GRAPHIC NOVEL ROUNDUP
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various
Reviewed by Marc Mason
Taking a look at four new books from the last couple of months…
There’s a lot to like about THE JOYNERS IN 3D (Archaia/Boom) by writer R.J. Ryan and artist David Marquez. Set about fifty years in the future, George Joyner is the world’s finest creator of new technology, and he has a new breakthrough ready to happen that will change the world again. He also had a family that is falling apart and a gift for philandering. That second part is, as you might guess, going to bite him in the ass. Ryan creates an interesting group of characters here, the leads well-rounded and multi-layered. Neither George, nor his wife, is entirely good or bad and each one bears part of the blame for the disintegration of their union. Marquez’ art is equally adept with the character stuff as it is in designing the future milieu, and his storytelling is crisp. What doesn’t quite work here is the gimmick: the 3D. Sure, it’s well done, but there’s no real need for it. This is a quiet story, really, and not a single sequence in the book feels truly enhanced by the 3D experience. I liked the book overall, but I would have liked it a little more not having to wear the glasses.
Writer/artist Danica Novgorodoff, who impressed so much with SLOW STORM, returns with THE UNDERTAKING OF LILY CHEN (First Second), which is the best double-meaning title I’ve seen in recent memory. The story involves “ghost marriages” – an old Chinese tradition that involves marrying the dead so that they may be happy in the afterlife. While this sounds like something that would have only happened a long time ago, there has been a resurgence in the last decade or so. Here, the book follows a young man named Deshi who is sent by his parents to find a female corpse who can be married to his newly deceased brother. Along the journey, he meets Lily Chen, a young woman who wants to leave her rural, sheltered existence behind and live a life of her own, as she attaches herself to him. To Deshi’s hired “matchmaker” (grave robber) the solution is simple: kill Lily and marry her off to the brother. But things are rarely that simple, and they certainly aren’t in this story. Novgorodoff creates a story that fires on all cylinders; her characters are interesting and gain depth as the tale moves forward, she offers up an even-handed look at a culture that could easily be misunderstood or mocked, and the sense of design in her artwork is stunning. The journey does drag in the middle, but it recaptures its energy later in the book and delivers a strong, solid ending. Fascinating stuff.
It’s nice to see writer/artist Jesse Lonergan back on shelves, as it’s been a while since JOE & AZAT came out. ALL STAR (NBM) tells a deceptively simple story of a small town high school baseball star named Carl Carter. He’s the kid the whole community rallies behind, the one with a chance to play college ball on scholarship. His best friend, Edsen, is different, though. Edsen’s from a broken home, has a track record for screwing up, and is going nowhere. This fazes neither of them, though, until in a moment of pure stupid, they pull a “prank” while drunk that sees them get arrested by the cops. That’s when Carl begins to truly see the world and its double-standards for the first time, as he and Edsen are given wildly differing punishments. Lonergan does get things right at every turn. His town feels right, the people who live there feel right, the reaction to what happens feels right, and the angst Carl feels over it feels right. There’s a universal recognition of the human condition here that works. Having grown up in a town like this, I saw the truth in it. The art has a crisp, cartoon-y look about it, and the ending, while feeling a little manufactured, resonates in the final panels. Solid stuff.
The GRAPHIC CLASSICS series continues to be an evergreen for Eureka Productions, as the 3rd volume (of 24!) heads back into print, now with 80 new pages of work. GRAPHIC CLASSICS: H.G. WELLS offers up “The Time Machine”, “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, “The Invisible Man”, and “The Inexperienced Ghost” in one volume, and the material here is quite strong across the board. Not only are the stories done well, but they are ones that any fan of Wells’ work would want to read. Creative types like Simon Gane and Rich Tommaso can be found doing some of the art, so the book looks fantastic. This series of books is not likely to ever make an enormous splash in the comic shop market, but it is just about perfect for bookstores and libraries. It’s a smart move by GC majordomo Tom Pomplun to target those markets and fill a severe need. Recommended, as always.
SCRATCH 9: CAT OF NINE WORLDS
Created and Written by Rob M. Worley and Illustrated by Joshua Buchanan
Published by Hermes Press
Reviewed by Avril Brown
Scratch the cat is at it again! This delightfully fun furry companion is not your ordinary feline: he is a brave and loyal buddy to young Penelope, who has no idea how special her friend really is. In times of danger, Scratch is able to summon forth one of his nine past lives, imbuing him with the powers of that particular cat incarnation.
Good thing Scratch is a superhero in kitty form as Penelope tends to find herself in trouble more often than not, this time at Camp Robo. What appears to be a fun getaway where children come to build robots turns out to be the headquarters of the evil Dr. Schrodinger, a mad scientist who has a few tricks up his sleeve for poor Scratch, taking our furry hero further away from his friend than ever before!
What is so enjoyable about SCRATCH 9 is the universally entertaining aspects of the characters and stories. Kids are sure to get a kick out of the talking cat who can morph into interesting creatures such as a saber-tooth tiger, and while Penelope remains clueless about her cat’s abilities she has a few herself, not the least of which is a working brain, a desire to do the right thing and a tough-as-nails attitude.
SCRATCH 9 combines the superhero world, talking animals and a smart young girl with sass, delivering everything youthful readers, particular the ladies, could want in a comic. Buchanan’s art is quite clear and expressive, giving all of the characters nice, rounded dimensions, and his action sequences really take the reader along for the ride. Scratch’s big wide eyes when he’s worried about his Penelope truly tug at the heartstrings.
SCRATCH 9 is a great comic for quite a range of ages and proves it by dedicating the last couple of pages to the ‘Pick of the Litter’: a letter and drawing from a young reader, giving fans the chance to creatively express their love for Scratch. Now here is a kids comic that gets it right.
GOOD GRAPHIC NOVELS FOR TEENS
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various
Reviewed by Marc Mason
Looking for a good graphic novel or two to give to an older teen reader? A few recent efforts to cross my desk fit the bill pretty well. Let’s take a look.
Writer Derek Kirk Kim and artist Les McClaine return with TUNE VOL.2: STILL LIFE (First Second), an excellent followup to the first volume – though you can easily catch up with the story if you haven’t read the initial book. When last we left slacker hero Andy Go, he had signed a contract that had him living in an alien zoo – as an exhibit! Unfortunately, this came right as he realized that he girl of his dreams liked him too. Now the deal’s about to go really bad, as Andy discovers the perils of not reading the fine print of a contract and the problems with the existence of multiple alternate universes. TUNE remains tons of fun from start to finish; it’s funny, it has pathos, it has twisty plotting, and you never know what’s going to happen next. Kim’s scripting is terrific, and McClaine has no weaknesses in his pages. Everything here is just firing on all cylinders. I liked the first one a lot; this second volume proves that the series has serious legs.
There’s a sense of whimsy to writer/artist Jess Fink’s WE CAN FIX IT! (Top Shelf), but in an entirely different sense. Fink stars as her main character, the conceit being that she has a time machine and uses it to go back to visit herself at various critical junctures in life in order to prevent what she feels are her worst mistakes. But as she does, often in amusing ways, the story also brings to light the true nature of what life’s mistakes mean to our development. It’s clever, for certain, but there’s also a twinge of sadness as well. Indeed, Fink does an outstanding job of taking her “character” on a rich emotional journey that surprises the reader quite often. Her art is clean and simple, and she has a nice gift for body language and personal expression that enhance the story along the way. Laughter and learning in one book are always a solid combo; this one’s a winner.
On the more serious side of the aisle, you’ll find LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD by writer/artist Elaine M. Will (Cuckoo’s Nest Press). LOOK takes the reader on a darker journey, telling the story of a 17-year old boy named Jeremy. While on the surface he seems to have a normal existence, that vanishes quickly as he drowns beneath a wave of crushing manic depression that comes complete with hallucinations. In rapid fashion, his family, school and personal life disintegrate and the question becomes one of actual survival as his hallucinations put his life in danger. No question about it, this is an impressive piece of work, a stunningly deep work that hits the reader in their emotional core. Will has a strong grip on the material, never letting it feel maudlin or sensationalized, and her art is strong in depicting the human moments alongside the ones based in the imagination. Don’t go into it expecting to be uplifted, but do go into it understanding that Jeremy’s struggle will resonate, particularly with kids his age. Nicely done.
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various
Reviewed by Marc Mason
Random new stuff that came across my desk…
NBM delivers another lovely Euro-sized graphic album with ZOMBILLENIUM by writer/artist Arthur de Pins. The setup is a corker: a man named Aurelian, upon discovering that his wife is cheating on him, decides to rob a bar. It does not go well, and it only gets worse when he steps out into the street and gets run over by a car. The occupants of the car just happen to be a vampire and a werewolf, and they both bite him to resuscitate him. Now confused, and turning into a supernatural creature, Aurelian winds up working at a theme park with a dedicated horror theme. Strangeness, oddities, death, love, vengeance, and a lot of confusion follow. ZOMBILLENIUM is a hoot from start to finish, with funny situations, great characters, witty dialogue, and art that is utterly gorgeous. de Pins drew the entire thing in Adobe Illustrator, and the large format the book is printed in really enhances the work. This is the usual great-looking package from NBM, and it does a stellar job of introducing another French superstar to North American readers.
The latest book from Graphic Classics is NATIVE AMERICAN CLASSICS. This volume delivers adaptations of work from some of America’s earliest native writers, and as usual, the book is a pretty solid package. The talent involved is very good, including folks like Toby Cypress, Afua Richardson, Terry LaBan, and Tim Truman. And unlike some of the earlier volumes, the best material here is the poetry. Not only is the original work really good, the artists illustrating the background for those words turn in some seriously incredible efforts. David Kanietakeron Fadden’s piece for James Harris Guy’s “The White Man Wants the Indians’ Home” is frame-worthy. Twenty-four volumes in and going strong, the Graphic Classics line has proven time and again that it has the goods. Always worth a look.
A bizarre beast lumbers out of the woods, his presence causing an accident that sends a school bus over a cliff. A speechless boy communicates with the beast, saving himself and his classmates. Suddenly, the world around the young boy is opening wide, his secret ability to communicate with creatures beyond our ken now known. That is the tale at the heart of Erik T. Johnson’s THE OUTLIERS #1, a gorgeous new effort that will see distribution from Alternative Comics in August. The story is intriguing, sure, but Johnson’s art is the real star here. His use of shadow is terrific, and by sticking to only one color on the page, he gives the work a mood that is palpable on the page. He also does an excellent job with detail on the page, giving the book more of a heft than you might expect. I was really impressed with the overall package here.
ALL YOU BASTARDS CAN GO JUMP OFF A BRIDGE!
Written and Illustrated by J. Marc Schmidt
Published by Milk Shadow Books
Reviewed by Avril Brown
ALL YOU BASTARDS CAN GO JUMP OFF A BRIDGE! is a variety showcase of comics from veteran writer/illustrator J. Marc Schmidt. From one-page one-liners to multi-panel on-going stories starring an atheist sex-addict, Schmidt covers quite a breadth of humor, sadness, and shit that simply cannot be categorized.
Schmidt’s work has been described as stand-up comedy, which is undeniably accurate. With each skit I was biting my nails in dreadful anticipation: is this one going to be a laugh, or a dud? The first few pages read flat to me, but then I arrived at the talking faces/vase ‘optical illusion’ with one face giving the other advice on how to interpret their own picture for a job interview. I enjoyed the clever humor and hoped to find more twisty nuggets as I read on, and ALL YOU BASTARDS is full of twist, turns, and more directions than Willy Wonka’s elevator.
Some panels were just too weird for words, such as the Body Floss, which read like an X-rated ‘Saturday Night Live’ commercial. Others came off as mean or pointless, such as the pages where everyone picks on Wendy the flight attendant, driving her to tears and laughing at her pain.
Still other sections had me in stitches and left me wondering why there couldn’t be more of the demonic, violent Low-Bro with his cooking lessons and rants on the uselessness of the third conditional in the English language. There’s fun vocabulary to pick up from Dr. Susan “Bandages” Jyhnsyn, the male-hating physician who throws around words like ‘kyriarchy,’ and the Procrastination Pterodactyl is something every writer and artist can understand and relate to, even if those stories became increasingly bizarre and disjointed.
When stories of sadness of poignancy appear in a largely humorous collection, I never quite know how to take it. The nurse in the WWI hospital narrating her history while talking to a patient in a coma almost made me cry. So is the point of this random collection to make the reader question everything? Or is the point to prove there is no point?
However, I am forever reticent to pass judgment on such a compilation. One reader’s head-scratcher is another’s belly buster, and where personally I would find greater enjoyment out of a book starring no one but Low-Bro and his advice column, still others may appreciate the unpredictability which every panel of ALL YOU BASTARDS has to offer.
BEARDO Volume 3
Written and Illustrated by Dan Dougherty
Published by Beardo Comics
Reviewed by Avril Brown
Meet Beardo, a coffee barista/illustrator/band member living in Chicago with his fiancée turned wife, two dogs and a never ending pile of bills. Beardo also happens to be the comic cartoon version of the author/illustrator himself, Mr. Dan Dougherty. An all ages, real life comic strip about Beardo’s daily successes, struggles and slapstick, ‘Beardo: Volume 3’ covers several major milestones in the life of the protagonist, all the while keeping things lighthearted, cheery and cartoony.
Beardo has decided to take life by the beard in this volume and has finally committed to a path he has ached to follow for years: full time freelance illustrating. For two volumes of ‘Beardo’ strips he has been Beardo the Barista, killing a pot of coffee with a deft hand and a wisecracking wit. As he says a lengthy goodbye to the coffeehouse, his coworkers and the multitudes of curmudgeonly customers, he evolves into Beardo the Comic Creator who works from home, can barely afford a cup of coffee from the shop he recently vacated and does his best to stay on task and keep the gigs rolling in.
‘Beardo’ is an excellent balance of cartoon humor and real life levity. Aside from switching jobs and all the financial headaches that come with such an adjustment, Beardo gets married. There are several panels discussing the happy couple’s constant war with their budget and buildup of bills, and rather than being depressing or too close to home for us 99%ers out there, Dougherty always injects an element of clever gaiety, often in the form of Cartoon God messing with him. In one strip as Beardo shows off the extra money left over after the bills were seen to, Cartoon God winds up, takes aim and lets loose a bolt of lightning destined to destroy their vacuum cleaner.
In addition to a slightly spiteful Cartoon God, ‘Beardo’ frequently features appearances of Beardo’s individual beard hairs who are forever fearing they will one day turn white and be sacrificed to the Great Claw. Poor Beardo also has several close calls with copious amounts of free cash which he ignorantly misses by millimeters due to random happenstances. Whiskers the Drinking Cat is a personal favorite sidekick, always bringing with him cheeky shenanigans and plenty of booze. One of the best parts of ‘Volume 3,’ however, had to be the Beardo-eye view of Blago’s appearance at Wizard World Chicago two years ago. I was there at that moment when the announcers trumpeted the soon-to-be-jailed former governor’s presence, and the fans really did ‘boo’ him en masse, just as Beardo observed.
To label ‘Beardo’ as ‘family friendly’ almost sounds too limiting, though truly all generations can enjoy this collection of strips. Younger folk will likely enjoy Beardo’s Little Orphan Annie appearance and the way his possessions seem to be frequently smote by a robed man on a cloud, and adults are the winners of Dougherty’s ability to tackle the world and all its emotional, financial and career-related ups and downs with a sense of warm whimsy rather than a feeling of repetitiveness. Give ‘Beardo’ a chance and you’ll certainly enjoy the wholesome hilarity contained within.
Reviewed by Marc Mason
Taking a look at a couple of new graphic novels…
UNTERZAKHN is a powerhouse effort by writer/artist Leela Corman, and one that will stick in readers’ memories for a while once they put the book down. Set in the early 20th century, we meet sisters Esther and Fanya as they navigate immigrant life in New York City. As they get older, their lives take wildly divergent paths- Fanya goes to work for a woman who performs abortions, and Esther takes on a new name while dancing burlesque and working as a prostitute. Yet as different as their lives seem to be, the two sisters live parallel existences in ways they could never guess. Everything here is really excellent- Corman’s character work captivates, the dialogue has an authentic ring to it, and she makes you believe in and understand who these two women are. The art is just detailed enough to immerse you in the world, letting you truly feel like you’re back a hundred years and seeing what life was really like for people. If it sounds like the book isn’t a bundle of laughs, you’re right- what humor is here is outweighed by tragedy. But happy endings weren’t exactly the norm back then. I have the feeling that next December, when I start whipping up a top ten list, this book will require some more discussion.
Some local Arizona folks have joined together for UNITE AND TAKE OVER, an anthology featuring short stories inspired by the music of The Smiths. Much like other efforts dealing with Tori Amos, Belle & Sebastian, and Bob Dylan, the creative teams have been granted a lot of latitude in interpreting the work for the page. What this means isn’t really any different than what you get from most anthologies: a mixed bag of results. Some of the work here is really very good, and really catches the eye- Sterling Gates’ “William It Was Really Nothing” is as good as any piece that I’ve read in an anthology of this type. But some of the work is not yet ready for primetime, even in the alt-comix arena. Perhaps the strongest aspect here is in the book’s conceptualization and design- UNITE looks a lot better than most small press collections tend to. SpazDog has made rumbles that they’re going to continue doing more books in this vein, and as they do, the artistic talent level should continue to improve, as well as the overall execution. I’ll be watching and rooting for them.
AISLE SEAT 2.0.68: TEN FOR 2011
By Marc Mason
Even though it seems like it, I have not read every graphic novel released in the past year. So it would be foolish, not to mention arrogant, to put together a “ten best” list. What I can do, however, is give you a list of ten outstanding books and point you in their direction. With this list, I can at least guarantee you a reading experience that is more than worth your time and money. Oh, and I will, at least, name a “book of the year.” Again, this is all my opinion- and I am more than happy to argue with you!
DAYTRIPPER (DC/Vertigo) collects the award-winning miniseries under one cover. Writer/artist/wonder twin combo Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba had long been proving how amazing they are, but DAYTRIPPER represented a leap even further forward into greatness.
ANYA’S GHOST (First Second) by writer/artist Vera Brosgol was the most stunning rookie debut that I saw this year. By turns humorous and flat-out frightening, this was also the best book for teen girls that I read this year as well.
LITTLE NOTHINGS VOL. 4 (NBM) is another amazing installment in writer/artist Lewis Trondheim’s art blog. I consider Trondheim to be the great living comics creator in the world right now, and this book shows him at the height of his powers.
THOR BY WALT SIMONSON OMNIBUS (Marvel) is not only an outstanding book, but also a potential murder weapon. This 1200 page beast collects the defining run on the character by the character’s defining creator. Great stories, great art, don’t drop it on your foot.
LEVEL UP (First Second) by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Thien Pham captures the angst of young adulthood perfectly, throws in an interesting conceit involving the nature of spirituality and death, and also tickles the funny bone a bit. Yang is a force to be reckoned with.
SIXTH GUN VOL. 1-2 (Oni Press) is the cream of the crop when it comes to Western horror right now. Exciting stories, great characters… writer Cullen Bunn and artist Brian Hurtt have sucked me into their world in a genre I tend to ignore. I read the first two trades back-to-back, not able to put them down.
RASL VOL. 3 (Cartoon Books) propels writer/artist Jeff Smith’s latest epic into the stratosphere. Sexy, action-packed, inventive… and he makes you think about what’s going on. The over-sized trade paperbacks allow the gorgeous art to breathe. One volume to go, and I can’t wait.
CHEW OMNIVORE EDITION 2 (Image Comics) won the Eisner for Best Continuing Series, and it isn’t hard to see why. Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory are telling one of the most complex stories on the stands, and the book rewards you at every turn for paying attention. Funny, romantic, sick, and twisted. Brilliant.
ASTRONAUT ACADEMY (First Second) by writer/artist Dave Roman was the best all-ages book I read this year. Period. I have managed to give away both of my copies and need a new one. Great stories, great characters, great art, clever payoffs… there is nothing here to not love.
And… my book of the year:
HABIBI (Pantheon) by writer/artist Craig Thompson. It had been seven long years since Thompson had released new work, but it was worth the wait. Staggering in scope and ambition, this massive book (700 pages) delivers page after page of art that your eyes can get lost in. The love story at its core is warm, yet also horribly tragic, and while many will quibble with aspects of the tale focused on religion and culture (and I would agree with some of those quibbles) you cannot deny the sheer power that the book carries in its pages. Thompson carries you to someplace new and different, asking for your trust in his pen and ink, and if you give it to him, the rewards are grand.
Read my interview with Thompson here.
Looking over my list, I suppose I have a “publisher of the year” as well. First Second had another outstanding year- just another in a remarkable run as of late. I can’t remember the last time I read one of their books and felt “bleah” or “meh” about it. They don’t get a lot of play in the mainstream comics media, but that doesn’t matter- they just produce great books.