Saturday, October 29, 2011

Comics Round-Up: No Connection Whatsoever

And here are four more graphic novels (or similar beasts) that I neglected to write about soon after I read them, when they were fresh in my mind. Let's see what I care to remember...

Mister Wonderful is part of the endless repackaging of Daniel Clowes, though this piece (unlike most of his recent books) didn't first see life as a single issue of his old comics series, Eightball. No, this first appeared in the short-lived New York Times Magazine "Funny Papers" section, one of the few moments when the Grey Lady tried to emulate regular newspapers.

The story has been reworked slightly -- each large NYT page has been broken into two shorter, wider pages, to pad the length up to something that can be called a book -- and there are some other changes as well, but it's still the same, just told in a slightly different form. (And it's also a story very similar to Clowes's last standalone graphic novel, Wilson, which I reviewed here last year.)

Marshall is a middle-aged sad sack, divorced, lonely, nearly broke and with no real hopes of getting any better. He narrates this story -- intensively narrates it, in a caption-filled style very out of fashion in most of mainstream comics, which shoves us directly into his head and holds us there, hostage perhaps, until the end of the book. Marshall isn't great company, unfortunately -- he's obsessive about his own shortcomings, and self-flagellation is only interesting for so long.

Mister Wonderful is the story of one day in Marshall's life -- one night, really -- starting with a blind date, and continuing on from there. Marshall's been set up with Natalie by mutual friends, and Natalie is probably just as damaged as Marshall is, in her own ways -- but we only see her through Marshall's eyes, and only see her when Marshall gets out of the way, which is hardly ever. So Mister Wonderful is primarily a tour through Marshall's psyche, with short stops along the way to take in some real-life events that illustrate that his poor self-image is well rooted in his actual competencies.

It doesn't have the satirical edge of Clowes's earlier work -- Clowes wants us to identify with Marshall and care about him. (Mister Wonderful is most like a work by a slightly more friendly, and less formalist, Chris Ware.) But Marshall is undeniably tedious and suffocating -- though he is nowhere near as horrible as the "hero" of Clowes's Wilson was, so he does have that to (very slightly) recommend him. Clowes can create characters that are damaged, self-obsessed, and fascinating -- recall Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World -- but, these days, he's tending to leave off "fascinating," which is unfortunate.

The New Yorker On the Money is much easier (and quicker) to describe: this 2009 book (edited by New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff) collects cartoons from the New Yorker's long history about finance, economics, and just money. As usual with the New Yorker, there's a decided tilt towards cartoons about either "big business" (a bunch of guys in suits around a table) or "the rich" (either two men sitting in club chairs, or some kind of swanky party). This particular New Yorker collection, I have to say, stints hugely in the guy-on-a-desert-island cartoon.

So this is somewhat an updated and supersized new edition of the New Yorker Book of Money Cartoons (published in 1991, and reviewed here by me, which is why I remember it), organized by decade and substantially longer. If you're looking for the definitive collection of New Yorker-style "drawings" about bankers, conspicuous consumption, and the idle rich, this is it. If you can't stand New Yorker cartoons, this probably won't change your mind.

I'm probably all out of superlatives to describe Rick Geary's "Murder Treasury" books -- eight books were published in the "Treasury of Victorian Murder" from 1995 through 2007, and four since then have comprised the "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" -- since I've reviewed many of them over the past few years. (The Mystery of Mary Rogers, The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans, Famous Players, The Lindbergh Child, The Saga of the Bloody Benders, and The Case of Madeline Smith)

This year's entry in the series is The Lives of Sacco & Vanzetti, an impeccably researched, carefully constructed, and utterly engrossing book about two anarchists convicted and executed for murder in the early 1920s, despite mixed evidence and world-wide outrage about the case. (It was one of the very first times that there really was world-wide coverage of a single event, in that first era in which news truly became global.)

As usual, Geary doesn't pick a side -- he presents all of the evidence, as dispassionately as possible, and ends with a page detailing the best arguments on both sides. (He clearly prefers murder stories that are still mysteries, decades later -- the stories that are unfinished, and will never be fully closed.) And his linework is as precise and detailed -- just this side of finicky -- as ever. I find that the least-known cases make for the most fascinating Geary books, since all of the facts are completely new, but even this heavily picked-over piece of history gives him a lot of scope to retell the story.

Sacco and Vanzetti were both alive, and years from the murder they may or may not have committed, when the strips in George McManus's Bringing Up Father were drawn and published; this book collects the first two years of that long-running strip, from 1913 and 1914. It's from the very dawn of the American newspaper strip, and many of these strips still have the stiffness of the 19th century to them at times, along with the lack of gutters between panels of an art form still figuring out its ground-rules.

I have to admit that I don't find martial violence as side-splitting a running joke as McManus's contemporaries seemed to, but, at this early point, Bringing Up Father wasn't primarily about Maggie hitting Jiggs with the rolling pin -- though that did occur now and then. The core of the strip was Jiggs, that boisterous, glad-handing, common man, thrown against his will into the realms of the upper class, propelled by his social-climbing wife, Maggie. (The strip never did explain how Jiggs got suddenly rich -- never even hinted at it, which is probably for the best.) Jiggs, of course, would much rather prefer to sneak off to a bar, or a card game, to waste time with his old chums -- and practically every working man in New York seems to have been his chum!

Bringing Up Father was a limited strip, but it worked pretty well within those limitations. McManus became a much more interesting and intricate artist later on, but these early strips are still consistently entertaining, which is pretty good for throwaway entertainment nearly a hundred years old.

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