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Thursday, December 24, 2009

2009: The Year without a Best-Of -- I'm not entirely certain, but I think this is the first year in all my online comics writing that I won't be posting a best-of-the-year list. I think A Drifting Life (Drawn and Quarterly) is the only book that comes immediately to mind as really deserving any kind of call-out as the year's best effort, so I do encourage you to read my review if you haven't already, and read the book for yourself, as it is quite an accomplishment.

I did read a lot of comics I liked this year -- as far as floppies go, Buffy (Dark Horse), Conan (Dark Horse), Godland (Image), Criminal (Marvel/Icon) and The Umbrella Academy all entertained me mightily, but I never seemed to find the time to write about any of them. New League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Top Shelf) by Moore and O'Neill did get my keyboard cooking, and I loved the hardcover reissues of Captain Canuck (IDW) and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing (even despite DC's monumental goof on the most important page of Vol. 1), and of course Fantagraphics continued to make life better with its ongoing Complete Peanuts collections, and their Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 was also one of the treasures of the year, filled with tons of the master's weird and wonky comics. (IDW's Art of Ditko also rocked my world).

I also loved but have not yet found the time to write about Top Shelf's two astonishing late-in-the-year hardcover collections, The Complete Essex County and Alec: The Years Have Pants. Two awe-inspiring bricks of great comics that should be on everyone's shelves, and both also available in more affordable softcover editions if you're so inclined.

But my absolute best entertainment of the year was not found in comics in calendar 2009; Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams, knocked my socks off in ways I no longer even thought possible. It recaptured the wonder of Trek in ways I haven't felt since The Next Generation's Best of Both Worlds Part One, and was so thrilling and entertaining that it even eventually won over my Trek-hating Star Wars-obsessed 14-year-old son Aaron. Him finally breaking down and watching it with me on DVD (after refusing to see it in the theater with me and truly breaking my heart just a little bit) and actually loving it was literally the best moment of my year. So thanks to J.J. Abrams, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and all involved for giving me back something very important and personal that had been missing from my life for quite a few years.

Well, I said I wasn't going to write a best-of, and technically I don't think I have, but I did want to share with you my thoughts on the year in comics (and Star Trek) as I experienced it, and there you have it. I hope you and yours are enjoying a happy and healthy holiday season, and I wish you all the best in the year ahead.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

AMC's The Prisoner Mini-Series -- Here's a remake I've been waiting most of my life for. I started watching Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner when it was running in late night on, I think, CBS back in the 1970s. Its rich mix of science fiction, espionage and paranoia wrapped around questions of power, control and identity made it probably my all-time favourite TV series, and a show I think is still ahead of its time some 40 years after it was first broadcast.

It's been vastly influential, echoing in forgotten series like Nowhere Man, popular ones like Lost, and probably a dozen more I could list if I thought about it for a couple of minutes.

There was simply nothing like it on TV before, and nothing ever reached its dizzying heights after; not every episode was perfect, but most were at least very good, all were interesting, and a few were transcendent in the way they involved the viewer in Number 6's struggle for individuality and freedom.

And now it's been remade as a six-episode mini-series for basic cable channel AMC. Starring Jim Caviezel as Six (the "Number" prefix has been dropped in all cases here) and Ian McKellen as Two, the mini-series is inspired by the original but does not seem to be a direct sequel or a by-the-numbers remake. New explanations for the existence of The Village are hinted at, and new shadings are added to the psychological mix, including issues of sexual identity that actually make for a thoughtful addition to the heady brew of social and political issues that the original tackled. Weird new post-Lost elements are added, some compelling (the holes that seem to be appearing in reality) and some not so much (the pigs that are touted as the solution to the holes -- yeah, you definitely have to see it to believe it).

There are some really first-rate performances here, especially from McKellen as Two (and especially Un-Two, a Leo McKern-worthy performance) and Jamie Campbell-Bower as his son, 11-22. There is a mountain of subtext in the relationship between the two, and that aspect is probably the most vital of the series.

Unfortunately, the entire endeavour is hobbled utterly by a lifeless and nuance-free lead actor in Caviezel as Six. McGoohan brought anger, passion and purpose to the original Number Six, but Caviezel brings absolutely nothing to the lead role here. He is very good at playing stunned and confused, as in when he first awakes on the edge of The Village, but I felt nothing at all for his character as he confronted Two and his schemes and conspiracies. One episode features Six recruited by Two to teach surveillance at a school in The Village, but I never felt sucked into his deals with Two in the same way one understood why Number Six would go along with Number Two's plots in the original. At no time in the entire series did I root for Six, an essential element of McGoohan's series -- one never necessarily felt his Number Six was a nice guy or even a hero, but he was always sympathetic and one always wanted to know how he was going to try to get out of whatever dilemma Number Two had thrown him into in any given episode.

The elements that comprise AMC's Prisoner remake are so close to perfect that I truly am sad that it falls so short of the mark. The cinematography is intriguing and occasionally beautiful. McKellen and Campbell-Bower give all they have to their roles. The music is fantastic. But time and again, watching all six episodes, as I continued to feel a gnawing ambivalence for the entire affair, I kept coming back to the weakness of Caviezel's performance, and also the fatal error of spending a good deal of every episode in flashbacks (or possibly forwards? The Lost influence is fairly powerful) to Six's life outside The Village. These sequences spend a lot of time on Six's alternate life as Michael, but really tell us nothing about him as a person, or why we should care that he is trapped in The Village.

Like the original, the final episode ends in metaphysics and scenes open to multiple interpretation. Unlike the original series finale, though, it is torpid and vague and lifeless and will not prompt viewers to ponder the meaning of the mythology for decades to come. Finishing the six episodes, I said to my wife "I don't know how to review this thing, other than to tell people to watch the original." Patrick McGoohan created a timeless epic that still feels fresh, unusual and relevant to our lives. AMC's remake feels like a faint echo of something meaningful, a well-intentioned effort that fails to escape the powerful shadow of its far superior inspiration.

A copy of The Prisoner was provided by the network for the purposes of review.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Lovecraft Tales -- In many ways, the writing of H.P. Lovecraft is autobiography.

I don't mean that he believed in Cthulhu, or Nyarlathotep, or the Great Race that steals your body and casts your mind back to a vast, ancient, Cyclopean prison that serves as a library of all the knowledge of the cosmos, past, present and future. There are people who believe Lovecraft really believe in what he wrote about, or at least say they do, but that's not what I'm talking about. The writing of H.P. Lovecraft is autobiographical in exactly the same way it is resonant for me as genuinely reflective of the universe as I've experienced it. Lovecraft, born in the late 19th century but fascinated and in some ways trapped far earlier, felt the universe was far vaster than we knew, and far colder than we want to believe. Virtually every story of his, the most effective ones, especially, are grounded in the idea that we are all insignificant motes of dust in a momentary ray of light shining through a monstrous reality filled with old and illimitable powers playing out baroque scenarios our minds cannot comprehend without descending into gibbering madness.

Lovecraft's way of crafting words is very nearly viral, which is why he had such a profound effect on writers ranging from his own contemporaries, through to Alan Moore and others not yet born. Hell, I never use the words "illimitable," or "gibbering," but I bet both are to be found many times in Lovecraft Tales, a massive and entirely essential hardcover collection from The Library of America.

I bought the book somewhat on a whim, and under circumstances Lovecraft would have found familiar. He was an antiquarian, fascinated with the past and also in love with "weird fiction," which (and about which) he wrote quite eloquently and passionately. I was browsing a mammoth bookstore in New England (really, I was) when I spotted the dark, foreboding cover with the slightly eerie author photo. It seemed to raise genuine, half-remembered thrills and the promise of wonder. As I saw Lovecraft's name on it, I remembered reading some of his fiction in my very early teens. I remember gray paperback book covers with hints of distorted, mind-warping biology and rotting, dilapidated houses. "Lovecraft," I thought to myself. "I've read him before, but it was a long time ago." The volume promised to be a near-definitive collection (it's not complete, but it's completely fantastic and brilliantly edited by horror writer Peter Straub), and as I browsed the untold piles and shelves of books in this New England bookstore (all right, it was in Vermont, not Boston, or Arkham, but still, it was New England), I was (I really was!) gripped by the desire to, after all these decades, re-immerse myself in whatever dark wonders Lovecraft had led me into as little more than a child.

Digression: There is a small, dreary village half-hidden in a strange corner of Saratoga County. A hundred and thirty years ago, it was a bustling factory town. Then the factory left and the community was devastated, but the people never left. One consequence of my early immersion in Lovecraft is that every time I have heard his name in the past thirty years, I have thought of this small, lifeless village and its boarded-up windows and joyless residents and the sense that as I drive through (only to experience this feeling, for no other reason), eyes are watching me from hidden corners and behind bolted doors I dare not approach. I know now, after reading Lovecraft Tales, that this weird, recurrent experience stemmed from half-remembering the story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," with it's genetically questionable village full of the descendants of people who made a nightmarish deal with beings better left undealt with.

Reading the stories in this volume, every one a dark delight, made me realize just how deeply Lovecraft's shadowy vision is woven into the fabric of our modern fiction. He was inspired by Poe and other pre-20th century writers of strange tales, but, beginning to write his own fiction before he was even 10 years old, Lovecraft's ancient fascinations and sense of alienation combined with a sharp mind to allow him to generate, over the course of his writing career, a vast tapestry of madness and the unknown that self-refers again and again. The earliest tales here seem like avatars of ancient days, but as science and knowledge expanded rapidly in the early 20th century, Lovecraft's mind expanded with them. Quantum physics in general and relativity in particular lent his work more, not less, verisimilitude, even as greater life experience and exposure to the ideas of others seem to tamp down his earliest, most immature and frequently racist touches. The oldest stories in the book seem like stories that could have been told to (or by) precocious children by the fire in the late 18th century; more expansive (in length and ideas) stories near the end, particularly the masterworks The Shadow Out of Time and At The Mountains of Madness would not have been conceivable without Lovecraft's exploration of the then-burgeoning body of knowledge about Earth's true place in the great scheme of the cosmos. How strange, in fact, to experience this book as a whole and note the introduction, over its course, of the automobile becoming commonplace, or of Einstein being named and his theories hinted at as possible explanations for the existence of other dimensions and perverse, forbidden journeys made possible by the very different physics and thought-processes of the elder gods.

Lovecraft's work is prose. Essential, addictive prose that gripped my soul as a child and has excited and recharged my imagination as an adult. More than any other writer I've read, I think he inspired Alan Moore, though it should be noted that Moore was inspired by Lovecraft in the way Moore wishes he had inspired others: fired by Lovecraft's ideas, not slavishly devoted to imitating them; in love with Lovecraft's use of language, but not reproducing it whole and claiming it as his own. You couldn't imitate Lovecraft, after all. Not really. In the same way that Charles Schulz's depictions of his characters are nearly impossible to reproduce, Lovecraft's characters, settings and scenarios are all the unique product of his life experience. Others have played in his sandbox, but no one could ever hope to match the singular and unique voice he cultivated in his years as a writer. Lovecraft Tales is a true treasure of dark delights, and a book literally full from beginning to end with stories worth re-reading, pondering over, and hoping never, ever come true.


Buy Lovecraft Tales at Amazon.com.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Abstract Comics: The Anthology -- It seems almost beside the point to say that yes, here's a book you can judge by its cover. But other than the introduction by editor Andrei Molotiu and some notes about the individual contributions at the back, the cover image -- chaotic, mysterious, and hinting at hidden dimensions of meaning -- describes the experience of reading the book pretty succinctly.

Needless to say, one could study the art found within Abstract Comics: The Anthology (published by Fantagraphics Books) for months, or one could flip through the entire thing in five minutes, and the conclusions one could draw from either experience of the volume could easily be justified as informed and insightful. Here are hundreds of pages of inexplicable lines, colours and visions, at best open to interpretation and at worst inviting John Lennon's definition of Avant Garde, "French for bullshit."

Having now lived with it for a couple of days, I can't say I love Abstract Comics: The Anthology, but considering that it includes contributions by R. Crumb and James Kochalka, two cartoonists I hold in the highest esteem, and considering that their works are among the best-realized and most thought-provoking in the book, well, I can't dismiss it out of hand either.

Some artists challenge more than they enlighten. Alexey Sokolin's, murky, hairy panel progressions seem to emulate comics form without speaking to it. On the other hand, the images by Elijah Brubaker, Geoff Grogan and Janusz Jaworski use the panels and pages to create a sense of meaning and movement that invite multiple readings.

Just creating panels and putting stuff in them is not always successful, though -- Jason Overby does just that and the resulting images reminded me of nothing more than marginal doodles from an 11th grader's math notebook; diverting for the artist but not necessarily as rewarding for the rest of us.

Mike Getsiv's "Shapes," defines space with lines and colours inside irregular panel borders in a manner that appeals to the eye and is not wholly unsimilar to James Kochalka's stylings. Both use the tools at their disposal to suggest passion and emotion, and Getsiv's striking images are worthy of a collection all their own.

I really liked former Galaxy contributor Derik Badman's rambling, dream-like creations, too, suggesting partially obscured views into a world unseen, unknown and unknowable.

In a sense, there's a lot of art in Abstract Comics: The Anthology and almost no real comics per se. I was blown away, however, by my son's recognition of a Sentinel (a giant mutant-policing robot) from Marvel Comics' X-Men in a page by Noah Berlatsky that the artist says is abstractly based on images originally created by the late Dave Cockrum. I studied the page for quite some time and could not see a damned thing other than amorphous shapes and lines, but when I told my son (who was curious about the book I was reading) that the page I was on was originally based on the X-Men, he casually blew my mind with his comment "Oh, yeah, there's one of those giant robots, what are they called? Sentinels?"

If that isn't proof that meaning is in the eye of the beholder and that the work within Abstract Comics: The Anthology isn't absolutely open to interpretation by every single reader that encounters it, and that every opinion it generates has some validity, than I don't know what else to tell you. I still can't see a frigging Sentinel on that page.


Learn more at the Abstract Comics blog. Noah Berlatsky kindly provided a link to both the original Dave Cockrum page and his own abstract interpretation of it, which you can see here.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Glourious -- This started off as just a link, but I discovered, hell, I have something to say.

The link: Jog takes along, nuanced and well-written look at Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

Now, I don't agree with Jog's overall assessment of the film, finding it much more successful than he does at what it wants to do, but there's no denying he explains his reasons for seeing the film as he does very well indeed, and that's why I'm linking to it. You should see the movie, then read his review. I went Friday night, because I have had enough of a blast at every Tarantino film I've ever seen that I need to see him on opening night.

I'd need to see Inglourious Basterds again at least once (and I will) in order to really coagulate my feelings about it in any sort of detail; but I think I'm with Roger Ebert on this one. Tarantino's brass balls never clanged louder for me than while I was watching this movie, and I thought he'd already hit that peak with Death Proof, which I realize some people disliked but I thought was a brilliant summation of QT's love of moviemaking.

Inglourious Basterds is far ballsier, and its most amazing scenes -- the opening life-or-death poker game between a French dairy farmer and a Jew-hunting Nazi, or the face in the smoke, or, Jesus, that David Bowie scene, holy shit! -- they're all better than anything Tarantino has ever committed to film before, and who the hell thought that was still possible after Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown?

So, I respect Jog's views and I enjoyed reading his thoughts (always do), but I absorbed Inglourious Basterds more the way Ebert did, like a force of nature. If a tornado lifts you up into the air, you don't argue with it about gravity, man, you just go along for the ride. That's what I did Friday night, another unforgettable night at the movies courtesy of Quentin Tarantino, who has given me more than any other director in my lifetime.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stitches -- In this autobiography, David Small's family members are bleak and nasty in ways Chris Ware never thought of, scarring Small (literally and metaphorically) for life in ways that would have sent Jimmy Corrigan off a rooftop.

For reasons we never entirely know (because Small himself only gets hints after his childhood is over), his mother and father are critical, mean-spirited people who seem to provide the bare minimum of physical necessities to him as a child, and far less of what any child needs emotionally. Dinner time is a thinly-veiled battlefield, and the next crushing blow to his psyche is always one misstep away.

There's no getting around the fact that Small's parents do monstrous things to him, either with the best of intentions or out of their own selfish needs and inadequacies as human beings. Despite that, the parents (the mother, especially) is given a bit of three-dimensionality through what Small eventually learns of her life, and if the information he shares is scant, it's no less real for its resonance with the way we learn about our parents in shadowy vignettes that never quite reconcile into a whole human being we can understand, relate to, or even like.

There's a narrative symmetry here that would seem forced and unreal if this were fiction, but the role Small's father's career ultimately plays in the events of the author's life become more terrifying the more you think about how easily any parent could make the same mistakes in some other, modern manner.

The novel is like a map of a destroyed adult's inner child, which makes it slightly miraculous that Small is a successful children's book author and apparently is happily married. He somehow rose above the horrific events of his life to make a better path for himself, and I suppose Stitches could be seen as a cautionary tale, when it's not being seen as a compelling life story or emotionally ravaging autobiography.

Small's art is urgent and elegant, with echoes of Frank Santoro's Storeyville scene-setting in some spots, and hints of the frenzied line of Jules Feiffer in the more emotional passages.

The places Small takes us in Stitches are not fun; the tension is high and the mysteries are many. The cruelty that defined his early life will stay with you long after you finish the story, but the true wonder is that David Small lived and thrived enough to bring his story out into the world. It demands to be read and reflected upon, and if you're a parent, I warn you: you'll never think the same way about your responsibilities after seeing how Small's parents handled theirs.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

Casanova, Fraction, Moon and Ba -- Warning, this is a ramble, not a review, no matter what the tag says.

Almost done reading through the 14 issues of Casanova now. Two complete storylines, #1-7 exquisitely drawn by Gabriel Ba, #8-14 well-drawn but not exquisite, by Ba's twin brother Fabio Moon. The first arc reads like a cross between Steranko and Ellis's Nextwave: Agents of HATE. The second arc is dirtier, the art kind of Eisner/TenNapel-like; the comparison is Ba is Jaime to Moon's Mario.

The narrative is packed; they're 16-page issues like Fell, and like Fell feel longer. Reading the back matter (what we used to call "text pages," which actually I think there are far too few of these days) Fraction is a little too full of himself, but not quite to the Brian Wood degree. His website, on the other hand, is worse than fucking useless. Better to have none at all than the one he has.

Anyway, the comics are better than good, less than great. The first arc is the keeper. Gabriel Ba is pretty much The Shit. Casanova #1-7 and all of The Umbrella Academy's two minis are some of the most gorgeously drawn genre comics I've seen in some time.

All my exploration of the Moon/Ba axis came out of reading their pretty great Comics Journal interview in the most recent issue. I love it when an interview is so well-done that it convinces me to sample writers and artists whose work I haven't read before.

Fraction seems to have been co-opted by Marvel for the time being, so who knows if there'll be more Casanova in the near future. I'm sure they'll say there's more in the works, but lucrative trademark maintenance always trumps groovy creator-owned comics, right?


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Uptight #3 -- This comic book made me nuts. Go look at the info and ordering page at the Fantagraphics website. Look how goddamned beautiful that cover is. Jordan Crane is selling prints at his website. Gorgeous.

That cover illustrates the first part of a new story Crane is working on, "Vicissitude," and Holy Jesus it is one of the best stories I've read this year. I'm a tough sell when it comes to out-and-out fiction in comics, but the unbelievably compelling artwork totally drew me into this fantastic story.

Then it ends after just a few pages -- a satisfying start, to be sure -- and the rest of the issue (right to the back cover) is concerned with the characters from Crane's great graphic novel The Clouds Above.

But I don't want that, I want more "Vicissitude." And I apologize for being so unreasonable, but damn if that cover and those first few, tantalizing pages aren't like some new, more addictive form of crack cocaine you ingest through your eyeballs. By looking at this comic book.

God DAMN, I want more "Vicissitude."

Don't let another day go by without making sure you're getting Uptight #3.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Captain Canuck -- I can remember finding my first issue of Canadian superhero series Captain Canuck (probably #9) on the stands of a 7/11 in St. Augustine, Florida at the time of its original publication (1978 or '79). It looked like the superhero comics I was used to, but it wasn't published by DC, Marvel or Charlton, the three publishers I was used to buying superhero comics from at that time.

The art, by George Freeman (colours by Claude St. Aubin), was gorgeous and dynamic, if not quite as polished as what I expected from artists like John Byrne, George Perez or Gil Kane. But what it lacked in polish it made up for in enthusiasm.

IDW has published a hardcover collection of issues #4-10 (the first half of the Freeman era, basically -- earlier issues were drawn by creator Richard Comely, who also does some art in this collection, but not much), and it is spectacular. In the introduction, Comely says that he was able to scan the original art for the re-release, and I can believe it -- only the covers look like they were shot from the actual comics and not the art itself. The reproduction throughout is extraordinary, given the age of the material, and the paper stock and presentation are ideal for this sort of project.

The stories are about as I remember them -- energetic, Canada-centric (that's a good thing, mind you) and with very engaging and promising art by Freeman and vivid, way-ahead-of-their-time colouring by St. Aubin (Comely talks a little about the colour process in his introduction).

I was lucky enough to score a copy for less than ten bucks on eBay, but even at full, $24.95 cover price, this book is a no-brainer for anyone interested at all in the history of superhero comics and especially the momentous, oddball era in which Captain Canuck was originally released, the same era in which Elfquest, Cerebus and The First Kingdom were also blazing their own trails. I'm thrilled to have these stories in my possession again, and I'm salivating over how good this Freeman/St. Aubin art looks. Congratulations, and thanks, to IDW and the creators for bringing this material back to light, and I look very much forward to the next volume.


Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek -- For a long time it seemed we had lost Star Trek in a slow leaching off of what made the original 1966 series special. From the high points of its second life (Wrath of Khan; the TNG episodes Best of Both Worlds Parts One and Two) it was all an agonizingly slow downward spiral. The series finale of TNG was a great, emotionally satisfying tribute to the unlikely success of the first sequel series, but instead of leading into a brilliant new movie era featuring Picard and company, it was the last real gasp of creative honesty in the 1990s for "the franchise."

Generations had an awesome opening 15 minutes followed by tedium, bad writing and the worst mistake in Trek history, the ham-fisted death of James T. Kirk. Not that Kirk necessarily shouldn't have died on-screen, but the unconscionably bad writing of his death scene (and the even worse writing of the earlier draft, available for viewing on the Generations DVD) should have been a signal to all involved that they had traveled far down the wrong road and needed to rethink the entire journey.

Despite that, director Jonathan Frakes managed to make the next cinematic outing, First Contact, into a fun adventure movie that demonstrated moments of genuine wit and human insight (mostly in the Cochrane storyline; the Picard-as-Ahab metaphor is as heavy-handed and tedious as any Roddenberry conceit one could name). The less said about Insurrection and especially Nemesis, the better. The latter was literally the worst Star Trek entertainment ever produced, with less creative spark and more embarrassing moments than the worst of the Gold Key comic book series. And like Generations, it goes not boldly but wrong-headedly down the same stupid path of creative immolation by killing off Data, probably Roddenberry's last great contribution to Star Trek entire.

And oh, the other sequel series; Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise all have something to offer despite their enormous flaws (Colm Meaney's acting, the Holographic Doctor and all of Season Four, respectively), but compared to the '66 and '87 iterations of Trek, they demonstrate the slow death of an idea. In 1964, when Roddenberry conceived the series that would be refined and redefined by the other writers brought in (Fontana, Ellison, and dozens more), the series was about exploring both space and what it means to be human and alive. By the time Voyager launched, Star Trek had literally become a series about Star Trek. Enterprise grew a pair in its final season, but by then the fact that the franchise had been in the wrong hands for many years was crystal clear. Berman, Pillar, and the rest were the bad guys as far as I was concerned. They had taken away Star Trek and replaced it with a very poor substitute.

And now J.J. Abrams and company have given it back.

I don't remember how Roger Ebert justified his 2.5 star review, and I don't care enough to go look and grab a link. You're good with the Google and I trust you to know if you need to see for yourself. But for me, the new Star Trek is 3.5 to 4 stars of greatness from beginning to end. It has everything I love about the '66 series, from laughs and melodrama to the costumes and pageantry of Starfleet as a vision of the best humanity (and other races) have to offer.

Is it perfect? No. The performances of the actors playing Sulu, Chekov and (yes) Scotty all wander over territory ranging from cipher to parody, even if their individual charms still won me over. Does the plot make sense? Is the science sound? Probably not. Is that really Spock, though, being played by Zachary Quinto? Is Chris Pine really Kirk? Hell, is Bruce Greenwood really Captain Christopher Pike? Yes, yes, and much to my amazement, yes.

Is it too shiny? Yes, the lens flares are a distraction and will look as goofy in ten years as the ones in Ellis and Hitch's Authority comics do now. But the passion with which this story is told, and the little character moments that pepper it throughout, feel more true to the essence of what the original series accomplished than any moment of Trek since The Wrath of Khan first reminded us that Star Trek was fucking loaded with the potential for great storytelling, hammy actors and bad special effects be damned.

Leonard Nimoy's first scene as Spock is astonishingly well-acted, drawing upon the actor's 45 years of experience playing the character. Quinto makes Spock his own, but at no time does the new version feel discordant with Nimoy's lifetime of contributions to the canon. The moment when Spock materializes on the transporter pad and realizes what he has lost on Vulcan is one of the most powerful in the character's history, twisting some of the most beloved moments of the original series into a new form and setting the character on a new path. And it never feels like anything other than honestly-won drama that works on every level.

Chris Pine completely inhabits the ideal of Kirk as a character and as a legend-in-training. He doesn't feel like a Luke Skywalker-type Hero with One of a Thousand Faces, but rather he comes across powerfully as a new, divergent path for the character Shatner portrayed for decades, struggling to get where we know he belongs, on the bridge of that ship. And Pike is a special case for me: I have been obsessed with the original pilot's captain (and actor Jeffrey Hunter's performance) for over thirty years. The first time I saw The Menagerie (the episode that wove footage from the original, Kirkless pilot with a new Kirk/Spock story), I was fascinated by the idea that the ship had had another captain before Kirk, and even more riveted by the question of what the series could have been like with Pike, not Kirk, at the helm. Bruce Greenwood does an amazing job of making Pike his own, and having a new story on film involving this great, semi-lost Trek character feels to me something very much like a gift.

The movie throbs. It shines and sparkles and shakes with energy and movement. It propels you through its story and leaves you so, so ready for more Star Trek. Personally, I want to see more of the world Nimoy's Spock comes to this movie from (see the IDW comic book prequel Countdown for a hint), but if all we ever get is more of this new type of Star Trek, I'll be very happy. It's a brave new canvas Abrams and company have created, and Trek hasn't felt so filled with potential since Spock's coffin landed on the Genesis Planet all those years ago. For the first time in a long time I am asking the essential storytelling question, what happens next?

I can't wait to find out.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

A Drifting Life -- I finished Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life yesterday, and have been wrestling with what to say about it.

I really, really enjoyed reading it, but there's almost no extraordinary moments in it at all for me to point to. Virtually the entirety of the narrative is concerned with Tatsumi's transformation from a fan to a professional comics creator and the development of his own offshoot of Manga, a genre he dubbed Gekiga ("dramatic pictures.").

In the few moments where the book is about something else, it is either Tatsumi's sometimes tense and difficult relationship with his brother, or more fascinatingly and frustratingly, a couple of truly weird sequences in which we get a glimpse of the author's awkward sexual awakening. I would have loved to learn whether Tatsumi's timid, shame-faced encounters are culturally based or came out of his own upbringing and point of view. I suspect the former, but we never find out and once the minor thread is dropped, it is never even hinted at again.

A Drifting Life's title really does define what it is about, and I realize that telling you that it's 800 pages of passivity that is really interesting to read seems like a left-handed endorsement, but it's not intended that way at all. Tatsumi has an enormous canvas upon which to paint his life story, and he uses it well. It's broken up into discreet chapters, which makes it easier to tackle from a reader's perspective, but don't come into it expecting shocking moments or artistic revelations. There is an epic feel, but its effect is cumulative rather than something that sweeps you along through the author's personal history.

Tatsumi is one hell of a draftsman, and his depictions of life in Japan are amazing to see, and give one a tactile sense of the life he has experienced. So the fact that the book really does drift, that Tatsumi has no grand statement to make (except perhaps at the very end), is not a criticism at all, merely an observation; perhaps a suitably passive one to match the author's viewpoint for much of the story told here.

As a reader born in North America and steeped in its mostly intellectually arrested comics-creating traditions, I guess I am programmed to look for the grand point, the big theme. So I admit that I spent much of my time reading A Drifting Life in perhaps the wrong mindset. Either because of a lack of knowledge of what came after the point the story stops, or maybe even differences in cultural cues I should have picked up on, the book really does feel like it just stops rather than reaching any real kind of climax or conclusion.

There's a moment of, let's say, energy near the end, followed by a strange epilogue and a final panel and statement that were more baffling than anything else. And yet despite that, I am glad I read it and think anyone interested in Manga, Tatsumi or artcomix should read A Drifting Life and will likely find it rewarding and enriching, as I did. It's possible an interview with Tatsumi (as his other works released by Drawn and Quarterly have included) might have provided better context with which to comprehend and absorb what Tatsumi shows us (and for that I highly recommend Jog's review), but you know what? It's his life, and this is how he wanted us to learn about it. It drifts, but it is profoundly worthwhile, and you ought to read it.

Buy A Drifting Life from amazon.com.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Who Botches The Watchmen? -- Anyone who's stopped in here a time or two knows I love and respect Roger Ebert's writing a great deal, so I find myself in the somewhat unusual position of siding with comics critics like Tom Spurgeon and Tim O'Neil in not really much liking the film adaptation of Watchmen, while Ebert loved the film so much he has already written about it twice, once in a formal review and again in his more personal online journal.

Watchmen is a graphic novel I hold in pretty high regard, despite the oft-mentioned weakness of its ending, somewhat analogous to the ultimate revelation of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane: both works are so entertaining, engrossing and (most importantly) formally ambitious that they represented paradigm shifts for their respective artforms, film for the better, comics usually for the worse. When I interviewed Alan Moore a few years ago for an NPR-affiliated Public Radio station, he mentioned that he felt somewhat responsible for the dire turn superhero comics made in the wake of Watchmen. To be certain, that phenomenon is not Moore's responsibility, no matter how much he regrets the end result of the book's influence. Director Zack Snyder, like all the awful superhero comics writers that have aped Moore's superhero masterwork, sees the surface but barely comprehends the underlying complexity. More urgently, Watchmen's imitators in comics can create all the dark, grim, moody, crappy murder mysteries they want -- from Meltzer to Straczynski, from Johns to Bendis, none of the superhero writers who've tried to tap that vein have ever demonstrated even a tenth as much understanding of the medium of comics as Moore possesses, or a hundredth of his imagination.

Snyder's film is virtually all about grabbing the facile elements of the book and pretending to be much better than it ultimately is, kind of like an eight year old dressing up in Dad's clothes. They don't fit well and the kid can't figure out how to tie a tie, but at least the shirt's on top and the pants aren't backwards.

Which is to say, as I did on Twitter immediately after seeing the film, "Sort of like a live action trailer for the book. OK, but doesn't capture the beauty of Moore and Gibbons's collaboration." Many moments were fun to see up on the screen, like Rorschach and his end-is-nigh sign, or Rorschach eating Dan's beans, or Rorschach...well, you get my point. I did think the actor playing Dan did a great job of conveying the innate schlubbiness of the character, but the choice of going supercool-Matrixy with the costumes instead of staying true to the material cuts the guts out of one of the main themes of the story, that putting on a costume doesn't changes your essential nature, as much as you might want it to. Just as, I guess, getting the job of turning Watchmen the graphic novel into Watchmen the motion picture into a movie doesn't mean you'll necessarily get it right, as much as you and a million nerds might want you to.

Someone said that the movie is probably the best adaptation that could have been made from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's work, and that might actually be true. But the point only serves to highlight the stone-cold fact that, as a movie, Watchmen is most of all irrelevant. The book represents a high-water mark for creative ambition in its native medium, an achievement unlikely to ever be matched or exceeded, especially in the superhero genre. The movie represents two hours I spent one Saturday in a theater, and nothing more. If Snyder wanted to translate a few cool scenes from the comic book onto the big screen, well, he did that. If he wanted to demonstrate why people still read, analyze and adore the comic book 25 years after its debut, he could not have failed more completely.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Saga of the Swamp Thing Book One HC -- I've been patiently waiting for the beginning of the "archival" hardcovers of Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben's Swamp Thing to hit stores, and now they have. I picked up the first volume Friday night after work, and was amused/disgusted to note that the slimmer-by-half All-Star Superman Vol. 2 hardcover -- which I also picked up -- weighs about twice as much. If you see the Swamp Thing book, pick it up and I think you'll be amazed at how little heft it has. DC went for the el cheapo newsprint-style paper stock on this, similar to the stock used for the Jack Kirby's Fourth World volumes.

Now, I guess it's slightly less galling here, because the Swamp Thing book, at $24.99, is half the price of the Kirby volumes. But when compared to the heavy, nigh-ideal white paper stock Marvel used for its recent Daredevil: Born Again hardcover, well, DC looks pretty cheesy. Fact of the matter is, this Swamp Thing series should be the ideal presentation of some of the best comic books ever published (Swamp Thing is in the same league as Alan Moore's other great works like Miracleman, Watchmen and the cream of the America's Best Comics titles, if not quite in the greatest-graphic-novel-ever territory of From Hell), and this shitty, easily-damaged paper stock is quite at odds with the meant-to-be-elegant design of the book itself.

The dustcover is also an odd case. It has the tacky feeling of not-quite-dry paint, and I kept checking my fingers to see if the black was coming off the book and onto me. The actual cover art is simple but quite nice, a (new, I believe) profile shot of Swampy by Bissette and Totleben.

Strange that the essay Alan Moore wrote for the trade paperback collection of this material is replaced by a new essay by Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein. Deliberate slap at Moore, nice gesture to Wein, or maybe Moore's essay is no longer timely? I haven't checked yet to see. It is definitely a good thing that for the first time, DC is including Moore's actual first issue of Swamp Thing, #20's "Loose Ends." It may tie up the previous storyline, but it's integral to where Moore went with #21's "The Anatomy Lesson," and has nice art by Dan Day to boot.

The presentation here is far from perfect, as I've noted, but these are vital comics that anyone with an interest in the artform should own, read and even study. Moore was discovering a lot of his own processes in this run, and if his prose runs more to the purple than it does in his work of the last decade or so, it is also lyrical, poetic, and richly entwined with the art it accompanies. I wish DC had bothered to do it better, but I suppose it's a miracle they did it at all, and I'm more grateful than not to have the book on my shelves. If only it could be joined by a hardcover collection of Moore's Miracleman...

Buy The Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One from amazon.com.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910 -- Well, golly, it's good to have a new Alan Moore comic book in my hands at last. Better still to have that comic book be in the form of a new issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which with artist Kevin O'Neill's wonky, angular visual contributions is among the finest works in Moore's oeuvre.

At one point in this first chapter of "Century," a planned three-part series in the LOEG saga, Mina Murray says "Do you know, for the first time in my life, I feel stupid." Moore's visceral, brilliant use of language often leaves me feeling the same way; my first try reading his extraordinary prose novel Voice of the Fire, for example, left me feeling quite dumb and inadequate. When I revisited it with a couple of years more life experience, I found it a breathtaking, wild ride through history and the power of the imagination to change the world. I've said this before, but if you find an Alan Moore story unrewarding, the chances are very, very good that it's you that is the problem, not Moore's writing. He's always been ahead of his time, and the impact of that can be quite disorienting.

I felt a bit of this effect early on in the story, because it's obvious that Moore uses many, many references to historical and fictional people and events, and in such a breakneck manner that I sometimes feel overwhelmed by just how much information is being processed in any given panel, on any given page. But no matter how many references, in-jokes and allusions you do or do not pick up on, there's no question that no more baroque and diverse intelligence has ever written for comics, and after years of mistreatment and abuse by DC and Marvel, frankly we're lucky to have him writing any comics for any company at all. Better still, he's now writing them for Top Shelf Productions, known for visionary projects and extraordinary production values.

Being out from under DC's corporate thuggery allows Moore and O'Neill wide latitude to ply their trade as they truly see fit, so the language and violence found in this story are ramped up a bit from what came before in this series. LOEG was never children's fare, but Moore and O'Neill both seem a little freer in their imaginings than previous volumes might have suggested. The overall effect is one of added maturity, narrative depth and creative freedom. Additionally, using Bertolt Brecht lyrics throughout establishes a brutal Greek Chorus effect that culminates in a disastrously marvelous conclusion to the issue, and one that, despite the story being set a century in the past, seems devastatingly current in its observations and implications for our modern world. I doubt very much this is coincidence.

Like the previous release in this series, The Black Dossier, LOEG: Century 1910 feels like a departure from what went before. Some familiar faces are present, at least for a time, but some are gone and some are changed from how we last saw them. There's an exciting sense that the world Moore and O'Neill have created is a living thing, ever moving away from its own past and its own status quo, and speaking as someone who likes his comic books to reflect actual life experience rather than emotionally stunted fantasy, I find this element quite satisfying. It's good to catch up with old friends, but far more rewarding to share new adventures with them than stagnantly reflecting on old victories. No one feels safe or comfortable in Century 1910, and there's a feeling that anything can happen. New characters and ideas, like The Prisoner of London and a certain sea captain's righteously vengeful daughter, infuse the story with a power and immediacy that makes the long wait for this new release well worth while. LOEG: Century 1910 is everything this series has led you to expect: Fast-paced, visually dense and wildly imaginative. It feels to me like having comics back again, in all their unkempt glory. The League is back, and so are Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. I haven't read anything better so far this year, and I urge you to lose yourself once more in this extraordinary series.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910 will be released in April, 2009 by Top Shelf Productions.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Jumbly Junkery #6 -- The latest mini-comic from L. Nichols comes as a refreshing reminder that whatever the state of the economy, or whatever Diamond Distributors tries to do to limit the market to junk superhero funnybooks, artists compelled to make great comics will continue to make them.

As I mentioned in my review of Jumbly Junkery #4, Nichols trades mainly in observational and autobiographical storytelling, a genre that when well-done (as it is when practiced by Nichols) is as addictive as heroin to me. Nichols starts off the issue with a one-page observational strip about a cat who loves boxes, and if it's a minor note on which to enter the issue, it brings a smile of recognition at the bizarre behaviour our pets indulge in and refuse to explain.

Another brilliant-rendered one-pager then gives way to the show-stopper of this issue, "Quantum." Mining somewhat of the same territory as the sci-fi shorts Dash Shaw has been creating in Mome of late, Nichols depicts a time-traveler who has seen a future where science has cracked the very secret of the human soul and used it to facilitate true love in all its myriad forms and allow people of all types to find their true calling in life. "Quantum" is loaded with subtext and resonance for anyone willing to see it, a piece of perfectly-realized fiction laying bare its authors real-life hopes and dreams. It ends with a wondrously realized comment on choosing to create art and what it means.

There's tons more good comics in here, other one-pagers and a longer piece called "Stasis" that is arresting in the empathy it creates for a stranger who may or may not be all alone in the world. Nichols at her best has a way of reaching very deep into herself to show the reader the world we all share, and "Stasis" asks us to just think about that world for a minute.

The drawing throughout Jumbly Junkery is outstanding, thick and thin lines meeting at the place where art meets the real world, gloriously chunky in spots and spare and silent in others. Nichols in one hell of an artist and a gifted young cartoonist, and you should be following her stuff. She creates some of the most rewarding and delightful comics being published today, and the economy and Diamond's half-assed monopoly be damned. You want to see the future of comics? It's Jumbly Junkery and all the other passionate comics waiting to be found out there, created not because they might create a revenue stream, but because their creators have to make comics.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For -- Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is the manner in which cartoonist Alison Bechdel presents dozens of sexually and racially diverse characters as nothing special at all, just everyday average people. And among this large and fascinating group of individuals, all of whom are breathtakingly individual and startlingly human, Bechdel never seems to play favourites. Mo seems to me to most closely reflect her creator's sensibilities (not to mention appearance), but no one is ever really celebrated in the narrative as being any wiser, or better, or more perfect than any other. It's almost like they were all created equal, or something.

Bechdel is perhaps better known these days for her rightly-celebrated graphic novel Fun Home, which after all garnered "Book of the Year" honours
from Time Magazine, without so much as being afflicted with a "Graphic Novel Category" distinction. And make no mistake, Fun Home was just that good.

And damn if The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For might not be even better. Dykes has an advantage bestowed by time: Bechdel has been working on the strip for over twenty years, and she knows her characters, all of them, inside and out.

There are hundreds of strips reproduced in this absolutely essential collection, and while Bechdel picks and chooses (not every strip is reprinted, although most seem to be), each page, representing one strip, has its own purpose, pacing and impact. Cumulatively, the end result is a knock-out blast of amazingly well-told stories and well-constructed characters. Collected all under one cover, it's a vastly rewarding tapestry that reveals itself over time, as in the minor flirtations that surface from time to time, only to blow up into life-altering passions. Just like in real life, see?

I took great delight in how Bechdel organically imbues the strip and its characters with a political consciousness. Whether examining the equal marriage rights some of her characters struggle for, or skewering the hypocritical relationship between NPR and some of its largest corporate underwriters, Bechdel convincingly and smoothly imparts a sense that both she and her characters live not only on the world, but in it. Their political awareness, and their frustration at the slowness of changes over time, jibes precisely with the world as I have experienced it over the past two decades. Not all the characters are progressives, though. Some want merely to live their lives in peace and relative anonymity, and one, Cynthia, wants to forward a conservative agenda even as she begins to live her life as a young lesbian adult. Bechdel plays fair with virtually every point of view in the book, and it's all the more readable for that virtue. Some of the characters may hit people over the head with their beliefs, but Bechdel is far more subtle.

The twenty-year arc of the collection also allows for the full breadth of human experience. While some of the women herein remain hardcore in their devotion to their sexual orientation, others find fulfillment in a wide range of partners and experiences. It's almost impossible to imagine a reader -- any reader -- not finding people they know within the pages of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, and recognizing the all-too-human weaknesses, zealotry and flaws that we all contain within us. Dykes is a vastly entertaining work, but it's also a humanizing and reassuring one. Whatever your orientation, whatever your beliefs, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For presents you with real people and challenges you to find them anything less than human. God help you if you can't find joy, love and compassion within these pages. And God help us all.

Buy The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For from amazon.com.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

JLA Deluxe Vol. 1 -- The Justice League as a concept was worn out and creatively bankrupt at the time Grant Morrison and Howard Porter came along and reinvigorated the series, starting with a new #1 and the simple idea of bringing back the original seven team members, which seemed novel at the time simply because it had been so long since anyone had done so.

"Novel" is what Grant Morrison is about, at his best, and he brings just enough of his imagination to the party to make these stories vibrate with nervous energy. Nostalgia for the simpler time these seven characters represent is not invoked by the creators, but perhaps imbued by readers familiar with their earlier eras. Morrison first throws weird, even somewhat perverse opponents at the League in the first storyline, and re-reading the stories in this new collection I was struck by how cleverly he managed to both hide their true identities and make it obvious in retrospect. Clues abound, but they come so quickly that they're easy to miss. Of course these issues blew readers' minds: Morrison was actually trying to create good and inventive stories, something rarely done with the JLA.

The best story in the book comes in the standalone fifth chapter, reprinting the series' fifth issue. "Tomorrow Woman" tells the tale of a mysterious new heroine who joins the League to battle against an implacable, unstoppable foe. She comes at a time when help is sorely needed, but she has a secret. The secret is kept from the JLA, but not from us, and Morrison has some fun with the true villains of the piece. Their final line is priceless, and as close to nostalgia (the poison in the well of most present-day superhero comics) as Morrison's scripts ever get.

Artist Howard Porter is a fascinating conundrum to me. His work here is awkward, static and oftentimes outright unappealing, when considered apart from Morrison's words. Morrison is a writer whose work, from Animal Man to New X-Men to the current Final Crisis is often compromised by the presence of less-than-ideal artistic choices. On the surface you might think Porter would qualify for that description; the two chapters here drawn by Oscar Jimenez are clearly visually superior. But somehow they lack the urgency and sense of modernity that Porter brings to the other stories in the book. Howard Porter, somehow, was the perfect choice for Morrison's JLA, and a decade on these stories still, in their own paradoxical way, look exciting and fresh despite Porter's deficits as artist qua artist.

The biggest compromises, then, in JLA Deluxe Vol. 1 are not artistic. Rather, they are the same compromises that plague corporate superhero comics year after year.

As the book begins, Superman has long hair and his traditional blue, red and yellow costume. Why does he have long hair? A few chapters later, he is made of electricity and is blue and white. Not just his costume, his entire body. Morrison does some hand-waving with a line like "We live in interesting times," but only longtime readers like myself will even remember the reason for this and other strange differences from the current DC Universe. Why is Green Arrow so young? Why does Green Lantern have a crab on his face? Later on, in chapters in future volumes in this series, Wonder Woman's mom will take over for her for a while. Wonder Woman's mom.

It's not that these inconsistencies, all born out of "big events" happening in other titles at the time these stories originally saw print, hurt Morrison and Porter's narrative. Morrison is a strong enough writer that these tales hold up despite the compromises forced on the creative team. But it's a good example of why series like Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman seem so much more inventive and timeless. Writers and artists should be free to tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them. Having to dump The Electric Superman or Wonder Woman's Mom into the middle of your otherwise meticulously-planned narrative really looks kinda stupid ten years later when your stories are collected in a deluxe hardcover.

Despite all that, though, these are JLA comics that deserve the upscale treatment. They are as close as you'll get in printed comics to the creative heights reached by the Justice League animated series, which is the very best use of these characters in any medium (and highly recommended if you've never watched the series). Morrison and Porter's run on JLA (it should take another three or four volumes to reprint the entire series) was a blast, and it actually gets better from here, with storylines bringing back The Injustice League and, oh, the end of the universe, if you haven't heard. It gets much wilder from here, but this first volume lays a strong foundation for what is to come, with unpredictable adventures that make good use of some of the most well-known superheroes in the world.

Buy JLA Deluxe Vol. 1 from amazon.com.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

The Black Glove -- The three issues comprising "The Black Glove" storyline by Grant Morrison and JH Williams are three of the best issues of Batman since, at least, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli cranked out Batman: Year One fifteen or twenty years ago.

Over the course of the three issues, Morrison and Williams play with Batman's decades-long mythology, creating an eerie and nuanced murder mystery that is visually stunning, the equal -- perhaps even superior -- to Williams's work on Promethea with writer Alan Moore. "The Black Glove" as a story is pure superhero comic book magic.

Unfortunately, DC turned what could have been an elegant hardcover collection into a massive failure by padding it out with four thematically dissonant and visually incompetent issues (another storyline entirely) drawn by Tony Daniel. It sounds like sour grapes, but having paid real money for the book (half the cover price, yes, thank you Borders Bucks, but still, some of my cash was involved in the transaction), I'd like to spend the rest of this review telling you how I would have preferred DC to present the good material from this volume:

* Option #1: Ideally, The Black Glove's three sublime issues would have been presented in a standalone hardcover, preferably oversized, anywhere between the dimensions of the new deluxe JLA hardcovers and Kramers Ergot #7 would be fine with me. Thicker paper, a sketchbook section, interviews and essays could have padded it out if the three issues worth of material weren't enough.

* Option #2: Less ideally, the second half-plus of the book (which were wasted on the Daniel-drawn issues) could have been blank. "Draw your own sequel!" That would have been less desirable than Option #1, but still preferable to what we got.

Well, I'm out of options. Most important to note, though, is this: I would have been much happier paying full price for this volume if it just contained the Williams-drawn Black Glove story-arc and nothing else. It would have been a better value for the money. Pairing it up, as DC does here, with the four-issue Daniel-drawn storyline implies quite strongly that not only are these two stories thematically compatible, but roughly equal in quality. They are neither. "The Black Glove" is superb superhero storytelling, among the best things Morrison has ever written, or Williams has ever drawn. The other stuff -- over half the book, I'm very sorry to say -- is perhaps competently written, but drawn by an artist -- Tony Daniel -- who can draw a comic book but has yet to demonstrate the slightest bit of artistry in anything I have ever seen him draw. Note, for example, a panel in which someone has the barrel of what is supposed to be a gun pressed against their head; the "barrel" is a generically-drawn cylinder resembling a Thermos more than the barrel of a gun.

In sum, JH Williams is an artist working in comics, who always gives more than is required by any assignment he receives. Daniel is a subpar superhero illustrator whose work suggests a lack of artistic training or inspiration, and whose inclusion in what could have been a prestigious and elegant volume results, rather, in an infuriating and narratively incoherent overall package. If no other point gets through here, at least know that I seriously thought about whether the book would be improved by using an X-Acto knife to slice out Daniel's pages. The fact that that thought seriously spent time in my mind is what caused me to write this review.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Solanin -- "Every band has its story, I suppose." So says Meiko Inoue, the lead character in Inio Asano's Solanin. Substitute "family" or "group of friends" for "band" in that quote, and you begin to see how universal Solanin is, as it tracks the lives of the members of the band, their dreams and hopes, and where those dreams and hopes intersect with everyday reality.

The universal sophistry of youth is its belief in its own invincibility, and at least some of the members of the band possess that in spades. Coupled with the restlessness of people in their early-to-mid 20s, you can see how a group like this would be drawn together by their common love of making music. Whatever it is that brings people together, there's almost always forces aligning to force them apart, and of course those forces are at work in Solanin. The bittersweet tone of much of the book comes from where those opposing forces -- coming together and falling away from each other -- collide in the smallest moments of their lives. Meiko is living with her boyfriend Taneda, who is really the glue that holds the band together. The domestic scenes of their relationship ring familiar and true, as does the vague need for something else -- for more -- that threatens to dissolve their relationship.

The bulk of this 400-page graphic novel (part of Viz's Signature series) is the story of Meiko and Taneda and how they relate to and inspire the rest of the band members, but my single favourite moment in the entire story is an almost superfluous vignette involving the drummer, Rip. His day job is clerk at a pharmacy, and almost every day he deals with an elderly man who mistakenly thinks a frog statue in front of the store is a mailbox. The one chapter about the two of them brings enormous humanity and nuance to the story. Even if Rip doesn't get another moment to shine like he does in this one brief incident, that's okay. What we get in this little glimpse into his character is more than enough.

"Every band has its story," Meiko supposes, and at its heart Solanin is about Meiko coming to grips with her own story, and re-writing the band's. In its themes of aimlessness and looming maturity, Solanin certainly echoes Bryan O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim, and will appeal to readers who enjoy that series (like me). But Asano's approach is entirely different from O'Malley's, with meticulous images of the streets of Tokyo, and occasionally arresting glimpses into Meiko's secret heart. Solanin is about dreams, and life, and trying to bring the two together into a whole tapestry. In some places, Meiko succeeds. In some, she fails. The joy is found in-between, in the quiet moments Asano shows us that make up her life. Where she's been, and where she hopes to go in the future.

Buy Solanin from Amazon.com.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Nicolas -- On the day that I found out my mother had died, I remember shedding a tear or two in disbelieving sadness that came nowhere near touching the center of my being. Months later, lying in bed at night with my wife, we were debating the pros and cons of moving into a bigger apartment now that our second child was on its way. A fleeting thought appeared, like quicksilver through my mind, that I should call my mom and ask her what she thought of the idea. That thought was quickly followed by a freight train of grief reminding me that she was dead, and most crushingly of all, I would never get to ask her advice about anything again, ever. I still catch myself momentarily thinking her still alive, from time to time. The same with my beloved cat Spot, who was put to sleep around the same time. It's almost impossible to truly teach your brain that they are gone.

My older brother died a few weeks ago. Upon finding it out, I felt next to nothing. A strange sense of my own aging and mortality, but my memories of the man are so few and far between that grief has yet to well up inside me, and I doubt it ever will.

We are all unique in our responses to death, but we are all the same in the fact that we must experience the deaths of those we know. Slowly, in our youth, but as the years pile into decades, there are more and more names. I think of Jerry Shepard, a radio sales executive who I often describe as "the only man I ever knew." Raoul Vezina, a gifted cartoonist who also manned the cash register at FantaCo, the greatest comic book store in my personal memory. I never really knew him, but I was in awe of him, and I know that the grief caused by his death is still felt by his friends all these decades later. John Hart, a country music DJ who once helped me change a tire in 20-degree below zero weather. So many lost relationships, so many names.

Nicolas is the name of Pascal Girard's younger brother. Nicolas died very, very young, and because it happened so quickly, Pascal never got to say goodbye, and has lived with the fact of his brother's absence ever since. Pascal Girard's grief does not seem typical, as he maps it out over the course of the graphic novel that bears his lost brother's name, but it does seem unique and all his own.

Here are Pascal and Nicolas fooling around with a cassette recorder. A small moment's entertainment, one I remember doing myself with my own brother. But it becomes huge in Pascal's memory, a gift from the past that helps him process the ongoing grief that will always be a part of him.

Girard's style is simple and to the point, in the way of Jeffrey Brown's cartooning, with stylistic nods to names as diverse as Schulz and Kochalka. It's a basic and appealing visual narrative that is also open and airy, where Brown can sometimes seem closed and claustrophobic. Girard uses borderless panels much the same way Chester Brown does, and that's another positive connection. Brown, Kochalka and Schulz are all imminently readable cartoonists, and so is Girard. No trick layouts or dazzling technique get in the way of what he wants to tell you: What he has learned about coming to grips with loss, sometimes with selfishness and arrogance, and sometimes with silence and, finally, wisdom.

Wisdom is the ultimate lesson that death has for those who open themselves up to it. The wisdom to accept that death touches us all, and the widom to accept that we all not only can, but must, come to grips with it in our own way. Girard does so with humour and a bracing honesty that makes Nicolas a treasure to experience.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ghost World Special Edition -- Speaking of his landmark graphic novel, creator Dan Clowes says "It is the only I've been involved with that is ever discussed as its own thing, on its own terms, without mention of a creator -- to such an extent, in fact, that I've come at times to question my own existence." All who create fiction should aspire to generate such powerful icons as Enid and Rebecca, the lead characters of Ghost World, although Clowes's frank admission of how it feels is rightly unsettling.

Look, Ghost World is one of the most vividly realized and compelling graphic novels yet created. Clowes has done more complex (David Boring) and more inventive (Ice Haven) works, to be sure. But Ghost World's perfect storm of tortured entitlement and lost horizons captured a moment in amber, and that moment is as wonderfully revisited with every re-reading as it was viscerally experienced upon first ever cracking open its pages.

That is to say, few works in comics form are so deserving of the sort of presentation Fantagraphics gives Ghost World in this special edition. Enid and Rebecca's relationship and its slow dissolution remains a wondrous and funny and heartbreaking story that is beautifully constructed and never takes a wrong step. It is so well-structured and compellingly crafted that it inspired a film great in its own right that doesn't even find particular value in sticking to the details of the original story.

The book and the film remain two of the greatest joys in my life, and this new hardcover special edition is a great summation and celebration of all that has gone before: you'll find the original graphic novel, plus the screenplay, and seemingly every single piece of art that Clowes ever created for anything relating to Ghost World, including CD inserts, advertisements, dolls, and other merchandising offshoots.

Because Enid and Rebecca inspire such interest and passion to those who experience their story (in any medium), it seems somehow right to assemble for their fans every document and piece of evidence relating to their existence within the pages of this book. Moreover, though, it seems to me a paradoxically personal attempt by creator Dan Clowes to somehow reclaim these two girls, these portions of his personality that he gave to create this work, to somehow find a way to wrap his own brain around the phenomenon that came from his giving Ghost World to all of us. In a way, the Special Edition gives Ghost World back to Dan Clowes, and as such it's a perfect book for those of us who love this story, and a perfect gift of acknowledgment and thanks to its own creator.

Buy Ghost World: The Special Edition from Amazon.com.


The Alcoholic -- There's a feeling of rote recitation at work in this new graphic novel written by Jonathan Ames and illustrated by Dead Haspiel; "My name is Jonothan A. and I'm an alcoholic," the narrative starts off, and from there Ames tells his (presumably autobiographical and sometimes non-linear) story of a life made sometimes bearable, sometimes horrific, by drinking.

The story is frustratingly well-structured; the seams of Ames's technique are at times distressingly visible, like the ratty sportcoat a drunk might wear to an AA meeting. The whole thing feels like an AA meeting, in fact, except one that goes on for hours and only features a single speaker. All that is moderately redeemed by the fact that at least Ames spins a good yarn, and uses that skill to create some amusing scenes.

His relationships with his childhood best friend and his great aunt loom largest in the tale, although a late-in-life love affair also provides some insight into Ames's psychopathology. At the root of it all is an American man who has trouble navigating relationships and finds it easier to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol. There's nothing out of the ordinary about that at all, really, and Ames and cartoonist Dean Haspiel (who delivers the same solid cartooning here that he did for Harvey Pekar's The Quitter) really don't ever make a case for this story being particularly special or unique.
At times Ames seems like a wounded child, at others a narcissistic jerk. Mix the two, add some booze, and there you have, well, almost every adult male I have ever known. Ames has some modest skill with words and does manage to make The Alcoholic hold together as a narrative, but the total effect feels more like an Afterschool Special than I am sure the creators intended. The Alcoholic aspires to art, but never quite reaches that level, and its indeterminate ending ending suggests either the verisimilitude of life, or the arrogance of lessons unlearned, depending on how charitable you might feel as you turn to the final page.

Buy The Alcoholic from Amazon.com.






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