Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Comics Round-Up: Utterly Random

These books have absolutely nothing in common besides the fact that I've read all of them sometime recently. If I were better organized and/or more energetic, they'd each get their own post, but I'm not, so they don't.

First: There's nothing like a good gore-fest, particularly when there's a vaguely philosophical basis to the slaughter. (Just killing teenagers is gauche; killing teenagers in the pursuit of sweetness and light is inspiring.) We all have a taste for the Grand Guignol at time: big stories, with big things at stake, and body parts flying across the stage before the big finale.

Lychee Light Club is so Grand Guignol that it's even based on a play that the author (Usamaru Furuya) saw twenty-five years ago, presented by the frankly named Tokyo Grand Guignol. If the play was half as bloody as the graphic novel is, it must have been a messy front row by the time the evening was done.

In some dystopic Japanese industrial town -- now, in the near future, in the recent past -- a group of middle-school boys gather in an abandoned factory, fanatically devoted to a charismatic and unhinged leader, to form a Light Club. Their aim: to create a robot powered by Lychee fruit, and then...perhaps to kill, or to die, or to somehow transcend the brute reality of being boys turning into hairy, ungainly, unpleasant men. Along the way, they kidnap a girl of the same age and circle ever lower in their own self-created Hell, as their paranoia, fear, anger, and jealousy turn on each other even more than on the outside world. And it all ends, as it must, with blood and death and brutal retaliation for all of the real and imagined faults of humanity.

Second: I've been rhapsodising over the gorgeous E.C. Segar Popeye reprint collections from Fantagraphics for the last few years -- see my reviews for "I Yam What I Yam!", "Well, Blow Me Down!", "Let's You and Him Fight!" and Plunder Island for details -- and I might be just about rhapsodized out at this point.

That's a shame, since the fifth collection, "Wha's a Jeep?", is just as vital and zippy as any of those earlier books, particularly in the daily strips. Those zoom through a continuation of "Popeye's Ark" -- in which Popeye set himself up as "dictipator" of an all-male country on a far-away island -- as Popeye deals with his subjects wanting women, with Olive's competing state Olivia, with the beautiful spy Zexa Peal and the Brutian empire she represents, before hitting a climactic war sequence that finally ends with Popeye heading home. But he arrives home only to immediately first meet one of the strip's most quirky and lasting inventions, Eugene the Jeep, a fourth-dimensional creature that can tell the future. And then the Jeep story segues directly into the search for, and conflict with, Popeye's long-lost father, Poopdeck Pappy.

(It's all so energetic and packed full of comedy and action that it makes me tired just trying to summarize it all -- but reading the book is like a headlong dive into the greatest era of the American comic strip, particularly if, like me, you read it lying down somewhere comfortable.)

The Sunday strips aren't as continuity-bound, but have the added benefit of being very Wimpy-heavy. (Wellington J. Wimpy is one of the great comedic creations of all time, and I don't care who knows it.) It is slightly dispiriting to realize that the comic strip was shrinking even back in 1935, as the reader notices that Segar's pages shrink quietly from seven tiers down to five over the course of that year. That turns the Sappo "topper" strip -- in these books, run underneath the Popeye cartoons -- from a comedy strip about an inventor into quick exercises in novelty cartooning, which is pleasant but feels like a waste of space, since the Popeye strip was cramped as well.

So the dailies have Popeye proclaiming "I yama sad dictipator -- my sheeps ain't happy," and then the one-two punch of the Jeep and Poopdeck Pappy. And the Sundays have Wimpy in full flower, among much else. This is great stuff -- as I've said before, Segar's Popeye is not just one of the great American comics, it's one of the great comedy/adventure works of all time, full of brawling, joking, inexhaustible life.

Third: Nate Powell's first full-length graphic novel, 2008's Swallow Me Whole, surprised me as it surprised a whole lot of people -- it was a swirling, ominous, brooding story of one Southern family in the recent past, with deeply atmospheric art and an unblinking look at two teenagers who just want to find a way to live in the world that really exists. (It won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel, and deserved it.)

His follow-up is Any Empire: another story about kids and teens, another story that seems to be set in the South of ten or twenty years ago, another story in which consensus reality doesn't hold everyone as tightly as we think it does. It's as immediately engrossing and compelling as Swallow was, but I found, in the end, that it wasn't as tightly focused as Swallow was, and lost some power because of that.

Swallow was the story of two siblings, Ruth and Perry, and Empire similarly centers on a young boy and girl: Lee and Sarah, who are elementary-school friends (after they both move to a new school) and who date for a while, more than a decade later. But the real core of the story is Purdy, a boy Lee plays with -- Purdy is demanding and controlling, the kind of kid who needs to dictate all the details of every game and who's always too intense and ready to anger. Empire could have focused on Purdy and Lee, and their circle of boys -- especially the twins, Matt and Mark, who perhaps push Purdy towards being his own worst self, with their casual cruelty towards animals and their twin-ness meaning they never need to play with other boys.

Empire stalks around the young lives of Lee and Sarah, diving forward to see them in their early twenties and returning to them at around the age of ten repeatedly, keeping a wary eye on Purdy all the while. The climax of Empire brings Purdy, now an adult and a soldier, back to town, and to meeting Lee and Sarah, in a very unlikely turn of events that Powell meant to be as unsettling and dangerous as the swarm of insects in Swallow, but which comes across as an eruption of thematic material to the level of plot.

Powell is a mesmerizing storyteller; his best pages emerge from inky blacks like forgotten dreams and his kids are achingly real, effortlessly reminding us of our own younger selves with their every line of dialogue or awkward posture. Any Empire doesn't quite gell as strongly as Swallow Me Whole did, but it's still a striking, engrossing, gorgeous book by one of our best young cartoonists, and to be not quite as good as one of the best graphic novels of this decade is no bad thing.

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