Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Comics Round-Up #4

And yet more -- I'm still tossing several days' worth of 2008 graphic novels into these roundups to keep me from falling further behind in writing about what I read. So here I go...

Planet Saturday Comics, Volume One: written and illustrated by Monty S. Kane (Planet Saturday, February 2008, $12.95)

My ComicMix colleague Amy Goldschlager (who also read for me for a while back at the SFBC; have I mentioned recently what a small world publishing is?) reviewed this back in January, saying that "critiquing Planet Saturday feels a bit like kicking a puppy."

And it does: this is a sweet, light webcomic in its first print incarnation, with a number of lightweight stories about a forty-ish dad ("M" or Emory, who is a version of the author as thinly-veiled as any veil can possibly be) and his usually grammar-school-aged daughter Dot. Sometimes there are flashback stories, with Emory a boy of about Dot's age now.

The stories -- vignettes, really -- are only a few pages long, and all have that vaguely wistful, amused tone that not-terribly-reflective people get when they talk about their own children or childhoods. Kane's cartooning is strong and expressive; he's particularly good at giving his characters weight. His writing is less strong -- it's not actively embarrassing, but it is overwritten, with captions that threaten to overwhelm very slight events. I have two pre-teen children of my own, and can be quite soppy about them when provoked, so I found Planet Saturday cute...but no more than that.

The Lagoon by Lilli Carre (Fantagraphics Books, December 2008, $14.99)

I believe this is Carre's first full-length graphic novel; she previously had a book called Tales of Woodsman Pete from Top Shelf, but that seems to be a collection of her minicomics. The Lagoon tells one story -- well, sort of.

Somewhere near a small body of water lives a tween girl, her parents, and her mother's father. In that water lives a Creature, which looks like his namesake from the Black Lagoon but sings like the Sirens, calling all of the locals into the shallow water on the edge of the pond..and, occasionally, luring one or more of them into deeper water, to disappear forever. On a first reading, I thought they were clearly dead...but, looking again, it's perhaps possible that they're not.

The first section of the book lays out the relationships among those characters -- which aren't precisely as anyone would expect -- and leads to the inevitable firing of the Chekhov Gun. There's a second section, set somewhat later in time, which feels like almost an entirely different story -- it doesn't explain the events at the end of the first section (not that it needed to), but doesn't move beyond the relationships in the first section either, but just presents several of those characters in other events.

Carre has an expressive style reminiscent of Richard Sala -- and her stories are in the same literary territory as Sala's as well, so the gloomy blacks and busy cross-hatching add to the ominous, overwhelming feeling. The Lagoon is the work of a creator still finding her way, but there's real spookiness in these pages -- and she's telling a story in ways (particularly trying to evoke sounds and scents through a comics page) that I've rarely seen.

Jessica Farm, Volume 1 by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics Books, April 2008, $14.95)

We all have a weakness for unfeasibly huge projects in one way or another -- perhaps we admire their audacity, or wish we were brave enough to attempt something similar, or simply stand in awe of their sheer scope. Jessica Farm evokes that reaction; Josh Simmons might just be the Gutzon Borglum of comics.

Simmons's crazy plan -- I have no second thoughts about calling it crazy; it is crazy, and I admire it for that -- is to draw 600-page graphic novel at the rate of one page a month. He began at the beginning of 2000 and intends to end it at the close of the year 2050. I don't know how old Simmons was when he started the project -- early '20s, if not younger, I hope -- but intending to do any one thing every month for fifty years, particularly a unified work of artistic creation, shows a ridiculous faith in one's future self to maintain the same goals and artistic values. Not to mention simply staying alive, which can sometimes be a problem.

Given that this first volume of Jessica Farm is the product of eight years of (very intermittent) work, and that Simmons's art style has notably changed over that time -- his first twenty pages or so are much rawer, with a near-underground sensibility, but that evens out to a more typical modern alt-comics look as the book goes on -- a single, unified storyline might be too much to ask. (We don't get one, in any case.) Jessica is a young woman who wakes up in her farmhouse on Christmas morning, and then has various adventures in that very large and extended house, among its very different creatures. The Christmas morning plot is quietly dropped about halfway through, and she's injured badly enough at one point that it's unlikely to still be the same day -- though I suspect Simmons's grand plan is to take fifty years to tell the story of one day.

Simmons does have well-paced, open pages; there's no sign that he has an urge to cram as much onto a single page as possible because he's only drawing one a month, and that's very encouraging. But I don't expect to care about Jessica Farm in eight years, let alone forty-one, and I doubt there are more than a handful of people besides Simmons who will. He'll probably do some very good work, but this is a stunt, and interesting primarily for the audacity of its concept.

What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly, May 2008, $24.95)

One of the very best aspects of the modern explosion of graphic novels is the increase in the number of books that are just different -- books that don't fall neatly into any one category or can't easily be defined in terms of what came before. In 2007, the great undefinable book was Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland; in 2008 it was Barry's What It Is.

Barry's book is nothing like Talbot's; they're alike purely in being unique. Each is a record of one artist's deep concerns and connections, poured out in semi-fictional form and containing a thousand digressions that move the core narrative ever closer to the creator's own life and philosophy. (Well, maybe they're not quite as different as I first thought.)

What It Is is one part autobiography, one part meditation of the mysteries of sub-creation, and one part writing exercises. The last comes from Barry's own work as a teacher of writing and cartooning, and is aimed at getting students to start writing fluidly and naturally, letting their own ideas come out through memories and "images." (Images are at the heart of Barry's pedagogy, and this book rarely moves beyond them -- at the very end, there's a hint of using these exercises to help move into fiction or other kinds of writing, but the focus of most of the book is writing quick, tightly focused pieces about very specific elements of one's own past. It may indeed have its uses as a tool to get the words flowing, but I do wonder what the writers I know who also teach would think of it -- particularly since most of them are in highly imaginative fields.)

Barry's book speaks directly to the reader, assuming an audience of people who are not creative and who gave up all hopes of being creative years ago. (As the cover says, "Do You Wish You Could Write?" Personally, I always wish -- and try -- to write better, but I think that I already do write. But perhaps that monkey isn't speaking to me.) It's a thoughtful, immersive book coming from deep within one creator's experience -- so deep that there's no sign of any other way to become a creator. There's also nothing in here about actually drawing, which is of interest to a cartoonist -- again, Barry assumes a beaten-down, middle-aged audience that gave up on its dreams and hopes many years ago. I hope some people like that do find this book and are inspired by it, but I suspect its audience is much more likely to be among people who already are writers and artists or are already aiming in that direction.

I haven't tried the exercises myself; I have no real interest in reliving my childhood. But I also clearly don't need any help to start writing...though I possibly could use some help in cutting things down to manageable size. My personal idiosyncrasies aside, What It Is is a deeply felt, vital book, with some amazing autobiographical work, a distinctive and enticing visual style, and a wonderful flow of images from collage to comics to sketchbook and back again. It's hard to describe, but fascinating and amazing to read.

Love and Capes, Vol. 1: Do You Want to Know a Secret? by Thomas F. Zahler (IDW, November 2008, $19.99)

Some books, on the other hand, are much easier to describe: this is a superhero romantic sitcom, in a clean modern style that owes equally to animation and computers. The characters are variations on characters that we're all familiar with, allowing the story to get right into the sitcom/romcom elements without being bogged down in exposition.

Mark Spencer is the Superman-esque Crusader, and he reveals his secret identity to girlfriend Abby Tennyson (who works in a bookstore) in the first of the six issues collected here. And the plots flow out from there, in the usual, light ways: Abby accidentally tells her sister Charlotte, who works in the same store. Mark's best friend, the Batman-esque Paul/Darkblade, and his ex, the superheroine Amazonia, also put in major appearances.

Zahler writes in half-page, four-panel chunks (as he explains in his afterword), making Love and Capes almost read like a strip collection -- there's a punchline twice a page, always in the same spot. They're generally pretty good punchlines -- Zahler has the good sitcom knack of making his characters iconic but not quite generic, and his dialogue is solid -- but the rhythm can get pretty obvious. And Zahler shows no sign, at least at this point, of putting his characters through more than mild discomfort.

So Love and Capes is fun and entertaining, but it's a bit slight. It's really most fun for readers who can't quite break free from superhero comics, but still want something they can share with their girlfriends.

Amulet, Book 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (Graphix/Scholastic, January 2008, $9.99)

Kibuishi is the editor of Flight series of anthologies, which have become the standard-bearer for their own distinct community of creators -- neither the too-cool-for-school alt-comics types nor the arrested-development of the long-underwear crowd. (And also not quite the I-want-to-drawn-my-own-manga folks nor the hardcore webcomics people, though both of those were closer to the Flight gestalt.) I've found some of the work in that area to be somewhat too juvenile and timid for its own good, so I was a bit uneasy when Kibuishi signed a two-book deal with Scholastic -- one of the preeminent publishers of books for young people in the USA -- a few years back.

Amulet: The Stonekeeper is the first of those two books; Amulet: The Stonekeeper's Curse will finish up the story later this year. And my worries had less foundation than I expected; Amulet is clearly a story for younger readers, but it's neither sugarcoated for them nor done in a way that excludes older readers.

In plot, it's a fairly standard portal fantasy, with a variation on the Lost Princess plot: Emily and her younger brother Navin find themselves in a strange otherworldly land while chasing a creature kidnapping their mother from their new home. (New to them, but it's an old ancestral house, full of secrets -- including an amulet that Emily impulsively put on.) So: their mother has been taken by strange forces. The amulet has mysterious powers -- some of which Emily can use, or learn to use -- and guides them through dangers to a large stone house, where their great-grandfather, Silas Charnon, lies dying, surrounded by the robots and other devices he created over his long life.

The amulet tells Emily she must choose to take it or reject it -- this is a choice she can make only once, and never go back on. (And it's clearly not a simple choice; Navin is strongly against it.) But the amulet is seductive -- she learns that, using its power, she can go back in time to set unspecified things right. In the prologue, we saw Emily's father die, in front of her eyes, in a terrible car crash -- and we know what she wants to set right.

The moral choices thus aren't as obvious and simple as typical in stories for very young readers; Amulet has a visual style that may be appealing to grade-schoolers, but the content is pitched a few years older than that. And I hope and expect that in the second volume, Emily will learn -- like every good fantasy protagonist -- that power always has its price, and that nothing worth doing comes easily.

(And I have to admit that -- when I realized that this book came out just over a year ago -- I had an immediate hope that the second volume was already out, so I wouldn't have to wait to read it. Sadly, it's currently scheduled for September.)

Haunted by Philippe Dupuy (Drawn & Quarterly, March 2008, $24.95)

Dupuy has mostly worked with Charles Berberian on the "mr. Jean" stories, off which only Get a Life (I think) has been published over here. Like all teams, every so often they get sick of each other (or something like that) and do solo works, but this is one of a very few of those.

Haunted was published in 2006 in France, and so is making it over here pretty quickly -- it's a collection of loosely linked stories, all in a relaxed, almost sketchy style and often without panel boundaries. The stories are pulled together by repeated scenes of Dupuy jogging -- some of the stories happen to Dupuy while jogging (generally in a surreal way; these are not obviously autobiographical stories in any simple way) and some of them are suggested by events in those jogs, and some of them don't seem to have any clear connection at all.

A dog caught in a trap bites off his own leg. A minotaur caught in a maze kills others and them himself. A painter is told to focus on empty space, and ruins his life trying to do so. A man's body is infested by rats. A Mexican wrestler tries to fight a small figure (a boy? a small woman?). A group of friends, woodland animals, deal badly with their friend's loss of an arm. In between those stories, slightly less permanent dangers afflict the fictional Dupuy -- he falls down a hole in an empty museum curated by a talking dog, meets a blind old woman, befriends an art-collecting duck, sees his mother again.

The stories are all haunted by loss and aging -- all about loss and lack in one way or another. Dupuy's art is appealingly simplistic and energetic, but I'm not entirely sure what to make of the stories as a whole.

I'm leaving this last book at the end, because it's subject matter will offend many. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was designed to offend people; that's what the whole point is. So many of you may want to move on to something else now. If you don't -- you can't say I didn't warn you.

Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby: by Takashi Nemoto (PictureBox, December 2008, $19.95)

Sometimes all of the fancy critical words just fail you, and you're left saying things like "This is some seriously fucked up shit." Like now, for example.

This is some seriously fucked up shit. It's deeply, deeply in the underground tradition, with deliberately ugly art -- Nemoto has a small frame story at the beginning and end, mostly to show that he could draw like a regular manga-ka if he wanted to -- and as appalling and disgusting stories as Nemoto could think up.

There are four stories here, all drawn in a very busy, flat outsider style. The first three are short, ten to twenty-page affairs, and the fourth takes up more than two-thirds of the book. "Monster Men Bureiko" is the story of a man whose penis takes over for his head -- literally, flipping his body over. (That's him on the cover.) He has increasingly random three-page adventures until the storyline was cancelled by the magazine; it starts from nothing and goes nowhere.

"Pennise Life" is the story of a painter obsessed with his own dick, and "The Sex Rogue" is the story of a sex-obsessed fetus, who very quickly becomes the father of his younger "sister" and the father and grandfather of her "twin." These three stories are really just catalogs of things that Nemoto thinks will offend his readers; they careen around without logic and with deliberately ugly art, purely to provoke a reaction of disgust.

The last story is a bit more sophisticated, but only a little -- "The World of Takeo" is the life story of a giant boy/sperm, born from his father's masturbation during a nuclear explosion. His father is an obsessive serial rapist, his grandmother hangs herself out of shame, and even Takeo the sperm-boy grows up to be a transvestite, because only gay men appreciate him. This one is longer, so Nemoto has time to develop his ideas rather than just throwing them at the page as quickly as possible -- but it's still crude by design and very puerile.

I'm afraid I'm already too old to appreciate Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby; it's perfect for a young art student, just learning about the world and ready to wallow in some filth for a while. I don't wish that it didn't exist, but I half wish that I never heard of it.

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