Complicated Jeff Lemire, Ed Piskor tales round out August’s art comics 

Complicated Jeff Lemire, Ed Piskor tales round out August’s art comics 

Jeff Lemire is one of the rare comics writer-artists who blends accessibility and visual poetry. His graphic novels and stories tend to be about broken people with painful pasts, and he isn’t shy about having his characters just blurt out their damage. In his latest book, The Underwater Welder (Top Shelf), Lemire tells the story of a young father-to-be who is still deeply bruised by his own dad’s death when he was a boy. At one point, the man’s wife rips into him, saying she feels like he’s so obsessed with his father that he’s becoming him, and not giving his new family a chance to grow and thrive. There’s nothing subtle about how The Underwater Welder states its premise and theme: Lemire makes sure everyone gets the point.

And yet The Underwater Welder is still so, so beautiful, because Lemire gets that the real measure of a story isn’t what it tells, but how it’s told. While Underwater Welder’s story is familiar and easy to grasp, Lemire’s command of pacing and his ability to come up with just the right image at just the right moment are a wonder. As soon as he introduces Jack—a deep-sea diver who works on an oil rig off the Canadian coast—Lemire zeroes in on what Jack feels but can’t fully articulate. Here’s a guy who loves his wife but fears his legacy, and wishes he had more time to sort out his problems before his son is born. But time ticks inexorably on, and that child is coming, whether Jack is ready or not.

Lemire sets The Underwater Welder at Halloween, which is also the day Jack’s father drowned, on a night when Jack had dressed in a homemade deep-sea diver costume. As the book shifts back and forth between the past and the present, Lemire makes visual links between Jack and his dad, suggesting how dangerous patterns of behavior can recur. There are some supernatural elements to Underwater Welder—a visitation by old ghosts as well as some ominous portents of the future—but ultimately, those are as symbolic as the book’s title. It’s Jack’s job to fix the structural problems way down below the surface, just as it’s Lemire’s job to get readers to care about the stakes for his hero. Lemire does that with words that are sometimes inelegant, but he also does it with pictures that express what’s beneath those words. Underwater Welder builds its world panel by panel, first depicting the kind of panic that’s common to new parents, then plumbing its depths.


Ed Piskor’s Wizzywig: Portrait Of A Serial Hacker (Top Shelf) has a higher degree of narrative difficulty than The Underwater Welder—and indeed, than most graphic novels. Compositing and fictionalizing the real-life anecdotes of tech outlaws, Piskor constructs nothing less than an ür-story for the put-upon people who use their computers to pull pranks and scams on their oppressors. Wizzywig’s hero is Kevin Phenicle, known—and feared—by the savvy as “Boingthump.” Piskor follows his protagonist from boyhood to manhood, as Kevin learns how to break into the earliest computer networks, and as he cycles between prison and life as a fugitive. Eventually, Kevin becomes a national story, relentlessly pursued by a pot-stirring tabloid journalist and defended by a talk-radio host who’s been his friend since they were kids. 

Piskor has an art style reminiscent of the ’80s and ’90s underground crowd (a little like Rick Altergott and David Boswell, in that it’s cartoony, elaborate, or grotesque as needed), and a storytelling style a lot like recent Dan Clowes, with short vignettes that add up to something larger. He’s also clearly done his homework. Wizzywig is full of fascinating tidbits about how the hero forges new identities, rips off the phone company, and gets pizza for nothing. But while Piskor is constructing an ambitious, decades-spanning tale of a genius routed by public hysteria, he never loses sight of who Kevin really is: a social misfit who becomes a criminal out of a combination of boredom, ignorance, and spite.

And Wizzywig also never forgets the larger issues. A late-book reference to Wikileaks connects Kevin’s story to the question of free speech, and the story as a whole considers how crafty deviants serve to keep both governments and corporations in check. Piskor doesn’t let his hero off the hook for his crimes, but he does show real empathy for Kevin. That passion for the subject jumps off the page, making Wizzywig both an entertaining read and a powerful argument-starter.


Also…

Raised by a pot-dealing single mom, Matthew Parker started shooting heroin at 16, and spent more than two decades in and out of prison and on and off the streets, until in 2002, at age 42, he went straight, enrolled in Scottsdale Community College, and started working his way toward his ultimate goal of getting a degree from an Ivy League school. In Parker’s graphic memoir, Larceny In My Blood (Gotham/Penguin), he depicts his wayward life in vivid detail, offering inside information on everything from the social customs of convicts to how he’s stayed clean by letting live music take the place of drugs. Parker is reasonably good company (except for when he’s creepily justifying his inappropriate sexual advances toward co-eds); and he has a full store of scary, funny, fascinating anecdotes, though he jumps back and forth between them a little arbitrarily. But there’s no nice way to say this: He’s a lousy cartoonist. The comics world has its share of purposeful primitivists—some of whom, like Gary Panter and Lynda Barry, use crudity to their advantage. But that isn’t really what Parker is attempting here. He’s just telling his story the best way he knows how, using flat, functional drawings. The results are readable—Parker’s past is too exciting for the book not to hold interest—but compared with a sharp-looking, smartly composed book-length crime comic like Ed Piskor’s Wizzywig, Larceny In My Blood comes off as a cheat. There’s just no reason this book had to be a comic… 

For a better example of how good a true-crime comic can be when rendered by a master, see Rick Geary’s latest “Treasury Of XXth Century Murder,” Lovers’ Lane: The Hall-Mills Mystery (NBM/ComicsLit), which continues one of the most impressive winning streaks in the medium. Tackling “The Hall-Mills Murder Case”—at one time, one of the most famous crimes of the century, though less-remembered now—Geary brings his usual eye for the off-kilter to his illustrations, which is especially helpful for a story defined by its curious details. In 1922, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Episcopalian minister Edward Hall was found dead alongside Eleanor Mills, a member of his choir; their corpses were posed with his hand beneath her neck, her hand on his thigh, and love letters scattered about. The case dragged on for nearly five years, with multiple suspects considered, and it culminated in one sensational trial, all covered with maximum hyperbole by the competitive New York newspapers. The investigation revealed a community where the Hall-Mills affair was an open secret to everyone but their respective spouses, and Geary focuses as much on those citizens of New Brunswick as the crime that binds them. He gets the facts of the case down, along with the various theories of who might’ve committed the murders and why, and notes the possibly extraneous or possibly pertinent oddities discovered by the police and the press. But he also uses his detached style to get at something essential in the story in he’s telling, contrasting his placid portraiture with the roiling passions just under the surface…

Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein made his 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky when the Nazis were rampaging across Europe, which meant that the movie’s story of a proud prince who stood against the Teutonic Knights was more than just a piece of living history; it was a lesson in national pride, personally approved by Joseph Stalin. Ben McCool and Mario Guevara’s Nevsky: A Hero Of The People (Cryptozoic/IDW) is expressly adapted from Eisenstein’s film, and though it doesn’t have the sense of urgency and deeper meaning that the story held in the ’30s, it fits neatly into the Lord Of The Rings/300/Game Of Thrones era, thanks largely to its far-flung factions and extended battles in extreme landscapes. Guevara’s art is in the heroic mold, featuring muscular warriors in dynamic poses, while McCool distills Eisenstein’s film to its action essence. The result is a kinetic graphic novel, effectively crossing Eisenstein with Two-Fisted Tales… 

The three Concrete short stories Paul Chadwick published in Dark Horse Presents in 2011 hardly compensate for the damnable paucity of new Concrete material in the past five years; it’s not even correct to say these stories are better than nothing. Really, this smattering of Concrete—now collected in the slim comic book Concrete: Three Uneasy Pieces (Dark Horse)—offers such a strong reminder of what Chadwick can do that the lack of a follow-up is all the more frustrating. Three Uneasy Pieces includes “Intersection,” in which Chadwick’s rocky hero catches criminals while out for an evening stroll; “In A Wound In The Earth,” in which Concrete rescues a mentally ill drifter while vacationing in Hawaii; and “Everything Looks Like A Nail,” where Concrete helps the police develop humane methods for subduing suspects. Each contains some of the elements that make a Concrete story special: the thoughtful contemplation of human nature, the authoritative concern for social problems, and the sense that there are layers of secrets and mysteries always surrounding us. (The latter is something Chadwick conveys well with his art, which always emphasizes the details his characters miss.) The problem, again, is that Three Uneasy Pieces is so short. Chadwick is one of the best there is at what he does; it’s a shame he doesn’t do it more often… 

Before Flannery O’Connor turned to fiction, she was primarily interested in journalism, and while honing her skills as a reporter in high school and college, she tried her hand at cartooning, illustrating wry gags with crude but expressive linocuts. Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons (Fantagraphics) collects those cartoons and spot illustrations, along with some pen-and-ink drawings, all framed by a Barry Moser introduction into how O’Connor used the medium and a Kelly Gerald-penned look at how O’Connor’s early life influenced her art. The Moser and Gerald pieces are so well-researched that they’d be worth reading even without the cartoons between them. But those cartoons aren’t incidental—either to this book, or to O’Connor’s legacy. They’re funny, Thurber-esque depictions of a typical co-ed’s life in the ’40s, showing much of the humor, insight, and eye for the odd that made O’Connor’s prose so beloved. The detailed drawing-by-drawing analysis at the end of The Cartoons helps fit them into her larger biography and bibliography, making this an essential book for students of 20th-century American literature… 

The title of the Steven Brower-edited anthology Mort Meskin: Out Of The Shadows (Fantagraphics) refers both to the Golden/Silver Age artist’s style—full of inky blacks, inspired by Hollywood movies—and to the way Meskin has long remained fairly unknown, even though he was a favorite of his more famous contemporaries like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and Steve Ditko. In his brief introduction (distilled from his more comprehensive biography, From Shadow To Light), Brower suggests that Meskin is obscure because he never created an iconic superhero, although that’s also what makes Out Of The Shadows so fresh and eclectic. Not tied down to any one character, Meskin was free to work in a variety of genres, most of which are represented here: jungle adventure, supernatural horror, westerns, science fiction, romance, crime, etc. Meskin also tackled some minor superheroes, like Golden Lad and The Fighting Yank, but he was best suited for the darker stories, where his thick lines and heavy inks could spread across the page like a stain…

Fantagraphics’ series collecting Carl Barks’ Donald Duck/Uncle Scrooge comics and Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strips has already been a godsend to buffs and historians who’ve been pining for years for high-quality, comprehensive archival volumes of this material. But the latest books in both series are especially strong. Uncle $crooge: Only A Poor Old Man (Fantagraphics) is only the second of the Barks books—though it’ll be the 12th volume chronologically when the series is complete—but it contains some of the best-loved Uncle Scrooge stories, mixing the globe-trotting adventures of the stingy old “umpteen-centrifugilillionaire” with tales of his wild youth. These are the pieces Don Rosa drew from heavily for his rip-roaring The Life And Times Of $crooge McDuck graphic novel, but they’re just as rich in their original form, packed with clever plans, narrow escapes, and a lead character who enjoys amassing and hoarding his huge fortune, even though it makes him a little nutty. 

As for Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: High Noon At Inferno Gulch (Fantagraphics)—the third of the Gottfredson volumes—it finds the strip really hitting its stride, with stories that take months to develop, parceled out in daily installments that rush full speed ahead. The art also became more polished by 1934 and ’35, more closely resembling the animated cartoons. The cast of characters wasn’t as fully developed yet, but in his text pieces, series co-editor David Gerstein promises that’ll be coming in volume four. In the meantime, Gerstein and Gary Groth have assembled the usual outstanding array of contextual material, including a Gottfredson-inspired Italian Donald Duck strip from 1937 that helped seed that country’s still-fertile contributions to Disney comics…

Give the good people at Bongo Comics credit: They know how to commit to a bit. Back in 1993, Bongo commenced a six-issue series dedicated to Radioactive Man, Bart Simpson’s favorite superhero, and the comics were numbered and plotted as though they were culled from different eras of the Radioactive Man series, thus serving as a loving parody of superhero comics through the ages. The hardcover collection Radioactive Man: Radioactive Repository Volume One (Harper Design) compiles those six issues, plus a few other Radioactive Man stories, and packages them in a form that looks almost identical to one of those $50 DC Archive or Marvel Masterworks editions, but at half the price. The comics inside are highly entertaining, finessing the complicated trick of cracking wise about the medium’s history while being as well-constructed as the work they’re spoofing. But the presentation is even more impressive, right down to a Paul Dini introduction in which he boasts about his collection of Radioactive Man memorabilia (all pictured), and talks about buying his first issue in a barbershop in 1965. The book never once breaks character.

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