Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Three Random Graphic Novels

I've read them recently, and I want to start clearing the decks to end the year square -- so they get shoved together, even though they have nothing in common:

The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book by Joe Daly (Fantagraphics, October 2009, $22.99)

My master plan had been to review this and Shane White's Things Undone together, under a headline something like "No Way, Dude! Two Books About Slackers." But then, on further reflection, I decided that it wasn't at all fair to the protagonist of Things Undone to call him a slacker -- he has his faults, like any of us, but he clearly worked hard and cared about his career. So that put the kibosh on that idea.

The main characters of Red Monkey, on the other hand, definitely are slackers. Dave is a freelance designer with an unfortunate tendency to anthropomorphize his work -- he's put faces on bricks on the first page of this graphic novel, which his client does not appreciate -- who hates working for "mundane people" and would rather be smoking weed. His buddy Paul doesn't even have the semblance of a day job; he's just a mooch who sometimes makes a few bucks selling craft items to other stoners. Dave is the red monkey of the title -- he has feet like hands, which allow him to climb very quickly. "Double Happiness," on the other hand, is the name of an off-page Chinese restaurant run by one of his neighbors; it's mostly in the title to show that there are two separate stories here --"The Leaking Cello Case," which was serialized in SL magazine and published separately (presumably in South Africa) in 2003; and the much longer and new "John Wesley Harding."

Both stories see Dave and Paul get involved in vaguely shady -- but entirely weird -- dealings. These are basically stoner crime stories, with Dave and Paul as relative innocents who get caught up in hallucinogenic toad trafficking, or secret microwave generators that destroy wetlands. Daly doesn't rely too heavily on stoner humor, thankfully, but Dave and Paul are discursive and occasionally addled, and they wander through the stories with the good-natured nonchalance of men who've got a lot of good bud behind them. Daly keeps these as stories about stoners rather than as stoner stories -- this isn't the way Dave would tell the story (thankfully); it makes more sense than that.

Dungeon: The Early Years, Vol. 2: Innocence Lost written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim with art by Christophe Blain (NBM, October 2009, $12.95)

The Dungeon series continues to expand and proliferate; I've reviewed parts of it several times but I'm more and more coming to believe that I should be putting all of these books onto a single shelf and then reading them all in "order." (Internal chronology is almost certainly not order of creation, though, and it's difficult to determine the latter with an ocean and a language separating me from those original publications.)

This volume continues the story of young Hyacinthe, who eventually became the Dungeon's creator and Keeper. As is becoming typical, each sub-series sees a young and (more or less) idealistic hero having more and more adventures, and facing down more or life, until he becomes the "evil" -- or perhaps monstrous is the better word -- background figure of the series set later in time. As Herbert became the Great Khan, so we see that the Keeper was once young Haycinthe.

Many of the other books were suitable for younger readers -- not for the youngest, but generally good for tweens and particularly teens -- but this volume is darker and more obviously sexual. (To quote one blunt conversation -- "He told you he loves me?" "I've subtly deduced it." "On the basis of what observation?" "He pays for whores whom he dresses in thigh boots. And when he makes love to them and shouts 'Alexandra! Alexandra!'") It's also, as I hinted above, becoming more and more clear that Sfar and Trondheim are weaving a very large tapestry, and are willing to bounce back and forth in their timeline to place each thread in its proper place.

The Dungeon series looks like a satire of swords & sorcery, and may have begun that way, but it's turned into a deeper and more resonant work than that; Dungeon is about, at its core, the eternal battles between individual and society, between youthful vigor and mature wisdom, between hope and experience. The adventure has always been tinged with more darkness than a similar American series would have allowed, but it's broadened into the neighborhood of tragedy now -- or, if not tragedy in particular, than the sadness inherent in the inevitable decay and end of everything.

Trotsky: A Graphic Biography by Rick Geary (Hill and Wang/Serious Comics, September 2009, $16.95)

Hill and Wang's "Serious Comics" imprint hasn't gotten the attention of the similar forays into graphic storytelling by Scholastic and Villard, and it doesn't seem to have been as commercially successful, either. This may because of the limits of the market (the shelf is only so big, and consumer's wallets so open), or of the limits of Serious Comics's remit -- only biographies of famous Americans -- but there isn't any notable buzz over the line. (The fact that its official blog had only one entry doesn't help.)

I reviewed Geary's previous book for Serious Comics, a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, which was the usual well-researched and strongly told historical story we've come to expect from Geary (as this book also is). But I also note that the covers of both books were assembled from interior art, implying that Serious Comics didn't pay for (or just didn't ask for) a separate cover. The graphic treatment of those covers is fairly strong, given the limits of black-and-white comics panels, and I can see that a display of many Serious Comics titles could be very impressive.

Publishing tea-leaf-reading aside, Trotsky is a well-researched and engagingly told (if, inevitably, very wordy) graphic account of the life of the loser of most of the great Communist power struggles on the early 20th century. I have the vague sense that the audience for books like this are mostly schoolchildren looking for the subjects of a report, but I'd be surprised if school systems in at least half of this country would be particularly amenable to a book on Trotsky. (Of course, that assumes they remember Trotsky, which I doubt anyone to the right of Teddy Kennedy does, these days.) Geary is excellent with historical material as always, though I do miss the sly humor of his early short strips. Perhaps some enterprising publisher can hire Geary for a project that merges all of his strengths -- maybe a story about the mole-men's invasion of the Columbian Exhibition or something equally unlikely?

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