Warren Ellis/ Phil Hester: Shipwreck

Ellis, Warren; Phil Hester et al. (2018), Shipwreck, Aftershock
ISBN 9781935002802

If you read comics, you will have come across Phil Hester’s work here or there – he’s inescapable. And not like the ubiquitous mediocre artists. Hester’s work is always excellent. Shipwreck is no exception. Every panel, every page works. There’s a touch of J.H. Williams III about the panel layouts here, and a couple of younger artists have produced similar work, particularly in the way Hester relies on his inker here for depth and stature. And then there is the writing. Shipwreck is one of many projects by Warren Ellis, who has something of a renaissance these days – he has never gone away of course, but the recent creator owned comic books published by Image Comics (Injection, and, more relevant for this book, Trees), as well as his work on characters like Karnak or Moon Knight has been exemplary. Shipwreck is unusual among all these titles by being self contained. It’s a 6 issue comic, collected in one trade, published by Aftershock. The tendrils that Shipwreck extends towards other comic books are too numerous to list, but the book never feels derivative. It clearly feels like part of a longer comics conversation, yet its structure and character is quite unique, and Hester’s bold pen contributes to this certainly.

Shipwreck, like many great contemporary comic books, is high concept: a man lands on a strange world. As it turns out, he built a machine that can jump to a parallel earth, an attempt made in order to save the ballooning population of “regular” earth. This parallel earth is a strange hellscape – Ellis’s depiction draws from various ideas of postapocalyptic landscapes. The tropes are all there as expected: strange bars, unexpected encounters, no large communities – this is about isolated individuals strewn across a large vista of rocks and ruins. At the same time, we learn that somehow this world of destruction and mystery has a high level of technical expertise, plus a level of organization that allowed them to insert a spy in “regular” earth’s mission, there to sabotage it. This parallel earth is an earth of violence tropes, of fear. Towards the end of the book, a character from parallel earth says to the protagonist: “nobody understood you back there because you were afraid of everything and they weren’t. you’ve come home.” This insertion of fear here points to what Ellis is doing with the tropes and narratives here – he’s condensing them into one sharp image: the leap. It is a Kierkegaardian leap, this leap from one earth to the other, and Ellis has exposed it as such, with all the implications it has for other texts in this vein.

To my mind, the comic books that I thought most immediately about were Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter and Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Drifter ran through multiple trades until it ended beautifully last year. It is about a man who lands with his ship, seemingly dropped out of time – traveled through more than just space. There are contradictions and mysteries that Brandon wraps around an engaging story. While Brandon’s story, in turn, shares a lot with many other recent comic books about space-as-wild-west (Copper is one excellent example), his inversions of time and identity made his book stand out. The dominant narrative – who shoots who, who does what, all of these are diversions in the greater mystery of time and place. Drifter is full of leaps, and even engages the idea of religion, but manages to still wriggle out of it, boiling it down to a personal journey of melancholic self-discovery. This comic, towards the last trades, has some of the loneliest and emotionally gripping panels I can remember reading from a comic in this genre. Nic Klein’s art is essential to this. I’ve been meaning to do a review of Drifter for a while, but I never quite got around to it. The book’s final revelations aren’t real revelations in the sense that we are genuinely surprised – instead, we can kind of guess at everything after the first trade, but Brandon manages, with great skill, to use the majority of his run to carefully tease out all the implications and turns in his concept. The result is a wonderful comic that everybody should consider reading.

In many ways, Shipwreck uses very similar moments of revelation, the landing of the ship, the alien-but-familiar landscape, down to the way Hester renders moments of surprise, and mental strain. Another book that is similar, though in less immediately obvious ways, is Jeff Smith’s Rasl, which he published in four volumes a few years back. Smith is most well known for Bones, but I’d argue that Rasl is a greater accomplishment. RASL is a book about science, indirectly referencing various debates about the Manhattan Project and the viability and exploitability of various forms of scienti´fic progress. But more relevantly, it is about a man who straps a device to his body that allows him a form of interdimensional travel. The protagonist in Shipwreck also has a device that allows him a specialized form of travel – it allows him to jump short distances – i.e, disappear and reappear somewhere not too far away. Like RASL’s device, this one takes a toll on its user. There are a couple of scenes that read like direct references to Smith, but it’s hard to tell with such a broadly allusive book like Shipwreck. Smith does tether his story to religion, but more in the sense of a general meaty mysticism rather than something more specific. Smith’s book is effusive and inspired rather than precise and direct. Ellis’s book is the latter, more than supported by Hester’s inorganic, angular lines.

As a whole this reads like a master’s comment on a whole genre – it feels less like fiction, and more like metafiction. A comic book disquisition on craft. There is a lot of “story” in the book but at the same time, the book doesn’t appear to be interested in story. That Ellis can do story is evidenced by his own Trees. Shipwreck reads more like a proof of concept, a master showing up his disciples. Or: Masters, plural. Hester, too, has been around longer than many fêted contemporary artists, and has provided great art all this time. I first encountered Hester’s work on Kevin Smith’s iconic Green Arrow run – whatever you think of Smith’s work in comics, Quiver is a masterpiece, and Hester’s art is a big part of that. His work here is recognizable – but it, too, seems to dip into current trends, but on a much higher level. As I said – a proof of concept comic, by a legendary writer and a legendary artist.

A note towards the end: this was published by Aftershock comics. I have never heard of this publisher before – but the book is well produced, and it’s not just Ellis who writes for them these days. There’s a book by Garth Ennis, and one by the powerhouse pairing of Palmiotti/Conner, as well as a comic by Cullen Bunn, who seems to be everywhere these days.

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Mawil: Kinderland

Mawil (2014), Kinderland, Reprodukt
ISBN 978-3943-143904

The Western discourse on Socialist literature has always been ideological in the sense that we as readers expected something from the literature coming out of the Soviet bloc, and imbued that with literary value. This has at times led to the promotion of mediocre but very critical writers. Wolf Biermann is one of them, and the charade that the continued literary life of Monika Maron is should be filed in the same category. Sometimes, the way these expectations are dealt with is entertaining: I can highly recommend reading Heiner Müller interviews from his middle period of work – he is constantly, as a writer known to be at odds with the leaders of the GDR cultural establishment, prodded to please say something critical, and instead he goes on and on about the problems with capitalism, savagely critical of leftwing “symbolic” criticism and endorsing violent change. Another example is Rummelplatz, a novel that was not allowed to be published in the GDR, and the rejection of which had sent its writer, Werner Bräunig, into an early grave. The rejected manuscript is literally a museum piece now: in the German History Museum in Bonn, it is presented among other articles of “proof” of socialist repression. As I point out in my review on the blog, Rummelplatz is an odd candidate for such a hallowed spot in the museum of Why Socialism Is Evil: Bräunig’s novel explicitly and at length points to the many acts of exploitation that happened in West Germany and how East Germany had risen from a couple of potato fields to an industrial nation, against the threat of Western sabotage. It’s critical of some mechanisms of the GDR without endorsing the alternative. Like many writers of his time, like Müller or Wolf, Bräunig favored a change in the system, rather than a change of system. These books, half in and half out of discourses on socialism, are in my opinion the most interesting of the bunch. But it is a careful balancing act that isn’t so easy to pull off. Mawil’s thick brick of a graphic novel, Kinderland (named, I think, after this 1986 song), doesn’t quite manage this. That said, it’s certainly a more worthwhile addition to the body of literature about the GDR than many widely praised fictional statements on Why Socialism Is Evil.

Kinderland slips in and out of discourses. It is a story of life in the last years of a country heading towards dissolution. There are different books in it: a paint-by-numbers book about socialism as fighting dissent and being in favor of conformity, a book about growing up in the GDR, a book about isolation and growing up abandoned, a book, strangely, about alcoholism, and finally, an exciting tale of a boy who discovers his table tennis talents and mounts a school-wide table tennis tournament. Not all of these books fit extremely well together, and when I read it for the first time, I felt let down and disappointed. But upon rereading the book a few times, I have found it to be quite interesting. The combination of disparate elements works in its favor – life at the tail end of the GDR was confusing and complicated, as I, who started elementary school in the GDR and ended it in a united Germany, can personally attest. The book’s greatest strength is its careful attention to details. The slang, words, objects, the rhythm of life under the socialist regime are written with the vividness of memory, and I think it is the exactness of the book that leads to some of its complications and problems. I cannot vouch for most of it – but there’s a curious echo in my reader’s memory here. As a boy I read many of the books in my father’s library. And since my father lost his reading appetite when he became an adult, those books were largely young adult books, some of them exciting tales about being a teenager in the GDR. In my head, when I read Kinderland, the details I knew about through family stories, the details I personally observed, and the details I remembered from YA books written for GDR youth come together to create a feeling of verisimilitude. And one wonders how much of the plot and structure of Mawil’s book can be tied to his own reading, and his own indirect knowledge.

Mawil’s art is the real deal – he manages to slow down and speed up his story at will, provide a genuinely exciting table tennis game even for people who have never played or followed a single complete game of table tennis. As an artist he is not necessarily what I would call an original artist – most of his techniques can be attributed to examples from Belgian comics to Chris Ware and in particular Seth, though it’s the latter association that makes me think the art’s roots are a bit deeper, like Seth’s own are. But if you have read Seth, and Ware, and maybe Rube Goldberg, you’re not surprised by anything the book does – but it is entertaining. Mawil has full control of moods, speed, and humor in a way that I always greatly enjoy in comic books. He also uses the art to tease the reader with possibilities. The story, ultimately, is a low key story, which ends in a low key way, with two boys trying to seal a friendship. But it is presented to us immediately under two different auspices: the cover, with a sea of pioneer-blouse wearing kids and one dissenter in their midst, suggests that the story is about political dissent. The first page on the other hand presents a number of toys and childhood objects that anyone who grew up in the GDR can readily identify – there’s no other function of these panels than to signal to the reader a sense of nostalgia – or ostalgia, as it is often called. Neither impression is true for the direction the novel will take. All the working class misery, all the many, many characters who are clearly alcoholics (alcoholism was specifically a scourge of the GDR), that precludes a safe nostalgic reading. Similarly, a character in the book, a conformist girl called “Angela Werkel” is clearly an allusion to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. It’s not true – in the sense that Mawil, as a boy, did not meet Merkel who was much older at the time of the events described. But the inclusion of someone who did well under socialism, and did very well after socialism, who is shown to be intensely conformist, but also kind-hearted, is a suggestion that what really counted was not the content of one’s party allegiance but the content of one’s heart, bland as that may sound.

The main character, called Mirco Watzke (Mawil’s real name is Markus Witzel), is also one of the least interesting ones. His childish excitement, anger, frustration and happiness is well rendered, but is drowned in all the typical generic discourses on childhood which Mawil makes no attempt to break or criticize. The really fascinating character is a boy named Thorsten. He is the boy on the cover who does not wear the uniform (Mirko Watzke is the boy to his right). He’s not ideologically opposed to the GDR, he’s just a misfit. His father has left the family to pursue worldly riches in West Germany, which has turned his mother into an alcoholic. He basically lives alone, and his abrasive character means he has difficulties making friends. It is hard not to see the disillusioned, broken teenagers in Clemens Meyer’s novels about the period after reunification (very well translated by Katy Derbyshire) in Thorsten’s future. In fact, one could argue that the whole book takes on Thorsten’s shape. The contradictions in his character and the contradictions in this wild ride of a novel seem to fit. The biggest weakness of the book is Mawil’s apparent decision not to jettision his autobiographically inspired protagonist. The genre of coming of age book, where the protagonist plays straight man, and mostly narrator and observer to a wild friend or acquaintance, would have been a better fit for the material in this book. But then one has to wonder about the politics of writing this book. In a world where a novel of not-quite-dissident writing gets a spot in a museum, where the memory of the not-so-distant past is intensely politicised, Mawil’s stops and starts.

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Manu Larcenet: Ordinary Victories

Larcenet, Manu (2003), Le Combat Ordinaire, Dargaud
ISBN 9-782205-054255

I picked up this book in a Parisian comic book shop yesterday and read it all the way through on the Metro ride home. Granted, it’s not very long. That said, I haven’t been this impressed with a comic book purely by the way it’s written in a long time, so I’m sitting here to give you a quick shove. Go read this book. It’s called Ordinary Victories in English translation (published by Europe Comics), but there’s nothing ordinary about it. My caveat here_ I’ve only read volume 1, God knows the book might fall apart in later installments (there are four overall), but I cannot see that happening. Manu Larcenet is a fantastic writer, whose artwork unexpectedly complements his stories of love, heartbreak, war and disillusionment. I’ll admit – when I was recommended the book in the shop, I leafed through it, and wasn’t bowled over. Funny faces, bulbous noses, dudes smoking weed. None of this was new, none of this seemed worth the time and money to engage with it. For some nebulous reason I picked it up anyway, and I find it hard to summarize what an achievement I am finding this book to be. I was moved, not just by the awful cliffhanger ending to the book, but also by the enormous amount of humanity that Larcenet offers his readers. Ultimately, this book is about who we are as people, what we value and what holds us together as communities. Set against the backdrop of the 2002 Presidential elections in France, it asks us to understand what it means for France that a fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was able to get into the runoff against Chirac, what it means for us on the left or even center that a substantial amount of the country could have embraced violent cynicism as a political philosophy. It’s curious that I am reading the book today, as Le Pen’s daughter has gathered an even larger part of the vote in the recent French elections, and Trump won last November’s election in the US, and this Sunday, our own fascists are poised to win a historic victory and become the third largest party in parliament. Reading it as a person who is questioning some of his own choices in life and trying to find the glue that connects him to other people, this comic had a particularly strong resonance.

The protagonist is a 20something photographer who is unhappy about his job, though he still loves taking pictures, and has made enough money to be able to live (frugally) in the countryside for a year or so without being forced to take another job. He doesn’t do a big sweeping assessment of his life – he just takes down all his photos, and takes walks through the countryside with his rancorous cat Adolf. He meets farmer, smokes some weed, and, eventually, through an injury to his cat, falls in love with a veterinarian with whom he begins a loose relationship. The book begins on a psychoanalytic couch, and we may want to read his trip to the sticks as a kind of liberating move, but we quickly realize that it is his way of hiding from the issues and forces in his own life. This personal journey is however quickly buttressed by a nastier political theme – his father’s (and France’s) past during the Algerian war. The common practice of torturing Algerians during that war rears its ugly head as the book progresses, again, echoing the Presidential elections that happen during the events of the book, with one of the candidates running, Mr. Le Pen, having himself participated in acts of torture. There are no flashbacks (yet), instead we learn much of the Algerian war background of some of the protagonist’s characters, including his father, in stray sentences and one dialogue. Fittingly for the protagonist’s profession, it is a photograph that sets that whole discourse in motion. In retrospect, after finishing the book, it is quite remarkable how efficient, how sharply structured and how overall well made the book is. For all that the book may seem meandering at the beginning, everything in it serves a purpose – this kind of unassuming density is always impressive to me. It means the author has a solid control both of his ideas and the way he wants to deliver them, as well as of the craft of just telling a story with well-rounded characters. Even those characters that we never really get to know are written in a way where we can glean some additional, fuller dimensions.

The only downside to the book is its extensive maleness – the main character is a man, and his interlocutors are all men, except for his girlfriend, his mother, and his brother’s wife. Of these, his brother’s wife is the most independent – she confronts him once about his behavior, but is shown to have a whole life outside of the main protagonist’s travails. His girlfriend merely serves as a foil. Now, I understand that this is a story about this one man, and some of the maleness is inherent in the material. What’s more, the male farmers, his father, and his own gender form a kind of connection to the people who have largely been responsible for the political drama, both in the present of the book, as well as in the French past: white French men. I sort of expect the other volumes to draw more on the connection here, and it’s certainly an interesting and relevant path of thought. At the same time, introspective books by men about the deleterious effects of masculinity are as common in literature as croissants in French bakeries, and I must admit that I am slowly tiring of finding yet another text caught in the maelstrom of the (self-critical) male ego. At the same time, it’s a sign of how fantastic this particular text is that I still enjoyed it greatly, bulbous noses and bulbous egos aside. This is a very good comic and you should read it. Also, it has an adorable cat!

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Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second

Fior, Manuele (2016), 5,000 km per second, Fantagraphics
[Translated by Jamie Richards]

ISBN 978-1-60699-666-9

I can’t believe I never heard of Manuele Fior before. 5,000 km per Second is an extraordinary book – succeeding on all levels: as story, as a set of characterizations and as a graphic narrative. In fact, the art is to me the most astonishing aspect of it. I think we sometimes make allowances for comic books, for the limitations in the way comic books carry a narrative visually. I’ve never read a book like Fior’s, with it’s extraordinary approach to exactness. I kept going back and forth in the book, admiring his work. Until, that is, the end of the book, when the sad music of the book’s song of love and loss comes to a beautiful elegiac end and I needed a break. This is an absolutely gorgeous book, with only the sometimes angular dialog as an occasional weakness. Fior is Italian and the book was translated into English for Fantagraphics, not that the publisher is particularly forthcoming with this information. Ir’s not until the final page of the book that we find, in small print, the name of the translator, a man called Jamie Richards, who translated the novel, originally called Cinquemila chilometri al secondo, into this English that’s less than ideal. My Italian isn’t good enough to figure out whether a sentence is aesthetically pleasing so I cannot compare, but there’s a kind of awkwardness that I tend to associate with translations. That said, whatever misgivings I might have regarding the dialog, it’s never a very important element. Fior’s skill as an artist is such that for much of the book, we would understand the story even without any dialog. If you read only one comic book this year, make it this one.

too little too late

The story isn’t written as memory – it is an interrupted love story that stretches over a long period of time, told in the moment rather than as something remembered, but at the same time, Fior captures the complexities of memory with a rare skill, singling out moments, situations, gestures in a way that invites all of us who have had broken hearts, unfulfilled longings, tragic amorous histories to share in this story. And while the basic structure of the story isn’t remembrance, memory, and the stories we tell each other about our past, all these still play a central role in the book. The episodes are connected by the two protagonist remembering earlier episodes, remembering each other, creating a sense of what could have been rather than an anticipation of the future. Every new episode, every jump ahead into the future represents a significant change in the life of the protagonists, but the book doesn’t, I think expect us to anticipate these developments. Instead, every episode is a layered composite of all the previous ones, and represents one path taken of many that could have been – and there’s a tragic, melancholic sense of loss in this. The loss of all the other possible futures, that is. If you’ve ever looked at the path your life took and wonder where things shifted, went wrong (or well) to lead you to where you are today, you have a sense of how the book works. There’s no “glo up” in the book – at best there’s a feeling, in the end, of some tired acceptance of everything that has happened. Things never go entirely well, hopes dissolve, futures turn cloudy and unhappy.

Look at the hands in these panels

Have you ever looked at the evening sky and wondered where the day, the week, the month, your life has gone? Much of this is communicated by Fior’s book. We meet Pietro and Lucia as young Italian teenagers, and then find them again and again, until we are offered, towards the end, a completely dispiriting hasty attempt at sexual congress between two sad, bloated middle aged versions of their younger self. Lucia tells Pietro not to look at her, out of a shame that must have grown in her in years and years of bad experiences and shame, very little of which is shown in previous episodes. When he fails to rise to the occasion, she blames it on his having looked at her. This is the saddest scene I have read in any book, in any genre this year, and I’ve read some very unhappy literature. It’s important to understand that when we remember episodes of the past, they are not a complete, or even largely complete guide to who we are today, how we ended up as the people we are today. Fior understands this, and he doesn’t use the episodes as full explanations for how the characters end up where they are – partially, sure, but middle aged Lucia’s shame and embarrassment’s source is hinted at in one episode, but fundamentally, we are presented with the way she is, and are asked to fill in the sad, but inescapable facts of her life. Every moment of our lives we have a choice – a choice of where to go, what to do, who or what to pursue. At the same time, we are already locked into our moment by our past choices.

This is one of the saddest panels I’ve ever seen

What’s truly remarkable about Pietro and Lucia’s story is not the deflating trajectory it takes, but the almost miraculous way their paths keep crossing, the opportunities that keep accruing, the way each failure is followed by another opportunity. It’s tempting to see the book as a kind of love story, but really, it’s about the way adulthood is often a mixture of compromises, disappointments and small hard won successes. The recurring tale of Pietro and Lucia just serves to show that what the two follow is indeed a path and not a random selection of episodes. The way they change, not just as individuals, but also how they change as friends, lovers and acquaintances shows the winding path to sexual inadequacy, loneliness and the small compromises many of us take to evade. Manuele Fior’s success as a storyteller is almost impossible to overstate. Structurally, this easily keeps up with some of the best short novels I’ve recently read. I say short novels – to be clear, this text depends on being a rather short book. Blown up to the proportions of the unbearably unbearable One Day by whatshisname it would lose almost all of its appeal. All the episodes are brief, showing short moments. A meeting over coffee, am unpleasant morning in the car, a nighttime arrival in Norway and and a midnight romance. Even the one episode that strictly speaking takes place over a longer period, is told succinctly and efficiently. Whatever the comic’s page count, this is, structurally, a novella kind of story.

To be clear – I am not trying to say that this book could have been prose. It was just to situate it among the other books I read this year. No, Fior’s greatest strength is his unbelievable skill as an artist. I have never read a comic where the artist had such a sure, such an exact sense of what counts in a given panel. No character or setting is ever completely drawn, much of it is full of the vague clouds of Fior’s watercolors – but Fior is incredibly good at concentrating on one gesture, one facial quirk, one interaction. Sometimes this can be the whole shape and movement of a pregnant woman in a tub, sometimes it’s just a hand holding a chin, or a hand reaching out, or a face that can’t believe what it’s hearing. This is true for every single panel – and in every single panel, the sometimes vague, sometimes expressionistic elements serve to underline the importance of the one exact, relevant gesture. The combination of evocative, inexact vibrancy and the sharpness of small elements makes the memory/immediacy double structure of the story told work so well. It also contributes to our reading of the story as efficient and sharp rather than maudlin, no small feat given the sometimes overwhelming feeling of melancholy that the story is dipped in. Manuele Fior offers us a novel about life as a series of repetitions of diminishing returns, of the stupidity of hope, and the sadness of middle age, and the betrayal of the heavy bear that walks with us, our bodies, and yet when we finish it we are elated, and left with admiration, and that strange feeling of happiness that always accompanies the reading of a true masterpiece. Or maybe that’s just me.

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Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes

Campbell, Sophie (2017), Shadoweyes, Iron Circus Comics
ISBN 978-0989020725

Sophie Campbell is one of my favorite people in comics. She’s been publishing comics for a long time now, sometimes as artist and writer, sometimes “just” as artist. It’s been a while since new work written by her has appeared in print: that’s all the more reason to celebrate Iron Circus Comics’s new reprint of her Shadoweyes comic book, originally published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2010. Trust me: you want to read this. Sophie Campbell’s art is gorgeous, the story and ideas are cohesive, moving and complex. If you are tired of the usual stories about vigilantism and superheroes, you might like this one. Campbell best and most well known work is the sharp sequence of graphic novels called Wet Moon, of which 6 volumes have appeared so far, and in some ways, Shadoweyes is its polar opposite: Wet Moon is conscientiously realist – offering a story about real lives in a way that isn’t usually presented in comics. Campbell’s characters are queer, of color – and colorful, struggling with money, sexuality, love and other issues, with a palpable physicality that similar books, like Terry Moore’s classic Strangers in Paradise, lack. In fact, if you follow Campbell’s work, the topic of physicality, of change, is tied into her examination and interrogation of feminity. Shadoweyes reads like an early attempt as synthesizing all of her themes in one powerful image: of the young vigilante who turns into a kind of alien monster, without losing any of her humanity. It’s about the inevitability of some physical change and about the way we deal with it. I’ll be honest though: the main reason you should read this is because Campbell is an amazing, gorgeous artist, and while her black and white work is great, her work in color is beyond description. This new edition of Shadoweyes is in full color, which the original wasn’t. Coloring assistance is provided by Erin Watson, who does a great job.

Campbell’s art, particular when colored, is transformative. She is an artist who takes care of the little details: hair, clothes, smaller accessories are rendered with a focus that is unusual, because Campbell, I think, truly understands how dependent often people’s identities are on what we might call these little things. In her own books, her excellent writing may overshadow sometimes the enormous lifting her art does. There are two titles that appeared in the last 5 years that should change your mind on that: one are the two trades of Glory that appeared from 2012 to 2013. The writing on the book, by Joe Keatinge, is very good, though a bit rushed by the end (had the book not been canceled I think the latter half of the story might have fared better), but it is Sophie Campbell’s art that truly lifts this title to a higher level. Keatinge took a character invented by Rob Liefeld and turned her complex and humane, giving her a tragic, moving character arc. None of this would have mattered if not for Campbell’s approach to the main character. You can always recognize a panel drawn by Campbell within seconds, and many characters in the book are very Campbellian: soft shapes, big eyes, unique hair style. But Glory, the main character is not human, her physicality, as established by Liefeld, is the one of an overpowered superhero: but Liefeld drew her as a pin-up (click here for Liefeld’s Glory), her physical power implicit in the actions, not her physique. Campbell’s Glory’s power is evident in her size, her thick, muscular body. Glory is tall, muscular, yet also feminine, and her life and emotions are extremely carefully designed by Campbell. Glory is a warrior and so her body is drawn with ripples of scars – what’s more, the big, muscular female in comics is often de-sexualized. Not so with Campbell who created Glory to be fully rounded, the various possibilities of life reflected in the various aspects of her physical appearance. There is a physical change that Glory goes through, as the story develops, and all the changes flow from the same, unwavering sense of aesthetics that is the artistic mind of Sophie Campbell.

Now, Glory is gorgeous, but extremely bloody and brutal. Sophie Campbell’s next major collaboration, Jem and the Holograms is neither of those things. Like Glory, Jem is a reboot of older material, in this case an animated series about a rock band that has the power to transform into anything they want thanks to a supercomputer named Synergy that can create life-like holograms. Not every part of this story makes equal sense, but why would you dig deeper when the story on offer is fun? That’s all equally true for the comic book, written by Kelly Thompson, who has used this book to jump to a very active writing career in comics, with art by Campbell (and colors by M. Victoria Robado). It’s odd to me that Thompson is the breakout star of the book when the major advantage of the book is Campbell’s art. The animated series has Jem’s band be in a constant conflict with a rival band called The Misfits (no, not those Misfits) and Campbell creates a clear design for both bands that is both believable and realist in its use of clothing, hair and other accoutrements, and at the same time absolutely, gorgeously fantastic. In Jem and the Holograms, we find Glory’s flowing hair again, the long limbs, but this time they are woven around music. The conflicts here are personal rather than apocalyptic, but we follow everything with rapt attention because of the world Campbell has created. Some of the writing is weak, some of the plot could have been better managed, much of it moves from bullet point to bullet point with an almost mechanical abruptness, but I dare you to be bothered when the delivery method is this glowing yet sharp and precise art. It’s not even the story itself that’s at issue, after all, Campbell had a hand in it, it’s the smaller details of writing that left me underwhelmed, but the art, truly, makes up for everything. So why isn’t Campbell the breakout star with her own book right now rather than Thompson?

The reason may lie in Campbell’s vision that is one that exceeds simple narratives of physicality and identity. In her books, people are damaged or change and then they live with that change. Sometimes people are not who we (or they) thought they were, but they push through that, adapt, move on. There is no simple episodic ‘back to the start’ for Campbell. The zombie tale The Abandoned ends on a complicated note of betrayal and unknowable future, ending at the story’s messiest point, and similarly, the limb lost in Water Baby remains lost, and the trust between some of the book’s characters is damaged. We change, we move on, that’s a pattern that keeps recurring in Campbell’s books and that isn’t that common in comic books. Plus, as a trans artist, Campbell’s voice isn’t as easily amplified as that of other unique comic book writers of today like Brandon Graham, about whose developing universe I’ll write something one of these days, or Matt Fraction, say. I will talk about Wet Moon in more detail some other time, but the fact remains that it is a complicated, untidy book – the comics industry, for all the genre’s potential for undermining simple narratives, is often remarkably conservative. Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise was a revolution, simply for writing a plain story about regular female characters, dressed and behaving like regular female characters. Wet Moon, with it’s more physical queerness is a more difficult proposition. These days most (all?) work that Campbell publishes (I can’t figure out which trades of TMNT contain her art, regrettably) is pencilwork for other writers and I suspect she has become most well know for her work on Jem and the Holograms and Glory. To these people, I recommend Shadoweyes without reservation, because it’s spectacularly gorgeous, combining, in some ways, two kinds of art that Glory and Jem split into two different directions. But Shadoweyes is more: it is also an unbelievably well told story about identity. In some ways, Shadoweyes serves as a key for some of Campbell’s other work, as it connects, through its intersex character Kyisha, the way preternatural transformations, common in superheroes and monsters, are a metaphor for the way people born into wrong or conflicting bodies deal with their identity. That’s not a popular topic, and not an easy one, but you can even find it in books Campbell didn’t write, just drew. That’s because her art is transformative. You should read her work. Start with Shadoweyes. It is good. Then read everything else. I promise you will not regret it.

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Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson

Trondheim, Lewis and Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrison: Fais un Sourire, Maggy, Dupuis
ISBN 9-782800-160788

“Sometimes, winning just means not losing.” This, said by the protagonist of Lewis Trondheim’s book with Stéphane Oiry, just about sums up the darkly humorous tone of this quite excellent first volume. I cannot remember reading something quite like this. I picked it off the shelf in anticipation of my flight to London today (I’m packing and leaving in half an hour and need to stay awake, so here we are), and was surprised at the way Trondheim and Oiry create a sense of space and density at the same time. Maggy Garrisson manages to both sympathetically portray an unusual character with remarkable depth, and tell a noir crime story that follows genre conventions and thumbs its nose at them at the same time. There’s also a sense, partly due to my limited reading in the genre, that in this book, the francobelgian influence on American comics has ‘come home,’ in the sense that some of the rooms and atmosphere in the book are more common in the great American artists that are all influenced by the Belgian ligne claire tradition. I was particularly reminded of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, not in the way Oiry draws his characters (though that also plays a role), but in the way Trondheim and Oiry use the space in rooms, streets and landscapes, and combine it with the real estate on the page, to create a sense of emptiness, loss, longing and loneliness. The writing itself is equally remarkable: Trondheim’s characters never say too much or too little. There’s never a sense of the writer posturing to create a sense of drama or sadness: all the dialogue is just right, sometimes driving the story forward, sometimes just filling in a gap in how we understand the characters and the socioeconomic background. This is very good, and I am looking forward to acquiring and reading the second volume, but I’d like to stress how much of a complete experience this slim album really is. I’m currently also very excited about Greg Rucka’s Lazarus, but every 120 page trade feels like half an episode, half a story, just dragging me along in a half-glimpsed plot (I really love Lazarus, but that’s not the point). Trondheim’s pacing is much different – a book by a writer who is correctly admired by many readers of comic books.

The most remarkable scene is just one page somewhere in the middle. Maggy is in the supermarket as she notices a man stealing a package of cookies. Outside, she catches up with him and asks him: why did you steal these cookies? Why not the much more expensive kind, the artisanal cookies? He answers: the camera would have picked him up stealing those cookies. That’s it. The book moves on and doesn’t return to the cookie stealing, shop-lifting or this particular thief. There is no sense of overdramatizing it, but Trondheim needs it to illustrate three different points: the commonness of crime, and how much it is woven into the way poorer people make ends meet (stealing food always has important literary connections, to Hugo and others) is one element. Another is the pragmatics of crime – there is no romanticization of criminals or crime. You take what you can get, when you can get it. Crime is not a story of elaborate ego-pleasing capers. It’s a question of survival for many people, and not an evil deed, but part of pragmatic evaluations. Both of those points are relevant to the larger story of the book, and the small observation of the cookie theft ends up offering a metaphor of sorts for the other crimes committed in the book and the other criminals portrayed in it. There are criminals who we meet as criminals, and criminals who turn out to be criminals as the plot unfolds, and criminals who are not particularly criminal after all. We don’t hear about all of their motivations, but this one page with its story of cookie theft compromise serves as an illumination of everything else that happens in the book. And Trondheim and Oiry do all this without offering us an explicit summary or moral, and they manage to sidestep the saccharine melancholy of many American comics this reminded me of. I mean, it’s interesting to me how similar many scene set-ups are, especially when compared to the most similar francobelgian comics I can remember reading. And yet, the difference to Ware, Burns, Tomine and company is so striking, that it’s hard not to see the distance as intentional somehow.

Some of this difference, surely, is owned to the female protagonist. Trondheim’s Maggy approaches many portrayals we know from other media, but Trondheim sharply differentiates her from them. First of all, this is a story about Maggy. I’m a bit worried about the ending and what it could mean for a second volume, hut taking just the first book, Maggy’s main motivation is – well, it’s Maggy. Maggy is unemployed but scrappy, trying to make her way. The story is started when she gets a job in a private detective’s office, though that job quickly turns sour. You could imagine a Maggy existing in a Chandler novel, and you wouldn’t have to rewrite the books, at all – noir protagonists are usually oblivious to the role and presence of women who are not either attractive or rich, and Maggy’s attractiveness is not of the glossy noir kind, and she’s certainly not rich. She picks up something that doesn’t belong to her, and foils whatever plan her alcoholic gumshoe boss had, and you can imagine him seeing it as a nuisance or bad luck and moving on at his job that apparently involves real crime, as well as the riveting case of a cat that ate a canary (literally). One of the emotionally most affecting turns is not Maggy’s connection to a man, but a connection she built to a female police officer, and one of their bonding moments involves the examination of (subpar) men at a bar, and the groping of men with the help of a trick. As a scene later shows, Maggy is attractive enough to distract men during the commission of a crime, but her attractiveness isn’t the point. She’s charming and intelligent, but that isn’t the point either. She has a manic pixie dreamgirl-like effect on a man, but that doesn’t define or limit her character, and it doesn’t dominate the book either. Maggy is just Maggy and for her, sometimes, “winning just means not losing.”

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Margaret Atwood et al.: Angel Catbird

Atwood, Margaret; Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain (2016), Angel Catbird, Dark Horse
ISBN 978-1-50670-063-2

I wrote the first sentence of this review before reading the book. Angel Catbird arrived here this afternoon, and I immediately noted down this sentence: “This is just a quick review to inform you that this awesome book exists.” So when I tell you that this book is a big disappointment, maybe you can chalk it down to my high expectations. This review is still going to be quite short, but the word “awesome” won’t be part of it, I’m afraid. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist and a very good poet and short story writer. She is not, based on reading this beautifully produced book, very good at writing comic books. Angel Catbird is a book with a great premise, it is drawn by a fantastic artist, and who among us wouldn’t like to see Margaret Atwood write a Golden Age style comic book? And yet! And yet, this book is much duller than it had any right to be. If anything, it shows us that transitioning to comic book writing is not a given, and maybe it helps us to re-examine the achievements of Brad Meltzer (who worked on Green Arrow, among others, though his work is a bit of a mixed bag), Marjorie Liu (whose new book Monstress is a magnificent read) and China Mieville. This book is so strange and bad that its failings almost make me want to recommend it. Atwood does not play it safe, and produced a book that cites different comic traditions, comments on environmental politics, on art and gender relations, all while telling a garish story told with a silliness that is almost admirably bold. For all the dismay that Angel Catbird caused me, it made me want to read Atwood write a whole novel possessed of a similar level of adorable shameless silliness. Additionally, my faith in Atwood’s skills is such that I assume she’ll eventually get better at this. Volume 1 of Angel Catbird is a mess and not a delightful mess. But it is a book of an author clearly enjoying herself, taking risks, and it is illustrated by gifted artists. If you don’t expect the next comic book masterpiece you may even be able to stave off disappointment. Finally: cats.

shelteredThe book’s greatest strength has to be Johnny Christmas’ art. He did an excellent job on Brisson’s Sheltered, a creator-owned title at Image, and in Angel Catbird he does his utmost to keep the train on the tracks and moving in a forward direction. His work, and that of illustrator Tamra Bonvillain, does an enormously good job of working with shadows, backgrounds, and giving Atwood’s characters the exactly right amount of camp expressions and gestures. As the elaborate materials show, which are part of this edition, Christmas had to be prodded a bit by Atwood to embrace the truly extravagantly camp nature of this book. His work provides a guiding light between the various impulses the script offers, and Bonvillain’s colors provide another important key. Apart from her work with shadows and silhouettes, I think it is her insistence on working with backgrounds of few details that are heavily coated in one specific color per panel that truly sets her art apart here. It gives the book a uniform look, and also lends the sometimes erratic plot a firm sense of continuity. Before reading this book, I didn’t think this would be my opinion, but Margaret Atwood got very lucky in finding these collaborators, because this could have gone so much worse. I don’t mean one of the bad artists who somehow keep floating around comic books; even a serviceable journeyman like Dale Eaglesham, for example, would have been a catastrophe, I think, for this kind of book. And I say “luck” because Atwood was, according to her introduction, connected to not just Christmas and Bonvillain, but also to the team at Dark Horse, who did an outstanding work with the book, by Hope Nicholson. In Sheltered, Christmas is asked to find a visual language for an apocalypse-like scenario of a bloody meltdown at a cult-like community, and his touch is perfect for a serious tale of greed, anger, violence and a snow-covered desolation. It is impressive that he did such an excellent job with the much less serious tale of Angel Catbird.

This one is a bit of a mixed bag.

This one in particular is a bit of a mixed bag.

The story of Angel Catbird is a light story of gene splicing, of a man awakening one day as a being half cat, half owl, half human. Of the strange existence of half-cat and half-rat communities and a fat evil half-rat villain who wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of the 1990s animated series Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Atwood clearly has a boatload of fun in this. Even before the feline revelations, we are introduced to the book’s conflict through the characters’ names. The main character is called Strig Feleedus, his love interest is Kate Leone and his boss (and villain-to-be) is Dr. Muroid. This sets the scene. In Atwood’s introduction she stresses how indebted she is to classic comics, from L’il Abner to Plastic Man, and in many ways you can read this debt in this book. Have you ever read a plot driven collection of classic superhero comics? I read a whole thick book of classic Dial H comics and while they are amusing in portions, after a while, it is tiresome to see all these thought bubbles explaining all the details. In the 1980s, superhero comics were incredibly condensed, panels crammed with details and text (have you ever read the original run of Days of Future Past? It all fits into two short issues.), Golden Age comics and early Silver Age ones were not as dense. There was no room for subtlety: all emotions had to be writ large on the faces of the characters and expressed in similarly unsubtle speech and thought bubbles. Atwood recreates this writing in her comic, without adapting, updating or really commenting on it. It is a fascinating comics experiment, a true pastiche – but the result is incredibly strange. The jokes are corny and generally unfunny, and there is no character development because the framework doesn’t really allow for that kind of character. This is the kind of comic, after all, where a bat/cat hybrid named Count Catula goes to sleep in a woman’s closet and wakes up with a small pink bra on his forehead. Adorable – but it can get tired real fast.

I wasn't the only one bored, apparently.

I wasn’t the only one bored, apparently.

The whole book is underwritten by Atwood’s environmental ideas. There are intermittent info boxes linking the reader to informational material by catsandbirds.ca, and Atwood’s ideological purpose is twofold. On a simple level it is to inform her readers about how to treat cats (and birds), but on a larger level, we are also connected to the broader topic of science and nature. Atwood has in recent novels been very interested in postapocalyptic scenarios about how humanity and nature are intertwined, with some texts hinting at the liminal, ritualistic nature of science. It is not a complete accident that the period that Atwood borrows her tools from is the one between 1930 and 1970, a time when much that we consider modern science has been developed, in both good and catastrophic ways. Ludwik Fleck’s life and work is a strange encapsulation of that historical moment, as he was a scientist who wrote one of the most insightful books on the structure of scientific thought and the illusions and problems embedded therein, and he was also, as a Jew, interned in Buchenwald, which he survived. In some ways, one could say that the extraordinary feat of pastiche in this book serves as a counterpoint to Jameson’s idea of postmodern pastiche as a “blank parody,” a depoliticized “linguistic mask.” Atwood actively uses the pastiche here as a link to history and politics to make a point. One wishes merely that she was better at it. When Guillermo del Toro, a genius director and screenwriter, planned on writing a trilogy of novels, he didn’t do it by himself. He enlisted the help of a seasoned thriller veteran. Genre writing is often underrated, seen as less than, as easier. It is not. So many failed literary science fiction novels should be evidence of that. Atwood’s offensively dull script to Angel Catbird is more evidence of it. Read it, with caveats. Also, I think it gets better with rereads. Or maybe I just want it to be the case. Anyway. I recommend this book, bad as it is. After all, we should remember Faulkner’s famous critique of Hemingway, who, according to the chronicler of Yoknapatawpha County, stuck to the things he already knew he’d do well at, rather than risk failure by overreach. Atwood has never been a “safe” writer and if this book is a failure, it is a noble one. For a serious novelist to switch media, tone and genre so completely was certainly a risk, and I’ll take that any day over the everyday dullness of MFA routine.

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Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me

Forney, Ellen (2012), Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me, Robinson
ISBN 978-1-4721-0689-6

marbels coverYou know how when you feel a bit unwell and you go on WebMD and suddenly, you feel as though you were dying of a terminal illness because ALL THE SYMPTOMS FIT. Now imagine if you were given the DSM manual and asked to self evaluate your mental state and were given a list of symptoms – what are the chances you’d behave exactly as you’d do when exposed to the unfiltered WebMD? I have always considered these self-diagnoses a form of psycho-astrology. I have seen people rationalize the vagueness of horoscope prose as fitting for their lives. “Yes, yes, that applies to me! I am SUCH a taurus!” These self diagnoses of mental illness work, in my opinion, very much like that. Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir of bipolar illness, Marbles, is predicated on all these intuitions being perfectly valid and accurate – and applicable to people (like Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Randall Jarrell) who have been dead for decades or even centuries, because this flim-flam system of symptoms is impervious to questions of reasonable and evidence-based inquiry, of course. In American politics, there’s the Goldwater Rule, instituted by the American Psychiatric Association. It is well summarized by a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale and a member of the APA’s Ethics Committee who said: “If you’re going to talk to the press and spread stuff on your opinions, it’s important to at least say very clearly, ‘I have not examined this individual and therefore much of what I’m saying is sort of mystical black magic.” Or, as I like to say, psycho-astrology.

marbles 4

A page from “Marbles,” depicting mania and the patient/therapist situation

Ellen Forney is a fantastic artist, and the book itself is extraordinarily well made. It combines a variety of styles and forms to tell the story of how Forney discovered and came to terms with her mental illness. There is so much that’s amazing and admirable and extraordinary about this book that it is quite regrettable that it is so thoroughly dedicated to the arguments put forward by Kay Redfield Jamison and some others. Jamison’s Touched by Fire is something like the spiritus rector of this book, and if you have done or read some literary criticism on writers who have admitted to or been accused of having a mental illness, you have probably crossed paths with Jamison or one of the other like minded writers. In Lowell scholarship, there’s Jeffrey Meyers, for example, who has just put out a new book that I don’t have to (but regrettably will) read to know what it is saying. This “mystical black magic,” rejected by the APA, but embraced by people writing on arts and literature, is not just invariably badly argued and based on flimsy evidence, but it is also, overwhelmingly so, dull and boring. In all of these cases, we find a complex work reduced to the (mis)firings of a few synapses. As a (good) philosopher would say: it is a category error. The weakness of these arguments does not, of course, reduce the seductiveness of their academic or popular application. An army of frequently contradictory studies have been marshaled to prove one point or another about this, with small sample sizes and dubious methodologies. Recently, a cultural movement to embolden (no pun intended) sufferers of mental illnesses has been instrumental in enshrining many of these ideas as not just profoundly true but fundamentally emancipatory.

hyperbole1What’s most remarkable (and regrettable) about Marbles is how single-mindedly it pursues its ideological thesis about mental illness instead of delving more deeply into the actual experience of mental illness. The book is always strongest when it finds images, scenes and examples for the way the suffering person’s mind, Forney’s graphic representation, deals with depression, mania or the liminal states in-between. There is a series of panels showing Forney in the shower as the fog of depression lifts that are extremely well paced, well drawn and true to at least my experience. Forney’s skill in this area is immense. She manages to do two different things, equally well. One is finding the right kind of scene or situation to encapsulate the manic or depressive state of mind her memoir-self is in, the other is finding the right art to go with it. The visual grammar she employs for mania is vastly different from the one she uses for depression and this goes beyond what she draws. The crushing emptiness and devastation wrought by the depressive state is rendered in sometimes sequential art of solitude, sometimes in stark, powerful images drawn on a single notebook page. We get a page of the notebook itself, binding and all, to represent the way these states of mind are resistant to the usual flow of narrative. Many who write about the experience of particularly heavy depressive episodes will repeat this indescribable aspect of it. And this isn’t just true for memoirs. The Hypo, Noah van Sciver’s graphic biography of young Abraham Lincoln uses a breakdown of routine pencilwork to represent the heavy melancholy that sometimes took hold of Lincoln in his formative years before his engagement to Mary Todd.

marbles 5

A page from “Marbles”

I do not, however, think, I have ever seen an artist achieve this level of reflection and complexity while still remaining completely in control of a coherent narrative, although some have come close. Just looking at depression (in this review I discuss comics dealing with OCD and schizophrenia), there are two texts in particular that are extremely well made, and approach the topic from two different angles. The fundamental problem is, for these books as well as for Marbles, that some aspects of autobiography are more problematic in graphic form, I think. And critics much smarter and way more accomplished than me have tackled this. I recommend, for example Mihaela Precup’s The American Graphic Memoir: An Introduction as an excellent primer on the subject. I am here however particularly interest in a remark by  Georges Gusdorf who once wrote about autobiographies which he called “scriptures of the self” that in them the “subject remains an I, who refuses to transfer his problematic to the level of we.” There is no direct access to meaning, no community. There is only the gnarled core of “revelation” – and for Gusdorf, autobiography is a way of negotiating, revealing this revelation. Autobiography, according to Linda Peterson, is inherently a genre of self-interpretation, and much has been made of how, with enlightenment, it has become this very linear story of self examination and masculine self-projection. That is not, however, how graphic autobiography, especially of depression and other hard to reveal subjects works. A key to understanding how these work is, I think, in Hsiao-Hung Lee’s study of Victorian autobiographies, which frequently have ghosts, fairy tales, doppelgangers and other elements that undermine the structure of normal autobiographies, presenting instead “a submerged counter narrative.” This tradition is the one we find in these texts here, and for two reasons, I think. One is textual in the sense that the tradition of autobiographical comic books is one that comes into the genre sideways, through odd texts like Binky Brown, and is often tied to all these genres that came out of the mid to late 19th century, from Dickens to ETA Hoffmann and others. Fantasy, science fiction, horror.

cotter 4The other reason is personal, in the sense that one frequent topic of writing about your own depression means acknowledging that there are fissures in your self, that there is a profound, fundamental discontinuity between various impressions of what one’s self is. That’s why a book like The Nao of Brown, written by a person not afflicted by the mental illness he describes, feels so exploitative, because Dillon has not gone the extra mile of research to make his book work. Dillon finds one visual language that speaks for all states of his afflicted character. By contrast, Marbles frequently comes up against the impossibility of doing both: depicting a certain mental state and keeping to a fixed visual grammar. There’s a curious phrase in an essay by Shari Benstock who insists that for Woolf, the past doesn’t exist as subject matter, but “rather as a method.” A method? Aside from all the implications this has for modernist fiction (and I am sure there’s a study to be done that applies Woolf’s thoughts on fiction and method to the perennially undervalued work of Jean Rhys, by the way), it’s very interesting to look at this as a very fitting way to describe graphic memoirs, particularly memoirs of mental illness. If the past of people with mental illness is discontinuous, if it feels partly not within the subject’s control, then this informs the methods writers and artists use to cope with telling stories of a self and that past. The two books I want to mention here as providing different angles on the idea of writing graphic memoirs of depression are Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, a collection of pieces from the webcomic of the same name, and Joshua Cotter’s dense, but magnificently realized memories of an unhappy childhood, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.

hyperbole 2

A page from Brosh’s book

Allie Brosh’s book is the most conventional. Consisting of short stories, told in chronological order, with images roughly within the borders of realism. Brosh, to tell a story of a self, has created a visual character that is a stand-in for herself. Unlike Marbles, you couldn’t really recognize the author behind the cartoon figure. That figure, however, is the central visual element of all the stories. Importantly, it doesn’t really change except in size, no matter whether the story is one of early childhood or recent adulthood. In it, I think Brosh contains an implicit theory of emotionality. By contrasting the vibrant energies of that cartoon self, displayed with a gusto that exceeds realism, with an environment that is static and does not react in a way that is commensurate to the cartoon self’s agitation, Brosh succeeds brilliantly in creating a visual representation of extreme states of emotionality that stresses both the exterior aspects of it, as it interacts with people, as well as the interiority, loneliness of it. Marbles shows images made during that time as representations of interiority. Brosh doesn’t need that. She uses images of surreal distortion of environments very sparely, and when she does it, the effect is immediate and plausible as a mental effect that we immediately comprehend. Like Marbles, it also relies heavily on text. There is some commentary, but the most effective kind of text just offers us the distorted mind of a person in a depressive episode, presented clearly and sequentially, thus increasing the effect of the fundamental strangeness of these thoughts. There is very little in Brosh’s book that corresponds to Ellen Forney’s therapy-trained commentary from the ‘healed’ outside.

cotter 1

A page from Cotter’s book

Meanwhile, Joshua Cotter has even less of that. It is less explicitly autobiographical, although various hints exist. Taking a page out of Art Spiegelman’s book (Spiegelman, Crumb and other underground artists are also clear touchstones for the book), Cotter’s book is filled with people-like cats. It is a chronological story-in-scenes of growing up in the Midwest. Frequently, Cotter interrupts the story to give us a surreal tale that sometimes – but not always – is explicitly framed as coming from the protagonist’s brain. The overwhelming feeling is an oppressive melancholy and loneliness that at times makes it hard to read. The visual language, Cotter’s art, is consistent, almost oppressively so. It’s a book dense with shadings and crosshatching. A palpable feeling of texture. In his next book, Cotter would go away from the uniformity of style that he employs in Skyscrapers of the Midwest, but that doesn’t make this one a consistent realist narrative. The truly crushing moments of emotional volatility are all told with surreal or fantastic visual elements. One of them is the fantasy of the protagonist, who was fat and unpopular in school and who imagines himself as a powerful robot. The other one is stranger, it’s of some kind of alien slug that attaches itself to people. Indebted, no doubt, to artists like Charles Burns, this device has no simple resolution. It can mean death, or just a warping of the spirit. It is, as Gusdorf said, a problematic that is inexplicable and doesn’t easily fit narratives. In fact, of the three texts, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is the most, as Gusdorf would have it, Gnostic. Brosh evades simple explanation, but she does provide commentary and some context. We get none of that with Cotter. In fact, the book ends on a scene that is both fragrant with light, and devastating. It’s a conversation between the book’s protagonist and his brother. It culminates in the protagonist’s admission – which, I think, is an admission even to himself- that he doesn’t know what’s “wrong” with him. The dark inexplicable core of depression – there’s no easy resolution. Not for Brosh, not for Cotter.

marbles 3

One of the many journal pages depicting an attempt to visually capture depression.

For Ellen Forney however, there’s a semblance of a resolution, and that’s because, despite making that impression on the surface, the memoir only appears to be about experience. In fact, it’s an intellectually structured discursive text about creativity and bipolarity. Trust meds, trust science, trust psychiatry, don’t trust yourself. This is the mantra and it’s repeated over and over and over. Forney uses the word science with an incredible frequency and insouciance. Creativity is testable! “Science has an answer for this, too!” Her model scientist for the creativity idea is J.P. Guilford, about whose model of the intellect John B. Carroll wrote “Guilford’s model must, therefore, be marked down as a somewhat eccentric aberration in the history of intelligence models; that so much attention has been paid to it is disturbing.” Similarly, Forney describes an odyssey through medication, which is so disturbing and disheartening that it is ultimately puzzling that she arrives at an affirmation of medication and isn’t instead questioning the placebo effect. For every page of visually powerful, arresting or simply awe inducing art, Forney offers an artless page containing thought bubbles, square boxes summarizing dubious science or koans to her well being. The discursive nature of the book is borne out by the two last chapters. The penultimate chapter is a full adaption of the incurious nonsense about creativity and mental illness, with Kay Jamison’s god-awful book and Guilford’s “eccentric aberration” as guardian angels. I have not really gone into detail about the nonsensical idea of mining the lives of people long since dead for evidence of mental illness. It relies too much on the accuracy of testimony and what the American Psychiatric Association calls “mystical black magic” – I have no patience to dismember that theory, but I do want to recommend Janet Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath, the writer who is most frequently posthumously psychoanalyzed (incidentally, in Marbles, Forney meets someone who did their PhD on Plath who says “you need to know her biography to really understand her work,” if you can believe it, I mean JESUS fucking Christ), which is a good antidote to all that.

marbles 2

Yeah…

The final chapter, then, offers adherence to the medical science of psychiatry almost like an article of faith, telling her younger self to trust the psychiatrist. In the middle of this review there is a lot of talk about autobiography and the indescribable and unsayable and how visual art tries to get around it etc. I then offered Allie Brosh and Joshua Cotter as two incredible artists who dealt with the issue in two different ways. But ultimately, it is Ellen Forney who had the strangest resolution to this. Her frequently silent descriptions of experience and her discursive portions are at odds with each other. Just one example among many: the experience based portions say that mania has only become such an immense problem now that Forney is watching herself, is constantly self medicating with 5 different kinds of meds, keeping journals, basically creating her own doppelganger, her own postmodern detective that watches her suspiciously: is this a sign? Are you up? Are you down? The art “balanced” Forney produces now and the art she documents at having earlier produced provide an interesting contrast as well. I admit: I am biased as someone who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation and has never been on medication for any serious length of time. Ultimately, more than anything, this feels, despite the discoursive nature, like an enormously private event: this is Ellen Forney telling herself that all will be well. I’ve heard that one before. At least the art is sometimes extremely good. Read it for the art, and skip the last two chapters. Please.

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Kolbeinn Karlsson: The Troll King

Karlsson, Kolbeinn (2010), The Troll King, Top Shelf
ISBN 978-1-60309-061-2

troll king coverI have never read a graphic novel by a Swedish creator before, but if The Troll King is any indication, Swedes like their comic books like they like their rock music: weird and intense. I think the only book I read recently that approaches Karlsson’s interests and the direction of his work is Jeff Vandermeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy of novels. The Troll King is a novel-in-stories, I guess, but given how coherent the whole narrative turns out to be when we read the last story, it may just be a novel, full stop. The book starts off strange and then just keeps getting stranger until a surprisingly emotionally resonant ending. Reading the book I was so overwhelmed by its themes, its art, its contradictions and its metatextual elements that I didn’t even consider the direction the narrative was taking until the final of the book’s stories just took me by the hand and led me down a narrative path that proved to be as poignant, as it was strangely common, almost formulaic. Karlsson draws on a broad range of influences, from Nordic myths to anime/manga, he writes a story that is both tender and emotional as it is filled with a strange physicality. If you feel weird about two large bearded men/monsters having a loving and sexual relationship, depicted fairly directly, you won’t even make it past the first section, and you’ll miss fever dreams, the murder of birds, a lot of other (small) male genitalia, death, birth and rebirth and other topics. All of it realized in an art style that somehow straddles the divide between crude and precise drawings, colored with inspired abandon. It is a dark tale with a sweet ending, a violent story with quite a few funny visual jokes. If we look for the way the book relates to its audience, how it employs perspectives and speakers and voice, we (or rather: I) get the feeling that Karlsson is sometimes seduced by his own powerful artistic vision to the detriment of really mapping out all the book’s details. Would I recommend it? The blurb on the back of the book suggests that Karlsson and Miyazaki are kindred spirits and that’s not far off the mark. If you feel like reading a version of Miyazaki that is darker, more physical, more violent, more racist/reactionary, more explicit, but similarly inspired of and reverential towards nature, dreams and folklore, then read this book. I personally greatly enjoyed reading it, and I can assure you that the book only becomes better upon rereading. This is quite something.

troll king insideFor all its skill with visual elements, for the ingenious way the author uses color both in backgrounds as well as in lines, the most impressive part of the book is its narrative discipline. For much of the book I thought I was reading a couple of stories set in the same part of the world, united by the trippy visual imagination of the author and nothing else. The final section or story however ends up tying up all the book’s strands, even though it doesn’t do so neatly. Some asides, like an odd, seemingly LSD-fueled vision of the Wild West, don’t really find a place in the book’s final narrative concerns, but most do. It is, as we find out at the end, a story about family, humanity, about modernity and modern man’s resistance to it. For all the book’s violence, the underlying emotion is a gentle sadness, a longing for a more natural time. The two odd characters on the covers are not trolls or beasts, they are “mountain men,” as the back of the book proclaims. Their beards and body hair are just drawn with such attention to detail that it flips over into mild surrealism. Hence the hair helmets. The artistic goal is one where the way the mountain men are drawn and the way trees, grass and bushes are drawn resemble each other. The men are truly becoming part of nature, and in the process they lose some part of their humanity. This is where Miyazaki is likely most relevant, with his stories of nature resisting man-made modernity, of some pockets of humanity allying themselves with nature and with the magic that is fundamentally linked to that nature, magic that has its roots in the connection of people with the soil and animals. There is a reactionary element to that kind of story, which has been discussed a few times in scholarship, but Miyazaki leverages that reactionary element with his intelligent manipulation of gender and class discussions. Karlsson…doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in a moment. At this point I’d just like to stress the way Karlsson’s book, despite looking like a surreal tale of madness, really does fit many of the ecological tales. In her influential 1962 study of pesticides, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson writes that, “[g]iven time […] life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world, there is no time.” In some ways, The Troll King is a resistance to the loss of time in the modern world. Events in it happen in some kind of dream time. While there is a clear chronology that connects many parts of the book, others appear to speed up or slow down time to allow for things (skulls, mushrooms, trees and dead cowboys) to grow and die. Human agency doesn’t shape time, the processes of nature do.

Uh. Can you say Dragonball?

Uh. Can you say Dragonball?

This attitude towards human agency also feeds into the book’s relationship towards language and myth. The longer the book continues the fewer lettering we get. The story starts relying on expressive images rather than on explanatory captions. Yet even before that, what few words we are given are rarely explanations and more emotional commentary by one or more of the people depicted in the panel in question. Karlsson’s lettering looks like very personal handwriting, so when he switches to a different character’s voice, I was at first taken aback (this, I suspect, speaks to the density of the book which made me assume that all details were calibrated exactly). The first two chapters, consisting of the marriage of the mountain men, and of a dwarf’s fever dream, are basically the only parts of the book with consistent words and voices. In a way, these two sections ease us into the book’s themes and concerns and having words at the beginning helps us jump the hurdle of the strangeness of the rest of the book. But there is another way to see this change. As the book progresses, it dives deeper into its themes of myth and creation, culminating in the tale of two chubby hairy green men burying a skull and digging up the dead cowboy from a vision they had. In Walter Benjamin’s discussion of language and divine creation, he discusses, I think, the idea that things have, originally, no name. Their mute language is a residue of the divine word of creation. According to this reading of Benjamin, it is with the Fall that language loses this immanence, this magic quality and starts referring to abstractions, to outside sources, to broad constructs of knowledge and culture. The book, for a while, until the two last chapters, reverses this process, stripping its story of the reliance on words and constructs. The mountain men, for example, describe themselves as “Ewoks,” and their marriage dance is maybe related to pagan rites, maybe to Dragonball Z (I admit that was my gut association because I am philistine trash, but, you know, why not). This relationship to language and signification seems to be an essential part of the book, and if we assume its centrality, then we immediately connect it to the overwhelming masculinity of it all. The book abounds in small chubby penises, and all the processes of procreation are specifically framed as bypassing the female element. Despite the book’s buoyant joy in using visual references to all kinds of pagan and neopagan takes on rites and liminal spaces, it does not appear to refer at all to the bible of neo-pagan nuttery, Robert Graves’ immensely readable book of questionable scholarship, The White Goddess. Graves’ story of the maiden-mother-crone, the universal Goddess, is completely subverted by Karlsson, whose book features a brown God of the woods, who looks as if he had been created from mountain men beard hair.

troll king mushroomThis odd masculinity of myth can, I suspect, be read as a commentary on feminist theorists like the extraordinary Helene Cixous and concepts like the phallogocentrism. Given how central the binary is to Cixous, Derrida and other critics of phallogocentric thinking, it’s interesting that The Troll King has removed all womanhood from its text, in full embrace of phallocentrism, even as indeterminacy increases. Of course, the slanted take on procreation always implicitly engages discourses of feminity, and the way the book’s ending fits neatly into the canon of Western narratives also shows up the indeterminacies in the book’s middle as mere skirmishes with signification. But if we look at the way myth is masculinized here, we can ask more questions of the text. One is the connection of nations with its folklore. Surely, myth and similar narratives are among the most important stories that hold together the ‘imaginary communities’ of nations, as Benedict Anderson called them. And just last week I read a really good book on how masculinity shapes nationalist discourses and debates, Charlotte Hooper’s Manly States. The point here is that this book, which is set in a vaguely Western/Northern wood, with high rises merely shown in a few panels, should, I think, be read in the context of modern Swedish national anxieties. I cannot possibly do that, my knowledge of Swedish culture is meagre at best, but I have some pointers. One is the reflection of this topic in Hans Henny Jahnn’s immortal masterpiece Fluss Ohne Ufer, the largest portion of which is dedicated to two German men who move to the Swedish countryside to escape modernity. The other is something that turns up in two and a half panels, but is extremely specific – and both racist and possibly misogynist. These panels describe the mountain men going to town to buy groceries. In order to hide their strange exterior, they wear burkas. Black embroidered burkas. What’s more, the panels that show us the burkas are panels of their return to the wild: depicted are two humans in burkas, carrying a plethora of full plastic bags of the Swedish ICA supermarket chain. That image, of women in burkas carrying plastic bags of groceries is one that is exploited by various caricaturists. The humor here is based both on racist and misogynist assumptions.

burka

Burkas

These two panels are instantly distasteful and repugnant, particularly since they are clearly supposed to be humorous, but there is nothing else in the book that directly takes up this line of discourse – except for the book’s take on myth and masculinity as I suggested before. It is quite impressive to what extent the book ties up all its concerns like that. It makes me dislike Karlsson as a person, but the artistic power behind this book is undeniable and the focus and density of it all is exceptional.

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Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown

Dillon, Glyn (2012), The Nao of Brown, Selfmadehero
ISBN 978-1-906838-42-3

naobrowncoverSo this is some odd coincidence. Fresh on the heels of reviewing a book that is artfully crafted but does not, ultimately, feel like a success, I have just read another book which is both enormously well done and which, on the other hand, feels like an awful failure. Glyn Dillon’s British Comic Award-winning The Nao of Brown is a book about many things but it can’t quite decide on which to focus. It suffers terribly from this lack of focus, from it’s odd characterizations, its god-awful ending and some other things. On the other hand, it’s absolutely spellbinding and beautifully drawn. Dillon, in this book, is an artist who is able to change the tone of a scene with just a tiny adjustment to his characters’ eyebrows. His characters feel fully realized, intense, warm, living, especially the protagonist, a half-Japanese, half-English woman called Nao Brown. Her story is one of paternal abandonment, professional confusion and, most of all, a story of Primarily Obsessional OCD. The racial, social and emotional situation of Nao is complex, and it’s not clear that Dillon is extremely interested or skilled in exploring as fraught a character as Nao. At the same time, he hands her, if we forget the ending, quite a bit of space, letting her spread out over large panels that soak up her expressions. The men around her, in love with her and wary of her at the same time, are somehow both less well realized and sharper in focus. In a book where the main character constantly chides herself on being oblivious, Dillon presents us two supporting characters who are the most obtuse bags of nerd-testosterone you have ever seen, and yet, in a curious attempt to mellow out his book, Dillon lavishes them with understanding and care. All of these situations are difficult to parse and the fault lies in the woefully inadequate writing that, towards the very end of the book, just collapses upon itself and drags even the divine art with it, offering us four dismal pages of badly written text that should have been visually realized. Overall, the book is a real mess, but in being a mess, it also connects back to many other narratives of Asian experience in London, it connects us queerly to other graphic narratives of mental illness and presents an odd sort of cultural imperialism, all at once. You should really read The Nao of Brown, because the art is just so enormously beautiful (and Selfmadehero did such a fine job in creating the book as an object), but be prepared to occasionally squint with frustration at the writing and structure of it all.

If your brain saw the title of this review and started thinking “Dillon, comics, wait, wasn’tkindlyones there something…?” you are on the right path. Glyn Dillon is the younger brother of Steve Dillon, who, as co-creator of the classic comic book series Preacher, should be regarded as a heavyweight in the industry. This year, among other projects, Steve Dillon will be penciling Becky Cloonan’s highly anticipated take on The Punisher. Glyn’s comic book CV, in contrast to his brother’s, is much more sparse. The only book of his that I read prior to The Nao of Brown was an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman all the way back in 1994 (collected in The Kindly Ones). .Most of his work before and after Nao was focused on TV and film. We know from Raymond Williams’ classic study on TV how that medium forces us to adapt our messaging and communication and somehow Glyn Dillon’s book reads like an imprecise hybrid between two traditions of visual storytelling, with the additional tradition of manga, anime and French comics somehow grafted on to the Frankensteinian endeavor. The extraordinary art and the loving way Dillon tells Nao’s story indicates, as does the introduction by Jessica Hynes, that the book had been a labor of love, but I have never read a book that so badly needed an editor and regular discussions with said editor to get the book into some proper shape. The book tells its story on multiple levels, at different speeds. There are multiple ways of summarizing it: Nao Brown, hafu, half-Japanese, half-English, falls in love with a chubby alcoholic mechanic called Gregory Pope who quotes Hesse and has his own demons. Or: Nao Brown, a young aspiring comics professional deals with the difficulties of suffering from OCD and maintaining a functioning private life, until a catastrophe sorts out her priorities. Or: Nao Brown and her Nerd friend Steve Meeks (oh, speaking names, how have we missed you?) have a silent and frustrating love affair, which, in an ambiguous ending, may or may not be resolved following a calamitous incident. Or: Nao Brown, abandoned by her father and suffering from mental illness, parses a modern life in London while constantly negotiating her role vis-à-vis various father figures, and the concept of maternity, until a complex ending gives her answers to her questions. My descriptions may sound clichéd but that is genuinely the level of self-reflection that the narrative employs. It’s made worse by the fact that no non-spoilery description can do justice to the hackneyed way the book deals with what are really two endings. Much like A Clockwork Orange, this book would be better off with its last chapter chopped off.

naobrownpanelAnother thing regarding those descriptions: you may notice that her racial status plays no role in the way the plot plays out and that’s easily one of the most frustrating things, because that’s not at all how the novel starts. One assumes that the author just at some point during writing this 200 page book, somehow lost track of this part of the story and a few others. The novel begins with Nao on a plane back to London after having visited her father. She is in a difficult professional situation, with freelance illustration work sparse, so she gets a job in a “kidult” toy shop full of ‘japanese’ toys and trinkets. This part of the book moves along fast, and is peppered with clear-eyed observations about family, race, culture and imperialism, if not always in those words. Nao starts her story by telling us that she seems to strangers “the exotic other.” She also explains that her mother is “a proper Paddington girl” and that, living in England with her, “it’s funny to think of Dad as the ‘exotic other’.” She displays signs of “double consciousness,” being enormously aware of how she and her heritage appear to others. She is also confident of her identity, using it to cut down an early attempt by Steve Meeks to explain Japanese toys to her. At her first date with Gregory, when he launches into a racially stereotypical speech about Japanese women, she realizes his obtuse and offensive speech, declaring it “really weird…and a bit horrible…” It is very odd that this very statement is practically the last extensive treatment of race in the book. The Nao of Brown isn’t exactly dismissive of race as it is helpless in dealing with it. The mentioned elements show that the author is aware of the issue, as is the fact that Dillon uses the social and racial geography of London cleverly. “British Asian” usually refers to South Asian people, but London also has a sizable Chinese community with its own issues of racism. Japanese communities, by contrast, are usually more well off and smaller. The book is mostly set in the areas of London where most of the small pockets of the Japanese community are situated, but it offers some interesting tweaks on it. Japanese (and Asian culture, generally) is shown to be completely appropriated by the imperialist and capitalist apparatus. A “Buddhist center” is full of English people, with an English teacher, the toy shop is aimed at English people, and so forth. In 1991, Masao Miyoshi famously claimed that the Japanese economy was the first powerhouse economy without any cultural capital. The anime and manga boom of the early 2000s, as well as the elevation of mediocre novelists like Murakami to literary superstar status, has changed that, but recent developments suggest an American or generally Western-led process of appropriation of these Japanese cultural products, limiting the impact of Japanese culture to its distorted reflection by imperialist media structures. The first third of the novel, using real and invented Japanese products, hammers home this point, culminating in the scene with Gregory that I just mentioned, where he, Hesse-reading idiot, genuinely regards Hello Kitty as a fair representation of Japanese women.

binkybrownNao also fills us in on the fact that she is “a fucking mental case.” and in a series of well paced vignettes, we quickly learn, though more by inference than by explicit comments, that the illness is Primarily Obsessional OCD. She, like most sufferers of OCD is enormously self aware of herself, and suffers from shame regarding her condition. This quality of OCD is hauntingly similar to ideas of “double consciousness,” without wanting to pathologize racial tensions. The book never clinically describes or explains Nao’s illness, but it does an interesting trick to sidestep that: despite Nao’s apparent lack of a therapist, she manages her outbreaks with the help of dialectical behavior therapy methods, including a form of ERP that may not be something real sufferers of OCD would use. The point in the novel is not accuracy, however, but verisimilitude. Dillon wants us to understand how it works and so he has his protagonist use therapeutic methods that externalize a very internalized illness. The result is that it looks like ‘real’ OCD for lay readers of the book, used to media depictions of fussy OCD people like TV’s Monk. It’s an interesting tactic. In my limited experience of reading graphic novels, they have a fascinating relationship with Foucault’s theory of the History of Madness. Books like Nate Powell’s sublime take on schizophrenia, Swallow Me Whole, or David B.’s masterful Epileptic, or more recent, web-published comics on depression, offer both a disquisition on the modern clinic, as well as the pre-modern tableau of madness that Foucault found in Pieter Bruegel’s work. Many of those books are autobiographical, but not confessional (using here Susannah Radstone’s distinction here), with a few confessional books marking specific cultural moments, most famously, Justin Green’s classic Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a book, like Dillon’s, concerned with Primarily Obsessional OCD. The Nao of Brown is neither testimonial nor confessional – it’s not autobiographical at all, which may explain the shifting of priorities as the book progresses. There is no urgency behind its story, and no consistent discursive interests. Towards the last third of the book it is the stale romance that primarily occupies the book’s interest. This is not because it’s fiction, this is because Dillon’s a very mediocre writer. But a work of autobiography would not likely have dropped those elements, even if it was similarly bad in execution.

naobroannocoverBinky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary is actually directly mentioned by the book itself but this reference to Binky Brown sits oddly athwart the book’s issues and problems. Apart from sexual and religious guilt, the book also narrates an interesting racial situation, of the half-Jewish boy who goes to a Catholic school and feels guilty about both communities, like a dark, sexual and secular version of the epiphanies from Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. And Binky Brown is situated pretty precisely in a time and place. All these things suggest questions to ask of Glyn Dillon’s book. How does place work? How does he deal with racial tension? What’s the role of pathologized guilt? Most crucially: what does it say about masculinity? And not only does Dillon answer almost none of those questions despite a beginning that appeared to address all of them (talk about bait-and-switch), it is the last two that I found resolved in the most strange way. See, the book is aware that its male characters are idiots. A moment of mental stress by Nao is countered by Gregory in the most insensitive and ignorant possible way. In no way sensitive to her struggles he demands a rational explanation before he allows himself to help her. Her friend and employer, Steve Meeks, clearly smitten with her, employs the dubious tactics of passive aggressive Nerd courtship. None of this is inferred by me: the book states it plainly and clearly. There is no doubt the book knows that its men mistreat its female protagonist at every turn. Talking over her, talking down to her, not helping her with her illness; in fact, sometimes they themselves create situations for her illness to flare up. And yet, we find no trace of guilt, none of the vulnerable masculinity that was so central to the confessional moment in literature. In fact, the book, in its muddled and awful ending finds excuses and explanations for their behavior. Gregory is the only one who gets to explain himself in writing. The book oddly resembles few texts as much as the British male popculture novels by Nick Hornby and other ‘lads’ of his generation. We get quirky pop culture references, and namedrops of bands like The Fall. The longer the book continues, the less it is interested in Nao’s point of view. Nothing shows this change as starkly as the fact that the book begins with Nao’s words of self-explanation and ends with Gregory’s dire Hesse-influenced waffle, no longer an object of criticism by the book. It begins with the picture of a little girl, and it ends with one of a little boy. This change, much of it happening in the book’s last third, is not announced earlier, it feels like the author just, upon writing, found a character he liked more than the protagonist he started out with. For the reader, this is utterly frustrating and even infuriating. There is a great book somewhere in The Nao of Brown, but Dillon does not have the skills of writing and drawing 200 pages of it with a consistent level of concentration. As it is, the book is still good, because, despite all the frustration, it has an excellent first third, and the art is extraordinary throughout.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Kelly Sue Deconnick et al.: Bitch Planet

Deconnick, Kelly Sue and Valentine de Landron (2015), Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781632-153661

bitch coverI don’t usually review comics after reading only one trade paperback because the first trade tends to be a mere introduction to story and characters, despite generally containing 4-6 issues of the comic. As a side note, there’s, for me, a sense of comics having loosened a bit these past years, with narration much more slowed down. I mean, the whole story of X-Men: Days of Future Past is narrated in two issues. That would have to be at least a miniseries today. That’s just not how it’s done today. And in a way this is true of this first trade of Bitch Planet as well. The plot has barely begun to get off the ground as we leaf through the last pages of the book. But the book itself is so interesting, so unique, that I decided to review it here anyway, in part because I have been slow with reviewing comics these past years and Kelly Sue Deconnick, with the help of various artists, has carved out quite the interesting body of work that now contains an exciting and inspiring Marvel character that she made completely her own, a mystical and engrossing Western, which she financed through kickstarter, as well as various work done on Marvel and Dark Horse characters, work that’s always bright and interesting. I have lost track of some of her Marvel work in the past year or so, as Marvel ditched its new-found order created through the “Marvel Now” slate of books in favor of several events that I find impossible to keep track of. Meanwhile, she keeps writing creator-owned books for Image Comics and the one that’s come out in paperback most recently, Bitch Planet, is quite something. It’s a faux-1970s (60s? 80S?) dystopian comic that imagines an uber-patriarchal future where female criminals are shipped off to a prison planet. But being obese and disobedient is already reason enough to find yourself on a ship out to the “Bitch Planet” and Deconnick does not hold back in describing the arbitrary and cruel nature of this odd dictatorship. The book is clearly and thoroughly didactic, and if that bothers you, don’t read this. Everybody else will find something to enjoy about this book. In a way, Kelly Sue Deconnick has made a career out of working on characters and stories that help to tell stories about female experience. Bitch Planet reads in many ways like a summary of her career so far. Its density shows the importance and interconnection of her themes. Plus, it’s a coiled-up ball of fun.

bitch 2The plot itself is, as I suggested in the first paragraph, a magnificent smorgasbord of 1970s science fiction tropes and topics, from prison planets to mass surveillance, to sport-as-deadly-spectacle, a scenario that has most recently been revived by the spectacularly successful Hunger Games franchise. As a matter of fact, a vast variety of these recent YA franchises that started with badly written books (the nicely done Hunger Games books are an exception to a sometimes confoundingly incompetent rule – Divergent is a particularly disheartening example of this) also lean on these same 70s texts and films. It almost feels as if there’s a checklist. Suzanne Collins’ career is maybe a good example of this shift – her first series of books tell a highly imaginative story of an underground rat kingdom where a boy becomes hero and antihero in an epic (and bloody) fight for subterranean supremacy. It follows traditions in a broader sense. Hunger Games, in contrast, owes a debt to a much more narrow, concentrated tradition, the 70s dystopian fiction/film. But in stark contrast to those forebears, most of these franchises, with, again, Collins’ books being a bit of an exception, eschew politics and complexities of representation, by turning all the earlier text into a mush that is nothing more than an elaborate allegory for teenage angst. In this respect, they follow the tendency of many pop-cultural revivals of texts from the 70s and 80s that used to have a political bent, and are now cleansed of relevancy. One example in the realm of comic books is certainly Green Arrow. Once, when he shared a book with Green Lantern, Green Arrow was aware of racial tensions and social disparities; these days, the new revivals of the Green Lantern books are but a shadow of that earlier writing. In contrast to all of that, Kelly Sue Deconnick’s book connects in more than style with the earlier tradition. Bitch Planet is happily political. In fact, the trade contains a didactic “discussion guide,” aimed at explaining the book’s politics to those not as well versed in recent readings in feminism and intersectionality. As far as I can tell, individual issues also and additionally contained short essays on topics in feminism. If anything, Deconnick has taken the politics of the 70s and dragged them into the present time, heightening and commenting on the issues. The term intersectionality itself has not been coined until the late 1980s and has not gotten traction in popular debates on political theory until this past decade.

bitch 3To be clear, Deconnick and De Landro didn’t create a modern story, inspired by the 1970s. They aimed and succeeded at creating a fantastically entertaining pastiche of 1970s comics, although I suppose it might be more the idea of 1970s comics rather than a specific example of one. The nature of the pastiche becomes clear in more ways than just the gorgeous artwork that smells of nostalgia. When we get dates and periods, the timing appears to be a bit off. When discussion Hall of Fame players of the futuristic sport of the book, we are offered years like 2012 and 2018. Speaking as someone who, for some reason, has a pretty solid grasp on the world’s major sports, I am fairly certain that sport, a more brutal version of American Football, does not exist right now. The year 2012 is, I think, supposed to signal the time estimations common in texts from the 60s and 70s that assumed a much more rapid progress in technology (and a much more rapid dissolution of constitutional democracies). The result of this method is the creation of a critical nostalgia, but not one that’s inherently critical of the texts it references, only of the social and cultural contexts that produced this text. In fact, by lacing the issues with obviously racist and sexist ads, some of which, in a final metatextual twist, reference the book’s characters, the genre itself, the science fictional blaxploitation (if that is a genre) is highlighted as a medium that resists and comments upon a social context. This, in turn (stay with me) makes the text a stand-in for the same non-compliance that is a marker of the women in the book. Indeed, much of this book appears to loop back on itself, and could end up in some kind of vapid postmodern loop, if all of it wasn’t anchored in angry and explicit politics. Kelly Sue Deconnick’s feminism, as rendered in this book (and others) is a brand that’s not all that common today, one that critically comments on the male gaze, and how that gaze comes with expectancies: most importantly, expecting women to comply. Ariel Levy, a few years ago, has written a clear and pretty sharp critique of how that compliance to the patriarchal gaze might look like in Female Chauvinist Pigs, a book I strongly recommend. Non-compliance, the “offense” of women on the “Bitch Planet” is a rallying cry for the book and Deconnick’s work in general.

DSC_1937Her other extraordinary book for Image Comics, the kickstarter-financed Pretty Deadly, also offers a female resistance to a male myth of the frontier and death (compare/contrast Jonathan Hickman’s recent series of books on a a resistant Rider of the Apocalypse, a very openly male figure of Death, and how this impacts Hickman’s discussions of narrative and myth). Superbly illustrated by Emma Rios, this is a book that’s not so much simple commentary on the frontier myth, as an imaginative reworking of those myths. In more direct terms, we find in Bitch Planet also a book that discusses female experience, although I would hope for more examples of that in later issues. Women of all shapes and sizes, of various backgrounds, resistant to men, discarded by men, non-compliant women, we also find them in the book(s) Deconnick is likely most well known for, her run on Captain Marvel that, so far, spans at least four Captain Marvel trades, two Avengers Assemble trades and god knows how many “event” books. She uses these books, apart from handing out action packed stories of superheroics, to discuss questions of personal identity, of alcoholism, of representation. Personally, I would have preferred these books to be less tied into larger Marvel Universe narratives, but these books are an excellent example of the powerful stories you can write despite being locked into a fairly restrictive narrative box, one that was assembled using a majority of Marvel’s current titles. What’s certainly true is that, through all her books, we can see a theme emerging, and the clearest it’s been stated so far is the excellent Bitch Planet. I have no idea where Deconnick’s writing is leading her next, but I do know that I cannot wait to find out. She is one of my favorite active writers in comics, and her influence and impact on a growing community around her is admirable and amazing. Please read her books.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Pénélope Bagieu – Cadavre Exquis

Bagieu, Penelope (2011), Cadavre Exquis, Folio BD
ISBN 978-2070444953

cadavreI’m currently kinda, sorta on holiday and yet here we are. Another (very) short review. This one is of a book I picked up in this lovely little French bookshop in Bucharest, a book I read while hiding from the grueling heat in pleasant shadows here and there. The book is Pénélope Bagieu’s first standalone graphic novel Cadavre Exquis. I’ve come across her work here and there, especially bits from her blog Ma vie est tout à fait fascinante, which has also been published in book form. The book that had drawn my attention was a more recent one, but Cadavre Exquis is the one I ended up reading. Her blog, and her serial graphic novel Josephine are, or appear to be from what I saw, autobiographical and a cursory look at the protagonist of Cadavre Exquis and a photograph of Bagieu would suggest a similarly inspired story – that approach would however, leave the prospective reader unprepared for this amusing, clever, even a bit poisonous book. Bagieu tells us a story that is many things at once, and she never gets her emotional registers tangled. Cadavre Exquis is a touching coming of age tale, a mild satire on the literature business, a double play on the ‘death of the author’, and what’s more, she writes a story about the importance of reading, more than the importance of writing. It’s really a book about reading and being read, in many ways and also, which is why I hesitate to reach for bigger terms, a story that feels very delicately balanced, a book that might not deal so well with being too closely analyzed. It’s interesting that according to Wikipedia, most of her followup books are not written by her, or not written by her alone, because I can see this kind of writing, which is so precariously set up, turn bad with worse luck. Some parts that currently work just the way they are might end up being rushed, some ideas too cute, some too labored. Bagieu has a fairly large portfolio as an artist now, and I greatly enjoy her art in this book, but it’s the development as a writer that I would be most interested in. Yet Pénélope Bagieu is still very young, we might get a sophomore book yet that’s fully written and drawn by this most intriguing artist and writer. Meanwhile, all future anticipations and worries aside, her method, such as it is, has worked extremely well here and I can recommend this book to all who would like to spend a few moments reading an adorable story of love, writing and authorship set in the colorful Paris of our time.

Bagieu 1As most of us probably know, the title of the book refers to the well known game that I’m sure we all played as kids. Invented by French surrealists like André Breton and Yves Tanguy, it chops up language on the basis of a fixed rule to produce a new effect. Here’s a definition

Based on an old parlor game, Exquisite Corpse was played by several people, each of whom would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal part of it, and pass it on to the next player for his contribution. The technique got its name from results obtained in initial playing, “Le cadavre / exquis / boira / le vin / nouveau” (The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine).

The rule is fixed, and produces the final text (one thinks of American poets like Jackson Mac Low and his work on non-intentional writing. At first glance it’s a strange concept to be the title of a book that’s as warm and lovely and charming as Bagieu’s graphic novel. But the book makes multiple uses of the title. On the most simple way, there’s a rather unusual -if not exquisite- kind of corpse that’s prominent in the book. This use of the title is, I admit, not clever or subtle, but it is adorable, and given Bagieu’s art, ‘adorable’ is clearly one of the desired qualities. The book does go further, however. In a way, having scuh a culturally deeply rooted title allows the author to string along various plot elements that could seem banal, but are shown to cohere. Bagieu’s protagonist is an ill educated young woman who spends much of her life living with a lazy, rude, unemployed man, running away from home to work, which is not a lovely place either. She works as a hostess, paid to look pretty and point to various goods, from cars to cheese. Men frequently grope her amd she works long hours for little pay. There’s a melancholic dreariness to her life that we quickly realize as being a setup to a kind of romantic comedy. The book works through this early development efficiently. Within a few pages the plot goes rolling and we are rolling with it. The book appears to take care to take us with it, playing on the usual registers with exuberant ease and Bagieu’s lovely art is the perfect accompaniment to this story. If you hate that kind of story, it won’t help you when I tell you there’s a sudden change at the end, because the book relies on its readers eating it all up.

Bagieu 3Let me repeat. This is not a cerebral exercise. This is a light, enjoyable read. Its skill and cleverness is the proverbial icing on the cake, but the cake itself is soft and light and lovely. If you don’t like that, the book is not for you. Even when it suddenly morphs into a (light) satire of the publishing industry and the easily manipulated taste of the reading public at large, including critics, the main goal is to entertain us. Its satire doesn’t present new insights. There are good books on how critical and ppopular taste is construed, how we judge art and how the various elements in the cultural system interact to create opinions. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith is probably the go-to choice here. But like any good satire or criticism, Bagieu’s comments can be turned around to be used to comment on the book itself. After all, criticizing the cult of authenticity may feel a bit rich coming from an artist who made her bones writing autobiographical stories and who keeps drawing cute, large eyed protagonists that look an awful lot like the artist herself. But Bagieu doesn’t care. That’s one advantage of the lightness of her approach. It can take the self-recursive nature of its criticism, accept it with a laugh and move on. And this laugh is not the snide, self important laugh that Frédéric Beigbeder’s exceptionally annoying faux-ironic books have. It’s a light, summery laugh. And it’s the same light tone in which the author, towards the end of the book, delvers a critique of masculinity and the way the concept of authorship is designed to buttress and please the male ego. Again, the insight itself is not original. There are libraries full of books on the topic of the way the cult of originality is tied to masculinity and its crises. But the book’s spin on the ideas is fresh and remarkably straightforward and unapologetic. However much I enjoyed the book until the final few pages, seeing and reading its endgame and final twist made me enjoy it even more. The end comes rather suddenly, but that’s just as it should be. As I said in the beginning, this is a well balanced, enjoyable little book.

Bagieu 2As I wrap things up here, let me come back to the title. For book that’s ultimately so prominently interested in the absurdity of claims for originality, using a surrealist method, authored and distributed by a circle of male writers is already intriguing. The book is written in a way that lets us apply the game of its title in multiple ways, but one particularly interesting way, is the method with which the book folds and unfolds the protagonist’s life according to similar rules, but the elements are replaced in surprising and unexpected ways. At no point could Bagieu’s protagonist have planned to end up where she does, in fact, she could barely have conceived of this possibility. So while the book is entirely contingent, the life contained within is its own exquisite corpse. Really. Cadavre Exquis is a good book. Trust me.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Kerascoët & Vehlmann: Beautiful Darkness

Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2009), Jolies Ténèbres, Dupuis ISBN 978-2-8001-4238-8

[English translation: Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2014), Beautiful Darkness, Drawn & Quarterly Translated by Helge Dascher ISBN 978-1770461291]

DSC_1267I will admit. Even though I read quite a healthy number of comic books and graphic novels and whatever else your preferred nomenclature is, I rarely come across a book in the genre that really, truly, profoundly delights and astonishes me any more. Jolies Ténèbres by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann is such a comic. In it, the creative trio (Kerascoët is a duo of artists, consisting of the Parisian Sebastien Cosset and the Brest native Marie Pommepuy, who also co-wrote the script with Fabien Vehlmann) takes us onto a journey that is both magical and horrifying, into a story that’s equal parts allegory, fairy tale and gritty realism. The art and the writing complement each other so well that it is difficult to believe that the book is not the result of one person’s inventive but slightly strange brain and in a way it is Marie Pommepuy’s creation, since it’s based on her idea, and she is both part of the writing and the illustrating team. The book was published in France in 2009 and has been translated into multiple languages, one of which is English. It’s published in English by Drawn & Quarterly and I hope they managed to produce as fine a volume as the original publisher Dupuis, because the book on my desk is magnificent in every way. Magnificently written, magnificently drawn and magnificently produced. In its English translation, the book has made a number of best-of lists – and with good reason. This book is more than a compelling read – it’s also endlessly re-readable, offering layers upon layers to its spellbound readers. The creative team doesn’t deploy allegory as a cheap moralizing technique and yet there’s an air of almost medieval weight to the way life, death and obsession is meted out on the books’ faux-adorable characters. Beautiful Darkness is very, very good and manages to strike the difficult balance between being very smart and clever on the one hand, and incredibly enjoyable on the other. Buy it, read it. Go on. I’ll wait.

BEAUTIFUL-02_0 I admit I haven’t had an opportunity to read Drawn & Quarterly’s translation, but I found one editorial decision highly dubious. Even though the French edition makes clear that the book is based on an idea by Marie Pommepuy, that the script was written by Pommepuy and Vehlmann and that Kerascoët (i.e. Pommepuy and Cosset) are the illustrators, and the French spine has “Kerascoët & Vehlmann” as the attribution, the English edition has, in big and bold letters, the attribution “Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët” and most reviews I could rustle up treated Vehlmann as the author and Kerascoët merely as the illustrators. This might seem like a minor issue, and a bit of an odd issue to mention this early in the review, but it irks me. Maybe because I’ve just put up my review of Hunger’s Brides and was reminded of the fact that, going back all the way to the middle ages, as Karen McKnight showed, men were primarily seen as authors, and women at best as mechanical escritors. I’m sure Vehlmann contributed most or a hefty chunk of the script. Of the three artists involved in the project, he’s the one with the most extensive experience writing comic book scripts. Yet Pommepuy’s involvement at all stages of the project seems at least as significant, and pushing her aside to share the illustrating role strikes me as odd. Especially because Beautiful Darkness is, to an important degree, a book about female experience. It’s a female encounter with death, a female mind disintegrating into a large mass of overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) female characters and shards (I’ll explain in a moment) with an ending that directly addresses questions of family, patriarchy and dominance. Moreover, the French book jacket shows two women, one pale, faded, real and dead, one colorful, cartoonish and curious. No matter what your interpretation of the book is (and there’s a fair variety of possible readings in a book whose authors pride themselves on the indeterminate story they crafted), there’s no doubt that this is a profoundly gendered story. These being the facts, I am rubbed the wrong way by Fabien Vehlmann being the first and most distinguishable name on the cover of Drawn & Quarterly’s Beautiful Darkness.

DSC_1274So much of the book’s first reading depends, I think on the surprise of what develops and how it develops, so I won’t discuss the plot, except to mention the premise. A dead girl lies in a meadow in a wood clearing. She’s roughly 8, wearing wellies and next to her is a school bag. Has she been murdered? Has she died of natural causes? Has she had an accident? We are not told and depending on how you read the book as a whole, we might not know even after the book’s conclusion. The image of the dead girl as we first see her, rain pouring down on her still body, is powerful, realistic and frightening – and comes as a bit of a shock to the reader who has read the opening pages of two cartoonish, cute characters having a sort of tea party as their house suddenly collapses. In the next pages, a multitude of cute, cartoon characters leaves the dead body through its various orifices. The book is painted in watercolors (I think), but the cartoon characters with their large eyes will remind the reader more of the black and white traditions of manga and the inventiveness of the golden age of Spirou magazine, when it carried early versions of now legendary and bestselling titles like Boule et Bill, the Smurfs or the eponymous Spirou (when it was written by the great André Franquin). The manga association mainly stems from my reading of the work of Osamu Tezuka, as far as I have read it, which combines adorable, large eyed characters with at times brutal or terrifying stories, which is not something I associate with the French tradition. Additionally, the French tradition as outlined skews very male (with Peyo’s Smurfette even having become shorthand for a misogynist trope), while the Tezuka line allows for more room. The tensions and violence in gender relations are part of Tezuka’s work as early as 1949 when he first published Metropolis and continuing with books like Princess Knight (aka “the Mother of all shōjo manga”) and Ayako (cf. my review here). That said, I don’t have enough background on the genre to really elucidate the comic book lines of influence on Beautiful Darkness.

DSC_1262 Embedded in the comic is the story of a young girl who has suddenly fallen into a topsy-turvy world of confusion, and has to use her wits to combat it and make her way through it – a story clearly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland (it helps that the color scheme of the character in question broadly corresponds to the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland). There are only light similarities (the topics of eating and consumption are prominent in both books, themes of perspective, truth and identity are discussed in both books etc.), but in a way, Beautiful Darkness is constructed out of a vary broad set of light resemblances. Another similarity can be found in the rich tradition of children’s book characters that live with or alongside humans and that are not quite animals and not quite human like The Wombles or especially Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. The book uses these influences as a kind of distancing effect – we see the cartoonish figures make do with everyday objects that they employ for strange or humorous effect. Another reference are surely Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, especially the early ones, where Jansson just throws her creations into all kinds of adventurous situations. The first one, The Moomins and the Great Flood seems particularly of interest as a comparison, which includes the art of the illustrations. We have strange, small characters in a dangerous and confusing natural environment, we have animals used as transportation by characters that are cartoonish and neither human nor clearly animal. There’s a limit to the role that children’s books can have in the creation of Beautiful Darkness, however, since the book is not just dark as the title suggests, but also very brutal, sometimes abruptly so. The only genre that can offer similar levels of cruelty and darkness are fairly tales, especially the unexpurgated versions. Look at the Grimm Brothers. There’s a story in their collection of a girl walking around with her cut off hands tied to a string and hung around her neck.

DSC_1265More significantly, look at Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Less obviously brutal than the Brothers Grimm, the Danish writer composed fairy tales that were equally rooted in folk tales as well as in the fertile imagination of a talented writer, writing in the mid-19th century, with modernity in full swing. Significantly for a reading of Beautiful Darkness, Andersen’s stories are not clustered around a moral message, which was loudly decried at the time of publication, but the lightly worn immorality has helped ensure Andersen’s longevity. Immorality is an important aspect of the comic. Not because it’s intentionally immoral, but because it carefully and intentionally sidesteps the idea of moralizing its story. Frequently, story twists are actually twists away from an expected and moralistic fable. That’s also what separates Beautiful Darkness from yet another tradition: allegory, especially medieval allegory. It’s entirely feasible (up to a point) to read many of the cartoonish characters as emblematic of aspects of the young girl’s personality. This is not far from classic books like Pilgrim’s Progress, which has remained a fascinating read for centuries. Other books that allegorically discuss human nature like Lord of the Flies are obvious candidates (perhaps, even, if we employ a generous abstraction, the Hunger Games) for interpretative foils. But both Bunyan and Golding have a message to impart to their respective readers – Kerascoët and Vehlmann do not. They make use of the seductive power of allegory, and of the interpretative paths it opens for their book but ultimately they decline the moral commitment. They are aware of all the intertexts or at least many of them, and sometimes appear to offer them to the reader on a silver platter, telling them: we know that you know. They use them to get the reader’s brain to work, to read the text more attentively, more precisely, more openly. They invite us to read the book not as this or that but as this and that. Discussing the different personalities living in us and looking at what happens to us when we fall into the wilderness, left to our own devices, for example.

I am aware that this attribution page inside the book says, as does the French

I am aware that this attribution page inside the book says, as does the French “Based on original idea by Marie Pommepuy. Story by Marie Pommepuy & Fabien Vehlmann”. It changes little about the cover, especially since it’s in small print under a repetition of the cover attribution (which the French book doesn’t have)

And this, at the end, is where I return to my earlier rant. I did say the book does not commit to an easy morality – but it is not without commitment. It’s a very tightly scripted story with no lost panels, with every page, every panel, every detail constributing either to the plot or the atmosphere of the book, but on a different level, with all the allusions and the ambiguous readings it allows, it’s also baggy and expansive. It challenges easy readings by offering us dozens of intertexts and then breaking with them, in one way or another, eventually ending in a symbolically and psychoanalytically rich final tableau. My first association was with Luce Irigaray’s early and controversial SPECULUM: De l’autre femme. Like Irigaray’s explosive book, there’s a way to read Beautiful Darkness as commenting on a certain gendered tradition of storytelling without really arguing a case, just offering its readers a way to think through it. Because that was my association upon reading it I find the foregrounding of Fabien Vehlmann a bit irksome. I do think the book has a commitment: a commitment to storytelling itself. Or maybe I’m over-interpreting. Even without all my blather, the fact is that Beautiful Darkness is a lovely, funny, terrifying, mystifying masterpiece of the genre. Please read it at your earliest convenience. This is my 6th review this year and it’s very clearly the best book I’ve reviewed so far. I’m not exaggerating. If you like comic books you will love this. GO NOW.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Jason Aaron: Scalped

Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al (2007), Indian Country, Vertigo
ISBN 1-4012-1317-0
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al (2008),Casino Boogie, Vertigo
ISBN 1401216544
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al. (2008), Dead Mothers, Vertigo
ISBN 1401219195
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al. (2009),The Gravel in Your Gut, Vertigo
ISBN 1401221793

DSC_0089Noir and comics have been a happy marriage for a while now. Some of the best work in contemporary comics has been in the genre of the noir. Ed Brubaker’s collaborations with Sean Philips are among those books, but the gritty turn of comics in the 1980s has introduced a noir tone and atmosphere to many books that wouldn’t otherwise seem fitting. Batman and Daredevil have been titles where noir sensibilities have been exercised frequently, especially in Frank Miller’s runs more than two decades ago, and Brian Azzarello’s and Greg Rucka’s runs in more recent memory. However. as much as I love Brubaker’s work on almost any title he touches, the most gutwrenchingly impressive use of noir tradition in comics that I know recently has been attempted by Jason Aaron in his incredible book Scalped. Scalped, which ran for 60 issues between 2007 and 2012, is set on an Oglala Lakota reservation, a thinly veiled cipher for the Pine Ridge reservation, exploring a world of pain and hurt, of loss and disillusionment, telling a story set in our time but rooted in a history going back centuries.

DSC_0096Scalped is collected in 10 trade paperbacks and I have so far read 4 of them, all of which are excellent. Aaron’s co-creator and main artistic collaborator on these books is Rajko Milošević, whose nom de plume is R.M. Guéra and whose pencils and inks perfectly complement the visceral quality of Aaron’s writing. As is usually the case, guest artists pencil additional issues; while this sometimes detracts from the overall work, the artists chosen for Scalped are perfects fits, especially the Italian artist Davide Furnò, who is chosen to draw some of the most painful and intense story arcs and manages to stick both to the template provided by Guéra and add some essential qualities to it. On a craftsmanship level, Scalped is a full success. Emotional, powerful, and a true collaboration between a writer and his artists. On other levels, it’s also a troubling book, as I will explain later. It’s an intense interrogation of violence and corruption among American Indians, written by an Anglo-Saxon American from Alabama, and illustrated by Serbian, Italian and Spanish artists. Its characters are constructed so close to noxious stereotypes that it creates an undercurrent of difficult politics running through the whole book. At the same time, it feels like Jason Aaron’s writing is poised to profit from that, using the troubling politics of the book’s creation to feed into the noir darkness within its pages. The result is an imperfect, problematic, but deeply compelling work of art.

The_Short_timers_CoverIf you know of Jason Aaron, Scalped might not be the main reason for that. Much like it happened to Jeff Lemire with DC Comics, Aaron has been signed by Marvel and has been producing work on a multitude of titles there, most notably on Ghost Rider and a plethora of X-Men related titles. I can’t keep up with X-Men titles because for some reason Marvel decided to have several different books running in parallel, but if I could, Aaron’s nimble writing would be a good reason to at least keep an eye on those. Aaron does pulp incredibly well, and with a sense of humor and irony that escapes some of his contemporary masters of pulp like Rick Remender.  While with Remender, even in fantastically inventive books like his recent creator owned book with Image, Black Science, one can almost see the self congratulatory masculinity and dour sense of exploitative jokes, Aaron’s books are rooted in a sense of place, a feeling of connection. He uses the literary traditions and markers of pulp, but he is sensitive to personal and social history. A lot of it is white, poor history. Aaron is not just a cousin of Gustav Hasford, the author of The Short-Timers (the less famous literary inspiration for Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), but his first major work (and my introduction to Aaron) was a graphic novel about the Vietnam War called The Other Side (2006) It’s clearly a beginner’s work, opting for pathos and sentimentality where it’s not needed, and he’s often bailed out by his artist, the underrated Cameron Stewart, but it’s still an impressive comic, attempting to tell the story of a misguided war by exploring the toll it took on the foot soldiers in it. It’s also a work that attempts to bridge the distance to the culturally and politically defined “other side” by also telling a story from a Vietnamese soldier’s point of view, ultimately killed by Aaron’s blond American protagonist. “Sometimes I dream that I come from a place called Alabama,” he says, only to be dragged back to the brutality and carnage of his everyday life. In the end, Aaron’s protagonist survives, but he carries with him the wounds and the trauma of the murder that he was forced into. This is a recurring theme, coming up as recently as his brand new creator owned series Southern Bastards, a story about a rural Alabama community, whose inhabitants also carry the trauma and memory of wars (the first trade of Southern Bastards has just come out, I recommend it wholeheartedly).

DSC_0092Scalped, then, seems both like a bit of a stretch and something striking close to home for Aaron. In literary terms, it’s connected to classic American noir (down to its protagonist whose first name is Dashiell), to mid-70s Mafia fiction à la Mario Puzo and to comic book tradition, like Frank Miller’s justly revered Daredevil story Born Again, territory that he’s tread many times since. While there’s a sense of Sherwood Anderson to books like Southern Bastards, rural white America only gets a few mentions in Scalped. Instead, his focus is on the plight of “the Rez”, the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, where people live in poverty, unable to resist the pull of crime. And the reservation’s kingpin is Lincoln Red Crow. He introduces himself to us and to the book’s protagonist like this:

“You’re looking at the President of the Oglala tribal council, as well as sheriff of the tribal police force, chairman of the prairie rose planning committee, treasurer of the highway safety program and managing director of this here brand spankin’ new casino.”

He’s judge, jury and executioner on the reservation, both head of its police force and kingpin of the various crimes committed there. He has committed murders and blackmailed people in order to keep his position. But he’s a complicated character. More than once he says of himself that he’s pursuing a vision for his people. That he is aiming for something higher than profit or money.

DSC_0100And indeed, while people cheat him and play their own games on the reservation, seemingly a death sentence in other mafia-style environments, he lets them do what they want, knowing that they have families that need to be fed. This tension between being a cold murderer and crime boss on the one hand, and a tribe head very conscious of the plight of his people is the main intrigue in the book that goes beyond individual fights and small affairs. Aaron uses flashbacks a lot structuring whole arcs around remembered events. Many of those memories tell us the story of young Lincoln Red Crow, a young American Indian firebrand, fighting for the rights of his people in the 1970s and after. Many of the people involved in current events in the book are shown to have been connected to young Red Crow, including Dashiell Bad Horse, the book’s protagonist, whose mother Gina had also been an activist in the 1970s. It’s not just memories catching up with Red Crow, it’s also some of the crimes he may or may not have committed in his activist past that come to the fore as the FBI opens and pursues an investigation into the murder of two FBI agents in the 1970s.

Headshot of Leonard Peltier in 1972. Image from FBI Poster.

Headshot of Leonard Peltier in 1972. Image from FBI Poster.

Unspoken and unmentioned, but always looming in the reader’s mind, is the 1973 Wounded Knee incident, when hundreds of Oglala Lakota occupied the historically significant town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This led to an armed confrontation with no real resolution. Pain and violence followed in the many years after the incident, with a corrupt Indian administration possibly murdering up to 60 of its critics. The Wounded Knee incident brought the terrible situation of Native Americans to national attention. Remember when Marlon Brando declined to accept his Academy award in person, sending Sacheen Littlefeather in his stead? That was sort of in response to the incident, which brought the maltreatment of American Indians by the American government newly into focus, as were many other public appeals and actions by activists all around the nation. Meanwhile, the corrupt head of the reservation, whose actions had resulted in the rebellion by the Oglala activists was left in place, and continued about his business. I think we are supposed to read Lincoln Red Crow from within this context. An activist who encounters a hopeless situation, trying to better the social situation of his people, and finds that fighting corruption with corruption is the only path forward. As we first encounter him, he appears to be close to success. With financing from a Hmong gang, he opens a new casino, poised to make his tribe rich.

DSC_0107It’s at this point that things, rotten and precarious for years, start disintegrating. The FBI has infiltrated his tribe, and as the book opens, they are sending another agent to try and get close to him. That agent is the book’s protagonist Dashiell, who is a dark complicated character, but for personal reasons, not for political reasons like Red Crow. This setup is reminiscent of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian activist who was arrested for allegedly murdering two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation shorty after the Wounded Knee incident. In interviews, Aaaron has acknowledged that the Peltier case is one of the inspirations for Lincoln Red Crow (the book even has a direct stand-in for Peltier in the jailed character Lawrence Belcourt), which reinforces the tension in the book. It makes it abundantly clear that we can’t and are not supposed to read Red Crow as a pure antagonist, as a villain, a drug kingpin. Peltier is one of the heroes and touchstone of many civil rights activists, and by referring to him and events at the Pine Ridge Reservation, Aaron lets us understand that this is a morally murky situation. At the same time, viscerally, he uses the broad and dark brush of the tradition he employs. Murder is murder and it’s shown in brutal detail. Suffering and the desperation of those who are not part of Red Crow’s success are highlighted and stressed.

DSC_0227As you can tell, I find Red Crow’s vision and past to be the driving force of the books. The protagonist is a player in a larger game whose parameters have been established through Red Crow’s actions. Dashiell Bad Horse is much more of a conventional noir character. Haunted by his own past, falling in and out of drugs, and soon, haunted by the death of his mother and friends, he pushes on in the darkness of “the Rez”. As the books progress, the story gets more convoluted and characterizations improve and deepen. The moral complexities of the book are met by similarly complex art and writing. One would be tempted to call this book a success if not for a vague feeling of unease.

DSC_0094That unease comes from the fact that the author of this book is a white rural boy from Alabama. He is not just telling a story that contains American Indians, he is telling an American Indian story, and while his politcal intentions are sound and smart, as a reader, I remember the protagonist from Sherman Alexie’s searing Indian Killer who is constantly alienated by the benevolent preaching of his non-native friends. American Indian voices are not so loud that a white author’s voice would just be part of a larger chorus. Instead, the American West is largely explored by white writers with many American Indian voices drowned in the process. An example in the crime writing genre is Todd Downing, a writer of the Choktaw Nation, who, in the early 20th century, wrote a couple of mystery novels set in the American southwest, mostly in Mexico. He also taught Choktaw language and culture and wrote books on the struggles and conflicts in the borderlands that prefigure Cormac McCarthy’s work. Downing is very careful in how he frames indigenous experience. He shows us how the violent stereotype of the American Indian and the Mexican both are flawed and how they contribute to unequal treatment by the police force. Yet his voice almost vanished completely. His study of indigenous Mexican culture The Mexican Earth wasn’t published until after his death and his novels fell out of print for decades until a small press decided to reprint them in 2010. The “inconvenient Indian”, to borrow a phrase from a book by Thomas King (who is half Cherokee) is not well represented in literature where the audience tends to prefer tales of the American West or southwest written by white authors. There is a stereotype trap as to what stories are told about American Indians and what stories are not. Thomas King’s short story collection A Short History of Indians in Canada is among the best attempts at pointing out those problems. And having Jason Aaron jump right in and offer a portrayal of what is basically the Pine Ridge reservation, with all the historical injustice perpetrated against its inhabitants, it doesn’t sit right with me. Especially since the book is so one-dimensionally dark or gritty. It is complex, yes, but within this dark framework. If you add in the more complex depictions of white rural poverty in books like Southern Bastards, what the reader is left with is a kind of irritation.

DSC_0098This irritation that the book offered to me is augmented by some other questionable depictions. The most egregious one is the character of “Mr. Brass”, a Hmong enforcer who came to get the Rez and the Casino back on track. In the process he doesn’t just turn out to be a killer. He’s a sadistic murderer who sodomizes and tortures his victims before killing them. As a character, he is not far from a James Bond villain from the Roger Moore era. This fits the overall use of pulpy ideas, but given Aaron’s other choices with respect to whiteness and color, this is not helpful. None of this irritation, incidentally, takes away from the skill involved in creating this book. It’s smart, powerful and emotionally challenging, with some storylines that can hold up to some of the best work created in comics. It’s just not perfect, especially in the cultural politics of the book itself.

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Jen Williams: The Copper Promise

Williams, Jen (2014), The Copper Promise, Headline
ISBN 978-1-4722-1112-5

Wiebe, Kurts J.; Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781607-069454

DSC_0171So through the years I have reviewed quite a few fantasy novels on this blog, but I am still looking for recommendations, and trying to understand contexts and history of the genre. As far as I can tell, the big caesura in the genre was JRR Tolkien’s entry on the stage of epic fantasy. A lot of what followed copied the structure of Tolkien’s books pretty closely, with some changes here and there. The most recent style of fantasy is “gritty” fantasy, which is now pretty much the predominant genre. Gritty means a certain amount of soi-disant “realism”, which mostly means more sex, way more violence and intential cruelty. Some writers have done interesting things with this, and people like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, David Anthony Durham and the mercurial talent N.K. Jemisin have taken the genre in new directions, mostly by offering a more sophisticated understanding of social issues. Jen Williams, a debut novelist, opts for a slightly different path in The Copper Promise and that is best summarized by the word “fun”. She is not interested in grit, not in realism, not in carefully constructed portrayals of nations and cultures. Honestly, the main instinct for me as a reviewer here is to squeal about the fun I had reading this book and how much fun I suspect the author had writing it. The other book I want to mention here is Rat Queens, written by Kurtis Wiebe with artwork by Roc Upchurch (pencils, ink and covers). The first trade, “Sass and Sorcery” has been out for a few months and it’s an equally joyful celebration of fantasy, yet also cognizant of gender issues and narrative holdovers from tradition.

DSC_0194Another distinction I should have made in my first paragraph is the one between epic fantasy and the sword and sorcery line of fantasy, which mainly inspired Jen Williams. More accurately, she appears to have been inspired by Fritz Leiber’s legendary novels featuring his heroes Fafhrd (not a typo) and the Gray Mouser, called the “spiritual father [of] most fantasy writers” by Raymond Feist. Epic fantasy tells us stories of nations and cultures. It usually contains stories of adventurers embedded within, but the stakes are a bit higher, and these books tend to offer elaborate maps in the back. In George R.R. Martin’s increasingly lackluster work we even find whole lists of ‘houses’ and their living and deceased members. None of this for Williams. The world is small enough to traverse with a dragon in a short amount of time, it contains roughly four recognizable areas or nations and the narrative tends to just “switch” areas to tell different stories in different places. Her tradition is that of Leiber (and Burroughs), of intrepid adventurers in a world full of wicked people and magic and strangeness. At the same time, she takes that tradition and spins it cleverly. But it’s not an intellectual exercise. This book is a big steaming cup of fun. If you like fantasy, but are bored by the epic fantasy line of writing and/or the ‘gritty’ type of fantasy, read this. In fact, if you like fantasy, read this. And if you like both fantasy and comic books, I implore you, read Rat Queens.

DSC01517The main characters in The Copper Promise are a pair of mercenaries, Wydrin, a female slender thief and Sebastian, a disgraced former soldier, a burly but conscientious man. The story uses Wydrin as a focal point although it is a third person narrative. As the book progresses, a wizard of sorts joins the two, as they endeavor to stop a gigantic dragon/god and her army from burning the whole world. The narrative moves us briskly along, and while we are never really surprised by the events, we are also never bored. The basic structure of the story is old fashioned in the best sense, a novel thoroughly happy with storytelling in the pulpy sense of the word. At the same time, the writing is always solid. Humorous, light and precise, a perfect storyteller’s tool. No fake archaisms, no purple descriptions of emotional agony or orientalist interiors. And this is not gritty. There’s none of the cheap glee many contemporary fantasy writers have in killing off or torturing ‘good’ characters. The story is paramount, not the self-regard of the writer. Have you seen Martin on a talk show, laughing his odd laugh when people ask him about all the characters he has killed off so far? He enjoys being that person. And increasingly, that shows in his work. Fritz Leiber’s tradition is different, a tradition of having fun telling a tale.

DSC_0172The basic setup of The Copper Promise already suggests similarities to Leiber’s work, but the connection goes further. On a superficial level, Jen Williams’ thief is nicknamed Copper Cat and puts stock in naming her knives, and not only is that also Mouser’s habit, but additionally, one of Mouser’s knives is called “Cat’s Claw” (and Mouser himself is “on the cat’s path”), as we learn in “Ill met in Lankhmar”, an early novella/story. There’s more, however. Fritz Leiber’s main audience were adolescent boys, and so there are women as decoration and the occasional odd sexually charged story. Moreover, Leiber’s stories, as far as I have read them, have a recurring interest in fatherhood, or more broadly, in the lasting ties created through sex, whether that would be offspring or families or tribes. A lot of his well known stories prominently feature these elements, from “The Snow Women” to “Lords of Quarmall”. In contrast to Leiber, Jen Williams’ audience are not adolescent boys, or not just, and her novel uproots many of the assumptions behind the use of those elements while keeping the elements themselves. She changes Leiber’s virile barbarian into a religious, conscientious soldier who gets the boot from his order due to his sexuality when his love for men is discovered. She gives the role of the irreverent thief with a big appetite for money, food and men to a female character. And while I can’t give details on this short of spoiling a major plot point, she offers a particularly inventive spin on the idea of masculinity and procreation. In fact, I enjoyed that part of The Copper Promise so much that I felt it got a bit short shrift. That’s the only real mark against the book: as you’d expect of a debut novel, it’s not extremely well balanced. Some parts are much longer than they’d need be and some interesting developments are handled in only a handful of pages.

DSC_0174Another aspect of the book is its love of telling stories. It’s not openly metafictional, like Rothfuss’ book with its framework is, but it offers an impassioned plea for the magic of words, and its more than just having magicians in the book, and magic words and scrolls etc. No, she offers us a take of personal awakening, a set of characters and their journey to discovering their identity, all of which happens through the act of reading words, discovering language as a thing in the world. Language, ordinary language seems so new, so magical to these characters that they start using it in lieu of names, picking new names out of the dictionary. This fascination with words and storytelling does not seem to me to be accidental. Indeed, Leiber is such an interesting choice for a young writer to pick up these days and signals an interest in the art of telling a plainly fun story. Interesting not because he is so unknown – in fact, there seems to be a kind of Sword and Sorcery renaissance in recent years, from movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars books to new Conan comics (with art by the fantastic Becky Cloonan, so you might want to have a look at those, too). No, interesting because the question of the value of “pure” storytelling is part of a public debate that featured most prominently one of America’s leading ‘serious’ novelists, Michael Chabon. In between his major novels, Chabon has consistently been publishing smaller texts, some of them nonfiction, some explorations of genre. One of them is Gentlemen of the Road, a historical novel set roughly in 950 AD in the Khazar empire. As Chabon explains in an afterword, he went off “on a little adventure” in it. He also explains the joy and importance of storytelling, of going beyond the confines of what he calls “late-century naturalism”. I feel a lot of fantasy in the “gritty” school of writing tries to defend itself by injecting that naturalism back into a genre literally meant to be fantastic. Chabon’s book is not a fantasy, and his stakes are much higher. His is a novel clearly written after the Shoah, offering a debate on Jewish identity that he would continue in what I think is his best novel so far, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But the discussion about “adventure fiction” and the appeal inherent in the form, it also applies to The Copper Promise, which stakes out a place for itself as fantasy adventure fiction, both smart and joyful.

Drakensang

Screenshot is not actually of one of the games I mention, but it’s a CRPG and it’s me playing a female protagonist, so there.

Another tradition that I found applicable, but that might not be intentional at all, is a much more recent one. Video games. More precisely computer role playing games, CRPGs, in short. Don’t look at me like that. I have played a few of them without being what they call ‘a gamer’- I don’t own a console and my laptop is rather old, that imposes inherent limits. But the new tradition of CRPGs gave role changes and especially stories involving women more of a push. Despite all the misogyny that is so rampant in today’s ‘gamer’ scene, the fact that these stories are more interactive, written by multiple authors and have to appeal more directly to an audience interacting with the game opened a large array of possibilities. In the arguably best CRPG ever published, Baldur’s Gate II, you play with a group of people, a group that you can staff with a large amount of female characters. Other, more recent games like Mass Effect, a CRPG in a science fiction setting, or Dragon Age, in the usual fantasy/middle ages setting, even allow you to pick a female protagonist or have a same-sex romance. All this is to say that I think video games, as much as they have supported and developed a new strain of misogyny among young men (recent events have been especially appalling), also have opened up vistas of action and thinking about things differently. The tradition Williams holds on to may be the Leiber kind of writing and I may be a horrible philistine here, but as I read the first 100 pages, my brain kept seeing the events in action, I kept translating them in my head into the familiar images of computer role playing games. And that’s not a bad thing. If you have ever played a classic CRPG, like the aforementioned BGII or Planescape Torment, what you come away with is a world alive with stories, and with humor and sadness and all the ingredients for a fun story. A lot of gritty fantasy has lost that by focusing on ‘serious’ stories, and I am not criticizing that. All I’m saying is that some writers, like early Robin Hobb on the epic fantasy side, and Jen Williams on the sword and sorcery side of fantasy, have a place in all of this too.

DSC_0170As do the Rat Queens. Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch collaborate on a story that is about mercenaries killing trolls, having sex with Orcs and generally getting up to all kinds of shenanigans. The fights are frequently pretty bloody and the jokes can be a bit bawdy. What makes the story special, apart from the general excellence of the art and the clarity and humor of the writing, is that Wiebe and Upchurch took a story that generally uses women as decorations and moves them into the foreground. The four main protagonists are women, although not all of them are human. We are offered hints of complicated backgrounds and intrigues, although the first trade does not go beyond hints. First trades are, after all, rarely more than exposition. But there’s enough for us to become invested in the inner lives of these female mercenaries. A group of vividly drawn and varied female characters as the main focus of a comic book is not a frequent sight. What’s more, Rat Queens is much more clearly indebted to and comments on the video game genre. The story is placed before a background of routine “raids” of troll caves and other cliché targets, mimicking the ubiquitous “tasks” in role playing games. The first half of the book’s arc plays fast and loose with its references and the various traditions it finds itself in. It’s an exuberant kind of book and that has an effect on its readers. It’s been a while since I had quite this much sheer fun reading a comic book. Comics, as well as fantasy novels, have become “gritty”, telling their stories in literal and figurative darker colors. Frequently, haunted male protagonists have to deal with a violent and brutal world. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that kind of writing, but it’s such a relief when we find books like Rat Queens (or Kieron Gillen’s short lived arc on Young Avengers) that are much more invested in telling a colorful story. It’s a good time for fantasy and comics and both Rat Queens as well as The Copper Promise are excellent examples of that. And while Wiebe is already an established writer, there’s no telling where Jen Williams could go with her next books.

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China Miéville: Dial H

Miéville, China; Mateus Santolouco, Riccardo Burchielli et al. (2013), Dial H: Into You, DC Comics
ISBN 9-781401-237752

Wood, Dave; Jim Mooney et al. (2010), Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2648-0

Pfeifer, Will; Kano et al. (2003), H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities, DC Comics
ISBN 1-4012-0168-7

DSC_0613   So, while I am a fan of comic books and do read quite a few of them, I am still frequently overwhelmed by the incredible amount of characters and complicated back stories. DC Comics is especially infamous for not just having complicated stories, but even multiple realities and universes, which they then attempted to collapse in amazingly readable and fun but convoluted “events”. Then, suddenly, DC decided to do away with all the accrued history and complications by relaunching all of its titles in 2011, calling the new set of books “the new 52”. This reset the stories on all their major titles, giving them new origin stories, and new slants. It also turned the DC universe somewhat more male, due to the fact that female creators were vastly underrepresented among the slate of amazing writers and artists, and also due to the fact that a lot of female characters either completely vanished, like fan favorite Stephanie Brown, or were declared dead, like Renée Montoya. Other female characters were revived as weaker or “sexier” versions of their old selves. And it’s not just female characters. The first waves of comics to come out seemed to have a decidedly conservative slant in how they were positioned vis-a-vis recent character history. One example is Judd Winnick’s Catwoman run, as compared to the more recent history of the character in the hands of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and others. However, DC also did something very interesting: they decided to use the bright lights of public attention in the wake of the relaunch in order to relaunch a bunch of much less well known characters, some of whom were pulled from DC’s more alternative imprints Vertigo and Wildstorm.

DSC_0628Frankenstein, for example, last seen in Grant Morrison’s book Seven Soldiers of Victory, was given his own title (written by the great, great Jeff Lemire), as were Animal Man and Swamp Thing, both of whom had iconic runs with Vertigo. The characters thus revived are not all equally well known. While Swamp Thing is probably one of the best known ‘alternative’ properties of DC, they also offered much less well known characters and titles a spot in the limelight. One of these characters/properties is Dial H for Hero, a decidedly odd kind of title, with a very inconsistent publishing history. His revival could have gone either way. DC, however, asked China Miéville to write this title, and the result is incredibly good. I have been reading quite a few comic books during the past year, and some extremely good ones among them (I’ll probably review some of them in the near future), but Miéville’s Dial H is easily one of the best, if not the best among this crop of really excellent comics that have been coming out. If you have been following Miéville’s career (as I have), this will likely not have come as a surprise to you. Miéville has established himself as one of the leading contemporary writers of science fiction, and probably one of the better novelists in the UK regardless of genre. Even considering the regrettable duds like Kraken, his bibliography is full of inventive, smart, extraordinarily well written novels. The news that he would be turning his attention to comic books in order to write a title of his own had me giddy and excited for a year. I spent part of that year reading up on the history of the character or characters that would be featured in Miéville’s book. And as I found out, that is a peculiar history.

DSC_0606(1)Limited as I am to trade publications, I will focus on only two books centered on the “Dial H”-property. There were small instances of the title resurfacing in between, they were not, however, collected as trades. The first time comic book readers came upon the Dial H for Hero stories was in 1965, in the pages of “House of Mystery #165”. The stories featured a boy called Robby Reed who finds a strange apparatus that “looks like a dial…made of a peculiar alloy….with a strange inscription on it”. The “young genius” decipers the inscription running along the side of the apparatus and finds that it asks its user to “dial the letters h-e-r-o”. Intrepid young Robby Reed does just that and, lo and behold, he turns into a superhero. His whole physical appearance is transformed: he has become a giant, complete with a superhero uniform (that even has letters on the front) and somehow he knows that the hero he transformed into is called “Giantboy”. Using the powers of the character, he thwarts some evil villains, and returning home, dials o-r-e-h in order to transform back into his bespectacled mild mannered self. The boy turning into an adult superhero is highly reminiscent of DC’s Captain Marvel, which is a boy called Billy Bateson who turns into the superhero Captain Marvel by saying “Shazam!”. However, as far as I know, Captain Marvel (sometimes also just named “Shazam”) is always more or less the same guy. Robby Reed’s dial, however, turns him into a different superhero every time he gives his dial a spin. There is so much that is bad about this title, from the casual racism (at one point he turns into “an Indian super-hero – Chief Mighty Arrow” and is even issued a companion, “a winged injun pony”. When he is upset, he shouts “Holy Massacre” and wishes he could “scalp” a monster) to sexism (Robby’s love interest find the dial, dials “h-e-r-o-i-n-e” and turns into “Gem Girl” despite Robby’s warnings that the dial is not a toy, and he ends up forcing her to dial herself back into a girl “before she gets any more ideas”), and overall ridiculous writing. However, it’s some of the most incredibly inventive work I have ever seen.

DSC_0607Robby transforms into heroes that make sense, like Giantboy or The Human Bullet etc., but in one issue he transforms into geometric shapes with arms and legs, for example. Coming up with new heroes (although you can dial up old ones too, it’s basically a randomized selection out of a finite, but large pool) forced the writer of the books, Dave Wood, to dig deep. And Jim Mooney’s art perfectly realizes Wood’s wacky vision. It’s just so much ridiculous fun, and the Showcase volume is well worth your while. If you want an idea of the silly fun on offer, click here to see a selection of covers. After a while the Dial H for Hero stories petered out. There were various small scale revivals, including one in the 1980s by the great Marv Wolfman, also called Dial H for Hero, but since none of them have been published as trades, I can’t really comment on them. They introduced more characters spinning the dial and further enlarged the pool of super-heroes. I’ve had a look at the Wiki summary of Wolfman’s run and it seems delightfully insane, and it seems to have more of a coherent plot than the Wood/Mooney version, which is basically a gonzo one-off kind of thing in each issue.

DSC_0611Even more coherent (and initially at least considerably more down to earth) is the 2003 incarnation called H-E-R-O, written by Will Pfeifer and beautifully illustrated by Kano. That run went on for 22 issues, but for some reason, only issues 1-6 have been collected as a trade (called H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities). Pfeifer’s run features different people finding the dial and examines what happens to their lives when you add the opportunity to transform into a superhero. There is a young adult mired in a mediocre life, “making sundaes at minimum wage”. In order to impress a girl, and more generally as an attempt to “be someone”, he uses the Dial to unimpressive and even disastrous effect. A business man finding the dial becomes obsessed with it. A girl uses it to become popular at her new school, etc. The book was a bit of a letdown, even though the writing and art was just so much better than the Wood/Mooney version. But Pfeifer got rid of the ridiculous fun and inventiveness and infused the whole book with a dour morality, mostly lectures about being content with who you are and knowing your limits and being nice and industrious within those limits. Much more than the original book, the dialing device becomes a metaphor for situations that we all face in our lives etc. etc. I’m boring myself just describing it. For all the good writing and wonderful art that went into this book, it’s hard to recommend, because Pfeifer so consistently underwhelms. The idea of the dial is one of the most liberating literary devices I have ever seen, and to see it used in this pedestrian, moral, middle-class way was disheartening. If that was the direction that the Dial H for Hero story was going, I was worried about Miéville’s run presenting more of the same. Silly me. China Miéville blows Pfeifer’s run clean out of the water.

DSC_0626Miéville renames the series Dial H, and provides a spin on it that is equal parts original and respectful to the Silver Age original. The protagonist of the first trade is called Nelson Jent, and he’s an obese unemployed middle aged man, who, one night, is almost beat up by a group of lowlifes and, attempting to call the police from a phone booth, transforms into Boy Chimney. From that moment the reader knows that this is something else than the other titles in the Dial H for Hero series. And it starts with small details: Mieville, like many writers, offers us the thoughts of the characters that he focuses on. And as Jent transforms into Boy Chimney, his thoughts seem to transform, as well. Strange fragments enter them, and as Boy Chimney proceeds to beat up that gang, he appears to have a dialog with the consciousness of Nelson Jent. Additionally, Boy Chimney is very clearly not a super hero, as all the previous titles imagined them. He is a strange creature that has uncommon strength and unusual powers and abilities, among them the ability to use and command smoke. But it’s only Jent’s consciousness that keeps Boy Chimney from outright killing the brutal assailants in the alley. It feels less like Jent is genuinely transforming into a super hero, and more like a kind of symbiosis. And there is another basic difference: Jent doesn’t have to transform back by dialing the letters in reverse. He automatically returns to his normal self, “into the worst identity of all”, after a certain, variable amount of time has passed. Apart from this, the book’s early parts seem to be fairly straightforward. There’s a villain with a secret plan and he and Jent’s super heroes keep meeting and fighting. And then, the book quickly goes off the rails into the most incredible insanity. The villain, it turns out, is a “nullomancer”, a kind of wizard of nothingness, able to conjure and control nothingness, and her plan involves channeling an ancient beast called the Abyss, a strange thing composed of nothingness, but at the same time, containing universes.

DSC_0625(1)If this sounds absurd, I can assure you that Miéville makes it work on the page, and in his origin story, which closes out the trade, he offers a brilliant explanation for what the dial basically does. It’s hard to give you more details without spoiling the book, so I won’t, but the upshot of it all is that Miéville managed to tell a story that makes use of the incredible artistic liberties that the material has to offer, and yet it’s a book very determined to make sense, in multiple ways. What’s more, the art is not a let down. Would it have been a better book with JH Williams III at the helm? Possibly. But Mateus Santolouco, of whom I have never heard, does an excellent job. I was especially impressed by his work on the super-hero identities invoked by the dial. They are the most crucial visual element of the book, as they have to appear both plausible and iconical – and absurdly odd at the same time. As Boy Chimney leaps from the phone booth he is instantly alive on the page, as a scary, off the wall character. Almost as important are the colors, and Tanya and Richard Horie have done a simply magnificent job throughout the book. In my review of Brian Wood’s DMZ I have lamented the fact that the art seemed but a servant to Wood’s writing in the book, making for a less than great reading experience. That is not the case with Dial H. Even though Miéville is a famous award winning novelist, Santolouco brings a very distinct artistic vision to bear. The sketches in the back show how he worked on and tweaked the look of various superhero identities. Santolouco’s achievement is thrown into even starker relief by issue #0, which presents a kind of origin story, and is included at the back of the trade. Riccardo Burchielli valiantly tries to do justice to Miéville’s amazing script, but it’s an overall disappointing effort, compared to Santolouco’s work that came before.

DSC_0631The book has so many ideas, and one of them is an obsession with identity. With superheroes, we talk a lot about identities, secret and public ones, but that is usually a naming issue: what name do I use? What mask do I wear. Alternative takes on superhero narratives (cf. Millar’s Kick-Ass) suggest that wearing masks is liberating, but they don’t really discuss or problematize the core issue of identity. Miéville, as all his work so far has also shown, is very aware of how identity is tied up in physical forms and in cultural and social ties. The characters that Jent turns into appear to have their own memories, and while it turns out to be an issue more of colonialism and appropriation than of sociology and psychology, Miéville opens wide the doors for these discussions. In doing so, I think, he goes beyond even writers like Morrison, as he uses the iconicity and language of big publisher super-hero comics and examines it carefully. This is not another one of those books critical of ‘superhero myths’, and it doesn’t offer a grimy reality based taken on super heroes. There are enough of those around. No, Miéville embraces a lot of the central qualities of the genre and uses its language in order to interrogate it and tell an absorbing story at the same time. The best news? There is much more to come. For all the density of this book, it merely collects the first issues in an ongoing run. The next trade is due in January 2014. You should be reading this book.

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Osamu Tezuka: Ayako

Osamu Tezuka (2010), Ayako, Vertical
ISBN 978-1934287514
[Translated by Mari Morimoto]

DSC_0553So, it turns out just because you like a book very much, that does not necessarily make it particularly easy to talk about. Most recently, for me, this was the case with Osamu Tezuka’s fantastic comic Ayako, which was published in one massive gorgeous volume in Mari Morimoto’s translation by Vertical. Over the course of 800 dense black-and-white pages, it tells a disturbing and suspenseful story set in postwar Japan and it manages to be several kinds of books at once: a sharp narrative of how the defeat in the Second World War affected Japan on a social, political and cultural level, a dark horror tale of a village committing a terrible, prolonged crime, a revelatory take on actual political/criminal mysteries of the day and the biography of a young woman, who comes to represent both the promise of the coming modern age, and the darkness lurking within. All of this written and drawn by perhaps the foremost manga artist/writer, several of whose books have become permanent fixtures in the evolving canon of Japanese comics culture. He has written comic books for both children and adults. Ayako is written in the Seinen manga genre, mangas targeted at a 18-30 year old audience. Have I possibly overstated the magnificence of the book? That might well be true, but I still recommend this book highly to anyone even remotely interested in reading comics. I just lack a certain vocabulary and context to discuss the book properly, not being very well versed in either postwar Japanese society & culture or Japanese comics in particular, although I have read a few (and even reviewed one or two here). So overall I am not 100% sure how to explain to you that this is a fantastic book, but if you trust my opinion on comics at all, go get this one. Ayako feels significant historically, but mostly it is a tumultuous, engrossing read that spans decades, and contains so many lives, so many ideas and appeals to my love for both historical narratives and a certain, slow burning kind of sense of terror.

DSC_0557   The book, initially set in 1949, starts out as a kind of seedy postwar narrative that reminded me so much of Carol Reed’s masterpiece The Third Man that I suspect it was an influence on the book somehow. The man this part of the book focuses on is called Jiro Tenge, who returns from the war and he is shown to be enmeshed in a web of espionage that survived the end of the war and left him indebted to several unpleasant figures. If we compare his story with the movie, somehow he ends up being both Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. He is this book’s most complicated character, battling various moralities and his eventual demise is foreshadowed by the noir structure of his storyline. Tezuka makes sure we see little of what is happening, he insists on literally not giving us the whole picture, telling the beginning of Jiro’s postwar spy career in fragments: we see feet and shadows and eyes, and fleeting fragments of dialog. The major motivation for Jiro’s actions, his spying for the United States in the war, basically committing treason, is hinted at, but there is no flashback, no explanation for how he came to be a spy, we just know he is now, and he can’t turn his back on the network that survived the war and quickly became enmeshed with the mob. As in Italy, the immediate postwar period and American occupation was an immense boon to the local mafia, which thrived on the enforced secrecy and black markets. In this way, Tezuka transcends narratives like The Third Man by showing us how closely crime and politics were interlaced, and not in a simple way either. It’s not just corrupt politicians, it’s a country being forced at gunpoint to enter a different kind of modernity, a country forced to accept the dictates of another and individuals within that country torn between different loyalties. Think Wolfgang Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass (which, by the way, if you haven’t read yet, you should, along with everything else by Koeppen that has been translated into your language. The English translation of Pigeons on the Grass has been done by David Ward and published by Holmes & Meier), atmospherically, if that makes sense to you. Jiro re-enters society burdened by feelings of guilt and by the silence enforced upon him. This is the moral thread from which his whole moral fabric eventually unravels. And here is one of the difficulties in reading this book for me. I am a German reading it in 2013. It was written in the 1970s for a Japanese audience. For me, someone turning on the murderous Japanese emperor is “a good guy”. But for 1970s Japan, that was not as simple. His moral ambivalence, his guilt had to have been palpable to the book’s original audience, and while to me it is a tale of a good man going bad, for a Japanese audience Jiro had to have been at least ambivalent to begin with.

DSC_0555As for the other main characters, Tezuka offers no such ambivalence. They are either clearly good, or clearly evil. But in a way this is because they live in a different setting. Jiro comes home to a rural household. His dealings with the agencies and later the mob take place in Tokyo, but his family lives in the countryside. The Tengo family, moreover, is rich and owns a large farm and holds sway over the whole village. Through Jiro’s eyes, we get to know that deeply dysfunctional family and the estate. The father is a violent, sexually abusive man, who treats everybody like shit. The rest of the family is composed of the lickspittle older brother and various younger siblings, as well as the older brother’s wife, who has just given birth to a girl called Ayako. As it turns out, Ayako has really been fathered by the head of the family, and the older brother just acquiesced, hoping to curry favors and power from his father. Jiro is the only one not bowing to every insane whim of his father’s, the rest of the family is suffering in silence. What happens next is too complicated and disturbing to recount in detail, but eventually, Ayako is thrown in a windowless room in the cellar, with only a trapdoor bringing in light and food. In that windowless room she grows up into a beautiful young woman. And there is a sense of safety for her in there, even though the sexual abuse rampant on the Tengo estate does not spare her in her hidden place either. Officially she is declared dead. A few hundred pages later, the death of the head of the household precipitates another series of events that lead to an unexpectedly dark ending. Having read a few other books by Tezuka, including the splendidly imaginative Dororo, the relentlessness of Ayako is stunning. The author offers us no compromise, there are no copouts and there is really very little respite in this story of one huge downward spiral.

DSC_0554Ayako, the girl/woman, is the only light in the darkness, but her character is strange, odd (there is a footnote in the beginning of the book,, pointing out that her name in Japanese is written with the character for “odd”), she almost seems fantastic. In a story of unrelenting realism, where consequences have to be faced and suffering can at best be delayed, she adds an almost supernatural element. I am not spoiling the ending for you (and you can see I tried my best not to tell too much of the story), but throughout the book and especially in the last panel that we see her in, she reminded me so much of Junji Ito’s work. Now, Ito is a younger writer/artist, so he was not an influence on this book, but I guess I am using the comparison to try and explain how the girl, Ayako, feels to me as a reader. Junji Ito is a writer of horror manga and the only writer in the genre of comic book horror who has genuinely terrified me with his work. I recommend, nay, urge you, to read his work. Here is a blog post that might get you started. Ito writes horror that is metaphysical as well as intensely physical. Bodies decay, are warped, torn apart and transformed in his work, but the same happens to people’s souls. And while Ayako’s body remains unblemished, one can’t help but feel the horror of a whole lifetime of abuse coiling up inside this innocent mind. The last panel we see her in, she looks at us and we are terrified, even though she is the most unequivocally ‘good’ character of the whole book. She seems to have contained the horror of that whole Tengo family, all their guilt and violence and suffering and sadness and abuse, without even losing a bit of her innocence. There is a purity to her that nothing can diminish and this is deeply fantastic, deeply unrealistic, as the book itself keeps reminding us by showing us all the bruises on all the other characters. She is a wonder, and terror, at the same time.

DSC_0558It is hard not to see the family, and its eventual breakdown, as somewhat analogous to the state of Japanese society, which went from a monarchy to a democracy. I said earlier that it is never explained what happened to Jiro in the war, but some things that happen to some characters in the book can be read as explaining the spirit – if not the substance of what happened. And there is another element that ties the personal stories to the actual events in Japan that are verifiably true. The story of Jiro is a relatively straightforward crime narrative that gets tangled up in the mess that is the Tengo family. At its heart is a murder mystery. Now, that is a mystery to the characters in the novel, and further murders and deceptions follow from it on the level of the fictional Tengo family. But at the same time, the murder of a political figure called Shimokawa is, according to a very helpful footnote, modeled on the murder of a real life politician called Shimoyama, whose death is one of the enduring historical mysteries in Japan and is described as the “Shimoyama incident”. 1970s Japan was an audience that was sure to recognize the massive similarities, and Tezuka offers us a revelation of the way the murder took place and the reasons for it that is less Dan Brown and more James Ellroy in Black Dahlia. What it also does is tie the Tengo family to an urgent strain of Japanese postwar history. The historical murder is mirrored and repeated by intra-family murders, strengthening the idea that the Tengo family is analogous to Japanese society. And Ayoko, the milky skinned young woman might well be read as the soul of the Japanese nation, in the way that Romanticism has invented ‘national’ essences, a notion that many modern nationalisms have built upon.

However, we are left with a bit of a stale taste: the girl who has been used by her family all her life, is being exploited by the author as well. There is an uncomfortable amount of female nudity in the book, and while I would like to think that part of the discomfort is intentional, and that it does intentionally reference exploitation, the fact remains that the book visits terrible abuse on its female characters to make a narrative and a political point, and one can’t help but be reminded of the “women in refrigerators” trope that was so well described by Gail Simone and others in her wake: the tendency of comics to kill or abuse women to make a plot point, or to motivate the male superhero into action. The case here is not as simple as that, thanks to the incredibly layered nature of the book, but a distinctive unease remains, especially since the Seinen manga genre is primarily targeted at a male audience.

DSC_0556A note on the translation: the book reads very fluently and the occasional footnotes are very helpful, but there is one big weird flaw: the rural populace speaks a ‘hick’ dialect and Mari Morimoto attempts to approximate it in English, yet the result is frequently awkward. And as I close this review, I have barely mentioned Tezuka’s art. The reason for that is that by now, any panel drawn by him is instantly recognizable: his mixture of realism and Disney-fied cuteness has been a defining influence on manga artists. I find it hard to describe without also describing so much of what was to follow him. Suffice to say that this is a complex and masterful tale, and the art doesn’t just accompany it – it makes much of it possible. So much of the strangeness is conveyed in images rather than in words: it is a story of secrets, silences and looks. And Tezuka’s art is always in complete control of the story. Ayako is a masterful book by one of the greatest comic book writers/artists of his or any time. I can only repeat what I said earlier: if you are at all tempted by comic books, give this one a whirl.

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Jeff Smith: RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light

Smith, Jeff (2011). Rasl: Romance at the Speed of Light. Cartoon Books.
ISBN 978-1-888963-33-5

This is going to be a short review, because it’s a review of the third volume of a series that you shouldn’t start in the middle. You should start at the beginning. If you click here you can find my review of the first volume, as well as general comments on Jeff Smith’s remarkable work, and if you click here, you can find a review of the second volume. If you need a summary of all my reviews, here it is: RASL is one of the best creator-owned comics we currently have, and if you haven’t yet, you should start reading it as soon as possible. Jeff Smith is one of the best graphic novelists of our time. Read him now. The whole RASL project has been, from the start, a fascinating undertaking. In its mixture of myth and science fiction, it resembled Terry Moore’s extraordinary (recently finished) Echo (see here my review of the first Echo trade), but with a much darker and twisted core. Readers coming to find a second Bone will be disappointed. This is no warm, full, engaging fantastical tale. The richness of Bone’s woods, mountains and ravines is in stark contrast with the desolate stretches of desert we’re offered in the RASL books. It’s really hard to believe that the same writer who gave us the gorgeously detailed rat monsters and fantasy foliage in Bone is the same that creates vast expanses of white emptiness in RASL. While I’m obviously commenting on a work in progress, it seems clear that there is less consolation in Smith’s most recent work than in his most famous books. The warm heart of Bone was palpable in its protagonists, the cartoonish Bones, and the lovably odd villagers. Even the monsters threatening to destroy the idyllic life are drawn with a playful love for furs and twinkles and the humorous moments of epic adventuring. True, there was much drama as the story of Bone unfolded, and a serious tragedy at the center of it, but it was all part of a much brighter, more colorful whole. RASL, on the other hand, starts off on a bleak note in volume one and maintains that mood throughout the second and this one, the third volume. Even the glimpses of love and sexual relations are shrouded in the anticipation and memory of loss and impending doom. By the third volume, sex is presented less like a loving act, and more like a desperate way to be less broken, less alone, less adrift in a multitude of worlds.

RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light is the best installment so far, as expected. It is the first time the plot and its characters really come together. I admired the way Smith took his time with the plot, without offering his readers easy satisfaction. The first volume, RASL: The Drift, is full of mysteries, full of beginnings and ideas, and it’s not an easy book to figure out. There was never any doubt that the end result would be magnificent, but the exact direction was unclear, as we readers were left impatient asking for more. And just as the first volume was full of beginnings, so the second volume, RASL: The Fire of St. George, was clearly transitory. Instead of whispered hints and intriguing settings, we were offered more muscular developments and a great deal of information was injected into the book. It seemed as if Smith tried to make up for the vagueness of the first by being extremely specific in the second volume. As a read it was much different, but every bit as brilliant. In it, Smith treats us to the (by now well known) story of Nicola Tesla and fleshes out most of the principal characters and their relationships with one another. Additionally, we are offered more background on the protagonist, and how he came to be this disturbed traveler between worlds, haunted by guilt, and driven by something dark lodged deep inside. Finally, we are introduced to the book’s MacGuffin, Tesla’s journals, which contain some powerful, brilliant secret that Rasl, as the books’ protagonist is called, endeavors to hide from his friends and the government. Tesla’s brilliant ideas have often served as pivotal elements in science fiction or steam punk culture. One of the most recent examples is Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige, where Tesla’s near-magical science provides the mechanics of one magician’s attempt to reproduce another magician’s magic trick (which, as it turns out, was achieved in a much more profane and simple (though not easy) way).

Indeed, The Prestige is a fitting reference because of how the RASL books are perched at the divide between magic and science. In fact, we might be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law, stating that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In Smith’s work, magic is replaced by religion and myth, but the basic question remains: if something extraordinary happens, is it a scientific success or a miracle in a religious sense? The third volume puts considerable emphasis on this part of the book. As our memories of Tesla’s historical experiments slowly recede, we fall back into the protagonist’s attempts to fully make sense of what’s happening in his rapidly expanding world. Government agents are added, and questions of self and reality are invoked again, but most importantly. Smith evaded providing a faux-scientific explanation for the dimension-jumping. Instead, he confronts his readers with the bleakness of a man lost between multiple copies of the woman he loves and the multiple worlds that woman lives on. Rasl has no great plans: when he jumped into another dimension, he did so impulsively, and ever since, his actions have been less driven by careful deliberation than by impulsive acts. The first of the (so far) three books gave off a strong noir vibe, which is more expounded upon in this volume that affords more space to Smith’s protagonist. Like a character straight from Hammett’s pages, Rasl drinks in order to deal with the labyrinthine world around him (although in Smith’s work, the effect the world has on Rasl is a palpable, violent one as dimension-hopping exerts a heavy price on the person doing the hopping), he is quick to threaten and execute violence on other men, and his sexuality doesn’t lead to happiness or peace, au contraire, it’s as desperate and violent as everything else in his new life.

Like all extraordinary works of science fiction, Jeff Smith’s RASL books use the freedom afforded by the added and changed vocabulary in order to tell a story about the world that discusses issues on the fringe of knowable and expressible facts. Tesla’s scientific work proves to be a red herring, as it is his journals, which contain a secret discovery that makes sense of the scientific and metaphysical puzzles of the books, journals which are treated just like sacred texts. In Smith’s art, we are also presented with technically advanced objects that look like mythical or ritual artifacts. With every new issue, Smith continues to put the screws on what we feel can be easily said. He works within the languages of masculinity and violence, but at his hands, they blossom into possibility. Jeff Smith is a very good writer who, so far, had written two vastly different masterpieces, Bone and Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil. RASL, still a work in progress, is ready to join their ranks. When it’s finished it might well be his finest achievement yet.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Taiyo Matsumoto: Tekkonkinkreet

Matsumoto, Taiyo (2007), Tekkonkinkreet, Viz Media
[translated into English by Lillian Olsen]
ISBN 978-1-4215-1867-1

Taiyo Matsumoto’s graphic novel Tekkonkinkreet, originally published in 1994 as 鉄コン筋クリート in three volumes (after having been published in small increments from 1993 to 1994), is a deeply impressive, powerful hunk of a comic book, the translated version of which (translated by Lillian Olsen) deservedly won the prestigious Eisner award. It’s a 614 page story about two brothers and a modern Japanese city in the process of changing, a book that is as moving as it’s ingeniously constructed and brilliantly drawn. Tekkonkinkreet describes a world that is about to dissolve, about to disappear beneath the inevitable onslaught of change, and we feel this loss like the tragedy that it is, because within the pages of this book, the world is completely, fully, palpably realized. You enter Matsumoto’s world on his own terms and while you’re always conscious of this being the case, you are always sorry to leave. This book contains multitudes; depending on your sensibilities it could make you laugh, it could make you cry, in short, Tekkonkinkreet is a book that could break your heart if you let it. At the same time, there is no actual sentimentality in this book because it is so tightly wound, and so efficiently narrated and illustrated. It is without a doubt the best graphic novel I’ve read in at least two years, if only for the fact that it contains several different kinds of books within one cover, all of which are completely successful (although some writers may have done a better job in individual registers). In case this feels repetitive, it’s certainly worth pointing out how completely this book manages to master very different registers and genres without ever showing us the seams between the transitions. It contains low humor and witty, sophisticated jokes. Its plot is captivating whether we look at it from a sociocultural, spiritual or plain entertaining angle. And, finally, its art can be painstakingly, brutally exact and vividly vague at the same time. Taiyo Matsumoto is one of the best artists of his genre, and this extraordinary book provides ample proof of that.

One cannot, however, unreservedly recommend this book to all kinds of readers, mostly because it’s pretty violent. My copy even bears a Parental Advisory Explicit Content sticker, so as not to run the danger of seducing parents into unwittingly buying this book with its color- and cheerful cover for their innocent kids. I am not convinced that this is necessary. Nevertheless, it’s undeniably true that especially the first half of Tekkonkinkreet contains quite a bit of graphic violence as a child uses an iron rod to break skulls, knees and sundry wayward bones in the bodies of various gangsters. Infrequently, people are shot, as well. As far as contemporary comics go, it’s not particularly horrendous and if not for the neat sticker on the front I might not have mentioned it at all, but there you go. Perhaps this is not for kids, but adults, unless they are unreasonably squeamish, have nothing to worry about, especially since the shootings, beatings and other displays of violence never feel gratuitous. Violence, generally speaking, is important to the overall build of the novel because its most central obsession is with bodies, and the way that they connect to the world without, and to other bodies. In every panel of his book, Matsumoto ties the bodies of his characters into a stiff corset of signs and signification, and the whole book keeps providing examples of how its characters and their bodies are all connected to the world and other people’s bodies through language and other means of signification. Its focus on our bodies and their capricious behavior (and misbehavior) is further pronounced, paradoxically, by the unnatural details of some of its characters’ bodily prowess. There are people who can fly (or jump very highly), other people’s injuries heal unnaturally fast or do not incapacitate the injured person in the least, and one person’s visions can impact what happens to people in real life. All this may sound mad, but ultimately, it reinforces the basic parameters of the human body, projecting this story within the limits of these parameters.

While principally, the body takes center stage, another important element of Tekkonkinkreet (and one which will eventually be subsumed by the focus on the bodily aspect of its characters) is the city the book is set in. The sleeve of my copy tells us that the book’s title “is a play on Japanese words meaning ‘a concrete structure with an iron frame’” and the city presented to us is indeed a contemporary city, with elaborate structures constructed from steel reinforced concrete, its forms both highly recognizable for any modern-day city dweller, and pleasurably strange. This strangeness stems from the fact that the city reacts to Matsumoto’s characters frolicking around in it, it bends and strains under their impact, often curving around them, an effect which is partly due to Matsumoto’s drawing technique, which prefers ellipses and circles to straight lines and boxes. Everything seems to be a bit out of bent, more off, even malleable. Sometimes the effect is that of a children’s book, not in the sense of a book for children, but a book by children, conveying a certain levity and looseness. Bodily proportions correspond less to anatomical exactness and more to the action taking place in the panels in question. In fight sequences feet and hands are often somewhat enlarged, both because they are the focus of the action in these panels and because they are ‘in focus’, being closer to the reader. In this way, the book, more than many other well drawn graphic novels I’ve recently read, works a lot like a movie, in each of its panels. This is a distinction that I think is worth making: between artists who have mastered graphic, movie-like action sequences by stacking several panels with small bits of motion, letting the reader follow the movement as they turn the pages. Long-time Millar collaborator Steve McNiven (cf. my review of Old Man Logan (and my other Millar reviews)) is one of those artists, and the effect is tremendous, as it is in the dumbfoundingly fantastic Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware.

Matsumoto’s game is different: in his book, actions are rarely prolonged beyond individual panels. Indeed, it seems to me something that would be fairly unusual for a mangaka to do. Unlike other artists of his genre, however, Matsumoto doesn’t rely overmuch on visual stresses like exclamation marks and the like to show actions and their result within the borders of only one or two panels. Instead, he works with perspective, as I outlined before, with an exaggerated enlargement of objects or parts of the body that are closer to the viewer. In a sense, I think what Matsumoto’s art does is the equivalent of what in a film would be a narrow depth of field. And when Matsumoto does spread an action sequence over several panels, the effect is tremendous, allowing him to zoom in on as many as three actions at the same time without losing momentum or focus. I’m dwelling on this so much because the novel might seem less sophisticated than books drawn, say, by J.G. Jones, Chris Ware or David Mazzucchelli, but Matsumoto’s deceptively simple art hides a complex graphic vision; that vision is the reason why each page, each panel seems to be highly essential, highly labored over and the reason why the whole book appears to be as dense as it does. And it’s not just a narrowed depth of field in action sequences that draws our eyes to hands, feet and iron rods. Its paucity of detail is not unlike that of other manga books (in other words, that aspect is quite typical), but the intense sense of emotion and movement that seems to be quivering in each drawn line of Tekkonkinkreet is something you don’t find that easily. Fear, joy and anger each seem to leave their imprint on the panels in question, especially if one of the two protagonists is somewhere in that panel (they don’t need to be front and center of a specific panel to bend its art around them). This is because when objects that dole out violence are not in focus, the book centers its attention on faces.

Faces, eyes and mouths seem to be several times as large as they need to be because clearly Matsumoto’s interest is in people rather than events. Whether we have mouths that are shouting, laughing, gritting teeth or grinning, the art tends to focus on that. Eyes, as well, but not to the same extent as mouths. The reason for that is the web of signification I mentioned earlier. The city exists because the people in it exist, and things happen because people make them happen. Everything in Tekkonkinkreet is part of a relationship (a very Foucauldian view of things, by the way), power and violence are not accorded presence outside of active human relationships. Nothing just is, except for individual human beings. Everything else is created, shaped and changed by people, for better or worse. This is why it’s perfectly true to say that the whole book is about the invented city Treasure Town and about Black and White, Matsumoto’s protagonists. These are not two different thematic elements: one is contained within the other. Without Black and White gallivanting all over town, the town itself, we feel, would not exist. But it’s not just these two. The story of Tekkonkinkreet is about a new gangster conglomerate moving into Treasure Town to take over, starting a gang war that ends in many gangsters dying or leaving town, and the identity of the ‘old’ Treasure Town is shown to be linked to the people living in it, and their departure (and the arrival of others) signaling changes in the architecture of the city. These new gangsters are opposed by Black and White, two boys who grew up in the seamy back alleys of Treasure Town, and who have earned themselves the respect of the gangster community through a curious mixture of ruthlessness and friendliness. It is in Matsumoto’s depiction of these two boys that the absolute importance of relationships (rather than individual persons or objects) contains some worthwhile ambiguities.

These two boys are antitheses. White is a free spirit, by no means innocent, yet naïve, happy and bursting with creative life. Black on the other hand, with a scar around his left eye, anything but naïve. Of the two, it’s usually him who doles out punishment and violence, it’s him who makes plans, and it’s him who decides to defend Treasure Town against the intruding (and interfering) Yakuza. As the book’s events unfold, Black moves more and more into the foreground, and the events become as much a fight for Black’s soul as they are a fight for the soul of Treasure Town. At the same time, White slips into the background, in several ways. Early on, we are told that Black is “the soul of this city”, and that White is “completely untouched by this sewer of a city”. More and more, as Black fights his adversaries tooth and nail, White steps away from these events, re-creating them with crayons from afar. White is the metaphysical element, independent not just of the city, but also of the maze of relationships that constitute the city and force events and actions on its residents. He does as he pleases, whatever happens to the city and its residents. He would be able to leave altogether, if not for Black. This is the book’s central ambiguity: White, who in almost every way negates the basic givens of the city, whose mouth is the most expressive the most open, who seems to represent the creator of the book itself in his aloof independence, this White is firmly tied to Black who is the city. Thus, on a metaphysical level, through the unbreaking and unbreakable relationship of Black and White, the smaller interdependency on the more gritty level of the city streets and the brutal events unfolding there is reflected and (in a way) confirmed. But this reading is one that is likely to change with further re-readings, since Tekkonkinkreet is a very rich stew of a book, the taste of which is highly addictive and which keeps surprising its readers when they stir around in its steamy depths. There is so much more to this book than I could ever tell, even in a review that had twice the length of this one. Read Tekkonkinkreet, goddamn.

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Gene Luen Yang: American Born Chinese

Yang, Gene Luen (2006), American Born Chinese, Square Fish
ISBN 978-0-312-38448-7

American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, created only five years into his career in comics, won several prizes and deservedly so. Among several honors it was the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for a National Book Award; additionally, it won the coveted Eisner award, the Reuben award, and the Michael L. Printz award. However, being a NBA finalist (in the YA fiction category) is especially interesting and significant: Gene Luen Yang, who is both writer and artist, didn’t just produce a superior graphic novel, one of the best books of the non-superhero comic genre I’ve recently read, but a surprisingly complex young adult novel, within whatever convention. At 233 generously-margined pages, it’s not a big book, yet the story it tells, of Asian-American identity in a predominantly white(seeming) culture, is told with the scope of a larger, more epic book. Told not just through the writing: Yang’s art work (and Lark Pien’s colors) is simple, cartoonish, yet it delivers its points with aplomb; American Born Chinese is a serious book, one that makes concise and important points about second generation immigrant experience; but Yang’s art, as well as the light, humorous but never farcical dialogue, make this an entertaining, an amusing read. Yang creates indelible characters, although he doesn’t need all of them to be realistic, three-dimensional representations of reality. Instead, he weaves together myth, stark media criticism and a emotionally moving story of an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy growing up, and not just with what seems like effortlessness. As we read through the last pages of the book we can’t help but realize that Yang has managed to tie off the various strands of his story with a sophisticated flourish that is (to be honest) quite unexpected from comic books written for children.

These strands mainly consist of three stories told separately, in alternating chapters. All three are drawn in the exact same style, differing only in small respects, if at all, which helps bring home the idea that all three stories are really only about different aspects of the same story, i.e. what it’s like to be an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy. These three stories, similar though they look, draw on different traditions, and reference different media, different ways of telling a tale. This absolves Yang from having to be openly preachy or lecturing in the most ‘realistic’ strand of the book, because he can rely on our knowledge of these modes of writing and storytelling. He knows that in our heads, all this comes together and makes sense in an obvious yet not obtrusive way. The conventions and lines of thought and plot are so clear and move the book along so quickly, that, at the end, as all three stories finally collapse into a single one, we are even slightly taken aback. This moment of explicit synthesis at the end poses more of a challenge than the separated strands did in the bulk of the book. All these aspects show that Yang is an artist both with a profound knowledge both of the extent of our knowledge of cultural termini, tropes and markers, and with the ability to use this knowledge in a way that is accessible and rewarding. American Born Chinese is a book for young adults, and it continues a trend in recent YA fiction of creating art that does not talk down to its pimpled audience, but involves them both emotionally as well as intellectually in surprising ways. The most surprising way of them all is Yang’s decision to make the final tweak, the last part, less about shock, less about hammering a moral stance into its readers. No, the final section is about art, it asks its readers to really think about the function of each of the three story lines. This is easily the most elegant, smart, self-reflexive ending I’ve read in a book targeted at young adults in a long, long time.

Much of the complexity of this derives from the first of these story strands, a re-telling of the story of the Monkey King from the Chinese classic Journey To The West. This is a novel about a monk’s pilgrimage through China to India, accompanied by his three protectors, three mythical helpers. Among them: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. The monk barely makes an appearance in the book, which rather looks at Sun Wukong’s life before he became the monk’s protector. It tells us about how Wukong became one of the most powerful demons of his time. We see how he learns the “Arts of Kung Fu”, including the “Four Major Heavenly Disciplines”, yet when he tries to enter a dinner party for demons, spirits and gods, he is thrown out by the scruff of his neck on account of his merely being a monkey. Sun Wukong then proceeds to throw the heavens into Chaos, defeating heavenly armies, beating up Gods and so on. The diminutive monkey seethes with anger, trying to force the Gods, spirits and demons of the heavens to acknowledge him as an equal. Eventually, he uses his skills to change his shape, making himself taller and stronger of body; this change marks a difference even to his fellow monkeys, and places him, as a queer mixture of monkey and humanoid demon, between two worlds without being able to belong to either. It takes the Buddha himself to take him down a notch: after losing a challenge posed to him by the chubby deity, the Monkey King finds himself trapped for several hundred years under a mountain, until the monk comes and frees him. The story, as sketched out here, is canonical. There is little that Yang actually changed about it, it is straight myth, though told with a lightness of tone befitting the book’s audience. What is interesting is the visual aspect of it all: on the one hand, Yang’s panels crawl with a slapstick-like humor, on the other hand, his representations of demons and Gods are clearly rooted in traditional imagery, containing echoes of traditional Chinese theater masks.

In as smart a book as this, depictions of traditional masks and looks are not merely there to display ethnic roots or connections. Yang also uses them because they conform to Western readers’ expectations of how Asian cultures look, and of how traditional Asian stories would have to be told visually. The implicit light satirical criticism is enhanced by the other non-realistic story, which is introduced to us with a TV title card saying “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”, accompanied by a stereotypical/racist picture of a Chinese person with buck teeth, a long black braid, a cap, sallow skin and slanted eyes. On the bottom line of the frame the word “clap” is printed several times, suggesting a clapping audience. As this first panel makes abundantly clear, we’ve entered the territory of contemporary myth here, so to say. This story is told in the form of a sitcom, with the prerequisite laughs (“ha ha” printed several times on the bottom of the ostensibly humorous frame in question), and the typical looks, postures and narrative build-ups of the genre. While Wukong’s tale was genuinely funny, this one isn’t, at all; it is a rather intense (yet not preachy) criticism of the way we represent immigrants in the media, our easy way with racial and cukltural stereotypes. While the example of “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” may seem exaggerated, characters like Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali from the hit TV show Big Bang Theory (or indeed the brand new sitcom Outsourced) show that Yang is not far off his mark with this satire. More importantly, however, it sets the ‘traditionally Chinese’ masks and pictures from the Monkey King story in a context of how Asian narratives are told and framed in general. Also, the themes of belonging (or not) to groups that discriminate based on looks, of the imperfection of not being quite Godly enough in one case, or not being All-American enough in the other, these themes are raised and presented in two related, but very different ways.

All of this sets the stage for the main story, the story of Jin Wang, whose parents immigrated to the US from China. Jin Wang grew up in San Francisco first but his parents soon move to an unnamed different city, where Jin has to attend an elementary school with just one other Asian-American student. As a scrawny, differently-looking kid, he is picked on by many of the other students but seems to find a place for himself within the complicated hierarchy of school life, an achievement that is threatened when one day a first-generation immigrant boy (whom Jin calls an “F.O.B.” as in “Fresh Off the Boat”) enters the school. To survive in that school (sarkastically named “Mayflower Elementary”) means for Jin to be -or at least seem- less different than the majority around him. The new student, who speaks Chinese, and looks and acts much less like a regular American boy, is in danger of reminding the others of just how Asian (as opposed to Asian-American) Jin actually looks. But, his initial hostility eventually wanes, and he strikes up a friendship with the new boy that will even carry over into his high school years. All this is just preamble, told in a quick, almost matter of fact way. What follows is much more typical of the ordinary teenage experience and yet contrasts starkly with how the ordinary American teenager might have experienced it. Jin falls in love and, shamed by his different looks, tries to change himself into a more regular kind of teenager. This story is warm and readers of the same age group can easily relate to the woes and worries of Jin, yet unlike most of the readers, Jin runs into a wall of racism and prejudice now and then in a way that white Americans won’t. There are no easy answers for his problems and questions, and to his credit, Gene Luen Yang doesn’t try to provide them.

Instead, he uses the “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” show and the Monkey King narrative as parameters of what complicates the usual American romantic high school experience (falling in love, courting, being shy and euphoric etc.) for Asian-Americans like Jin. There is tradition, in the form of tales told by grandparents, and in texts and movies one is expected to read or watch, and there is the racist incomprehension of the vagaries of ethnic (or religious) difference. Make no mistake: Yang doesn’t throw his hands up in the face of it all. The complexity of the problem is his point, and the potential that is hidden in this chaos. American Born Chinese is everything at once. An entertaining read, an insightful deliberation on immigrant experience in the US, and a seductively crafted comic. The simplicity of the forms Yang uses turn out to fit each story as if they were created especially for them. And in a way, they were. The two contextualizing stories of American Born Chinese are, at basically allegorical, and not retellings of old stories qua old stories, but modern re-creations that just contain old proper names. In this, Yang follows the tradition of books like Journey To The West, which is itself a complicated set of allegories, pretending to retell the monk’s story but really providing an intellectual and spiritual mirror for its own time. What Yang offers us are three stories of being challenged by difference, wrapped in a book that might, read by avid children all over the country, just make a difference. Read the book, buy it for others, and follow Gene Luen Yang’s career. I expect great things from him.

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Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate: A Small Killing

Moore, Alan; Oscar Zarate (2003), A Small Killing, Avatar Press
ISBN 1-59291-009-2

Alan Moore is one of the titans of the comic book industry and probably the best living writer in the business, especially after Frank Miller went off the rails. Unlike a few of the leading writers/artists of alternative comics (if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I am a raving fan of Charles Burns’ and Jeff Smith’s work), Moore managed, throughout his career, to touch on a truly vast array of notes and genres, and rare is the unsuccessful book penned by Moore. With whatever artist he collaborated, whether he worked on a creator-owned book or for DC Comics, whether he wrote an elegiac Superman story or the pornographic narratives of Lost Girls, Moore always came through and produced a standout work, one that was both recognizably his, and that gave the artists he worked with the space and freedom to shine, as well. A Small Killing is no exception to this rule. Originally published in 1991, it is a fascinating work of art, both a compelling story, as well as a intriguing, seductive, colorful maelstrom of a comic. Both the writing and the art are exceptional, and the overall product, short as it is, is a tremendously powerful, awfully dense political and creative statement, which is both completely original, and full of echoes to contemporary and more classical art and literature. Although its content seems mired in the 1980s, since it tells a story about a yuppie’s nervous breakdown, replete with cultural and political criticism of 80s politics, it actually exchanges the narrow scope of contemporary reference for history and psychology. It is not surprising that this book has been repeatedly picked up by various publishers and been reprinted several times since the 1991 edition, then published by Victor Gollancz, dropped out of circulation. This book is both terrific and terrifying, and it’s an understatement to say I recommend it to everyone.

In the coming weeks, I will also review Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing enthusiastically, but one of the most interesting things about A Small Killing is the fact that, unlike, say, Swamp Thing or Supreme, it’s really not a graphic novel tailored to and of primary interest for readers of the genre. The reason for this is mostly Oscar Zarate’s stunning art. Zarate’s pages, if one associates them with other artists in the industry at all, reminded me most of José Munoz’ (who is probably the main influence on Zarate) or Bill Sienkiewicz’ work (say, Electra: Assassin or Stray Toasters). But while the latter is a well-known artist with a thick portfolio of excellent and popular work, many, like me, will draw a blank where the name of Oscar Zarate is concerned. Even searches in online venues come up almost empty. Reading them we learn he has illustrated a handful of books, penciled a few short stories and co-created A Small Killing. While it’s hardly surprising that a masterpiece like this would overshadow the rest of an artist’s work, it is indeed odd that there doesn’t appear to be much of a ‘rest’ if one’s resumé includes work as singular and powerful as this. To return to the book at hand, the first thing you notice is that Zarate did not, as is usual in the genre, pencil, ink and color the panels, Instead, he appears to have painted it. Indeed, the contours and depth that an inker works with, the use a good inker makes of different degrees of clarity and visibility, of shadows, of light- and of darkness, Zarate hands over to colors. The strongest contours in A Small Killing are those of Zarate’s intrepid pencil and what appears to be a very fine ink brush. Some panels are almost exclusively penciled, with few colors entering the hailstorm of leaden lines, some seem to be completely in color, with contrast between different fields of color as the only kind of contour and boundary. From panels I found elsewhere on the web, I gather that this is, indeed, Zarate’s style, and that other writers have had comics created for them that looked similar.

However, the combination of a lack of a large back catalog of work, and the singular nature of this book right here made me feel this this style was created just for this story, these characters. The small fact that it wasn’t isn’t really important. Fact is, Moore wrote a story that Zarate’s art fit like a glove, and vice versa. It is not often that calling an artist a co-creator makes as much sense as it does here. It is almost impossible to say whose contribution is more important for the overall effect of the book, but Zarate’s style seems most specific to the kind of writing and thinking that A Small Killing represents, especially the way that Zarate’s swirling, disturbingly slanted art recalls early 20th century artists like Otto Dix but especially Max Beckmann (pre-1930s). Of course, Zarate’s work is very comic-like in the simple garishness of some of his colors and the lack of figural complexities, but the basic structure of the colors and the way he treats characters and actions in individual panels are highly reminiscent of Beckmann’s work especially where Beckmann depicts groups of people in bars. I found it impossible to read this book quickly, I think it needs to be savored page by page, and not only those pages that include a crowd tableau. Zarate slips his protagonist in and out of the artwork, sometimes as a blueish character in front of a screechingly orange mob, sometimes merging with crowds or background, sometimes threatened by erasure. Faceless sketches of people are inserted and glorious full-page visions. There’s really everything here, but the strongest part, and arguably the most important part for how the story is perceived and read, is the way Zarate treats crowds: a nameless mass of grotesque gluttony and vapid sensationalism. The slants and lights in many of those images make it impossible not to think of Dix or Beckmann.

Here the undecidability concerning Moore’s and Zarate’s contributions kicks in again, because part of that association may also be due to Moore’s story. Moore wrote, as many writers in the late 1980s and earlyy1990s, a harsh indictment of the shallow and chintzy 1980s culture. Of these writers, the most successful was probably Martin Amis, who rose to fame on the strength of his 1980s satires. But Amis’ brand of topical writing doesn’t always suit Moore very well. He doesn’t have Amis’ narrow obsession with the smallness of minds, or Amis’ bitterly biting pen. It’s not that Moore doesn’t try to be topical now and then, but he’s always best when the topical bleeds over into the allegorical, mystical, strange or the plain personal. Lucky for us as readers, and for A Small Killing, this is exactly what he does here, and it’s one of the main reasons why the book is still so readable today. Unlike Amis, Moore is a generous, easily puzzled writer, and this insecurity and openness enables him to write tales about the abyss in us and our culture without damning it all to hell. The story is simple enough, but engineered in a complex manner. It involves Timothy Hole (which is “pronounced ‘Holly’, actually”, “it’s a sort of English thing”), a middle-aged yuppie who works in advertising, and is quite talented at it. As Hole lands a new job and a great contract, marketing a fictional soda (a stand-in, quite explicitly, for Coca Cola or Pepsi) to Glasnost-era Russia. This set-up, and a few stray lines here and there may make the reader think of Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) but laughs are scarcer in Moore’s and Zarate’s book. Bewildered by the difficulties this job entails, Hole suffers a nervous breakdown and encounters a small boy, apparently bent on killing him. After appearing in the middle of the road one dark evening, causing Hole to swerve and crash, he appears to follow him, menacingly, for the rest of the book. Hole develops a paranoia, screaming whenever he’s sure to have caught a glimpse of the unknown dark-haired child, sweating with fear whenever he doesn’t see him.

There would be a Twilight Zone-style cheesiness to this mysterious boy, if Moore hadn’t made sure that we all knew pretty soon who that boy was. So instead of hurrying through the book to find out what would happen to the book’s protagonist, we watch as the environment changes around Hole’s increasingly frantic mind, and we follow the flashbacks down their path to Hole’s past. Hole, who is from Sheffield, which is a British industrial town that aw its industry fail in the 1980s, moved first to London and then to New York. Mad with terror, Hole retraces his steps in the present to the places of his past, flying first to London, then taking the train to a more affluent part of Sheffield and finally walking to the poor quarters where he grew up as a child. There is no real explanation for him taking this trip, but as his memory travels back in time, so does he, in a way. Moore takes the metaphor of space and travel that discussions of flashbacks and memory entail, and mirrors it in literal travel. At the end of the book, in a revelation that is devastating for Hole, both levels come together in an epiphany of sorts. The colors of Zarate’s mad tableaux of crowds and landscapes reflect Hole’s own disturbed mind, and his alienation not only from others but from himself, from his own ideas. Hole is really unpleasant protagonist, we don’t much care for him, he betrays people, cheats them and cheats on them, a truly shallow individual who apparently found his niche in advertising. There is the palpable (and explicit) influence of existentialism on the book, but despite a few similarities, Timothy Hole is no Antoine Roquentin, and the book ends on a different note. A Small Killing is about self-discovery, about how people can change as they age and the lies they tell themselves about their own past. As the world is subsumed by Hole’s feverish brain, and past relationships with women, his parents or mentors are seen to have failed due to his increasingly uncaring and empty emotional state, we as readers are drawn into Zarate’s terrifying whirlwind of colors and lines.

But, really, it’s more than just personal. Two aspects in particular are worth mentioning. One is Moore’s mastery of various registers of speech: this skill shines most in the large, full-page crowd panels, which are flooded by small pieces of dialogue, ad culture nitwittery, empty 1980s hipsterism and other bits. The way Moore zeroes in on those moments, and the way he makes a highly economic use of them within the larger structure of A Small Killing is so well realized that it reminded me personally of William Gaddis’ use of salon banter in The Recognitions. The other aspect is political. With a handful of deft allusions and hints, Moore and Zarate settle the book firmly within a fixed historical and political context, as the book was written and published at a time when the United States were governed by George Bush père and the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher (and Thatcherite PM John Major). Thatcher is especially significant as Moore connects modern apolitical culture with the demise of a traditionally left-wing worker town, and Hole’s betrayal of himself with that same change. This sounds topical, but I don’t have a personal context for Thatcherism, and yet it still works. Hole can be made to stand for any political peregrine who endorsed ideals as a young person yet swore off them as he grew older and more successful. The central focus of A Small Killing is on the was our core beliefs about society are linked to core beliefs of ourselves. In a book of dichotomies, of overlapping levels, this is one of the most important. I’m not sure this book has been very influential or important for the genre or literature in general, but as a work of art, it is amazing, and very powerful. Alan Moore’s enormous body of work casts a large shadow, but that should not be an excuse for readers to ignore or shun a small, less widely publicized masterpiece such as A Small Killing.

A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura: I Kill Giants

Kelly, Joe; JM Ken Niimura (2010), I Kill Giants, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1-60706-092-5


Yes, it’s a cop-out to assail those who don’t like a book you love with claims that they didn’t really open up to it, didn’t really engage with it, yadda yadda. Yes, it’s true to say that it’s probably not really a good book, if it only works for the very emotionally open reader. But, preemptively, that’s exactly the argument that brewed in my head when I finished I Kill Giants and thought about a review. It’s a simple fact: you are not allowed not to love this book. There is much in the book that is excellent, especially the artwork which is just stunning. The writing is, except for exactly two panels near the end of the book, always at least solid, more often great than not. But as a whole, I feel it needs the reader to respond to the way it tugs at his or her emotions in order to cohere and deliver a finishing wallop. This is an amazing book, yet as I finished it, I feared that not everyone might think so (although no-one in their right mind would call it a bad book per se). This is something that is true of a lot of fantastical, young adult or romantic literature: unless you accept their terms and read them with an appropriate openness, they won’t work. But even if you happen to not love this book as much as I did (and everybody should), you cannot fail to recognize all the excellent qualities of the book. I Kill Giants is a graphic novel, published as a limited miniseries with seven issues from July 2008 until January 2009. A collection of all issues was then published by Image Comics in 2009, which runs to 184 pages and is a gorgeously designed object. The writer is seasoned comics veteran Joe Kelly who has written all kinds of stuff, from mainstream Marvel issues (Spiderman, JLA and others) to I Kill Giants and the similarly original and odd Four Eyes. The artist is the extraordinary JM Ken Niimura, who’s relatively new to the industry. This, in fact, is his first published full graphic novel, I gather from an appended interview. The result of their cooperation is a magnificent, marvelous book that I cannot praise highly enough and that you are not allowed to dislike.

Graphic novels are always the result of both a writer’s and an artist’s input and a change of artist can mean a change in style. Writers can control the look and feel of a graphic novel only to an extent, and when they do dominate the artist, as Brian Wood does in his DMZ series of books (see my review), the result is often weak. And a writers’s efforts, as Millar’s in the early Ultimate X-Men issues, can be weakened by an artist who’s a bad fit or second-rate. On the other hand, a great artist can save even sagging, sentimental writing by transforming it into a great, affecting visual narrative. This is, in part, what happened with I Kill Giants. Joe Kelly is not a bad writer, and much here, especially the dialogue, works very well, but the novel’s concept isn’t, to be honest, terribly original and Kelly grapples with the difficulties arising from trying to keep artless sentimentality as far as way from the book as possible. This book, without giving too much away, deals with a kind of grief, one could say. In the appended interview, Kelly tells us that he experienced a somewhat similar situation himself, and it shows. Roughly two thirds of the book are intent on finding and exploring an apt metaphor for the protagonist’s emotional duress, but the closer we get to the end, the more loose Kelly’s reins are on the explicitness of the emotions his books discusses. This culminates in two positively cheesy panels full of well-meaning, daft, life-affirming advice. Niimura doesn’t complement Kelly here, he saves him from his worst instincts. All that said, I have to repeat and affirm that I was very moved by the book. Joe Kelly undertakes a balancing act here, as far as his writing is concerned, and throughout most of I Kill Giants, he pulls it off. The protagonist’s journey away from fear and into the light of day, friendship and family is always convincing, and, at certain points, truly powerful. Stories like this have been told before, but it’s Kelly’s achievement that we care enough for this specific pointy-eared protagonist in order to read this story nor as one of many but as a special story, the moving story of Barbara Thorson.

Indeed, Kelly’s skill at evoking his protagonist Barbara Thorson, bringing her to life before our eyes, is the most praiseworthy aspect of his writing, and the only place where he is not dependent on Niimura’s art to make it all work well. Kelly assembles a broad array of scenes, dialogue and juxtapositions that help us to see Barbara not merely as an oddity, but as a very specific, flesh-and-blood person, a girl that life has dealt a harsh hand and that decides to batter away at the dark force that invaded her home and her heart. As we meet her, she sits, hidden behind a bed-sheet, on which she has drawn violent mythical fight scenes, planning her imminent fight against the giants. Because Barbara Thorson, as we learn a few pages later, is a giant-killer, carrying a hammer with her in a pouch, reading books on giants and conversing with invisible angels. Always ready to pounce and defend the world against giants or, even worse, the fearsome titan. Barbara is a natural storyteller. She has no difficulties inventing giant-killer stories and planning the upcoming fight against oversize opponents, in part because even before she was entrusted with this mission, Barbara was a storyteller of heroic battles: Kelly’s heroine is a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) Dungeon Master. D&D is a fantasy role-playing game that requires a high degree of imagination. A group of friends sits around the table, each of them an actor in a story that is completely concocted by the dungeon master. They act and react, but the environment, the monsters, quests and rewards are invented by the Dungeon Master. D&D has a thick rule book, but it’s the Dungeon Master’s reading of these rules that ultimately counts. He or she is the highest authority as to the specifics of the story, the world and the mechanics of fighting and living in that world. One very telling episode has Sophia, friend of Barbara, look for her in a comic book shop, where Sophia learns that Barbara commands a deep respect among fellow fantasy devotees. These skills, this kind of commitment to narrative and imagination is then transferred into real life and Barbara’s fight against giants. But Kelly is smart enough not to disparage and minimize her mission by treating it as pure invention.

Instead, he projects her obsession onto the real world, like a second, diaphanous layer. In this, Niimura’s art is more than a great help. Niimura’s vision of Barbara’s world, both the one she seems to inhabit alone and the one she shares with others, is stunning in its poetic power. The art does several things. There are, on the one hand, transparent objects, small little winged critters, like chubby little fairies, which appear to be scrawled onto the real world. They are related, the reader soon realizes, to the millions of sketches and drawings that Barbara has undertaken, not just on the bed-sheet of the first panel, but later, as well. The giants that Barbara sets out to kill do not make an actual appearance for most of the book, there’s no need for Barbara to invent or imagine them. For us they only exist as actual drawings, the accuracy of which is hard to judge. So in Niimura’s depiction of Barbara’s worlds, drawings as inventions and imaginary (or not so imaginary) beings and forces coexist uneasily, and each often intrudes on the other’s turf. As part of a graphic novel’s discussion of art and the imagination, Niimura offers a powerful plea for the strength of imagination to infuse our daily lives with, well, life, due to changes in perception. Barbara’s imagination is her own, the drawings and sketches are her own. She doesn’t trade cards or paint figurines, she draws from scratch, and the insights into herself or life that she gains are her own, strong convictions, scooped from her own plentiful source. Very early in the book, she stands up, derisively, to a motivational coach, because she doesn’t need his narrow, dull, restricted grandstanding. This is not to deny that she has problems that she needs to deal with, but listening, waiting, encouraging turns out to be the best way to help her. Barbara doesn’t need an educational fiat, a psychological, medical or pedagogical sanction of her way of dealing with things. Both Kelly and Niimura stress this aspect, but it’s really Niimura’s art that impresses it most on the reader who might skip some of Kelly’s overwrought language, his hokey, ‘meaningful’ dialogue near the end. A lot of panels, or even whole pages, would have worked better with no words at all. Almost the whole last fourth could have been easily shorn of dialogue and would have been much improved upon.

There is one last aspect of Niimura’s art that is worth mentioning. I talked about how he mixes drawings and a perception of the world. But he also mixes imagination and reality. In the interview in the back, he tells us that in working out a version of Barbara Thorson that he liked, he suddenly started adding hats and large rabbit ears. Kelly kept his manuscript as it was, despite the added ears, so that the dialogue or story never reflects Barbara’s odd hare-y ears, which has the effect of adding a constant level of surrealism to the book. There is no clear division between what’s real and tangible and what’s imagined. There are rationalizations, and explanations aplenty, especially for the more outrageous phenomena, but I think (and some people I know disagree) that the book never really takes sides. Motifs and explanations are fragmented and scattered all over the book, as rivaling mythologies, such as the many different evocations of meteorology. In fact, some scenes appear to make this point almost explicit: it is not about some vaguely objective facts of nature, but about how you read them, within which cultural and personal context you situate certain phenomena, what you are prepared to accept as explanation and what you are not. Niimura works heavily with visual hints and clues and it’s been awhile since I read a graphic novel that used the resources of its genre this exhaustively, that made it so clear that this is not a deviation from ‘regular novels’, that a story like this needs the images Niimura provides, that it is completely dependent on its visual aspect, and what’s more, Niimura’s highly successful in doing so. But not to downplay Kelly’s work. He does his part in adding layers of dream and imagination, for example in casting the whole story in a mythical light. You see, Kelly manages to both present the events of I Kill Giants as an episode in Barbara’s life, as well as a kind of destiny, a mission that her life is formed around. Even her name, designing her a son of Norse God of Thunder, Thor, is connected to that mission (and to the weather/myth ambiguity near the end)

In fact, Kelly assembles a whole subset of items and references that connect Barbara’s story to Norse mythology. Thor fought giants, as well, and he did it with his trusty hammer Mjöllnir, which was, like Barbara’s weapon, of variable size. I suspect that some of the intrigue, traps and upheavals in Barbara’s story have a parallel of sorts in one of the various versions of Thor’s story. This is all very plain but effective, as is another parallel established by Kelly: the American myths, like Baseball history. Barbara’s hammer is named after Harry Coveleski, a Major League Baseball pitcher who, during his time on the Phillies, earned himself the nickname of “The Giant Killer”. The mythical qualities of the American obsession with Baseball have been pointed out quite a few times, most recently perhaps by Michael Chabon in his book Summerland. Baseball, Thor and Barbara’s art and appearance are all mixed in this heady, emotionally powerful book, which shows us a person, enmeshed in cultural, mythical and social contexts who draws on her imagination, on her art to cope with personal problems. This is a very strong recommendation. You may not be as moved as I was, but you can’t miss the craft of Niimura’s art and the overall strength of the writing. Niimura’s work here stunned me, and it will stun you, however you react to Joe Kelly’s sadly uneven writing. This is a very, very good book, made by two masters of their trade. Given the fact that Niimura’s career has only just begun, this book is also a promise of great things to come. In my opinion, I Kill Giants is a masterpiece, but even if you disagree, you’ll still be admiring a lot of it.

Jeff Smith: Rasl: The Fire of St. George

Smith, Jeff (2010), Rasl: The Fire of St. George, Cartoon Books
ISBN 978-188896322-9

Jeff Smith is an extraordinary writer and artist. Ever since he started publishing the Bone comics on his own imprint Cartoon Books, he has been consistently brilliant and fun. The whole of Bone, now available in one indispensable, addictively readable volume is one of the best graphic novels of the past decade. Since the completion of that series, he has undertaken a few smaller projects, all of which are highly recommendable, but many readers have been waiting for another epic work to approach the narrative scope and power of Bone. Two years ago, Smith did just that when he published the first volume of his new project, Rasl (pronounced like dazzle). I reviewed that first volume, which collected Rasl issues #1-3, on this blog (click here), and recommended it unreservedly. Rasl: The Drift is a fascinating work, a take on an ensemble of topics and literary traditions, from the noir to time travel books; it showed us a rough, unshaven young man, the eponymous Rasl, who travels through different dimensions, to find out he’s being hunted by a lizard-faced villain in a trench-coat who can travel the dimensions with as much ease as Rasl himself, and threatens his girlfriends in several dimensions. Does this recap confuse you? Well, it is confusing, as is the book. Rasl: The Drift is a dense introduction to what promises to be one of the best contained graphic novel series of our time. Jeff Smith introduces us to a plethora of plot strands, ideas, and lots of other suggestions. The Drift is a dazzling display of the range of Jeff Smith’s mind, and at the same time, it raises very high expectations for the rest of the series. When I picked up the followup volume, Rasl: The Fire of St. George, which collects Rasl issues #4-7, it wasn’t without hesitations. The expectations that The Drift raises are almost impossible to fulfill. And yet, The Fire of St. George is a deeply satisfying read, both following up on ideas and suggestions of the first volume, as well as further raising expectations for the next volumes.

Rasl: The Drift told us little about the protagonist. We learned that Rasl has a lover, and that there’s a version of her in every dimension he travels to, which is true for other people, as well. We find out that Rasl is a nickname of sorts or a pseudonym. His real name is Dr. Robert Johnson and he used to be a physicist, working with a friend, Dr. Miles, and a female co-worker (who eventually became a lover) on an exiting but obscurely dangerous new project. We infer that their professional relationship has gone sour and that this demise is connected to his current existence as a dimension-hopping art thief. This aspect comes somewhat late in the book and the overall topic of (serious) science was but one of a multitude of tangents that The Drift proposed to us readers. Instead, while we were busy trying to make sense of all this, Smith offered us several other kinds of explanations. Masks and symbols suggested myth and religion to us, while the lizard-faced man, the variations between the different worlds and the rough-and-tumble manner of traveling between dimensions had a strong whiff of the paranormal, with its implications of X-Files-like intrigue. All this appeared to be part of the tangle of Rasl. I say ‘tangle’ because The Drift makes no serious attempt to explain anything, it just piles reference on reference and plot on plot and character on character, stringing its readers along, offering but small clues here and there. This is is stark contrast to the new volume, which at times almost seems earnest, as it slowly, carefully and patiently explains a few of the allusions and suggestions of The Drift. The aspect Smith decided to shed light on first is the science bit, but he doesn’t explain what exactly is happening, scientifically speaking. Instead he has Rasl tell us the story of how he and his friend came to make a momentous discovery; at the same time, he tells us about Nicola Tesla’s life and his discoveries, his scientific genius and his eventual downfall.

Tesla has become a touchstone of geek-culture these past years, especially since the advent of steampunk fiction. On TV, Tesla has featured prominently in shows like Sanctuary, and the steampunk-fest Warehouse 13. In literature, apart from the use Alan Moore makes of him in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the perhaps most prominent appearance of Tesla is in Thomas Pynchon’s masterful Against The Day. Tesla appeals to a certain demographic because he’s just the right amount of anti-establishment, mixed with a dash of unorthodox genius. His attraction for writers is also due to the fact that for every invention that was eventually realized and used, there is an obscure, unfinished, rumored invention. And because we don’t really know, writers are free to imagine anything, and so Nicola Tesla, whatever the facts about the historical Tesla, has become some kind of real-life Jules Verne character, just as outrageous and mysterious as Captain Nemo. In The Fire of St. George, Smith even proposes that Tesla was the inspiration behind the Frankenstein in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein movie that deviated quite strongly from Mary Shelley’s novel. This idea is then followed up by a short re-telling of Tesla’s life as a scientist. For anyone even remotely familiar with the man, these sections of the book will seem a bit tedious, a reiteration of what seems to be common knowledge. Telling one’s readers about some relatively well know historical fact is something that many lesser writers do in order to manufacture some fact-related credibility for their far-fetched plots. The most annoying example of this is probably Dan Brown, but these days, that’s all the rage, from Kostova’s Historian to Mosse’s Labyrinth and the books by Preston/Child, bookshelves groan under the weight of annoying, simplified knowledge. Smith, however, isn’t a lesser writer, and his use of these historical sections may seem similar, but they are in fact far more complex and intriguing than that, but they don’t wear this difficulty on their sleeve.

In The Drift, readers knew they needed to look for clues to find their way around the bewildering events of the book, and so most will have read the book with care, parsing the panels for hints and subtleties. The tone in The Fire of St. George appears to be very different, the narrative far more clear and conventional. The X-Files reference has become stronger, with a mixture of unexplained phenomena (in the 1940s, a ship vanishes in the middle of the ocean), sober scientific explanations and the beginnings of a governmental conspiracy or cover-up operation. Jeff Smith, however, is a talented and insightful writer, and so even simple-seeming stories have unexpected depths. There is, for example, the absence of mysticism or religion from this volume (with a few eerie exceptions) although the first volume strongly hinted at these issues. But in the retelling and the images thereof, there are ellipses, and smaller nudges that one could almost have overlooked, from the fact that Rasl tells us about the creation scene of the Frankenstein movie, but omits the line “In the name of God! Now I know what it’s like to be God” that is one of the central lines of the movie and is, I think, one of the underlying themes of the whole Rasl story, that will be talking about issues like the creation of dimensions and the question of the humanity of people in other dimensions. Smith’s art contributes to this, by abandoning what feels like a dark, hollow black-and-white style for an almost flat iconicity in his biography of Tesla (except for a few panels where the Tesla bio bleeds into Rasl’s disturbed own life. This is but one example of countless others. Smith has abandoned the nested detail of Bone for a style, both in the writing and in the art, that seems more simple, dominated by large swathes of black and white, with sweaty, scared, hunted Rasl aka Dr. Johnson trying to make sense of the trench-coated man who follows him everywhere, making ominous threats. For all the explanations, we are doing the same, because every answered question opens up another pack of questions.

To the mysterious symbols introduced in the first volume, a mysterious silent child is added. The symbol tied into a whole discussion about native American myths, and its speculative connections to mysticism and extraterrestrial life. Since the symbols only appear in the ‘new’ dimensions, i.e. dimensions different from Rasl’s original one, questions about the nature of chronology and the laws of cause and effect are raised. Also, skeptic doubts about the validity of referring to any world as the ‘original’ one. The child, as well as Rasl’s multiple lovers add to this questions of the body, and of its connection to intra-dimensional energies. If this makes it sound as if Smith were engaging in weird esoteric speculation, he isn’t. Instead he is using common scientific knowledge (there’s a very short bibliography appended if you happen to not know some popular books on the subject (I’m betting all of you know at least 80% of them, so common is this knowledge)) and his own inspiration as writer and artist to launch questions and suggestions at his readers, nudging them, egging them on, raising expectations again and again. To be honest, there’s so much build-up even in this second volume, that it’s hard to see how on earth Jeff Smith’s going to make good on his promises, but experience tells us that he might manage. After all, if we remember all the things that happened between the first Bone volume and the last, we might almost be confident that it works out to the best. If it does, the Rasl narrative might turn out to be one of the best graphic novels of our time, similar to writers like Grant Morrison or Thomas Pynchon, but more grounded than the former and just plain different than the latter. Already, an announcement of a new Rasl volume is a great bit of news, but so far, all we have are teasers. If Smith follows up on them, we are bearing witness to a great work in progress. Already, Rasl: The Drift and Rasl: The Fire of St. George are excellent reads, intriguing, well written, fantastically penciled and inked. I recommended the first volume in my review of it, and I do so again. Read Jeff Smith, and read Rasl. The next volume will be called Romance at the Speed of Light.

Mark Millar: Kick-Ass / Wanted

Millar, Mark; JG Jones, Paul Mounts (2008), Wanted, Top Cow
ISBN 9781582404974

Millar, Mark; John Romita Jr. et al. (2010), Kick-Ass, Titan Books
ISBN 9781848565357

This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that I confess my admiration for Mark Millar’s work. I consider Millar’s books to be among the best published in comics these days, although at least half that admiration is owed to his artists. His comics have pencils by major artists as J.G. Jones (Wanted), Brian Hitch (The Ultimates) and John Romita Jr. (Kick-Ass). I try to read as much of his work as possible, even when, as in Ultimate X-Men, it appears to be slightly sub-par. In books like Kick-Ass or Wanted, it isn’t. Mark Millar is known to publicly overemphasize his importance and brilliance, but sometimes, his material just works perfectly. On the other hand, Millar keeps bothering me in different ways. In comics, the fact that every character and action comes with its visual representation, the fact, too, that you can’t bury essentials in pages of text, can create problematic depictions of various issues. Many comics touch upon some of these issues,, and Millar is no exception. However, while a lightweight series like Y: The Last Man provides a quietly reactionary soap opera, Mark Millar, clearly enjoying his role as provocative writer, dishes up a densely narrated drama in his books, where all the elements are so well posited and constructed that they heighten the importance of each individual element, including the troubling ones. The Ultimates, for example, is a clever and sparsely told disquisition about military power and its relationship to basic elements of culture, from the treatment of women, to chauvinism, racism and much more. Every character, every line, every panel in the comic seems to be designed to work that angle. The Ultimates is almost flawlessly executed.

Both great writers like Grant Morrison and bad ones like Jeph Loeb tend to use the serial nature of mainstream comics to write expansive, associative work. There’s a line threaded through a series of books like Morrison’s fantastic run on the New X-Men, but images and characters tend to touch on many issues and moods. In comparison, Millar is uncommonly obsessed with the same topics and ideas within one book or one run. Although Millar’s run on the Ultimate X-Men pales beside Morrison’s work with more or less the same characters (more in a few weeks on this blog), it’s still strong, and most of all: it’s a taut, concentrated genre exercise. Millar reconstructs the X-Men from the bottom up, he re-introduces them and their themes for a new audience; in their case it makes for a certain dullness, because we know the X-Men by now, we’re familiar with their themes. Additionally, his X-Men work was largely penciled by Adam Kubert, who, despite his fame, is clearly not a very good fit. Millar, as the X-Men stories, or, to an extent, his work with the Fantastic Four has shown, is a writer with a limited palette. He’s excellent in what he does best, but remove a few of the variables, or change them, and his work can quickly seem dull and uninteresting. But if the artist, the material and the setting is right, as in the aforementioned Ultimates, his writing is incredible: it’s hard to deny the perfection of The Ultimates. On the other hand, two of his more original graphic novels, Wanted and Kick-Ass, seem very divisive. In my opinion, both of these books compare well to the best ‘regular’ literature I’ve read this year, but their highly violent content has not gone over very well with all their readers.

Kick-Ass is especially violent, both in terms of actual, depicted violence, and in terms of emotional violence. It’s a borderline-surreal tale that seems to be premised on the idea of what super heroes would look like ‘in the real world’, but, as any closer look will immediately reveal, is anything but that kind of book. Kick-Ass and Wanted are books soaked with decades of superhero (or supervillain) history. Not just the history that surfaces in explicit and implicit references to canonical works, but the whole idea of superhero comics, their iconic and intellectual function in our cultures. Not even Morrison is so obsessed with the minutiae of comics and comics references alone. Millar’s books seem to have soaked up heaps and heaps of comics and internalized them, and seem to develop their ideas further and further. Millar’s work on The Authority is similar to The Ultimates, grappling with similar themes, but it lacks the incredible polish and concentration of the later work. Plot-lines and concepts seem to complete or prolong questions raised in the earlier work. In the same way, Kick-Ass, while not a regular superhero comic, is a continuation of an earlier Millar book, and is best read in that context, I think. That earlier book is Wanted, published in 6 issues between 2003 and 2004. Wanted is the story of Wesley Gibson, a frustrated young white man, who finds out his father was an extremely talented killer and takes up with a gang of super-villains. Given that the main character is a super-villain-in-waiting, its not surprising that the comic deals with hate a lot. The narrator is the protagonist, who, in the fourth panel, complains that he’s “taking shit from my African American boss”.

The word “boss” is helpfully printed in bold to point out Wesley’s incredulity at having to take flak from someone who is not as nicely white as he is. This line of thinking continues throughout the comic, which glories in mass shootings, rape and other distasteful actions. Apart from calling him a villain, the book never once breaks through that mood, effectively providing an appraising account of one of the least likable characters in fiction. At the end of the book, Wesley turns even on the readers of the comic, accusing them of weakness. The penultimate panel has, however, a striking image. While telling us that we’re “going to close this book and buy something else to fill that big, empty hole [they]’ve created in [our] life”, we see the hand of a customer buying a couple of comics. One of them is an issue of Wanted. I’d argue that that image short-circuits the book, inviting us to read it in terms of comics and iconicity. J.G. Jones’ clear and highly detailed art creates an extremely realistic world that houses an fantastical story. The contrast between the narrative, characters, the voices, and the visual representation of them turns a ratio upside down that tends to dominate graphic novels. If we take, for instance, Vaughan and Guerra’s Y: The Last Man, we find a regular Science Fiction story, clearly intent upon finding out “what would really happen” if all men died, and “what really could have caused it”. Vaughan, as in much else of his work, strains to find a believable voice, and dialogue that sounds “real”.

Pia Guerra’s pencils, in contrast, while depicting a realistic setting, indulge in iconicity. Every depiction of humans is extremely idealized and refers not to a sketch of an actual person (however they were actually created) but to a culturally developed idea of a shape. The female form, the depiction of pregnant women, of militant women, of black women, all the details of the eponymous man: this is superhero comics material, just without the spandex. JG Jones’ far more sophisticated work aims for more realism while reflecting a discussion of issues of iconicity in countless details of the depiction of the characters. Jones’ art is so detailed it slows the story down, scattering it into a series of tableaux. There is a tension between the superhero aspects, like the glossy poses that many of the uber-cool villains assume, or the odd, surreal accessoires they wear, and the wrinkly realism of the artwork itself. The results are intriguing, and absolutely stunning. While none of this is Millar’s art, he did write the content for Jones to fill in, and the very choice of Jones (who is, after all, famous for his style, cf. Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman run) as artist was inspired. In a book like Wanted, which, as I pointed out, thrives off the kind of tensions that mark J.G. Jones work, nothing seems off. Everything here fits like a glove. The problem with this is, from a reader’s perspective, that it naturally reinforces any troubling issues raised in Millar’s script. However, Wesley is such an exuberantly bigoted character that the book makes more sense in a reading that assumes it to be a satire, than a reading that takes the opinions and ideology of its characters at face values. It’s a satire, and a sharp-tongued one at that, drawing on more than just media criticism. In a time-honored comics tradition, from the Skrulls to Morrison’s and Moore’s masterpieces, it questions conventional narratives and perceptions.

There is still more to it, though. The criticism it contains isn’t really new or spectacular, following lines established by the comics I mentioned and movies such as Natural Born Killers. Millar’s dense and focused way of telling and constructing his story is fairly rare, however. Additionally, at least for me, it’s hard now to disregard Kick-Ass when reading and commenting upon Wanted, which is much enhanced when assuming that it is part of a narrative or intellectual trajectory that includes Kick-Ass. On a surface level, the two books couldn’t be more different. Kick-Ass‘ art is almost the exact opposite of Jones’. While Jones did both pencils and inks in Wanted, John Romita Jr. only did the pencils in Kick-Ass. Its inks are handled by Tom Palmer, and one feels an odd disconnect here. This is worth noting, since Palmer is one of the most legendary inkers in the business today. His inks in Byrne’s X-Men run (although I’m not partial to Byrne’s pencils) are nothing short of stunning, for example, and his influence in the industry is hard to overestimate. But in Kick-Ass, his work and Romita Jr.’s are a bad fit. The point is that J.G .Jones’ art is of a piece and hits you straight in the face. It overwhelms you, lets you examine the world of Wanted in full dark detail. None of that here. It’s not just the inks, however. Romita Jr.’s art is low on details, and the few panels that contain many can seem almost sloppily done. In Romita Jr.’s art, objects and people merge, and objects in different states of matter (liquids, gases, solids) start to resemble one another. The effect is both disconcerting and cartoonish. So, on the level of the art, you have a focused, detailed, fully coherent book, and a book where the different elements don’t quite fit, where the art in general is always slightly out of focus. But the connection is, of course Millar. The two novels’ art is similar in the sense of perfectly fitting the writing. The changes in the art correspond directly to the changes in the narrative.

Instead of reveling in super-villains, Kick-Ass looks at super-heroes. Wanted‘s super-villains were created as amalgams of more traditional villains, with references hidden in slogans, details in costume or bearing. The villainy was established by creating a vile protagonist, and making his fellow super-villains even worse. The writing told us what to look for, and the art scattered hints and clues all over the gorgeous pages. Kick-Ass is different. It’s reference to comic antecedents is far more specific and less playful. It doesn’t allow us to distance ourselves from the writing and its implications. A few lines earlier, I called some of Wanted‘s panels “tableaux” – the implied act of leaning back and contemplating a panel or a whole page, this doesn’t quite work for Kick-Ass. The art doesn’t ask you to stop and look, instead its completely immersive, attracts you into its haze of idealism, fear, anxiety and hate. Hate is one of the things that you’ll notice very early on. The narrator doesn’t vocalise his prejudice quite like Wesley, but the art draws your attention to a similar mind-set. In Wanted, the narration needed to be fueled by hate, because the art, due to its detailed realism, suggested impartiality, showing things as they were. Romita Jr.’s art doesn’t even pretend to be impartial. Instead you get sucked into the maelstrom of the protagonist’s teenage mind from the very first panel. Like Wesley, the eponymous Kick-Ass (his mild-mannered name is Dave) moderates the first few panels, telling us what we’re seeing. Unlike Wesley, he abandons narration rather quickly. He doesn’t need to keep it up, however, because the art is clearly doing it for him now. Hate is less expressed and more implied. For instance by the fact that all the villains of the book, and I do mean one hundred percent, are non-white. Latinos, African-Americans, Italian-Americans (for the whiteness of Italian- and Irish-Americans I recommend reading select works of Whiteness Studies (Roediger and others)). The protagonist, on the other hand, is blond. What’s more, he’s ethnically unmarked. As in his best work, Millar uses everything to full effect. We’re never in doubt about the ethnicity of people in the book. Language, color, clothes, all adds to the basic impression: a white blond boy, constantly victimized at school, and, by extension, in his world as well, has enough and fights crime.

Fighting crime in Kick-Ass means fighting all the ethnically marked rabble. There is a plethora of critical writing on superhero comics that addresses this question of marked and unmarked actors, and the use and import of wearing a costume, as well as the racial and sexual fault-lines in a tradition that focused on and even expanded notions of masculinity and manliness. Dave is a perfect representation of the fear and anxiety of white males in this new century, afraid to lose privileges and calling frequently for an emancipation for men and accusing people of being racist towards white people. Phenomena like the American Tea Party movement are symptoms of that growing feeling of being threatened by a wave of otherness. And Dave is fighting back. Brilliantly, Millar creates an ambiguous motivation for his protagonist. Dave is beset both by local and global fears, and the local fears are mostly connected to his being a teenager and grappling with the process of growing up. There isn’t enough bile or strength in him to call the adults out, calling them ‘phoneys’. Instead he retreats first into his imagination, and then into violence. In his imagination, as a scrawny comic geek, he learns the symbolic language of comic which works largely through displacement and metaphorical representation. The rhetorical flourishes of right wing attacks, constructing scapegoats, using ideas of purity and evil, Dave has learned all this from comics, in short: he’s perfectly equipped to be a small hateful thug with ideals. There isn’t a patchwork of allusions and references here. There is just one big paradigm in Kick-Ass: it’s Batman. Mostly Frank Miller’s Batman, but Millar uses small details that suggest other Batman-related characters, too. Dave corresponds in many details to the Batman in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. The trajectory, from the unsuccessful first bout with criminals which ends with the superheroes-in-waiting bleeding profusely, to the successful second fight and the subsequent establishment, is similar, but what’s more important is that the criminals and the heroes conform to a normal/other dichotomy.

The other canonical Miller text on Batman relevant here is his masterful The Dark Knight Returns. In this book, Batman has turned into a hateful muscled old man, disdainful of political correctness and leniency towards criminals, and largely dismissive of democracy. In Kick-Ass, Millar creates the characters of Hit Girl and Big Daddy to reflect that side of being Batman. Like the Cassandra Cain-incarnation of Batgirl, Hit Girl was trained by her father (as Cassandra was trained by hers) to become an excellent killer at a very young age. The rigorous and excessive training has produced a killing machine without many social skills. Without even blinking, Hit Girl slices through hordes of criminals. Neither she nor her father care whether someone is actually guilty of a crime. Being a criminal means being guilty by association. So they kill not just a drug dealer, but also his mistress and all his friends. The utter disdain for human lives and the violent, bracing righteousness connect these two to Miller’s old Batman. Between David, Hit Girl and Big Daddy, Millar has gathered many of the facets of Gotham’s crime-fighter. He has picked up on Miller’s reading of the character as a reactionary, fascist madman, and made a book that reflects that attitude. There is no lee-way in Kick-Ass that would allow for a critical or satiric reading. On the contrary: Mark Millar has, as he does in the best of his books, created an incredibly focused book where every detail is put in the service of one idea. Here it’s right wing hatred. Not criticism of it, but depiction of it, with a clarity and assiduity that makes it almost an anatomy of that attitude. Nothing here is extraneous, everything, the art, dialogue, and the story is extremely focused on one thing and one thing only. In fact, I think that Kick-Ass might well be his best book, because despite the strengths of his other work, this one might just be the most focused and densely told of all his tales.

This is not to deny that his method has its problems. Depicting hate and violence, without even attempting to contain or criticize it, is a risky business and just as The Dark Knight Returns affirms its protagonist’s reactionary values, so does Kick-Ass provide an apology for the dark dreams of Dave. In his review of Haneke’s US remake of Haneke’s own Funny Games, New York Times critic A.O. Scott writes: “voyeuristic masses are implicated in the gruesome spectacle of senseless cruelty. Are we, though? What if the guilt trip never takes off? Or, even worse, what if the American audience, cretins that we are, were to embrace Mr. Haneke’s vision not for its moral stringency but for the thrill of, say, watching Ms. Watts, bound at the ankles and wrists, hop around in her underwear? Who will be implicated then?” This moral ambiguity is characteristic for much of Millar’s work, and while reading him is always an awesome experience, his readers may feel increasingly uneasy. The divide between being a moral writer and an excellent craftsman is not often as wide as it is in Millar’s case. Millar’s work is often problematic and often difficult to stomach, and if we look at the way his oeuvre develops, it seems that there is much more to come. His clean work with the Ultimate X-Men eventually lead to the fascist ambiguities of Civil War, his playful game with hate and villainy in Wanted turned into unfettered racism and violence in Kick-Ass. I am both excited and afraid of what’s to come next from Mark Millar’s busy pen.

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Grant Morrison: Batman: The Black Glove

Morrison, Grant; J.H. Williams III, Tony S. Daniel (2008), Batman: The Black Glove, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-1945-1

Batman: The Black Glove is another installment in Grant Morrison’s work with DC Comics characters like Batman and Superman, and while it’s another strong showing, it’s also suffering from being one volume in a larger build-up to last year’s major crossover events. Sometimes it seems to me as if superhero comics are a bit like Pro Wrestling. Hundreds of story-lines, different organizations and titles, with crossovers between the different kinds of titles and wrestling events happening now and then. It’s all very odd and confusing, and so are superhero comics. If you try to follow superhero comics without really buying every issue of the dozens of smaller magazines where they are published, you are bound to get kind of confused. Now and then there’s a huge crossover event that tries to clean up a bundle of story-lines in one fell swoop, but the result are books like Batman: The Black Glove, which overwhelm some of their readers with the richness of references and events that they are embedded in. This particular book is part of an enormous undertaking. It is part of the Batman R.I.P. Story (as was The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul which I’ve reviewed here), which in turn leads into the larger project of Final Crisis. But, first things first.


Grant Morrison, superhero writer extraordinaire, writes on many stories at the same time, and unlike the major other writer who works on many canonical characters and story-lines at the same time, Mark Millar, he doesn’t get to invent a parallel canon where he can change and adapt and do as he pleases without catching flak for it. Millar inaugurated the Ultimate series, with his Ultimate X-Men books, which spawned a whole Ultimate Marvel universe that is similar but different from the Marvel canon. This re-invention culminated in the bafflingly great The Ultimates, a re-vamping of the Avengers in the Ultimate Marvel vein, and in Civil War, both of which I’m still pondering and will review later this month. Part of the ease with which Millar’s stunning work for Marvel reads is due to the fact that his re-invention of the characters allows him to let go of the past, and work with a clean slate. This leads to an incredible energy and freshness in his books, and to a renewed understanding of how, in cultural terms, these characters work. Millar’s work for Marvel continues to explore new alleys, with nods and references to canon, but being really independent of its exigencies and baggage. His most recent publication, Old Man Logan, is a case in point.

Millar’s approach couldn’t be more different from Grant Morrison’s, who, before signing an exclusivity contract for DC Comics, dabbled a bit everywhere (he had a part, for example, in the conception of The Ultimate Fantastic Four). In temperament he’s much closer to the prolific Brian Michael Bendis, who thrives on canon and continuity, and is the main reason why recent Ultimate Marvel publications are almost as confusing as all the recent DC Comics events. Grant Morrison’s Batman issues especially are not so much new and interesting story- lines but riffs on old ones, which is both a boon and a problem for these books. Naturally, the better you know the older stories and the more of the recent (sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting) stories you have read, the richer your reading experience may be. However, I’m herewith issuing a full recommendation to read Batman: The Black Glove. Compared with the flaccid affair that The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul was, this is a dense and interesting piece of storytelling which may seem obscure and bewildering at times, but that does not necessarily make for bad reading.

On the contrary. I greatly enjoyed this book and so will you, unless you have an inexplicable aversion to men in tights. Part of this enjoyment is due to Morrison’s impeccable writing, yet another, arguably greater, part is due to the choice of artists. While Tony S. Daniel, who penciled one of three sections of the book, isn’t great, his pencils are confident and clear enough (especially when inked by Jonathan Glapion) to steer the reader through what, at times, seems like a maze of smaller and larger stories. The highlights are the first and the short last section of Batman: The Black Glove. The first seems to comprise a self-contained story, which draws on Gothic elements and classic DC characters and story-lines, as well as thriller and mystery tropes from various literary and cinematic sources. The art, by J.H. Williams III, who appears to have penciled and inked the whole section himself, is extraordinarily evocative and energetic. There are many moments in Morrison’s recent output when you have the impression that his work is a chore and that he’s content with producing solid stories that make enough sense to continue in later volumes. Maybe it took an artist like Jim Williams III to reintroduce this kind of enthusiasm for the genre to Morrison’s efficient “event” writing.

This first section, “The Island of Mr. Mayhew” is about a meeting of Silver Age ersatz-Batmen, with different looks and strengths. There is a Native American with a cliché feather headdress, an Englishman who uses a knight’s armor. There is an American crime fighter who dresses up like a Roman soldier, and many more. All of them refer back to equivalents in the canon, but their grievances, and the back stories that are introduced here and alluded to are clearly influenced by the work of Neil Gaiman in some of his Sandman volumes, and by Alan Moore’s writing in The Watchmen. These characters meet regularly, and Batman is also regularly invited yet he never shows up. There is a bitterness in these would-be superheroes. They are not ridiculous, in fact, they have fought crime, each of them, with varying degrees of success. They are old now, grown fat, lazy and despondent, and blame others for their demise. Since the whole Batman R.I.P./Final Crisis event involves the demise of Batman, who vanishes at the end of these story-lines, dead, mad or lost, the coven of old superheroes is a clever mirroring of the actual Batman, it also prefigures the appearance of multiple Batmen later in the story. Most importantly, however, it uses its connections to Moore’s and Gaiman’s work to smuggle a critique of superhero-dom and its Manichean thinking into what appears to be a regular kind of story (unlike books like Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns).

Grant Morrison is adept at this: writing a great story which, however, has implications that transcend the usual goals and meanings of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to belittle superhero comics, on the contrary. I think that the things that can be said with the tools and tropes of the genre are fascinating, interesting and challenging intellectually, but there is, as with all other genres, a limited palette, all colors of which tend to point inward, into the dark caverns of genre and writing. This is true of many of the best works of the genre: the aforementioned book by Miller, or Frank Miller’s great Electra run (with art by the amazing Bill Sienkiewicz), Greg Rucka’s writing, or indeed much of Mark Millar’s work, for example. Morrison, even in his weaker stories, is different. He never seems to have abandoned the thinking and powerful artistic vision that we see in his The Invisibles comic book series (continued in the madness of The Filth), but he’s no longer flaunting it. Instead his work quietly, through juxtapositions and odd disruptions, destabilizes assumptions in normative narratives. Sometimes, as in “The Island of Mr. Mayhew”, it’s just a few references and peculiar settings.

The chapter develops into a regular murder mystery, as one by one the aging superheroes are murdered by what we soon assume to be Mr. Mayhew, the man who called the meeting. It’s a retread of a story that is old enough to have been consummately parodied as far back as 1978, when Neil Simon’s hilarious Murder by Death came out. In essence, “The Island of Mr. Mayhew”’s is a very similar story, with a showdown that appears to be as convoluted and overwrought as Simon’s. But it is the art that makes it stand out. Williams’ panels are often dipped in blackness, with disrupted and skewed panels, sometimes resembling the Bat sign, for example. Blood and fear seems to spill from panel to panel and page to page. It’s a highly dynamic design, although the actual drawing of the characters is much more static. As is, the reading experience is disorienting, recreating for the reader the mazes and dangers of the Mayhew’s house. In the Gothic setting, Morrison found a perfect background for his continuing interest in family and heredity.

The vision of order that follows the Batman through all his incarnations, from Bob Kane’s (or rather Bill Finger’s, as it were) colorfully campy original, to Frank Miller’s pitch-black version of it, has been transposed onto the personal level by Morrison. In this, as in previous volumes in this crossover event, from Batman & Son (pencilled by Andy Kubert) to The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, Morrison engages private order as compliment and contrast to social order, a structure that will culminate in the two parallel publications of Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. It’s fascinating to read the spin on this that this first section develops. As a standalone volume, this would be a short but excellent addition to the canon. It is paired, however, with two more sections. The second one, easily the longest, is called “Space Medicine” and is even more disorienting, if mostly because of what feels like dozens of stories crashing in. There are so many of them, in fact, that the main storyline gets lost and when it resurfaces at the end of the section, we don’t really care. The section continues an arc from the final chapter of Batman & Son, but you don’t need to have read it. In fact, I think that part of the fun of it is trying to make sense of the onslaught of things that happen, revelations imparted upon the reader and odd names and words.

I’m not sure that Batman: The Black Glove is supposed to be much clearer, actually, since Morrison’s sly deviations from old stories should be sufficiently confusing even to veteran readers of the books, such as his reinvention of the alien Batman Tlano from the planet Zur-En-Arrh, from a 1958 story called Batman – The Superman of Planet-X, reinvented as a psychotic personality developed by a trauma suffered by Bruce Wayne a few years ago. Again, events are turned inward, to the personal, and an interstellar crisis is converted into a personal one. It’s impossible to say more without spoiling the surprise and pleasurable bewilderment of this section, which paves the way for Batman’s last stand in Batman R.I.P.. A final mention should be accorded to Ryan Benjamin, whose art I have already praised here and who penciled the brief last section. He doesn’t get much to work with, as he’s asked to illustrate a chapter that feels rushed inasmuch as the writing is concerned. This chapter is clearly a bridge to the next volume, and that purpose is always clear to the reader. These few pages are intriguing but necessarily unsatisfying. What pleasure we derive from them is due to Benjamin’s pencils which intimate the disintegration of Batman, something that we hoped for from Daniel’s pencils in the previous chapter who wasn’t able or willing to deliver. As always, Benjamin’s work is dynamic and extremely effective, and I wish there was more of it.


That said, the book as a whole seems to be very well proportioned. Some shortcuts, some rushed scenes and story-lines, but all told, Batman: The Black Glove seems remarkably concise. It makes sense as a prequel to the cataclysmic events to come, it makes sense as a standalone book, and, most importantly, it makes sense as part of an ongoing larger project. In his most recent novel Lowboy, John Wray has one of his characters say “Your order isn’t my order”. In Wray’s excellent book, this is a statement about perception and about an examination of the conventions embedded in that which we accept as given. Grant Morrison writes about similar issues, but he doesn’t examine. He destabilizes, he suggests, intimates. As a writer he doesn’t write from an authoritative position, he doesn’t lecture. And, surprisingly, he keeps finding excellent artists to work with him. Good ones like Tony S. Daniels and extraordinary ones like Ryan Benjamin, J.G. Jones or, more recently, Frank Quitely. It’s a joy to read a new book by Morrison, and his publications are among my most highly anticipated publications each year. If you haven’t yet got on board, do so. If you’re new to this, maybe not with this exact volume, but don’t pass Morrison by. It’s more than worth it to check him out.

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Rutu Modan: Exit Wounds

Modan, Rutu (2008), Exit Wounds, Drawn and Quarterly
[Translated by Noah Stollman]
ISBN 978-1-897299-83-8

I am deeply impressed by Rutu Modan. She is a young Israeli writer and artist, whose work has been trickling slowly into our English-speaking hands. There was a wonderful column at the New York Times, called Mixed Emotions (direct link here) from May to October 2007, and then the same year, Drawn and Quarterly published her first graphic novel, Exit Wounds, in a translation by Noah Stollman and it’s one of the best graphic novels I read all year. It is marvelous. Rutu Modan has created a humane, smart, beautiful book that challenges you and charms you at the same time. It is so complete and well-structured that it’s hard to believe that this is her first solo full-length book.

Prior to this publication, Modan was mostly a creator of cartoons and short sequences, most notably as editor of the short-lived Hebrew version of MAD Magazine. She also co-wrote a graphic novel that hasn’t yet found an English publisher or translator. A few stories of hers were published by Drawn and Quarterly as Jamilty and other Stories, and we can only hope there’s more to come. Exit Wounds is a full success, revolving around some similar issues as Alison Bechdel’s “tragicomic” memoir Fun House, but without the portentous Bildungsbürger weight that Bechdel hangs on her narrative. There is a certain lightness to Modan’s book that impresses me more than many other aspects of it, what with all the bleak- and darkness that it has to contend with.

Exit Wounds is, after all, at least in part, a novel about death. It is an explosion by a suicide bomber, murdering people by a bus station cafeteria in Hadera that provides the impetus for the main plot, which is fashioned with many of the trappings of the mystery genre. Many people among the murdered have been identified, except for one. Numi, young woman, watching the news, suddenly, startled, sees a scarf on the the street, unattended, orphaned from its owner. She recognized the scarf immediately, knowing it to belong to her lover Gabriel Franco. The body, however, cannot be identified by any normal means, the only possibility left is a blood test. Gabriel is (was?) an old man, with an ex-wife and children and so Numi decides to speak to his son and convince him to take that blood test.

This is where we enter the story. We meet Koby Franco, a taxi driver in his twenties, who appears to be somewhat ill-tempered and who’s certainly not happy with the direction his life has been taking. One day, a woman steps up to him and tells him his father has been killed in an accident. When he finds out that the scarf is her sole evidence and that she has approached him to make the identification, he dismisses her hypothesis and leaves. Not until weeks later, after not having been able to contact his father, after entering his father’s apartment only to find it deserted, he decides to have a more thorough talk with Numi to ascertain whether her fearful speculations hold any water.

Together they set out on an odyssey to Hadera and other places. Hadera is a city of some 77000 inhabitants, near Haifa. In the early 2000s it has known a fair amount of murderous attacks, numbers which have only gone down after the construction of the West Bank barrier, which, in Hadera as in other Israeli cities, has increased safety noticeably and significantly. Rutu Modan’s story, however, which is inspired by David Ofek’s 2003 documentary No. 17, about someone who died in a suicide bombing in 2002 and could not be identified, takes place before this.

The Hadera we encounter is a lonely place. People are hardened, the explosion, although it has taken place in the recent past, hasn’t left the impression upon their memories that it could have. A woman in the cemetery grins as she talks about a large number of victims to be interred the day Koby and Numi visit. Another woman hasn’t mentioned her being close to the explosion to her husband so he wouldn’t find out she was cheating on him. An immigrant, traumatized, leaves the country, which one of the regular patrons of the cafeteria comments with a shrug, mentioning that “her cleaning got worse.” On Israelis, these heinous attacks seem to leave but a fleeting impression, but that’s only superficially true. In Exit Wounds, the brown, gray and ocher exteriors of cities like Hadera bespeak the loneliness, the sense of loss, of fear even, that permeates the everyday.

This experience of loss, in turn, is part of an exploration of the relationships between the survivors. All kinds of characters are in love, or in relationships. The love story at the heart of the book is especially striking in that it is initially introduced by way of another relationship, Numi and Gabriel’s. A love letter to Gabriel, penned by Numi, quoting a Cole Porter song, serves as a catalyst, as kindling for the fire of what will start out as friendship and end up in a steaming sex scene on a lawn (this scene, by the way, is one of the most perfectly realized scenes I have ever encountered in this medium, these are panels that are sensuous but also fueled by a very intimate kind of realism, slightly off, but highly believable).

The love story sneaks up on you, it hides under the mystery plot and takes up more and more space, in fact, the two stories are intertwined, and as the love theme takes up speed, the reader is more and more enchanted, but despite the magical qualities it develops, the love story always, like that scene on the lawn, stays believable. The character of Numi and her visual representation has a large role in this. Unusual for visual media, Numi, the female love interest in Exit Wounds is rather plain and Rutu Modan frequently opts to dress her in clothes that conceal rather than expose her figure. Since the basic silhouette of the female body is so well established as a signifier, Modan’s decision here is remarkable and ties into other decisions concerning sex and gender, which are also rendered visually.

The fact that so much of the book is as dependent upon the art as upon the writing is another reason why Exit Wounds is so good. I think it’s the mark of an excellent graphic novel that many significant ideas are conveyed visually rather than through the writing. The artwork isn’t a substitute for writing, or an ‘enhancement’, and writers or artists who recognize the unique powers that the art has in telling not just a story, but in exploring and interrogating ideas and concepts, frequently produce stunning works. Rutu Modan’s art, clearly indebted to the ligne claire style of francophone comics, is successful in conveying that tension between light and dark elements I mentioned before.

The precise, highly detailed background, its colors perfectly conveying shifts in light and mood, is often devastating in its depiction of landscapes empty of human beings, or fading passers-by into a brownish background. And even when Modan pits her characters against a flat, monochrome background without any details, the effect is harsh, as it draws out the loneliness in the characters acting in the foreground, their every gesture and facial expression look suddenly so much more significant.

These gestures are interesting in their own right. Modan’s cartoonish way of drawing her characters, significantly less detailed than the background, reduced to a few important, telling lines, eschews the hyperrealistic (but artificial) style that, for example, Terry Moore employs. Despite not always being anatomically correct, her characters appear all the more life-like. I find it hard to describe, but I would describe it as a kind of warm realism, capturing the sense of a gesture more than the precise angle of the limbs involved. Modan’s art brings her characters to life; unlike Terry Moore’s art, for example, which uses, or toys with, iconical imagery, Modan’s interest is less intertextual, so to say; it’s her artwork, more than the dialogue (which is sometimes rather wooden, after reading Mixed Emotions, I blame Stollman’s translation) or other aspects of her writing, which creates the sense of verisimilitude that I have kept mentioning.

This believability, in turn, makes her ideas, whether it’s about the consequences of terror in a haunted populace, as mentioned above, or about issues of gender (women with make-up, for example are drawn with wider eyes, in a more exaggerated, doll-like manner, perhaps signifying the role they assume by dressing up like that), more palatable and the whole of Exit Wounds less like a sustained discourse of ideas about all kinds of things than an affecting and effectual story about a human’s fate and two other persons’ love. That love is not an alternative to the loss that the explosion has caused in the survivors and that permeates the pages of Exit Wounds.

In fact, the central and all the smaller peripheral relationships which become the more visible the more the novel progresses, are, I would argue, structured by absences. Absences drive people into relationships or keep people in them, some, like the embittered waitress at the cafeteria, clearly keep up relationships with the deceased, the eternally absent ones. At the core of all this is Gabriel, Numi’s former lover and Koby’s father. Slowly but surely he emerges as a fascinatingly itinerant character, in search of his identity, professional as well as personal. People who loved him or knew him once can only hold on to that sliver of his personality, the fact that they believe they know him is the perfect indicator that he’s gone again, in search of a different identity. He is always absent, not just in the pages of Exit Wounds, but also in the lives of its protagonists. He leaves behind objects, words, memories which help to construct his past but are useless in the present.

That permanent absence, that elusiveness serves to elevate Modan’s book onto a different level of discourse. Ultimately, she succeeds in welding the personal level (the love story, finding out about your father’s fate etc.) to a transpersonal level, thus raising questions (especially with the political subtext) about different identities, about general questions of inheritance and tradition (after all, the father/son dynamics are highly important). One of the major concerns in Exit Wounds, I think, is the role of the younger generation in a country so dominated and structured by the discourse of the founding fathers’ generation, the fathers’ religion. Modan’s answer is a humane one, a call to step free from the obsession with and the search and constant scrutiny of the past, a call for a communication between individuals of the younger generation, almost, even, an admonishment for them to make their own lives, to jump, even, into the future, relying on one’s fellow men. And Modan does this seemingly without effort, within just under 200 pages, and wholly successful. Extraordinary.

Terry Moore: Echo: Moon Lake

Moore, Terry (2008), Echo: Moon Lake, Abstract Studio
ISBN 978-189259740-3

I’ve been meaning to review this graphic novel for ages, but, as with many of its colleagues, I am frequently puzzled as to what, exactly, to say about it. Well, to cut to the chase: Terry Moore’s Echo: Moon Lake, the first book in an ongoing series, is very interesting, certainly worth reading, but so introductory that, without having read more books in the series, it’s hard to say anything definite about it. It’s self-published in Moore’s own imprint “Abstract Studio”. The book is rather brief and barely manages to introduce all of what I assume to be the major characters. Unlike other brief first volumes such as Jeff Smith’s Rasl: The Drift (my review here), it doesn’t throw you into the hot action immediately. The overall storytelling is very old-fashioned and the present volume is basically an exposition. Make no mistake, it’s certainly not boring and lots of things happen, there’s an enormous amount of actual, well, action, but the tone and the speed of the whole enterprise is, so far, leisurely. There is much that is intriguing about the setup, but, and this is really strange, the series could now go either way. It could turn out to be horribly tedious or marvelously enchanting and/or suspenseful. It’s impossible to tell and this kind of ambiguity is not necessarily a good attribute of any book.

In my recent attempts to read up on classical and contemporary comics and graphic novels, I had come across Terry Moore’s name before but hadn’t actually read any of his books yet. He is most famous for being the creator of the well-known and critically successful series Strangers in Paradise, a series that combines a look at the mundane affairs of a group of women, among them lesbian and bisexual characters, the portrayal of which won Moore a GLAAD award in 2001, with a Mafia-style thriller plot. The accurate portrayal of the interpersonal relationships won Moore a following far beyond the reach of the genre. Plots and dialogue were especially praised for their verisimilitude and lack of clichés. Personally, I can verify none of this but I do see traces of this kind of writing at work in Echo: Moon Lake, as well. Actually, his new series appears to be fundamentally similar in several respects to his earlier books, and Moore’s vision of his art is intact, or maybe even expanded in all the best ways. Moore is both the artist and the writer of both series and both aspects are very well done, at least as far as craftsmanship is concerned. By now, I’ve read too many graphic novels not to be thankful for someone with Moore’s skills at work.

The story, set in and near the California National Park, is about some new hightech battle suit, which looks like latex, but is actually some sort of metal. It’s both a suit of armor as well as a weapon. We’re not explained what it is, exactly, but these are properties that quickly become obvious (personally, I was reminded of Donna Haraway’s cyborg here and if and when I’ll discuss more books from this series I might return to this). As we enter the story we watch a woman in that suit take flight. This is apparently an effort to test that suit and during those tests she’s shot at from planes. Attached to the suit is a kind of jet pack and she uses it to escape a pair of sidewinders launched at her from an airplane. That escape, however, goes awry as the sidewinders finally catch up with her and kill her. The ensuing explosion sends thousands of small suit-particles down, like viscous metal rain. Julie Martin, the book’s protagonist, is driving through the area and a few hundred of those particles slam through the roof of her car and onto her. She tries to flee them but to no avail. Eventually, those particles that landed on her attract some of those that are lying on the ground and on the back of the car and together they form a suit-fragment, all on their own, like a thick second skin around her shoulders and over her large breasts (I will return to that aspect). This is when the story takes off. In the subsequent chapters, the military starts tracking her down, the dead woman’s boyfriend starts asking questions and a homeless man, who was also struck by some particles, is using the suit’s potential for aggression in his own way.

He’s a bit cracked and imagines that God has blessed him with a weapon and proceeds to shower people with lightning. He wears a long, white beard, has wild black eyes and his face appears to be trying out different kinds of snarls. I dwell on him a bit because it is his portrayal that lifts the book onto another level. The whole pace of the storytelling is slow, the military functions the way it always does, especially in visual media, it’s corrupt, greedy and somewhat mean. Julia’s personal history is very much foregrounded. As in Stranger than Paradise, Moore is most successful when he attempts to convey to us how Julia feels about all this. She lives alone with a dog, her husband, a pretty cop, has just sent her her divorce papers, waiting for her to sign them, and now this. A doctor she consults thinks she’s playing a practical joke on him, her husband thinks she’s trying to confuse him and stall the divorce proceedings and this new suit is completely alien. She didn’t ask for it and she can’t get it off either and she can’t even seem to control its powers, since it appears to randomly zap people who touch it. That story is interesting and the suit clearly works as a trope as well as as an interesting object, but the hobo puts a spin on the whole thing, a kind of urgency. His control of the device and Julie’s passivity are in sharp contrast, causing us to read the book in terms of gender. But there is more. His portrayal, especially the visual portrayal, recalls certain superhero tropes.

Generally speaking, the art is, in a way, old-fashioned, a very clean and bright black-and-white look that seems to always achieve what it sets out to do. Violent, expressive scenes are just as convincingly rendered as intimate interiors. Unlike artists such as J.G. Jones, Moore is not very careful with background details when focusing upon people in the foreground of the panel, although, now and then, he draws whole landscapes by panning away from the action, and he’s excellent at that as well, with an interesting mixture of detailed and sketched detail in there. His main strength, that part of his work, where he most appears to come into his own, however, are faces and facial expressions. In keeping with his kind of storytelling that focuses on characters and interpersonal relationships, his art is very intent to be accurate, precise almost, to show us facial expressions. Faces, even in the background, are not left unattended, which incredibly animates the art. Although, as in any work of the genre, facial expressions are conventionalized, Moore’s commitment to his characters shines through. Now, this kind of animated use of facial expressions isn’t new to comics, but the mixture in Moore’s art is rare. The animated, conventional but lively faces are in contrast to the black-and white art, reduced to significant details (although nowhere as near as reduced as, for example David B.’s work), frequently panning out and in again. Moore has a cinematographer’s eye for good frames, and good, even epic shots. He can be artful when he wants to be and he is also capable of seamlessly slipping into the visual language of superhero comics.

Now, on this blog and elsewhere I’ve frequently pointed out that one of the strengths of the superhero genre are iconic visuals. Moore’s main strength, drawing convincing characters, isn’t normally found nor necessary to that genre. However, Moore heavily borrows from it. Several shots and details clearly evoke superhero tropes. There are Julie’s breasts, which are above-averagely large; this is an important fact, Echo: Moon Lake, after all, repeatedly draws our attention to that fact, not least by placing the suit-fragment squarely there. The use of female proportions in the genre has frequently been remarked upon and it has been amply discussed, so there’s little need for me to do so. I do want to remark on the fact, though, that it’s, as so often, interesting that this focus on female breasts is not accompanied by a heightened sexuality in the story. Quite the contrary, in fact. If anything, the book leans towards a morality based on a Christian understanding. One of the book’s topics seems to be the hubris and danger of scientific positivism (the individual issues ( Echo: Moon Lake collects Echo issues 1-5) are all prefaced by a cautionary Albert Einstein quote), which is balanced by a very intriguing set of religious allusions or underpinnings. The basic fact of religious irrationality isn’t so much acknowledged, as exoticised, in the way that irrationality becomes a subset of religious thinking, with ‘normal’ people being both at the same time.

This, however, is very tentative, guesswork, impossible to verify without reading more. Another ‘apparent’ blind spot is patriotism, which plays a very weird role in the book. Again, it’s impossible to judge, from the evidence of this book alone, but. Another superhero trope is found in the visual representation of the hobo. Every panel featuring him and his new powerful glove, basically screams super-villain. He isn’t ‘the’ villain, in fact, he appears to be somewhat delusional and pathetic, but the visual representation tells a slightly different story, reminding me, personally, of Marvel Universe staple Thor (especially of the slighty mad Thor re-invention by Mark Millar in his Ultimates series). In his depiction and Julie’s are numerous stories. About power, strength and gender inequality. About convictions and weakness. And ultimately, the destructive power of the atomic bomb and similar devices, as they are related to crazy people like the hobo, and to male and patriarchal power structures in general. Moore tosses a lot of ideas around, but without reading more, this is all I can say. I enjoyed reading it and will be picking up volume two (Echo: Atomic Dreams, collecting issues 6-10) soon. Volume three  (Echo: Desert Run) was just published this month, it collects issues 11-15. I haven’t read either but on the strength of the first volume, I will read both,because Echo: Moon Lake is a highly original, highly professional and an intriguing read.

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Brian Wood: DMZ

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2006), DMZ: On the Ground, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1062-5

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2007), DMZ: Body of a Journalist, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1247-6

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2007), DMZ: Public Works, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1476-0

Sometimes I’m confused. Sometimes, a book will come along that confuses me for one reason or other. I recently finished Erwin Mortier’s novel Marcel which I really wanted to like but which is actually bad, I think, for various reasons, but my heart is still with it. Another kind of confusion is caused by books like Brian Wood’s DMZ series of graphic novels/comics. Really, they are excellently written, well conceived and all three artists that I’ve so far encountered within the pages of DMZ did an excellent job, nuanced, expressive, precise. What’s more, they are eminently readable, it takes restraint not to go out and read every volume that has so far been published. But when I stacked the books on my desk a moment ago and decided to write a review, I was confused, confused mostly by the fact that I find myself dissatisfied with the whole enterprise, and it’s not something that is likely to improve in later volumes. For me there is something deeply unsatisfactory in what Wood attempts here. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

DMZ: On the Ground, the first volume, introduces the characters and the basic problem they face. Matt Roth, a young man, filled with the ambition to make it as a journalist, has a father with enough influence to get him onto a helicopter that flies Ferguson, a famous TV journalist into a New York, which has become a front in a new civil war between the United States of America and the Free States, who rose against the US, leading a guerrilla warfare all across the country. Since the Free States appear to operate in cells, there is no steady front line, except for New York, i.e. the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, adjacent both to the Free States and the United States. The DMZ, as its name suggests, contains no soldiers, just civilians, except for the occasional hostile action by one or the other party. As we learn in a story in the second volume, “Zee York”, events that led to the establishment of the DMZ happened so quick that those who stayed did not necessarily do so intentionally. So what happened was that a microcosm was created containing civilians committed to New York, crooks, and terrorists. Due to the constant shooting and the dangers of living there, no journalists are living there as DMZ: On the Ground sets in, which is the main reason for Ferguson to want to go there.

Once they arrive there, however, the helicopter is shot down; Matt Roth barely escapes with his life and some of the equipment that Ferguson and the crew were carrying. Henceforth Roth is the only photojournalist in the DMZ, with exclusive access to the people and events in one of the hottest zones of conflict in the world (at one point, we are told about the international reactions to events taking place there, which reveals just how important and central the DMZ is to the historical narrative outside). In the three books I read, he learns to survive, he learns about both parties involved, is confronted with corruption and the limits of freedom of the press in times of war. We get to know some of the people living in the DMZ and the motivations that make them get up in the morning and go about their business. At its heart, it is an ode to New York, because much that is said to distinguish the DMZ has already been said in praise of New York, of the particular kind of people who live there, the atmosphere. When I read an article about gardens created along a on old, unused railway in New York, images of that intriguing place meshed in my head with similar gardens on roofs among the rubble, overseeing the ruined remains of the once-proud city. The pride is still there, but it feels as if New York is just one big neighborhood, where people care for one another and try to make life worth living.

Zee, Roth’s first friend and constant ally, who was a med student when the war broke out and is now a slightly rougher, tougher version of Florence Nightingale, says at one point that the people in the DMZ are no longer Americans, but something new, which is a nice thought, but wrong in an interesting way. While the two parties fighting each other each claim true “American-ness” for their side, their definition of what it means to be American is the partisan, McCarthyite definition many right (and left-) wingers hold today. It’s the definition on the basis of which the likes of Glenn Beck start enterprises like his “9/12 Project”, seething with self-righteousness, despising each and everyone who is even slightly different. But there is a different kind of positive self-image that pervades American culture, it’s the one that has engendered the term “Melting Pot”. The United States, a country where different kinds of people from different kinds of nations and backgrounds come and are welcomed, where they forge, together, a new identity. That kind of place is the DMZ, which appears to be, in fact, the most American of the three parties we’ve met so far. And Wood develops this idea not without issuing it with its own batch of righteousness, noticeably in the way that he paints the United States, especially, as cold, corrupt and callous, which is confronted with the warm, helpful and positive depiction of the DMZ citizens.

Clearly, when Wood wants something to count, when he wants to make a point, he isn’t above resorting to cliché and eschewing subtlety, something that is common to the genre he works in but that’s not necessarily in good taste or appropriate with regard to the topics he tackles. It’s weird, but although the DMZ is not-America, the closeness of descriptions of the spirit of the DMZ to praise of America, well-known and culturally ingrained, produces a kind of underhanded patriotism, which, in nuce, isn’t really that different from the one that bogged down Cory Doctorow’s otherwise fine YA novel Little Brother (my review). That is a problem for a book that is basically a sustained critique of nocive contemporary developments, because it stifles the possibilities of the criticism, instead of making people understand the subject of the criticism, this form of critique throws them back into oppositions, I think, which is also lazy thinking. Woods does a far better job of portraying smaller details of photojournalism. Yes, there are good and bad journalists, so far so boring, but then, especially in the first volume, but intermittently in the others as well, Woods raises concerns about the limits of a lens, the way things are selected, presented.

I said this is done best in the first volume and not just because it throws lots of different aspects of this idea of identity and visibility at the reader. There are, unforgettably, two marksmen, looking at each other through super-powerful spy-glasses, from one end of NY to the other, who fall in love. There is the danger Roth suddenly finds himself in when he loses his press jacket, with the letters PRESS printed visibly on the back, so that he is suddenly, without a role, easy bait for sharpshooters and scavengers. And there are all the things Roth sees and photographs for the first time, things we, too, see for the first time. And Roth frames the images in order to send them to his bosses, just as the artist frames the same images, but one level removed, for us. And we see both more and less than Roth. In the first volume, we are frequently made aware of what detail Roth focuses on, with a panel of the comic following his gaze, highlighting the image for us, as well. This was one of the reasons I was so drawn to this series, but little of this survives in the next volumes, reflexiveness is pretty much out the window, supplanted by old oppositions and a rebellious sentimentality, for lack of better words, which has its advantages but it is a step down.

The weird patriotism has to do with the writing but generally, writing is this series’ strong suit. DMZ‘s major weakness, however, is the artwork. Not that it’s not, generally speaking, good. Burchielli is wonderful as main artist, Brian Woods’ own covers are great and the one guest artist so far, un nommé Kristian Donaldson, adds a fascinating and well-executed angle to the story he drew and inked. But compared to the writing the art just doesn’t keep up, it fails to add anything, that’s just it, all it does is hasten to present, it illustrates, never illuminates. It’s best in the first volume, which contains inserts penciled and inked by Wood himself, panels that are drawn in the style of the cover art and enhance the stories. No, really, it’s not fair to Burchielli who really does a great job, who is as comfortable and accomplished with sweeping, epic scenes as with dynamic action sequences, but as a whole it left me shrugging. It is well done, and the gritty look certainly fits the story, but the visual aspects of the comic are here always and clearly secondary to the writing.

Anyone who has ever publicly talked in a positive manner about comics or graphic novels will have met their share of people convinced that graphic novels are a parasitic form of literature, basically unnecessary, adding little that could not be included in a novel. Generally, this approach is easily fought off. Millar’s work with the Marvel canon (Millar’s work wouldn’t, largely, even work as novels. As I said elsewhere, Millar’s work is highly dependent upon the artists he works with) or Moore’s exploration of the Swamp Thing, or Moore’s meditation on space and time in From Hell, all these things make ample use of their medium, in a way that would not work as a novel.

Now, DMZ, that’s a different case altogether. Take the marvelous third volume, DMZ: Public Works. It has a spellbinding story, contains interesting ideas about class and identity, and is wonderfully drawn, yet as a novel it would lose nothing. It doesn’t need to be a comic, it just happens to be one. In a way Woods/Burchielli are like novelists whose writing displays little sensitivity to or interest in language. So, to return to the review’s first paragraph, there you have it. This is good on multiple levels, but the apparent arbitrariness of its choice of medium is disappointing although its hard to say why. You wouldn’t reproach a novel for not being a movie, after all. Maybe it’s the fact that I expected more, that I expected author and artist to care more about their creation, that there would be a different rationale for the artwork than just competence. That said, it is a great series, so far, and I love so many things about it. But, well, it could be so much better. Wood and Burchielli settle for too little here. Far too little, and it leaves a bland aftertaste.

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Bryan Lee O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

O’Malley, Bryan Lee (2004), Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Oni Press
ISBN 978-1-932664-08-9

I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I think that Bryan Lee O’Malley is a genius. Or brilliant, anyway. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is the first book of his that I read and it blew me away, or rather: it riveted me to the chair I read it in. It is the first volume of an ongoing series about Scott Pilgrim, published with Oni Press. I’ve almost finished reading the second volume and I itch to get my hands on the other volumes that have been published so far. The book is an exhilarating ride, a barrelful of fun, an amazing book, in short and his writer, if this book is any indication, is one to cherish and to keep an eye on. Yes, this series of his is written in a limited register but he owns that format, that tone so completely and utterly, he has mastered the genre so completely that I have faith in his achieving great things in the world of comics. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life may seem slight but it is a great achievement, a book that bursts with a manic, joyful energy, that takes hold of you and doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Yes, I sound a bit empty there, slinging cheap phrases around, but that’s because I don’t really have the words to truly express how I feel about O’Malley’s work.

Maybe I’ll start somewhere else. When Cornelia Funke, probably Germany’s most well known living writer of children’s and Y.A. Literature, started publishing her Inkheart books (review forthcoming), I was already a fan of her work. She used a fresh and original language, vivid and funny characters. Whenever I extemporized about how good children’s lit could be, I always mentioned her work. Inkheart was (is) a huge let-down. It’s competently written but direly dull, in too many places. It’s smugly literate and annoyingly adult, in all the wrong ways. It’s clearly written for kids but it lacks the spark that animates the best of children’s literature. Before I picked up Inkheart, I never quite knew what drew me towards good or great literature written for young adults, but when I found it sorely lacking in Inkheart, I knew: it was the spark. It can be strong and pronounced, or subtle and quiet, but I found that in all books I admired, it was there. The difference to ‘adult’ literature is, however, frequently read the wrong way. Too often writing for teens is just an excuse to produce shoddy writing. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (review forthcoming) is a particularly horrid example.

Bryan Lee O’Malley, in contrast, does everything right; the spark leaps right off the page the minute you open the book. There’s not a page, not a panel in the book that I would ever label a letdown, a disappointment. Instead of stiffening the dialog Meyer-style, shriveling it up like a raisin, O’Malley’s pen is deft and quick, his language is always fresh, frequently surprising. To my ear he appears to perfectly catch a certain youthful register, but then I’m old, basically inherently lame (saying this is somewhat lame already I’m afraid) but then I’m not here to judge an authenticity contest, I am the reader of this book and for me it all worked magically, perfectly. O’Malley knows when to slip into a teenager corniness, into cool swagger, teen sarcasm etc. This musicality, sureness of tone is further emphasized by the book’s concern with music. Not only is the name ‘Scott Pilgrim’ inspired by a single by the moderately well known Canadian rock band Plumtree, Pilgrim, the character, is also a guitarist in a band and we hear several songs and at one point, O’Malley actually includes the chords to one of those songs. Music also has strange powers; at one point, a band plays a song that regularly knocks the whole audience out.

Speaking of strange powers. The plot is also somewhat strange although it’s, to a large extent, a conventional romance, I guess. The book starts off with Scott Pilgrim on the defense as his friends find out he’s dating a high school girl. Scott is 23 and the girl, Knives Chau, is all of 17 years old, going to a Catholic school, and she’s of Chinese ancestry to boot. She falls in love with Scott, but he, meanwhile has fallen in love with a mysterious American girl, Ramona Flowers, who first appears in his dreams and whom he then meets at a party. As it turns out Scott has a “subspace highway” going through his head. Although Scott is a bit confused about this, this is more or less taken in stride and it’s no oddity in this book where strange, vaguely magical things keep turning up. Scott and his band, for example, have strange powers, but most significantly, Ramona Flowers is not an easy girl to date. We find out that in order to go out with her, a suitor has to fight her seven evil ex-boyfriends first, the first one of which shows his vengeful, jealous face in this book, another one showing up in the next. They are diligent, well-organized and committed. Good thing that Scott Pilgrim is a good fighter, and quite generally awesome.

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s art suits the writing perfectly. Generally speaking, it’s very rough, very simple. It’s fueled by a mad teenage energy, no panel is drawn indifferently, reading the book is like taking a fresh breath of air. The characters are drawn in a few broad strokes, with O’Malley’s concentrating upon a few salient details. It’s cartoonish but the difference from many contemporary animated cartoons which it resembles superficially, is in the precision that O’Malley brings to his art. O’Malley manages to get the right angle, the right stroke of the pen to express something, to really animate his drawings. The low level of detail in his panels further accentuates this, his ability to foreground characters, to imbue them with life. His art is simple but it’s also economical, he uses its simplicity in a way that makes further detail, further refinement seem unnecessary. The teenage hyperbole of its writings, the gushing energy, these things seem to ask for this treatment. And, again, unlike many superficially similar animated cartoons, O’Malley not only borrows from the cinema, he puts angels and constructions borrowed from cinema to great use. Despite its simplicity, O’Malley’s art appears, at times, downright glossy, epic.

One last aspect of the book that needs to be mentioned are video games. I think that video games may even be the most important frame of reference here. Not to deny the cinematic aspect of some frames, but the aesthetic frequently is reminiscent of different video games and even the cinematic aspect could have been channeled via video games; one game especially that is mentioned, Final Fantasy, has always had incredibly refined, movie-like cutscenes. The plot, too, is part of a video game aesthetic, the sudden fighting, the fact that defeated enemies disappear and leave money behind (in the second volume, one of the defeated enemies even leaves behind items), the weird special moves and abilities, all this is part of that. And then there are the direct quotes, such as, for example, objects from classic jump and run arcade games that appear in the second volume, or, most significantly, the name of Scott Pilgrim’s band, which, in fact, can be said to sum up an important aspect of the books. The band is called “Sex Bob-omb”, a “bob-omb” being a walking bomb from the classic Super Mario Bros video games.

The combination in the whole phrase that is the band name is probably as apt a description of the cultural locus this book situates itself in, a mixture that makes for great, great fun. The first (and second, so far) volume of this ongoing series are, to use one of this book’s most frequently used words “awesome”. Yes, it alludes to other issues, too, gender, sexuality, perception, but I didn’t have the heart to approach a review of this book from that angle. It’s certainly a rich work of literature, but it’s as certainly not for everyone. If the description appeals to you, don’t hesitate. If you like graphic novels and trust me, don’t hesitate. As for the others: it’s your loss. Seriously. Don’t miss the spark.

Grant Morrison: Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul

Morrison, Grant; Paul Dini, Peter Milligan et al. (2008), Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2032-7

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I am not well read as far as graphic novels are concerned, and I find the vast universe of DC and Marvel to be somewhat confusing. However, a few of my favorite writers in comics have written for DC and Marvel, and worked with some of the most famous characters, so I keep dipping into their books. The fact that the major characters have a history that is decades old, can be among the most confusing parts. While reading Mark Millar’s two excellent Ultimates books, I constantly felt left out, suspecting hints and allusions that were totally lost on me (which is why my review on these books is still on hold…) everywhere. I met many characters which were clearly not new to the universe for the first time in Millar’s story, trying to keep up as best as I could. This, at least, is not a problem in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, which contains a short list of nine of the most important characters with a brief sketch of their recent history and main characteristics. Wikipedia provides further help. This feature is nice in that it allows the reader to just let yourself fall into the supple folds of this story that is so action packed that I had to read parts of it on the edge of my seat. It presents good writing, an engrossing story, huge amounts of kick-ass, and even some great artwork. I greatly enjoyed it and will definitely read more of Grant Morrison’s work on Bob Kane’s leather-clad icon. At the same time, it was my least favorite of all the graphic novels I read this year, possibly because I expected so much more of it.

One thing I expected, when I bought the book, was that it would actually be written by Grant Morrison and Paul Dini, two excellent writers in the genre. The cover, bearing both writers’ names boldly, may have misled me there. Now, I know that what I buy as a book continues several thinner issues that were published separately and collected into the book I hold in my hand. And I know that a story arc contains stories written by other writers. But Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul contains three ‘preludes’ and seven more ‘proper’ chapters, ten all told. Of those, only two were written by Grant Morrison, two by Paul Dini. The rest is divided among Peter Milligan, who penned three chapters, Fabian Nicieza, responsible for two, and Keith Champagne, who wrote one. That means less than half of the chapters were written by Morrison and Dini. Yes, they are pivotal, important chapters, but it’s a fairly long book as far as this genre goes, and all these authors make for very uneven reading. There are dozens of recent Batman titles out, if I wanted a title written by a staff writer of some kind, I could have bought one. I wanted a book by Morrison because I’ve long admired his work. Incidentally, if you ever wondered why some comics writers become superstars and others don’t, you might want to pick up a book like this one, which contains some stunning chapters and some, let’s say: less stunning ones. Grant Morrison’s writing is always great, and Paul Dini’s is good as well, but the others are a mixed bag, to be honest. Most annoying and ultimately disappointing was Peter Milligan.

I do know that Peter Milligan has done some courageous and well-received work in the past, from what I know; he’s done work with Marvel’s controversial X-Force, and he’s garnered a certain fame with mid-1990s graphic novels such as Enigma. So, no, he’s not an unknown, even for me, but, from the evidence provided in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, he’s clearly a second-rate writer, competent but not more than that. His chapters were originally published in issues of Robin, and they contain a focus on Tim Drake, the current Robin. Drake is a teenager and Milligan, by way of red thought-boxes, lets us know that Drake’s an annoying teen, to boot. This is very well done, and Milligan does have a way of driving the story forward, creating tensions between some central characters. Apart from that, his writing is stiff, especially the dialogue which is almost always awkward and badly written. At times, Milligan even appears to be attempting a parody of the much-maligned dialogue of early superhero comics, except that there’s not a trace of humor in his chapters. No, his chapters are just a huge let-down, although the extent of my disappointment varied greatly depending on the artist he worked with. For his worst chapter he worked with David Baldéon; the result is the most annoying chapter in the whole book and a huge waste of time and space and ink, and what’s worse, it does a great disservice to the marvelous story.

In Batman and Son, one of the story arcs that directly preceded The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, Grant Morrison presented to us Damien (I know), Batman’s son with Talia, the daughter of Batman’s sworn enemy, Ra’s Al-Ghul. In a different story arc, Batman killed Ra’s Al-Ghul. Talia and his son now lead a band of evil ninjas, working together with an old assistant and loyal follower of Ra’s, who only goes by the name of White Ghost. This is where the story sets in. Apparently, Ra’s’ spirit has survived but he needs a new body to live on. Ra’s uses a mysterious reservoir with a green liquid, the so-called Lazarus Pit, but it is not enough, this time. This time he needs a full body, and it can’t be anyone else but a male relative, which means: Damien. Early in the book, Talia saves Damien from his grandfather’s greedy clutches and sends him to Gotham City for Batman to take care of him. That doesn’t quite work, as Batman has suspected that his adversary might have survived and follows up hints that lead him straight to Ra’s Al-Ghul’s den. Meanwhile, Damien arrives at Bruce Wayne’s manor where Batman’s friends try to keep him safe. Those friends are Dick Grayson, who used to be Robin but is called Nightwing now that he’s grown up, and the new Robin, Tim Drake. If all these names and titles sound confusing, they are a bit, but what the book does is take a few of them and lend them a voice, thus imbuing the characters with a life all their own. Thus, apart from Milligan’s two Robin chapters, we also get two Nightwing chapters written by Fabian Nicieza, and a most wonderful Damien chapter written by Keith Champagne.

How is all of this significant, you may ask, bewildered. Well, the book is basically a series of chases, of people being hunted, caught and saved, it takes place on several continents and several actions take place at the same time. One writer and one basic point of view may not have done justice to the scope of this book. What’s more, in between the non-stop action (someone is always fighting someone else), the writers manage to fit a surprising amount of thoughtful scenes and difficult decisions. The fact that I needed to look up on Wikipedia why Robin’s not Robin anymore and ephemera like that did not stop me, for example, from feeling Tim Drake’s torment as he is handed the opportunity to bring his dead family back to life. This is no mean success in a book that appears to be mainly about fighting ninjas. But, much more than its more highbrow brethren, even those that work within the DC/Marvel canon, Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul demonstrates the basic strengths of a genre that is among the oldest and strongest of modern literature. It needs to provide thrills and action in order for people to buy copies of the original issues that appeared in publications such as Detective Comics # 838 and Batman Annual #26. And it succeeds marvelously (no pun intended) in that area. At the same time, comics always had an educational, moral aspect to it, something that, in a way, justified their existence. Rather than scoff at the high brow literature that it was always contrasted with, it kept borrowing from that, paying homage to it, and, in some cases creating works that have since been accepted into the ivory towers all around the country. You can expect a collection of this length to raise a few weighty questions about memory, about death, but mostly, in this case, about family.

The basic team of crimefighters that Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul focuses on, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dick Grayson/Nightwing and Tim Drake/Robin, they are all orphans, they are all victims of disasters and they are drawn to each other, creating a new family, the identity of which is not determined by blood or tradition, but by what they do. It’s a modern identity, full of potential and change, especially within the narrow frame works of their society. In his relationship to his society, Batman, as the book frequently assures us, is a detective, someone who keeps up the basic order of his society, who looks for solutions within a given framework and who has no intent of widening that (China Miéville has a lot of fun with these conventions in his incredible novel The City & The City). In his dealings with the larger society, Batman is bound to the nation state and other conventions. Thus, in his person, he unites both an almost violent traditionalism and an interesting potential for change, or at least subversion. The same can be said about Ra’s Al-Ghul, the book’s villain, except that his angle is completely different. His insistence on blood relation, his need, even, for keeping up family relationships structured by blood bonds, is in stark contrast with Batman. Although both Batman and Ra’s have a strictly hierarchical family, with leaders and followers, Batman’s is built on free association, on free will, as the book makes unmistakeably clear. Ra’s Al-Ghul’s family, in contrast, seems to work like a feudal society, and you cannot disagree with the head of the family except by fighting the whole family and leaving it completely. But whereas Batman is a child of his nation, and bound and pledged to it, Ra’s has lived for too long to be bothered by that. By way of the Lazarus Pits he has kept himself alive for centuries. He has had already centuries of experience when the nation state rose and may have even influenced that process, as we learn in a few flashbacks at the beginning of the book.

These complexities make for good reading, but they are largely inherent in the material, the writers have just competently executed it, which is quite decent, often enough, especially when you have the art to match that. However, if you find five writers a bit much for one novel, brace yourself for the fact that the book is pencilled by seven different artists. These are, however, much better than many of the writers. The book’s art shines. Tony S. Daniel, for example, who also collaborated with Grant Morrison on Batman and Son, does a fine job, but I have to confess I particularly enjoyed Ryan Benjamin’s pencils and Jason Pearson’s art.

Ryan Benjamin, for me, is a discovery. The way he renders action scenes, finds just the right angle, the right spot, focus and light to make a scene work, to squeeze the most effect out of a single panel is astonishing. All other fight scenes in the book are by contrast completely static, boring, wasted panels. I’ve sometimes flicked through chapters illustrated by one of the other guys and wished that they’d been done by Benjamin. I’ve never before heard of the man, but I’m sure keeping my eyes open now. His pencils are really excellent, the raw instinct he brings to basic elements of comics is stunning (you can check out recent work, including the excellent webcomic Pancratia, at his site here).

For his chapter (which was written by Keith Champagne), Jason Pearson, of Body Bags fame, did both pencils and ink. Pearson’s work stands out, his art is less intent on details and more on the power of broad swathes of color, idiosyncratic rendering of facial expressions and other moods. Keith Champagne’s brief prelude does not directly tie into the main story; Champagne and Pearson took the resultant liberty to create a short ghost story that is creepy, exciting and the only convincing exploration of Damien’s character in the whole book.

Much, really, is excellent here, and the whole of Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul is a great read, but it is not on a par with many of the other books I have recently reviewed or read, not even with Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man series. Much of that is due to the inclusion of second rate writers, much also to the relentless barrage of fight and other action scenes. After the fifth time that the good guys get attacked by a horde of ninjas, you just want to get it over with. The end is less than satisfactorily, mostly because Grant Morrison’s pivotal chapter is in the middle and is clearly the culmination of much of the book, which makes much of the rest read like an afterthought. The final showdown somehow fizzles away and then, suddenly, everything is over. However, you have to think of this book as one among an ongoing project of Morrison’s. Not only was this novel preceded by Batman and Son, it was followed by Batman: The Black Glove and two of the most highly anticipated stories of the past decade: Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. For various reasons, mostly financial, I will have to skip Batman R.I.P., but I do own Final Crisis and look forward to reading it. I know this review was a bit taxing, after all it was too long, too digressive and too boring, but here’s the thing: I do recommend Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul if what you want is a great, fun Silver Age read, especially if you like ninjas and the occasional Great Question thrown at you.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s “A Drifting Life”

Tatsumi, Yoshihiro (2009), A Drifting Life, Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN 978-1-897299-74-6
[Translated by Taro Nettleton]

Since I am generally decently well read, strange or unknown translations do not normally bewilder me. This book here, Tatsumi’s mammoth A Drifting Life, is different, since in what concerns comics and graphic novels I’m but a novice at best, a consequence of which is the lack of thorough comments on Tatsumi’s artwork in this review (but you can see a sample page here ). A Drifting Life is a graphic novel that an “ editor’s note” proclaims to be an autobiography from what appears to be one of the most important artists in Japanese comics. It was translated by Taro Nettleton, but the fact that we can read it now is mostly due to Adrian Tomine, who is the editor of a series of English publications of Tatsumi’s books, all with Drawn and Quarterly, a Canadian publisher. My edition is gorgeous, very beautiful, but not very forthcoming with information.

What’s the original title of the book? Tomine/Nettleton keep mum about it. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s Gekiga hyoryū, which means, I’m told, “A Gekiga Survivor”; the change in the title is fascinating, as it stresses a completely different aspect of the book. The original title does more justice to the book, but the English title, taking its cue from a passage in the third-to-last panel of the book, is more poetical, perhaps, and lends a much-needed coherence to the book. However, the book is not about a drifting life, it’s rather about a drifting career, about the development of an artist and the industry he worked in the industry that we watch him help shape.

The name of the protagonist is close enough to that of the author to make the dissemblement obvious: Hiroshi Katsumi. Hiroshi, when the book opens, is a teenager, who is obsessed with comics, especially the Japanese variety called Manga. Both he and his sickly brother are avid readers of Manga books and turn out to be talented artists in the genre themselves. When they grow up, developing a love for the genre, an important medium, besides books, which never went out of style, were Manga magazines, which solicited short strips from its young readers and rewarded publication with a medal. From the start, we are told of the way that constrictions of the medium afflict the creative process, as Hiroshi ponders the difference between work on short four-panel pieces and work on longer graphic novels. Incidentally, at this point, I felt left out in the rain by the editor once more. The term “graphic novel” appeared in English in the 1970s and has ever since been the subject of much controversy. As far as I know, the Japanese tradition of using the novel format for comics is older than the English, but Nettleton’s and Tomine’s decision to nonchalantly include this term in the thought processes of a young boy in the early postwar period is problematic, and the reader is completely on his own at this point. No footnotes, no explanations, nothing.

The first chapters are significant in still more ways. For one thing, the first six panels of the book are not primarily concerned with Hiroshi and his story: they relate the situation in Japan directly after the war, linking Hiroshi directly to a historical context:

Hiroshi was ten years old, the war ended during his fourth summer vacation

As we meet Hiroshi, he’s already a Manga fan, but the novel makes no attempt to tell us anything about the war or anything else that happened during that period. The first chapter’s title, “The Birth of Manga”, links the rise of the art form directly to the rise of the nation after the war; thus, when Hiroshi becomes a Manga artist, a circle of sorts is closed. These three elements are shown to be interlinked, interdependent, over and over.

One of the most important factors in the early chapters is their demonstration of how young the early practitioners of the art form were. As we see Hiroshi and his friends establish an alternative tradition to the Manga mainstream, we can’t forget these early chapters. There, even as we watch Hiroshi adulate his heroes, chief among which would be Osamu Tezuka, who debuted in 1946, we are frequently reminded of the fact that they, too, are barely of age. The first hint of this is offered when we are told, as Hiroshi, on his way to school, crosses through the yard of a medical school, that it is this very school, where, at the time, Tezuka was enrolled as a student. When, later, Hiroshi and his friends start publishing work that pushes the envelope in a young but already firmly set genre, they, too, are just of age. The youthful energy, the anger, the hunger for something new, are portrayed as the most important factors in creating art.

Refreshingly, in all the discussions of the artistic achievement of Manga artists and the development of the genre, Tatsumi never discusses talent or other innate factors. Instead, he focuses on two things, both of which have already been mentioned. One is the energy and the questing mind of the artist. This is shown to be important on a personal level: Hiroshi, growing up and becoming successful, has ups and downs in his creative confidence and the quality and quantity of his output. To a large extent, this is explained through the presence of that energy or the lack of it. The other important factor is the medium in which Mangas were distributed. The difference between large format books, short books, short stories, longer novels is not merely a marketing distinction. It directly affects artistic output. To write a short, humorous four panel piece calls for different techniques than, perhaps, a 130 page novel. As Hiroshi grows into his own as an artist he commences what his brother calls wasting panels: he incorporates cinematic effects and techniques into comics, taking several panels to describe a short action, so as to depict it in the most vivid way imaginable. This is difficult to achieve in a story that runs slightly less than 20 pages, because you need more room to develop a story, if the action is to have so much breathing space. So, technically, it’s restraining, but at the same time it opens up new possibilities because you can invoke a slew of new moods, and thus enlarge the kinds of stories you can tell. Hiroshi is a generous narrator, freely attributing innovations to his fellow artists, recounting his jealousy as well as his admiration and, most importantly, his urge to improve, to broaden his palette.

Discussions about the mechanics of Hiroshi’s art are at the heart of this book, which, as I mentioned above, is called “A Gekiga Survivor” in the original. Gekiga, according to a friend of Hiroshi’s, is NOT Manga, but when I keep using the term Manga as a catch-all term, I follow Hiroshi’s distinction, who understands Gekiga as a kind of Manga. This may seem like a superfluous observation, but the mere fact that the book would take the time and room to entertain a long discussion about the question whether Gekiga is Manga or not points to the importance of the question of genre; not, I might add, because Tatsumi wants to stress the permanence and importance of genre limits. On the contrary, his careful use of distinctions and genre allows him to show how Hiroshi’s and his friends’ work was at the eye of a cultural storm, taking hints and aspirations from ‘traditional’, Tezuka-style Manga, from movies, hard-boiled novels (especially Spillane’s) and individual inspiration. Genre is shown to be an economical factor, but also a fact of culture, something that fuels literary dynamics.

Tatsumi’s art in the book serves as a perfect way to transmit this. Tatsumi frequently quotes from these sources. Quotes how you may ask? He recreates, in black and white, images from movies, he re-draws panels from artists that he references. They are not cut out and pasted in, they are drawn by the artist, in short: quoted (although here, too, the documentation by the editor is severely lacking). A Drifting Life makes the utmost of the fact that it is a graphic novel and not prose. When, at one point, Hiroshi reflects upon the way that the amount of detail in a panel makes a reader read slower or quicker, that an artist can thus manipulate the speed with which his readers progress through the book, we, the readers, immediately read the book with a different awareness. When a certain brand of satirical humor, contained in certain graphic quirks, is discussed, many a reader will catch himself looking through sections he’s already read, just to re-evaluate them in a new light.

I could go on for ages, because this book is rich, extremely well told, and infinitely fascinating. The narrative is not suspenseful, but it’s full of intricate symbols and foreshadowing, of developments and reversals. I suspect that this book will open up new vistas with each rereading. It is about the possibilities and the necessities of art when the publisher and the artist have to live off it. It refrains from opening a simple and simplistic opposition between greedy publishers and the poor writers, on the contrary, we are apprised of the fact that the progression of not just an artist but his whole art form is inextricably bound to the fact that money is made off it; several times we see the history of Gekiga make a sudden jump forward because the artists are trying to surmount an obstacle. What happened to Gekiga after the 1960s? The book doesn’t tell us, nor does the editor or translator. In the context of the book, I found it significant, that this book, too, was published in several installments, in a Manga magazine., which I found out trawling the net for the information that Tomine denied me. If this book has a weakness, this lack of information is it.

In a way, this is reflected in the choice of a title that I complained about earlier. As I pointed out, Tatsumi’s book does not show us his drifting life, his main character merges into the culture he was influenced by and that he, in turn, influenced. The drifting is Hiroshi’s life as an artist, it’s the drifting of the group of writers who were to identify as members of the Gekiga workshop, drifting as a cultural dynamic. I suspect that the fact that Tomine read the book as narrowly autobiographical led to his lack of explanations. It is generally called an autobiography because Tomine’s short, largely uninformative “Editor’s Note” informs us that it is one and that

the author has chosen to alter some characters’ names, most notably his own.

What’s the use of that, if the author’s name is on the cover? Oh, I know. Because it’s not an autobiography. It may follow Tatsumi’s biography rather closely, but the artist’s decision to withdraw his own name from the book suggests that it’s not, in fact, an autobiography.

I know that many memoirs and autobiographies are in equal parts portraits of a time as they are portraits of a person. But what we’re up against here is a direct decision of the author. He put his name on the cover, but struck it from the book. When he depicts Hiroshi’s older self, the face he draws looks a lot like the author’s photo in the back of the book, but he hachures over it, so as to hide it from the reader. These are clear decisions of the book and it means selling the artist’s work short when we reduce it to the limits of that genre, and act as if there wasn’t any difference to other proponents of it.

Hiroshi’s life is shown to be in service to his art and his fellow artists, something that is reflected on a different level when, many years into his career, he takes on an unpaid job as an editor. The novel is so well constructed, with all its levels reflecting each other that the more profitable reading would look for inward references instead of streamlining a reading as autobiographical. Reading a text as autobiography (which is how genre, generally works) means involving it in a web of references, claims to truth etc.; there is a good reason to accept the narrow definition that Lejeune famously put forward in the autobiographical pact, which (if I remember it correctly) hinges on a correspondence of names. So, I think it’s not an autobiography, not in the common sense, anyway, but it’s still a biographical novel (in the sense of a novel that follows a person’s life, fictitious or not) that shows us the development of an art form through the development of a small group of friends, who grow up in post-WWII Japan and dream of becoming Manga artists, or rather: Gekiga artists:

I’ve drifted along, demanding an endless dream from Gekiga

the protagonist tells us at the end, continuing:

And I…probably…always will.

This endless dream creates a book that is like a long, meandering stream, like a slow burning fire that explodes sometimes in moments of illumination. In the last chapter, the protagonist, his face carefully shaded, another evasion from the autobiographical glare, attends the funeral of Tezuka, bringing the whole book full circle. The book did not, however, work towards that ending; you don’t read it, breathlessly, to finish it. No, here, as in many other good books, the journey is the reward, the glimpse into the birth both of a culture and of an artist in it. This is an incredible book. I have read few like it. Not Tatsumi’s drifting life, but his life of drafting, of drafting panel after panel, story after story, is an inspiration.