Friday, February 01, 2013

Hey Kids, Comics!

I've probably used that post title before, I'm afraid. (The old Blogger interface had predictive thingummy, so if you started typing a post-title that you'd used before, it would show you. Yet another way that the world is inevitably falling into rack and ruin, obviously.)

These are comics which I have read recently, and which I'm tossing into one post, since that seems to get me to finish things these days. They really don't belong together, but what the hell.

Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out by Stephan Pastis

This would be the sixth "treasury-sized" -- as big as a European comics album (or a smallish coffee table book), around 250 pages, with Sunday strips in color -- collection of the reasonably popular syndicated comic strip Pearls Before Swine, with strips originally appearing in newspapers (remember them?) from late August of 2009 through almost the last day of February in 2011.

I've given some collections of this strip full posts (without having too much to say about them) and demoted the last one, Pearls Blows Up, to the end of a round-up post. This one gets to go first in a round-up post...but there's still little to say about Pearls: it's quite dark for a mainstream newspaper strip, full of cartoony death and anger and bile and spleen, but it's been the same kind of dark since it started. I find that a quite appealing variety of darkness, myself, but opinions on such things do vary.

The treasuries, as I've mentioned before, also have annotations from cartoonist Pastis on quite a lot of the strips, and those are amusing in themselves and as a peek backstage at the comics factory as well as being what a marketer like me is required to call a "value-add" at least once a year. If you like a comic strip, I figure you should buy a collection once in a while, so you're actually pushing money in the direction of the creator. This is a good one for a solid strip.

Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown

It's a real sign of the rise of the place of the graphic novel (or, as Brown styles it here, graphic-novel) that this edition -- a classy hardcover by Drawn & Quarterly of a dark and quirky early work by a difficult and not overly commercial cartoonist -- exists at all, and that it was accessible in my local library, close-up pictures of an alternate-world Ronald Reagan as the head of a man's penis and all.

(I don't want to call attention to the particular library, since actual pictures of penises have been dangerous for librarians since at least In the Night Kitchen. But big props to them for buying this and putting it in their graphic novel collection; my local library's similar shelves are almost all junky Spider-Man and Batman books.)

This was Brown's first major work, and first long work -- in fact, like so many cartoonists, what's collected here as one story began as individual short strips, originally published in his Yummy Fur mini-comic in the early '80s, and only coalesced into one story over time. It's only partly the story of Ed the Happy Clown -- and, remember, this is an '80s comic, so he is a clown, and he's named Ed, but he is never ever happy, nor, really, is anyone else in the story -- and partly the story of hospital janitor Chet Dooley and his adulterous love Josie, but mostly just Brown experimenting with storylines and narrative drive, moving towards one plot.

There's nothing like a linear plot -- those disparate strips come together, and then events just follow events, in a sequence that always seems plausible even if it's never realistic. Brown's world is a nightmare vision, full of random violence, casually cruel authority, and pointless brutality. Even worse -- for some readers, at least -- is that Brown has a kind of morality animating this story -- a secondhand, half-understood Catholicism without salvation or Jesus, consisting only of evil and punishment and everlasting damnation. (I'm coming to think that the unquestioning acceptance of some kind of tormented morality is Brown's unconscious central theme; it certainly was important in his The Playboy, which I reviewed a few years back.)

Ed the Happy Clown is an important graphic novel, and an interesting one, but it's also black as night and not fully formed -- Brown realized, after the fact, that was telling a specific story and had overrun the ending rather than being in the middle of a long string of picaresque adventures of Ed, and so cut off the meandering last few issues of Ed's story and added a few pages to close up his other narrative threads. But it's powerful and compelling in its view of evil mankind, and this edition has extensive notes by Brown in the backmatter, making it the best reading experience for this material.

Her Permanent Record by Jimmy Gownley

I believe this is the last Amelia Rules! graphic novel, and not just the newest one, though the book itself doesn't actually say that. Amelia is eleven years old, growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and the previous seven books covered her arrival there and several cartoonily eventful years in her life (see my reviews for more details).

The tone of the series is still smack in that deeply American territory of mixed madcap and sentimental, but Gownley is fully in control of his material, and keeps it working. It's the kind of sentiment that shouldn't work -- particularly on old, grizzled grumpy men like myself -- but it does keep working, no matter how much I might argue with myself that it's obvious and at least a bit facile. These books are best for tweens (or slightly younger kids), obviously, but there's enough smart dialogue and childhood-seen-in-retrospect to make them interesting and worthwhile reading for adults as well.

This book doesn't have as much funny stuff as the earlier ones -- Gownley can be laugh-out-loud when he's going that way, and hitting on all cylinders -- but it does have a seriously teary moment near the end, nearly as touching as the highest points in the series. In fact, if I had to criticize Her Permanent Record, it would be that this book is more mid-level than the best parts of the series -- the funny bits aren't as big and funny, and the touching bits aren't as big and teary. Still, it's a fine ending, and I'll miss Amelia Louise McBride if I never see her again. (But I'm secretly sure Gownley will come back, ten or twenty years from now, to show us Amelia grown up, once her audience has grown up to match her.)

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