February 19, 2009 § Leave a Comment
In the annals of likability, Isadora Duncan might not score high on many people’s lists. This has nothing to do with her legacy as a free thinking woman — it is mostly the result of the fact that she was a bit of a pretentious prat in an era filled with them. Duncan is an early mover and shaker in the belief that women could be just as self-absorbed and irritating in their lives as men had been for centuries and, at the same time, have some kind of credibility. By that standard, she’s certainly no less annoying than, say, Pablo Picasso — and the fact that neither of them were the best of people doesn’t diminish their contributions.
The problem with any biography of an annoying person is that the audience has to have a reason to care. In the more indepth works, the reason is supplied by the reader — the fact that you are reading the work at all means that you have some intellectual interest in the person’s life and work. More casual biographies, though — let’s say for younger readers — demand something different. Very possibility, readers have been assigned the biography or, at the very least, have pulled the choice from a list of biographies. I see it as a very simple task that is not always easy to pull off — the author must cover the reasons why this person is important and also offer some points by which the reader is drawn into this person, comes to understand the person on some level, perhaps even identify. It’s this base level identification that will lead to the pursuit of more depthful biographies, as well as all-encompassing surveys of the person’s work.
In the realm of graphic biographies, this might seem like a hard accomplishment, yet it’s a field that has several notable high achievers, a club that includes almost anything by Rick Geary and Andy Helfer’s Ronald Reagan biography and many others. The reason these work so well is thanks to a smooth understanding of the cartoon format for immediacy, while also using the structure to bring in information from various sectors of the story in order to provide context and insight, both visually and narratively. The sequential format keeps it entertaining and moving, but it can also be used as an abstract informational construct that puts everything about the story being told into perspective. Ronald Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Charles J. Guiteau, they all seem like complicated people and the authors involved in their graphic biographies made the attempt to put their subject’s motivations within the context of their times by actually explaining their times, as well as all the players involved, and using their subject’s actions to get inside their heads a bit. These are full and mesmerizing portraits of a bunch of assholes.
Which brings me back to Isadora Duncan. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 19, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Poor Shira Spektor! She’s “in love” with a Latino boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Her widower father has a horrible new girlfriend — his secretary, in fact! Plus, she’s gone on a shoplifting spree, her only friend in the world is an elderly ex-movie starlet, AND the book she stars in — “Token” — is the swan song for DC Comics Minx imprint! How can one girl possibly juggle all that drama?
The answer is: Very briefly. The page count in Minx Books is not vast and the format begs the authors to practice brevity and the artists to get a lot of information into every panel if the story is going to be complicated. If both creators fall a little short of that demand, the book’s success falters, and that’s the main problem with this final title for the Minx line.
“Token” — written by Alisa Kwitney and drawn by Joelle Jones — follows the everyday life of Shira Spektor, 15, lonely resident of Miami Beach, Florida, and while it’s all credible teen trauma it lies in a jumble amidst the limiting page count. There are plenty of big themes in here — loss and loneliness being the major ones, as well as the concept of moving on from your past— but the promise is never really followed on and the story alternates between meandering navel gazing and jumpy emotionalism.
That’s the biggest problem with “Token” — its lack of focus. There is constant emotional turmoil for the overwhelmed Shira but not enough pages to give any of the plot its deserved punch. Every incident way too rushed and there’s little to latch onto. The story needed to be pared down — at least one element could have been left out and not disturbed the flow.
With so much packed in, the storytelling relies too heavily on over-the-top signposts that lack the emotional sophistication required to move the story along in any fresh way. When Shira begins her infatuation with Rafael, her first order of business is to betray her smart girl persona and dash to the library in order to rip through a trashy romance novel called — just repeating this makes me cringe — Latin Lover. Meanwhile, Shira’s father goes all Jekyll and Hyde on his daughter and mother when they don’t adore his new girlfriend — not even a shade of the character as first presented appears. Rather than try for a three-dimensional character, Kwitney settles for the cliche of the snippy jerk parenting, which comes off as a bit childish and hints at a distrust of the audience’s capability towards nuance.
One other deficit is the time setting — 1987. On one hand, it does allow for a break from enduring endless cell phone conversations and text messaging in a teen drama. That’s really the only indication that the story is not current — neither Kwitney nor Jones take advantage of the era. The art in particular offers nothing in the way of dating the story. I’m still a bit boggled by the main character wearing capris back then, which seems anachronistic to me but maybe I wasn’t hanging out with the right girls — or at least the ones from Miami.
This is too bad, because Kwitney has the perfect set-up. Shira’s elderly friend, Minerva, offers a framing device within a framing device that would resonate in the storytelling. Minerva looks back to her own youth to offer Shira advice and understanding. It would have been interesting to contrast that with Shira’s story nowadays as she looks back to 1987. It seems like an obvious device and one that might have offered a context for the rushed nature of the information Kwitney is trying to get across.
As a final word on the Minx line, though, the book confirms that in the great big world of modern horrors the biggest problem facing teen girls is the heartbreak of being a social outcast — and the most common and painful symptom of that is the lack of a romantic interest. Or, at least, the grown-ups think so.
February 15, 2009 § Leave a Comment
In “Beasts Book 2,” as with the first, cryptozoology, international myth and legends, top-notch illustration and a good sense of humor are mixed together for fun kind of coffee table book that offers something a little different for anyone bored in your parlor.
As curated by Jacob Covey, this “prodigious bestiary from the interest of modern artisans” gathers together just short of 100 different monsters throughout time and the ages. Some you already know well, like a nymph or a mermaid, while others are more obscure — I’d never heard of a domovoi, for instance. A domovoi, for the equally uninitiated, is a little, horned and hairy man in Russia who likes to do house and yard work, but will get bent out of shape if its adopted family does not. Sweep your floors or there will be hell to pay.
There are plenty of other creatures on display, revealing a common trait in all humans — the innate ability to mix the absurd with the gruesome, usually for the purpose of berating children, though often just to teach a lesson to anyone for any reason. Bad wives in Japan can end up as the one-eyed, two-mouthed futakuchi-onna. In Bali, practicing black magic can transform you into a cannibalistic floating head called a leyak. And in England, when you don’t listen to your parent and go near the water, a peg prowler might just pull you in and gobble you up.
More prevalent than any other beast, though,are the creatures designed to scare people of anything unknown. That’s a belief that has united humankind for ages — if you don’t know about it, it’s bad. And mean. Dare to venture from home in the Phillipines and a tikbalang — a fetus-like man-horse — will play tricks on you. In Japan, the Mountain Woman will find you, pounce on you and eat you. In the Gobi Desert, a Mongolian death worm might spray you with acid.
Each creature is realized by some of the best artists, illustrators and cartoonists you’ll find working today — Jaime Hernandez, Lilli Carre, Ray Fenwick, Kim Deitch and Anthony Lister, among many others.
The book also boasts a short comic story by the marvelous Dan Zettwoch focusing on a real life incident in 1865 involving a Kraken — or, much more likely, a giant squid. Adding to the book are two fascinating interviews — one with cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard, the other with renowned giant squid researcher Richard Ellis. With all the pieces put together, “Beasts Book 2? actually surpasses the first volume in quality and interest and provide hope that maybe a “Beasts Book 3? will come along to top those.
February 15, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Don Freeman is a legend in children’s books — his book “Corduroy” is a classic and others like “Pet of the Met,” “Beady Bear” and “Norman the Doorman” are still read to little kids.
Freeman began his career as a magazine illustrator, renowned in the 1950s for his renderings of New York City street life, as well as theatrical drawings for newspaper drama pages. It was at this point in his career that Freeman self-published “Skitzy,” now represented for the first time after decades of obscurity.
Freeman’s illustrative calling card was a loose style that evoked the cartoonist’s pencil, as well as an animator’s pen. In “Skitzy,” Freeman puts this style in its most spare form, dashing line drawings that capture much in their simplicity. Following the work day of Mr. Skitzafroid, Freeman presents the stereotype of a 1950s office worker as he literally splits into two people and lives two work days. One grumpily heads to work for a day filled with papers and charts and numbers and screaming bosses, while the other heads to a downtown studio to paint nude models.
It’s the sort of dynamic that seems more common at the time than many of us now give credit to. Creativity — artistry — was not the desired career of a man. You were supposed to go out and get a good job with a good company, get benefits, make something of yourself. Being an artist was just not a sure thing — and America was built on security, right?
In the end, Freeman’s pantomime manages to bring the two worlds into collision — not violently, however. Instead, Freeman offers solutions and this speaks to his enlightenment at the time, a very progressive view that art and business
February 15, 2009 § Leave a Comment
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has made a splash for many obvious reasons, ranging from attractive design to desirable renovation to art installations that raise an eyebrow either in joy or dismay.
One area that the museum has been highly active but gets less recognition is in book publishing — most of the major shows through the years have an accompanying catalog.
There are several ways an accompanying catalog can be successful. Initially, the show catalog functions more as a souvenir than a representation of what was just experienced. Sometimes, the book might go the extra mile and add in further work by the artists in order to illustrate their purpose, as well as interviews with or essays by the actual artists, rather than a third person extrapolation.
Early books like 2001’s “Game Show” function more as traditional catalogs — the outrageous, lively personality of that particular show isn’t very well-represented through the rather dry book. It’s a nice keepsake to be sure, but if you didn’t see the exhibit with your own eyes, the book probably isn’t going to get across just how spirited it was. And some of the work that is left out, most notably Jarvis Rockwell’s action figure dioramas (apparently lost to the world, sadly) and Christoph Draeger’s sprawling miniature disaster scenes (available in Draeger’s retrospective book “Disaster Zone”), both of which deserve posterity.
The catalog for 2002’s “Uncommon Denominator” is similar, but the type of work in that show makes the book far more successful. Meant as an examination of the contemporary art scene in Vienna as much as a show catalog, it’s very informative and a good survey of what the city had to offer at the time. While Erwin Wurm’s “Fat Car” may not be quite as spectacular on page as it is in front of you, the works of painters Adriana Czernin, Barbara Eichhorn, Herbert Brandt and Johanna Kandl all translate marvelously. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 7, 2009 § Leave a Comment
An entertaining panorama that reveals how one little thing can change the world — and how one pretty girl can destroy everything — “Tamara Drewe,” by British cartoonist Posey Simmonds, might well qualify as the first major work of graphic chick lit.
Actually, it’s the only work of graphic chick lit that I’ve come across — and I feel bad calling it chick lit, because that implies some flashy, trendy shallowness that this book does not exhibit.
“Tamara Drewe” revolves around a writer’s retreat in the English countryside, which is run by the dedicated Beth Hardiman and funded by her philandering best-selling mystery author husband, Nicholas.
Beth is one of the main narrators of the story, a task she shares with Glen Larson, a dopey American college professor desperately trying to finish his novel. When Tamara moves in next door — it’s her deceased mother’s farmhouse — sporting a new nose job, the initial desire for alteration runs rampant through the cast’s lives.<!–more–>
Initially part of her desire to recast herself in her own life, the new nose offers everyone who sees her a chance to impose their own impressions of a little flirting hussy onto her. If anything, she provides enough under-the-surface drama, thanks to around the retreat gossip that Glen has something to divert himself with rather than focus on the book.
Nicholas’ desperate wandering eye, to the handsome handyman and, most significantly, to two obsessive local girls, one of whom, Casey, begins to share narration with Beth and Glen, while the other, Jody, turns to misdemeanors and vicarious living involving Tamara in order to fulfill her dead end dreams.
What Simmonds comes up with is a classic Dickensian social swirl, in which different strata become entwined and reliant on each other for their final fates — often without knowledge of the others’ importance in it all. Simmonds’ illustration work is fluid and personable, bringing each character out with natural lines.
The book is not a strict graphic novel, but a hybrid — blocks of prose interspersed with sequential moments — that uses both methods of print storytelling to amazing effect. The prose gets inside the characters, while the cartoons capture the immediate moments visually that words never quite could — and Simmonds, as a master of two skills working together, reveals new possibilities for a form that is neither graphic novel nor prose but something very exciting combining the two .
February 7, 2009 § Leave a Comment
The hottest hillbilly band around may be out of New York City, but its roots are in Texas by way of New Jersey.
The Defibulators, a seven-piece band from Brooklyn, N.Y., that specializes in a revved-up version of old-style hillbilly music, will perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m.
Lead singer Bryan Jennings grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, but he hated country music. He didn’t think much of Texas either.
“Pretty much my whole young adult life I wanted to get out of Texas,” Jennings in an interview this week. “I dreamed of coming to New York, to the big city where people were civilized.”
That’s exactly where he ended up for college and met his girlfriend — and future band mate — Erin Bru. It was also where he encountered “Roadblock” — the New Jersey native and future guitarist for The Defibulators, who opened up the worlds of country to music for Jennings.
“When he found out I was from Texas, he tried to talk to me about country music,” Jennings said. “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about when he was dropping all these names of these obscure old country artists.” « Read the rest of this entry »
February 2, 2009 § Leave a Comment
The World War II memoir “Alan’s War” is of the sort that puts war in its place, downplaying its significance and focusing instead on the relationships and decisions that result from it.
War is not presented as an isolated incident that barrels into the middle of someone’s path, but as a component, part of a continuum in sync with everything else that happens. In Alan Cope’s life, war was not a time of heroism or danger nor a time of nationalism — it was a time of discovery, a chance to see the world, meet people and find himself. Cope’s war is not so much a clash of ideologies than a reason for people to interact.
Cope’s life is realized through the pen of French cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert. Over a five-year period, Cope told his story to Guibert after a chance meeting — Cope died in 1999. Guibert makes a point to say in the preface that “Alan’s War” is not a history but “the product of a meeting of an elderly man, who had a gift for telling his life story, and a young man, who spontaneously felt compelled to write and draw it.” As such, “Alan’s War” exists as a lovely dialogue between two generations, one man’s story as realized through another man’s lens. As a naturally curious guy, Cope is a great guide to getting to know some people the reader otherwise wouldn’t and his memoir is a journey through personalities and interactions, from the girls he took a shine to, to the people who shaped his intellectual life, to the Army upstarts who irritated him.
The story begins as Cope is drafted and gets shipped off to be a radio operator. Almost immediately, he notices drama on the train there — an upset gay man who doesn’t want to share a bunk with a big, fat guy instead of his boyfriend, also drafted and being shipped off. Cope is called into the situation and shares the bed with the fat guy. It’s an aptly quirky beginning for Cope’s adventure and its varying fits and starts — making military career decisions, learning how to work the machinery of war, sneaking off from camp to meet friends or lovers and eventually barreling through Europe, where a journey across the war torn continent allows the countryside to unfold alongside Cope’s awareness of other people and places.
War is often presented as a time that soldiers come to cling to their home even stronger, but for Cope, it was the moment he left his country behind. His stay in Europe offered him the chance to find what he was looking for but might not have seen without a war. His attention to the details of the countryside and cityscapes, his fascination with and respect of the other cultures he encounters and his intellectual awakening via exposure to music, art and literature all infect his soul and intellect during his tour of duty. Always an outsider in his own home, Cope becomes even more so after encountering the world beyond its borders — he begins to understand himself as a man who thinks too much, trapped in a land that often barely thinks at all.
“Alan’s War” succeeds tremendously thanks to the engaging conversational presentation that sometimes darts back to missed points, retains colloquialisms and conversational overtones. Guibert has done his old friend great justice by not just telling his story but transplanting his voice into print. Reading the book is like having a lunch and conversation with Cope — Guibert’s quiet and evocative black and white line work not only celebrates the connection between the two men, but brings Cope’s good humor into the real world.
Cope’s memoir manages to take an event from the popular collective that looms large as a shared experience with so many commonalities that they have become cliches and turn it into a personal journey.
Perhaps it’s Cope’s greatest achievement, in showing those who are like him — that is, solid individuals who just don’t fit in — that they aren’t the only ones.
February 2, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Crossing “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” with the Flannery O’Connor is not often something that is attempted or even suggested, but that is how Lilli Carre’s “The Lagoon” is described in the press materials and it makes perfect sense upon reading it.
On the surface, Carre’s book is about a house on the edge of a swamp and a grandfather’s stories about a mysterious singing creature that lives in it. It sounds like some silly legend to Zoey, but that night she witnesses her grandfather go out into the water in a trance, following music in the air. She now believes and investigates her discovery by attempting to work out the song on her piano. What she doesn’t realize, though, is that the song of the creature is not something that is only sung for her grandfather — others hear it, too, including her mother.
As the complexities of reactions arise within the household — and the general area — the purpose of the creature’s song and the creature’s relationship with all the players becomes even more mysterious. Like a child invited to peer into the mysterious world of adults, Zoey finds that there is little sense to be made from the song. It’s a sound that echoes from a life before she lived in the swamp and it swirls around in haunting fashion.
Carre’s story is a cryptic and metaphorical. As realized through her stark black and white work, Carre creates a surreal swampy landscape populated by haunted souls. What is actually going on remains a mystery that we are not invited to the core of — but the mood the book brings with it lingers on.