December 19, 2008

 

Eight years after the first volume of Jason Lutes’ three-volume, 24-chapter graphic novel Berlin was released, Lutes offers Berlin Book Two: City Of Smoke (Drawn & Quarterly), collecting the middle eight chapters of his epic study of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Berlin: City Of Stones ended with the 1929 May Day massacre, which hastened the German citizenry’s demand for order and thus the quick rise to power of the Nazi Party, whose 1930 triumph in the elections marks the end of City Of Smoke. Lutes foregrounds the history by having his characters react directly to it, and though there are smaller, human stories throughout the book—including the crumbling romance between a journalist and an art student, and the tale of an African-American jazz combo booked in Berlin for an extended engagement—much about Berlin feels programmatic and overthought, despite sequences that are undeniably erotic, suspenseful, or heartbreaking. Lutes’ ambition is admirable, and when it’s complete, Berlin may well be a counted as a classic on the order of Maus or Jimmy Corrigan. Right now, it’s still burning too slowly and evenly… B

It’s been a long wait between issues of Image’s stellar Mice Templar, but the handsome hardback collection of the first six issues, Mice Templar: The Prophecy, is waiting in the wings to catch newbies up and get them waiting for the next installment along with the rest of us. Writer Bryan J.L. Glass and artist Michael Avon Oeming both rely heavily on darkness, producing a dense, eerie story laid out in pages dominated by oppressive heavy blacks. Even without all the wild mysticism and looming evil, Oeming’s art would still convey what it’s like to be at the bottom of the food chain in a night full of predators, and the terrific story and well-defined characters give the likes of the Redwall books and Mrs. Frisby And The Rats Of NIMH a run for their money… A

 

Wondering what David Fincher’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button might have looked like had screenwriter Eric Roth taken any of it whatsoever from the original F. Scott Fitzgerald book? The story is readily available for free online, but the graphic-novel version The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (Quirk) sticks close by the story’s original text, and in Kevin Cornell’s slightly cartoonish, but well-textured sepia drawings, it finds a visualization more in keeping with Fitzgerald’s tone. The author stated at one point that “Benjamin Button” was his funniest story, but the humor is dry at best, and onionskin-thin might be a better description. It’s mostly a curiosity, as if Fitzgerald had no more complicated agenda than thinking through what it would be like for people to be born old and die as infants. It’s the high-toned literary equivalent of a 3-year-old’s “my shoes are on my hands!” gag, a simple reversal of the standard order. But this accomplished little book places the story in a well-crafted frame, including an essay explaining its origins, Fitzgerald’s trouble in selling it, how it fits into his body of work, and more. It’s like an interesting little lit-course classroom session in one volume… B

Paul Di Filippo and Jerry Ordway’s 2005 attempt to reboot of Alan Moore’s Top 10 series fell distinctly flat; it crammed in new characters and plotlines featuring old ones, but never found the humanity in the characters or the sense of wonder in the story. Original series co-artist Zander Cannon has been doing a much more respectable job with the four-issue miniseries Top 10: Season Two (Wildstorm), which wraps in February. From the first issue’s irresistible mystery to the subsequent ones’ respect for Moore’s characters, it’s a more faithful and more compelling Top 10. And hey, Gene Ha is back on art as well, which makes a major difference to the feel of these issues… B+

Carol Lay has spent decades making quirky, hyper-intelligent indie black-and-white comics that generally tell entire tiny stories in 16 panels or less; longer threads, like the one in her book Joy Ride, have been rare but welcome. So her latest, The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude (Villard) is a departure for her in several senses: It’s a memoir, it’s a stand-alone book, it’s non-fiction, and it’s shockingly sincere, given her usual playful tone. Growing up around 100 pounds overweight—she blames her need for attention—she had a poor diet and obsessive eating patterns; this book doubles as a personal story and a guide to weight loss, complete with recipes, sample daily menus, tips, calorie charts, and more. Much of it reads as disappointingly standard, given Lay’s talent and humor; interludes like the one where she imagines junk food as a sleazy, leather-jacketed biker offering her a fun quickie, and her current diet as a well-muscled, Tarzan-like nature boy are too few and far between. But while her advice is absolutely basic—eat less, eat healthier, exercise more—and she sometimes slips into the condescending tone of the religious convert, this is as entertaining, approachable, and practical a guide to weight loss as any, and Lay’s personal story keeps it lively. It isn’t quite the Understanding Comics of diet guides, but close enough… B

Steven Soderbergh’s two-part biopic of Ernesto “Che” Guevara stays so narrowly focused on a few incidents in his life that it’s possible to leave the theater after four hours of artfully rendered guerrilla warfare and know very little about Guevara’s past or his personal convictions. Legendary underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez goes in the opposite direction with his Che: A Graphic Biography (Verso), cramming as much information about Guevara as possible into 100 straightforward, simply drawn pages. And yet Rodriguez doesn’t do any better than Soderbergh at capturing the essence of the man or his mission. Che is a well-researched, well-assembled, deeply passionate book—one that argues unequivocally for Guevara’s vision of radical equality—but it doesn’t attempt to dig beneath the icon and consider the contradictions, or to dwell on the human moments that make Guevara more relatable. Rodriguez gives more detail to the face on the T-shirt, but he fails to make that image three-dimensional… B-

Following last year’s stellar collection The Early Years Of Mutt & Jeff, NBM’s “classic screwball strips” series Forever Nuts returns with a well-chosen anthology of Frederick Burr Opper’s early-20th-century newspaper comic Happy Hooligan. Drawing mostly from the first decade of the 1900s, this set is cruder and less witty than Mutt & Jeff, but Opper’s basic formula still works. Each six-panel Sunday strip in this book begins with well-meaning wanderer Happy Hooligan trying to make himself useful, and ends with him inadvertently irritating some person of importance, and thus getting kicked out on the street or thrown in jail. The joke is the same on every page, but the joy of the strip is in the way Opper sets up his dominoes before knocking them down. Opper delighted in filling the frame with as many figures and objects as he could, and then figuring out how to put them all to good use… B+

Batman's dead! Or something. Grant Morrison's "Batman R.I.P." storyline concluded in issue 681 of Batman with a literal bang and a figurative whimper, a whole lot of fuss, and moments of brilliance, emptied out into more confusion in which we learn the true secret origin of Bruce Wayne's alter-ego. Except we don't. The following issue begins the two-part "Last Rites" storyline, which marks the end of Grant Morrison's time with the Dark Knight for the foreseeable future. And, again, there's a lot of brilliant ideas at work here, as there have been throughout the run. Most notably, Morrison attempts to squeeze every Batman story—from his '40s origins through '50s silliness on up through the present—into a single continuity, a mad conceit that connects to the madness at the heart of Batman. But there are so many frayed edges that it's going to take a lot of work to smooth them out, and it’s a shame Morrison won't be the one doing the smoothing. Also, we'd wager we haven't really seen the last of Bruce Wayne… B-

By 1969, Charles Schulz had been the most popular cartoonist in America for almost a full decade, and Peanuts had long since saturated the culture at large, spawning toys, TV shows, and common references. The two years’ worth of strips in The Complete Peanuts: 1969 To 1970 (Fantagraphics) find Schulz trading on the public goodwill and familiarity by spinning longer stories that rely on readers’ knowledge of the characters and tolerance for whimsy. As the ‘60s came to a close, Peanuts had Linus’ favorite teacher, Miss Othmar, getting fired; Charlie Brown’s baseball team discovering the benefits and detriments of Gatorade; The Little Red-Haired Girl moving away; Snoopy writing It Was A Dark And Stormy Night; Freida reporting Snoopy to The Head Beagle for his failure to chase rabbits; Charlie Brown trying to meet his baseball hero Joe Shlabotnik at a sports banquet; and Snoopy’s speech at The Daisy Hill Puppy Farm getting disrupted by demonstrators. (“Apparently there’s been some trouble about dogs being sent to Viet Nam, and then not getting back…”) In short: this book contains 300 pages of Peanuts at its glorious peak… A

When Dan Clowes began serializing Ghost World in the pages of Eightball, he gave no immediate indication that this was going to be his next graphic novel, following the nightmarish Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron. The Ghost World stories just started appearing, issue after issue, offering what seemed at the time like unrelated vignettes featuring two snarky teenage girls and their irony-steeped daily lives. By the time Clowes reached the final installment, the tone of the series had shifted, from sharing Enid and Rebecca’s above-it-all point of view to skewering them for it, then finally showing some pity for them, as Clowes made it clear how ill-prepared the girls were for adulthood. Ghost World remains Clowes’ most popular book—in large part due to the deeply flawed movie version—and it looks better than ever in Ghost World: Special Edition (Fantagraphics), a handsome hardcover that contains the graphic novel, the movie’s original screenplay, and several pages of adjunct strips and samples of Ghost World paraphernalia. To some extent, Ghost World now reads like a trip back to the remote, alien landscape of ‘90s Los Angeles, where the pop-culture obsessions were quaintly low-stakes. But it’s also a reminder of how Clowes became one of the premier cartoonists of his generation, by tempering his own acerbic take on modern life with a measure of sympathy for all who endure it… A

So… who are the Dan Clowes of today? There are a number of young cartoonists who share Clowes’ fascination with the intersection of the bizarre and the mundane, and a few who share his skills as an illustrator and a dramatist. One of the best of those is John Pham, whose Sublife: Volume One (Fantagraphics) also recalls Chris Ware, Paul Hornschemeier, Kevin Huizenga, and Adrian Tomine in its impressionistic study of intertwined lives in downscale L.A. Outside of a puckish science-fiction story on the endpapers, the entirety of the first Sublife is taken up by the first installment of the serialized graphic novel 221 Sycamore Street, which follows the residents of a low-rent boarding house (an aging teacher, a scattered college student, and an Armenian immigrant with a sensitive nose) and their white-supremacist neighbors. Pham is still in the introductory phase with the characters and their intertwined stories, which means that at the moment, not everything in the book makes complete sense. But 221 Sycamore Street is remarkably sure-footed so far, and poetic in its descriptions of the comforting smell of a drool-stained pillow, the unexpected kindliness of racists, and the importance of a good concealer. Pham is a formidable new talent, and a welcome one… A-

Kevin Smith returns to comics-writing with Batman: Cacophony #1 (DC), the first of a three-issue series about a Joker-stoked gang war in Gotham City. Smith has done creditable work in comics before—most notably in his Green Arrow run—but he falls back on bad habits here, using the Joker’s loquaciousness as an excuse to fill page after page with unnecessary patter. The dialogue tends to run to the vulgar, too, with Joker cracking jokes about his green merkin, and warning a fellow criminal that when it comes to gay sex, “I bottom from the top.” It’d be easy to slam Smith for putting self-indulgence over the integrity of DC’s classic characters, but do DC’s characters even have any integrity these days? Or will the company let just any hot writer come along and piss wherever they like? C-

The new miniseries Sandman: The Dream Hunters(Vertigo/DC) does little more than retrofit Neil Gaiman’s 1999 novella of the same name with art by P. Craig Russell. Still, there’s that art by P. Craig Russell to consider; it finds an intriguing middle ground between clean line comic art and Japanese prints… B+

Brian Lynch’s Angel: After The Fall got off to such a promising start, taking up where Joss Whedon’s TV series left off (with Whedon’s blessing and story assistance) and getting even more ambitious, as all of L.A. literally went to hell, taking the series characters with it. It was a braver departure than what Whedon is doing with Buffy Season Eight, and without the publicity-stunt lesbian tryst at that. But the series had barely got off the ground when it halted on a cliffhanger and suddenly switched over to a lot of tedious flashbacks and fill-ins. Those can all be found in the series’ second graphic novel, Angel: After The Fall—First Night (IDW). While there is some key information to be had about how Wesley, Gunn, and others ended up in their particular radically changed situations, most of it was stuff readers had already guessed, executed in extreme brief in a page or two per character. The series is back on track, so now it’s just up to collectors to decide whether this irritating sidebar is worth buying just to fill the gap on their shelves… C-

The first eight-issue plot arc of Brian Wood’s Northlanders seemed to drag on forever in a Hamlet-like way, as the protagonist did nothing for too long, then did too many of the wrong things all at once. The whole thing is collected in Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven The Returned (Vertigo), a softcover graphic novel that at least makes the story move along a lot more deftly than the single issues. With that storyline over, the series continued in a radically different time and place with the two-issue miniseries Lindesfarne, which visualized the invading Vikings through the eyes of a child unsatisfied with his father’s harsh take on religion. The latest arc, The Cross and The Hammer, is still underway, but it, too, represents an improvement. And Ryan Kelly’s art is superb, the best of the series so far. Things just keep looking up for this series, in spite of the spotty start. Northlanders Vol. 1: C; issues #9-12: B+

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