Saturday, June 24, 2006

 
Tony Consiglio's 110 Percent.110 Percent -- I've loved a lot of Tony Consiglio's previous work, but I found nothing to like in his newest work. As graphic novel misfires go, they don't get much bigger than this.

The story is about a distasteful group of middle-aged hags trying to hold onto their youth and vitality through their devotion to a boy-band plainly based on N-Synch, or any of the other generic groups created by some marketing genius and composed of talentless pretty-boys. Said hags lie, scheme, steal and neglect their families and friends in order to pursue their dream of seeing their favourite band, or getting their new CD early, or whatever it is they can do to prove they are the band's biggest fans.

Along the way we're treated to the poor fat woman whose officemates think it's hilarious to stick their dicks in her face while she's bent over, then remorsefully ask her to bake a cake for them, which she brings to a party that otherwise ignores her presence. But before you feel too much pity, she's shoplifting and scheming behind her friend's back. Another of these harridans virtually ruins her young daughter's life by her blind insistence that the daughter loves the band as much as she does; at one point the daughter has something very important to tell her mother, but talk of the band drowns her out. Maybe she's pregnant, or dying. Or something. We never find out, and really the daughter and her put-upon father are the only sympathetic characters in the book, but that suggests a level of nuance and complexity that does not exist here.

This is a one-dimensional story about meaningless ciphers, with some gratuituous doggy-style sex scenes thrown in for laffs. I didn't laugh, except at myself when I realize immediately after finishing the book that I actually said out loud "Well, that fucking sucked." I honestly can't remember the last time a work rang so untrue, and took such great pains to do so.

Tony Consiglio has long been clearly influenced as a cartoonist by Box Office Poison's Alex Robinson, and he even cutely name-checks the fake band from Robinson's far-superior graphic novel Tricked at one point in the story. I'm guessing Consiglio, who apparently wasted took years to create this new work, was somehow inspired by Tricked. Instead, 110 Percent feels like a bizarre inversion, unlikeable, dull and directionless. 110 Percent has precisely nothing of value to say, and takes wastes entirely too much of the reader's time, money, patience and goodwill in its attempt to say it.

I've waited years for Consiglio to turn out a new graphic novel, and this one arrives with an audible thud, an unwelcome wrong turn in what had seemed a pretty promising cartooning career. It's unworthy of his previous work, unworthy of its publisher, and unworthy of your attention.

Available at one-quarter of the cover price is Consiglio's much better Doublecross collection, which remains highly recommended.

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Alison Bechdel's masterful FUN HOME.Fun Home -- The very best graphic novels ever created -- a category Alison Bechdel's Fun Home fits comfortably, assuredly into -- are gripping, immersive and literate. As I experienced Bechdel's Fun Home, I found myself comparing its masterful blending of words and images to some of the most accomplished comics I've read in my lifetime.

Bechdel's arresting visual ingenuity recalled Will Eisner's most skillful techniques in some places; her visual wit on par with Eddie Campbell. Her fearless attempt to recreate the hidden, broken life of her family is worthy of the graphic memoirs of Robert Crumb. Her narrative ambition and storytelling confidence put me in mind, above all others, of the very best works of Alan Moore, from From Hell to Watchmen to The Birth Caul and Lost Girls.

Not that Bechdel's work in any way imitates or even emulates these peers of hers. Rather, the powerful way she exploits the potential of the comics medium to tell her life story (and that of her father, and how they converged, and how they diverged) pushes both autobiography and comics forward in the same ways some of the medium's most accomplished creators have done before her. Bechdel has raised the bar for anyone who puts pen to paper with the intent of explaining and exploring themselves and the world they came out of, and up in.

I'm embarrassed to say I did not know what a gifted cartoonist Bechdel is; her ink line is loose, easy and confident, a bold and pleasing style somewhere between the meticulous Rick Geary and the breezy Lynn Johnston. Crucially, she is a master at depicting both interior and exterior environments, lending an enormously authentic air to critical scenes throughout Fun Home. When we're in the baroque family home of her childhood, we're really there amid the decorative treasures her father obsessively collected. When we're gazing out over the Hudson at the Bicentennial, it really is 1976 and we're somehow in New York City. There's no unconvincing background or shaky sense of place at any point in Bechdel's story.

According to an interview provided by the publisher (Houghton Mifflin), Bechdel extensively researched her life story using old letters and diaries (actually used in the artwork thanks to her canny, organic use of the potentials of Photoshop), and the author's efforts at presenting her story as honestly and forthrightly as possible lend a paradoxical air of sceptical verisimilitude. She admits throughout that these are her memories and perceptions, and goes to great lengths to show that her memory -- all human memory -- is an unreliable tool at best. Stories are worth creating, telling and remembering, and as Alan Moore has said, I agree that in some way all fictions are true; but just as great art can come out of possibly unreliable memory, great (or at least comforting) truth can be lost in the hazy mists of receding time. It's this convergence of time, memory, recollection and the acknowledgement of loss that makes Fun Home the truly great graphic novel that it is.

Bechdel's Fun Home recreates the nonlinearity of human consciousness on the page, piecing together the sections of her tapestry to show where her father's life (and in particular his secret homosexuality) intersected with her own coming of age and coming out of the closet. I thought of Alan Moore's Big Numbers when I considered the way she was able to draw parallels and find intersections that might have remained forever hidden even from herself, had she not created Fun Home. Her father's love of literature, likely something of an escape from the oppressive era in which he found himself a gay man, was passed on to his daughter, who came of age in a time, thankfully, when it was somewhat more acceptable to be what you are born as, whatever that may be. A time in which the revelation of secrets might actually not cause you to consider staging your own death out of shame, embarrassment, humiliation, or possibly, ultimately, sheer exhaustion.

Fun Home is a memoir, a mystery, and a masterpiece. It is, by far, one of the very best graphic novels yet created, and a work that will linger long after you finish it. Bechdel's life story is uniquely hers and universally all of ours, and it is worthy of all the attention, analysis and praise its readers can shower on it. Most of all, it is a great novel that cries out to be read and demands to be talked about. Because if people could have talked about the issues contained herein at the time her father was alive, he might still be alive today to read her daughter's story, and tell us what he, himself, thinks of it. I'd like to know what he would have to say, but I never will.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

 
Lucky -- Gabrielle Bell draws in a minimalist style somewhere in-between John Porcellino and Ariel Schwag, a style that a Drawn and Quarterly press release refers to as "unadorned." To be sure, she's not a "bad" artist -- if the stories she tells in this collection (to be released in the fall of 2006) rose above "mundane" (another word used in the same press release, although I invoke it not quite in the spirit I am sure was intended), I can imagine finding Lucky quite charming, or at least entertaining.

There's a vocal subset of devoted corporate superhero comic book readers who think the terms "comics" and "superhero comics" are synonyms, and dismiss books like Lucky as "indy filth" (sometimes with a wink, sometimes not). There's nothing filthy about Lucky (although the author does some nude modeling to raise needed cash); in fact, it's practically chaste in its depiction of the life of a young woman living in New York City. She frequently shares her apartment (and almost as often, her bed) with a gentleman named "Tom," but we never see them act as anything more than friends who occasionally share the same space. We don't know the nature of their relationship, and so presumably it's not important. Late in the book, Tom is replaced by "Tony," who expresses his love to Gabrielle at one point, but we have no idea what sort of love it is to which he refers.

Lucky is, I imagine, the sort of "indy filth" that so rankles fans of superhero comics. Those folks come to their comics expecting things to happen -- you know, Hal Jordan killing the Green Lantern Corps, Wolverine having his adamantium skeleton ripped out through his pores, Kitty sleeping with Colossus, Superman and Big Barda making a porno movie for an intergalactic sleaze peddler (coincidentally named "Sleez;" Dickens had nothing on John Byrne); nothing much happens in Lucky. Well, very late in the book a hole in the bathroom wall seems to turn into an all-devouring black hole, but you know, I read that part of the book already (I think in Mome), and I wasn't all that impressed the first time.

Bell is that most frustrating of autobiographical cartoonists -- she seems to have the chops to tell us things about her life (and therefore our own lives, in the best-case scenario), but instead she tells us things about her day. She models nude, then breaks down crying in the dressing room. She hints she finds it unpleasant and/or boring, but tells us no more.

Panels from Gabrielle Bell's LUCKY, coming in Fall, 2006 from Drawn and Quarterly.


I'd like to know how someone who is an artist finds facilitating the art of others so upsetting -- I can believe being nude in front of strangers for hours might be upsetting, even for an artist who likely has drawn or painted live, nude models before, herself -- but all she does is report the modeling, and the weeping, drawing no relateable emotional line between the two events. Bell keeps a critical piece of knowledge from her reader, either not wanting to share it, or not knowing it needs to be shared to be comprehended.

Not every incident related is mundane or incomprehensible; a nine-page sequence where Bell sells her comics on the street allows us a glimpse of the frustrations of peddling your wares to the public. Unfortunately, the climax of the sequence falls back on an Inside Baseball moment where Bell is confronted by a passive-aggressive superhero comics fan, overblown and obnoxious, and frustrated by Bell's refusal to hand over her personal contact information. After the somewhat upsetting incident, she is reassured by Tom that she is a good person. We don't know if Tom knows about the incident, or is just randomly reassuring people that they are good -- from the presentation, favour the latter.

Another promising sequence that doesn't achieve its narrative promise involves Bell giving art lessons to a pair of sexually precocious 12-year-old boys. They amuse with their provocative dirty talk and intrigue with their choice of art subjects (the view of the outside world from inside the vagina among them), but Bell does nothing more than tell us what happened.

Roger Ebert likes to say that movies are not about what happens in them, but how they happen. Lucky, ultimately, seems to be about what happens to Bell, with little insight or analysis in a genre that fairly begs for at least one of those, preferably both. Otherwise one is left a little bored, and wondering what's up with Kitty and Colossus these days.

Yes, Lucky is mundane and unadorned, but with enough flashes of wit and potential to be truly frustrating. I would read more comics created by Gabrielle Bell, but I would be fueled more by hope and optimism that she finds more to say in her work, than by excitement grounded in my previous immersion in her work. "There should be more here," as my friend Steve used to say. There really should.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

 
Flight Volume Three -- 350 pages of spectacularly coloured light fantasy, lots of children, teens, anthropomorphic animals, clouds, trees, kitties, swords, and the guy who colours Jeff Smith's Bone reissues for Scholastic Books. As you'd expect from those books, he can set a wondrous tone (of the undersea world, here) with a vivid, convincing pallette. The drawings themselves are...okay. The story is, as with almost all things Flight, cute, quick, and insubstantial.

Panel borders must be getting very expensive, because lots of the folks in here eschew them altogether. Better to afford the copious dragons, fairies, mysterious forests, old houses, and funny hats. Prices on those must be plummeting; lots of 'em in Flight Volume Three. I think there was an ogre with a snaggled tooth; oh, dear.

I find myself not remembering much about the book already; just yesterday, discussing the Flight phenomenon with a key industry figure, he told me he couldn't remember anything from Volume One, which he read when it came out. "Not even the obnoxious Scott McCloud text piece?" Nope, he didn't even remember that ridiculous essay-from-the-future, which put forth the even-then dubious claim that many of the folks associated with Flight would someday be regarded as masters of comic art. Maybe someday, over the pretty-coloured rainbow.

What else is in this third volume? Great production values. One guy who draws like a cross between Craig Thompson and Tomer Hanuka. Becky Cloonan, far less interesting here than in Demo, but slightly more interesting than American Virgin.

One guy kind of draws like John Byrne, a story about a subway attack that isn't, coloured by editor Kazu Kibuishi, whose own story continues the trend for a third volume of being one of the few you'll remember anything about a year from now. Bannister -- a cartoonist I noted in my comments on Volume Two -- draws his piece here very well. Draws a convincing bus, great iPod headphones, and a cute girl. Like the very best of anything in the three Flight volumes, it is, at best, an audition for a possible gig as a cartoonist. Looks like you might have the stuff. Are you ready to show me some real comics?

What I take away from Flight, all three volumes now, is that it is much very pretty ado about mostly nothing, and this newest volume is another big slab of potential talent, always a bridesmaid, never a bride. The dress is pretty, but I've seen it before.

I know there are a lot of undiscerning people who think these books are the future of comics. They aren't. And if they are, they need to start proving that with actual stories featuring those hoary old cliches of depth, weight, character, conflict, history, personality, individualism, and/or passion. Passion for something besides accomplished colouring and knowing how to tell the printers how to reproduce your work spectacularly well. There's a metric fuckload of visual craft here, but not enough true comics art to fill a mid-sized Tupperware bowl. "Comics are just words and pictures," according to Harvey Pekar. "You can do anything with word and pictures." I wish this gang would get started.

Time to jump out of the nest and see if you can really fly, Flight crew. By which I mean to say, do you have any stories worth reading? Better yet, worth telling anyone about?

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

 
Shenzhen -- Canadian-born Guy Delisle is a natural storyteller whose gift for observation of the significance of even the smallest moments makes his travelogues a joy to read. Like his previous Drawn and Quarterly graphic novel Pyongyang, Delisle is on assignment in the animation industry over the course of Shenzhen, working closely with people whose language he cannot understand, but game to try new things in the culture he finds himself immersed in. "I feel like Tintin," he exhuberantly informs us at one point, and one comes to appreciate just how much reward there is in being a widely-read comics reader.

After deducing that a hotel maid has been listening to his CD player while cleaning his room, Delisle tells us "I wonder what she thought of the latest Portishead CD. In fact...I often wonder what they think in general."

Even in our own cultures, our own towns, our own homes, communication is often a shaky proposition -- give Delisle credit for being able to not only survive, but thrive, in his own way, in a place where ordering fish for dinner can result in being served an unappetizing plate of pork lips; where a young man trying to learn English is so eager and insistent to hold a conversation with Delisle that when Delisle switches to French (he is from the French-speaking part of Canada and currently lives in France), the man persists without noticing the change, finally giving up only when Delisle loses all patience and tells him to "fuck off." It's a surprising but human moment that demonstrates why Delisle's stories are so appealing -- there's never a sense that he is trying to mold his own depiction, only report on the events he observed and participated in, and whatever happens, happens.

Delisle is able to convey a great amount of detail (and suggest even more) through the choice of moments he shows us. Invited by a fellow animator to come over for coffee on Christmas, Delisle tells us about the Chinese animator's apartment: "There is no decor. The hospital-green walls are neon-lit. It's totally bare except for a huge leather sofa facing an equally huge television that he turns on the moment we walk in." The seeming bleakness of the setting is turned on its ear in the next panels, as Delisle tells us "A strange poster is tacked over the TV. It's a photograph of a French-style table setting, with little plates nested in bigger ones, a porcelain tureen, silver cutlery, etc. All things you never see here...it must seem so exotic to him." Then, crucially, Delisle pauses to give us a full-panel reproduction of his impression of the poster. The change in art-style, for just a moment, gives us profound insight into the man's appreciation of the poster, his reasons for hanging it so prominently in his living space, and Delisle's understanding of all this, presented so efficiently and brilliantly in just a handful of panels.

It's a stunning moment in a narrative packed with winning sequences; I could go on -- the missing doorman, the great relief of "spaghetti and meatballs!" But the joy in Shenzhen is your own delight, discovery and interaction with Delisle's story. You should experience it for yourself.

There's a rewarding underlying sense of structure to Shenzhen, a structure that allows the reader to feel he has experienced something of the journey with the author. Small moments along the way pay off later on, perhaps the least of which has the greatest impact in the book's very last sequence, an echo back to Delisle's arrival in Shenzhen, and a confirmation of, if not the universality of human experience, at least the universality of hotel room design in China.

Download a PDF preview of Shenzhen, coming in September, 2006 from Drawn and Quarterly.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

 
The Last Day of Spring -- Ideally, Spring would be filled with sunny skies and comfortable temperatures; and maybe it was, but I work during the day so at best I emerge from my job at 5 PM and look at the sky and say "Seems like it might have been a nice day." That happened maybe three or four days in the past three months.

It seems like there were a lot of storms; just yesterday a thunderstorm descended on the place I work, knocking out power three or four times and dropping huge, cascading sheets of rain on the area. Then the storm passed, and the air seemed clearer, but it was still fairly dreary.

My use of the term "ideally" above is a bit of a projectionist generalization; it's what I assume is most people's ideal Spring weather. I actually like it overcast and in the 50s, what most people would call "gloomy and cold," but I know I'm a freak. Working ten years of overnights has left me somewhat averse to bright sunshine, and I am definitely increasingly less comfortable the higher the outside temperature gets past 60 degrees. Indoors, anything past 72-74 gets the dustmites working their evil allergy magicks, and I start sneezing. These days I rely on Claritin to control that as much as possible; that's about a dollar a dose vs. the $100.00 monthly in co-pays to get the prescription allergy meds (pills and an inhaler) that my doctor would prefer I use. I simply cannot afford a hundred bucks a month for allergy pills, or much of anything else for that matter...

Damn, rambling again, and nothing about comics. I did just read Godland #11 this morning, which might be the last issue before a multi-month hiatus? I think? Anyway, it continues to be an energetic and wonky Kirby pastiche (one that Kirby probably would have hated, or at least not loved terribly much) that delivers some minor-key superhero pleasures on a regular basis. Considering how few pleasures that companies we actually expect our superhero pleasures to come from actually deliver, I suppose that, at least, is something. I accidentally ended up with the first issue of the Detroit JLA arc of JLA Classified last week, and holy hell, that was some shit-awful comics. Ending up with that was the price I had to pay for following the Ellis/Guice and Simone/Garcia-Lopez arcs, I guess. That's the one consistent thing I have learned in 34 years of reading comics: Marvel and DC will always punish you eventually for any joy you manage to honestly derive from their publications.

Looking forward to the forthcoming League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, solicitations for which are popping up here and there around the comics internet. If I were wealthy I certainly would plunk down the major coin being asked for the Absolute Edition of DC: The New Frontier by the sublime Darwyn Cooke, but alas, I am not wealthy. It's a book well-deserving of the format, though, and in a fairer world it would have been released in this format to begin with, in my opinion...I think that's my opinion, anyway -- as noted previously, I seem to be rambling.

I hope you enjoy this last day of Spring. My daughter has a white-water rafting field trip today, my son is psyched that there's no more homework for the few days remaining in the school year, and I am off to work. Hi ho, hi ho.

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

 
Father's Day 2006 -- A very good day, indeed. My wife and I packed up the kids and drove north into the Adirondacks, and although we followed the wrong road (State Route 9N instead of 9, faulty memory of a trip we took about this time last year) and ended up in Ticonderoga (Home of the #2 Pencil), it was a beautiful ride (thankfully the air conditioning was working in the car, because it was hot and humid outside), and we stopped a few times and took in the natural beauty of the Adirondack Park.

We stopped for lunch at a great little diner in Schroon Lake, and then kinda-sorta got lost again on the way home, but in that great we-don't-hafta-be-anywhere-anytime-anyway kind of way.

Lots of fun this weekend. Not much comic reading, although I can tell you that the one-two punch of the Luba: Book of Ofelia and the final issue of Luba's Comics and Stories made for some of the most emotional and moving comics reading I have done all year. Both are highly recommended.

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A CBS Pharmacy -- Stories like this one about Sav-On Drugs being bought out by another chain are just one of the reasons I love Mark Evanier's blog.

When's the last time you came out of a pharmacy with a story like that?

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