Sunday, July 25, 2021

Fictional Father

I have been a big fan of Joe Ollmann's graphic novels. Both of them have appeared on my end-of-year favorites lists, characterized by strong characters and extensive research. Fictional Father is no exception to this pattern. It is a compelling look at Caleb Wyatt, a 40-something-year-old artist and recovering alcoholic who lives in the huge shadow of his dad Jimmi. Since 1966, Jimmi Wyatt draws the wildly successful comic strip called Sonny Side Up, about a single dad trying to run a restaurant while raising his son. It's a sort of combination of the everyday life of Peanuts and and the more cloying sentiment of Family Circus, and it makes Jimmi into a rich celebrity known as "Everybody's Dad." There are TV adaptations of his cartoons and tons of merchandising featuring the strip's characters and catch phrase "Wanna Share My Cookie?" Jimmi is the sort of guy who golfs with Tony Bennett, counts Barack Obama among his fans, and has countless affairs. He's not a good husband or dad, but he is good at living a life of excess.

Caleb does benefit from this fortune, being largely pampered and financially supported, though there were a tough couple of years when he was in art school and published a small-press, limited run of underground comix lampooning his father's famous strip. Still, his long-suffering, acerbic mother, who remained married to Jimmi through it all, does bail him out. Now, in middle age, he finds himself  aimless, painting abstract art for view in galleries propped up by his dad, working part-time as a sponsor for a local recovery clinic, and being a bad partner to his long-term boyfriend James. He is still dealing with the fallout of his childhood, but he is also old enough to know better. He still attends weekly dinner with his parents and depends on their largess while wanting more but doing nothing about it. He makes lots of capricious and poor choices, and part of what makes this book so compelling is watching how he keeps making a pig's ear out of a silk purse.

What also makes this book compelling is the extent Ollmann went to in constructing this narrative. The main plot is accompanied with "original art" from Sonny Side Up, which accentuates the drama and tone of the book. It fabricates a believable set of connections between the characters and the real world, and personally I loved all the references to comics creators from the classic newspaper strip days as well as from the alt-comix heydays of the 1990s. I know that many readers might not get these industry in-jokes, but I really appreciated them. So much has gone into constructing this fiction, and I admire its craft and attention to details.

The artwork mirrors the horrible aspects of the characters, and it is beautifully ugly. Everyone seems old and haggard, reflecting all the turmoil and troubles they have both endured and inflicted on others. There is not a lot of happiness in this book, at least in terms of the story and characters, but I saw a sort of delight in the realization of this tale. It's a marvelously crafted book and story: Once I started reading Fictional Father, I could not put it down. 

As I wrote above, I am a big fan of Ollman's graphic novels, Mid-Life and The Abominable Mr. Seabrook. He speaks more about his work on Fictional Father in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have leaned positive. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a complex look at an artist’s evolving relationship to the past." Brad MacKay wrote that "thanks to Ollmann’s confident, assured storytelling it’s a journey well-worth taking." Colin Moon opined, "Fictional Father is perhaps an imperfect work, but nonetheless a compelling one, so long as you can get over the preposterously whining tone it sometimes steeps itself in."

Fictional Father was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more information here.

Oh, Caleb...

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Are Comic Books Real?

Teaching can be maddening, frustrating, exhausting, rewarding, surprising, and rejuvenating, and Are Comic Books Real? captures those emotions in a visceral way I've not seen another graphic novel do. This series of stories from teaching and glimpses into the lives of elementary school students and their teacher, captures the good days and bad, the days when you question your sanity/life choices, and the times when something happens to make everything seem worthwhile. Some times nothing seems to go right. Others, the students amaze you with their work or crack you up with their observations of the world and/or ways that they interact with each other. There is a certain sense of capriciousness that goes with teaching, and this book depicts that roller-coaster ride with great acuity and empathy.

I loved how it incorporates lots of different sorts of representation, from more traditional ink drawings (both in black and white and in color) to color pencil drawings to single page portraits of students to actual student comic work. I loved seeing how all these various images combined to portray the realities of teaching and learning and how art affects it all. It captures the tenor of the controlled chaos of a classroom as well as the unique politics of students and how their behaviors affect their teachers. Just check out this moment:

I loved this book and found it incredibly moving. It made me laugh and cringe, empathize and recall some of my toughest days, and also called back some of my most memorable students. It made me remember what being a school teacher was like, and I think that it should be read widely by folks who would like to be educators or educators themselves, but perhaps especially by those who purport to know what teaching is like. I think ignorance and abuse of the profession and those who sacrifice much (both financially and mentally) to practice it are some of the biggest issues facing education in our country today. This book entertains and enlightens.

This book's creator Alex Nall is a teacher and an artist. He has published a number of other comics and books, including Lawns, Teaching Comics, and Kids with Guns. He speaks about his comics and teaching in this interview, and there is also more about his work on his (maybe no longer updated?) blog.

Are Comic Books Real? was published by Kilgore Books, and they offer a preview and more information about it here. This book was one published via a Kickstarter campaign this year. I gladly backed it and would hope others might also in their future ones.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Crash Site

I was intrigued when I saw this title solicited, and reading it was a beguiling and bewildering experience. Crash Site is a strange and provocative book that definitely makes an impression. It is ostensibly a survival tale starring three protagonists: Rosie, a young, white, British woman who is vapid and self-centered; her devoted dog Denton, whom she uses as a drug mule, and Pants Dude, the most sinister anthropomorphic pair of underwear ever. 

After plane crash left the trio as the sole survivors stranded in the Amazon, they have to deal with the elements as well as a each other. A self-centered woman, emotionally needy dog, and murderous pair of panties that wants to pocket the entire score for itself make for a whole lot of drama.

This survival plot is intriguing and captured my imagination, but there are many aspects in this book that make for curious juxtapositions. The main narrative is a harrowing tale where one character is literally a cute pair of panties wielding a knife. There is an ongoing exploration of colonialism, from the practice of smuggling drugs to racist stereotypes in video games to the artwork of the book, which borrows heavily from the conventions of horror manga. It is also somewhat cartoonish and kawaii, which belies so many of its situations and commentaries. There are also several scenes that look at the intersections of sexuality and violence, such as when Rosie and her friends practically murder a lifeguard who tells them they cannot sunbathe in the nude and when Denton gets caught masturbating to a magazine called Woke Girls.

This is a book that lets readers have their cake, but the cake is a tough one to swallow, a mixture of disparate and clashing flavors. Instances of fan service are combined with horror imagery. Almost every joke accompanies scenes of violence and murder. Social commentary appears and is overwhelmed by absurdity. I think this is a surprisingly complex book, one I appreciated and enjoyed, though I imagine it is not to everyone's taste. So much about this book made me feel uncomfortable and off-balance, but in such compelling ways.

I could not locate much information about this book's author Nathan Cowdry, but I plan to check out whatever he publishes. He has put out a few other zines and comics, including Shiner and Western Voyeur.

The reviews I have read about this book wrestle with its complexity. Publishers Weekly concluded, "Cowdry’s mix of rock-solid gags, horrifying imagery, and surreal satire makes for an unsettling and indelible experience." Nicholas Burman wrote, "Crash Site is a comic that tickles your ribs and also strikes them a few times with a hot poker." Hillary Brown opined, "I kept teetering between annoyance at Crash Site and liking it, which could be what Cowdry is striving for."

Crash Site was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more information about it here. If you have even skimmed this review, you should glean that it is suggested for mature readers.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

(Cover Not Final)

It's tough to make a book that is simultaneously high-concept, inventive, and laugh-out-loud funny, but that is exactly what Max Huffman pulled off here in (Cover Not Final). This collection of mini-comics portrays a world with a logic and rhythm of its own, a place where the madcap energy of Harvey Kurtzman comics collides with noir genre conventions and our contemporary world. It is a place where chemical companies send a message to a snooping private detective by leaving a modern art installation outside his apartment. It's silly and somewhat random, but also hilarious. The logic of the place makes for great story and dialogue beats. Just check out this sequence:

The line about Uncle Chest is gold, and this book has quite a few similar deadpan zingers that made me chuckle. There are a number of different stories in this book, and the glue holding it together is the nogoodnik Career Criminal who appears in each. He is an agent of chaos and mayhem, the snappy dresser who appears on the cover of the book. He embodies the book's energy and style. 

The illustrations remind me some of 1960s tiki art, which is part of what contributes to its retro feel. The geometric artwork adds to the ambience of the book, providing a strange, angular perspective that contrasts well with the madcap twists and turns. The size and format of this book also recalls a vintage paperback vibe, which adds to its charm. The stories in this book are relatively short and zippy, and taken together they constitute a brief visit to a zany world that invites multiple re-readings. Reading (Cover Not Final) is flat-out fun.

This book's creator Max Huffman is the Print Graphic Designer for Cat's Cradle and the Small Press Director at Peel Gallery. He speaks about some of the inspirations and process behind these comics in this article.

The reviews I found about this book have been positive. Brian Nicholson wrote that "the comic’s great. It’s constantly delightful, and the pleasures accumulate with each new short story." Ryan Carey opined that "works that defy conventional description or, at the very least, can’t be boiled down to the old reductivist 'elevator pitch', are often the most rewarding to spend some real time with, and, despite its admittedly short length, this comic definitely lends itself to re-reading and careful examination."

(Cover Not Final) was published by AdHouse Books, and they offer a preview and more information here.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Chibi Usagi: Attack of the Heebie Chibis

I have read a great many Usagi Yojimbo comics in the past, and consider it one of the modern masterpieces of the medium. Its creator Stan Sakai is one of the greats, who has been awarded pretty much every accolade a living cartoonist can receive, and here he and his wife Julie collaborate on a slightly different version of his classic character. Drawn in a cuter, more cartoony chibi art style, this version seems pitched at a younger audience, but it's still enjoyable for pretty much any age. The artwork is adorable but not juvenile and coupled with a well-crafted plot, which incorporates a number of story elements, including individual character moments, slapstick, quests, and battles. This book offers something for pretty much any reader. It does not talk down to its audience, and I got a big kick out of reading it.

The narrative here focuses on a trio of adventurers, Usagi, Gen, and Tomoe, who are out fishing for unagi (freshwater eels) when they rescue a creature in distress. The creature is an animated clay figure named Dogu, and it tells the trio that it has escaped from slave labor from the nefarious Salamander King. That villainous creature has captured Dogu's people and forced them to do his bidding, and of course our three heroes embark to free the village and defeat the Salamander King's army. This mission is fraught with peril, including shaky bridges, meandering forests, and the titular Heebie Chibis.

This story works well as a straight adventure story, but it also features strong characters who are almost instantly related to the readers as well as snappy dialogue. The situations themselves are based on traditional Japanese folklore, which are explained further in  the end sections of the book. It is fascinating to see how well the detailed fictional world depicted here matches up with real life creatures, creations, and beliefs. In addition, there is a short story at the end of the book where the usual version of Usagi Yojimbo meets the Chibi version, which not only works as a stand-alone tale but may also be a great gateway into the further adventures of the rabbit samurai.

This book is one of the best kids of all-ages fiction in the best sense of the world. I think its potential audience is a vast one, and I hope that this book sells bazillions of copies.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Ingrid Lind-Jahn wrote, "It’s an adventure story that has plenty of danger without being overly scary and emphasizes positives like friendship by example rather than explanation." Pharaoh Miles called it "an exciting story that any fan of any age can get into" and "easily the most accessible story involving this enigmatic protagonist."

Chibi Usagi: Attack of the Heebie Chibis was published by IDW Publishing, and they offer more information about it here.