Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Three Utterly Different Graphic Novels

I read all three of these recently, and I'm not doing a review every day, so they pile up:

Naruto, Vol. 48 by Mashashi Kishimoto -- There is nothing whatsoever I can say at this point about Naruto that would make much sense to anyone who hasn't been keeping up with the series, but this is the closest thing to a regular comics fix that I have these days. (I haven't read any long-johns characters regularly in about a decade; the last was probably the various animated-Batman comics in the '90s, and the vaguely superheroish remnant of Vertigo around the same time.) It's full of all of the cliches of comics for Japanese boys: the hero who's hardworking and endlessly sunny, though just slightly too much to handle; the endless fights, shown in loving detail and at great length; the delight in minutia, especially related to the aforementioned fighting; and the ever-present focus on both the feelings and concerns of everyone related to the story. This is a solid volume, another brick in a huge wall of story -- and I like my walls of story to be concrete and constructed by the same architect from beginning to end, unlike the Western superhero equivalents. So I'll keep reading Naruto, as I remember to.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch -- This is a weird little book -- it has a second subtitle (or "reading line," as we sometimes call it in the book biz) on the cover to say "Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl," and that's what it is. Mirka lives with her (large) family in a small town somewhere not very close to anything else or to more than a handful of goyim, sometime in the last few hundred years, and she wants to fight dragons. Her world is a mixture of very specific -- all of the details of Orthodox Jewish life are given a lot of space and attention -- and the very vague, such as what any of the adults in Hereville do. (They don't farm, and commerce seems very unlikely, given how cut off they are from everything else.) There's also a pronounced undercurrent of female repression: all the girls in Hereville can hope for is to grow up and become a wife and mother (to many, many children as quickly as possible) -- and, if she's lucky, not to die young (as seems to happen very often). Mirka's desire for adventure isn't in opposition to that repression, though; it's entirely unrelated to it, taking place on a different level of reality. (If Mirka questioned women's place in her society, she couldn't be the good Jewish girl she is.) There's a tension there that I'm not sure Deutsch intended -- this seems to be a book planned to be a fun adventure story set in a specific kind of community, but that community and the choice of a girl for hero resonate strongly in ways that shake the book's foundations. Apart from that unexamined tension, though, Hereville is a fun, girl-powerish adventure story with a heroine who's smart, resourceful, and endearingly bullheaded. 

The Search for Smilin' Ed by Kim Deitch -- Deitch's books are all pieces of a single large mythology, centered on his trickster character Waldo the Cat, and usually involving old and half-forgotten forms of American entertainment (vaudeville, old Hollywood, stage magicians), which a modern character -- often named "Kim Deitch," and with a lot of the identifiable characteristics of the author -- slowly unravels, without quite piercing the central mysteries, though the reader does see all of those details. Search for Smilin' Ed slots into that schema perfectly, as "Kim Deitch" tries to track down the host of an obscure '50s TV kids' show, but runs into Waldo along the way -- so that the story can bend off to follow Waldo from there on, and to learn the real secrets. (Which, typically, are kept from the Kim Deitch character in his own books.) Deitch is one of the great originals of comics: wordy and discursive, but always compelling, with a detailed pen-and-ink style that incorporates a thousand grotesques while remaining essentially sunny and full of wonders. This book also contains a massive two-page fold-out (and accompanying key) with nearly every character from the multifarious versions of Deitchland, which is nearly worth the price of admission all by itself. Simply put, it's lovely to be in a world that not only contains a Kim Deitch, but celebrates him and lets him continue to create stories like this; his continued career is almost enough to make me believe in his wilder flights of fancy.

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