GNS FOR TEENS

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.




AISLE SEAT 2.0.60

AISLE SEAT 2.0.60: 10 FOR 2010

By Marc Mason

I wasn’t going to do a “best of” or “top ten” list this year. I really wasn’t. But my old pal Doc Beechler ran his own list, and when I saw it, I had to challenge it for what I felt was a very incomplete look at this year’s work. Then I realized that I could come up with ten great books (not necessarily the ten best published this year- I didn’t read everything, obviously) that I could easily point to and saw “people of Earth- READ THESE.”

So, people of Earth, if you’re looking for some awesome graphic novels to spend some time with: READ THESE.

The first thing that comes to mind is ALEC: THE YEARS HAVE PANTS from Top Shelf. This massive 600+ page omnibus collects almost every single bit of Eddie Campbell’s amazing autobiographical comics under one cover. I can’t think of a more consistently excellent autobiographical work ever produced in the medium- it’s deep and richly thought out without diving too far into its own navel and shows the growth of the man and the artist across a lengthy period of time. As usual, Top Shelf brings superior production values to the table, and that makes this book tough to beat.

If you’re looking for artistic ambition, go no further than RETURN OF THE DAPPER MEN from Archaia. Janet Lee’s stunning art illustrates Jim McCann’s modern fable in a way never really seen before in comics. The success of this book demonstrates the strength of the graphic novel to challenge and amaze and succeed in the marketplace, even when it isn’t from Marvel or DC. Produce something that exudes greatness and the people will find you. If you haven’t found this on your shelf yet, get cracking.

Speaking of high sales, Oni Press’ SCOTT PILGRIM VOL. 6 (and the entire series, really) dominated the charts this year, and with good reason. Bryan O’Malley’s series had been growing in popularity with each new release, and having the last part arrive to coincide with the film adaptation was exquisite timing. Of course, it helped that the resolution we got was immensely satisfying. Scott finally pulled himself together, gained some self-awareness, and became a person worthy of love- not just worthy of Ramona. Readers’ patience was rewarded, and that’s a rare thing, indeed.

John Layman and Rob Guillory’s CHEW (Image Comics) is definitely a book that pays off for readers that stick with it and pay close attention. From Layman’s twisting and turning plot mechanics to Guillory’s gift for planting Easter eggs in the backgrounds of his wonderfully detailed pages, CHEW delights with wit both verbal and visual. It walked off with awards at both the Eisners and the Harveys this year, and they were well-deserved. No one else in “mainstream” comics is doing anything as challenging or unfettered. One of the few comics that comes out monthly that is legitimately worth your money.

That said, if I was going to steer you toward another book that came out monthly and was worth your time and effort, it would be the second volume of BATTLEFIELDS from Dynamite Entertainment. This year we got another nine issues of Garth Ennis’ incredible World War II comics, and while they weren’t the equal of volume one, they were still absolutely amazing. No one in the past twenty years has even come close to matching Ennis’ prowess at depicting aspects of that conflict and in finding stories with a rich emotional core that fit within its parameters. One of the gutsiest things an author must do is provide the ending that works and is deserved, not the one the reader wants. This book gives you the endings that are earned.

On the subject of war comics, Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’ LIFE AND TIMES OF MARTHA WASHINGTON (Dark Horse) is full of terrible conflict indeed. This massive omnibus edition includes every story featuring Martha, including some stuff not previously collected. This book initially came out as a hundred dollar hardcover, making it way out of my budget, but we finally got a paperback version this year, a happy occasion indeed. MARTHA was a book that Miller wrote when he was still taking comics seriously, and Gibbons puts just the right amount of softness on the satirical edges. Violent, profane, sexy, and smart, this character’s adventures were always something to appreciate and treasure. I’ll miss her, but having this book around makes that much easier to bear.

Dialing back to material before Martha (who debuted in 1991), IDW delivered the best archival project of the year- of the past few years, really- with THE BLOOM COUNTY LIBRARY. These beautiful hardcover editions of Berke Breathed’s classic cartoon strip send me spiraling back to my teen years, smiling all the way. Using restored versions of the strips, the series lets us see the characters (Opus, Milo, Steve Dallas, Bill the Cat, and friends) in ways we haven’t seen since some of the strips actually appeared in newspapers. Material is uncensored and/or restored from edits made for previous print collections. Breathed pipes in with observations and to explain some story moments and jokes. Background work is reproduced. This series is essential for any serious fan of great strip work.

Few anthology series could ever be considered essential, because they’re usually way too hit-or-miss to merit serious consideration. Not so for FLIGHT VOL.7 (Villard) which continues to be the single best anthology on shelves today. Editor Kazu Kibuishi has a gift for bringing together talent and getting the best from it- and that includes his own work as well. FLIGHT offers amazing storytelling, stunning art, superior production value… no mean feat for a book on its seventh try. But a scan across the series shows that virtually nothing has changed since book one. They’ve all been this good.

Another series that has been good from the start and never wavered in quality is Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim’s DUNGEON (NBM) which saw a couple of volumes translated for North American audiences. The standout was DUNGEON: MONSTRES VOL. 3; the series turned its eye upon the female characters of the Dungeon world, and the results were powerful and moving. The pair put in the spotlight found challenges that were emotionally unsettling as well as violent and gut-wrenching, showing a darker side of the world that reminded us that it is not a world of light and happiness. These books have their amusements, but they are also full of war and death. I have repeatedly stated that I believe Trondheim is the world’s greatest living comics creator. Check out these books to find out why.

Amusement can be found, though, in massive amounts by looking in the right place. That place would be AFRODISIAC (AdHouse) by Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg. This book is a glorious tribute to many things- the history of comics, blaxploitation filmmaking… but mostly it’s just hilarious. The character, Afrodisiac, is shown in various incarnations, each drawn in the style of different eras in comics production, with multiple changes in name and origin, just as characters have been treated by their publishers across the decades. The results are stunning- few books this funny are this intelligent in their execution. The creative duo were the gents behind STREET ANGEL a few years ago, and this book demonstrates, once again, that together, they make material that is worth its weight in gold.

And there you go. Ten great comics and graphic novels for 2010. Click a link below and go buy a couple. Trust me- you’ll be glad you did! See you in 2011!












AX: ALTERNATIVE MANGA VOL.1

AX: ALTERNATIVE MANGA VOL.1
Written and Drawn by Various, Edited by Sean Michael Wilson
Published by Top Shelf

Reviewed by Marc Mason

There’s a certain stereotype about what manga is. Put that word in front of someone, and often they will immediately think of large-eyed schoolgirls, or chibis, or super-deformed characters. Perhaps their first impression will be of tentacled beasts. Panty shots and loads of fanservice. Speed lines surrounding a sword-wielding warrior heading into battle. And to be fair, plenty of manga includes those clichés. But that’s not all that the medium has to offer.

AX is perfect proof of that.

A Scotsman living and working in Japan, Sean Michael Wilson has a unique perspective on Japan and its graphic arts that most westerners couldn’t even dream of achieving. It makes him a perfect choice to edit together a sort of “best-of” from the first ten years of AX magazine, and his efforts are quite remarkable. The variety on display here is mind-blowing. Are there pieces that have a very traditional look and feeling to them? Sure, but even those deliver stories much farther away from the material that North Americans are used to seeing translated. However, it is the work that strays way off the beaten path that reminds you how fertile comic art can be. Many of these works are reminiscent of western art- but not superhero stuff. Imagine what Crumb, Wolverton, Deitch, and Wood would look like filtered through a manga lens. That’s when AX starts knocking you out with what it offers.

Sex, religion, suffering, friendship, broken people, the nature of family… the themes explored in these 400 pages cover the spectrum. I was enthralled by this book, and I cannot imagine anyone that calls themselves a fan of manga wouldn’t be either. And if you have been hesitating about trying out manga for the first time, then AX would be a strong place to start that relationship. Getting off on the right foot is always important.

MOVING PICTURES, BB WOLF

MOVING PICTURES/BB WOLF AND THE THREE LPS
Written and Drawn by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen
Written by JD Arnold and Drawn by Rich Koslowski
Published by Top Shelf

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Two from the folks at Top Shelf…

MOVING PICTURES is set in German occupied Paris during the second world war, and focuses on a young Canadian art curator named Ila who is tasked with cataloguing her museum’s work and prioritizing it for hiding it from the invading army. It isn’t a glamorous job, and it isn’t a fun one- it isn’t even her country. But it is something that she feels strongly about, and thus sticks around to ultimately find herself working under the German yoke. MOVING PICTURES is, in some ways, a story about giving aid and comfort to the enemy, but in this case, the enemy is herself. Ila is a distant woman, dragged down by demons she cannot put a name to or understand, and it is perhaps that only the art keeps her from losing complete touch with her own humanity. But as the story moves on, she receives a sad lesson when she actually does try and do something to demonstrate that she has not lost all feeling. Is Ila’s story a tragedy? The Immonens allow you to make that choice for yourself. I can say, though, that it is a thing of beauty, from both the art and character perspectives.

I wasn’t as sold on BB WOLF AND THE THREE LPS, a “retelling” of the classic fairytale through a new lens. In this version, JD Arnold has remade the wolves as Southern blacks during the 1920s and the pigs into white landowners full of racist venom. Thus we begin with BB, a farmer by day and blues musician by night, as he falls victim to nasty maneuvering by the pigs and faces the loss of his home. And once that happens? He’s on the warpath, huffing and puffing and aiming to blow the pigs’ “houses” down. The book looks beautiful- Koslowski draws the hell out of it, and the storytelling is exquisite. But the metaphoric mix of the fairytale and real-life situations faced by African-Americans during this era of American history never took hold of me. Aside from the physical damage that BB can do to a pig with his wolf strength and claws, there’s nothing particularly meaningful about these animal representations (unlike, say, what Spiegelman does in MAUS). Arnold could have told his story straight-up and it would have been just as effectively rendered to the audience.


SUPER SPY: THE LOST DOSSIERS

SUPER SPY: THE LOST DOSSIERS
Written and Drawn by Matt Kindt
Published by Top Shelf

Reviewed by Marc Mason

SUPER SPY was one of my favorite graphic novels of the year back when it came out, an exciting, labyrinthine story of World War Two espionage full of murder, sex, and double crosses galore. Now Kindt is returning to his greatest work to date and offering up some extras.

LOST DOSSIERS is not, in any traditional way, a graphic novel. Rather, consider it the bonus disc you get when you buy the “director’s cut” of that movie you like so much. There are a few new stories here; one actually requires you to cut out the panels and put them in order! Another combines the text of a diary with single-panel images to tell the story of one woman’s training in how to lose someone that is tailing her, while another is told through prose and single-panel images, and they’re all terrific.

However, the bulk of this book is made up of Kindt showing you behind the curtain in the making of the original book. Sketchbook material, pin-ups, commentary pieces on the nuts and bolts of individual pages from the graphic novel, aerial surveillance photos from the 1940s that he used as inspiration when writing and drawing… all of it guides you through Kindt’s creative process, and when all is said and done, it’s pretty cool.

That said… I have to believe that this book’s audience is severely limited. I can’t imagine anyone buying it that doesn’t already own SUPER SPY. I can’t even honestly say that it serves as a solid “trailer” for the main book, either; there isn’t enough here to really suggest how great that book is. Ultimately, I’m sure that the author and publisher are hoping that readers will buy the pair as a combo. And really- it isn’t a bad idea at all.

SURROGATES: FLESH AND BONE

THE SURROGATES: FLESH AND BONE
Written by Robert Venditti and Drawn by Brett Weldele
Published by Top Shelf

THE SURROGATES was one of the best science fiction graphic novels of the decade, coming out of nowhere to deliver thrills, chills and excitement in a world where no one (really!) was what they seemed. With the majority of the human population living through robotic bodies while their real bodies remained chairbound at home, it showed us the dangers of human complacency and fear. However, when someone began murdering the robots and in-turn causing the deaths of their operators, Detective Harvey Greer was forced out into the world again to try and find the killer. Awards for the creative team (rightfully) followed.

Now Greer is back, in SURROGATES: FLESH AND BONE, a prequel graphic novel that introduces us to Greer while he’s still a street cop, fifteen years before the events of the first graphic novel. Three young rich kids hijack their parents’ surrogates and beat a living, breathing homeless man to death, setting the city on edge, ready to burn. Thrown into the mix, Harvey works to track down one of his best informants, a man who witnessed the crime and can prevent the wealthy perps from getting away with it. But it won’t be easy; the informant is spooked and on the run, the kid’s lawyer is working the court of public opinion into a frenzy, and the ex-con known as the Prophet is leading an ever-growing anti-surrogate flock into a frenzy that’s threatening to consume the city. Forces are about to collide, and it’s going to get really, really ugly.

I was a bit dubious when I saw that FLESH AND BONE was to be a prequel; but it actually works quite well. Greer is still recognizable as the man we met in the first graphic novel, but we get to see more layers of him here- the building blocks of who he becomes as the years wear down upon him. The story works as a solid mystery-thriller, and the science fiction element, while toned down, is still absolutely terrific. Weldele’s art is beautiful to look at, and the scripting is solid. While it was a risk to produced a sequel (prequel) to a much-respected work like THE SURROGATES, the creative tam did themselves proud and produced a very worthy effort.

Marc Mason

PLEASE RELEASE

PLEASE RELEASE
Written and Drawn by Nate Powell
Published by Top Shelf

REPRINTED FROM CWR 2.0

I reviewed a collection of Powell’s older work a couple of months ago, and had a mezzo-mezzo response to it. It was obvious that he had plenty of talent, but his storytelling and his plotting were weaker than his artistic ability could overcome. However, this book, bringing together some of his more recent work, is much stronger in all ways.

The stories are stronger. There are four tales in this book, each running only eight to ten pages, and they’re uniformly tight. Powell sets his plot into motion, pushes his characters into movement, and then wraps on a solidly resolute note. The opening piece, “The Phantom Form”, delves into Powell’s decision to leave his job working with the developmentally disabled. The plotting is stronger. But that isn’t all that Powell is working to get across; he also weaves in some commentary about the nature of disabled care in our society, too. It’s sharp and incisive, and Powell doesn’t spare himself when getting into the foibles of the job.

Even though the book is focused squarely on Powell’s life, he spares the reader from excessive navel gazing along the way. He seems to have a better idea of when to share and when to pull away and let the pictures do the talking, demonstrating an overall more mature approach to his work. And that maturity also shows in the final story, “Seriously”, which talks about a course on drawing comics Powell taught to a group of kids. While he’s teaching, he’s also dealing with some questions about his own future and he deftly melds his own yearning for meaning with the kids’ desire to create and makes it feel poignant. If Powell keeps creating material this good, I’ll definitely be along for the ride.

Marc Mason

FROM THE SHADOW OF THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

FROM THE SHADOW OF THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by
Galago/Top Shelf

While the U.S. has a fairly prominent and thriving alternative comics scene, we almost never see that kind of work produced in other countries presented here. But with this nifty anthology, that changes. NORTHERN LIGHTS brings together some of the finest alt-comix talent that Sweden has to offer, and the results are quite interested to behold.

The first thing you notice about the stories in this volume is that it doesn’t necessarily feel all that different from an anthology like MOME. The Swedes have clearly taken some cues from folks like R. Crumb in developing their storytelling skills and artistic styles, the depth and breadth of which is really quite impressive. And like any other anthology, the produced material is a delicate balance of winners and bits that completely tank. The question always becomes: do the winners outweigh the losers?

In the case of NORTHERN LIGHTS, I’d go with a qualified yes, as it comes down to a tight race. But a couple of stories in this book push it over the top. The best is David Liljemark’s “Henry Says,” which is a quietly powerful tale of a friendship gone toxic. I instantly related to his protagonist’s predicament, having had that sort of succubus friend in my life a couple of years ago, and watching Henry navigate through it and try to maintain his dignity. Right behind it is Mats Jonsson’s “I Dated a Teenager,” which not only packs an interesting emotional core, but exposes you to a slightly different morality than what we are accustomed to in the U.S.

On the dud side are a number of pieces which make no sense at all, particularly Fabian Goranson’s “Monkey,” which appears to be weird for weirdness’ sake. Pass- I don’t need linear storytelling, but I do need a reason or point to trudge my way through twenty-two pages of nonsense. Again, this just goes to show that cartoonists are alike all over the world- I get the same feeling when reading American alt-cartoonists as well.

In all, I’d like to see more of this thing over here. I’m intrigued and interested in seeing the work of artists from across the globe and expanding my knowledge of comics.

Marc Mason

VEEPS

VEEPS
Written by Bill Kelter and Illustrated by Wayne Shellabarger
Published by
Top Shelf

It’s election season, and you can’t take a leak in any direction without someone discussing the Woman McCain Didn’t Want, Sarah Palin. That begs the question- does the choice of Vice President on a ticket really matter? What does the historical view of the office itself tell us?

According to the hilarious VEEPS, which is subtitled PROFILES IN INSIGNIFICANCE, not a whole hell of a lot, actually.

Writer Bill Kelter has done some damned good research and provided a look at those who have filled the office of the number two guy since George Washington first held the highest post in the land, and it’s an illuminating look at a number of people that history has forgotten. Rightfully so- most of these guys don’t deserve to be remembered. Drunks, dolts, backstabbers… the personality quirks and uselessness of some of these guys is remarkable. And funny- don’t forget funny, because Keller hasn’t. He smartly looked for some of their greatest quirks and stupidest moments to share with his readers, and some of them are real doozies.

My favorite has to be Hannibal Hamlin. Never heard of him? He was Lincoln’s first VP. He didn’t want the job; an overzealous Maine delegation got him added to the ballot. So a few weeks into his tenure, he went \back to his home state, joined the Maine Coast Guard with the Civil War underway, and served guard duty and in the kitchen of the boat he was assigned to. Can you imagine Dick Cheney doing that? Or the elder Bush while serving under Reagan?

The book is full of amazingly silly true facts like that, and adding to the humor are some wonderful illustrations by Shellabarger. He not only provides a classic portrait of each one, but a number of cartoons that accompany each entry emphasizing some of the stranger stories being told. It’s great stuff.

I was fairly dubious when the galleys for this book arrived in the mail. I couldn’t imagine a subject I cared less about, and I couldn’t figure out why a comics publisher like Top Shelf was spending a minute of their time working on and publishing a prose book. But I was dead wrong- VEEPS is a very worthy effort, humorous and educational. I definitely recommend it as a tremendous piece of election season reading.

Marc Mason