Friday, January 20, 2017

Giant Days, Vol. 3 by John Allison and Max Sarin

First up -- no, you don't have to have read volumes one and two to enjoy this one, nor do you have to have read any of Allison's loosely related series of webcomics about the odd small British city of Tackleford. All you have to know is this: three young women are all in their first year at the fictional Sheffield University. They, and a few others, are our central characters.

And that gets us to Giant Days, Vol. 3, written by John Allison and drawn by Max Sarin (with covers by original series artist Lissa Treiman).

We're hitting what I think is the end of the women's first year at Uni -- it's late winter here, past the holiday but with everyone still bundled up and with finals not quite on the horizon yet. The focus in these stories is the corrupt, nepotistic student government, which several of our characters battle against in different ways, without much success. It's mostly played for laughs, but there's a deeply cynical vision of government underlying the jokes -- that the rulers are from a distinct, different and self-perpetuating class and will always work only for their own interests, while the best any of the rest of us can do is to stay out of their way to avoid getting hurt.

But it's not all serious, of course. We have the joys of sleep deprivation and the agonies of love ignored, the thrills of camping and the ritual of getting hugely drunk repeatedly with old chums from high school. It's about people in college, again -- not so much the studying and learning academic things side (though there's a small piece of that) but the getting-out-into-the-world and finding-your-place-in-life side.

I do wonder how long we'll follow these few people through university -- the point of that time is that it's transformative but also limited. Afterward, it seems far too short. (And, in the UK, the standard is three years rather than the four on my side of the pond, making it even briefer.) It looks like it might take twenty issues -- or even a few more -- to get through one full year, which would make for a pretty long series to cover the whole college experience. But I'm confident Allison will find stories to fill it -- and that Sarin, or the return of Treiman, or even someone unexpected, will draw those stories to keep them as compelling and true.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Complete Peanuts, 1995 to 1996 by Charles M. Schulz

We're nearly to the end, now. We know that, and Fantagraphics -- which has been carefully, lovingly publishing these books for a dozen years now -- knows it. But these strips don't know it. Schulz certainly didn't know it, and his audience at the time didn't know it. So we have to be careful to attribute any shadow we might find -- it's probably just in our own perception.

(And "near the end," for a strip that ran fifty years, still means there were four years to go. And four years, as we're all about to learn, can be a really long time.)

At this point, I should probably link to posts I've done over the past decade for the previous books in the series: 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-19641965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1991-1992, 1993-1994 and most recently 1950-1952.

And then we can dive into The Complete Peanuts, 1995 to 1996, as always by Charles M. Schulz.

Schulz's art was getting shaky at this point, a lovably loose line that probably annoyed him but looks just fine on the page. And his big switch from four- to three-panel dailies was a few years in the past, and had freed him by this point to draw dailies with however many panels he needed. Within the space of a single week, he'd have a single long panel, then three, then four. There are a few two-panel strips -- set-up and punch-line, mostly -- and some three-panel strips with two small boxes and one big one. There's even some five-panel examples, with a rat-a-tat rhythm. Schulz was clearly enjoying himself and still adapting his material to suit the jokes and ideas and stories he had on his board at that moment, and that joy and experimentation comes through in his clear and expressive art.

Story-wise, the long continuities of the '70s were far in the past, and "storylines" tended to be just using the same set-up -- Peppermint Pattie and Marcy unhappy at camp, for example -- for a few gags over the course of a week. It's not as deep as the strip's early '70s peak, obviously, but it's all funny and true to the characters and shows Schulz was still moving forward with his strip, even this far in. The standard set-pieces don't show up much in these years -- not much pulling-away-the-football, hardly any kite-eating tree, just a glancing mention of the Great Pumpkin for a couple of days around Halloween -- as Schulz kept changing focus to keep himself interested. There's a fair book of looking backward, usually framed as "my grandfather said," since the Peanuts kids are eternally eight-ish, living outside of time and place in their suburban Everyneighborhood.

This volume continues the Rerun Years, as we might call them -- he's gotten off the back of his unseen mother's bike, and still looks just like Linus in overalls, but he's now obsessed with having a dog. (And so ends up "borrowing" Snoopy a lot, which Sally and Snoopy are not thrilled about for different reasons.)

Again, this is Peanuts having dropped off from its peak. Nothing can sustain the highest heights forever. But Peanuts was always good, and individual strips would still shine out strongly. By the mid-90s, Peanuts was no longer a strip about loneliness and alienation, as it was in the '60s and early '70s -- in fact, at this point it was no longer a strip "about" anything.  But it was still strong, professional, funny cartooning -- dependable and lovable.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Three Books of Quality Jollity by Kyle Baker

I've been trying to read a graphic novel/book-format comic every day I commute lately, since I have a lot of them on the shelves (and keep getting more) and it also makes me feel like I'm reading more books. So when I realized I had a) a week with three commuting days and b) exactly three books of miscellaneous funny comics by Kyle Baker, I smelled a theme and a combined blog post.

Dear Reader, this is that blog post.

The three books are 2003's Undercover Genie (which I think was the end of a multi-book deal Baker had with DC's Vertigo imprint around the turn of the century), 2014's Important Literary Journal, and 2016's You Should Have Killed Me When You Had the Chance! Since I didn't check those dates ahead of time, I actually read them in the opposite order...not that it really matters.

All three books have a similar aim: gather a bunch of miscellaneous Baker work, in various art styles, for various publications, from a period of years, and turn it into a book that will make money for the creator. (What, you think people like to work for free?)

Undercover Genie additionally had a "hey, here's what I've been doing instead of drawing some long-underwear guy for the past decade," set by Baker in a somewhat defensive introduction where he explains that instead of drawing Spider-Man for a page rate, he was doing illustrations for national magazines, CD covers, and other well-paying design/drawing work as well as directing videos and doing other Hollywood stuff. I'd like to think such an introduction is no longer necessary -- the comic-shop audience has finally realized that there is a larger world with other things that are vastly more popular and lucrative than drawing Spider-Man for a page rate (mostly because of the Marvel movies, honestly), but I wouldn't actually put money on that.

Anyway, Baker in 2003 clearly thought he could have an audience in comic shops -- or maybe just realized that DC was at that moment the sole point in the center of the Venn diagram of "is actually publishing book-format comics collections that aren't either strip cartoons or monthly funnybooks", "can get those books distributed widely" and "was offering Baker money to do so." Thus begat Undercover Genie, which is very miscellaneous -- lots of Drew Friedman-esque caricatures of famous people [1] mixed in with parody stories, some oddly formatted stuff that might have been originally online, and a number of stories that feel like Why I Hate Saturn outtakes/exercises/follow-ups.

Undercover shows Baker working in a bunch of styles, from the stylized late-80s New York look of Saturn to various flavors of cartoony to those caricatures and a deadpan Tales from the Crypt pseudo-parody. This is, I think, right before he jumped into doing a lot of computer modeling, though there's a number of pieces clearly executed digitally.

Important Literary Journal is the shortest of the three books, but has the advantage of being in full color, unlike the other two. It was published by Baker himself, under the Quality Jollity label -- which he's used for at least a decade, since it appeared on Undercover, too -- in association with something called 5150 Glasscherben, which may or may not be an actual thing in the world separate from Baker.

(It looks like Baker got back into self-publishing seriously the last few years, gathering up a lot of his miscellaneous stuff and bringing out a half-dozen or so books since 2014.)

Amusingly, Important Literary Journal does not include the New Yorker parody that Baker did about a decade ago, under the title The New Bakers. (It was part of a loose series of gag cartoons he did about his young family in the mid-aughts.) That does appear in You Should Have Killed Me When You Had the Chance!, though, confusing Your Humble Blogger when he came to start writing this post.

Journal is mostly single-panel cartoons, with a few multi-panel pieces and some fake covers and ads. I suspect it was mostly chosen -- assuming Baker was planning to do several books, which may be an unwarranted assumption -- to have stuff that needed the color presentation, or that really benefited from it.

And then there was Killed Me, which actually has a lot of the multi-panel comics from Undercover, plus some other work in the same vein. It's the standard comics-trade-paperback size -- like Journal, but unlike the album-format Undercover -- which means many of those stories had to be reformatted for the smaller page. They all still work, but they, like most comics, work better when presented in their original format. (There's one story, "Be a Man, Damn You!" that's clearly been reformatted different ways for both books -- I have no idea how that originally appeared. It may have been in a narrow column online or maybe on a newspaper-format page, but it wasn't either of these page sizes to begin with.)

Again, all of this is miscellaneous, and some of it is both topical and slightly dated at this point. But most of it was never topical, and it's all still funny. And it's a great reminder of just how varied Baker's work can be. My advice is to find a book of Baker's funny comics -- these, the utterly awesome Cowboy Wally Show, one of his other recent self-published collections -- and enjoy yourself.

[1] I keep forgetting what a great caricaturist Baker is, since he doesn't use those skills much in his regular telling-stories-in-comics-format stuff. But he is damn good at it, both in pen & ink and in full-color paint.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Near-Perfect Sentence

"Although the police called in a SWAT team, because this is apparently necessary whenever something happens, even though regular police have guns too and are perfectly capable of killing people with them if necessary, or even if not all that necessary, they did not in fact kill this guy."
 - Kevin Underhill

Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns To edited by Ward Sutton

In a world overrun by dirty hippies, grubby hicks, P.C. killjoys, sickos, ex-wives, and today's angry teens, we all need someone to tell us what is right and true.

And that man is Stan Kelly, editorial cartoonist for The Onion.

(Sadly, he has the small problem of being fictional, but aren't all of our idols horribly flawed in this fallen age?)

The last ten years of Kelly's output -- in the world of The Onion, he's been doing this since 1966, when he joined the paper right out of college -- has been collected in the indispensable compendium Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns To, as edited by the cartoonist Kelly calls "that no-talent sycophant Ward Sutton" in his afterword. (I would not dream of hinting that the cartoons attributed to the fictional Kelly were actually created by the not-at-all-fictional cartoonist Ward Sutton.)

Like all great cartoonists, Kelly's life and experiences comes through clearly in his cartoons, from the many nagging ex-wives and young children empowered by seeing their fathers leave to substantially more cartoons focusing on pornography (both of the online video and old-fashioned magazine-in-a-paper-bag variety) than any other editorial cartoonist. Stan Kelly is truly sui generis, and we Americans are blessed to have him. (Kelly, were he illustrating this paragraph, would have a small weeping Statue of Liberty to signify the moment, and would be absolutely right to do so.)

Kelly doesn't simply follow the ideology of any particular party -- he's strongly in favor of abortion, for example, presumably from his desire to keep young women from becoming "today's nagging wives" for as long as possible. And his view of the time when America was great shines through in many of his cartoons -- a time when the Kelly Everyman was younger, had all of his hair and a Member's Only jacket, and women were more appreciative of his advances. And don't we all want to return to a similar time in our own lives?

We need Kelly more than ever these days -- and this book is the best way to get concentrated Kelly.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/14

Another week has come and gone, and it's Monday once again. For Americans of my age, today is the unexpected holiday -- surprisingly soon after Christmas and not a day we got off as kids -- and could be unexpectedly pointed this year. But I'm here to write about the books that showed up in my mail, so let's get into that.

These two books arrived unannounced on my doorstep, and I don't know much about them. But let me poke at them a bit, and tell you what I find.

First up is a new epic fantasy novel from Terry Goodkind, whom you might have heard has been very popular and successful at doing that very thing. Death's Mistress is particularly interesting, since it begins a new sub-series -- or maybe an entirely new series, depending on how you look at it -- in his same very popular world. (Which I don't think has an overall name -- correct me in comments if I'm wrong.) After fifteen novels basically about Richard Rahl, plus his girlfriend and obvious the various Dark Lords he had to defeat along the way, Goodkind's original main character may perhaps have gotten slightly overpowered and somewhat encumbered by responsibilities to keep running around saving the world.

So this book launches the adventures of Nicci, who I gather was a secondary character in some of the earlier books. (I started the series, way back when, but only got through the first three or so.) Nicci is off to map the edges of Rahl's kingdom in this book, which sounds like it could be the basis for a great picaresque adventure series. And those who want more traditional epic fantasy should be happy to note that the description declares that "the future of life itself ... is at stake."

Death's Mistress is a Tor hardcover, on sale on January 24th -- look for it to start climbing bestseller lists soon thereafter.

The other novel I have this time around is from an author I'm less familiar with, Paul Crilley. Department Zero is  the story of Harry Priest, a much put-upon man: he's divorced and has to jump through hoops just to see his daughter, and he also has a messy dead-end job cleaning up crime scenes in LA. But then he accidentally gets caught up in a case of the Interstitial Crime Department -- the cops of all of the alternate worlds -- and learns that magic, Lovecraftian monsters, and much worse really does exist out there. This is a trade paperback from Pyr, coincidentally also coming out on January 24th.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Complete Cul de Sac, Vol. 2 by Richard Thompson

In early 2004, Richard Thompson started a weekly watercolor comic strip for The Washington Post Magazine, where he'd been contributing illustrations and occasional cartoons and the oddball non-continuity strip Richard's Poor Almanac for the last decade. Three years later, that same strip went national with a syndication deal with Universal Press: the first daily appeared on September 10, 2007. The last dailies appeared less than five years later, in mid-July 2012, and the last Sunday in September of that year.

That was Cul de Sac; one of the best strip comics of the past fifty years. And every last bit of it is collected into the two slipcased volumes of The Complete Cul de Sac.

Do you need to know anything more? I guess you probably do.

Cul de Sac was a family strip, focusing on the Otterloops of suburban DC -- they lived on the titular street. There were parents, Peter Sr. and Madeleine, but the kids were the central characters: four-year-old force-of-nature Alice and eight-year-old neurotic Petey, the king of picky eaters. Each of the kids had their own circle of friends -- Alice at Blisshaven Academy, her nursery school, and Petey at the local Cul de Sac Elementary school.

Look, strip comics are tough to describe, since they grow over time organically. If you haven't read it, any comments I could make here about bucket-head Kevin or the imaginary nature of Ernesto Lacuna would fly over your head. Luckily, it's still re-running on GoComics, so you can read it one strip a day, the way comics like this work best. (They're currently close to the end, so I expect they'll flip back to the beginning sometime in early or mid 2017 -- right now is a good time to jump on.)

The characters are great, the writing is bright and funny, and Thompson had a lovely scratchy pen line that's a joy just to look at. If Cul de Sac never ran in your local paper -- or if the phrase "local paper" confuses you in the first place -- check it out online, and you just might become a convert.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father by Dupuy and Berberian

This is plainly not autobiography, as anyone can see. First of all, Dupuy and Berberian are two men, and Monsieur Jean is only one. And then Jean is a novelist, while Dupuy and Berberian (their first names are Phillipe and Charles, respectively, but those don't come up much) are cartoonists.

So the Monsieur Jean stories must therefore be completely different from the lives of his creators, right?

...well, that would be going too far. (And I'm obviously being cross-grained here.) The Monsieur Jean stories are the kind of slice-of-life tales that necessarily are grounded in the lives that their creators actually live. And the Monsieur Jean we see here is mostly a young man, unattached most of the time, living in the big city and building a career, not as successful yet as he'd like to be but definitely getting there.

Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father collects the first five books about Jean, from 1990's Love and the Concierge to 2001's When It Rains, It Pours. As the subtitle implies, Jean starts out as a young man whose first novel has recently been published, and grows to be a notable and successful man in his field, with a long-term girlfriend and a young daughter. He's French, so the big city is Paris, but the rhythms of the creative life and of the friendships of twenty-somethings doesn't need any extra translation -- those are the same anywhere, in any big city or any language.

(There's at least one later book inserted into this sequence, The Singles Theory, which is also available in English.)

The first three books are made up of discrete shorter stories that add up to tell a larger story like a mosaic, but the later ones drop the titles every page or two in favor of an organic approach -- each of the five books covers a few weeks or months in the life of Jean and his friends, skipping from this event to that, but the later books do it seamlessly as one story. (I suspect because those last two were conceived as books to begin with, while the first three appeared in periodicals first.)

So there's a lot of dating here, at first casual but more serious as the books go on. There's a lot of long conversations with old friends, particularly Felix, Jean's ne'er-do-well oldest friend, who imposes on Jean again and again over the course of these stories. There's a lot of Jean's worry about his career, and about trying to write when the words don't want to come, and a fair bit of dealing with the people of a literary career -- agents and publishers and movie people and opportunities for publicity.

There's a lot of life -- these books are about living a good life, doing work you believe in and spending time with friends you love. And, about, Jean hopes, finding someone special and lasting to spend even more time with. Dupuy and Berberian tell  those stories in a slightly cartoony style, just loose enough for physical comedy and just tight enough to make all of the characters real people despite the big cartoon noses. And the words, as translated here by Helge Dasher, are true as well -- this is a big book full of talky scenes, but the dialogue is enjoyable and all flows well. These are people who like to talk and who make sense of their lives through talking, and that comes across.

If I were being hugely reductive, or wanted to pitch it to Hollywood, I'd call Monsieur Jean "like Friends, but a French comic." That's not really true -- Dupuy and Berberian are more subtle than sitcom-funny -- but it's a nod in the vaguely right direction. It's a bunch of stories about an interesting man and his interesting friends, in an interesting world.