Saturday, July 08, 2006

IncantoIncanto -- Writer/artist Frank Santoro also drew Cold Heat #1 (both are from Picturebox Inc.), and his art on that title seemed to me deliberately rough and unfinished, but with an obvious skill and good colour sense. Incanto is in many ways a very different book, more experimental, and I think more likely to satisfy artcomix followers.

Despite having been issued from a professional (if new and mostly untested) publisher, Incanto looks and feels like a self-published mini-comic. The moments Santoro depicts are conveyed with a minimum of visual information -- sometimes what we're seeing is spelled out for us in scrawled text, such as "sky," or "reaching for lover not there," but intriguingly, usually, you'll be able to tell what it is you're looking at anyway. The technique is an arresting variation on comics being composed of words and pictures, and an effective counter-argument to the truism that the words on the page should never duplicate what the reader can see in the images.

The use of colour -- a bright orange and a shade of blue I would call "dark turquoise" (although art school grads probably have a better name for it) arrests the eye, and the four colours in evidence -- white, black, orange and that shade of blue -- create whole worlds of emotion and space on the page. One masterful sequence has two panels on the left page featuring shock and revulsion highlighted by the methodical removal of colour, only to be powerfully echoed and enforced by a wall of nothing but orange on the facing, right-side page.

By now you have a sense of whether Incanto is something you'd like or not, which is what I see as my primary job here. I can't say it's going to be for everyone -- it's experimental, non-traditional comics in the extreme -- but at the same time, it is wildly intriguing, like a beautiful dream, and there are moments and images inside that indicate Santoro is a powerful new voice in comics, and that Picturebox is, whatever Diamond thinks about them, a new comics publisher the artform needs, even if the industry seems destined to resist it at every turn.


Friday, July 07, 2006

Cold Heat #1Cold Heat #1 -- Somewhere between Chester Brown's Underwater and David Lapham's Stray Bullets lies Cold Heat, which seems to be more than the amateurish effort it wants to appear to be, and yet is so impenetrable that one is left little doubt why Diamond would not want to bother with it.

Critics of any artform have a duty to look beyond the base financial motivations of a company like Diamond, a virtual monopoly within that part of comics that is primarily concerned with selling floppy periodical adventure comics to 40-year-old men who enjoy seeing Superman and Batman's minds placed in the bodies of Power Girl and The Huntress (see? I keep up!).

In the greater, recently-expanding world of comics and graphic novels there has been new room made for stories told in comic form. In many bookstores catering to all ages and genders you can find graphic novels about growing up lesbian with a closeted gay father, or dealing with cancer, or coming to grips with what it means to have left your youth behind. These books, and the people who are finding them, out there in the world, are very likely the future of comics. Not because they don't have superheroes, but because unlike most current superhero comics, they tell human stories that resonate deeply with concerns greater than "Hulk smash." The audience is out there for great stories in comic form, and more and more it is finding them.

Cold Heat, published by Dan Nadel's Picturebox Inc., doesn't seem to me to be a great story, although it seems to want to be. The art seems unfinished, but not unaccomplished -- think of Frank Stack's work on Our Cancer Year. The colour palette is limited, but deliberately so, giving it the look of a child colouring with only two crayons, one pink and one blue. It's not an unattractive effect, and in a few places the extraordinary application of colour and art betray the simplistic style being used; the artist knows what he's doing.

I didn't like Cold Heat #1, but not because its creators aren't telling a good story. I didn't like it because I couldn't tell what story it is they are telling, which is why this review is short on plot details. There's an apparent suicide, and a gathering, a martial arts lesson and a dream, but how or why it all fits together remains a mystery (Derik Badman read it multiple times and has a better summary here).

This is a year for comics in which many great stories have been told by master storytellers, and also many superhero comics have been sold, one having nothing to do with the other. The point is that there's a wealth of comics out there right now, no matter what you're looking for. It's no surprise to me that Diamond couldn't be bothered with Cold Heat, because the superhero-fixated Direct Market isn't going to have any use for it, and casual artcomix followers might not be willing to buy twelve issues of this thing to see if it's going anywhere, or if it's just a pretty-coloured mess.

Critics of the comics artform are likely to support Cold Heat because it's different and might turn out to be extraordinary. But that's far from reason enough to recommend you invest five dollars in it. Unless you're a comics critic, or extraordinarily curious about the outer edges of alternative comics circa 2006 CE.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

John Byrneday -- As noted at The Comics Reporter, today is John Byrne's birthday. While my loathing of Byrne's public persona runs back decades, on this, his special day, I thought I would salute the enduring things about Byrne that I actually enjoy.

A good place to start, if you're interested in great John Byrne comics, is the recent Marvel hardcover Uncanny X-men Omnibus, which reprints a good chunk of the Byrne/Austin artistic era (a second volume would complete it, and is most welcome as far as I am concerned). Yes, it's $100.00 bucks, but it reprints something like 40 issues, many of which you would pay that individually for. Additionally, it's on great paper stock and includes the original letters pages, which are kind of a treat to see in print again.

Also of great historical value, if you can track it down, is the Comics Journal issue (#57) that featured a long interview with John Byrne. Byrne weighs in, among other topics, on how Bob Layton's inking made male characters look "queer," according to both Byrne and his dad. After that revelation, well over two decades ago, nothing else the guy has said can really be a surprise, can it?

A great place to track Byrne's latter-day shenanigans is the permanent John Byrne thread at The V Forum. And for biographical information, go to The John Byrne page at Wikipedia. Byrne's online discussion forum is at Byrne Robotics, but beware, only sycophantic groupthink is tolerated for any length of time.

Update: In perhaps the most beautiful coincidence ever noticed on this blog, it's also George W. Bush's birthday. What is the connection, you ask? Well, as a Canadian, Byrne will also never legally be elected President of the United States.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Elsewhere #2 by Gary Sullivan.Elsewhere #2 -- I wasn't expecting a second issue of Gary Sullivan's self-published mini-comic, but it certainly is welcome.

In my review of the first issue, I said "Of course the insides don't always match the expectations set up by that superb cover." Also true with this second issue, and again I have to say "So what? Sullivan uses words and create a comic all about verisimilitude, and mostly it works. Disorienting, silly, lovely, unknowable." All still true, although a bit less silly and a bit less unknowable. But not a bit less intriguing.

The first issue was about Sullivan's immersion in Japanese culture; here he stays closer to home, as the Brooklyn resident uses words and images to recreate a trip up Coney Island Avenue. Under another superb cover, Sullivan uses his photo-informed style to show us a multicultural wonderland that is so joyous and chaotic that one could almost have hope that people of disparate cultures could learn to rejoice in each other's differences, not to mention their headgear and cuisine.

The comic is not perfect; the words are sometimes at odds with the images in a way that recalls the skillful juxtapositioning of an Alan Moore. At other times the words are just at odds with the images. I would have preferred it if the stream of consciousness narrative (if you are generous enough to call it that; I would) were a bit more organic and directed, but it's undeniable that Sullivan's approach evinces a convincing travel through a real place. If the lettering could be a little more accomplished, if the execution could be a little more assured, it remains nonetheless true that Elsewhere is fascinating, forward-looking comics that more or less spectacularly achieves its modest, unique goals.


CRAZY PAPERS by Jim Dougan and Danielle Corsetto.Crazy Papers -- Cartoonist Dean Haspiel is quoted on the back of this slim graphic novel as saying it "reads like the lost rawkus episode of SEX IN THE CITY." Unfortunately, I'm forced to agree (although I have no idea what "rawkus" means). It is published by Chatterbox Comix.

Writer Jim Dougan's first graphic novel is about romance, mystery and rock and roll, and yet it is not romantic, it is not mysterious, and it does not rock. The one scene in which it attempts to rock, featuring an Edward G. Robinson-lookalike belting out Bon Jovi, is an amusing sequence that doesn't quite fit in the book, although I am sure its inclusion generated some self-satisfaction on the part of the creators.

Dougan seems able to craft convincing moments for his characters, but is not able to make us care about the characters within those moments. In the hands of another artist, there might be enough here to sell the minor charms of the story, but Danielle Corsetto brings a sterile professionalism (reminiscent of the damage Haspiel did to Harvey Pekar's The Quitter, actually) to the goings-on that prevents any real immersion in either the story or its setting. Her art is slick where it should probably be organic, and over-the-top when a more subdued and naturalistic approach might have contrasted better with the would-be wackiness of the script.

The wacky aspect may be the problem, and it may not be as off-putting for you as it is for me (I think I am allergic to "wacky"). To my eyes, though, Crazy Papers plays as a subpar attempt at the "New Mainstream" comics thing, a passionless appeal to non-superhero readers via the same sort of mediocre tripe they get at in Hollywood movies or bestselling paperback novels; think of the worst title you've read from Oni or AiT/Planet Lar. Kind of like that. If that's what you're looking for, here is some more.

It's also called, on the back-cover copy, by artist Michael Lark (who really should know better, and probably does) "more like a nice, funny, low-budget indie film." Well, no. Crazy Papers is harmless and eager to please, but it's much more like an unfunny, mid-budget Hollywood flop that everyone involved with tried their best on, but that is far from the best they may someday be capable of.


I LOVE LED ZEPPELIN by Ellen Forney, published by Fantagraphics Books.I Love Led Zeppelin -- My mother went most of her adult life thinking that it was "Bud Zeppelin," and that he was a single individual; also, she thought Rolling Stone was solely about The Rolling Stones.

If you think Ellen Forney's I Love Led Zeppelin is about Led Zeppelin, you're as wrong as my mother was. Although, as Rolling Stone did cover The Rolling Stones occasionally, there is a Led Zep connection: Forney includes lyrics from the song "Dazed and Confused" in one of the sharp, funny comic strips collected herein. Also, Led Zep's most well-known style of lettering is used as the font for the chapter headings. Other than that, though, Mom, I Love Led Zeppelin is not about Led Zeppelin.

Just wanted to clear that up.

Ellen Forney is a startingly direct and communicative cartoonist, and the strips contained in I Love Led Zeppelin are therefore able to convey great amounts of information and entertainment in very compact spaces. The book's first chapter is a series of one- and two-page How-To pieces that both educate and elicit laughs. Like much of the material here, Forney works with other writers and collaborators (Ariel Bordeaux handles half the art chores on a strip about hairstyles), but her art is a unifying element that allows the diverse subjects to fit together under one cover, and the many points of view Forney communicates seem therefore mostly worldly and informed, rather than random and scattered as could have been the case with less skillful editing, or less canny choices of subject and collaborator.

Among the things I was delighted to learn more about in this section were How To Be A Fag Hag (a witty and observant piece created with Margaret Cho), How To Tip Your Server (nothing I didn't already know, but now I know I am at least as worldly as Forney in this regard, and an entertaining strip anyway), and How To Fuck A Woman With Your Hands (ditto, and shut up).

Other sections include Short Comics, and Collaborations (some with the terrific sex columnist Dan Savage) and there is black-and-white and colour throughout, seemingly chosen strictly by how the strip originally appeared, not out of budget considerations. The oversized presentation (published by Fantagraphics) allows Forney to stretch out and show a lot of different facets over the course of the 110 pages of I Love Led Zeppelin. From the informative and enlightening How Tos to engaging reportage (a piece on taking a walk with a neighborhood legend is a standout) and autobiography, the collection shows Forney as a formidable cartoonist with an unusually strong gift for speaking right to the reader, and keeping their attention no matter what the subject matter.

I Love Led Zeppelin is an extraordinarily fun collection, one you'll likely find yourself returning to from time to time while you await Forney's next work. I know I will.


Monday, July 03, 2006

The Monday Briefing (Larry King Stylee) -- It's Monday of an apparent four-day holiday weekend, and I have to go to work; how do other people remember to plan out their vacation time so well? Hey, didja notice Galaxy OG Rob Vollmar is back, with a new satellite blog called Ramble On? You may know Rob as the uber-talented writer of The Castaways and Bluesman, but he was also here on that fateful day back in 2000 when we launched Comic Book Galaxy. I'm thrilled to have him back writing about comics again, as he is one of the most thoughtful and considered commentators on the subject. You might also have seen his comics writings at Ninth Art, and in the pages of The Comics Journal. His first major piece for Ramble On is the first in a series of essays titled Rage of Angels, go take a look.

Watched Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby last night; it's part of my Roger Ebert Film Series, which is really just me going through Ebert's 2006 Movie Yearbook (a wondrous collection of all his critical writing fro the past 18 months or so) and picking out movies that I missed the first time around. Million Dollar Baby was very good, especially in terms of the acting and cinematography. Ebert feels, if I recall his review correctly, that it's virtually perfect with nothing that isn't needed for the film to work as it does. I might disagree a bit on that; I think the first scene with Maggie's hillybilly relatives was a little heavy-handed and could have used a rewrite, and the last half-hour (everything after the final boxing match, basically) could have been condensed, rewritten or disposed of altogether. When the fateful moment occurs, we know what the implications are, and I think we see a bit too much of the natural course of events from then on out. The movie was shot from the first draft of Paul Haggis's script, and maybe that's my problem. Seems to me it would have been wise to tighten up the last part of the story. But up until that, it is perfect, and overall is still an excellent film and well worth your time if you haven't seen it.

Also watched, on Ebert's recommendation, a kinda-sorta sci-fi film called Primer. It allegedly cost $7000.00 to make, and unlike Ebert, I think it looks that way, although that's not a criticism, just an observation -- the look totally works for the purposes of the film. What didn't totally work was the film itself; its early Bendis-like dialogue (a bunch of only semi-convincing technobabble designed to overcome the viewer's disbelief at what a certain invention can do) gives way to vague intimations of goings-on only partially discernable. It's possible I wasn't watching closely enough (although I felt I was giving the film my full attention), but it seemed to me like the film really lost track of its own timeline(s), moments and motivations. At the middle I was intrigued by the Lathe of Heaven-like possibilities, but by the end I was just glad it was over and a little exhausted from trying to keep straight a film I suspect even the director couldn't explain. That can work when the focus is on tone and feeling, but Primer is not about tone and feeling, and if it is, it is not about it very convincingly.

Oh, hey, I wrote a review over the weekend, did you see it? Better late than never, I look at Jaime Hernandez's Ghost of Hoppers, which is some damn fine comics. Read the review, more importantly, buy the book. Good stuff. Will Maggie ever not be hot?

All right, the sun's coming up and the day awaits. If you're in the US and enjoying the day off, well, enjoy your day off.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Spurgeon's Guide to Comicon -- Updated for 2006, Tom Spurgeon's huge list of tips for San Diego con-goers. I've never been and likely never will, but Tom's amazing, comprehensive guide makes you feel like you're there anyway. He even provides PDF and Word versions for easy printing-out and carrying-along. Also: Fun to read!

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GHOST OF HOPPERS by Jaime Hernandez. Ghost of Hoppers -- Like most right-thinking comics readers of all ages, genders and sexual orientations, I've had a crush on Maggie Chascarrillo for as far back as I can remember. We've both changed a lot over the years, but as is often the case, catching up can be a wonderous thing. Ghost of Hoppers is a wondrous thing.

As much as I love the giant slabs of collected Love and Rockets graphic novels Palomar (by Gilbert) and Locas (by Jaime, author of Ghost of Hoppers), it's good to remember just how effective the work of Los Bros can be in smaller packages. Ghost of Hoppers runs 116 pages (plus gorgeous cover gallery), and contains just one story; through the obnoxious, vivacious character Vivian, Jaime Hernandez takes Maggie on a walking and driving tour of her life. The story is, in turns, sweet, funny, sad, sexy and terrifying. Jaime even approaches the magical realism territory of his brother Gilbert, in a breathtaking sequence that sees the eras of Maggie's life touch in some mystical way, for just a moment. It's the kind of thing that most people experience at least once in their life and wonder about the rest of their days, but Hernandez makes it so organic -- and inevitable -- that we simply nod, and continue.

There's plenty of flirting and (mostly off-panel) sex here, but the heart of the story (originally serialized over many issues of the current L&R series, far more effective here under one cover), as always, is Maggie and her lifelong orbit around her soulmate Hopey. Hopey is devastating in Ghost of Hoppers, seen as that one lover that is always closest to you, even when you're involved with others; most powerfully of all, Hernandez cannily keeps her mostly off the page. She's in one or two key (and I mean key) scenes, but with Jaime's masterful control of his characters, his story, and his art, she's all the more influential for her absence from the bulk of the story. Her most important scenes are actually seen only from Maggie's point of view, as the two longtime lovers talk on the phone. Just thinking back to the pacing and depiction of those moments makes me want to read the entire book again, as they argue mightily for Jaime Hernandez as one of the best storytellers alive today on the planet. Who hasn't had their heart broken -- or their life affirmed -- by a distant utterance on a static-filled phone line?

There's so much more to tell you about Ghost of Hoppers; Izzy is back, and so are the flies, but they'e not on the ceiling this time. I want to tell you how convincingly Hernandez can create whole worlds through elegant, economical suggestion: Who could read this and not imagine an entire other twenty-year series of stories about Maggie's sister? What other creator could so easily depict the tumult of human emotion right on the page, as in the single panel that signals the end of Maggie's infatuation with Vivian -- Maggie looks agonized, resigned and relieved all in the space of a single image. We know it hurts, we know Maggie's been here before, we know Vivian's words hurt her -- but we also know Viv is no Hopey. And yet Viv and Maggie's brief flirtation felt so real, and so filled with possibility, just a little earlier. Just another moment from a life, Maggie's life; perhaps the most genuine, astonishing life ever lived entirely in the pages of a comic book. Shine on forever, Maggie. Shine on.


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