Comics Panel: May 19, 2008

Most contemporary art-comics look like they were more fun to make than they are to read, but the trend toward overpriced collections of page-long mixed-media scrawling has produced a few exciting hybrids of comics and fine art. Lynda Barry's offbeat collection What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly) makes a fine case in point. In short illustrated essays, Barry reminisces about how her interest in art and writing developed from childhood to young adulthood, and she muses about how and why creativity becomes a more self-conscious, unnatural act as we get older. In between the essays, Barry presents page after page of striking collages on which she's written questions designed to get readers to pick up pens and make their own art. What It Is borders on the shapeless and even pretentious, but Barry's down-to-earth prose style and earnest interest in a deeper understanding makes the book cumulatively moving. It isn't just a comic; it's a conversation piece… A-

Ray Fenwick's single-page mixed-media cartoons are a little less high-minded than Barry's, although they do prove that this emerging form of comics may have multiple applications. Fenwick's Hall Of Best Knowledge (Fantagraphics) takes the form of a correspondence course, delivering oblique lessons on the nature of "genius" (or, alternately, why today's class has been "cancelled") in illuminated squares. The tone is similar to the fine print in Chris Ware's comics, but not as funny. Still, Fenwick finds ways to make text-heavy pages graphically pleasing, and when he's ready to do more with this technique than just wax ironic, he'll have a solid artistic foundation in place… B-

Does Kurt Busiek really take so much time between issues of Astro City because of his health, or is it because he knows people get a lot more excited over each new issue because they're released so unpredictably? Either way, Beautie: An Astro City Character Special (Wildstorm) isn't as worth the wait as some installments of the series have been, except for those who have really been holding their breath to learn the backstory of Beautie, Astro City's weirdly Barbie-doll-esque superheroine. The one-shot doesn't particularly expand on the ongoing story of Busiek's superhero-packed city; it's an origin story, pure and simple. That said, there's a recognizable Busiek poignancy to Beautie, essentially a super-strong, life-sized Barbie doll who has no emotions or physical needs, but recognizes that there's something vast missing in her life; she brushes off her peers' attempts to socialize, and turns down amorous men with the flat, unchanging statement "My skin is ferro-styrene over an omnitanium frame. My breast and buttocks are rigid. And I have no genitalia." Like so much of Busiek's work, this story functions on a second level, as her search for answers about her past becomes a philosophical search for what comes next after the basic needs are met. It's a fans-only project, since newcomers won't know the character or setting, and casual Astro City would probably like some kind of action or forward momentum, but Busiek's many die-hard adherents will probably be delighted just to see his hand still in the Astro City game… B-

The latest in Vertical's reprints of classic manga by Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka is printed in the Japanese style, to read left-to-right and from the back of the book to the front, instead of being digitally flopped to read Western-style, right-to-left. Some companies consistently prefer the un-flopped method as truer to the original page compositions, while others flop most books so they'll be more accessible to American audiences, and only present "original format" books when the artwork makes it necessary. But there's nothing particularly elaborate or special about Dororo Volume 1 that warrants the original-format treatment; it isn't nearly as visually elaborate or painterly as Tezuka's Buddha books, which Vertical released in Western format. The series, serialized in a popular Japanese manga periodical in the late '60s, represents some of Tezuka's most basic work, with his simple, bobble-headed characters fighting similarly simple monsters amid simple landscapes, in basic, boxy page layouts. The story, however, is exceptionally chilling. A government official offers his unborn son to 48 demons in exchange for temporal power. They take him at his word, and his child is born missing 48 body parts; it's a faceless, limbless, voiceless larval thing. But a kindly doctor takes pity on the child, raises it as his own, and builds it prosthetic limbs and a face. When they're both haunted by spirits, the boy, Hyakkimaru, sets out on a quest to kill the 48 demons and reclaim his body from them. Along the way, he runs into a despised boy thief named Dororo, and they form a weird partnership, based as much on outward mutual contempt as companionship. In typical Tezuka fashion, the story wanders all over the place, devolving into episodic explorations of the supernatural landscapes of local towns, in a way that would doubtless inspire modern creators like Rumiko Takahashi and Stan Sakai. It also inspired a 2007 Japanese film adaptation (with two sequels on the way), a late-'60s anime series, and a 2004 PlayStation game called Blood Will Tell. For all this, the storytelling is unassuming and basic, but the premise and Tezuka's eerie renditions of larval Hyakkimaru and the monsters that come after him is unusually effective and chilling, especially considering his usual streamlined, Kewpie-doll characters… B

No better prescription exists for today's conflicted feelings about war and soldiering than Bill Mauldin's World War II cartoons for Stars And Stripes, the Army newspaper. Fantagraphics' glorious collection Willie And Joe: The WWII Years, edited by Mauldin biographer Todd DePastino, presents more than 600 cartoons in two sturdy slipcovered volumes. The first volume ranges from Mauldin's earliest drawings for Oklahoma newspapers through his work for the 45th Division News, chronicling war games in Louisiana and the long wait to be shipped to the front in Europe. But it's in volume II, when Mauldin begins covering combat in the brutal, largely overlooked Italian campaign, that his drawings suddenly crystallize into essential reportage. The cartoonist identified fiercely with infantrymen, and lashed out at the officer corps and military police who seemingly conspired to make their lives miserable. A typical drawing showed MPs waiting with "off limits" signs as the battle still rages for control of a Sicilian village, reflecting the enlisted men's anger that they were excluded from enjoying the pleasures of the town that they were liberating. Mauldin's multitudinous ethnic caricatures in his early days coalesced under fire into two unshaven, stooped, terminally weary soldiers named Willie and Joe—figures who in their unconscious black humor, dramatized the lives of thousands of real "dogfaces." Foxhole life was a common theme; in one cartoon, Joe eyes his helmet as he and Willie hunch in a hole in the driving rain, and remarks, "Now that ya mention it, it does sound like the patter of rain on a tin roof." The inequities between the services stuck in Mauldin's craw as well. An Air Corps practice of rotating flyers out of combat after 50 missions inspired a cartoon with the caption "Congratulations, Joe—you've completed your fiftieth combat patrol. We'll put you on mortars for a while." The cartoons' underlying realism and sometimes raw, bleeding humor drew the ire of top brass, including General Patton, who raged that Mauldin's work undermined morale. But the artist was lucky enough to have defenders in nearly all ranks, and he continued to speak for his infantry buddies right through V-E day; in June 1945, Mauldin had Joe remark to Willie as they waited at the replacement depot for a ride home, "I don't remember no delays getting us overseas." Especially in the second volume, DePastino provides helpful endnotes explaining Army practices and relating the cartoons to Mauldin's frontline experiences. Although Willie and Joe became icons of World War II, Mauldin's work has been scattered and mostly unavailable until this loving collection. It's essential reading for a nation in search of its Greatest Generation. Far from creating demigods among men, Mauldin argues, combat exposes humankind's most stubborn flaws… A

Kevin Huizenga became a darling of the alternative-comics world the moment his stories about philosophical suburbanite Glenn Ganges crossed over from the minis to the indies. But not until the just-released Ganges #2 (Fantagraphics/Ignatz) and its anchor story "Pulverize" has Huizenga shown a maturity worthy of all the hyperbolic praise thrown his way. Aside from the self-indulgent 11-page abstraction that opens the issue—serving as a too-long introduction to "Pulverize"'s recurring theme of videogame surrealism— i>Ganges #2 largely eschews the forced absurdity and quasi-mysticism that have previously undercut Huizenga's vision of mundane everyday life. In its place comes a nuanced, poignant, straightforward story about Glenn Ganges' time at a dot-com startup in 1999 and 2000, and how the cyber-industry's "We're going to change the way business is done!" paradigm collapsed in a tumble of stock options, trade-magazine puff pieces, and long stretches of business hours spent playing first-person-shooter games. Huizenga paces the story precisely, and peppers it with note-perfect corporate-speak, establishing a world in which dreams get sabotaged one passive-aggressive move at a time. "Pulverize" both romanticizes what seemed like a golden age, and explains why it was phony to begin with. It's a masterful piece of comics storytelling… A-

With DC Universe 0, America's second-most-popular crossover-crazy comics publisher introduces what promises to be yet another continuity-correcting reboot, delivered in the form of the miniseries Final Crisis and multiple offshoots. This 50-cent preview issue doesn't offer much story, and its glimpses at DC's immediate future are alternately intriguing and off-putting. Intriguing: Grant Morrison's Batman-and-Joker-starring mystery series R.I.P., and the Morrison-penned Final Crisis series itself. Off-putting: Pretty much everything else… C+

Jessica Abel's latest project, Life Sucks (First Second), isn't nearly as ambitious and poignant as her terrific La Perdida, but it takes the same sort of focused, in-depth, personal look at a cultural/social group—in this case, vampires. Abel and co-writer Gabe Soria focus on twentysomething protagonist Dave, one of a number of newly fledged twentysomething L.A. vampires hopelessly in the thrall of his master and creator, a small-time retired operator who uses him as cheap labor. While mooning over a goth girl who dreams of becoming a vampire and joining a mythical, ancient society dominated by wealth, beauty, and grace, Dave shares a dingy apartment, sucks cold plasma from bags, and labors through insults and unpleasantness as a clerk at a 7-Eleven-type convenience store. The story is in no particular hurry to get anywhere; Abel and Soria have more fun watching Dave, his young vampire buddy Jerome, and his human roommate Carl hang out and grouse, or watching Dave try to get up his nerve to talk to his crush object. It's much more Clerks than Lost Boys, which makes it all the more fun when things heat up… A-

In value-for-money terms, it's tough to knock The Mammoth Book Of Best Horror Comics (Running Press), which for $18 delivers more than 500 pages of horror comics from the '40s to now, each one given a thoughtful intro by genre expert Peter Normanton. Those stories are mostly entertaining too, drawing on the best traditions of zombies, revenge, torture, and excessive gore. Knocks against the book? Stories that were originally in color have been reproduced in often-smudgy black-and-white, failing to preserve the integrity of the original line as Marvel and DC's B&W; reprints do. Also, the horror output of Marvel and DC (and EC, and a few other major players) is referred to but not reprinted, which makes the adjective "Best" in the title a reach. Still, The Mammoth Book makes for a useful survey of how horror comics have long been a valuable outlet for artists with vivid styles and disturbing visions… B+

Speaking of disturbing visions, Vertigo's revival of the long-running DC title House Of Mystery offers a doozy of a skin-crawler in its first issue. Fables writer Bill Willingham and artist Ross Campbell tell the tale of a young woman who moves to a ghost town populated by giant flies, one of whom weds and impregnates her. "The Hollows" is only a four-pager, but the contrast between Willingham's ironically sunny narration and Campbell's repugnant drawings of larvae bursting out of the back of a bloated corpse prove hard to shake off, as does the image's grotesque comic payoff in the issue's framing story. House Of Mystery #1 establishes a structure in which shorter pieces like "The Hollows" will be nested in a longer serialized arc, which is an unusual direction for the House Of Mystery concept, but a potentially rewarding one. In issue one, the short story trumps the somewhat confusing meta-arc, but that may change once that longer story has a chance to develop. Certainly the prospect of more unnerving pieces like "The Hollows" should make horror fans eager to see where House Of Mystery goes next… B

The latest installment of Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim's incredible Dungeon series brings in a couple of guest artists (Mazan and Jean-Christophe Menu), but while their style is noticeably a little different, they stick by the creators' vision of their crazy monster-filled world, and don't try anything particularly innovative stylistically. It's just one more Dungeon book, really. But that's a good thing. Dungeon Monstres, Vol. 1: The Crying Giant (NBM) takes a couple of side trips to explore the wacky, inconsequential adventures of some minor characters in the ongoing series. "John-John The Terror" is an origin story for a creature that looks like two halves of a potato standing around together, while "The Crying Giant" takes two of the titular dungeon's magic-workers off on a quest to deal with a giant weeping eye that's flooding the dungeon. As always, the appeal of the stories is just how random and warped they are: When the two magicians get caught by pig-faced, Smurf-like creatures and buried in a garden as compost, their solution, rather than digging themselves out, is to wait several weeks until they've died and decomposed enough to slip easily out of their burial holes. Any logic in the Dungeon books tends to be loopy dream-logic, but Sfar, Trondheim, and guests nonetheless present the insanity as straightforward, sensible adventure, and the unblinking humor is much of the fun… B

Fans of the new wave of comics that treat "superhero" as a job, from Top 10 to Capes, should probably have some fun with Nixon's Pals (Image), a graphic novel about a parole officer with the unfortunate job of enforcing the parole requirements of various supervillains. It sounds silly, and it occasionally does border on the edge of superhero satire, but the plot is Dashiell Hammett gritty and serious, with the protagonist, Nixon Cooper, taking a brutal beating every few pages as he investigates an apparent conspiracy that's luring one of his parolees back to a life of crime. Meanwhile, he's also having grotesque torture-dreams, courtesy of an old enemy. The muddy black-and-white reproduction does Chris Burnham's art no particular favors, and some touches—particularly the mutant stripper with nipples for eyes and faces on her breasts—read as pretty lowbrow, but Joe Casey's overall plotline is reasonably dense, and unfolds like enjoyably trashy pulp fiction… B-

"Veronique Tanaka" is apparently a pseudonym for "an artist otherwise successful in other artistic endeavors"; the press release accompanying Metronome (NBM) says she's available for e-mail interviews but wants to remain anonymous. Mysterious! Whatever the reasoning there, Metronome is an intriguing, catchy book composed of rigidly proportioned 16-panel pages where each frame is meant to tick by regularly. Hence the title; the first page shows a metronome ticking away, as if marking the beat at which the book should be read. The story operates in beat-like steps, as the "camera" zooms in on seemingly familiar objects that turn out to be other than what they appear to be, or a fixed tableau that suddenly changes. (Peter Kuper's "Eye Of The Beholder" strips sometimes come to mind.) Some of the steps are small—seconds tick by on a watch, a fly moves on the wall—while others cover leaps in time, as a relationship between a man and a woman comes together, then apart. There's nothing extraordinary about that story, or about Tanaka's stark, cartoony black-and-white art. But the visual playfulness of the execution and the way the style dictates the reader's experience is remarkable. Metronome feels like a storyboard for an animated short art film, and to that end, Shadowgallery.co.uk is selling a $2 license to see the entire book strung together as a 17-minute Flash animation… B

Graham Roumieu's first Bigfoot picturebook, Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir was fairly hilarious: Essentially, it was a cookie-cutter celebrity memoir, except that it was written from the POV of a self-pitying monster with the social graces of a hungry grizzly and the vocabulary of a particularly dumb incarnation of The Incredible Hulk. Bigfoot: I Not Dead (Plume) is more of the same, but the joke has run a bit thin, and there's nothing new here to recommend book two over a re-reading of book one. Again, Bigfoot alternately brags and bitches about his fame, while behaving like a semi-intelligent forest beast who frequently mauls people to death, for food, for dominance, or to display his displeasure over the lack of a birthday party. There's lots of violence, blood, and body-function humor among Bigfoot's forays into poetry, stand-up humor, and life as an animal-spirit guide, and the mixture of faux-highbrow and genuine lowbrow is kinda funny, but the first book did it better, and did it plenty enough. C-

More Comics Panel