Sunday, October 4, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #4: Super Cakes

Kat Leyh understands that the best part of superhero movies and comics are the interstitial bits when the characters are trying to get to know each other. Kurt Busiek once noted that his favorite part of the Lee/Kirby X-Men series was when the team would hang out at the beatnik cafe in Manhattan, and that was a significant inspiration for his Astro City series. Leyh's short collection of stories, Super Cakes, gets at just this series of interactions. The first strip simply starts out as a quotidian strip about two lovers, Molly and May, having a leisurely breakfast together and talking about deepening their commitment. Then May gets a page from her job, which turns out to be as the superhero Tank. Molly is also a superhero named Shift.

The comic mostly focuses on off-days, small moments, family gatherings and the like, focusing on issues of identity and connection. Mai's family is almost absurdly accepting of differences; never mind accepting a non-Asian partner for Mai, never mind accepting a same-sex relationship--this is also a family with a number of adopted super-powered beings. The contrast here is to Molly, who grew up an orphan who was taught how to use her powers in a cruel manner, making her overwhelmed by this much love and acceptance. It's no surprise that the weakest of the stories is the last, where they go on patrol and fight ice creatures, but more significantly meet another superhero. It's perfectly competent in its execution, but the constraints of action limits the way the reader is drawn into the story. This is a light-hearted story that makes great use of color but also revels in its quirky character designs, resulting in a solid mainstream comic.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #3: Dirty Hands

David Alvarado's book Dirty Hands is billed as his "collected works". It's really a loose collection of sketchbook drawings, doodles and other ephemera. Alvarado is in the branch of comics that one might call Bigfoot Grotesque, which combines elements from bigfoot cartoonists of the 1920s and 1930s along with more contemporary drawings that are oozing, pulsing, dripping or otherwise unsettling. There's also a bit of influence from underground artists like Skip Williamson, and this aesthetic is now quite popular in the form of Adventure Time and other Cartoon Network shows. Artists like Jon Vermilyea, Michael DeForge (especially earlier in his career), Andrew Smith, Rusty Jordan and Jesse Jacobs provide some examples of this. In many ways, Marc Bell is another important touchstone for this explosively whimsical style of art.

This book is interesting to look at; the weird and varied range of illustrations, art styles and graphic experiments are fascinating. The choice of colors and paper stock made every page stand out, and this is a credit to the publisher, RJ Casey's Yeti Press. The drawings themselves are whimsical, occasionally disturbing and frequently funny. Anthropomorphic bananas on one page segue into highly-detailed monsters, while a set of items deconstructing Charlie Brown is next to a trippy, solid-red cat. I found myself wishing for some sequential work in this volume precisely because his illustrations are so fluid and active on the page. They look as though they're going to jump off the page at times.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #2: Tuff Ladies

Till Lukat won the Ligatura Pitch Prize, giving him an opportunity to get his book published by Polish (by way of England) publisher Centrala. This is a book about a variety of women from history who weren't necessarily virtuous, but were tough in a variety of ways. The format of the book is a single-page illustration of a subject, followed by a short comic strip and explanatory text. In some ways, this book reminds me a bit of a NoBrow production, with that mix of illustration and comics along with the color scheme and high production values. 

The blend of subjects is certainly strange. Some of the women were noble (like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai), some were criminals (Ma Barker, Belle Starr, and Ulrike Meinhof) and some where victims or tragic figures (Ellen West and Linda Lovelace). With several interstitial sections explaining things like the Inquisition and slavery in the U.S., there's a weird Young Adult book vibe to this project. I'm not quite sure who the target audience for this book is, but it's a bit grisly and violent for the average YA reader but it's not sophisticated enough for the average adult reader. Perhaps it's simply aimed at the average European reader unfamiliar with US history?

Regardless of the book's odd tone, the execution is pleasantly quirky.. Lukat brings a delightfully ragged line to the table, as he manages to capture the essence of each subject's story whether that anecdote is direct (like Tubman's story) or oblique (Meinhof's story just has a strip about a building that she blew up). The best part about the book are the strips for each subject, as Lukat has an ear for the most interesting anecdotes for each one, drawn in a rubbery but sketchy style that left me wanting more. Tuff Ladies is a fascinating, if fragmented, first work.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #1: The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan

The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan, by Laura Howell (Soaring Penguin Press). This collection of shorts posits the famous composers of light opera as strange, wacky shonen manga action heroes. It's drawn very much in that style, with superdeformed, cute character designs, "mecha" robots, etc. Howell takes a page out of the Kate Beaton playbook in the way she mines history and the arts to create a recognizable world around her characters. Unlike Beaton, Howell is doing this just as an extended goof, without the pointed satirical wit that Beaton often employs. While Howell is willing to go deep into the history of art and music for the source material for her gags, the resulting jokes are pretty cheap and silly. In its essence, it's a well-executed high concept gag that's well designed and drawn expressively in the style that Howell chooses to ape. If you like Gilbert and Sullivan and intentionally dumb situational gags derived from manga adventures, then is literally the comic for you. On its own, it's an enjoyable piffle.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Nearing The End: The Complete Peanuts 93-94 and 95-96

When Fantagraphics was given permission to publish The Complete Peanuts, doing so in chronological order, it gave the audience a chance to look at old work with new eyes. There were a number of rewards in the early going since so many of Schulz's earlier strips had never been reprinted, mostly due to the author's request. There were some gags he didn't like and others that he thought might become dated too quickly. Given his astounding seven-days-a-week workload for close to fifty years, it's no surprise that there'd be a few clunkers and even a few repeats thrown in there. What was revelatory about the first ten to fifteen years was the incredibly high hit-to-miss ratio in his strips. Something like eighty to ninety percent were at the very least good, and many of them were great. He'd take an idea and sometimes go on a two ore three week run with it.

The second big surprise was that once the strip moved into the 70s, it maintained an incredibly high level of quality, like between 65-75%. The strip was quite different in some ways, with the addition of characters like Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Woodstock and Spike, but that gave Schulz a chance to reinvent the strip with characters who were far more fully-formed than ciphers like Patty, Shermy, Violet, etc. Familiar characters like Pigpen and Schroeder also faded into the background a bit, because there wasn't much to these characters other than one or two gimmicks. While the tone of the strip became increasingly sentimental and sometimes nonsensical (mostly in the guise of Snoopy), the pathos of Charlie Brown stayed at the same level while the strip was deepened through the struggles of Peppermint Patty, who became the strip's emotional center and its soul in its last 25-years.

The impetus she provided sustained Peanuts through the 1980s. While not at the same overall level of quality, the strip continued to explore Peppermint Patty and her travails. Interestingly, that included her shoddy treatment at the hands of Charlie Brown, something that was never commented on by any of the other characters. Indeed, both Marcie and Peppermint Patty were fairly unabashed in expressing their affection for Charlie Brown, only to have it met with stunned silence, time after time. Charlie Brown may have been a loser in the context of his own peer group, but Marcie and Peppermint Patty were genuine weirdos, and he had no idea how to interact with that particular tribe.

This brings us to Schulz's little-discussed work in the 90s. One can see his line start to tremble as his once-confident minimalism sometimes devolved into figures that looked barely rendered. Other times, the lines, word balloons and even lettering shaky almost to the point of looking like it's vibrating. The volume covering 1993 and 1994 still has plenty of good ideas and great gags. Schulz is at his best when doing stories about baseball. It's Charlie Brown at his purest, as an idealist and optimist who never stops trying, no matter how many times he's failed. The storyline involving Roy Hobbs' (from The Natural) great-granddaughter, picked up now and again over the span of a couple of years, is a particular stand-out. It's an absurd concept that gives the strip a shot in the arm, as Charlie Brown actually wins a couple of baseball games going up against her, only to have her eventually reveal that she let him win because of her affections for him (once again rejected!) was the sort of heartbreak Schulz was so good at in the sixties.

Many of the gags here do feel like Schulz was "flipping channels", so to speak, as every day he'd turn his attention to something he thought was amusing, perhaps searching for a spark for a longer narrative. On any given day, that could be looking in on Spike; the struggles of Peppermint Patty in school along with her foil, Marcie; Snoopy as the World War I flying ace; Charlie Brown's bedtime existentialism, Lucy yelling and Rerun's consistent bafflement regarding the world. Only the baseball strips felt completely "lived in", as though Schulz effortlessly picked up the long-running baseball narrative wherever he left off.

Just when you thought Schulz was drifting, however, he'd uncork some solid continuing narratives. The strips set at camp are always strong, but the series where Snoopy's in the hospital were unusually touching. There was genuine emotion in Charlie Brown's concern for his dog, leavened by the comic relief of Spike, Andy and Olaf (Snoopy's brothers) showing up at Snoopy's bedside. The football strips are surprisingly visceral, as they are inevitably played in the mud and involve lots of hard hits. Seeing the sheer joy on the face of Peppermint Patty (and the ambivalence of everyone else) makes these strips a delight, and it's clear that Schulz enjoyed adding levels of detail almost unheard of in his other strips. The same was true for his series of D-Day strips commemorating its fiftieth anniversary, as Snoopy is depicted going through its hellish conditions with nary a joke to be found.  The most jaw-dropping strip is the Sunday cartoon where Spike details why he came to live in the desert: because he hated the experience of having to try to hunt and kill something. Again, this was a no-punchline strip that's emotionally raw, the kind Schulz would spring on readers after weeks of silly gags.

In the 1995-96 volume, the ratio of hits-to-misses starts to sharply drop. His most efficient joke machine, Sally Brown, starts to crank out the same punchlines again and again. Aside from an attempt to run away from home that's amusing, she falls prey to the same tedium that started to afflict most of his characters as Schulz appeared to be running dry of inspiration. In order to break out of the tedium, Schulz went against his own tendencies a few times. Charlie Brown meets a girl who wants to dance with him and he's elated, until he thinks he made her up somehow. When she proves to be quite real and asks him to a ball, he winds up getting kicked out because Snoopy crashed the party. While that's a more typical ending for a Charlie Brown story, the one where he comes in and mops the floor with a marbles hustler named Joe Agate is an unabashed win for "Cool Thumb" Brown. Perhaps the fact that he was sticking up for someone else (Rerun had his marbles hustled from him) made this work so well.

Snoopy's on the cover of this one as the World Famous Attorney, and he truly dominates the book. Some of his characters are truly awful (the card player named "Joe Blackjack" is perhaps Schulz's least inspired idea), but roping Spike into the increasingly-detailed World War I fantasy (here, Spike's in the infantry and stands in a trench) was actually quite clever and opened up some more storytelling lanes for Schulz. More and more, it became difficult to predict the strip on a daily basis. It frequently got weird as often as it was hacky or sentimental. That included Schulz more frequently altering the structure of the strips, going to one-panel strips with a sort of panorama effect of gags. That was often used for the strips where the gang was waiting for their schoolbus, which generated a new barrage of gags, as well as the weirdly contemplative strips where the characters would discuss Jesus (often asking if he had a dog) or Snoopy would make a reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald. In continued stories, the one-panel strips stack quite nicely to create a visual gestalt that Schulz probably never even considered. Some of the low-lights (other than drawing kids with backwards-baseball caps) included a joke about "beak-piercing" and a truly lowest common denominator gag about The Macarena. There are moments of heart and wit, but 1996 was the first time Schulz really seemed to be in a creative rut. Considering that this came forty-six years into doing the same strip, day after day, it's not a bad record. I'll be curious to see if the final two volumes show Schulz shedding some of that sameness by getting weirder.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Incredible Journey: Ghetto Brother: Warrior To Peacemaker

The NBM-published Ghetto Brother: From Warrior To Peacemaker, is a slightly fictionalized biography of former Bronx gang leader Benjy Melendez. Set in the late sixties and early seventies, the book describes the human cost of gentrification and the ways in which a community can fall to pieces when abandoned by government support. That's especially true when the only ones remaining tend to be people of color. In situations like this, it's not unusual for gangs to arise, but the Bronx at this time was a special case, as over a hundred gangs were active, each covering a small piece of turf. Melendez, whom the authors spoke to extensively and even walked with him to his old haunts, proves to be the perfect subject for telling not only his story, but the story of a community.

Melendez compares the Bronx in the 1970s to the German city Dresden after the Allies firebombed it out of existence. The buildings were ramshackle and looked like bombs had hit them. For those who remained, for those who had no choice but to stay, their sheer willpower and resourcefulness created communities. Joining a gang was a matter of simple survival, but it also offered more than that. It provided structure for those where were abjected from mainstream white society, those who were abandoned, forgotten and left to rot. It was a way of creating a new identity that wasn't quite American (colonial) but also wasn't quite the ethnicity of their origin--which, in Benjy's case, was Puerto Rican.

The expressive, illustrative pencil wash style creates an atmospheric sense of decay but also life continuing to spring up amidst the ruins. The story is told with restraint, never seeking to create an exploitative or exotic narrative but instead staying slightly detached. The fact that it's told in past tense helps contribute to this sense of perspective, but it was clear that Melendez always was open to understanding the bigger picture, that the ways in which people interacted was bigger than just his local sphere of influence. That becomes especially clear when he met a Black Panther Party member who plants the seed of peace when he pointed out the facts: if the gangs continued to fight each other instead of fighting against their common predicament, they'd be unable to combat their real foe: the white elites and the government that represented their interests. A brewing gang war was the inevitable result of how the gangs were interacting, which was not unlike Thomas Hobbes' "State of Nature" in his political treatise Leviathan. When gang members competed for the same limited resources and territories with no guiding ethical principles whatsoever, it resulted in lives that were increasingly "nasty, brutish and short".

When a key member of Melendez' gang is killed in an effort to spread peace, Melendez had every opportunity to righteously declare war. Instead, his ability to access his own emotions and instead choose the moment to hold an unprecedented peace conference created an indelible moment that altered history. In a scene that was a sort of ur-moment of urban grit, one that would be adapted in any number of future films, Melendez declares peace and a treaty is established. The gangs turned negative activities into positive ones in an effort to improve their communities, using their reach and influence to create outreach, feed the poor, etc (in very much the same way the Panthers did). This helped to create an environment that, though till impoverished (and now plagued by drugs), was at least peaceful and integrated enough to help foster the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s. Indeed, the building the peace conference was held in later saw DJ Cool Herc host some of his first hip-hop shows.

The book also focuses on Melendez's family, both his family of origin and the eventual children he had, as well as the unlikely discovery that his parents were actually Jewish. The whole book is about a sense of personal discovery, a sense of trying to find a way to belong and become part of something larger than oneself. For Melendez, this shifted from being a gang member to becoming a practicing Jew, but it was all part of the same journey. The book ends with him about to talk to his children (whom he hadn't seen in years) and telling him his story, creating connection and pride instead of isolation and shame. It's a beautiful ending in a book whose slender and almost androgynous figures offer an interesting contrast to the self-perceived hardness of the gangs. The gang members were barely more than children, and Voloj and Ahlering get at the essence of this, that Melendez and the gang members were Lost Boys of a sort. The ending sees him come full circle in growing up. The artists don't have to hammer any of this out in an obvious fashion, letting the incredible details of the story speak for themselves.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Kid's Comics: The Latest From Toon Books

Let's take a look at some of the recent releases from the increasingly ambitious Toon Books line, edited by Francoise Mouly.

Hansel & Gretel, by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti. When is a collaboration not a collaboration? When a writer uses previously extant images and reinterprets an old fairy tale. That's precisely what Gaiman (whose previous work with Mouly came in the Little Lit line of books) did here, taking Mattotti's haunting artwork conceived for an opera and adding his own spin on the classic tale. Mattotti is a master of shadow, nuance and form, and his drawings were deliberately simple and made to be seen big. Thus, the oversized deluxe die-cut hardcover edition of this book is the best format for overall impact and is most faithful to Mattotti's vision. For his part, Gaiman's reworking is clever and spare, one that hews closely to the darkness of the original source material. For example, Hansel & Gretel are taken to the forest by their father but at the urging of their mother, since the family no longer has enough food to feed everyone. Subsequent versions have made this the archetypical "evil stepmother" figure rather than a birth mother, which makes her scheming far more cruel. While this isn't really a comic, it's still a striking package that brings to life the gloom and terror of the original source material.

Written And Drawn By Henrietta, by Liniers. This book by the Argentinian cartoonist works on a number of levels. The genius of the book is that the "real" events in the book are drawn in a simplified manner using colored pencil, and the "fictional" events drawn by the titular character are drawn in an even more stripped-down fashion (the hand of a child), also drawn in colored pencil. The result is visually bold, clever and exciting. Thematically, having Henrietta draw a story in order to both entertain herself (and her cat) as well as address her fears speaks to the restorative power of art and its ability to communicate what cannot be communicated with written or spoken language. That deftly plays out in the way that her story about monsters and hats goes in fits and starts, as she challenges just how far she's willing to go as she improvises her story. The cohesiveness of the book's aesthetic brings across these points in a poignant and efficient manner.

The Suspended Castle: A Philemon Adventure by Fred. Better known as one of the founders of Charlie Hebdo, the late cartoonist's Fred's adventures starring a boy named Philemon are somewhere between Lewis Carroll and Winsor McCay in terms of their sheer weirdness with ironclad internal logic. In this book, Philemon tries to help his eccentric friend Mr. Bartholomew get back to the island he initially escaped from: an island in the shape of the letter A, which can be seen in any map as one of the "A's" in "Atlantic Ocean". This is Fred's great trick: he takes the figurative and makes it literal, but only in the most absurd and extreme ways. However, once he does this, the rules of that particular world are serious, immutable and logically consistent (precisely like Carroll). From landing on an island in the shape of an "i" (including a separate dot!) to an encounter with an owl lighthouse and walking on its beam of light, literal logic is taken to its most hilarious and nightmarish (but still funny) extremes, with the protagonists barely escaping and going home.

That's especially true in the detailed look at two different societies: a whale-galley propelled by slave-rowers under a cruel captain's arbitrary edicts and a group of pelican-flying whale hunters who live in a castle suspended by a chain in the sky, Fred pokes fun at a number of cultural and societal follies. In particular, Fred satires the military (in the form of the whale galley) and religion (in the form of the pelican riders), especially in terms of how ingrained bureaucratic structures defy all reason. That's especially true in the way they adhere to dogma in the face of contrary evidence. Most importantly, Fred lampoons their inability to even comprehend viewpoints different from their own, much less accept them. When Philemon and Bartholomew wind up back home after literally going down the drain, it reminded me a bit of McCay's Little Nemo waking up in bed no matter what happened in Slumberland. This is a fully-formed, ambitious and fiendishly delightful series.

Windmill Dragons: A Leah and Alan Adventure, by David Nytra. Nytra's work is aimed at older readers than most Toon Books, at over a hundred pages, it's a genuine "graphic novel" for kids. This is a visually dense book, as Nytra pounds the reader with hatching and cross-hatching on every page. There's very little room on each page for the eye to rest on negative space. Over the course of a hundred pages, this approach is a bit wearying, especially given the relative simplicity of the narrative. That said, Nytra combats that with the simplified faces of the children who are the main characters, who essentially get little more than a few squiggles for their visages. The way Nytra delved into myth and religion to derive the book's story was highly clever, as the winds were stirring up and turning windmills into destructive monster, which led the kids to find the source of those winds. Nytra's page-to-page impact of his images is impressive, but there are times the book felt a bit stiff in terms of panel-to-panel flow. The book feels more like it's illustrated than cartooned at times, even though so many of those images are strikingly beautiful.

Little Nemo's Big New Dreams, edited by Josh O'Neill, Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens. This is a distillation of the humongous Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, published by Locust Moon Comics. That anthology had a hundred cartoonists in full tear-sheet size, all doing their take on the classic strip created by Winsor McCay. This book features a quarter of those strips, in an edition that's about a third as big as the original. There were some logistical problems in making this transition. A number of the strips that are printed across two pages look a bit awkward with the book's spine running through the middle, though the designer's tried to ameliorate this difficulty as best as they could. The main problem I have with this book is that I'm not sure it's going to appeal to kids as much of the rest of the Toon Books output, especially since some of the homages here refer directly to characters in the original strip that a new reader might be baffled by.

That said, there are a number of incredibly clever and funny strips in this book that is especially effective in the hands of artists who are formalists and/or stylists. Peter and Maria Hoey's circular washing-machine comic is simply ingenious. James Harvey's ode to Manhattan by way of Slumberland is remarkable in terms of its structure as well as its stylistic flourishes. Cole Closser's strip about supporting character Little Flip is funny and speaks to Closser's incredible skill in rendering comics that fit in with McCay's aesthetic. Jamie Tanner's comic is appropriately creepy and disturbing, while Bishakh Kumar Som's strip is light and airy. Andrea Tsurumi's strip about Nemo going bra shopping with some denizens of Slumberland is another funny one that still manages to fit the aesthetic.The capper is of course R.Sikoryak's "The Interpretation of Wonderful Dreams", which is a mash-up of Nemo and the works of Sigmund Freud.