May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This heart-breaking book of multi-media emotion — prose, poetry, illustration, photography, comics and a scrapbook element — stands as graphic novelist Nilsen’s powerful and touching tribute to his late fiancee, Cheryl Weaver, who died in 2005 of Hodgkin’s Disease.
Compiling his emotions into a journal that documents journeys they made together, the pieces are the ephemera of their lives and, in that way, the displaced emotions that they tossed out into the world making their love and companionship known.
Nilsen bookends the story with the actual postal art he and Cheryl sent to each other, and then allows the reader to get to know their dynamic — that is, the creature made of the both of them — through a lengthy letter about a disastrous camping trip that he sent to his sister, as well as photos and some parts of a cartoon journal that he made.
After Cheryl’s diagnosis, Nilsen presents more journal entries, that include painful portraits he did of his fiancee at hospital bedside, as well as a frank drawing of her body laid out, inching toward death, with all the wires and tubes connected, a diagram of the things that were keeping her alive, and a portrait of how fragile she had become.
Leaving off with a graphic story about her memorial and then a short afterword that fills in the gaps, Nilsen offers his explanation for the work. Partly it is to memorialize the woman he loved so much, but also — and this is the part that cuts furthest — because he realized that losing her was not remarkable, but ordinary, and that there were so many others who had gone through such an ordinary, dreadful, crippling experience.
It’s a beautiful book in which all the pieces add up a a form of poetry, as well as a giving work by Nilsen, opening up his privacy in so elegant a way, a mournful pat on the back to all the people in his shoes who he will never meet, but will take heart in the fact that they are not spiritually alone.
February 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The work of Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens arrived on English-speaking shores impressively with “The Wrong Place,” and in “The Making Of” he furthers his observations regarding the effects of a single ego on a community by turning to a satire of the art world as his vehicle.
Peterson is a known artist who does some teaching, some partying, and is invited to take part in the Beerpoele Biennial, which he believes will be a prestigious move forward. Unfortunately for Peterson, the organizer helms a motley crew of art dorks, and together they feel like your worst nightmare from a small town comics convention. Peterson’s tactic is to seize the moment and create a group project that puts him at the center of conception and attention, as he has to navigate the personalities of his goofy crew of fabricators and deal with his mocking girlfriend long distance.
Interpersonal relationships and emotions among the crew and the piece of art to be realized both take on the role of Peterson’s clumsy artwork in progress, and the entire venture comes to a head with a congenial heartache, both publicly and behind the scenes. Evens is certainly making a statement about the art world and its cult of personality, but he’s also making one about color. With his typical bright interpretations attached to each member of the cast, Evens makes plain that each has a vibrancy, an aura of their own, and, like a rainbow, when mixed together create a multi-hued variety of human emotion and experience in the form of one drama.
March 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The Bible goes deadpan in this retelling of the story that involves one over-sized guy and one small warrior boy generally remembered as being an inspiration for underdogs everywhere.
We all know the tale of David and Goliath fairly well. It takes place over a period of 40 days that has the giant calling out a challenge twice each day. In the Bible, it’s from the point of view of the Israelites, Yahweh’s chosen nation who are scared silly of the giant standing in the desert yelling at them. That’s until David shows up and begs for a chance to fight Goliath. One thing leads to another and Goliath is lying on the ground with David vigorously beheading him.
In this graphic novel version, it’s Goliath who has the odds stacked against him. More accustomed to clerical work for the Philistine Army, he’s unknowingly recruited by an industrious military man by way of an impatient king as part of a secret plan to end a war with a minimum of casualties — all he needs is a new get-up and weaponry and the right attitude, and the Philistines are sure the Israelites will surrender in fear. Goliath is a realist, though, and his manufactured confrontation leads him to the absurd situation of waiting out in the desert for the Israelites to be too afraid to send a champion out to face him and lead all their people into slavery. At least, that’s what Goliath hopes— the last thing he wants is a champion to emerge from the Israelites that he will have to face in combat. With only the companionship of his young shield-bearer, Goliath is prickly and put-off by the whole situation. He’s waiting for nothing and his entire army is watching him.
You already know how it ends, but the real pleasure of the book is witnessing Goliath face up to the inevitable with a tired sort of dignity. He tries to make the best of his situation even as fear and ennui swirl around him in the desert air, as do the legends about his gargantuan prowess among his own cohorts. Scottish cartoonist Gauld manages to find a point of hilarity within the coming gloom, a scenario in which feared giant Goliath is just like any of us — someone following orders, just a guy doing his dumb job and finding little fulfillment out of it.
If the Bible really celebrated the underdog, it would side with this lumbering foot soldier rather than the plucky brown-noser destined to become a king. Thanks to Gauld, we now have the opportunity to embrace Goliath as one of us — an every-man who faces his destiny even if it’s somewhat less illustrious.
December 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The very high profile “Tintin” movie is being advertised as from “the two greatest storytellers of our time,” but that’s disingenuous at best and smug at worst. The number should be three, since it should count Georges Remi, known by his pen name as Herge, the man who created the character and saw him through 24 books after decades of appearing in magazines in Belgium.
Here to set the record straight are authors Jose-Louis Bocquet and Jean-Luc Fromenthal, with illustrator Stanislas Barthelemy, for a magnificent biography of the writer/artist, done in the style of the very books he is famous for. “The Adventures of Herge” presents slices from the life and career of the famous and indispensable children’s book cartoonist.
Tracing his artistic life from his childhood to his early days of success — he continued to publish “Tintin” during the Nazi occupation in Belgium and saw jail time and near execution after the war — all the way through the later years, his dalliances, his reactions to fame and even an early interaction with Steven Spielberg to create a film version of “Tintin,” “The Adventures of Herge” builds on the very formula the creator mastered.
Told in incidents and filled with the kind action pantomime that is common in the “Tintin” books, Herge’s life unfolds in a series of small moments that link to larger ones. These compile turning points of both personal and professional interest, revealing the ins and outs of one of the actual greatest storytellers of our time, beloved by literate kids around the world for over half a century and still going strong.
December 6, 2011 § Leave a Comment
M. Night Shyamalan’s second film “Unbreakable” offered something different on movie screens with its vision of what a superhero would be like in the real world. As portrayed by Bruce Willis, it was a grim vision, steeped in crime noir trappings.
Daniel Clowes’ new graphic novel does much the same thing, but instead of machismo, he wraps his tale up in coarse laughs, emasculated bitterness and the sort of world weary brilliance that has become standard in a Clowes novel.
In “The Death Ray,” Clowes tells the pathetically depressing story of loner Andy and his big-mouthed, vulgar friend, Louie, as they traverse the ugliness life hands them in the form of dysfunctional family situations and hostile schoolenvironments. Utilizing a variety of traditional comic books styles, Clowes follows their deadpan drama as a lead-up to Andy’s curious realization of specialness and power and the self-destructive exploits he and Louie undertake as a result.
The superhero trope is now an accepted standard in American pop culture far beyond comic books themselves, and it often involves a weakling, who somehow realizes great power and must secretly fulfill his power fantasies in service of society and strong moral virtue, all the while still being punished for his weakness because of the damned necessity of maintaining a secret identity.
It’s a set-up of a torturous, but noble, life for the hero that purports the existence of a universal good in service of ironclad, black-and-white narrative morals. Clowes, however, turns the whole idea inside out. Andy’s “origin” never quite leads to rollicking adventures, and his efforts to right wrongs never quite captures a strict line between the two.
There are no moral absolutes in Clowes’ tale, and the hero is just as much a mixed bag as those around him. Specialness offers no special life for Andy, and Clowes’ manages to address all these issues of ambiguity and nihilism while remaining a master at providing laughs about it all.
November 29, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Canadian wonder cartoonist Seth delivers one of the weirdest and most haunting examples of fictional pedantry ever committed to paper.
If you’re fascinated by old and forgotten institutions or driven by the thrill of discovering obscure examples old narrative forms — in this case comics, but it could be movies or novels — then Seth’s journey is sure to draw you in.
Built around the concept of a private club for Canadian cartoonists — think the Friar’s Club — the book starts out as a tour of the building, with a focus on the unusual decorative delights that the nooks and crannies have to offer. Eventually, however, Seth breaks into a fictional history of Canadian comics that will have you wishing you could read these titles.
Seth does wrap in some real history in the form of cartoonist Doug Wright, whose silent strip “Nipper” (later “Doug Wright’s Family”) is a Canadian classic that ran for three decades, comparable in national stature to “Family Circus,” but without the cloying sentimentality.
But the fake ones are fascinating and allow Seth to flex his creative diversity. “Kao-Kuk of the Royal Canadian Astro-Men” is a reality-bending space opera featuring an Inuit — perfect for space travel because his race is used to isolation. “Canada Jack” follows the convoluted adventures of a walking enthusiast superhero who at one point teams up with Snoopy. And “The Great Machine” is a creepy surrealist graphic novel that traces the mechanical bowels of a building with cryptic results.
Between the examples from cartoon history, Seth examines past members and events. By the end, this all adds up to a melancholy that is directly related to the reality of cartoonists in Canada — unlike this alternate history version, they’re just as ignored there as they are here. As laid out by Seth, though, it’s easy to see why the collector’s understand, and his brilliant tribute the mystery and power of the form might actually entice you to pursue the real strangeness that exists.
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In this massive, 600-page graphic novel, Anders Nilsen begins by asking the big questions promised in the title and then promptly stops, instead choosing to let the answers play out in their own time in the form of one flock of birds’ reaction to a deadly freak calamity.
Nilsen begins by setting up a very precise universe that centers on a flock of birds, whose multiple members dart in and out of the story as in accordance with the dangers of nature and man, and whose personalities are visually interchangeable but deeply individual beneath the line drawing. Together they create one consciousness that reacts to an old woman and her mentally disturbed son, some angry squirrels, a cryptic snake and a group of bullying crows.
Calamity comes in two parts, each involving the appearance of technology on the landscape and the birds reaction to it. As with any society, the birds have their own forms of superstitious and mystical mumbo jumbo in order to explain the intrusion, as well as desperate philosophies to qualify the tragedies that follow.
A novel of absurdist philosophy on the scope of the likes of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, “Big Questions” reads as important and mesmerizing as anything that might slip out of any of those authors’ typewriters, but with a visual element that brings
in a filmic element. This allows Nilsen to dispose of the grammatical clutter that can be off-putting in heady offerings and embrace a simplicity and silence reminiscent of early Peter Weir films that portrays very difficult ideas as something not complicated at all.
September 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This post-apocalyptic graphic novel takes a “You Are There” approach to the grim future as you — the reader — are spoken to from within the pages by a succession of players in a violent drama that unfolds with effective simplicity.
The setup is this — you, the reader, wake up and encounter a one-armed man who leads you on a frenzied escape from the mysterious creatures who stalk this dead earth. Together you sift through piles of rubble for safety, forage around for untouched canned food and address the hopelessness of your plight via one-half of a conversation always kept going by the character on the page.
Creator Ralphs piles the debris high in his drawings — there is terror and despair in the crumbling chaos — keeps the danger mysterious — probably zombies, but equally likely mutants or just the angry detritus of post humanity — at a distance. This creates more creeps as the interaction between the characters reveals the desperate measures humans will take to survive just for survival’s sake. There’s no reason to keep going, but the human instinct makes it so — and so it goes for you as a reader.
You know nothing good is going to come out of the end of this book, but you keep moving along anyhow, the experience itself reason enough not to give up.
July 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
War time Manga first published in 1973 and finally available in our country offers World War 2 from the viewpoint of our enemies. In fact this is a fictionalized memoir — Mizuki calls it “90% true” — of the author’s service on a small island in New Guinea.
In Mizuki’s presentation, average Joe Japanese soldiers contend with the island’s greatest dangers — malaria and alligators — until the American army shows up and begins to push inward. Young and inexperienced, with a focus more on their tummies and libidos, the Japanese soldiers don’t take seriously the cultural expectation of their military careers — an honorable death in service to their country. Their commanding officers take it very seriously, though, and the reality of a suicide charge clashes with their personal fears.
Mizuki peppers the tale with an amiable goofiness that captures the period and his experience, but it is filtered through a graphic rage at what he and his fellow soldiers experienced. Sometimes grim and gruesome, “Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths” is a powerful revelation of the price of war on all sides, and the expectations of national service that hold countries above men.
May 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
One of the more mysterious transactions is that between a prostitute and client, and it’s perhaps this mystery that fuels at least part of the societal opposition to prostitution. Certainly there’s enough shame attached to both sides of the deal that neither are wont to talk about it except in very specific circumstances.
For the prostitute, it only seems to come up in the wider public sphere alongside a scandal, and with the subtext — sometimes true — that the prostitute wants to milk the situation for fame and money. In this scenario, the man is almost always someone of power, like Eliot Spitzer, and the story is framed as a fall from grace.
You never hear about the ordinary guys — theirs is no descent from glory, just kind of embarrassing. In some circles, it can be viewed as the most pathetic transaction a man can have.
This makes Chester Brown’s new graphic novel “Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being A John” all the more alluring, even as you wonder why you should really care. Regardless, you do — this is the other side of the story, the side where the guy isn’t some power broker who views the women involved as just the reward of having enough money to toss around, but as one more antidote to loneliness that you have to budget out alongside groceries and heating bills.
The only thing that takes more bravery than writing this book is going on a North American book tour to promote it — which Brown is doing.
His story begins with the opening up of a relationship with his girlfriend and the slow realization on his part that he had no desire for a traditional love relationship any longer. Dysfunctional, sure, but there’s such an honesty in his dysfunction and something admirable in his decision not to complain about his problems anymore, but to just take care of them himself. Part of that effort eventually involves hookers after the relationship with his girlfriend dissipates. Love affairs are just too much of a bother for him.
Soliciting prostitutes, we find out, makes him happy. Strangely, he actually functions better in that situation, which also plays to some of his enthusiasms. For one, he likes to get to know each prostitute at least a little bit — for an idiosyncratic cartoonist who deals with reality in his work, it’s almost like a gold mine of material.
Brown also begins to enjoy the culture of prostitution — he is never so giddy as when he discovers a website to rate and review prostitutes. Suddenly having a hooker has entered into the same geek culture trappings as movies, comics, you name it.
Brown takes time to let the reader get to know each prostitute — and there are plenty — as well as his own peculiarities in regard to them. In fact, there’s something so clinical about these presentations that you can’t help being just a little bit disturbed, but that’s part of the charm of the book. Brown is so blank-facedly upfront with the material and the arguments for the validity of the lifestyle (he regularly spars with his famous cartoonist friends, Joe Matt and Seth, on the subject) that it takes on an Aspergers-like quality that tells us a lot more about Brown than his sexual transactions. It becomes a book about how a person deals with other people, and how someone with off-the-grid ideas of emotional life function within a community.
If you’re squeamish about sex scenes, Brown’s book is not for you, but the clinical quality of the presentations stops any eroticism in its tracks. “Paying For It” is one of those alarming moments in literature when someone is bound and determined to give you way too much information in the name of a larger argument — it’s revealing, compelling and a most unlikely book to find yourself unable to put down, which is a testament to Brown’s skill at turning even the most embarrassing material into creative gold.