December 31, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Eric P. Nash’s “Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater” is a fascinating archeology of a lost form of entertainment that dominated Japan from the 1930s to the early 1960s — well-remembered in its country of origin but entirely unknown anywhere else.
Kamishibai was a form of public storytelling that utilized printed artwork in the action. Imagine someone pulling out the illustrations of a children’s book and acting out the narrative before a live audience, and that’s essentially what kamishibai was. The form was so influential that at times of war — and occupation — it was steered by official bodies for propaganda purposes, since it was a reliable way of reaching a massive audience of citizens as well as children.
The storytelling is gone with the decades, but what we have left is the astonishing artwork that embellished the words, and Nash’s book does an absolutely beautiful job at presenting this material.
Complete stories are contained in the book, ranging from the over-the-top adventures of the Golden Bat to the jarring Hiroshima examination “Pledge of Peace from Children of the Bomb,” and just about any genre or tone between the two. Much of the art is breathtaking and filled with the sort of pluck that such lively theater must have demanded in order to compete with the storytellers. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 31, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Recently, pop singing superstar Lily Allen — as Exhibit A in her argument against music file sharing — said the practice cuts into her hope of paying back her advance from the record company. She bragged that she is almost out of debt with her record company.
Lily Allen — who has sold millions of CDs and downloads, who has had her own talk show even — is still in debt to the company that releases her work. In other words, Allen currently makes no money off her work — she works off an advance payment for the work, with no royalties in her pocket until that loan is paid off.
Certainly, that’s reasonable — the record company fronted the money; it should get its investment back. Although I would argue there is a certain creative nobility in investing in talent and not expecting immediate payback, but rather eventual profits from nurturing the act — one thinks of EMI’s handling of Kate Bush in the 1970s.
But this system creates an inflated funhouse version of what should expected from creative profit, as well as perpetuates a reality in which the greatest disparity between classes is in the arts.
It becomes all or nothing, rich or poor, with no perception of a singer being a good middle-class occupation. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 29, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Amulet 2: The Stonekeeper’s Curse – Kazu Kibuishi (Scholastic)
Creator Kibuishi certainly borrows from modern archetypes — Star Wars and Lord of the Rings in particular, as well as the films of Miyazake — but he is not content to let his own creations wallow in a bath of influences. Instead, his science fiction/fantasy epic for young readers leaps off the pages thanks to the natural quality of his storytelling — and having the story center around a cool girl character like Emily certainly helps. Kibuishi has so far skipped the lame supernatural fetishism and overwrought romance that taints too many young adult efforts, preferring story, character, and imagination in an exciting dance.
Ball Peen Hammer – Adam Rapp and George O’Connor (First Second Books)
Ball Peen Hammer moves from the dark allure of post-apocalyptic science fiction into an unrelentingly grim realm populated by unexpectedly noble characters — all rendered with an animated beauty by O’Connor’s hand. The stereotypes are turned inside out, victims of their own personal failures, as humans face a monumental and deadly challenge — and at the center is the sad and too easy decision to exploit children and in the process not only kill hope but create heaps that stand as sad reminders of moral failure. As depressing as it sounds, that’s what makes it worth recommending.
Batman/Doc Savage Special (DC)
Brian Azzarello pens an alluring vignette like something out of the ’70s Brave and the Bold, with strong stylized artwork by Phil Noto. He captures Batman in his younger days and dealing with the authority figures of the time — hence pulp fiction legend Doc Savage slumming in Gotham City as a diversion. In all truth, nothing much happens here — the adventure is basically dropped by the heroes — but this story mostly serves as a prelude for the upcoming First Wave comic, which will feature great DC Implosion characters from Justice Inc. and Rima the Jungle Girl, among others. The tone here is just right — serious but not overwrought, dark but not posturing — and it bodes well for the upcoming series.
Best American Comics 2009 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Charles Burns sets the tone for this year’s edition with a compelling essay that recounts his artistic and professional development as a journey through comic book collecting, where each tangent is a revelatory moment in his embrace of groundbreaking creativity. That he’s mirrored this volume’s selections in the same way is no accident. Easily one of the best in recent years, among the highlights are: Dan Zettwoch’s fictional history of a Church cartoonist’s newsletter; Peter Bagge’s comical slice of pre-Revolutionary America, and Dan Clowes’ attack on film critics and movie fetishists.
Breathers 0-4 (Just Mad Books)
If you want to read the best science fiction comic around, don’t look in any of the obvious places — Breathers is a self-published work by Wisconsin resident Justin Madson that concerns a gritty world of tomorrow that isn’t so far removed from today. In Madson’s scenario, the air we breathe has been infected with a virus for the last 40 years and people use stylish respiratory masks called “breathers” to stay alive. Madson weaves the tales of several people together in a series of shorter entries that create a wider tapestry of this future. Some are concerned with their own problems wrought from the situation, while others grapple with larger one — is the virus even real? Check it out at Madson’s website.
Cancer Vixen – Marisa Acocella Marchetto (Pantheon)
Suffering through breast cancer will get my sympathy — and my appreciation for bravery and chutzpah in the face of it — but it does not automatically mean I will think the graphic memoir of your experience is readable. In full disclosure, I couldn’t actually finish this book, so grating is the voice and narrative, and so amateurish and plain awful is the artwork. I read several reviews to make sure I wasn’t missing something, with the full intent of going back and reading the rest, but everything I encountered only cemented my reaction to this book. In contrast to what a good memoir should be, the narrative is manipulative rather than honest. Marchetto takes great pains to control our impression of her by compiling pages and pages of how successful and admired she is before we even get to the cancer. I understand that she does not want her readers to define her as the woman with cancer and have that image be our lasting impression, but then why bother to write a cancer memoir? The reader should be given a chance to discover her best qualities as she fights cancer, not have them dished out in an attempt to circumvent any impression we might have of her as a non-fabulous person with cancer. I bailed out at the diagnosis after having been pummeled by almost a hundred pages of constant bragging Also, I’m really tired of artists who who look as if they are relearning their entire craft starting with kindergarten level work when they go digital — it made an irritating story unbearable. This is a low point to the usually high standard of Pantheon’s output.
Ganges #3 (Fantagraphics)
Kevin Huizenga’s Every Man Glen Ganges faces a sleepless night and what unfolds is a mix of incoherent night rambling and time-passing mishap. Huizenga delivers a quiet tour de force that shows confident cartooning that thrills through its ease and craftsmanship, rather than stylizing the hell out of anything. His Ganges stories function as the American equivalent to Michel Rabagliati’s Paul stories, documenting a normal life with a sharp eye and a penchant for gentle revelation.
The Good Neighbors 2 – Holly Black and Ted Naifeh (Scholastic)
Spiderwyck co-creator Black continues her coming-of-age fairy-style saga as our heroine Rue starts to find her otherworldly family is beginning to take a toll on her friends, the resident Scooby Doo gang, and also that her mother isn’t as helpful as she’d hoped. Black’s first foray into the graphic novel format makes what is the now standard supernatural YA adventure more kinetic than most. and yet toned down in the histrionics and dramatics departments in such a way that grown-ups will have fun with it as well as teens. I confess that I’ll be glad when the supernatural wave in teen fiction dies down and a more open field of subject matter exists again — and also the standard plot of a kid hits a certain age and discovers he/she is secretly a wizard/vampire/fairy/spy/whatever becomes less overused — but Good Neighbors is at least agreeable in its use of these newly-minted chestnuts.
Insomnia Café – M.K. Perker (Dark Horse)
It isn’t a perfect work, but Turkish artist M.K. Perker’s stylized surrealist suspense tale — his American writing debut — has a lot to recommend it. Kolinsky is an expert on rare books whose shady past sends him on a downward plunge in the world, sleepless and at a job he hates. When he becomes involved with a coffee shop girl, he gets the opportunity to hide from his problems even as they snowball without his attendance. All is not as it necessarily seems, though, and Perker investigates the manifestations of that very concept from the eccentric to the unhinged. Perker is definitely one to watch.
Little Mouse Gets Ready – Jeff Smith (Toon Books)
If you’ve never considered that a children’s book about a mouse getting dressed would charm you into giddy happiness, you might want to pick this up. Combining the sweetness of old style Golden Books with a modern twist of a punchline, Smith has crafted a fun and funny little sequential picture book here — and Toon Books never disappoints, anyhow.
Skin Deep – Charles Burns (Fantagraphics)
Charles Burns offers a glimpse of what might happen if EC Comics existed today with three tales of intrigue and absurdity in this softcover reissue from the 2001 series collecting his early work. A master of the unearthly atmosphere — David Lynch has nothing on him — Burns unleashes tales of a man transplanted with a dog’s heart, a failing marriage with an alarming secret, and, best of all, an evangelist’s son’s encounter with God and his path to millions because of it. At once cautionary, creepy and curious, Burns is consistently one of comics’ deepest thinkers.
3 Story – Matt Kindt (Dark Horse)
In this somber and beautifully realized tale, Matt Kindt recounts the life of a real giant as seen through the eyes of the three women most important to him — his mother, his wife and his daughter. It’s Citizen Kane meets Gulliver’s Travels. As with Super Spy, Kindt’s styles are multiple and thoroughly accomplished, as is the depth of the biography that measures the perception of a man by the opposite sex. It is an area of mystery where expectations can outgrow and overtake the self that lurks within. In this book, Kindt comes up with a protagonist who is truly as big as the author’s ideas.
Trotsky: A Graphic Biography – Rick Geary (Hill and Wang)
Geary, one of the best practitioners of the non-fiction comics form, tackles the life of Communist thinker and leader by examining his ideas at a time when such radical naivete seemed like just the answer to oppression. Though it’s hard to say that Trotsky comes off as likable, Gear isn’t afraid to present the harsher side of the man in a fight for his own principles and some level of government fairness towards ordinary human beings, even when it involves executions of peasants who refused to fight in the revolution. A person like Trotsky is unlikely to exist again — we’re less tolerant of intellectuals and anyone with foibles — but Geary does a fantastic job at bringing the era to life.
Wasteland Vol 5 – Antony Johnson, Carla Speed McNeil, Joe Infurnari, Chuck BB, and Christopher Mitten (Oni Press)
The originally invigorating Wasteland series suffers another sidetracking setback — Vol. 4 with its foray into nomadic dog tribes was irritating enough. In that, the main characters and their stories were largely relegated to minor purposes, leaving them tied up for the duration of the story. In this volume, four flashback stories are presented, filling in details of the post apocalyptic word and leading up to the stories in the first volume. The problem is that no matter how well done these stories are — and they are extremely well realized, particularly with Mitten’s stunning color work on the final story — they are mostly superfluous. A nice time passer but I hope Johnson will get back to what made this series truly interesting. To that end, I highly recommend the first 3 volumes of the series if you haven’t read them already.
Wet Moon Vol. 5 by Ross Campbell (Oni Press)
Campbell’s ongoing series of graphic novels follows a loose group of industrial-goth art school students in a mysterious Southern swamp town. Based on his own experiences at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Campbell weaves a network of gossip, doubt, and confessions that creates a mystique of experience in those transition years between high school and adulthood. Campbell shows an uncanny respect and sympathy for every character who enters the story, which keeps it down to earth even as the strange feeling in the air begins to wrap mystery around the story in ways you can’t quite put your finger on, even as it careens into an wholly unexpected event.
Year of Loving Dangerously – Ted Rall (NBM)
Unapologetically frank memoir of the year Rall spent as — there is no delicate way to put this — a gigolo who traded his favors for a roof over his head and a bed. Not just one — multiple places of action and rest were his in 1980s New York City, and this maze of mattresses serves as a stellar travelogue to life at that place and time. If Rall comes off as a bit of a rogue, he’s a least one with an interesting tale to tell — a series of misfortunes that saw him kicked out of college and on the streets during one of the scariest times in NYC history to be a homeless person.
December 24, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Little Golden Books are about as iconic as a children’s book line can get, with their thick cardboard covers and golden spines bringing enduring characters like the Pokey Little Puppy into popular culture.
The line of books can also claim a groundbreaking status for radical marketing that not only brought publishing to the people, but also ushered in cutting-edge illustration that changed the way children’s books were realized and spread through other areas of the art world.
Golden Books are the subject of an exhibit at the nearby Eric Carle Museum, “Golden Legacy: Original Art from 65 Years of Golden Books,” running through Feb. 28. The show was curated by Diane Muldrow with Leonard Marcus, the critic for Parents magazine and author of the book “Golden Legacy,” among many others.
Marcus believes one of the reasons for the line’s lasting reputation is that its appeal grows with the person. Adults can appreciate the graphic achievements, but also — if they delve further — the sophisticated group of creators who contributed to the line. They represent a who’s who of illustrative innovation of the time.
“There was incredible talent there,” Marcus said last week. “Many of the people had other related careers as painters or advertising artists, or in many cases as leading figures in the Disney animation studio before they turned to make books.” « Read the rest of this entry »
December 22, 2009 § 1 Comment
I had originally wanted to include this with all the graphic novels, but it got delayed, and so will stand alone. There are plenty of great collections out there — this decade has been a notable golden age of them, with interest and scholarship and design all hitting the highest highs at the same time. My list below includes some series and imprint as well as single volumes, any of which would be fun and enlightening additions to comics libraries.
Complete Peanuts – Charles Schulz (Fantagraphics)
Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips – Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics)
Locas – Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
Manga Kamishibai – Eric P. Nash (Abrams)
Will Eisner Library (W.W. Norton)
December 22, 2009 § Leave a Comment
I realize that my movie lists are probably a little unusual, but it’s very reflective of what I choose to watch personally. I’m as selective with American movies as I am with any other country and tend to shy away from mainstream Hollywood product — even much of the highbrow creatures in that territory — in favor of smaller, foreign films, which I think do more with often fewer resources. Some of these were films I reviewed, but many more were films I watched for the sheer pleasure of seeing it. I am probably a snob, but I can deal with it if you can!
Movies for Adults
The Band’s Visit
Movies for kids
City of Ember
December 18, 2009 § Leave a Comment
As usual, I can’t see much of a pattern in the music that captured my attention this decade — Scandinavia, Canada, France, and England all figure in heavily, but there’s plenty of the United States, as well. I can honestly tell you that I have no idea what sells, have no idea what the radio plays, and have no idea what is being pushed in magazines or even online outlets. I’m just a hunter/seeker in this area …
December 17, 2009 § 4 Comments
From the moment I choose a graphic novel I want to review to the point where I finish reading it, I am always asking one question – “Would someone who isn’t a comic book fan find anything to like about this?” I don’t review every comic that comes out, because I don’t see the point in that kind of assembly line criticism. My review work – since it appears in a daily newspaper and a weekly newspaper – is meant to entice readers who might not otherwise consider a graphic novel as interesting reading material, but I think it is more the case than ever before that a regular fiction reader could and might find something to appeal to their brain and their heart in a graphic novel. Two decades ago, the comic book industry was bandying around the term that “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” and certainly they weren’t. But too many were adult without be grown-up. Now, however, you will find graphic novelists who understand the economy of words and the power of that knowledge better than most novelists, as well as creators who can wield subtle and powerful visual language better than most filmmakers. They’ve mastered the two worlds they are often aligned to in popular culture and these two lists – 20 titles for adults and 10 titles for younger readers – reflect that. These are graphic novels for people who don’t want to read comics.
Alan’s War - Emmanuel Guibert (First Second)
Alice in Sunderland – Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse)
The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard – Eddie Campbell and Dan Best (First Second)
Asterios Polyp – David Mazzuchelli (Pantheon)
Black Hole – Charles Burns (Pantheon)
Cecil and Jordan in New York Stories – Gabrielle Bell (Drawn and Quarterly)
Dungeon Series – Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim (NBM)
Essex County Trilogy – Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf)
Exit Wounds – Rutu Modan (Drawn and Quarterly)
Fun Home – Alison Bechdel (Mariner Books)
La Perdida – Jessica Abel (Pantheon)
Notes for a War Story – Gipi (First Second)
Paul Has a Summer Job/Paul Moves Out/ Paul Goes Fishing – Michel Rabagliati (Drawn and Quarterly)
Persepolis 1 and 2 – Marjane Sartrapi (Pantheon Books)
The Photographer – Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier. (First Second)
Rabbi’s Cat 1 and 2 – Joann Sfar (Pantheon)
Safe Area Gorazde – Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics)
Stitches – David Small (Norton)
For Younger Readers
The Aya books – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (Drawn and Quarterly)
Plain Janes 1 and 2 – Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg (Minx Books)
Robot Dreams – Sara Varon (First Second)
Sandwalk Adventures – Jay Hosler (Active Synapse)
Storm in the Barn – Matt Phelan (Candlewick Press)
Syncopated: An Anthology of Non Fiction Picto Essays – Various (Villard)
Toon Books – multiple titles (Raw Jr)
December 17, 2009 § Leave a Comment
It’s not that there’s nothing good on TV – it’s that you have to try a little harder to clear away the garbage in order to find the good stuff …
December 14, 2009 § Leave a Comment
In the Turkish suspense drama “Three Monkeys” — winner of the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival and recently released by Zeitgeist Video — crime and punishment are revealed as a class matter to be passed down the social ladder, because some people are too busy and important to be bothered with the latter half of that duo.
Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) is the chauffeur for an up-and-coming politician who becomes involved in a hit-and-run accident one night. Paid off to take the rap for his boss, Eyup goes to jail, while his family reacts to the situation. Son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) gets greedy for an advance on the final sum to be paid by the boss, while wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) becomes a desperate tool, ripe for manipulation in the situation.
The family unravels not with a fury, but with an elegant decay that is captured beautifully by director Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s camera. Sparse on any sort of exposition — the film is not big on dialogue at all, never mind an explanation of the events — the stories behind “Three Monkeys” unfold on the faces of the actors and in the moods of their physical spaces.
The title comes from the well-known “see no evil” monkeys but cross referenced with a analect of Confucius. Ceylon says that, rather than point to these creatures as the center of hypocrisy, he prefers to view them as compassionate. In his telling, the monkeys ignore evil not for appearance’s sake but to spare the hurtful emotions of those around them, which are largely created by their own regretful actions.
Secrets, in this context, become a form of comfort, but Eyup’s boss keeps secrets for his own gain, and that may be the revelation that has escaped the family. Any secrets are destructive, even if they are kept for the best reasons — the possibility that they will become unleashed are in no one’s control, and the fury with which they devastate following their revelation to the those involved demand an even higher level of character in order to pick up the pieces.
Ceylon is keeping secrets of his own, though. He hints at family tragedies in the past that still lurk within their psychology, at failures within their own lives, dissatisfaction within their existence and a social world outside the unit that props up the father.
Ceylon never reveals everything, though, pushing the viewer to qualify the meanings, and creating a beautiful and abstract poem of sadness that tells of the lives of three people in purely emotional terms.