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No Love's As Random
Yes, it's the end of the year, and while in past years I might've made some effort to list my choices for the best books of the year, best writers and artists, what-have-you -- not this year. 2004 has been without question the worst year of my life, though there have been silver linings in the form of true blue friends, a new and more promising job, and some rewarding creative opportunities. Still, no Best Of list this year, folks. You should already know most of the good 'uns anyway.
Instead, I feel a need to clear out a lot of books from my "In Box," so some of these reviews will be on the shorter side.
Dreadstar: Definitive Collection Vol. 1
I wasn't a big enough Starlin fan to drop $50 on this myself, but I'm grateful for the generosity of a good friend, because this was better than expected. Starlin's early '80s space opera about a closeknit group of outlaws fighting to end the catastrophic war between a corrupt monarchy and evil, religious fanaticism holds up well aside from some plain costume designs. A couple things struck me about the series. First, Starlin may not be the most gifted writer, but he has planned out this story very carefully, and he develops all the characters well. Even the cruel Lord High Papal has a touching origin, and Starlin wisely keeps the romantic tension between Vanth Dreadstar and the blind telepath Willow simmering very quietly. Also, having King Gregzor ashamed of his monarchy and willing to aid Dreadstar in bringing about its, and his own, destruction is a compelling twist. And Starlin deserves credit for keeping the plot moving and twisting rapidly. The year's worth of stories collected here would have made for three years of a similar series these days. The reproduction is excellent, and I'm looking forward to the second volume in 2005.
Neufeld's book is the latest addition in the previously neglected comics genre of travelogue. It manages to be more informative than Rick Smith's Baraka and Black Magic in Morocco and Craig Thompson's Carnet De Voyage while being less stylized than either. That cuts both ways, as there are few moments of real beauty in the book -- Neufeld is a fine but unexceptional artist, but he does seem to capture the necessary details truthfully. Also, his is the more story-oriented book, requiring more structure than the flourish-filled Carnet or the rambling Baraka.
Neufeld and love Sari travel through Southeast Asia and make a real attempt to be well-read on significant cultural events and landmarks to visit during their trip, though of course they're often sidetracked by deceptive guides, digestive disorders and the like. A particularly interesting segment had the couple -- both non-religious; Josh a lapsed Jew -- having to accept the hospitality of a missionary couple trying to convert the natives to Catholicism. This story was first collected in The Vagabonds, a one-shot of a few stories that end up here, and at the time I took offense at the way Neufeld and Wilson seemed to sneer at these good-hearted if misguided people who had gone out of their way to help them. Within the context of this larger narrative, however, it occurs to me that this is de rigueur for travelers. While you have to "go along to get along" and put aside some of your prejudices, inhibitions, mores, etc., it's still a comfort later to kind of make fun of everyone else. When you're far from home, it feels like it's just you (and your traveling companion) against the world sometimes; plus, exaggerating your reactions for comic effect makes for better travel stories/memories later.
Though this is a carefully drawn book obviously created after the trip, Neufeld appears to have remembered or recorded everything necessary, and he even achieves some real tension in a scene where he and the claustrophobic Sari must navigate a narrow, watery cave tunnel. Wilson contributes some of her journal entries here, and while some readers might prefer a total Neufeld solo outing, Wilson ends up adding positively to the piece, as her descriptive powers are sharper and more lyrical than Neufeld's drier style. An experiment in third person narration in one chapter is a mistake, but not a costly one. A good piece of comics reporting, heightened and humanized by the obvious love between the two travelers.
The similarity in artistic style, and the fact he provided a brief Introduction, make comparisons to the work of cartoonist Andi Watson inevitable. As some have noted, if you don't like Watson, you won't like this book. However, if, like this reviewer, you do like Watson, you still might not like this book. The subject matter is simultaneously grittier and more surreal than Watson's work of the past few years, however, as it concerns a young woman on some sort of work release from prison, quickly fouling a chance to make good at a factory job by her association with a mysterious, drug-dealing female coworker. That sounds more exciting than the matter-of-fact presentation Solis gives the material, though. Our heroine goes from one bad or bizarre or depressing situation after another with little or no reflection or knowledge gained -- she barely reacts to being fired, evicted, conned and at least one attempted rape (probably two -- Solis cuts away with a shot of a man undoing his belt). If Solis had spent more time fleshing out the character than devising humiliations for her, we might care what happens to her. This makes the surprise ending, with its note of hope and defiance, fall flat, even irritate. What kind of mother will this girl be, who's such a terrible judge of character and can't go a day without putting herself in two or three awkward or hazardous situations?
I had to keep reading, had to keep plugging away, to stop me from throwing this book across the room or in the garbage. It took me until the halfway point before I started to get it, started to see that the writer had something going for him. That's not to say it's a good book -- it's not -- but there's something there that I hope McLachlan can work on and develop for better books in the future.
He's a witty guy, McLachlan, and there are a number of sharp, caustic one-liners in the book, and that's actually part of the problem. This is intended to be a romantic comedy, with two hapless, sarcastic depressives eventually finding each other in a world full of mindless, inhuman monsters, helpfully delineated as such by Williams, who depicts everyone but our leads as horned or masked or anthropomorphic. So we know these two belong together, because they're the only actual humans in the story. It's a ballsy gambit that ended up working okay for me but might annoy or confuse others.
The main problem I found here is the buildup towards this romance, in that neither of our leads are very appealing. The girl becomes pretty interesting at, like I said, the halfway point, when she says some reasonably intelligent/inspiring things about pursuing one's passions, but the guy is less distinct, finding his artistic vision in vandalism and half-baked anti-corporate dogma. I was kind of glad the two made their love connection, though, as I imagined she would set him straight and sand down the rest of his bullshit. But the buildup, as I mentioned, is full of pretty easy, broad humor about how tough it is to work retail and how the customer is always wrong and stupid and deserving of ridicule. I might've laughed at this more, a decade ago, but now that I'm in my mid-30s, I really prize decent service, especially as it seems to be harder and harder to find. And having the guy hang around with creeps who come up with names for girl's vaginas like "snatchsquatch" is just too harsh to be comic relief. Instead of thinking, "Well, his friend's a jerk, but at least our hero has a soul," I think, "If he's hanging around with this guy, he must be almost as repugnant." That makes it hard to like the guy, or root for him finding a mate. But like I said, about halfway through, you start to like these guys. It's too bad the book is over before you really see their relationship develop.
Note: the typographical errors in the book are absolutely horrendous, and make me think the editor didn't even read the book. Some sentences are ended at the wrong point, making for a hard read.
As a reviewer, if you don't "get" a book, it's usually best to just avoid reviewing it at all if you can, rather than show your ignorance. But screw it, I just don't get what Bell is going for and never have. I will say, though, that as this is the first longish work of his I've read, I did come a tiny bit closer to understanding. His personality is affable enough and comes through much clearer than the point of the proceedings. Also, I guess I'm starting to warm to his art, which is imaginative and well-drawn. It took me a while to embrace the strange worlds of Jim Woodring, and perhaps before too long I will embrace Bell's world as well.
While this volume, a comics diary created during a couple months Thompson spent in Europe promoting Blankets, is described and probably perceived as a lighter effort than that lengthy graphic novel, it turns out to be at least as revealing. And just as frustrating, but more on that in a moment.
Through Paris, Marrakesh, Argentierre, the South of France, Geneva, and Barcelona, Thompson suffers loneliness, cramped hands, loneliness, adoration, loneliness, beggars, loneliness and many great meals and drinks. When he feels like whining, he whines, though because he knows the diary is for eventual publication, he tries to mitigate these moments with a little imp character who puts him in his place, the best of both worlds. At times, his fragility and affectations like calling his girlfriend his "lover" are grating, but I ended up liking him anyway. Partly because he does seem to be a genuinely sensitive, caring sort under the vanity, and largely because he's such a good artist, capturing the beautiful architecture, women and even kittens along the way with great skill. Producing his page or two every day keeps him very focused. As for the frustration, well, as with the undeveloped child abuse subplot in Blankets, Thompson is cagey about his girlfriend, mentioning just once in passing that she has a serious illness. It's their business, of course, but why mention it at all? More understandably, he doesn't go into detail about the fling he has near the end of the book, and because he ends the book here, we don't know what effect, if any, this has on his relationship with his girlfriend. He had broken up with her, but they were still very close. Some were no doubt disappointed at the abrupt end and lack of closure to the book, but it seems appropriate and honest here, actually. The tour was over, the publisher needed the book and needed it at a specific page count, and so it was over. This is a small chunk of Thompson's life offered for consumption, and life can rarely be packaged so tidily.
This collects the first five issues of Angry Youth Comix plus some strips from two of The Comics Journal's Special Editions coffee table books in 2002. Ryan is truly a love-him-or-hate-him talent, an unrestrained, puerile gross-out master who apparently even offends R. Crumb. I'm firmly in the "love him" camp, and had just as much fun re-reading these stories as I did the first time. "The Whorehouse of Dr. Moreau" and "Hipler" are masterpieces. But perhaps the funniest, or more inspiring (?) aspect is that this disgusting book is dedicated to Ryan's girlfriend, and she even helped in the production. Ain't love grand?
This is a nifty, hefty hardcover of similar dimensions to the recent Peanuts collections, and it appears to have been pitched as perhaps a day-by-day calendar. The left page has a paragraph or two by Daniels describing the art on the right page, either a panel or part of a page from either old DC comics or properties now owned by DC such as Captain Marvel, Jr. Speaking of which, Mac Raboy's art holds up better than ever, and would seem to be of some influence on John Cassaday and David Lloyd. However, to Daniels' and Kidd's credit, and maybe because this isn't a DC publication, much of the art in here isn't chosen because it's the best art or because it features DC's heavy hitters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. They're all well-represented, but so are a number of nearly forgotten strips and characters like Dale Darling, Ibis the Invincible, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Thankfully, Daniels is less reverent here, pointing out terrible ideas, bad dialogue, premises obviously ripped off from films of the day, and he and Kidd have fun excavating pieces like a house ad for Mechanix Illustrated that Captain Marvel warns is "Not For Sissies!". Since this isn't a calendar and the dates don't correspond to the comics in question (aside from, say, Woozy Winks in the April 1 entry), the emphasis on 365 days and using dates at all is arbitrary and unnecessary, but other than that, it's a terrific book and probably a great gift for the comics fan you know.
It should be noted that this volume, which collects all of Hornschemeier's self-published series Sequential (1999-2001), is definitely not a good introduction to his work. It would, in fact, be pretty easy to edit this material down to a decent one shot of the last issue's "Ex Falso Quodlibet" and a bare handful of other stories. But for those who have been enriched by Hornschemeier's current ongoing series, Forlorn Funnies, and the Mother, Come Home graphic novel taken from issues #2-4 of that series, then this book represents a fascinating look at how the young cartoonist started with fairly rudimentary skills and a handful of unformed themes and ideas and very quickly grew to a creator to watch.
The first three issues are awkward, not bad to look at but it's clear Hornschemier didn't have a clear idea of what he wanted to do at this stage. A number of experiments were no doubt helpful to his growth, but unsatisfying in themselves, and the best work comes from one-page gag strips that often seem to have their punchlines and sensibilities lifted from others. Not plagiarism, but if one is a college student producing humorous strips largely for other students, certain attitudes, subject matter and delivery will come almost automatically. Hornschemeier moves away from the gags by the fourth issue, and it's here one starts to see his themes of loneliness come forth, though much of the material is still mired in the angry-young-college-man tradition, such as the story of "The Catalyst," a cat-costumed terrorist who wipes out a party full of rich people, to the apparent joy of the butler. Anti-corporate, anti-materialist, and anti-prejudice themes are naturally welcome, but up to the last issue, Hornschemeier can't help but explore them in very heavy-handed ways, though the ambition and growth evident in the three installments of the homosexual awakening story "The Suppression of William T. Andrews" is admirable. As comics, the work in this collection is notable mainly for increasingly confident storytelling and production rather than depth or even entertainment, but as a somewhat premature study guide to unlocking the thematic secrets of a cartoonist who shows every sign of being important, it's essential.
Untamed Highway #1
If it's not your labor of love, I think you can be excused for not embracing it. I mean, there are some really ugly babies out there. But this comic is obviously a labor of love for its creators, it's different and it's brimming with enthusiasm and obsessively detailed artwork, so I can find no fault with the effort whether I like the book or not. The story begins as a fairly standard thriller in structure -- a mysterious, dangerous character has just gotten "out" and is looking to settle a score, while others are calculating how this could benefit their own interests. The lead character, Sydney Drake (who looks a lot like actor/director/author Peter Bogdanovitch, probably coincidentally), is both the score to be settled and the pawn the secret organization will use to take care of that mysterious, dangerous character Bananas Barofski, who appears to be an actual gorilla.
But as that gorilla detail suggests, Dickinson and Snodgrass aren't content to merely rewrite old noir. Instead, there's a heavy emphasis on other '40s film genres like screwball comedy, with its rat-a-tat dialogue, and the creators go beyond this with surreal, Lynchean elements like the secret, diabolical Shriners-like organization, trippy nightmare sequences, freak shows and even absurdly small cars. But instead of the ominous dread of David Lynch, the relentless jokes and Basil Wolverton art style dominate the tone of the comic, and will deter many from enjoying it. I found myself admiring the delicate, pointillist inking here and there, but could not invest myself in the story or characters. Drake is too busy grandstanding or clowning to recognize the danger he's in, and so I didn't feel the danger. Also, the script is very wordy and the lettering is too big, so the characters often must be drawn small in the panels, though I have to say there is no loss in detail. In fact, the Wolverton style (with a healthy dose of Tex Avery in the bug-eyed reaction shots) is done very well; I'm just not sure it's a good match for the material.
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