Sunday, January 13, 2013

Quick Comics Round-Up: Lemire, Dahl, Petty & Florido

My hope is that by putting "quick" in the title, I actually will be quick. Wish me luck.

The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

Is underwater welding the most melancholy and depressive of all occupations? In just the last month, I've come across two creative works -- Jeff Lemire's melancholy graphic novel The Underwater Welder and Elizabeth Cook's sad song "Heroin Addict Sister" -- and I'm just waiting for the inevitable third to confirm it. I don't expect any real-world underwater welders to chime in with an explanation, but I expect what creative people find evocative about that job is the combination of skilled blue-collar work -- something not easy, painstaking, and done with your own hands -- and the quiet, lonely depths of the ocean.

And Jeff Lemire certainly knows from quiet and lonely; his solo graphic novels are so far all stories of quiet and lonely people, usually in similarly quiet and lonely parts of Canada. (I know he also writes punchfests for corporate comicdom; I have no knowledge of those and no plans to find out.)

Jack Joseph is an underwater welder, as his father was before him, and his wife is very pregnant as the book opens -- so it's clearly a story about fathers and their children, on the one hand, as it's about silence and depth and compression and leaving the world to do something and then coming back to it, on the other. In Jack's case, he leaves the world and comes back to someplace else -- very similar, perhaps even the same, but as empty and quiet as the deep seafloor.

Underwater Welder mixes thrills psychological and physical, as it bounces between Jack's present-day and his childhood, between his own impending fatherhood and the day his own father died. It's a dark, brooding mix, told through Lemire's scratchy art, all big dark eyes and battered faces, in an equally foreboding landscape on the bleak sea-coast of Nova Scotia. And it won't be for everyone, but it's a well-told story of real people and the things their expectations and reflections lead them into.

monsters by Ken Dahl

Ken Dahl is a sick man. (He's also really, or perhaps also, a man named Gabby Schulz, but leave that aside for now.) And Monsters is the story of that sickness.

Back in 2003, Dahl/Schulz was diagnosed with herpes simplex, type 1, after his then-partner went to a free clinic after several days of very painful genital sores. That relationship fell apart quickly, in the expected ways, and Ken (I'll call him Ken) was left, infected, to make his way through the world of low-paying-service jobs, cross-country moves, and, most importantly, long-term incurable medical conditions.

Monsters is drawn with verve and energy and an amazing visual ingenuity -- you could call it beautiful if not that so much of it was showing Ken's rampant imaginings of infections, disfigurations, and shame. (There's a fair amount of drawn genitalia here -- mostly disembodied, mostly infected, and mostly unpleasant.) This is, without a doubt, the best graphic novel about chronic venereal disease that the world has ever seen, and probably the best it ever will see. Some readers will find it far too icky, but it's a fascinating, compelling character study -- and easily the most interesting educational pamphlet you'll ever see -- with a solid story embedded in it.

Bloody Chester by JT Petty & Hilary Florido

Western heroes, these days, have mostly simplified down to laconic, powerful men, who can just about do anything they set their minds to. Chester Kates -- aka Bloody Chester, aka Lady Kate -- is nothing like that: he's as tough as a small young man can be in a rough town, but that's not nearly tough enough. But he's strong enough to grab an opportunity to clean up and get out of town: the railroad is coming through, and Chester is hired to burn down the supposedly-haunted ghost town of Whale that it needs to go through, so the work gangs will get back to work.

Whale isn't completely empty, though -- there's a pretty girl, and her father (a miner holed up in his mine with secrets and possibly a treasure), and a boy younger, smaller, and possibly even more sensitive about it than Chester -- and also his step-father, the dying pastor of Whale. Whale emptied out because it was hit by a native plague called Coyote Waits, a wasting disease that killed dozens.

(And, of course, those natives -- Sioux Indians -- are out there as well, with their own problems.)

So burning down Whale isn't as easy as it looks, particularly since Chester wants to get those few inhabitants out first -- he's no murderer, he thinks. Bloody Chester is the story of how wrong or right he was about that, and about what Coyote Waits really is, and what treasure there might be in the mountain next door. It's clearly a Western, both in milieu and in style: the story of people on the edge of their civilization, pushed by expanding technology and the desire for wealth, some wanting to live alone and others wanting to make that big strike and show everyone else.  It's told in a crisp historical-comic style, mostly tight on figures rather than expanses of Western landscape, which suits this story about a few small people in one dead town.

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