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Graphic Novels & Art-Comics – February 2011

Comics reviews return to The A.V. Club with a round-up of the latest in graphic novels and art comics. In two weeks: The latest in superhero and other mainstream books.

Cartoonist Adrian Tomine was one of the great success stories of the ’90s mini-comics scene, wowing fans of DIY pop-art with both his breezy autobiographical strips and piercing literary short stories. Over the past decade, Tomine’s done well for himself as an illustrator and graphic novelist, but while he’s been performing on bigger stages, he’s done less of the kind of work that made him such an early standout. That’s what makes Tomine’s Scenes From An Impending Marriage (Drawn & Quarterly) such a treat. Originally written and drawn as a gift for the guests at Tomine’s wedding, Scenes From An Impending Marriage consists of short, funny vignettes about all the chores of getting hitched, like making an invitation list, hiring a DJ, and striving to look presentable. The book is an unexpected return to the mini-comics form—not unlike a serious rock band stepping back from concept albums to knock out a fun 45 again.

The expanded, hardbound Scenes is still small in size, which befits the light tone and the spare, character-focused art. And though the book isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, neither is it completely frivolous. Among its strengths: Scenes From An Impending Marriage accurately captures the peculiar blend of public and private that marks the beginning of a marriage. The betrothed couple is overwhelmed with thousands of tiny details, nearly all of which have more to do with how they’ll be perceived by their families and friends than with the couple’s actual preferences. (Throughout the book Tomine shows himself doing things he wouldn’t ordinarily do to prepare for the wedding, all while muttering, “This nonsense stops the minute we’re married.”) Tomine includes scenes of him and his fiancée dealing with their guilt over wasting so much money on a party they’re barely going to get to enjoy, and scenes where he imagines their friends greeting the news of the happy occasion with a shrug. It all feels very honest, and though Scenes From An Impending Marriage isn’t exactly revelatory, in a way that’s to be expected, because a newlywed’s rites of passage are familiar by design. If anything, it’s reassuring to know that even an artist as talented as Tomine had to suffer through the same crap as any other young groom.

Joe Ollman’s graphic novel Mid-Life (D&Q), on the other hand, does feel revelatory, because the protagonist’s situation is so particular and painful. The hero, John, is a 40-year-old art director for a general-interest magazine who finds reasons every day to lose his cool: his job, the two snippy grown daughters from his failed first marriage, or his exhausted new wife and their toddler son. When John becomes obsessed with a Laurie Berkner-like kiddie-music star named Sherri Smalls, he risks his family, his career, and his self-image to meet with her while on a business trip to New York. But even without the potential affair clouding his thoughts, John would likely be on the brink of self-destruction, because he’s constantly depressed about how much of his youth he’s squandered on a lifestyle he never really wanted.

Ollman (who previously wrote and drew the Doug Wright-winning story collection This Will All End In Tears) works here with cramped nine-panel pages, conveying both the drudgery and the clutter of John’s life. Ollman’s character designs verge on the grotesque at times, and his perspectives on both the children’s entertainment industry and middle-class family life seem overly influenced by clichéd notions of “cool” and “square.” (Sherri describes her own fans as “an audience of spoiled kiddies and their yuppie parents,” which is reductive even for a character who’s not happy with her career choices, while one of John’s biggest worries is that his son will never know that he was once a hip, vital guy.) But Mid-Life is remarkably nuanced within its rigid parameters. Ollman is a whiz with facial expressions and body language, depicting emotions as varied as uncontrolled rage, guilt, self-pity, and affection with just the right placement of an arm or an eyebrow. Plus, his characters are genuinely aware of how many of their decisions are based on bullshit obsessions with self-image.

What makes Mid-Life work so well both as fiction and as comics is the way Ollman has John and Sherri engage in running dialogues with themselves, with the better parts of their nature represented in a caption while the worst parts come out in what they actually say and do. The book approximates what it’s like to be at the halfway point of life, with memories and past regrets bleeding into daily interactions, even as middle-aged folks retain enough optimism about the future to keep pushing ahead. The second half of Mid-Life considers whether John’s flirtation with Sherri counts as an example of that optimism or as proof that he’s given up. And as Ollman pushes toward the resolution of his maybe-romance, his raw-looking art and frank writing build tension to rival any Hitchcock film.

Just as Mid-Life gets across how middle age inspires an uptick in unplanned reveries, so Joyce Farmer’s Special Exits (Fantagraphics) depicts old age as a wild, lurching ride from medical crises to euphoric nostalgia to an eerie calm as the end draws near. The need to make an actual living has kept Farmer from pursuing cartooning with the fervor of many of her peers, but longtime underground comix fans should know her as a steady contributor to various anthology titles in the ’70s and ’80s, most notably Wimmen’s Comix and Tits & Clits (the latter of which she co-created). She began drawing Special Exits more than a decade ago, loosely fictionalizing her experience of taking care of her parents during the last few years of their lives. Begun when Farmer was still in her late fifties, Special Exits was completed when she was over 70, and facing some age-related health problems of her own, including failing eyesight.

The prospect of reading a 200-plus-page book about two dying old people in early-’90s Los Angeles may seem less than enticing, but Special Exits is rarely morose. Farmer jumps between matter-of-fact details and amusing anecdotes about the grind of end-of-life care, while turning the book into a celebration of two people: her father, a cheerful man who was so determined not to complain that he let serious health problems slide for months, and her stepmother, a steadfast woman whose pragmatism warred with her vanity. Farmer covers the frustrations of dealing with hospitals and assisted-living facilities, but she also writes and draws about her parents’ fonder memories, weaving those moments of pleasant reflection into the slow business of saying goodbye. Aging and dying are rare topics in literature and cinema, let alone in comics, which makes Special Exits an automatic standout. But it would be an excellent book even if the shelves were full of fictionalized memoirs about elder care. Maybe someday Tomine and Ollman will offer their own perspectives on what it means to get old. If so, they have a model to aspire to.


Scatological maestro Johnny Ryan keeps on Johnny Ryan-ing in New Character Parade (Pigeon Press), a collection of one-pagers introducing such favorites-to-be as “Attorney With A Booger,” “The Motivational Shmegma,” “The Fart-Sucker’s Wife,” and “Cockwheat, The Guy With Wheat In His Cock.” As always, Ryan’s stream-of-consciousness perversions lose their novelty after a while, but for a quick blast of unexpurgated shock-comedy, the man remains peerless. … 

For a long time, underground comics magnate Denis Kitchen seemed more interested in conducting business than in securing his own legacy as a cartoonist, but now on the heels of the Dark Horse anthology The Oddly Compelling Art Of Denis Kitchen, BOOM! offers Denis Kitchen’s Chipboard Sketchbook, a collection of Kitchen’s trippy doodles. Kitchen’s idle drawings aren’t as stunning as R. Crumb’s or Chris Ware’s (two cartoonists whose sketchbooks are as almost as essential as their finished work), but since there’s so little of Kitchen’s particular style of loose-limbed, thick-lined surrealism in print, fans of his art ought to treasure every distorted face and gnarled appendage. … 

Denys Wortman drew cartoons and illustrations for multiple New York magazines and newspapers between the ’20s and ’50s, but never became as well known as some of his peers, perhaps because his dense panels, sketchy lines, and whimsical captions lost some charm when reduced to a quarter-page. The James Sturm and Brandon Elston-edited Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait Of The City In The 1930s and 1940s (D&Q) arranges hundreds of Wortman originals—saved in a shed by his son—into a tour through the city over the course of a single day. The impressions of city life over a half-century ago are invaluable, but even better, Denys Wortman’s New York features one panel per large-sized page, which does due justice to the artist’s detailed, dynamic drawings of fire escapes, busy lunch counters, jumping dance halls, and dimly lit parlors. … 

In 1943, Roy Crane abandoned his hit newspaper strip Wash Tubbs (and its Sunday companion Captain Easy) and launched a new series about a courageous, cocksure Navy fighter pilot. Buz Sawyer: The War In The Pacific (Fantagraphics) covers the first couple of years of the strip, when Buz was flying missions over Japanese-occupied islands in his favorite plane, ol’ No. 13. The racial stereotypes are heinous and the wartime adventuring unsophisticated, but damned if these early Buz Sawyers aren’t still a blast to read, with lots of gorgeous drawings of aircraft and a devil-may-care hero who somehow finds women to snuggle up to and joy to be had even in the Pacific Theater of WWII.