Monday, March 09, 2009

Comics Round-Up #3

I'll keep doing these until I've read every comic published last year or the Eisner judging weekend is over -- whichever comes first. Here come some more random looks at things published last year...

Rapunzel's Revenge: written by Shannon and Dean Hale; illustrated by Nathan Hale (Bloomsbury USA, August 2008, $18.99)

In a world very much like the Old American West, a red-haired girl learns that her "mother" is actually a witch named Gothel who rules the countryside with an iron fist and a great magical talent for making things grow or not. She rebels, is duly locked up in a tower, and -- after a few years of growing -- manages to use her hair to get out. And then the story really starts, since she meets up with a rogue named Jack and sets off to save her real mother from Gothel's dungeons and -- just maybe -- topple the evil witch's rule.

This was created for and published to "young adults," which means there's no sex and the fights are all of the knock-the-guns-out-of-their-hands style. Since it's a fairy tale to begin with, and those are highly stylized to begin with, it didn't bother me, but it may bother some readers. I liked it; the art is clean and crisp in a strongly narrative style.

Punk Rock and Trailer Parks: by Derf (SLG Publishing, December 2008, $15.95)

Derf is the cartoonist who does The City strip for various alternative weekly papers; some might also remember him from his comic My Friend Dahmer, about growing up and going to the same high school as Jeffrey Dahmer.

This book isn't autobiographical, specifically, but it certainly looks like it's informed by Derf's own life. Otto "The Baron" Pizcok is a high school senior in 1979-80 who plays trombone in the band and wants to be much cooler than he secretly thinks he is. (Hence the recently self-chosen "Baron" nickname and geekily outgoing demeanor, full of Tolkien quotes and references to himself in the third person.) As the book opens, it seems that Otto will be a joke -- he's weird, ridiculously tall, and outgoing in that painful way unique to young male geeks. Two younger boys -- Peter and Wes -- look to be the viewpoint characters.

But then Otto goes to a punk club (The Bank in Akron, Ohio -- sounds very minor, sure, but it's the scene Devo and the Pretenders came out of, so it was mildly important for punk music at the time) with those two younger guys, and everything clicks. It's the world he was made for. He's still gangly and weird, but he has a purpose and a place in the world. And he settles into being our protagonist -- even our hero -- as the school year goes on.

His adventures aren't completely believable, but they're not meant to be: this is a lightly fantasized version of what life could have been, a story about the transformative power of just the right kind of music at the right time. For Otto and a lot of other kids in the late '70s, it was punk. For other kids, a few years before or after, it was dance music. For a lot of their older brothers and sisters, it was rock in the late '60s. The words change, but the tune stays the same -- freedom, energy, and something that can be completely their own.

Derf channels that feeling well, even with all of "The Baron's" dorkiness, and the occasional too-good-to-be-true turns of the plot. And, along the way, he also paints a picture of oddball mid-American life, showing that no matter how old and midwestern people get, they still have the ability to surprise you, and that they're all the stars of their own stories.

Punk Rock and Trailer Parks has great punk-rock energy and verve -- though it's attitude is a bit sunnier than I recall real punk of that era being. It's not for kids -- there's some nudity, sex, and other depravity, as you'd expect from punk musicians -- but it's a great book for older teens, or anyone who remembers being one.

Cleburne: Story & Pencils by Justin Murphy, Inks by Al Milgrom (Rampart Press, November 2008, $24.95)

This is a long, serious, very professional (in all aspects of its storytelling) historical graphic novel about the Confederate General Patrick Cleburne. As a damnyankee, I tend to look askance on special pleading by the descendants and defenders of the Lost Cause, who always (these days) play down that nasty little fact of slavery. Cleburne superficially falls into the same bucket; Cleburne was Irish-born, a great fighting general...and, most importantly (and the focus of this story) creator of and agitator for a plan which would emancipate at least some Confederate slaves and allow black men to serve in the Confederate Army.

So Cleburne has been the center of a whole lot of alternate historicizing; romantic post-Confederates who want to consider themselves non-racist sieze onto him as an example of how they believe the Confederacy could have moved beyond a massively racist society built entirely on slave labor. I tend to doubt that rosy image, as I doubt most rosy and alternate images of what might have been.

Murphy mythologizes Cleburne somewhat -- for one thing, I'm sure Cleburne would have been more casually racist than he's shown here; he might have had good relations with blacks, but it wouldn't have been anything near man-to-man equality -- but he's generally clear-eyed about his society and world. Cleburne's plan is strongly fought by many generals, and Murphy lets them speak in the tongues of the time, instead of twisting everything into a modern idiom. They are the villains, as much as anyone is a villain here, but they're much more representative of their time and class than Cleburne was.

Cleburne tells the story of the General's final year, from fall of 1863 through late 1864. Cleburne and his men fought well through that time, but the war was clearly going against them and the Army of Tennessee. (Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was holding together somewhat better, off in the East, but the Confederate war machine -- held together in the early war by brilliant generalship and the lack of the same by the Union forces -- was fraying at the seams.) The focus is mostly on Cleburne's battlefield prowess and plan for emancipation, with a subplot about his meeting and courting Susan Tarleton (the sister of the new wife of one of his fellow generals).

Again, Cleburne is slightly sanitized and packaged for modern sensibilities, but not overly so -- most of the characters look and act most of the time like authentic 19th century figures, and Murphy has done a lot of homework and put together a great story. I might think that Cleburne's plans were just as futile as the Confederate cause in general...but, then, a Northerner like me would say that, wouldn't he?

Fly: A True Story Completely Made Up: by Andy Fish (Undercover Fish Books, October 2008, $14.95)

A few days ago I read The Tragic Tale of Turkey Boy, which was Andy Fish's first graphic novel for 2008 (as I've been told, even though the copyright page says "December 2007"), and now here's the second one. It's not quite as nutty as Turkey Boy, but it's pretty far out there.

Francis Woombler is the little dude on the cover. Despite appearances, he's supposed to be grown up in this story, though he's pretty childlike. All his life, he's been obsessed with flying -- really obsessed. So much so that everyone calls him "Fly."

He's got one best friend -- Dwight, who's worn the same vaguely-Shatnerian yellow sweater every single day for the past far-too-long -- and a self-centered girlfriend named Maggie. And, after one of his many, many attempts to fly goes awry and lands him in the hospital for an extended stay, he comes to believe that Dwight has supplanted him in Maggie's affections. And things go on from there in ways that are predictable in their broad outlines, but deeply Andy-Fish-shaped in their weird specificity.

Fish revels in grotesquerie in his art, and his writing is very wordy -- against the thrust of most mainstream comics of the past decade. His people are all freaks, both in their bizarre character designs and in their obsessions. But it seems that he's trying to tell very down-to-earth stories out of those materials -- stories of love and hatred and all of the other emotions people have when they bounce off each other. I might find that his control is still a bit shaky -- like a young fastball pitcher who can't consistently get it over the plate yet -- but I have to admit that Fish is throwing some serious heat.

Rod Serling's the Twilight Zone: Walking Distance: Adapted by Mark Kneece; Illustrated by Dove McHargue (Walker & Company, September 2008, $9.99)

Rod Serling's the Twilight Zone: The After Hours: Adapted by Mark Kneece; Illustrated by Rebekah Isaacs (Walker & Company, September 2008, $9.99)

Picture if you will...a world where the Savannah College of Art and Design is the center of a project to transform stories from one medium to another and recreate the society of fifty years ago. For old teleplays can turn into new The Twilight Zone!

I'm not really sure why this series -- which adapts half-hour episodes of the old Twilight Zone series written by Serling into comics stories about about sixty-four pages -- exists in the first place. I'm even less sure why it seems to emanate directly from the Savannah College of Art and Design; neither the introduction by Anna Marlis Burgard (Director of Industry Partnerships for the SC of A and D) nor the afterword by Kneece (adaptor and a Professor of Sequential Art at you-know-where) explain that. But it does -- these two books came out in September, two more appeared in December, and a third pair is coming in May.

(Both of the illustrators are connected to the Savannah school, as well -- but both are clearly accomplished sequential illustrators, so that might just be a matter of familiarity.)

I've never been a fan of The Twilight Zone for the same reason that I've never liked O'Henry's stories all that much -- twist endings and gimmicks are cute, but they come at the expense of more straightforward, basic storytelling. Both of these stories are very Twilight Zone-y stories; one has a man mysteriously returned to the small town of his childhood, to meet his younger self and run around loudly stating the obvious over and over, while the other takes place in an eerie department-store where things end up being quite different than we expected.

The art is fine, the storytelling is well-done, and the stories kept me turning pages. But these simply aren't the kind of stories I care all that much about. If you do like The Twilight Zone, I'd look for these books. I think they were published mostly towards a young adult audience (and maybe primarily into libraries as well), if that helps you find them.

Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever: by Dean Haspiel & Jay Lynch (Little Lit Library/Raw Junior, September 2008, $12.95)

Stinky: by Eleanor Davis (Little Lit Library/Raw Junior, August 2008, $12.95)

Little Lit Library is a new imprint for books for young readers in comics form, launched by Francoise Mouly (also the art director for The New Yorker) in early 2008 with some input from her husband Art Spiegelman. These are two of the three books in the second season of Little Lit; I'm trying to get through them all, but they're scattered among the local libraries here in lovely New Jersey.

Mo and Jo is very conventional, and not particularly interesting to this adult reader: Mona and Joey are siblings (twins, I'd guess) who fight over everything, even their favorite superhero, the Mighty Mojo. When their mailman turns out to be Mojo, and passes on his super-suit to them since he's retiring, they rip it in half as they fight. But their mother sews it into two new costumes, splitting the powers: Mo can stretch her arms, Jo has magnetic boots. When Mojo's nemesis, Saw-Jaw, threatens to pop a giant parade balloon, they have to learn to work together to beat him. It's a nice lesson, but it's an obvious lesson, and the kids' fighting is obnoxious and repetitious.

Stinky is a bit sweeter, but it's still very much a book for kids: Stinky Seymour is a monster who lives in a swamp with his pet toad Wartbelly. He hates kids, since he assumes they like to take baths and eat yucky things like cake and apples and that they hate monsters and mud and slugs and swamps. But then a boy named Nick builds a treehouse on the edge of the swamp...and you can guess what happens from there, right?

Stinky has a map on the back endpapers, which automatically makes me like it better, but I'm still very much not the target audience. (Even my kids are getting a bit old for books like these.)

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