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Graphic Novels & Art-Comics - Early November 2011

Most non-fiction books don’t require a second, even-longer book of documentation, but then most non-fiction books aren’t Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking, best-selling graphic novel—frequently cited as one of the most essential artworks of the 20th century. Originally serialized in the art-comics anthology Raw in the ’80s, Maus tells how Spiegelman’s father Vladek survived the Holocaust, using a striking visual conceit that depicts the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. Maus isn’t just a personal historical narrative; it’s also a comment on the limits of comics’ representational qualities, and an exploration of Spiegelman’s rocky history with his parents and with the past. The book exposes a lot about the Spiegelmans, but it also encourages the reader to question how “honest” a bunch of pictures of animals can really be.

Hence: MetaMaus (Pantheon), subtitled “A Look Inside A Modern Classic.” In addition to a DVD-ROM that contains the complete text of Maus (along with recordings of Spiegelman’s original interviews with his father, home movies, essays, sketchbook pages, historical documents, and additional comics), the actual printed part of MetaMaus offers a 200-plus-page interview between Spiegelman and English Lit professor Hillary Chute, who guides the cartoonist through nearly every aspect of Maus, from the nuts-and-bolts of how it was researched and drawn to the overwhelming reaction to the book and how it changed Spiegelman’s life. Here, Spiegelman goes deeper into what he chose to leave out from his conversations with his dad, and what he chose to emphasize. It’s a rare insight into how an artist edits himself—especially when he has no idea that his own framing of the story will become as well-known as the story itself. The relationship between Art and Vladek is as major a component of Maus as Vladek’s tale, and yet just as Vladek only revealed so much of himself, so Art only included carefully weeded examples of what he and his father went through together.

Just as important as the “story behind the story” elements of MetaMaus are the parts dealing with the reactions to the original book. Since there’d never been anything quite like Maus, non-comics-readers responded to it with some confusion and even condescension at first, while some within the insular alternative comics community took a defensive posture to Spiegelman’s popular success, looking for reasons to pick it apart. And later, when Maus became more entrenched in the culture, Spiegelman found himself courted as a Holocaust expert for conferences and documentaries, which was a role he didn’t feel qualified to play. Once, Spiegelman pestered his father to spill the memories he preferred to forget. Now, it’s Spiegelman who gets pestered. Perhaps someday it’ll be Chute, writing another book about the time she interviewed Art Spiegelman, and explaining what was left out of MetaMaus. No story’s ever over, so long as someone comes along with a few fresh anecdotes about the storyteller.

Maus is one of the most famous comics ever published, but two new books from Abrams ComicArts take a closer look at comics that even most comics fans aren’t aware of. Government Issue: Comics For The People, 1940s-2000s collects samples of comic books commissioned by the government to recruit soldiers, teach proper military procedures, prepare kids for doctor visits, warn about the dangers of drugs, and more. And PS Magazine: The Best Of The Preventive Maintenance Monthly offers a healthy chunk of the comics that Will Eisner produced under contract from the U.S. military between 1951 and 1971, designed to show soldiers how to keep their equipment clean and battle-ready.

For pure artistry, the Eisner book is stronger. Eisner applied his full range of Spirit-like graphic tricks to these magazines, and even had recurring characters like Joe Dope and the curvaceous Connie Rodd helping convince our boys in the field to follow directives. The big stumbling block for The Best Of The Preventive Maintenance Monthly is that the stories are about, well, preventive maintenance, which means that no matter how clever Eisner tried to be in delivering the message, that message still had to do with hydra-matic gear-shifts and how to store hand tools. These aren’t exactly subjects with universal appeal.

The comics in Government Issue (a few of which are available for download) were generally aimed at a wider audience, and so are actually fairly entertaining as they teach readers bicycle safety or explain the new “zip code” system for mail delivery. There’s even a comic here from 2001 called “Dignity & Respect,” designed to make sure soldiers understand the Army’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy toward homosexuality. (The comic was commissioned by the Clinton administration, then withdrawn by the Bush administration almost as soon as it was published.) And it’s not like the artists in Government Issue are nobodies: the book includes work by Neal Adams, Denis Kitchen, Milton Caniff, Walt Kelly, and other big names, all producing pages paid for by American taxpayers, many of whom never even got to see it. Now, at last, we have that chance. (Though we will have to pay for it all over again.)


Kirk Demarais’ Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads (Insight) is an entirely different kind of “behind the comics” book. Demarais set out to discover the truth behind the old ads that used to run in the back of comics for X-Ray Spex, spud guns, toy soldiers, and the like. If kids sent off for these wonders, what would they get? Demarais prints pictures of the actual items next to the ads, and then adds some jokey text about the imagined level of customer satisfaction. Mail-Order Mysteries would be better if the jokes were replaced with more actual reportage about the companies that made these toys and what kind of business they did, but still… what comics fan wouldn’t want to get a look at real-life itching powder or a copy of Grit? The only real problem with this book is that it didn’t exist 20 years ago. …

Lynda Barry’s new “Everything” series adopts the design style of her recent books What It Is and Picture This in order to bring some sort of uniformity to over three decades’ worth of Barry’s comics. The first “Everything” volume—Blabber Blabber Blabber: Collected & Uncollected Comics From Around 1978-81 (D&Q)—catches Barry in her formative years, trying out styles very different from the scribbly, diary-like work she’d become known for later. The book contains three sections: the freeform and often surreal early version of Barry’s enduring weekly strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek; the constrained and almost Samuel Beckett-like Two Sisters; and the jagged, relationship-focused Girls And Boys. Though Barry writes and draws introductions for each section, she doesn’t provide a lot of context for where she was in her life when she created this material and doesn’t say much about how it was received by the alt-comics community—which at the time was going through some fairly radical changes as the old hippie underground gave way to a wave of young punks. An additional, non-Barry-penned intro for the book would’ve been welcome. Still, even though these strips aren’t up to the level of poignancy and wit that Barry would later achieve once she introduced her semi-autobiographical characters Marlys, Maybonne, and Freddie, they make a fine study of trial and error, with a few examples scattered throughout of what Barry would later do so much better. As early as 1978, for example, Barry was drawing strips about “vague childhood memories,” in which she rendered Kit Cat clocks, her mother’s bra, and the view from under her bed. Later, she’d come up with characters to interact with those unconnected images, and would imbue them with real poetry. … 

In Blabber Blabber Blabber, Lynda Barry mentions being inspired by the Gahan Wilson comic strip Nuts, which ran in National Lampoon throughout the ’70s, and offered a largely autobiographical look at the way childhood actually is: a perpetually confusing state of existence, in which kids are jostled to and fro by adults who don’t seem to know what they’re doing (but want to make sure that their offspring are parked somewhere out of the way while they do it). Coincidentally, Fantagraphics has just released a collection of Nuts, dubbing it “A Graphic Novel By Gahan Wilson,” which is a bit of a reach given that these strips don’t tell any kind of story per se, aside from a few short arcs here and there. They’re wonderful pieces of comic art though, applying Wilson’s usual sense of the grotesque and macabre to phenomena like summer camp and sick days. And they’re not all bitter either; Wilson remembers the satisfaction of building a little tree-stand, and the freedom of Halloween, and saving his allowance to buy an ice cream sundae every Friday. He mixes the sour and the sweet exceptionally well. … 

British painter/animator Laurie J. Proud brings an occasionally Gahan Wilson-like sensibility to his first collection Peepholes (Blank Slate), a set of stories that take place in a shadow-world of secret cinemas, fairy-tale danger, commodified sex, and femmes fatale. The pieces in Peepholes are more about style and atmosphere than narrative, but the multi-faceted Proud achieves some remarkable effects with paint and color, giving his pages a kind of muted glow, not unlike a piece of celluloid held up to a dim bulb. And though too much of Peepholes dead-ends into kinky sex and violence, Proud’s training in fine art and storyboarding helps him lend an amusingly eerie quality to an image of a bottomless woman sitting on a cake in front of a bespectacled Harold Lloyd lookalike’s ghostly severed head. (Yes, it’s that kind of book.) … 

In 2010, two incognito Iranian expatriates who called themselves “Amir & Khalil” began publishing the webcomic “Zahra’s Paradise,” collecting real stories from the frontlines of Iran’s “Green Revolution” and weaving them into the fictional story of a mother searching for her missing son, a democratic activist. In book form, Zahra’s Paradise (First Second) becomes more about the main narrative than its digressions, which isn’t a major detriment, given that the story is so compelling—albeit overly melodramatic at times. Nevertheless, the real value of Zahra’s Paradise remains its very real recounting of what it’s like to deal with a theocratic bureaucracy, and how it feels to gather in the streets with like-minded people, all risking arrest or worse. The book makes a good companion piece to Persepolis and Palestine—some of the big full-page illustrations are very Joe Sacco-like—and though it’s not as artful as either of those masterpieces, it’s a significant piece of journalism disguised as fiction. … 

Writer Marzena Sowa and artist Sylvain Savoia’s Marzi: A Memoir (Vertigo) also describes a life spent under oppression. Sowa grew up in Poland in the ’70s and ’80s, and lived through a childhood ruled by deprivation and fear, though like Gahan Wilson in Nuts, she found ways to appreciate the small pleasures, like chewing gum, and the care packages sent to her friends by their American relatives. Unlike the similar Persepolis, Sowa tells her story from the perspective of her younger self, which makes the book’s mood swings wilder, just as they would be in childhood. Savoia’s art matches Sowa’s tone: The color palette is mostly grayish-brown, with a few bright splashes of red and orange, and the characters are cutely cartoony, set against flat, functional backdrops. Marzi follows the story of Sowa’s family and Poland at large all the way through the political changes of the late ’80s, which the locals greeted with a mix of hope and dread. But Sowa grounds it all in something much simpler: a child’s yearning for unbroken toys and a time and place to play with them, away from fretful grown-ups and their exhausting politics. … 

Adopting an even more limited perspective, Takashi Murakami devotes a little more than half of his short, heartbreaking graphic novella Stargazing Dog (NBM ComicsLit) to the story of a depressed, ill, unemployed man, as seen from the point-of-view of his faithful pet Happie, who rides shotgun as his master drives down the coast one last time. Toward the end of the book, the perspective shifts to a social worker who gets called in to investigate the man’s case, and who finds unsettling parallels with his own life. The bifurcated structure of Stargazing Dog is a little ungainly, but Murakami knows he has a powerful central image in this happy, ignorant mutt and the desperate man who loves him, and so he stands back from it just enough to let it work on the reader, never pushing the story too far to the maudlin. Like Happie himself, Murakami mostly takes in the beautiful scenery and appreciates the simple pleasures, trusting us to know—whether we want to admit it or not—that it’s all going to end in tears.