Monday, December 30, 2013

Maria M. Book One

Maria M. may be the most metatextual graphic novel ever. It is an adaptation of a movie written by a grandaughter about her grandmother, starring her aunt as the main character. And all of this is set in the fictional Palomar-universe Gilbert Hernandez has carefully and fulsomely developed over the past three decades. Also, the events recounted in the movie have were the topic of one of Beto's densest, most complicated narratives, Poison River.

The good news is that a new reader would have to know none of that, because this a lean, mean killing machine of a book. The story follows one Maria Martinez, immigrant in the USA trying to make her way. This opening illustration should tell you how the story is going to go.
She tries to find success in beauty contests, acting (in legitimate and stag films), dancing, wearing costumes at business conventions, and working in restaurants. Add to these struggles that she witnesses some very criminal business, she begins to attract attention from some very shady characters.
Through the course of events, Maria becomes many things, a bauble to be possessed, an object of desire, and a player in the world of organized crime and drugs. And that is only half the tale, as there will be a sequel.

This book is beautifully prurient. Gone here are the grotesque characters of Poison River, their parts played by the more traditionally attractive Hollywood actor types. Sex, violence, and all the hallmarks of exploitation cinema drip from these gorgeously rendered pages. Beto seems to be reveling in and through the artwork. Maybe the book is too beautiful, but it is interesting to see how the "cleaned up" version compares with the more literal one.

A master of graphic storytelling, Gilbert Hernandez has received many positive reviews. Tom Murphy wrote that even though he "can’t hold Maria M in the same affection as Beto’s more ‘human’ material," the book is "held in place by an almost mind-bogglingly complex cat’s cradle of metatextual references and correspondences." This book is both simple and complex, depending on how much of Beto's work the reader knows. That he is able to create work that can straddle such territory is amazing.

Maria M. Book One is published by Fantagraphics, who provide previews and much more here.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Graphic Novel Speed Round: Sequels and Continuations

I am off celebrating the holidays, but I thought I would do a big follow-up post on a few series I have written about before to see how they have been developing.

The latest installment in Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales (see one and two), Donner Dinner Party tackles a dark topic, the dire straits of the Donner Party. These ill-fated travelers were going west from Illinois to California, took a "short cut" that led them into treacherous territory, and became trapped in snow drifts in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In particular, the focus is on the Reed family, led by father James, who makes lots of calamitous decisions. But we also get to see much about his children as they find themselves in very unfamiliar and eventually dangerous circumstances. The tale highlights American ingenuity and enterprise but also pigheadedness and extreme survivalism where people resort to cannibalism to survive.

This volume follows in the tradition of the others, introducing elements of humor into well researched and presented facts and information. It is jam-packed with details, clear and expressive art, and also the sturdy framing aspect of the other volumes. Still, this may be the weakest volume of the three books for me, as I did not find this one as vibrant as the first or as exhilarating as the second. Perhaps the subject matter makes the jokes seem less funny to me, but it is still certainly an excellently presented historical graphic novel that is simultaneously informative and thought-provoking.

Out of all the books here, this one is most appropriate for YA readers. The books ahead are strictly for mature readers.

Next up is Fatale, a series I first wrote about here. In this second volume The Devil's Business, Josephine is laying low in Hollywood as a recluse holed up in a villa. Despite her not taking visitors or even going out into the public for any reason, she encounters a struggling movie star named Miles and a woman he is trying to protect when they end up in her backyard. The duo have stolen a film reel showing some very twisted, Satanic stuff, and the owners will do anything to get it back. Because of Josephine's enchantment (curse?), Miles immediately falls in thrall to her, though he does not quite realize it. The poor sap just thinks he's in love. Of course, complications arise and a body count mounts.

Brubaker's deft plotting and Phillips' atmospheric, evocative art combine to produce another winning volume in this series. They make excellent use of historical context: from the fashions and actor likenesses at various Hollywood parties, the time period is the late 1960s or early 1970s. There are references to Manson Family-type goings on, and this book has a genuinely creepy feel to it. In a style appropriate to its horror/noir precursors, lots of bad things happen within these pages, to the main characters and to the shady characters pursuing them. There are also compelling, dark plot twists as well as a few revelations that kept me yearning to know more about these mysterious characters' backgrounds. Good thing a third volume is now available...

War Torn concludes the epic begun in Volume 1 of Glory, which was one of my favorite books of 2012. Whereas that first volume is all about revelations and twists, this one focuses more on Glory's family relations. Apart from her free-spirited, volatile, violent, and obscenity-spewing little sister Nanaja, we also get to know her and her parents better. Nothing is as pat as it seems in this group of alien angels and demons, and what's worse, their creators, the Knights are coming back to Earth to either destroy or subjugate its inhabitants. Consequently, Glory calls in some favors and amasses a powerful, ragtag army to combat the coming menace, and the proceedings climax in a huge battle.

Although I do not think the plot was as tight as it was in the earlier volume and some of the scenes seemed short and choppy to me, writer Joe Keatinge still did a great job weaving together a good number of plot and subplots into a cohesive whole. The highlight here was the work of artist Ross Campbell (and a few additional collaborators) who produced a visually impressive display full of interesting character designs, dynamic action scenes, and personality. These creators completed a satisfying story in expert fashion, tying up their major plot points and having some satisfying moments while leaving plenty of leeway for a sequel.

I was very impressed with the first trade paperback of The Manhattan Projects, and They Rule continues with the mind-bending, sinister machinations of scientists with access to unlimited power and fantastic resources. This time, the oligarchs catch on to the amazing achievements the scientists are creating and they want to make sure they realize who is in charge still, so they rig computer system FDR to destroy its confederates. The scientists are geniuses, needles to say, and they catch on to this plan before it reaches fruition, and the resulting conflicts are violent, bloody, and spectacularly rendered.

Among the high points in this issue, apart from a very well plotted story by Jonathan Hickman and vigorous artwork from Nick Pitarra are the way-out depictions of historical figures in insane contexts. Crazy Masonic Harry S. Truman is one of my favorites, as are super-charged Yuri Gagarin and Laika. This frenetic and ingenious twist on historical science fiction continues to surprise, shock, and delight me. I am definitely in for future volumes.

The only reason why the first volume of Saga was not on my best of 2012 list was because I had not read it yet (What? I can't get to EVERYTHING in time). This is the series that bookstores advertise with signs that say, "If you have never read a comic book before, you should read this one." And deservedly so, I say. I found the first volume to be fresh, fun, fast-paced, and utterly engrossing, an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy.

This second volume is also full of amazing things like an asteroid that is actually an egg about to hatch, and the baby inside is non-too-pleasant. There are also breath-taking cliffhangers, and when the danger, action, and intrigue become most perilous, that's when the in-laws come to visit and everything goes to pot. The plot purrs along, and subplots are deftly woven in and out, as well as flashbacks. This book just keeps surprising and enchanting like a finely detailed tapestry, both in terms of the narrative and the finely rendered artwork. Saga is such a fast-paced, frequently funny, well scripted, and wondrous ride, and this volume is a worthy entry in an exciting series.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Archie's Pal, Kevin Keller

Homosexuality is a hot button issue in the US. Gay marriage laws and initiatives make headlines, celebrities and faux celebrities find themselves needing to make comments, and it seems everyone has an entrenched stance. Archie entered into this arena in the past couple years with the introduction of a gay character, Kevin Keller. Popular folks like Perez Hilton praised the company for including such a character, organizations recognized him as a powerful symbol, and news agencies seized the story. There was much publicity, but I ask, "Are the comics any good?"

My answer after reading this book is "kind of," leaning toward yes. Kevin adds an interesting dynamic to the group, a new friend to all, a person who can rival Jughead for his eating ability, a young man handsome enough to draw Veronica's attention away from Archie, a companion that makes girl-next-door Betty jealous because he monopolizes her best friend, and someone popular enough to run for class president. One big factor that makes me hesitate about Kevin is that he is sort of a Mary Sue, someone who seems good at everything. But he is just so darn likable still.
-1 for Bon Jovi, +1 for texting
The panel above kind of gives a flavor of the book. It instantly dates itself by making a pop culture reference to a 1980s hair metal anthem, but it is also trying to be in the now with the texting. There are also a number of other gags like this one, pointing out the confusing transition from old to new:
Moms are so silly when they try to keep up.
Kevin is kind of an interesting hybrid himself, a progressive social type who is a military brat and from a pretty conservative family (his mother calls herself a "grizzly mom" at one point) who loves and accepts him for who he is. I find that pretty admirable, that the character is introduced in such a way as a matter of fact. But at the same time, this also strikes me as a pretty conservative, maybe even jingoistic slant to the character.
We've come a long way from "Don't ask, don't tell."
Kevin's ambition to join the military is noble, but at the same time the impulse plays out that he will follow a pretty set path: get in town, get established, run for class president and (spoiler) win, have a first kiss, join the military, and then (another spoiler) get married. This all seems pretty quick to me, especially given that Archie has largely been in high school for the better part of seven decades and has only recently chosen between Betty and Veronica and gotten married (in a sort of alternative future story). Kevin is a potential wild card, but he ends up being one of the most conservative and eventually static characters in the Archie universe. Even his coming out stories, which were fascinating for me to see in an Archie book, were a bit pat and easy for my liking.

Still, I really liked the positive social message in this book that Kevin would be so easily accepted by most, even though there were still those who are bigoted and hateful, here embodied by rivals for class president. My only qualm about their portrayal was that they were so two-dimensional and easily dismissed, like cheap movie villains.
His name should be Dick, but it's not.
Maybe I am expecting too much nuance from a company that has trucked in Americana, conservative messages, teenage romance, and an idyllic suburban life for decades now. It is certainly positive that a character like Kevin has not only found a place but seems to thrive in Riverdale. I like the dynamic he adds to the proceedings, and I also like the tales drawn and crafted here by long-time Archie artist Dan Parent. These stories are jaunty, fun, and well balanced in terms of humor, action, and some measure of social awareness.

And thus ends my look at what Archie Comics is publishing currently. There have been some changes to keep current, catching onto trends of books for YA leaders and also expanding the line to include more diverse characters and story types, but the publisher still has an eye to republishing their classic stories and perpetuating an American nostalgia. I hope you have enjoyed my look at these books!

(On a side note, sorry for the lateness of this entry. Remind me never to do this daily blogging thing during a month with final projects, grading, and so much conference travel. What was I thinking?)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Archie Freshman Year, Book 2

Catching Up With Archie Week continues with a book that both looks forward and back, Archie Freshman Year, Book 2. I enjoyed the first volume in the series so much I came back for more.

The set-up by comic vets Batton Lash (of Wolff and Bird fame), Bill Galvan (creator of The Scrapyard Detectives), and Al Milgrom (co-creator of Firestorm and former editor at Marvel and DC) is to tell untold stories from the past about the Archie characters. In this book, we learn about why Jughead got his iconic S t-shirt and some more throw-away stories where Betty and Veronica make a YouTube movie for a radio contest, Reggie tries to hang out with older students, Chuck draws comic books, and new character Pencilneck G gets the gang involved in skateboarding and Jackass-style hi-jinks. Apart from the first story, this volume seemed more slight to me, not to say that the stories were not enjoyable. They just did not seem exceptional from regular Archie stories, only set in an earlier time period with some more contemporary references added.

Thinking about this book, and looking back at the rest of this week's offerings, it strikes me that as a whole Archie Comics are very much about the passage of time, looking at history, and dealing with change. That is not something I would have expected going into this week, and it might not be the grandest insight ever, but there it is. I might not always greet the conservative tenor of much of their books with open arms, but perhaps the willingness to grapple with issues of time and change are what have sustained the company for so long, as crops of new readers find stories that seem at once timeless but also very much interested in the passage of time and change to engage with.

Maybe I will get more insight into this matter tomorrow when I read about what I think is the most striking addition to the Archie cast: Kevin Keller.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Adventures of Little Archie, Volume 2

Catching Up With Archie Week chugs along with a look back at Archie's younger days. This is the second collection of Little Archie adventures, and I reviewed the first one here. This book expands on the first in that it covers stories by Dexter Taylor as well as Bob Bolling. Bolling is the originator on Little Archie and he shows off that he has not lost any of his storytelling chops in an original story produced just for this volume.
Oooh, look out for the frazzle beam!
This new plot by the Mad Doctor Doom is delicately yet fulsomely rendered, and in general, I find his stories to be more personable, full of adventure, human, and unique. For example, the verve of young Veronica is absolutely palpable in this panel from a story where Archie poses as a private eye.

Meanwhile, Taylor's stories lean more toward sitcom-style plots. His stories are frequently about Archie annoying Mr. Lodge

or full of pratfalls such as when the girls decide to teach Archie a lesson when he denigrates their abilities to play baseball.
These tendencies also pervade his more fantastical tales, such as the one where Jughead gets an alien for a pet, and the pet can grant wishes.
Still, Taylor's art style captures a lot of the energy and whimsy of youth. I find the art by both to be absolutely charming, and I like being able to appreciate and compare each artists' work here. Although I prefer one's stories to another, they are both entertaining. Taylor's stories are just more on the side of broad comedy while Bolling's seem more detailed and fleshed out adventure plots. One can do far worse than to check out this book for some wonderful art and delightful stories that young people will appreciate.

The book is available for purchase here.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Like I wrote in the intro to Catching Up With Archie Week, Archie Comics have not always focused on Archie. This volume is about characters that used to appear in short strips that ran from the late 1940s to the late 1970s. L'il Jinx was about a rough and tumble little girl and her friends. She frequently ran afoul of Charley, who was her friend and occasional bully, and played with next door neighbors Greg and Russ, her best friend Roz, and rich girl Gigi. The stories also featured her long-suffering dad, and the characters looked like this:

Although I am not old enough to have read these original stories, they appeared frequently in the many digest reprints I read growing up, and I developed a fond regard for this series.

I was curious to see how these characters translated into a more grown up, YA-type environment, and part of me feared the clumsy attempts to update such characters before (exhibit A). I was very pleasantly surprised by this book, and I daresay it is the best thing I have read from Archie this entire week. The story and characters are vibrant and engaging, and the story is fresh, relevant, and enjoyable.

The plot finds these characters starting high school, and there are some major adjustments to be made. Jinx struggles to reconcile her tomboyishness with the behavioral expectations of other high school girls. Additionally, she has a hard time leaving the past in the past.
Jinx and Charley: Round 1
She also has to deal with perhaps having feelings for nice guy Greg as well as a secret admirer who sends her flowers.

There are also various struggles over school politics, popularity, miscommunications, and bullying. Helping matters along, the characters' personalities are projected in simple yet complicated ways, and they are very human, fallible, and mostly endearing. This book could have been very easily akin to a bad sitcom playing for laughs or a boring service announcement presenting issues in a didactic manner, but it became something else. I found it to be very reflective of high school experiences, and I loved how the dynamics between the original characters were updated and enlivened.  Still, I do not think anyone would have to be familiar with their history to appreciate how the story unfolds.

All in all, these situations are realistic and well presented, and it seems obvious to me that this creative team has a real love for these characters as well as great storytelling sensibilities. Writer J. Torres has created various wonderful comics in the past, including the autobiographical The Copybook Tales, adventure stories starring Alison Dare, and other comics for the big two comics companies. Eisner Award-winning artist Rick Burchett is known for his crisp, clean lines and his work on Batman and Superman Adventures. Inker Terry Austin is comic book royalty who has worked with almost every major artist at every big company and is probably best known for his run on Uncanny X-Men. None of them are Archie house artists, but their collaboration is expert and accomplished.

Jinx works well capturing the feelings of unease, anxiety, joy, anticipation, and confusion that can arise in high school. I loved so much about it: the art, the characters, their relationship dynamics, and how the situations played themselves out. This book is an absolute gem.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Archie: The Married Life, Book 1

Yesterday, we saw the marriage part, but here we see how everything plays out. This book is a huge chunk of comics, and in its pages we see what happens as these characters get older. The storyline is split in two, alternating between the path where Archie married Veronica and the one where he married Betty. There are some common features between the two: Moose learns to manage his anger and decides to run for mayor.
Reggie and Veronica circle around each other, finding it difficult to break old patterns.
Mr. Lodge becomes more than a parental nuisance and reaches evil supervillain status as he tries to buy up all of Riverdale so he can turn it into a haven of strip malls, chain stores, national franchises, and vast parking lots.
Jughead decides he wants to buy the Choklit Shoppe and run it as his own, if he can afford it.
A standout Little Archie character in the stories by Bob Bolling, Little Ambrose returns to the proceedings, all grown up and running a restaurant/club.
Also, super-smart geek Dilton is curiously missing, but seems to be in the story as a mysterious time traveler who is trying to affect history.

That last element especially seems to color the narrative, as these stories gesture toward a continuity where all the Archie stories and characters of the past (including some very kooky ones) actually happened in part of a multiverse. This is a vast change from past Archie stories that, save for a few examples I can think of such as some of Samm Schwartz's Jughead stories or the 1987 Jughead series, were largely ahistorical comedies or parodies of popular culture. Stand-alone stories are what made it so easy for the editors to package and repackage so much material into various collections and digests, but here we see a series of interconnected comic books more in the narrative vein of typical superhero comics.

This extended narrative was about 100% better than the gimmicky marriage volume I reviewed yesterday. Sure, there are some still cheesy parts, such as the teens' former teachers all pairing up and getting married after all these years, but there are also genuine surprises and emotional moments in this book. The tensions of married life, shifting dynamics between characters who are growing up, and well-plotted narrative make for some very compelling reading.

The credit for a snappy story goes to Michael Uslan and Paul Kupperberg, two veterans of the comics industry. Uslan is a big-time movie producer and former university instructor who taught the first accredited course on comic books. Kupperberg is a writer and former DC Comics editor with a long list of credits. But perhaps the most appealing part of the book for me is the incredible artwork from Norm Breyfogle. Breyfogle is well known for a long run on Batman comics in the 1990s, and his distinction style conveys much action, emotion, and energy into the narratives. I love the dynamism of his layouts, and his style is dramatic and evocative here. He is a master draftsman whose artwork adds so much to the proceedings. There have been some excellent, admirable artists to draw this cast of characters over the years, but I do not think I have ever seen as lively an Archie comic ever before.

The book is available here for purchase, and there are also two consequent volumes already out.

Well, I have looked in at Archie as he is growing up. Tomorrow, I am turning my attention to a favorite minor character in the Archie universe who was given the YA literature treatment. Come on back and catch up with Li'l Jinx!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Archie in "Will You Marry Me?"

First up in Catching Up With Archie Week is marriage. For this book, writer Michael Uslan, probably the first person to teach an accredited college course on comic books and also the producer of the 1989 Batman movie, tells a landmark story. After decades of asking which character Archie would end up with in the end, Betty or Veronica, the answer was finally revealed: Both of them!
Now that is bad timing on Betty's part!
Archie is into PDA apparently. Plus, all his friends are just too psyched. Except Ronnie, of course.
This collection contains a six issue span, with three issues each devoted to two alternate futures, one where Archie asks Veronica to marry him and another where he asks Betty. There are common features to both. The entire teenage cast goes to the same university and stays completely in touch with each other. In each, the woman says yes. The couples get married in what seem to be the happiest of circumstances ever. And in the end, they have two children, a boy and a girl naturally, and both favor their parents and, remarkably, are named Little Archie and Little Veronica/Betty. Creepy.
And now we return to Archie's Very WASPy Christmas...
Aside from the cookie cutter heteronormativity and over-the-top ecstasy about the weddings from everyone in Riverdale, I found a couple parts interesting, mostly the interactions between ancillary characters. Seeing how Archie finally stood up to Mr. Lodge was novel, and seeing who Jughead ended up marrying was interesting, but the only real bits of substance came from exploring how Betty and Veronica dealt with each other after Archie had popped the question. Apart from those bright spots, I found this book to be incredibly treacly and self-serving.
Everybody is just SO HAPPY.
Another aspect that struck me about the book was how sketchy and loose the artwork seemed in places. For a book that is rather monumental, I thought that long-tenured artists Stan Goldberg and Bob Smith's figures look a bit wonky and off-model in places.

This book is available here for purchase.

Tomorrow, I will be talking about the series that follows this cheesefest, The Married Life, and I hope things get better...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Catching up with Archie Week!

Growing up, my sister and I had hundreds of issues of Archie comics around the house and in various rooms. Stacks of floppy pamphlets as well as single and double digests were easily within arms' reach if we needed some quick entertainment or just felt like passing the time with some light reading.

The company that would become Archie began in 1939 as MLJ Comics, named for the first initials of magazine publishers Morris Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John Goldwater. Their initial offerings were of the popular genre of the day superheroes. The comics were largely derivative of more popular characters, though they were groundbreaking in introducing the first patriotic American superhero The Shield.

Eventually, a red headed teenager debuted in a back-up story in Pep #22 drawn by Bob Montana, and soon enough he proved so popular he not only got his own title but they named the company after him.

Archie Comics has long prided itself on its family values and strong editorial leadership. MLJ/Archie was one of the prime movers behind the creation and work of The Comics Code Authority, which for decades promised a level of quality of comic books according to some or perpetrated willful and retaliatory censorship according to others.

Also, because of the strong role of editors the company has a reputation (perhaps unearned) of not always being so generous with their creators. For instance, John Goldwater is credited with creating Archie sometimes, though other accounts give complete credit to artist Bob Montana and writer Vic Bloom. After Montana's death the main artistic duties fell to Dan DeCarlo, who created the very familiar Archie house style still used today and was the first artist to draw popular characters like Josie and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Eventually, DeCarlo brought a lawsuit against the publisher over the characters of Josie and the Pussycats specifically, as DeCarlo claimed to have created them (he named Josie after his wife) and been shut out of licensing deals over the years.

The cast of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie, Moose, and Dilton have been around for decades, providing sitcom style humor and dating situations for younger readers. Their stories have been long associated with safe, homogenous entertainment that will offend none but amuse all.

As I have documented before, they have made overtures to update their characters some, by using YA authors to write stories or providing some more historical context and backstories, but lately they have made even bolder moves. For the next week, I will be looking at what the company has been up to in the recent past. I will be looking at various updates they have been doing to their characters, from introducing a more diverse cast, to venturing into producing more YA comics, to them even marrying Archie off and letting him be a grown-up. They even now have a series that is a straight-up horror book called Afterlife with Archie where zombies are slowly picking off the Riverdale cast, but I will get at that one perhaps at a later date once it's been collected.

It will be an interesting ride, so make sure you check in!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


TEOTFW is the spare, direct, powerful, and addictive story of two teenagers who run away together and the consequences of their actions. James and Alyssa decide that life with their parents in their small town is not worth pursuing any more, so after James punches his dad in the face and steals his car, they strike off on their own. James is frighteningly blank and unfeeling, and gaining insight into his life and thoughts is very unnerving yet oddly compelling.
James is on the cover as an adult, but here is a flashback to his childhood.
Alyssa is more emotional and human, a mix of insecure and resilient that makes her alternately prickly and sympathetic.
Here she is lying to a security guard.
The couple run afoul of some satanists, lie, steal, break and enter, and end up visiting with Alyssa's estranged, pothead father whom she has not seen in years. The authorities end up on their trail, and I am not going to spoil the ending, but things do not turn out pretty. The narrative here is so simple, starkly presented, and violent, as well as extremely suspenseful and compelling.

Charles Forsman is a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, and a three-time Ignatz Award winner for his series Snake Oil. He also is the proprietor of Oily Comics. TEOTFW was originally published as a series of mini-comics from 2012-2013, and it and this collected version have certainly brought much more focus on his upcoming works. He speaks about his inspirations and work on TEOTFW in this interview.

The mini-comic series has been highly celebrated, and this collection has been well reviewed also. Kevin Cortez summed up, "The discomforting, disturbing story is a unique comic book nothing short of fantastic." The Comics Journal's Rob Clough wrote of Forsman's work, "He has a knack for giving voice to a certain sense of ennui and desperation for connection and meaning, yet manages to do so in a way that avoids navel-gazing and static storytelling." I agree with what his statements, and what I found so amazing was how Forsman was able to work with familiar tropes and characters, in a style that is cartoonish and reminiscent of newspaper comics, and to spin that combination in a way that avoids cliches and creates an excellent, suspenseful, and affecting story.

This collection is published by Fantagraphics, and they provide previews, reviews, videos, and more links here.

This book is certainly not for children, as it is full of strong language and graphic violence, but I recommend it highly for mature readers.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume 1

Originally serialized at Boing Boing, Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume 1 follows the "viral propagation of a culture." The narrative starts in the late 1970s in the Bronx and covers a large swath of events and figures. One of the great features of the large page format is that the riff on traditional Marvel Treasury Editions includes some rough paper and old-school coloring that makes the rappers and moguls appear as larger than life figures like superheroes. And there is a multitude of colorful characters in here, including graffiti artists, beat boxers, luminaries like Rick Rubin, Run DMC, Russell Simmons, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Kurtis Blow; record companies like Sugar Hill Records, radio DJs, and club owners.
Image found at the Columbus Museum of Art

One of my favorite parts of the online version is its inclusion of specific songs highlighted in every episode. Although that feature does not accompany the book, the fine folks at Stumptown Trade Review have a 4 hour playlist of many of the artists and songs featured in the book here.

Accomplished creator Ed Piskor has done lots of nonfiction comics in the past, including working on American Splendor and a biography of The Beats with Harvey Pekar. Even his hacker book Wizzywig, which I absolutely loved, was based on reality. He is an excellent researcher and deft artist, and his imagery is an excellent combination of reality and super-expressive, cartoonish comics. Piskor manages to capture grit, enterprise, power, and frivolity with his pictures, but with his words he also does a sort of comic rapping, incorporating snippets of lyrics and song titles into his dialogue as well as setting up visual imagery and foreshadowing future events. This does not come off as too clever or cute but adds to the vitality of the narratives. I found this book to be a marvel of ingenuity and a testament to his great skills as a comics creator. He speaks more about his influences, career, and work on this book in this interview. He also spoke at length with Tom Spurgeon here.

All of the reviews I have read online about this book have been glowing. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "a massive undertaking, but Piskor succeeds mightily in chronicling hip-hop’s formative years with riveting detail." Win Wiacek called it "cool, informative and irresistible" as well as "wild fun and deliciously addictive."

Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume 1 is available from Fantagraphics. They provide a preview and much more here. You can also read most if not all of the comics online at Boing Boing. Piskor is still doing new entries in the series and reportedly will keep going for 5 volumes, until he reaches the time period his interest in rap music waned in the early 1990s.

On a side note, I met Ed Piskor this past summer at HeroesCon, and pre-ordered this book. He was an incredibly smart and polite man, and I am glad to show off the sketch he drew in my copy.
Slick Rick!