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The Frank Ritza Papers
By David Collier
Published by Drawn and Quarterly; $19.95 USD

David Collier has produced comics I've greatly enjoyed in the past, and he's produced sketchbooks I've liked almost as well. The Frank Ritza Papers is an unfortunate amalgamation of both, with the end result being much less than the sum of its parts.

There are only about 31 pages of comics in this 182 page book, and that's me being charitable and counting strips on the inside and back covers. I hadn't known this book was coming out, and when I spotted it in the comics shop I was quite excited by the prospect of a thick new graphic novel by David Collier. So just to beat a dead horse, don't buy this thinking it's the nearly 200 pages of comics it looks like from the outside; it's really an issue of Collier's (the cartoonist's irregularly-published comic book) padded out with about 150 pages of sketchbook material.

So is it any good?

I like the voice Collier has developed over his career; his artwork is strongly influenced by Crumb, but his concerns couldn't be more different. While Collier emulates Crumb's first-person reportage, he is a less aggressive, more contemplative creator. Where Crumb's work often provides a biting picture of life in America, Collier paints a singularly wistful -- perhaps even gentle -- image of his native Canada and its history. Collier's best work is quiet and revelatory, and he really is quite successful is giving the reader a sense of how he sees his world and his accumulated life experience. That's a rare gift, and he generally uses it well.

In the comics included in The Frank Ritza Papers, Collier explores winter in a new home, a remote wilderness that he has relocated to. He recounts felling trees and scoping out the few girls in his new town, and bemoans the loss of his youth and appeal to the few likely subjects of his interest. There's a few pages on his time in the military, and if the idea of a Canadian military seems a bit oxymoronic to non-Canadians, so much more the idea of the seemingly meek Collier being in it. Which all adds to the amusement to be found in his unexpected encounter during that time with a wild bear. Collier can be a masterful storyteller, and here the narrative proves that, always keeping our interest.

The sketchbook material, though, proves an aggravating distraction, interrupting the story multiple times. While Collier's sketches are interesting and often entertaining and informative in their own right, here they serve as a serious distraction from the putative subject at hand (Frank Ritza is the subject of both the title and cover art, after all), in my case leading me to both rush through the sketches to get back to the story, and be distracted from the story as I wondered when the sketches were going to interrupt again.

As someone who greatly enjoyed Collier's Hamilton Sketchbook, I know it's not the presence of the sketches that disappoints me so, but rather, their scattershot inclusion throughout the book. If it had to be a combined short story with sketches, better to put the story up front and the sketches in the back, or vice versa. The chosen format does a grave disservice to both the story and the sketches.

I'm also disappointed that the book's format isn't more clear to potential buyers, as I was really expecting a lengthy graphic novel when I bought the book. All the material included, both sketches and story, meet Collier's usual high standard. I can't fault him too much for my disappointment, therefore. But buyers of The Frank Ritza Papers should definitely be aware of what they're getting. Grade: 4/5

-- Alan David Doane



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