Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Comics Round-Up #5

And here's another batch of books laid out in panels that I've read recently:

Atomic Robo, Volume 2: Atomic Robo and the Dogs of War: words by Brian Clevinger; art by Scott Wegener (Red 5 Comics, February 2009, $19.95)

It would be cruel and dismissive to say that Atomic Robo is nothing but a Hellboy rip-off -- "nothing" is so expansive a term. And there is the possibility, however slight, that Clevinger and Wegener were not influenced by Mignola in creating their own large, nearly indestructible, wisecracking adventure-fiction character who runs into various weird menaces at different points during the 20th century. It could all be a coincidence, right?

I also have to say that I haven't read the first Atomic Robo series, but I do know that he was built by Nicola Tesla, which tends to strengthen my point. AR is a lovable lug, though he doesn't really have a whole lot of personality besides "wisecracking robot that hits things really hard."

This volume collects the second AR miniseries, in which he fights at various points in WWII -- the invasion of Sicily, an assassination in Croatia, and a battle to take out another Nazi superweapon on Guernsey -- though those are three discrete stories rather than a larger arc. He's more or less indestructible, though he does get separated from his legs at one point, and there's some sort of electrical gun that conveniently shuts him down for a short time -- it never kills him, it just allows the stories to have some tension. The slugfests are choreographed well, and the banter is above average. But, really, this is just yet another decent comic about a tough guy hitting things until he saves the day, without anything particularly new and exciting about it. It's fine for what it is, but there's a lot of what it is out there.

MOME, Vol. 11: Summer 2008: edited by Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth (Fantagraphics Books, March 2008, $14.99)

I'm coming to realize that my avoidance of short fiction extends farther than I thought. I knew that I wasn't reading as many SFF stories as I used to -- in the days when I'd generally read two or three "Best of the Year" collections, plus some SFBC originals, plus some other scattered reprint and original anthologies from other houses -- but I hadn't really thought that I was similarly avoiding comics anthologies as well.

(Of course, that's probably overstating the case. I might "avoid" War for Civilized Identities or Crisis of the Mutant Skrulls, because they're high-profile enough to need to be avoided, but comics anthologies are small-scale things, off in their own corner of the field, and are easily overlooked by most of us.)

But, when I'm shoved into it, I find I like the short stuff pretty well. Mome has been running, semi-annually, for most of this decade, and I've been vaguely aware of it, but I never made an effort to read it. There were always other books -- longer books, ones all by the same author -- to get to first.

There are thirteen pieces here that are relatively complete stories, plus a text piece, an interview, parts of two serials, and a handful of full-page drawings that aren't quite comics. (Working from a definition of comics as images in a sequence, one image -- particularly a captionless one -- can be some other kind of art, but it's not comics. Not that this is a dismissal; an opera isn't a ballet, either.) And they're pretty much all on the literary end, from the cold camera eye of Al Columbia's "5:45 AM" to the one-day-closer-to-death ambiance of Paul Hornschmeier's "Life with Mr. Dangerous." Nothing here really lept out and walloped me, though I do keep coming back to Killoffer's wordless "Einmal Ist Kleinmal." But it's a solid, interesting anthology, filled with the world of a lot of people I hadn't been aware of before.

Judenhass by Dave Sim (Aardvark-Vanaheim, May 2008, $4.00)

As others have noted snarkily, Dave Sim is now solidly against the hatred of Jews -- not that anyone ever suspected him of believing otherwise -- but he's still on the other side of the question when it comes to women. Though he would certainly deny the parallel, and vehemently. It's dangerous to try to discern the motives of someone so intensely self-motivated and hermetic as Dave Sim, but I've had the feeling that Judenhass was, in part, his attempt to do something positive for the comics field, and perhaps to write his way back into it.

Judenhass -- the title means "Jew Hatred" -- is Sim's book about the Holocaust, the Shoah. Except it really isn't; in typical late-Sim fashion, it's an incredibly overthought book, with nearly photo-realistic tracings of horrible images (repeated, over and over, as if Sim were some Warhol of torture) under a collection of quotes by famous people saying vile things about the Jews as a race.

They're nasty quotes, yes. And the pictures are horrifying -- though Sim's drawings are not as horrifying as the real pictures are, since they're just that bit distanced. But Sim doesn't do anything but juxtapose the two; he doesn't link particular quotes to earlier pogroms and expulsions (of which there were many). All he does is poke the reader, saying, "See! See! The Nazis hated Jews! And other people did, too!" Which is true, and should not be forgotten -- but we haven't forgotten it, and we've been reminded of it in a thousand better ways.

Judenhass means well, but it bears the essentially Simian stamp of the autodidact: Sim dives into every new line of thought as if he was the first one ever to discover it. I'm glad that Sim thinks that hatred of Jews is bad, but I still wonder if he would extend that theory to cover hatred of any group of humans.

Janes in Love by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg (DC Comics/Minx, August 2008, $9.99)

Janes in Love is the sequel to The Plain Janes, Minx's launch title, which I reviewed for ComicMix about a year and a half ago. (It is very close to being Minx's final title, so there's something of a bookend effect going on here.) And I'm afraid that the new book is more of the same, only more so.

The four Janes talk less realistically, but more obviously in "character." They're all in love, and talk about how they're in love, in stilted language, incessantly.

The Janes' art attacks are still as po-mo as ever, and I still have the lurking suspicion that it's because none of them has any artistic skill at all: they're more interested in the idea of being artists -- how transgressive! -- than with actually learning to paint, draw, sculpt, or, most importantly, see.

And the authorities, embodied by the requisite fat, white, crewcut meanie with a pencil-thin mustache, are still utterly unbelievable and oppressive. We even get scenes of parents talking about dangerous it is to do things like paint a fence with blackboard paint.

Janes in Love is obvious, and heavy-handed, and terribly condescending towards its assumed audience. But I'm not a teenage girl, so what do I know?

MOME, Vol. 12: Fall 2008: edited by Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth (Fantagraphics Books, September 2008, $14.99)

Would it be a cheat if I just said: "see above"? Because #12 is not terribly different from #11, and I doubt anyone expects it would be. This time there are thirteen contributors -- I think I counted correctly; Sophie Crumb has work at the beginning and end and Tom Kaczynski has four sound-related strips scattered throughout, but I don't think anyone else appears more than once.

As with the previous volume, there are some stories that work for me and some that don't -- luckily, the longest piece here, David B.'s "The Drum Who Fell in Love" (an epic thirty-five pages), is one that I liked and enjoyed, and that pushed the whole anthology into the win column. Some of the other stories I found inexplicable, and some fell flat. But, again, it's a big anthology of a lot of different people, and I expect anybody who likes "alternative" cartooning at all will find something to enjoy here.

Funeral of the Heart by Leah Hayes (Fantagraphics Books, April 2008, $14.95)

This book didn't work for me at all, and I'm not even sure I'd call it comics -- Hayes has scratchboard images, mostly full-page-size, with long text passages. It's organized much more like an illustrated book -- the images don't stand on their own, or tell the story directly, but the narrative does. (That's not why it didn't work for me; illustrated books can be excellent, even though I didn't think this one was.)

Hayes's narrative voice is almost like that of a young child: event follows event in a linear strand without consequences or a larger universe; her stories tell a world in which "and" is the only link and inexplicable things can't be questioned, since there's no context to judge them. Her prose affects a quick staccato style, with short declarative sentences following each other but not necessarily building on each other.

Her faces have the flat eyes and glum cheeks of Chris Ware, and being executed in scratchboard makes them more technically accomplished without adding much in the way of life or energy. There's the air of a gallery show hovering over Funeral of the Heart -- I could see the scratchboard pictures hanging on a wall, with the text next to them.

Hayes's stories strenuously avoid any emotional connections -- between characters, or to the reader -- which I have to see as a problem. And their disjointed style of telling turns them away from the usual story qualities into unmotivated sequences of events. So I can't call this book particularly successful -- though, saying that, I will admit that I doubt I'm particularly sympathetic to what Hayes is trying to do here.

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