Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Megahex may very well be the funniest and saddest graphic novel I read this year. On the surface, the stories seem simple enough. There are three roommates, Megg (a witch), Mogg (her cat/lover), and Owl (a large anthropomorphic Owl) living in a house. They get high, they pull pranks on each other, and they cavort with their friends. Much of the beginning of the book is full of drug humor and gross bits, like an ugly feet contest and their friend Werefwolf Jones taking a grater to his genitals (it's not pretty). What is pretty is the painterly quality of the art, with cartoon images combined with watercolors. The storytelling is also quite deft, with a combination of one page gags like this:
It also has extended sequences like this one, which are episodic looks at their mundane lives:

Owl often is the butt of abuse, and for the most part these sequences are darkly humorous. As I read the book though, I began to realize more and more that it was also strongly about Megg's depression and her overwhelming sense of dread. The latter sequences of the book are a strong portrayal of a very troubled person trying to anesthetize herself to reality. So, in the end for me, this book is a great mass of contradictions: beautiful art used to tell base, stoner jokes and a pretty basic humor structure that slowly builds into a very serious drama. Megahex is a provocative and complex piece of art.

Simon Hanselmann created this book. He publishes new Megg, Mogg, and Owl webcomics each week at VICE. He speaks about his life, inspirations, and work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book praise it highly. Hilary Brown wrote, "There may be an abundance of stoner comedies, but very few stoner tragedies exist; Hanselmann’s subtle approach makes Megahex both at the same time." Henry Chamberlain explained, "Megahex, as is apt for its name, has magic. It is also way out there, our best connection today to the heyday of the comix underground." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded. "The story is depressing as often as it is funny, a cautionary tale that’s at its best when Hanselmann spreads his writing wings, extending beyond a gag strip into an honest exploration of his deeply flawed leads."

And if it is unclear by now, this is a book strictly for adults. It is full of drug use, sexual situations, crude humor, explicit language, disgusting bodily functions, and adult themes.

Megahex was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they provide a preview and much more here.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Walt Disney's Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown

Carl Barks is a comics legend, a member of the William Randolph Hearst Cartoon Hall of Fame, an inaugural inductee to the Eisner Awards Comic Book Hall of Fame, and during his heyday when most comics artists were not recognized by name he was know as "The Good Duck Artist." For a couple years now Fantagraphics has systematically been reprinting his many works for Disney in beautiful hardback editions, and during this busy holiday time I chose to share A Christmas for Shacktown.

Reviews of this book have been glowing. Mark Squirek wrote, "This is classic art and storytelling from a master of the form." Duy Tano called this book "nothing less than a visual and narrative treat." And I wholeheartedly agree with J. Caleb Mozzocco who called it "pretty much perfect."

I do not think I have much to add to the heap of praise on this book, and so I will share with you this preview from the title story:

As you can see, Barks packs all kinds of personality, spirit, and verve into his works. The rest of the 22 stories in this book are not holiday themed, and they run the gamut from one-page gags to longer tales of humor and adventure. I would recommend them to readers of all ages, and I know that personally these are some of the comics that made me love the medium.

A Christmas for Shacktown was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they the rest of a preview and much more here.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

This One Summer

This One Summer is about two teenage friends who meet up every year during their summer vacations. Rose is slightly older than Windy, and her family situation is pretty tense. Her mom and dad have been trying to have another child, and there are complications. Windy's family is more free-wheeling and quirky. Together, the two girls get involved in the local scene, which revolves around a small convenience store, where the duo goes to rent scary movies. Rose has a crush on the clerk, but he is pretty oblivious. Windy is simultaneously encouraging, bemused, and critical of this arrangement. All of these situations add up to a summer full of new experiences, some unpleasant and some quite fun.

I know a lot of this sounds cliched, but this graphic novel has a quotidian quality where I felt that I was involved with the characters in a very direct way. There are many small details that make the story come alive, many of them coming through the fantastic artwork, which is bursting with personality and energy. Just look at this sequence from early on in the book:
At a conference recently, my friend Laura and I were talking about it, and I called it "a Viewmaster into the soul." I think that's a great way to sum the book up, and I will stand by that statement here.

This One Summer was created by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. The two have collaborated before on the multiple award-winning Skim. For her work on This One Summer Jillian won the prestigious Governor's General Award in the category of Children's Literature Illustration.

This book has been well reviewed in prominent venues. It is also appearing on many year-end, best-of 2014 lists. Susan Burton called it "moving, evocative book" in her New York Times Sunday Book Review. CBR's Kelly Thompson gushed that it " is a near perfect book and an example of two creators working in such perfect sync they appear more as one creator than two." The Comics Journal's Sean T. Collins had much good to write about the book, stating that "Jillian’s art is like Proust’s madeleine, calling to mind half-forgotten memories with real sensual power" and adding that Mariko's writing "is often equally vivid."

This One Summer was published by First Second. They have teachers guides and much more here. Jillian Tamaki has a preview and more here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Black Science, Volume 1: How to Fall Forever

Black Science is at once familiar and compelling. After reading it, I found myself grasping to make analogies to describe it, and here are some of them:
  • Like Venture Brothers, only with dimension travel and played seriously.
  • Like Lost in Space, only darker and with alternate worlds.
  • Like John Carter, only with a family and lab partners and crossing over multiple worlds.
  • Like Dr. Who, but American, with corporate dynamics of Avatar.
  • Like Jumper, with a family, but I have not seen that movie so I can't really do much more contrasting.
What I can say though, is that this series is intriguing and fun, and although it may seem reminiscent of some other media, I did not feel it was derivative. And moreover, the parts I felt were reminiscent of other works were parts I found appealing and enjoyable. This book is an enjoyable bunch of sci-fi adventure.

The basic elements of the story are these: Dr. Grant McKay, a brilliant, pretty unlikeable, and self-centered scientist invents a "Pillar" that allows people to jump through dimensions. His funder, Kadir, is extremely shifty, manipulative, and controlling. On the day that they were to test the pillar, something goes wrong. Grant, Kadir, Grant's wife and collaborator Jen, Sara (an assistant who is having an affair with Grant), Ward (the chief of security), Shawn (a younger male assistant), Chandra (Kadir's sycophantic assistant), and Grant's two children, Pia and Nate (a teen and a tween) are transported to another world. The Pillar is broken and just keeps launching them into different dimensions on a uncontrollable timer. Making matters worse, there are a lot of competing interests among the cast, and some characters have vendettas to sabotage others.

Like the cast, most of the worlds in this story thus far are pretty hostile, inhabited by frog people who look like they were genetically engineered by Frank Frazetta, tribal people who wear futuristic bird-armor, trench warriors who look like they are still fighting World War I, and giant macaques. If the constant jumping, reorienting, in-fighting, and struggling to survive were not enough under these conditions, there are also a couple of people who seem to be aware of what's going on, and who seem to be jumpers themselves, in pursuit of this band of adventurers. Clearly, the plot has a lot going on, but I think that is what makes this series so interesting.

This series was created by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera, and Dean White. Remender is a writer known for his varied original series Fear Agent, Last Days of American Crime, Strange Girl, and The End League. His work seems ubiquitous today, as he has a long list of credits at Marvel and is currently writing their crossover series Axis, which spawned from his prior work on Uncanny Avengers. Scalera has drawn a number of comics for different companies, most notably runs on Secret Avengers and Deadpool for Marvel. His artwork is very kinetic and sketchy, almost cartoonish, in places, and I think it well portrays movement and emotions. White provides the colors, and his work adds depth and a painterly quality, which make most pages appear like the beautiful, old pulp covers. He also has a long list of comics credits, many of them at Marvel.

Most of the reviews I have read praise this series for its combination of sci-fi and pulp elements. And I have to say I agree with the majority of them. I found the story quite compelling, with lots of cliffhangers and jarring plot twists. The character dynamics are a big part of the appeal, because the disparate players all have different motivations and lengths they will go to, which keeps things fresh and fluid. But don't just take my word for it: Derek Royal wrote, "If you like your science fiction “hard,” and you appreciate a bit of the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, then Black Science is the series for you." Keith Dooley summed up his review simply, "it’s just plain fun."

Black Science is published by Image Comics. They have previews and more information about the entire series (currently at issue #11) here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kill My Mother

Jules Feiffer cuts a large figure in the world of comics. He was an apprentice to Will Eisner in the 1940s, a time when comics were in a nascent state. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon work, all but created the genre of alt-weekly comics with his work for The Village Voice, was a comics historian, wrote the screenplay for the classic film Carnal Knowledge, and illustrated classic books like The Phantom Tollbooth. But until now, he had not written or drawn a graphic novel.
And this is some debut. It has lots of elements of 1940s noir films, which I guess should not be a surprise as the book is dedicated in part to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks. It stars the prerequisite private detective, though he is pretty much useless, a drunken lout who tries to be a womanizer and who seems to enjoy wearing women's panties. The folks who actually do things are all women, and what roles they play. There is Elsie, a young widow who decides to work as a secretary for a PI so she can investigate her policeman husband's murder. There is her daughter, Annie, who resents her absent mother while bossing around her friend Artie. There is a mysterious blond who hires the PI to find a tall, blond woman whom she resembles.

And of course, this being a noir tale, there are lots of scenes in seedy place like apartment buildings, smoke filled cabarets, and boxing matches.
The story is split into two parts, one in 1933 in Bay City, and the other in 1943 in Hollywood, where we see what has transpired in ten years. The tone of the second half is much different, as we see the movers and shakers behind movies, radio programs, and USO tours. Their world may seem cleaner and more civilized, but there are still bitter undercurrents of jealousy, greed, and potential murder. It is like having a movie and its sequel in one work, and I think that this graphic novel works extremely well in terms of its narrative. In fact, I think this is a book with all kinds of details that demands to be read and then re-read.
Part of what makes the story interesting is how it is laid out. I think that the panels (and at times, lack of panels) are constructed in interesting and fluid ways. There is something experimental about them in how they attempt to track how readers' eyes will move across pages. The sketchiness of those movements are a strength but also sometimes a detriment. The biggest issue I had with this book was that some of the characters look alike, but that seems partly the purpose in a book about changing societal roles and shifting identities.

Feiffer makes a great hash from his many influences, including dimestore novels, old comic strips, and noir films, as well as his years spent as Will Eisner's apprentice. This book is sort of a paean to those modes of telling stories, but it is also a commentary and critique of them, playing with their conventions and making something vital. The story is entrancing, and the artwork is provocative, ranging from paneled scenes to full page splashes that are surprising effecting and poignant. You can read more about Feiffer's influences and choices for making this book in this profile.

All the reviews I have read about this book regard it as a work to be reckoned with, even if they were not always uniformly positive. In the New York Times Sunday Book Review Laura Lippman called it "terrific" and wrote that it was "a thoughtful meditation on female identity and whether the not-so-simple art of murder can ever be defended as a moral necessity." Alan Cheuse called it "a darkly drawn confection." Dash Shaw was more critical of the book's layouts, calling them "herky-jerky" and summing up his review, "It looks like it was fun for him to make. I wish it was fun for me to read."

Kill My Mother was published by W.W. Norton & Company, and they provide a link to previews and more here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Rocket Girl, Volume 1: Times Squared

Sometimes I buy a book because its topic interests me, or I like the creators' work, or it's part of a series. And sometimes I buy a book just because it looks so beautiful. That was the case with this particular book, a trade paperback collection of the first 5 issues of the comic book series. I had no idea what Rocket Girl was about or who made it, but I knew it looked great. I am also happy to report that it read very well and that I enjoyed it very much.

The plot revolves around time travel. Dayoung Johansson, aka Rocket Girl, is a 15-year-old police officer from the future year of 2013 where flying cars and jetpacks are typical modes of transportation. If you are at all aware of reality you realize that there is a lot off in that last sentence, as we don't have those kinds of vehicles or law officers. The issue seems to be based in Quintim Mechanics, a corporation that is so large that it runs the government in 2013, but in a clandestine way, because no one seems to know who its board of directors are. In 1986, where the bulk of this story happens, QM is a research operation that makes a device that brings Rocket Girl back to past but blows up in the process. It seems hardly a threat, made up of a ragtag band of researchers, scientists, and graduate students.

I will be honest: the plot was good enough to sustain my interest and keep me wanting more, part fish-out-of-water story about a future traveler trying to adjust to the past/part mystery about what happened to make such a future occur. By the end of the book, I was left wanting to read more and looking forward to volume 2, but the plot is not the main star here. Just look at this 3-page sequence and you'll see what I am talking about:
I loved the energy and dynamism in the layouts, the expressive lines and vibrant colors, and I could luxuriate in those images for a while. I love that the protagonist looks like an athletic teenager and is not overly sexualized. I like that the art is a sort of modern take on the European comics artists I saw featured in 1970s and 1980s Heavy Metal magazines. Pretty much the worst thing I can say about the art is that 1986 New York City is not depicted in gritty enough fashion. It was a rougher city back then, with a lot more sleazy elements, and the day-glo images above make it look pretty clean. But that is a teeny tiny quibble.

This is the second book from these creators, the first being Halloween Eve. The art is by Amy Reeder, a multiple Eisner Award nominee whose past works include the manga Fool's Gold as well as runs on DC Comics' Madame Xanadu and Batwoman titles. The story is by Brandon Montclare, who has worked as an editor for a large number of DC Comics and Vertigo titles in addition to his writing a handful of individual issues and limited series for Image, DC, Marvel Comics, and TokyoPop. Both creators speak extensively about this book and series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this volume have applauded it. NPR's Etelka Lehoczky gave it praise, "There are all kinds of wonderful plot and character points in Rocket Girl, not to mention the sound effects." Niko Silvester called it "an appealing mix of elements with a definite tongue-in-cheek accent." Paul Fiander wrote, "From a vague beginning Rocket Girl has developed into a fun time traveling romp."

Rocket Girl: Times Squared was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview and much more available here.