Wednesday, July 28, 2010

July comics roundup

There is a disturbingly large and teetering pile of books on a chair in my kitchen. They are books that I have read in the last couple of months, that I hope to one day get around to writing up for this blog. Many of them deserve lots of thought, ideally before I forget the reading experience. Also, maybe 50% of the pile is comics -- because I read them faster than straight prose, or because my reading is getting decadently image-dependent, or because it's summer and comics are my beach reading, I don't know. Anyway, despite the fact that several of these are serious books that could totally justify their own post, I'm throwing them together in a roundup, in the interest of getting them off the stack and saving the legs of my kitchen chair.

Superman: For Tomorrow
Volume 1 and Volume 2
By Brian Azzarello (writer), Jim Lee, and Scott Williams (artists)

The ALP, a much more serious comics reader than I, is of the opinion that this one-shot Superman story is about how scary Superman could get if Lois Lane wasn't around for him to care about -- which would explain why some villain hasn't actually offed her, since no one could deal with the destructive power of a Superman unhinged by grief. I'll take his word for it. While this one had some good moments (especially one mind-bending moment of moral complication when Superman admits he could cure someone's cancer, but won't) I found it whizzed by pleasantly and at the end I wasn't sure how the problem (lots of people have disappeared with no physical trace) actually got solved -- it just always does get solved when it's Superman, dunnit? It's fun to read a superhero comic with a beginning and an end, but this one was a bit forgettable for my snobby literary tastes.

A God Somewhere
by John Arcudi (writer), Peter Snejbjerg, and Bjarne Hansen (artists)

While this book is about the closest thing to a true masterpiece I have read in comics in ages, I will hesitate carefully before recommending it to readers. That's because it's also the most disturbing comic I have read in a long time -- the violence is bloody and has consequences, and the sheer existential chaos is unsettling, like reading about Columbine or Rwandan child soldiers. I actually thought about Columbine a couple of times while reading it, because the "why" of the horrors that happen is so unanswerable, in such a terribly familiar way. The premise: a happy-go-lucky, kind of slackerish dude finds that a catastrophic accident has left him with Superman-like (or God-like) powers; at first he performs some dramatic rescues, but the religious language he uses to describe his mission of good starts to sound a little crazy and he's acting kinda weird... and then he really snaps, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The narrator is the super-person's lifelong friend, an African-American journalist who covers the whole weird story; his character arc is rich and interesting too, a welcome human-scale drama running parallel to the sickening cosmic tragedy of the main story. Not for the squeamish, but I'd guess this book is going to become part of the conversation about "realistic" superheros, about the iconography of power and desire, and about the potential for what comics can do.

Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn
by Meredith Gran

Hooray, comics about Brooklyn! I admit I was a leetle nervous that Octopus Pie would be too scene-y for my tastes (I think I remember picking up an earlier edition in an unbearably hip Williamsburg shop and putting it down again)... but this time around, it was funny and authentic and I was hooked. It's got that classic odd-couple charm: uptight, slightly surly Eve finds herself the housemate of superchill stoner entrepreneur Hanna (they were friends in kindergarten and their moms set them up), and wacky hijinks ensue. But, as ("Mr. Scott Pilgrim") Bryan Lee O'Malley observes about author Meredith Gran, "her jokes are actually funny," both verbally and visually. Cranky organic food buyers, the trauma of a stolen bike, a Renaissance fair (really), and a long, unpredictable storyline about ice skating are just some of the gems packed into this baby, which collects the first two years of the ongoing indie comic. It's a little "Dykes to Watch Out For," a little "Real World: Brooklyn" (okay, maybe not, I never watched it)... anyway, I kept laughing out loud and quoting parts to the ALP, which I feel is a strong indication that there's some good stuff going on here. Also, we went to the release party at Bergen Street Comics and bought the character pint glasses. So there. Even if you are not a Brooklyn booster (Meredith, sadly, has now moved to Portland), it's good cartooning and good storytelling with a compelling cast of side characters, a little foul-mouthed, a little tender, and very funny. (Look for the mantra about ducks and bread - priceless.)

Batwoman: Elegy
by Greg Rucka (writer) J. H. Williams, and Dave Stewart (artists)

So... in case you're not a hardcore DC Comics reader: the new Batwoman is a lesbian. A very lipstick lesbian, as you'll notice if you can make out this cover, and there are all kinds of debates, especially among female comics fans, about whether this is liberating or exploitative or what. I saw what I felt were examples of both in this particular comic, though what's almost more ridiculous is that crazy flowing red hair -- is that practical, when you're fighting crime with a secret identity, seriously? (To be fair, this comes up in an exchange with Batman, and it kinda makes sense.) All that aside though, I found this an actually pretty impressive comic. The villainess is apparently under the impression that she is Alice in Wonderland, which makes for some delightfully insane dialogue amidst the kicking and punching, and the relationship between Batwoman and her dad and stepmom is interesting and touching. What's really impressive though, is how much work the art is doing in telling this story -- the visuals of the chapter headings, especially, offer huge foreshadowing clues about the story's Big Reveal, which isn't hinted at in the dialogue. It was fun to go back and see the significant details after I knew the ending; if I were a more observant... observer of comics art I might have noticed them sooner, but I thought it was an awesome way to tell the story. Slight fare, perhaps, but a very satisfactory and well-executed cape-and-cowl comic.

Market Day
by James Sturm

This book has, deservedly, already been highly praised in high-falutin' literary publications. James Sturm is one of the most serious literary writers of comics out there, and his previous stories about baseball, the frontier, and Jewish and African-American experiences constitute a body of rich, intelligent historical fictionI don't think any contemporary cartoonist has even attempted to match. And I like his visual style a lot: a thick, clean line almost reminiscent of the Tintin comics I grew up on, an old-fashioned, muted color palette, an interest in all kinds of faces and bodies. That said, I respected this book more than I actually liked it. The story is that of one day in the life of Mendleman, a rug maker -- young, married with a baby on the way -- taking his wares to sell at market, where he discovers his usual buyer is out of business and has to scramble to find some other way to unload his painstaking, artistic creations; on his way home an odd encounter with some vagabonds leaves him hungover and questioning his entire life. Now that I think about it, it works as a pretty good metaphor for an artist hewing to an old-fashioned standard in a changing world (Sturm wrote a column for Slate about giving up the internet.) But I'm not sure I understood quite what happened in our young rug maker's head at the end, and the 19th century Eastern European color palette is exhaustingly dreary, even when Mendleman is imagining his innovative designs. Maybe I'm just not a rug fancier, or I need to read more Russian novels. This may be a book I come back to later with greater appreciation, but I prefer Sturm's odd and tragic American stories to this one.

by Doug TenNapel

Doug TenNapel is not nearly as well known as his Bill Watterson-influenced art and insanely creative fantasy epic stories deserve. This may be partly because he is a Christian and somewhat right-wing, and very explicit Christian metaphors find their way into nearly all of his work; on the other hand, his humor is often scatalogical and his characters foul-mouthed, which means the Christians don't necessarily embrace him either. So I am one of a small contingent who will read anything Doug TenNapel writes, though some are more successful than others. Ghostopolis is one of the more successful, I think: the story of a sort of ghost truant officer who accidentally sends a live boy to the underworld and then tries to rescue him, while the boy meets up with his long-dead grandfather and a host of other denizens of Ghostopolis. The Christ figure in this one is a mysterious Tuskegee airman, who built Ghostopolis eons ago but is now in hiding from its tyrannical ruler. It's a world of good and evil, though not always simply divided; characters learn and grow and make mistakes, while dodging giant insects and zombies and bone animals and animate buildings. It's a romp with moments of seriousness, and even a love story, and it's the kind of thing I love Doug TenNapel for.

Werewolves of Montpelier
by Jason

Jason is like the Buster Keaton of comics. His animal/people characters have that deadpan expression most of the time, with only an occasional eyebrow wrinkle to express emotion, and yet their stories are often hilariously funny and/or heartbreaking. This one has a built-in gag that's never discussed: when dog-people turn into werewolves it's very hard to tell the difference. But everyone in the story knows one when they see one, and when our protagonist impersonates one he falls afoul of the real werewolves and adventures ensue. The power of the story, though, is in his relationship with Audrey, the girl in the apartment next door, who is doing her best Holly Golightly impression at all times; their thwarted desires and real friendship are affecting in that same deadpan way. It's not my favorite Jason comic ever (though the ALP thinks its his best in ages), but it's a great one to add to the library.

And a drumroll please...

Scott Pilgrim Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour
by Bryan Lee O'Malley

You do remember how I feel about Scott Pilgrim, right? The last few weeks have been a pleasant agony of anticipation of both the release of the final volume and the movie (which I was prepared to dislike because I wasn't sure neurotic loveable loser Michael Cera could play happy-go-lucky loveable loser Scott Pilgrim; but all signs indicate that the director of Sean of the Dead isn't going to let us down. The ALP and I have plans on the evening of August 13, thank you.) So I picked up my copy at Bergen Street Comics*, and the book is... entirely, eminently satisfying. I mean, how you gonna pull all this stuff together, unless you are an O'Malley level pop art genius? The unresolved feelings for Kim, the fact that Ramona literally disappeared at the end of issue 5, and the band broke up, and Scott has no motivation, much less the skills, to face down Gideon, the Final Boss Man (in video game parlance, which is what the structure of this fight-the-seven-evil-exes story is obviously modeled upon). I, for one, am not going to spoil it for you. I'll just say that everything gets resolved by fighting -- because the whole book almost is one big fight scene, and every issue that's ever come up gets dealt with decisively. Probably I will now go back and read all six volumes just to get the whole picture, because they are that fun and it takes about a day to get through them. So just get all of them already, and enjoy!

* Note: because of the peculiar nature of comics publishing, comic shops had their Scott Pilgrims on July 20; regular ol' bookstores will get theirs on August 3.