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Graphic novels and art-comics—May 2012

In the late ’80s, when Daniel Clowes was scratching out his strange, funny little “Lloyd Llewellyn” stories about a retro-detective in a B-movie universe, not too many comic-book fans would’ve expected that he’d become one of the most important cartoonists of his generation. But then again, putting the words “important” and “cartoonist” side by side would’ve been a fairly unexpected phenomenon 30 years ago, too. It’s thanks to artists like Clowes that the debate over comics’ potential for literary and artistic merit is largely settled. There are still holdouts, sure. But once Clowes launched his series Eightball in 1989—and began combining his humorous pieces with personal essays, mood-setters, and densely symbolic short stories—he joined cartoonists like Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and Los Bros Hernandez in making creative leaps so far beyond what anyone else was doing that they couldn’t be so easily dismissed as “low art.”

The Alvin Buenaventura-edited coffee-table book Modern Cartoonist: The Art Of Daniel Clowes (Abrams ComicArts) contains a lengthy Clowes interview alongside essays and appreciations—including articles by Ware and graphic designer Chip Kidd—all illustrated with copious samples of Clowes’ work. The text-pieces are well-chosen, and give a sense of where Clowes fits into the larger words of fine arts, cinema, and literature. Few cartoonists have been as adept as Clowes at using the frame of a comics panel to convey perspective, purposefully drawing the reader into the mind of a protagonist and then revealing that mind as more warped than it originally seems. And few have been as skilled at constructing narratives that pull the reader easily along, allowing Clowes the liberty to introduce elements of surrealism, post-modernism, social comment, and formal play without closing his work off from basic comprehensibility. Modern Cartoonist recognizes and sharply analyzes what Clowes has done to make him such a significant figure in the history of the medium.

But the real selling point of Modern Cartoonist is the art, which, as laid out by Jonathan Bennett—himself an excellent cartoonist—captures the breadth of Clowes’ oeuvre, from the simplicity of his early strips to his recent books, which use a “Hey kids! Comics!” kind of grammar as an ironic juxtaposition to fairly grim plots and characters. Buenaventura and Bennett have gathered sketches, photos, original art, and some of Clowes’ own reference materials, and present them alongside panels, pages, and commercial art assignments, some of which have been little-seen even by die-hard Clowes fans. (Want to see the Christmas card Clowes sent out in 2006? Modern Cartoonist has it for you.) As assembled, all of these drawings tell their own story, about an artist who found his niche and then expanded it. It’s not the kind of story that Clowes himself would tell, but it’s an inspiring one.

Rich Tommaso is one of the better Daniel Clowes-inspired cartoonists, and his Pete And Miriam: Book One (Boom! Town) is similar to some of Clowes’ recent books, in that it uses the form of classic kids’ comics to tell a story for and about adults. There are, however, kids in the book: the title characters, who’ve been friends since childhood, and are seen both in their grade-school days and in their 20s. Tommaso jumps back and forth in time, exploring how this pair’s lives and relationships have changed over the years. Pete goes through a punk phase and gets into film; Miriam becomes an artist, and watches Pete closely as he burns through opportunities and lovers. Both are influenced by an upbringing that saw them running wild in the suburbs, free to pursue their own interests.

Book one of Pete And Miriam is weighted too much to the “Pete” side of the equation, and some of its digressions—especially Pete’s pursuit of an interview with one of sexploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer’s old collaborators—will likely seem less out-of-place when the whole story is complete. Yet even in this truncated form, Pete And Miriam is impressive in its scope: It’s reminiscent of one of Chris Ware’s intimate epics, examining ordinary life through a mosaic of moments, isolated from a longer and more tangled timeline. But Pete And Miriam isn’t merely derivative of its influences. The at times childlike framing devices suit two characters who haven’t yet fully grown up, and the time-jumping serves to connect the seemingly minor moments of the past with how Pete and Miriam behave now. Tommaso has been working on these comics off and on for years in between other projects. Here’s hoping the first collected volume does well enough to hasten a second. 

Because of the variety of work that Eddie Campbell has produced over the years—from offbeat adventure strips to whatever weirdness Alan Moore has asked him to draw—he’s not always mentioned in the same breath with the stalwarts of alt-cartooning, even though Campbell’s scratchy line and penchant for discursive comics-à-clef put him in the same class as the medium’s true iconoclasts. The Lovely Horrible Stuff (Top Shelf) is one of Campbell’s “here’s a little slice of my life” books, telling the story of how his father-in-law squandered a bundle of cash that Campbell loaned him, and contrasting that with a trip to the island of Yap to have a look at its famous giant stone coins. In between those adventures, Campbell talks about the recent financial crash, describes the accounting complications of being a freelance artist, and imagines what it would be like if William Shakespeare wrote letters to the people who owe Campbell money.

As is usually the case with Campbell’s more personal projects, The Lovely Horrible Stuff wanders about from topic to topic, sometimes circling back to complete thoughts from earlier, and sometimes just letting those unfinished ideas dangle. But Campbell is always good company, even when he’s moving so fast that it’s hard to keep up with him. And in the flurry of asides about contracts, currency, and the way kids trade bubblegum cards, Campbell hits on something, having to do with what we cling to in our lives—some of which has actual value, and some of which we only presume to be worth something. It’s a cheerful lesson in what matters, delivered by an artist who has his own way of expressing his ideas, honed over decades of meaningful toil.


The story of The Beatles has been told and re-told so often that the various checkpoints on the band’s timeline are as well-known to fans as The Stations Of The Cross are to Catholics. And this includes all the anecdotes about The Beatles’ early days in Hamburg, when the band first became a sensation playing raucous American-style rock ’n’ roll, before bassist Stuart Sutcliffe left after falling in love with photographer Astrid Kirchherr. What distinguishes Arne Bellstorf’s graphic novel Baby’s In Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, And The Beatles (First Second) is that Bellstorf is German, and so doesn’t approach Hamburg from the perspective of three future rock stars in a strange and somewhat kinky land, but rather from the perspective of the locals, who latched onto The Beatles as something new, exciting, and exotic. Bellstorf draws simple faces, but does a lot with body posturing and crayon-shading to give an oft-told tale its own look and its own vitality. He then applies this technique to the too-brief love affair of Kirchherr and Sutcliffe, as he details how the latter decided to dedicate himself to becoming a painter before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1962. While most stories about Sutcliffe focus on the what-might’ve-been had he stayed in The Beatles, Bellstorf considers the loss in terms of his potential life with Kirchherr, making art in a city with a vibrant culture. …

Gone To Amerikay (Vertigo) is an ambitious graphic novel, weaving together the story of two Irish immigrants: a young mother named Ciara, who comes to New York in 1870 and has to deal with the slums and the gangs, and an aspiring actor named Johnny, who shows up in 1960 and stumbles into the folk music scene after people hear his original composition “Gone To Amerikay.” Writer Derek McCulloch brings the two threads together via a third story—about a modern Irish billionaire investigating the history of one of his favorite songs—but the third element is one too many, since there’s enough connection already between the events of 1870 and 1960. Even McCulloch seems to realize this; he spends little time in the present, instead exploring the much more colorful past, which he’s clearly researched extensively. Colleen Doran’s detailed art—enhanced by José Villarrubia’s colors—helps a great deal, capturing the texture and shade of times gone by with such clarity that even the aromas seem to waft off the page. (Or maybe that’s just a side effect of Doran’s inking style, which emphasizes smoky swirls.) Even though Gone To Amerikay doesn’t coalesce as well as it should, its individual components are lovely, exploring worlds and people that comics have rarely visited before. …

The graphic novel Shooters (Vertigo), on the other hand, suffers some from over-familiarity. Writers Eric S. Trautmann and Brandon Jerwa—working with artist Steve Lieber—look to illuminate a rarely documented aspect of modern warfare by telling a story about an elite soldier who gets wounded in Iraq and has trouble readjusting to civilian life, and thus returns to the front as a private contractor. Lieber’s a pro, and Trautmann and Jerwa give a good sense of the impossible situation that people like the hero find themselves in when they have to answer both to the government and to a boss. But too much of Shooters reads like a case study in post-traumatic stress rather than one character’s unique story; and aside from the profanity and the job titles, there’s not much here that hasn’t been done in the classic war comics of the past. Shooters is a solid book with some valuable information to impart, but it lacks a certain sense of surprise. …

The Shark King (Toon Books) is R. Kikuo Johnson’s first book since his powerfully personal 2005 debut graphic novel Night Fisher, though like everything else in the elementary school-friendly Toon Books line, it’s more of a short story—or more accurately, a picture-book—than a full work. That said, The Shark King is quite nice, telling a poetic and romantic tall tale about the spawn of a Hawaiian islander and a magical fish-man, and how the child is caught between two worlds. It’s not the true Night Fisher follow-up that Johnson’s fans are waiting for, but it serves as a welcome reminder of his subtle but potent graphic style and his feel for local color. …

Austrian cartoonist Nicholas Mahler cheerfully spoofs superheroes and modern comic-book publishing with Angelman (Fantagraphics), described on the title page as “A Super-Hero Comic Book graphic novel! By Mahler with copious footnotes by the author.” For some 90-odd pages, Mahler takes the Korporate Komics-created, focus group-approved new hero Angelman—who wears a pink costume with blue wings, and has the powers of sensitivity and open-mindedness—and has him deal with secret identities, arch-villains, unhelpful colleagues, and the whims of his creators. Mahler also shows how fan input alters the character over time, such that before long Angelman is a psychologically disturbed freak with a sword and major legal problems. These kinds of jokes about the venality of superhero industry have been made many times before, but Mahler’s little squiggly characters are adorable, and his gags are genuinely funny, especially as poor little Angelman gets more and more loaded down with quirks and complications. Angelman is a satire, yes, but it also revels to some extent in the goofiness of revamps, retcons, and all the other gimmicks that keep mainstream comics afloat. …

The Matthias Wivel-edited anthology Kolor Klimax: Nordic Comics Now (Fantagraphics) offers a generous sampling of recent work by new and veteran cartoonists from Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. The style of these stories will be familiar to anyone who has kept up with modern alt-comics anthologies like Mome, Blab, and Kramers Ergot: The art ranges from detailed sketches to childish scrawls to something more akin to commercial design, and the subject matter ranges from amusing personal observations to plotless mood pieces to grotesque allegorical tales. Based strictly on the comics in Kolor Klimax, nobody here is in the same league as the Norwegian master Jason, but roughly every third or fourth story in this book has something to catch the eye, be it the graphic representation of life’s everyday terrors in Joanna Rubin Dranger’s “Always Prepared To Die For My Child” or the use of house blueprints and layouts to represent alienation in Mikkel Damsbo and Gitte Broeng’s “Relocating Mother.” Overall, it’s a fine survey of creators who are largely unknown here in the States. …

Spain Rodriguez is one of the legends of the original underground comics wave, and he tells his own origin story in Cruisin’ With The Hound: The Life And Times Of Fred Tooté (Fantagraphics), a collection of short stories about coming of age in Buffalo in the ’50s and ’60s. Rodriguez reports on his idle days and nights of philosophizing and woman-chasing with his buddies, and renders these anecdotes in his thick-lined, blocky style, reminiscent of the EC Comics he and his friends loved. The book also includes a Gary Groth interview with Rodriguez, putting these stories in context, but the layout of that interview—running beneath a few of the pieces on a small strip of the page—does a disservice both to the comics above and the word below. That’s about the only knock against Cruisin’ With The Hound, though, which otherwise gives a real flavor both of Rodriguez’s work—which was so different in its point of view than the other underground comics of the late ’60s and early ’70s—and from whence it came.