Tuesday, November 06, 2012

An Avalanche of Books from the Top Shelf

Top Shelf Productions is one of my favorite comics companies -- not least because they have periodic awesome sales like the one I blogged about in early September. And the aftermath of a great comics sale is a big pile of comics, and the aftermath of that is a bunch of books to review.

So let me dive right in....

Gingerbread Girl was originally a free webcomic -- in fact, it's still up, so you can read part or all of it before buying if you like -- by husband-and-wife team Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. (I knew Coover from her sweetly sexy comic Small Favors, and Tobin has been writing comics for some time as well.)

It's the story of perky young twentysomething Annah Billips -- and that name is so self-indulgent that she just might have chosen it for herself -- who is one of those oh-so-cute girls who can skate along on charm, winsomeness, and a twinkly smile for the first thirty or so years of their lives. (It can be even easier if you're both bisexual, like our Annah, and living in a forgiving, liberal city like Portland.) Her story is told -- directly to the reader, with surprising regularity -- by Annah, by the people she knows and meets, by random passers-by, by pigeons and dogs, and covers the course of one long evening and one (of two potential) dates she had. It also circles the question of Annah herself: she deeply believes she have a twin, created by her scientist father from the Penfield homunculus in her brain, and either this is true or Annah is seriously mentally ill.

Gingerbread Girl will not tell you which is true. But it will circle around an interesting, very quirky character for a hundred pages, with cute art from Coover and some very thoughtfully entertaining words from Tobin.

As long as I'm talking about what things aren't, I should say that Ed Piskor's graphic novel Wizzywig is definitely not the true story of famous hacker Kevin Mitnick. The central character of Wizzywig is Kevin Phenicle, who just happened to do nearly all of the things that Mitnick was famous for, in pretty much the same order and in the same places, for basically the same reasons, and went to jail the same way with a very similar controversy surrounding him.

I have no idea why Piskor decided to fictionalize Mitnick's story, or -- after that decision -- why he then stuck so very close to the real facts for most of the book. Perhaps he felt it necessary to give Mitnick's life a more conventionally novelistic arc -- Phenicle's life in prison is more eventful, and the telling of it more cathartic, than Mitnick's actual life would have been. But, still: Wizzywig is basically Mitnick's story up until Phenicle's arrest, and then diverges.

Piskor tells that story in a complicated round-robin style derived (possibly) from Dan Clowes. (His art, too, is somewhere in the broad region defined by Clowes, Bob Fingerman, and the later Drew Friedman.) There's a Greek chorus of random people who regularly chime in about Phenicle -- or, more often, his mysterious hacker alias "Boingthump" -- plus stories about Phenicle, his childhood best friend and later strongest defender Winston Smith (nudge nudge, wink wink!), and the crusading newsman Ron Shumway, who made Boingthump one of his major bugbears.

It's fun and energetic and thrilling, but it's glossier and more fictional than it needed to be -- Mitnick's real story is at least as interesting as this one, and remains behind the story Piskor does tell like a shadow on every page. Wizzywig is a fine graphic novel, but it could have been better if it had decided to either tell Mitnick's story for real or to tell an entirely fictional story.

The Lovely Horrible Stuff is the newest book from Eddie Campbell, telling another semi-autobiographical tale to follow up the long series of "Alec" stories he's produced for about thirty years. (The bulk of them are included in the recent, and absolutely essential, compendium Alec: "The Years Have Pants", and I point you at my review of that book to explain what's so good about it.) Campbell transmuted the often barely fictional Alec MacGarry into the slightly more factual Eddie Campbell at the end of The Years Have Pants, and Lovely continues in the same vein: the Eddie Campbell character here is Eddie Campbell himself, and the style and tone of the stories continues as before.

This time out, though, Campbell is working in color, as he has in his recent books (The Fate of the Artist, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, The Playwright), which gives these stories a subtly different texture than the black-and-white-and-tone work that most of the Alec work had.

Campbell's work is as puckish as ever -- after an abandoned project on the history of humor, Lovely is an examination of the world of money. Campbell, as always, isn't interested in a complete picture, so Lovely covers two things in its two chapters: his own history with money (mostly as a freelancer trying to get money out of the people who hired him), and the story of the Pacific island of Yap, where giant circular stones (quarried on a different island, quite some way away) are the most valuable and important kind of money.

It really doesn't matter what Campbell's ostensible subject is, though: the joy is in seeing him wander around and through it, thinking about this bit and then complaining about that bit and then digressing into a bar full of literary figures all complaining about their unpaid bills. Campbell is an artist in full control of his impressive talents; his pages are smart and funny and interesting and the stories they make up are equally so.

But comics don't need to be serious and thoughtful; comics can also be rip-snorting adventure. And a great example of that is Kevin Cannon's Far Arden, the tale of hard-living, hard-drinking Army Shanks, late of the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy, and his adventures in the far north of Canada.

Shanks gets caught up in the search for the fabled island of Far Arden -- by legend, a tropical paradise in the far north. Along the way, he encounters boys dressed as wolves, semi-friendly bears, creepy circuses, femmes fatales both out of his past and new, clean-cut college students, professors with mysterious plots, scheming local politicians, RCAN sailors both honest and not, secret messages, hidden maps, lecture tours, bar fights, long voyages in open boats -- not precisely "fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles," but a very similar list.

Shanks's world is cold and dangerous, though; Far Arden has many of the characteristics of a romp, but it's not entirely one. But it's a fat book (in a small, fits-neatly-in-the-hand size) with a quirky sensibility and a plot that charges forward in unexpected directions on every page, and the voyage is well worth the price of admission. It's not quite pure adventure, but it's only diluted very slightly with regret and mystery and tragedy, which makes a heady drink.

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