Comics Panel: December 14, 2007

Comics Panel: December 14, 2007

In the contemporary anthologies of young alternative cartoonists—Mome, Blab, Kramers Ergot and the like—there's been a push to broaden the conception of comics, by moving beyond panels and characters and dialogue and working in modes that more closely resemble fine art and advertising. Most of these experiments come off as indulgent and undisciplined: a college art student's rudimentary idea of deconstruction. French-Canadian illustrator Pascal Blanchet's second book White Rapids (D&Q) is a significant exception. Each of its 150-odd pages resemble a separate art deco poster, over which Blanchet (and his translator) write a concise history of Rapide Blanc, a small northern Quebec town founded in 1928 by a private hydroelectric power company and abandoned in 1971 after the industry was nationalized and automated. There's no "story" here per se, though Blanchet's images of comfortable middle class living in the mid-20th-century evoke an idyll that he dispels in his concluding pages. Mainly, White Rapids presents a cohesive vision and mood, and then gradually shifts its meaning. In its power to convey an emotional impact through graphic design alone, this may be the most significant work of comics art since Acme Novelty Library #1A-

Along with Pascal Blanchet, a lot of the other cartoonists and illustrators of this rising generation are hearkening back to a graphic storytelling tradition that predates proper comics: the wordless “woodcut novels” that commenced publishing in the 1910s. Laurence Hyde’s 1951 book Southern Cross (recently reprinted by Drawn & Quarterly) is a late entry to the genre, and was so anomalous for its time that Hyde included a short history of the form for those inclined to automatically dismiss a serious literary work composed entirely of pictures. Hyde carried on the tradition of using woodcut novels for the purpose of social protest. Southern Cross shows the results of A-bomb tests on a South Pacific island, and while its simplistic “destruction of paradise” imagery is less impactful now as it might’ve been a half-century ago, the book is still of historic value, and stunningly illustrated to boot… B

Grendel, like its contemporary Nexus, started out as an indie alternative to the often bland superhero fare of the ’80s. But where Nexus plumbed the Superman/savior paradigm, Grendel was cast in the devilish Batman mold—and Matt Wagner’s masked creation, of course, eventually teamed up with The Dark Knight himself. After years of sporadic releases and a suitably convoluted continuity, Wagner brings back his baby in Grendel: Behold The Devil (Dark Horse). The first installment of the eight-issue series focuses on the so-called Grendel Prime, Hunter Rose, who is but one incarnation of the Grendel archetype that’s stretches from man’s past to his dystopian future. Various writers and artists have tackled Grendel since the character’s creation, but Behold The Devil is a back-to-basics crime noir—rendered in black, white, and bloody red—scripted and drawn by Wagner himself. That’s the good news: The bad news is, the book enhances Wagner’s weaknesses rather than his strengths. Skimpy, stilted, and riddled with clichés, the story of Rose’s vendetta against the mob is as rote as his psychological study of Grendel himself. Deconstructing the soul of the superhero has come a long way since the mid-’80s, and painting Rose once again as a bundle of conflicting impulses and ethics is neither as radical nor as necessary as it was 20 years ago… C+

Dame Darcy is a multimedia cyclone—but despite her numerous music, fashion, stage, film, and television projects over the past decade and a half, Meat Cake (Fantagraphics) has been her constant. The 16th issue of the long-running series offers absolutely zero surprises to the initiated, but Meat Cake is a title that shouldn’t be taken for granted; Darcy’s Richard Sala-meets-Edward Gorey style is still a spectacle of silken scribbles, and her strips remain densely packed with vellum-like layers of autobiography, magic realism, pornography, and myth… A-

To this point, most of Fantagraphics’ latest wave of Love And Rockets reprints have been ideal for neophytes, but less vital for those who bought the monumental hardcover collections Palomar and Locas. Most of Jaime Hernandez’s L&R; softcover Perla La Loca appeared in Locas, though it never hurts to revisit the story “Wigwam Bam,” one of the medium’s all-time high points, all about a generation of lost children held in a permanent state of infantilization by popular culture. The concurrent Gilbert Hernandez collection Beyond Palomar (Fantagraphics) contains two major works not included in Palomar: the “origin of Luba” graphic novel Poison River, which explores how family dysfunction and institutional corruption intertwine, and the graphic novella Love And Rockets X, which brings some of Gilbert’s Palomar characters into ‘90s Los Angeles, for a multi-tiered study of racial unrest and teen angst… Both: A

Of all the wild heroes and concepts DC introduced in the ‘60s, the Metal Men were among the most fun and creatively flexible, though they’ve rarely been well-utilized. The peak run on the title came in the mid-‘70s, when artist Walt Simonson and writer Steve Gerber amped up the cartoonishness and satirical possibilities of a robot super-team blessed (or cursed) with human emotions. The early stories collected in Showcase Presents: Metal Men (DC) also make a nice introduction, even if they’re more serviceable than brilliant. Writer Robert Kanigher and artist Ross Andru follow the mold of a lot of DC’s Silver Age comics, introducing as much hard science as a crime-fighting adventure tale would allow. (Since their heroes were malleable robots with the respective properties of gold, lead, iron, tin, mercury and platinum, it wasn’t too hard to sneak in some facts about boiling points and tensile strength.) The result was a comic that always seemed partially grounded in—and partially tethered by—the real-world capabilities of its main characters. Subsequent versions of the Metal Men have explored the relationship between inventor Dr. Will Magnus and his childlike creations—sometimes to embarrassing effect—but the stories from 1962 to 1965 that appear in this Showcase aren’t aiming for psychological verité. They’re pure fun… B+

Bearing a strong resemblance to Seth’s bold, urbane line-work, Mike Cavallaro’s visuals alone are stunning. But he’s a masterful storyteller as well—and if Parade (With Fireworks) is any indication, he’s got a sprawl of tales bubbling on the back burner. Parade’s two-issue arc—which made enough of a splash after its initial online publication to bring Image sniffing—is the first installment of Cavallero’s family history, and his true-life tale of communism, emigration, and murder in 1920s Italy is achingly resonant. The synergy between Cavallero’s heirloom narrative and his fluid, nuanced art is breathtaking; here’s hoping the next chapter in the saga is delivered with just as much lavish craft (and perhaps a bit more fanfare)… A-

A.I. meets Romeo And Juliet might sound like an odd idea for a kid’s comic, but creators Kevin Hanna and Sean O’Reilly have crafted something truly intriguing with The Clockwork Girl (Arcana). Realized in sumptuous painted detail by Grant Bond and Kevin Hanna, the series’ first issue introduces a steampunk-tinted world where natural science and technology clash and compete almost maliciously—and these opposing worldviews are embodied in two scientists’ creations, a mechanical girl named Clockwork and a beast-boy named Huxley. The children, of course, are set up to serendipitously befriend each other—and while the book’s dialogue and pacing are a bit choppy, there’s enough imagination and visual wonder at play to satisfy readers of just about any age or philosophical predisposition. B+

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