Graphic Novels & Art-Comics - March 2012

Graphic Novels & Art-Comics - March 2012

Any new work from Norwegian cartoonist Jason is worthy of a comics fan’s full attention, but the new, all-original short-story collection Athos In America (Fantagraphics) is one of the best books of Jason’s career, which automatically makes it one of the best books of this year. The title story comes last, and strands the hero of Jason’s graphic novel The Last Musketeer in 1920s New York, where he tells a bartender about his disastrous Hollywood romance. “Athos In America” serves as a neat summary of a book that’s all about dislocation and the perils of love, and it’s also a masterful example of Jason’s style, in which the surface emotionlessness of animal-headed figures conceals deep passion. Even the way most of the action in “Athos In America” takes place off-panel reflects the character’s sense of being away from where he wants to be.

Elsewhere in Athos In America, Jason deals with the creeping anxiety of villains who know they’re about to be nabbed by a superhero in “The Smiling Horse,” imagines himself as a celebrity with rage issues in “A Cat From Heaven,” examines the thoughts of four desperate people in “Tom Waits On The Moon,” and brings a fugitive and a femme fatale together in “So Long Mary Ann.” All four of these stories are funny, poignant, clever—classic Jason. But the most devastating story in Athos In America is “The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf,” in which the love affair between a bickering couple—a scientist and his wife’s disembodied head—is told backward, beginning in bitter acrimony and then ending at the moment everything went wrong. Like this collection as a whole, “The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf” demonstrates how stories can spiral into despair no matter when, where, or in what order they take place. The theme and tone of the book is expressed in the comic’s chilling final line: “We get there when we get there.”


Is this, at long last, the time of Tom Gauld? The Scottish cartoonist has been slowly building his reputation over the last decade, via strips, short stories, anthology contributions, magazine illustrations, and art books that have been graced with his deadpan humor and precise, minimalist designs. Goliath (D&Q) may be the book that garners Gauld the wider recognition he deserves. For one thing, it’s a fuller piece than anything he’s produced before: a recounting of the Biblical tale of David and Goliath from the point of view of the giant, who’s a reluctant draftee into a war he’d rather not fight. (Picture Karl Pilkington as an 8-foot-tall soldier in thin brass armor.) For another, while Gauld still keeps the dialogue to a minimum and the page/panel designs open, there’s an actual story here, not just one beautifully drawn joke.

And the story has points to make, too: about how perception creates reality, as Goliath’s mere presence intimidates the Israelites, and also about how even an army’s biggest weapon is just another cog in an unstoppable, insensitive war machine. A lot of great Gauld comics remain uncollected or hard to access Stateside, but Goliath makes a fine introduction for the uninitiated, both for the alternately funny and poignant scenes of its hero waiting forlornly on the plain for something to happen, and for Gauld’s art, which is typically on-point. Working with cartoony figures, silhouettes, and finely cross-hatched close-ups, Gauld captures the bleakness of the landscape, and how what looks like an insignificant pebble from far away can become hugely important when it’s landing right between the hero’s eyes.


Australian cartoonist Pat Grant doesn’t have a résumé as impressive as Jason’s or Tom Gauld’s, but his debut graphic novel, Blue (Top Shelf), is still stunningly accomplished. Simultaneously impressionistic, collage-like, fantastical, and down-to-earth, Blue mostly follows a trio of teenage beach bums as they skip school to surf, then get sidetracked by a quest to go see a dead body on the railroad tracks. (The nod to Stephen King’s “The Body” is intentional, as Grant explains in the book’s extensive end-notes.) Though Grant’s characters are thumb-headed freaks, their dialogue is flavorfully profane, and true to the way adolescents try to one-up each other and gross each other out. Blue then surrounds the story of these kids playing hooky with an extended flashback to when they were even younger, and snapshots of who’ll they’ll become when they’re older. And Grant connects all this to the history of the fictional town of Bolton, which is eventually overrun by blue-skinned, tentacled aliens.

Or at least Grant attempts to connect it. At times, Blue feels like two uneasily co-existing books: one a vivid slice-of-life, the other a way-out allegory about immigration and bigotry. But both halves of Blue are exciting on their own, as are the little lyrical interludes and design experiments Grant throws in along the way. This book is eccentric, but it never feels like anything other than what Grant wanted to make: a surf-punk-scored reflection on old friends and the roots of racism. As with Jason’s work and Gauld’s, Grant’s Blue is a wholly original, enormously entertaining comic, heralding a new talent that we may be enjoying for decades to come.


Also…

All of the above artists owe at least some debt to Joost Swarte, the pioneering Dutchman who brought a nose-thumbing avant-garde sensibility to “ligne claire” style Eurocomics in the ’70s and ’80s, even before he landed stories in the seminal art-comics anthology Raw. Is That All There Is? (Fantagraphics) collects nearly 150 pages of Swarte’s most groundbreaking work, reproducing the subtle colors, clean lines, and subversions of kid-friendly plots that were an inspiration to so many of the post-Raw generation, including Chris Ware, who provides this book’s introduction. With his architectural sense of design and his punk-rock attitude, Swarte fused craft and nihilistic flippancy in stories about adventurers, harlots, musicians, and scientists, creating true “modern art”…

After the staggering ambition of Kramers Ergot #7, Kramers Ergot #8 (PictureBox) initially seems too small. It’s a regular-sized hardback book, with a mix of art pieces, text pieces, and ragged-looking stories—some surreal, some silly, and some personal—in the usual art-comics style. Even the list of creators looks pro forma: Gabrielle Bell, Tim Hensley, Johnny Ryan, Gary Panter, Dash Shaw, Kevin Huizenga, and of course, series editor Sammy Harkham. Drill down deeper, though, and Kramers Ergot #8 reveals itself as a deeply weird book, bookended by colorfully abstract Robert Beatty art, an essay on pop art by punk legend Ian F. Svenonius, and 40 pages of excerpts from the old Nazi/S&M-themed Penthouse comic “Oh, Wicked Wanda!” Many of the comics in between riff on sex or old pulps—or both, in the case of Ryan’s gory sci-fi story about a descent into an extremely vaginal cave—with artwork that ranges from sublime to sub-kindergarten. In short: even with the familiar look and lineup, Kramers Ergot #8 is a unique experience, coming across like something compiled from the remnants of some creepy bachelor pad, circa 1983…

Wally Wood: Strange Worlds Of Science Fiction (Vanguard) promises “the most extensive collection to date of sci-comics by Hall of Fame creator Wallace Wood,” which is a hard claim to dispute. The book is more than 200 pages long, and features almost two dozen hard-to-find stories that Wood drew for publications like Captain Science and Space Detective. But most of these pieces are from 1951, and aside from a few representative covers and panels, there’s nothing here from Wood’s EC Comics work, which is where his deep shadows and vivid imagination really brought classic science fiction to life. (Presumably, Fantagraphics will do a Wood science-fiction book someday as part of its new EC line; this year, the company is planning to release a collection of Wood’s noir comics instead.) As comics storytelling, the pieces in Strange Worlds mostly come off as stiff and dated, with little of the sophistication that Wood later showed. That said, it’d be silly to complain too much about a thick hardback book full of Wally Wood. This may not represent Wood’s peak, but page after page of dino-dodging time-travelers, four-armed aliens, and curvy lady astronauts is nothing to dismiss…

About all that was missing from Blake Bell’s 2010 Bill Everett biography Fire & Water was extended samples of Everett’s artist’s actual comics. Bell now remedies that by serving as editor on Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics), an annotated collection of pages the Golden Age artist drew in the late ’30s and early ’40s, featuring such forgotten heroes as Skyrocket Steele, Hydro-Man, The Conqueror, and Music Master. These publications rode the superhero wave initiated by the companies that would later become DC and Marvel, and while they didn’t withstand the test of time, they’re still a kick to read, buoyed by their no-nonsense action plots and by Everett’s propensity for drawing narrow figures poised to commit acts of violence…

In 1946, Milton Caniff walked away from Terry And The Pirates, one of the most popular strips in the newspaper business, because while Caniff created the strip in 1934, the syndicate owned it. In 1947, Caniff launched his new creator-owned feature, Steve Canyon, with great fanfare, supported by a Time magazine cover story and a biography (published by his new syndicate) that dubbed him “Rembrandt Of The Comic-Strips.” Unlike a lot of the recent batch of vintage newspaper comics collections, The Complete Steve Canyon Volume One: 1947-1948 (IDW/The Library Of American Comics) presents a strip that knew what it wanted to be right from the start, and had millions of readers hooked on the story of its rugged pilot-for-hire from the very first daily panel. Steve Canyon still needed to find its footing; Caniff started the strip with a large supporting cast of sidekicks for the hero, then fairly quickly settled on one: the bearded coot Happy Easter. But after 10-plus years of Terry, Caniff knew how to tell stories about globetrotting adventurers, and he packed the panels with action, exotica and comic relief. Caniff always said he considered Steve Canyon to be one long “picaresque novel.” Here, beautifully reproduced, is the first chapter…

In the tradition of Classics Illustrated, writer Nadja Baer and artist Nathan Lueth aim to educate comics-loving kids with The United States Constitution: A Round Table Comic (Round Table Companies), a 50-page dramatization of the constitutional convention. Extrapolating from historical documents and peppering the pages with textbook-like factoids, Baer and Lueth give historical figures personality and purpose, depicting the conflicts and quirks that shaped America in its infancy. This is a breezy take on the past, but that’s the point: to produce a comic that youngsters will actually be inclined to read, and perhaps even re-read…

Matthew Forsythe’s near-wordless Jinchalo (D&Q) tells the story of a little girl who eats all the food in her house, then has a wild adventure in the market when she heads into the village to restock. The Jinchalo jacket says Forsythe was “inspired by Korean comics and folk tales,” but it’s not necessary to know that going in, since this book isn’t strictly an exercise in homage. It’s more a piece of pure cartooning, with each adorable little image leading organically to the next adorable little image, until before the reader realizes it, the heroine has encountered shape-shifters, robots, and even her own creator. Jinchalo flows easily between the dream world and the real world, finding a strange kind of order in both…

As much handmade art as comic book, Zak Sally’s Sammy The Mouse: Book One (La Mano) collects the three issues of Sally’s offbeat funny-animal comic, which Fantagraphics originally released via its European-styled “Ignatz” line. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, Sally raised the funds to self-publish this edition—and that’s self-publishing in the truest sense, since Sally printed each copy of Sammy The Mouse on his own printing press. The difference is noticeable; every letter and line in this book looks like it’s been deeply etched into the thick paper stock. The painstaking approach to the reproduction suits the fervid quality of the actual comics, which recalls Jim Woodring in the surreal, almost stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and Tony Millionaire in the frequently intoxicated, violent cast of cartoony characters. But Sally has his own preoccupations: the difficulty of maintaining civil relationships, the seeming pointlessness of everyday tasks, and the capricious cruelty of the giant person who lives in the sky. Sammy The Mouse is still ongoing, but this collection makes a strong case for it as a classic-in-the-making, simultaneously funny, scary, and visionary.

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