that add up to give a fuller picture of these characters. I think that Pete comes off worse than Miriam, but what is palpable is the strong relationship between the two. Also, they really like movies.

Writer/artist Rich Tommaso has been creating comics for the better part of two decades. He won an Eisner Award for his work on the graphic novel Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, and he has a great variety of works available for preview at his official website. Currently he is also working on re-coloring reprints of classic Carl Barks stories for Fantagraphics. Tommaso speaks about his career at length in this interview at The Comics Reporter.

Reading this book, I enjoyed the idiosyncrasies of Pete and Miriam's relationship as well as Tommaso's expressive art. He has a great feel for the characters, and I appreciate how he shows them at different times in their young lives. I have found few reviews online about this book, and they have been mixed thus far. Matt Demers wrote about how the book was structured, "I was a bit perplexed after I read through it because... the stories jump around through different times." He added, "I really felt as if I had read a collection of stories with no connecting tissue between them." I would counter that there are connections between the stories, especially once you realize they are all about the same two people. The reviewer at the Stumptown Trade Review enjoyed the realism of the book and concluded, "Do yourself a favor and pick up Pete and Miriam today."

Pete and Miriam was originally published in France, and it was published in the US by Boom! Studios. Here is a sizable preview posted at the Graphic Novel Reporter.

On a side note, I met Tommaso at HeroesCon this summer and he signed my copy of this book and also provided a fun illustration. He is a great guy!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Country Nurse

The third book of the Essex County Trilogy, The Country Nurse simultaneously looks backward and forward. Most of the story happens now, focusing upon Anne Quenneville, a widowed nurse who  "meddles" some in the lives of the townfolk in Essex County. She has lost her husband and is caring for her twentysomething-year-old son, who is distant from her. While she makes her rounds, she looks back at what has happened in the past, finding old wounds, lost relationships, and a present where people do not always know where they came from or even who their parents are.

Constantly, the reader is shown the bleak, spare landscape of the area, which takes up a role like a character among this cast of damaged and unfulfilled people. The book opens on a scene of sewing, and that metaphor runs throughout the book as Annie's trek across the county connects scenery, history, and characters into a narrative whole. This is some fine, subtle storytelling.

This graphic novel is the work of Jeff Lemire, a multiple award winning comics creator. He won a Xeric Award for his debut book Lost Dogs. He has also won a Young Adult Library Services Association Alex Award, a Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creator Award for Outstanding Cartoonist, and the Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent. Currently he writes multiple series for DC Comics, including Justice League Dark and Animal Man. He also has recently published an acclaimed, original graphic novel, The Underwater Welder. Lemire talks more about his work on the Essex County Trilogy in this interview.

Reviews of the book I have read praise Lemire's craft but offer cautious approval. Hebdomeros wrote that Lemire's art is "more cinematic than ever here" but that this book "is completely dependent on what occurred in the first two; anyone new to this story will miss a lot of the subtext." And Andrew Wheeler concluded that it is "still a fine story about Canadians with truly epic-sized noses, and well worth reading for people who enjoyed the first two books – I just wouldn’t recommend starting the series here." I agree with these assessments: The Country Nurse artfully ties together the events of the first two books in the trilogy, but it is not as readable as they are as a stand-alone volume. Also, its revelations are not so impactful without a prior introduction to the characters.

A preview and much more is available from the book's publisher, Top Shelf.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dante's Divine Comedy

Seymour Chwast has had a long and distinguished career in art. In 1954 he co-founded the famous and influential Push Pin Studios with the all star artist team of Milton Glaser, Edward Sorel, and Reynold Ruffins. He has won numerous honors over his career, including the Augustus Saint Gaudens Award from The Cooper Union School of Art, a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and an Honorary Doctorate from Parsons School of Design. He was inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame in 1983. He has art pieces in many major museums, and in 2010, he published this book, his first graphic novel, an adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Typically seen as the pinnacle of Italian literature, The Divine Comedy is an epic poem from the 14th century consisting of three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante himself is the main character in the poem, traveling through the afterlife with the help of a number of guides along the way. As they go through Hell and rise up through Heaven they encounter a number of figures, from well known mythical characters like Odysseus to historical ones like Emperor Constantine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Also, we see a number of Dante's contemporaries, with the tensions and pettiness involved in his exile from Florence cropping up in their final fates.

This adaptation highlights this work as both an allegory and a satire that combines theology and philosophy in an artful, provocative manner. In presentation it takes a few liberties, such as depicting the poet/guide Virgil wearing a bowler and Dante Aligheri wearing a trenchcoat and fedora like some kind of hard-boiled detective, but it all works stylistically and economically.

Reviews I have read about this book have been overwhelmingly positive. G. Chiaramonte from The Literateur offered that this book is not something to replace reading Dante's works but acts more like "a visual accompaniment, something to be enjoyed and sometimes even consulted in conjunction with the poem." In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews wrote that Chwast "makes the Divine Comedy irresistibly comic and inspirationally transcendent." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly praised the craft in this book, "With his signature mix of humor, artistry, and high-level design, he conveys a breathtaking amount of information in clear black and white line drawings."

This graphic novel was published by Bloomsbury. A preview page is available here from The New Yorker. A few more preview pages are available here from The Huffington Post.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Burma Chronicles

This is the third travelogue from Guy Delisle, an illustrator and animator who travels the globe for work and also to accompany his wife who is involved in Doctors without Borders. Thus, he gets around to some very interesting places. He is a Canadian and his primary language, as you can tell from his blog, is French.

This is his most best, most insightful book to me, as it delves into the political milieu in Myanmar as it relates to Doctors without Borders much more than the others. There is much discussion about whether the organization can operate in this country independently in ways that treat those in need or if it is being turned into an instrument of the state that openly discriminates against those the dictatorial regime deems enemies. Added to this political dilemma is the fact that Delisle is for the first time in a country along with his infant son, placing him in everyday contexts and allowing him to see the social conditions as both a citizen and a parent.

Reviews I have read about the book have been very positive. The Guardian's Rory MacLean praised the book, calling it "the most enlightening and insightful book on Burma in years," and adding, "The key to its success are Delisle's whimsical, black-and-white drawings, as well as his endearingly naïve and humorous self-portrait. Together his honesty and minimal line disarm the reader, drawing him or her into Delisle's life, learning as he learns the truth about the struggle for survival under the generals." J. Caleb Mozzocco called Delisle's work "highly evocative minimalism," going on glowingly, "He’s spent a decade in animation, and it certainly shows in his command of the page, and the time and space the panels suggest upon it." Kirkus Reviews called the book an "insightful, illuminating memoir."

This book was published by Drawn and Quarterly. Some preview images and reference material for the book have been provided here by the author.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Adventures of Venus

Love and Rockets month is over, but the fine books from Hernandez brothers just keep coming! This one is made up installments originally published in Measles, an anthology for children that Gilbert edited in 1999 and 2000, with one new story to introduce the volume. It follows Venus, a young girl who lives with her mother Petra. Venus is very active, playing soccer, shopping for her unique tastes, and having adventures with strange and fantastic aliens. She also has an ongoing rivalry with her frenemy Glinda Gonzalez that adds spice to the proceedings.

Gilbert (Beto) Hernandez is one half of the creative juggernaut that has been creating Love and Rockets comics for the last three decades. He has also been productive with self-contained graphic novels, like Sloth and  The Troublemakers. One of comics most highly regarded creators, Beto has won many awards over his career, including the InkPot Award in 1986, the Kirby Award in 1985, multiple Harvey Awards, and a 2009 Fellow Award from United States Artists.

Reviews I have read about this book have been very positive though somewhat cautious. Drew McCabe praised the book as occurring in "that special place in between that catches that transition from childhood into adolescence, which doesn’t get captured on the comic book page much, and is a rare treat that Hernandez delivers here to such perfection." Peter Gutierrez was more reserved about the book, writing "while certainly young readers should appreciate many aspects of the book, some of its content may land as so idiosyncratic (albeit playfully so) as to inaccessible." Sheena McNeil also praised the book, "It's a good, well-done, fun comic I definitely recommend giving to younger readers." In this case, younger means about grade 8. I think the book is quite charming, though Gilbert's often surreal visions might not be for everyone.

A preview, video preview, and even more is available here from the book's publisher Fantagraphics. Here is another preview from Robot 6.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Love and Rockets Month Coda

Thanks for reading my ramblings about Love and Rockets this month, and thank you also for bearing with me when I fell behind and was not posting as regularly as I would like. It has been a difficult yet rewarding experience for me, and I have a new-found respect for those who review comics on a regular, daily basis. This endeavor is way harder than it looks, and I hope that I have given you something to think about, enjoy, or look into.

I realize that I have presented the first volume of this series in the order they were originally collected, but today they are available in a different format. Those books are detailed in this helpful guide How to Read Love and Rockets by Fantagraphics, the fine folks who have published this series for the past three decades. I truly feel that the Hernandez brothers have created some of the best works available in graphic novel form. They are well worth checking out, if you have not already.

Happy anniversary, Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario! Thank you for all the great comics!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Love and Rockets Volumes 13-15

Love and Rockets month comes to a thrilling conclusion today as I post about the last three volumes in the original run of the series. Enjoy!

Chester Square

This book ranges far and wide with its plot. For the most part it follows Maggie as she wanders about, trying to make sense of all the upheaval and loss in her life. For stretches of the story, she is stranded at a bus station in Chester Square, where she has to contend with lonely guys, a surly prostitute named Ruby, suspicious business owners, and local law enforcement. Alternatively, she also ends up on the road with professional wrestlers, and she muddies the waters of her personal and professional relationships along the way. All the while, she encounters conflict and decisions about who she should be and who she should associate with.

Names are a big deal in this book, and it seems that Maggie goes through many in the course of growing up. Not really a cipher, she is more a lost soul casting about looking for an identity and fulfillment, only to be deterred by bad relationships, tragedies, or just plain poor planning. Her journey feels like some sort of allegory or morality tale, with the elements of a cowboy western, Jack Kirby's Fourth World (a couple of characters look a little too much like Oberon and Highfather to be coincidental), Lee and Ditko's Spider-Man,and a Twilight Zone episode. Maggie is a wanderer in search of meaning, a sort of woman-with-no-name. Or rather, a woman-with-many-names.

Jaime's artful weaving of stories and characters evokes so many emotions and touchstones that this book feels monument, a meaningful highpoint in the Locas narrative and also in comics in general. The ending is a thing of beauty, sweet but not treacly. Jaime would eventually return to this series and these characters, but there is a sense of closure here and a rare moment of happiness after much drama and travail. Reading this book was a rewarding and moving experience for me.

My Rating: A masterpiece. Probably my favorite book from this first series.

Luba Conquers the World

Gilbert has long juggled a huge cast in his Palomar stories, and with this book he pushes his limits even further. Luba's past and present collide here, as she has grown older, settled down some, and moved to the United States. We get to see how life has treated her and also how a large number of the other characters have aged and established their own lives. We see them in America working as entertainers, entrepreneurs, and menial workers. They cover a gamut of sensations and fates.

Add to all these happenings flashbacks to Luba's childhood as well as Maria's (Luba's mother) life, including her involvement with criminals, violence, and her various children. It turns out Luba has two long-lost sisters, Petra and Fritz, who have their own stories and relations to account.

All of these ingredients combine into a huge story motor that has many moving parts. At times, scenes burst forth with emotion, energy, and intrigue. It is easy to get lost in all of these interconnected narratives, but certain themes and images appear again and again. The mysterious nature of family relations are examined, as well as the cycles that generations may follow. The characters frequently try to raise themselves up and strive for the best things in life, but they spend much time in the grime and grit of life. Still, Gilbert exposes the positive that can come from glorying in those places. Wallowing in the mud might be undesirable in the long run, but it is where many people get their starts and there are joys in these visceral experiences.

Life here is depicted as striving to reach for something better, something brighter, something maybe out of reach. Luba's version of conquering the world, like Gilbert's work in general I could contend, is humble, humbling, and amazing.

My Rating:There is so much packed in this volume, and it left me breathless, exhausted, and mostly fulfilled.

Hernandez Satyricon

This volume is a sort of catch-all, collecting various and sundry tales from all three Hernandez brothers. The stories are frenetic, full of crazy energy, and they are frequently profane, playful, and shocking. I can't say anything really stands out as particularly memorable beyond shock value, but the half of this book that contains promotional drawings, calendar panels, alternative covers, and poster art is full of crazy, beautiful ideas and gorgeous imagery.

I think this is more a book for long-standing fans who want to see rarities from the series.

My Rating: Mostly for L&R completists.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Love and Rockets Volumes 10-12

As we speed toward the exciting conclusion of Love and Rockets month, I will tackle the last 6 books three at a time. Starting with:

Love and Rockets X

Often described as a Nashville for the 90s, Love and Rockets X is ostensibly about music scenes, with quotations from all kinds of contemporary songs, from rap to more alternative bands, but it is also about racial tensions. These tensions crop up in competing musicians, rival clubs, and lots of macho posturing by people in the streets. Reading that last sentence, readers might just think that Gilbert is treading on Jaime's turf, and this book is partly concerned with capturing the spirit of the day much like Jaime's early work was concerned with capturing the voice of punk rock.

But it also busts out in surprising ways that connect to Gilbert's Palomar stories. We see lots of people who used to live there and who have immigrated over to the US, and their presence casts a different light on the story. More than just capturing the feel of a music scene, this book is also about a diverse cast of characters trying to make their way in a world and the problems that arise from miscommunication and variety. This story is not about a melting pot, but about how various people retain their flavors, sometimes turning out well and sometimes turning toward unrest, strife, or violence.

I think this book could almost be relegated to period piece status, but the presence of those Palomar characters rescues it from that fate. Gilbert's musician characters just don't do much for me. The opening and closing sequences that bookend the story seek to make this story seem universal, but to me they come off a little forced and cliched. Still, there are some great moments to be found in this book.

My Rating: Maybe my least favorite L&R book. Still well above the Mendoza Line.

Wig Wam Bam

Named after a Sweet song, this volume shows that Jaime's cast is older, though not necessarily wiser. The song reference harkens back to a childhood revelation. This backward glance is nostalgic in a way, but perhaps more wistful, as the characters are all caught up in all kinds of intricacies and relationships and there is little hope of returning to those youthful concerns.

So many things happen in this volume that I am not even going to attempt to summarize, but I will say that it also covers so much emotional ground that it boggles the mind. And the ending is brutal and devastating. This book is dense with action, symbolism, and deft character work. To top things off, the story and the art suit each other so well that the whole operation appears seamless. If I had to choose one word to describe Jaime's work it would be economy. Not a line or panel seems wasted in his delivery of an impactful story.

My Rating: Out of the park. A home run.

Poison River

I cannot tell a lie. This book really impressed me, but it was something I had to read in chunks.

Poison River is a series of stories that span time and space. It tells about Luba, her life before she came to Palomar, and a tangled web of crime, deceit, and longing. Each character gets the spotlight for a story, highlighting a particular event or series of events in their lives. What complicates reading this book is that they all step in and out of each tale, and sometimes they look very different as the time-jumping means they are different ages in different stories.

Reading this book, I was struck by its emotional directness as well as its frank regard for sexuality. It deals with complex issues of determining sexual preferences, including choosing same-sex partners as well as confronting matters of obsession and incest. People's relationships drive their lives, and the complicated webs they weave ensnare the reader in a voyeuristic sense but they also seize the characters themselves as if they are doomed to certain fates all along.

This volume is an ambitious work, a life history done kaleidoscope-style, with constantly shifting main characters. This book is complex, and somewhat bewildering because the reader is constantly trying to reorient at the start of each tale. But, by golly, when you start making connections and realizations, it is a revelation akin to staring at one of those Magic Eye posters and suddenly seeing the image. In the end, there is a sense of the complete picture, even if there is not a single narrative thread that unifies the book. Still, there are plenty of shocking moments, secrets revealed, and emotions tweaked to make this a fine reading experience. I just don't recommend reading it all at once.

Full of crescendos and valleys, Poison River may disappoint some because it does not follow convention narrative patterns, but I feel it offers a rewarding reading experience. Moreover, this book just begs to be re-read.

My Rating:  The opposite of The Death of Speedy, this book is a window that has been shattered. Still, there are many pretty pieces to admire.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Flies on the Ceiling

Flies on the Ceiling

"Flies on the Ceiling" is a mature, masterful story about a breakdown. It is a dreamlike and horrific, as reality is melded with fantasy when Izzy has to deal with a choice that haunts her. She cannot run away from her thoughts, even though she runs far and wide to escape. She does find some relief in the form of a surrogate family, but ultimately that does not last. In the end we view this character who had largely been seen as quirky, strange, and sometimes ridiculous as a more realized, though damaged woman. This is a complicated and troubling tale: some see it as hackneyed with blatant symbolism while others view it as the intersection of grief, religiosity, and recovery.

The other Locas characters are well-represented in the rest of the stories. We learn more about Ray's life and childhood; we see how unhinged and needy Penny Century is as she tries to sabotage Maggie and Ray so to promote Maggie and Hopey.  We also glimpse into Doyle's life and see how he began on the path of violence, grifting, and drifting. He is a pathetic character who seems capable of so much more, but he continually gets beaten down by life events. When I heard Jaime talk about his work this summer at HeroesCon, he spoke of his proclivity to act as a villain who tortures his characters. That vibe comes through in this volume loud and clear.

Gilbert does not have much work in this volume, but his impressionistic, dreamlike bio of artist Frida Kahlo is so full of admiration, craft, and daring imagery that it holds its own with the title tale. The rest of his entries read like experiments in form and surreality.

My Rating: Like the movie said, "There are a million stories in the naked city." Jaime is determined to tell them all, and tell them well. A couple of throwaway tales detract from the book as a whole.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Blood of Palomar

Blood of Palomar

Yesterday, I reviewed Jaime's first masterpiece, The Death of Speedy, and today I am writing about the first solo Gilbert book in the series. As good as this book is I do not really count it as his first masterpiece because of the punch of his first "Heartbreak Soup" story. Still, there are a million serial killer stories out there, but "Human Diastrophism" stands out from the rest because of its small town context, human characters, and political overtones.

The book starts with three short stories and they are remarkable for their brevity, soul, and emotional impact. The drawings of young Pipo's pout and Vicente's sly smile from the first tale "Sugar -n- Spikes" are brilliant and striking, and they contribute to the excellent pacing and stagecraft. This great sense of the theatrical carries over into the main story, a huge saga of political and romantic intrigue as well as murder.

The story captures the zeitgeist of late Cold War paranoia, where people feared atomic conflagration. Tonantzin is probably most symbolic of this feeling, at first the comely barbosa vendor who inspires many men to lust becomes suddenly politicized, speaking out against the overbearing influence of the US and USSR superpowers, even in their small corner of the world. She becomes a protester and advocate, alienating some and firing up others.

The townsfolk are concerned with ridding themselves of bands of marauding monkeys who are scouring their land and creating havoc. The brutality of slaughtering these beasts is juxtaposed by the actions of a monster in their midst, someone who is killing random townsfolk. Additionally, the sense of paranoia that seizes the people in town is palpable.

As someone is killing random people in town, there is a witness who is paralyzed from speaking, though he does try to communicate his knowledge through art. This Cassandra-like figure adds a mythic, philosophical aspect to the proceedings. His interludes comment as much on the power and function of art as much as how people respond to incredible and horrific situations.

Perhaps this story is some statement about the price of advancement or progress. That is not for me to say definitively, but what matters is that there are so many images, symbols, and situations here ripe with meaning that makes many such analyses possible.

I will not ruin the ending, but I will say that it is one of the most powerful fictional conclusions I have experienced, shocking, horrible, and sweetly sorrowful.

My Rating: A heart-rending, impressive classic. Gilbert's ability to manage a huge cast is exceptional.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Death of Speedy

The Death of Speedy

This book is the first of these volumes to contain work from only one brother. Jaime's work here ends up on all kinds of "best of comics" lists. People love it, and it is easy to see why. A lot happens: Hopey goes on tour with her band La Llorana. Izzy's little brother Speedy and his boys are running in some tough circles. Maggie is left to her own devices and begins a relationship with Ray, an artist who is a decent guy and in many ways a stand-on for Jaime Hernandez. Hopey keeps missing opportunities to contact and reconnect with Maggie. After some band drama, she ends up spending two weeks in a huge mansion with Penny Century having casual sex with a large musician named Texas. Aunt Vicki gives Maggie a job and keeps sweeping her off on wrestling road trips.

Not only does much happen, there is also a gamut of emotions. The drama of macho posturing and the random danger that comes from armed young men revenging perceived disrespect. The pettiness of young couples trying to get back at one another for small slights. The pathos when Speedy tells Maggie he loves her and only her and she just cannot deal. The sad release of Speedy telling Izzy not to worry about him any more. The alternate monotony and random mayhem that happens during life on the road. The giddiness of the first days of a love affair.

For a person like me who did not take Jaime's work as seriously or with as much regard as his brother's, reading this book is a revelation. All the details and small goings-on from prior stories in these characters' lives suddenly cohere in this monumental work. Speedy, who up until this book was a relatively two-dimensional background character, steps into more prominence, and we see realize he is of more substance. Jaime's artfulness and incredibly subtle craftsmanship appears in full relief here, coalescing into a popular culture masterpiece that elevates the mundane, elucidates people's everyday lives, and portrays a complex array of emotions and relationships.

This book will make you laugh, cry, and want to go to a loud spectacle. It will also make you fall in love with all these people, which makes it hard to let some of them go.

My Rating: All the little pieces add up to a great, big, beautiful stained glass window of stories.