THE GREAT WAR

THE GREAT WAR
Illustrated by Joe Sacco
Published by W.W. Norton


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Along with Paul Pope’s new effort, there is likely no more anticipated book to hit shelves this year than Joe Sacco’s THE GREAT WAR. Sacco, who has made his reputation as one of the true giants in the comics field with works like PALESTINE and SAFE AREA GORAZDE, is one of the most fearless and inventive people working today. He has never backed down from spending time in war zones, expressing unpopular opinions… his work is always a learning experience, as well as a visceral one.

Yet he has managed to top himself with THE GREAT WAR.

It isn’t that he’s made an all-time great graphic novel. Indeed, this isn’t a graphic novel. The cover describes it as “an illustrated panorama,” and that says it about as well as it can be said. This hardcover work opens up… and opens out… and out… and out. 24 feet out. THE GREAT WAR is one massive diorama depicting a singular day in World War I, July 1st 1916, which was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Wordlessly, Sacco takes you from the day’s beginnings to the initiation of the conflict, through nighttime, to troop actions, to burying the first round of the dead.

This all occurs in astonishing, almost excruciating, detail.

Accompanying the diorama piece is a companion booklet that annotates moments seen in the art, adding facts and context to the piece that enhance understanding and deepen the work. The booklet also contains an essay from Sacco on the genesis of the project and an excerpted essay on July 1st, 1916 by writer Adan Hochschild. Both are informative pieces and enhance the reader’s understanding of the diorama itself.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at THE GREAT WAR, and each time I do, something new catches my eye. It’s a different animal from what comics fans are used to seeing, a brave, inspired work from a talent who has now shown that he is completely unpredictable. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Also from W.W. Norton:

I described David Shrigley’s previous work as aggressive and angry, and those qualities come through clearly in his new book, HOW ARE YOU FEELING? A satirical take on self-help books and those who buy and believe in them, Shrigley uses his rough artistic style to create something that I would personally describe as an epic poem about mental illness and the inability to cope with modern living. Some of the material is inspired and enjoyable, but a lot of it is uncomfortable and you’d want to be selective about who you bought the book for. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of work; I get what he’s aiming for, but it isn’t for me.


ON THE ROPES

ON THE ROPES
Written by James Vance and Drawn by Dan E. Burr
Published by W.W. Norton


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Sequels are a fairly traditional animal; something hits it big, and as soon as possible, the creative goes back to work in order to strike while the iron is hot. There is a driving need to keep the property in the public eye and as financially viable as possible. So when I tell you that I’ve just read one of the more unusual sequels I’ve ever seen, I mean it.

ON THE ROPES is a sequel that comes 25 years after the original material hit shelves. In 1988, Vance and Burr delivered KINGS IN DISGUISE, introducing Freddie Bloch to readers. Here, Freddie makes his return. The story picks up with Freddie apprenticing to an escape artist named Gordon Corey; Gordon manacles himself, puts his head in a noose, and demands that a trap door be opened beneath his feet. Pretty neat trick. The pair are pair of a WPA circus, and though it is clear that Gordon does hold some regard for Freddie, it is also clear that Freddie aspires to more from his life. When he meets a journalist (“I’ve just never met a real writer,” Freddie says with a bit of awe) he also hitches himself to her wagon.

Freddie, you see, wants to be a an escapist artist in his own right. Just a different one than Gordon.

Labor strife, alcoholism, the drive to do the right thing regardless of personal cost, the book is a treasure trove of themes and plotlines. This is a mammoth piece of work, almost 250 pages, a book that truly defines graphic novel. The characters are rich and involving, the setting well-defined, and script and art work together in harmony. I never read KINGS, but it did not matter; I was able to absorb the material here with ease. ON THE ROPES is an impressive piece of work.

NEW PROSE BOOKS

NEW BOOKS
Written by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

A few prose books from the major publishers have come through the inbox recently. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

I’ve long been aware of Alexander McCall Smith’s work, but this was my first encounter with his Isabel Dalhousie series of novels. THE UNCOMMON APPEAL OF CLOUDS (Pantheon) is the ninth to feature the character, and that made me a bit nervous going into the book. However, to my surprise, McCall Smith does a fantastic job of introducing the character for new readers, setting up her life, her supporting cast, and her job in gentle, clear fashion. A philosopher by trade, she dabbles in being an amateur sleuth. In CLOUDS she is approached to help recover a stolen painting, mixing herself into the odd family dynamic of the victim. She also must deal with a number of small personal issues, as well. The prose here is absolutely lovely; McCall Smith has a gift for description that activates the senses and keeps them occupied. But the book is also rather light on actual story or plot. Nothing quite gets resolved as much as you would like it to. Perhaps that’s a nod to the open-endedness of Isabel’s chosen profession of philosopher, and if so that’s clever. That doesn’t make the ending any better or more satisfying, though.

Victoria Roberts is best known for her cartoons, as her work has been appearing in THE NEW YORKER for over twenty years. However, she branches out a bit with the illustrated novel AFTER THE FALL (W.W. Norton). The story is one of whimsy and wit; a family loses its entire fortune overnight, the next morning suddenly finding itself out of its penthouse and instead living scattered throughout Central Park, their belongings and their bodies relocated there overnight. Roberts embraces the absurdity of the instantaneous change in their lives and makes the most of it, weaving in multiple plotlines, crazier characters, and enough strange moments to launch a couple more books along the way. She executes the book in exquisite fashion, her illustrations and her words working together brilliantly, creating a crazy world that the reader can believe in and immediately develop an interest in. There never quite seems to be a point to it all, but suddenly, at the very end, Roberts hits you with the truth of her story and it sinks right down to your heart.

I still don’t quite know what to make of Mark Danielewski’s THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD (Pantheon). A story told by five different speakers, the book executes an unusual form of visual poetry. The plot deals with a mysterious storyteller who explains that he has a “fifty year sword” – a sword whose damage is not apparent until the 50th year of life of the person who has been cut by it. It won’t spoil things to say that the sword gets used and there are unfortunate results. But the tale is almost secondary, really; the star here is the presentation. The illustrations have actually been stitched, not drawn or painted. The tellers are set apart by the quotation marks that have been stitched in various colors. Their lines are intermingled with one another in a way that would do e.e. cummings proud. One of the struggles I had with the book was that the bells and whistles do tend to overwhelm the actual story at its core. It is an impressively ambitious work, no question about it. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have had it given the reader more opportunity to put focus into it.



NEW GRAPHIC NOVELS

NEW GRAPHIC NOVELS
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Three new extremely high profile releases, two of which are still a couple of months away from hitting shelves…

It’s been two years since writer/artist Charles Burns delivered the first piece of his new graphic novel series X’ED OUT. I’d been wondering when we would finally get a follow-up, and the answer is this October in the form of THE HIVE (Pantheon. What’s it about? Well… that’s going to vary according to personal opinion. What I can tell you is this: THE HIVE is a tour-de-force of psychedelic storytelling, an astonishing piece of graphic literature that combines strange characters, even stranger situations and locales, and multi-leveled narratives in a way you have never seen before on the page. Burns’ work is utterly unique, and he has no fear about experimenting and trying to engage the reader in new ways. Perhaps his greatest gift is finding a way to make you find empathy for people and things that you would normally find off-putting or disgusting. Burns is one of the few talents who stands above the medium, and deservedly so. Easily one of the finest works you’ll see this year.

Comics’ classic cartooning couple, Aline and Robert Crumb, now have an omnibus-style book of their work with the publication this October of DRAWN TOGETHER (W.W. Norton). DRAWN TOGETHER features material pulled together from forty years of the duo’s partnership, and it offers plenty of insight into how they work, live, and eventually raise a daughter together. It isn’t always for the squeamish; there’s a level of brutal honesty on an emotional and sexual level that some readers will not be comfortable with. But it does make for an interesting archaeological document in how it takes you through different styles and eras and illuminates the alt-comix movement. Married couples in comics have come a long way; now it’s fairly common. But back in 1972 it was a big deal, and DRAWN TOGETHER will show you why.

Jessica Abel and Matt Madden offer up the second in their comics how-to series with MASTERING COMICS (First Second). Following DRAWING WORDS AND WRITING PICTURES, this “Comics 201” textbook takes you to a more advanced level, covering topics like narrative tools, making minicomics, lettering, and self-publishing. As with the first book, every chapter here is incredibly thorough; heavy with detail, and loaded with exercises for the student to tackle. If you’re new to the comics field, you’ll learn something here. If you’re a veteran in the field- you’ll learn something here. If you want to learn to color and don’t realize there are multiple ways and techniques to do it, you need this book. If you want to learn the difference between making webcomics and comics for print, you need this book. An absolutely indispensible book for learning the craft.



NEW STUFF

NEW STUFF
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

To say that my life is jam-packed right now would be an understatement. As a side effect to that, the review pile has been growing massive, and my time to read and write about comics has shrunk. These short reviews represent my first effort at making my way through the pile- a look at some books I’ve gotten through and liked.

Editor Tom Pomplun has put together a new GRAPHIC CLASSICS volume, the twenty-first of the series. This one focuses on EDGAR ALLAN POE’S TALES OF MYSTERY, and it represents the typically strong work we get from these books. The volume leads off with a terrific adaptation of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but the real surprise here is Ronn Sutton’s post-modern take on “The Telltale Heart.” This series is always produced in a manner that is friendly for teen and younger readers, and the production quality remains solid. Information about this and previous volumes can be found at the Graphic Classics website.

Fans of Robert Crumb’s work have to be ecstatic at the material that W.W. Norton has been producing lately. This fall will see the release of R. CRUMB: THE COMPLETE RECORD COVER COLLECTION, which brings together not only album covers, but other musically-related Crumb art as well. Crumb got his start when the great Janis Joplin asked him to do a cover for her, and he would go on to do an astonishing number of other covers going forward. He also did artist portraits, advertisements and catalogue covers. This is a nifty slice of pop culture history, shedding some light on work that could easily get forgotten when discussing Crumb’s career, which would be a mistake- this stuff made an impact. Truly an impressive collection- see for yourself when it hits shelves in November.

Dynamite has released a couple of high-profile books over the last couple of weeks in WAREHOUSE 13 #1 and BIONIC MAN #1; both turn out to be well worth their hype. WAREHOUSE 13 adapts the hit Syfy series to the comics page, and it does so in the smartest way possible: by bringing in a couple of the show’s writers to handle it. Of course, it helps that one of those writers is Ben Raab, a man who has a ton of experience as a comics writer. The story, which finds Pete and Myka tackling earthquakes in Brazil, does what a comics adaptation should do: give the reader a “budget-free” taste of the series. This story simply could not be told on the show. Artist Ben Morse does a nice job of keeping the characters on model as well. BIONIC MAN is Dynamite’s second go-around with adapting a Kevin Smith movie script into a comic, and this is just as good, if not better, than how GREEN HORNET turned out. Phil Hester breaks it down for artist Jonathan Lau, and the results are excellent: Steve Austin is a test pilot ready for his last flight, but as he makes his final voyage, all kinds of hell breaks loose. The characters feel fresh, yet are instantly recognizable. Good stuff.

And new from the folks at Image… It reads like a film pitch adapted to comics, but writer Sam Sarkar and artist Garrie Gastonny sucked me in with THE VAULT #1-2, the story of modern archaeologists attempting to solve the mysteries of the Oak Island Pit. I’ve always had an affinity for the legends surrounding the Pit, so that caught my eye, but I was also intrigued by what they reveal is really hidden there. Gastonny’s art goes a long way towards making this work- his characters are nicely designed and he knows how to use them to get an emotional point across, yet he can also deliver strong action when needed. One issue to go; should be fun to see how it finishes out. I also liked VESCELL #1, though I would have a harder time explaining why. Trying to explain the whole thing would be impossible, and I’m not really sure I should- the basic gist of it, though, is that in the future being portrayed here, a company exists that can help you switch your consciousness into another body. Being as how some of these cases can be high-profile, Agent Barrino is often called upon to use subterfuge to protect clients on their way to the process. That idea is solid, and writer Enrique Carrion definitely revels in his concept- it just doesn’t always jibe. Artist John Upchurch makes it all look very pretty. Again, I’m not entirely certain why I bought into it the way I did, but when I was done, I wanted to read more of it. Guess that’s all that really matters.





WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?

WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?: THE ESSENTIAL DAVID SHRIGLEY
Illustrated by David Shrigley
Published by W.W. Norton


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Advance review- book in stores 10/24/11

It isn’t entirely simple to define the work of David Shrigley. The work contained within this volume is mostly cartoons, and yet that doesn’t quite describe it, either. Shrigley’s cartoons have a rough quality about them- they lack polish, seemingly deliberately mocking outsider art- yet what they lack in artistic sophistication they more than make up with heady rationalism. Indeed, even if you include the sculpture and photography work featured here, that’s probably the clearest description I can give you of this artist’s work:

He is frighteningly rational. And with that rationality comes the truth of his emotional state as it pertains to the world: he is extremely, unquestionably, pissed.

David Shrigley has been publishing his work for over twenty years now, but if you’re looking for a summation of that time, this is the book you need. It does say “essential” in the title, after all, and certainly great care has been taken to reproduce this ultimate “gallery” show gone to print. From the gag revolving around the book’s title, which involves a cow finally taking offense to human dominance, to the Venn diagram which melds “We sing” with “We dance” and “We steal things”, Shrigley is taking a look around the world and doing what all intelligent artists and satirists do: holding up a mirror to the rest of us a pointing out how dumb we look.

I also marveled at some of the more poetic work in this volume. Many pages barely have any artwork at all, only guiding lines surrounding chunks of text that tends to be extremely revelatory. Early on, Shrigley relates a story about searching out a noted cathedral and never being able to find his way in, which in turns colors his perception of religion going forward. Yet there is an underlying hint that perhaps this never happened at all- that maybe it was all a dream, and it was his subconscious’ way of telling him to reject religion. Or that perhaps religion would find a way to reject him. The interpretation is left up to the reader. It’s a fantastic moment that really shows you the depth that lies at the heart of this book of seemingly simplistic work.

WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? isn’t going to be to everybody’s taste, and it certainly doesn’t fall into easy categorization. But for those looking for something different to intrigue them, this book might just fit the bill.

CRUMB-Y COMICS

CRUMB-Y COMICS
Drawn by R. Crumb and Sophie Crumb
Published by W.W. Norton

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Two new books from two generations of Crumbs…

THE SWEETER SIDE OF R. CRUMB is a different kind of book from the old master. Fresh off his smash hit adaptation of the Book of Genesis, R. Crumb throws the medium another curveball, and it’s a dandy. SWEETER SIDE brings together work that shows another side of his talents. Here we have material like beautiful life-drawings of jazz musicians, detailed takes on French locales, a portrait of his cat sitting on his chest, reverent representations of his wife modeling different dresses, and even some cute little comics detailing some of the more amusing moments in raising his daughter Sophie. The work itself is uniformly lovely to look at, but what astonishes most is the depth of style that Crumb displays here. I only wish he had offered some commentary about the origins of the pieces printed here. Whether he is producing simple cartoon pieces, rough sketches, or life-drawings that look like photographs, his hand never seems to falter. This is Crumb giving us a glimpse of who he is in a more rounded sense. He isn’t just anything. He’s an artist.

Speaking of his daughter, Sophie Crumb is a fine and fascinating artist in her own right, and SOPHIE CRUMB: EVOLUTION OF A CRAZY ARTIST aims to demonstrate that as loudly as possible. I’ve never seen an art book quite like it; her parents began keeping her artwork as soon as she started producing it at the age of two, and fanatically archived it from that time forward. Thus this book truly is able to show her evolution. There are almost 60 pages of material drawn by her between the ages of 2-8. Ultimately, those aren’t very compelling, but once she hits the age of ten you can really begin to see her talent coming out. About that time she develops a true style of her own, and the light bulb is coming on. Within five years, she begins to develop the skills to work in multiple styles. From there it snowballs, and she starts setting herself apart from contemporaries and from the long shadow of her parents. The level of sophistication is impressive, and Sophie’s notes about her own life and how it influenced her art are a welcome addition in giving context to some of the work.


BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED

THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED
Adapted by R. Crumb
Published by W.W. Norton

If you were asked to guess which legendary comics creator would take on the task of literally adapting a Book of the Bible into graphic novel form, I think we could all agree that Robert Crumb’s name would not be one that would be bandied about. Yet here he is, having taken all 50 chapters of the Book of Genesis and done his best to illustrate every single bit of it, including pertinent text and dialogue. But is he up to that sort of challenge?

You bet he is.

Whether you are a Christian or not, the one thing undeniable about the Bible is that it is full of stories full of amazing power and emotion. There’s a reason that the work has connected with so many millions over the past two thousand years. And what Crumb has done is to research the Bible’s origins, pore through various translations and explorations, and piece together the narrative contained in Genesis, from God’s creation of the Earth to Adam and Eve, to the great flood, to the saga of Abraham’s extended family.

Crumb’s work makes no judgment about the content of Genesis itself. Stories with contradictions and oddities remain as written, though Crumb offers up some commentary upon some of those moments in a text piece at the back. Characters are designed and drawn to look like humans living in that particular area of the world in the era being discussed. The Bible is full of sex and its consequences; that material is here (the front cover has a note saying “Adult Supervision Recommended For Minors”); blood (and plenty of it) is shed, both by God and by the sword.

Some of this book does bog down, but that isn’t necessarily on Crumb. There are passages laying out family trees that grind the adaptation to a halt, but that’s a function of Crumb sticking to the actual Bible and not omitting material. It was important for him to be faithful to the source material, and he has done so, even at the cost of occasionally reducing the effectiveness of the overall package.

Heading into the Christmas season, I suspect that this might make an interesting and enlightening gift for those of faith. Crumb has turned out one of the most unique and vital works of his career here, throwing the comics world a curveball, and impressing even his most ardent followers.

Marc Mason

BOB DYLAN REVISITED

BOB DYLAN REVISITED
Adapted by Various Artists
Published by W.W. Norton

In some substantial ways, these sorts of things are impossible projects. Much like the musician choosing to cover an iconic song (inevitably demanding comparison to what’s almost always a superior), interpretation of a writer (and personality) like Dylan’s is often asking for trouble. When the musician covers a song, you generally get one of two approaches: imitation, where the covering artist just apes the original (which happens nine times out of ten or more) or you get a challenge.

Take “Satisfaction”, for instance. We in the western world all know the song, played so many times that the fuzz guitar is all but imprinted on our DNA by now. Our children will be born knowing that Mick Jagger’s on a losing streak, that that guy can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me. Anyone approaching “Satisfaction” with an eye to cover it is likely to be looking for fuzzboxes and ratty speakers. There’s the imation.

Until you get to a band like Devo, who covered “Satisfaction” in the late seventies. Their version was anything but imitation. It was a direct challenge to everything that the original song stood for, which helps make it great (doesn’t hurt that the spiky and undulating guitar line is irresistible).

There’s a lot of imitation, of literalization in BOB DYLAN REVISITED. The cover sets you up for it. There’s Dylan in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video mode on the cover, holding up the placards that are to be dropped in time. Only the placards are pages from the stories inside, get it? Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to the obvious.

I guess my problem with the stories overall is that there’s not a lot of reaching past the lyrical source going on. Many, many of them are simply graphic transcriptions of the songs, not interpretation as much as de-abstraction. And that’s fine on the story songs/ballads, I guess. The selections here do play towards that side of Dylan’s work, and there’s a lot of beautiful art to be found in the service of telling these stories. But I have to wonder if this is just dancing about architecture.

Of course, I’m not the target audience for this book (though I love a good bit of Dave McKean as much as the next guy, and his interpretation of “Desolation Row” is certainly the highlight of the book for me). I’d hazard a guess that this book is really aimed at Bob Dylan fans (particularly European ones, as the vast bulk of the artists here are from Europe). And hey, I like his work well enough, though I appreciate it more from an academic view of his influence on rock music as a whole rather than liking Dylan records per se.

Back to Mr. McKean’s contribution, though. Instead of parroting the lyrics to beautifully-rendered but too-easy backgrounds, he simply takes a few of the lines of the song and weaves them through a kaleidoscope of styles and techniques (as indeed we’ve come to expect from him.) Though it is nice to see his ink sketching coming to the fore, at least at the beginning of the story. Yes, Mr. McKean follows the thread of the song’s narrative, but he’s also careful to add an inversion of one of the chosen lines, one that defuses my earlier criticisms of “too easy, too literal”, at least where it comes to the adaptation of “Desolation Row.”

There is other beautiful work to enjoy in the book, Lorenzo Mattotti’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in particular. His graphic approach and varied palette make his interpretation compelling, even if some of the choices he makes are easy. Jean-Claude Götting’s “Lay Lady Lay” is almost perfect, darkly expressionist, and doesn’t need the lyrical overlay that it gets in the last panel. For my grumpiness about graphically transcribing the songs, Gradimir Smudja’s interpretation of “Hurricane” is clear and beautiful. “Blind Willie McTell” by Benjamin Flao and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bramanti both make me want to track down more of their work.

It’s certainly lovely to look through. It’s not something that I’d have sought out, but perhaps to pick up the story by Dave McKean. There’s a diversity of styles that will reward a casual perusal, but if you’re looking for the interpretations to have the same bite as Dylan’s lyrics, you might have to look hard to find it.

Matt Maxwell

STITCHES

STITCHES
Written and Drawn by David Small
Published by W.W. Norton

As a young boy, David Small was set to have what he was told was a relatively harmless operation to remove a cyst from his neck. But when he woke up, he found a jagged scar running down the side of his neck and was virtually mute. It would take some time to learn the full details, but when he did, the truth was horrific: he had actually had cancer, which his parents had not informed him of, and had a vocal cord removed.

You’re probably thinking that Small’s parents were total dicks, and you’d be right about that. In fact, that’s really what’s at the heart of STITCHES: Small’s growing up in a household without love and support, and facing emotional and physical abuse from not only his parents, but his grandmother.

There’s no question that Small’s artistic capabilities are really wonderful, and he shows off some impressive storytelling prowess in his panels and really manages to find movement (physical and/or emotional) in the smallest gestures and looks. I found myself entranced by some of the pages, poring over his use of shadow and light to get the full effect of his work. However, I was less impressed by the story told by the book itself.

Initially, there are problems with the pacing. It takes far too long to get to the pivotal incident that changes his life and really starts moving the book forward. The early material really only suffices to show just how cold and unloving his family is. It accomplishes that well, but it drags severely along the way. I’d have liked to have seen forty or so pages cut from this section to push the book towards its meat a little faster. I also had issues with the actual story; we get so deep into why his family was as screwed as it was, and it ultimately overshadows us learning more about what kind of man Small became once he was out on his own and away from those people. For a book that is about his own troubles, I never felt like I knew Small, and that bothered me. Perhaps that is because he is truly a man of few words, but I felt like I needed more than what I got from him.

No question, this is a quality work. Your mileage may vary, particularly in how you feel about the autobiography genre. It hits shelves in September.

Marc Mason