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Bluesman Book One
By Rob Vollmar & Pablo G. Callejo
Published by Absence of Ink Comic Press; $6.95 USD
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The historical fiction premise of Bluesman focuses on Lem Taylor and Ironwood Malcott, two African American musicians at the forefront of the American Blues movement of the 1920s. In many ways this story is a natural progression for this creative team (their first collaboration, The Castaways, was set during the Depression), whose love for this particular era of American history is obvious on each page. The lead characters are clearly based on some of the early blues masters – Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, etc – but are original and authentic at the same time. Vollmar writes natural-sounding dialogue, using language and terminology appropriate to the rural South of the 1920s and creating genuine voices for his two main protagonists. Pacing is also something Vollmar has a knack for, wisely breaking the narrative into four chapters, each prefaced by a gorgeous splash page. Callejo’s distinctive black and white artwork is richer and more detailed than in The Castaways. He also introduces some scratchboard pages to great effect. There had been a lot of buzz online leading up to the release of this first volume, but somehow Vollmar and Callejo still managed to exceed my expectations. This is an outstanding, unique story, crafted by an artist and a writer who are passionate about their subject matter and took the time to do extensive research in order to create a realistic period piece. Bluesman is an early favorite for my best of 2005. Grade: 5/5

Creatures of the Night
By Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli
Published by Dark Horse Books; $12.95 USD

This is the third hardcover collection from Dark Horse adapting Gaiman’s short stories by some of his former Sandman collaborators. In this volume, Michael Zulli applies lush, full-color paintings to two “rewritten” shorts from the out of print collection, Smoke and Mirrors. As the title alludes, the two stories presented are animal centric fairy tales. The first, entitled “The Price,” features a cat whose mysterious wounds lead its owner to discover a much darker secret. The story was strongly reminiscent of “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” from Sandman #18, which was one of my favorite stories from that series. Zulli’s cats are strikingly realistic looking, with sharp, knowing eyes and graceful feline movements. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” is a dark fantasy narrated by two Victorian gentlemen, and chronicles the troubled life of a young woman who is raised in utter isolation, only to fall prey to the ravages of the men of a small English village. Zulli’s impressionistic style is perfectly suited for the setting, and his thatch roofed houses and Victorian costumes capture the somber mood of an old English seaside village masterfully. Both stories are vintage Gaiman – an eerie premise, a strong, distinct narrator and little or no resolution other than a vague sense of the supernatural encroaching on the otherwise normal world. Pretty good stuff overall, but I doubt Tori Amos will be writing a song about them. Grade 4/5

Deadpan #2
By David Heatley
Self-Published; $5.95 USD each

I first encountered David Heatley in the pages of McSweeney’s Quarterly #13. His intimate portrait of his father (reprinted in this volume) told in a Chris Ware style using hundreds of miniscule panels was a revelation and I’ve been anticipating his follow-up ever since. However, nothing could have prepared me for Deadpan #2. The lead story is a tedious, chronological recounting of every single sexual experience Heatley has had in his life, including many homosexual and group sex encounters. The only experiences excluded are those with his current wife, whom he spares the embarrassment of inclusion, calling them “the gaping hole at the center of this narrative.” The story is strongly reminiscent of Jeffrey Brown, though Heatley’s use of color gives his work an added warmth that Brown’s books lack. Heatley is also a stronger artist, packing an amazing amount of expression and detail in his tiny panels. Yet the presentation of his sexual life, while visually fascinating, never reached any deeper conclusions about the impact these experiences had on the author. Unlike Joe Matt or Chester Brown, whose use of explicit sexuality reveals a deeper conflict within the authors, Heatley’s experiences are simply recounted, revealing little of the author’s underlying character. The book also includes several 1-2 page dream comics, which are fascinating and beautifully illustrated, before closing with the aforementioned homage to his father, which is worth the price of the book if you haven’t seen it already. However, David Heatley has a great comics storytelling sensibility and this issue’s meticulous attention to detail is impressive. Grade: 3.5/5

Belly Button Comix #1-2
By Sophie Crumb
Published by Fantagraphics Books; $4.95 USD each

The first issue of this new semi-autobiographical series from R. Crumb’s daughter Sophie is a mixed bag, combining autobiographical strips with gag strips, anthromorphic characters and a few random sketches. The central unifying theme is a perverse sexuality used as a vehicle for humor, a trait not unfamiliar to fans of her father’s underground work. Sophie’s opening strip shows her masturbating with a cell phone, and then moves on to Sally La Frite, a pathetic character who basically takes drugs and hooks up with a stranger, only to regret her lack of judgment the following morning. Then we are presented with Eddy Bear, a cute anthromorphic who is drugged and anally raped, though the artistic style gives this strip a paradoxically lighthearted, cartoonish feel. There are some stronger character pieces here, the highlight being “The Post Card Seller,” which chronicles Sophie’s budding, if somewhat juvenile relationship with a young French man through a series of secret notes. It’s not a bad debut, and the Crumb family art style is definitely on display here, but I found the stories more disturbing than entertaining. This is even truer in the second issue, the majority of which is spent chronicling Sophie’s experimentations with street drugs while on a vacation in California. Again, it wasn’t bad, but it just seemed too self-indulgent. The best autobiographical comics reveal something deeply personal about the author, but with Belly Button Comix there is little beyond the sex and drugs to let us know who Sophie Crumb really is. One thing we do learn about Sophie, however, is that she is a talented artist, comfortable working in a wide range of styles, and these first two issues, while not stellar, are worth checking out. But I can’t help but feel that her best work is yet to come. Grade: 3.5/5

Autobiographix
By Various
Published by Dark Horse Books; $14.95 USD

Although it was released months before his passing, it’s hard to look at the hauntingly beautiful cover to Autobiographix and not miss the late Will Eisner. This mostly solid anthology collects 19 of comics’ greatest writers and cartoonists under one umbrella to share some personal stories. By far the standout story is “Rules to Live By” by Jason Lutes. The author of Berlin contributes an Eisner-worthy rumination on the year he spent living in Asheville, North Carolina. The 6-page story reads like a graphic essay on the nature of the connections between art and life. I read this particular story three times, and still find Lutes’ use of visual metaphor fascinating. Other standouts include Sergio Aragones charming recount of his chance meeting with Richard Nixon, and William Stout’s story about the time he drew a caricature of a disfigured boy. Stan Sakai, Eddie Campbell, Paul Hornschemeir, Farel Dalrymple, Paul Chadwick and of course, Will Eisner also contribute interesting, if forgettable personal tales. The collection is not without its disappointments though, as the contributions by Frank Miller, Linda Medley and Metaphrog left me cold. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, was Matt Wagner’s contribution, “Comic Book Chef,” which was little more than an illustrated recipe for chicken parmagiana. But at the end of the day, there are more good stories than bad, and Lutes’ story alone is worth the price. Grade 4.5/5

-- Marc Sobel



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