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Graphic Novels & Art-Comics — September 2011 

In serialized form, Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions (D&Q) was a curious little artifact, featuring page after page of similar-looking birds philosophizing about survival, in between sequences of a grumpy downed pilot and a half-naked, mentally handicapped man wandering through the same sparse landscape. The series appeared to be of a piece with the other Nilsen work being released sporadically throughout the ’00s. The individual Big Questions issues came off as arty, aloof, and meandering, merely hinting at having some larger point.

But Big Questions reads much differently in book form. Now collected in a 658-page hardcover (and also available in a cheaper paperback, minus an appendix with bonus strips and art), Big Questions still isn’t completely seamless. The book lurches down the stretch before finding a reasonable enough place to land, and even before the elliptical finish, it doesn’t feel especially well planned-out. It’s more like Nilsen started out drawing some birds one day and just kept building out their world to see what would come of it. But that sense of open-ended exploration is more endearing in long-form, where the extended stretches of repetitive, dialogue-light panels feel more deliberate than indulgent. Nilsen has created some distinctive locations here: a farmhouse, a crashed plane, a bomb (and later a bomb crater), a woodland stream, and underground tunnels that lead to a kind of “cave of souls.” The pleasure Nilsen takes in pure scene-setting is infectious, as he clusters his little animals in and around these spaces in various configurations.

What really elevates the full-length Big Questions is how much easier it is to distinguish the characters. Nilsen includes a handy guide to which finch is which, but even without that, it’s clearer now that the birds have their individual quirks: There’s the heartbroken finch, the philosophical finch, the loyal finch, and so on. And the distinctions matter, because as the birds of Big Questions ponder their lot—especially in relation to the strange humans, vicious bigger birds, and spiritual serpents mingling in their midst—they don’t do so generically. They have their own little society, with unique roles to play, and they’re filled with wonder and terror by what they confront as they go about trying to fulfill their purpose. Sometimes they find donut crumbs scattered on the ground, and life is good. And sometimes they find pieces of other birds, blown to smithereens by something beyond avian comprehension.

Like the collected edition of Big Questions, Brian Ralph’s Daybreak (D&Q) reads better as one big book than it did as a series of post-apocalyptic vignettes. (Though it was plenty entertaining even in pieces.) The biggest knock against Daybreak is overfamiliarity: The book is set in a world ravaged by a zombie plague, which is hardly a novel premise in any medium these days, and certainly not in comics. But Ralph takes a slightly different approach to the “ragtag band of humans united against the inevitable” genre, telling the story strictly from a first-person perspective. The reader is put behind the eyes of one survivor, encountering other survivors in a ravaged wasteland, and not always alert to the mortal dangers lurking just outside the panels.

Daybreak was fun to read in installments, as Ralph played with the first-person gimmick, and as the protagonist—“you”—let a talkative one-armed friend be a guide through a place where the humans are sometimes more ferocious and unthinking than the zombies. As one complete narrative though, Daybreak’s black humor gives way to something more unsettling. Ralph smartly exploits the story’s central relationship, questioning the value of partnerships in a time and place where any attachment can quickly become an anchor. And while Daybreak doesn’t do anything that George Romero and countless others haven’t already done satisfactorily, Ralph’s first-person approach is brilliantly cruel, locking us into the point of view of someone who says nothing and thinks nothing. So we have to play judge along with the main character, determining the lines between helpful and unhelpful, hero and villain, living and… something else.

Richard Sala’s The Hidden (Fantagraphics) is yet another undead saga, though it’s more ambitious than most. Beginning with a road-tripping young couple who’ve been caught unprepared by the sudden epidemic of zombie-ism, The Hidden gradually expands as the couple meets a mysterious man, and then as two other travelers fill them in on their firsthand experience of how the savagery began. As the backstory deepens, Sala ties The Hidden to older literary traditions, weaving in pieces of folktales and the legend of Frankenstein. Because Sala has had a career-long fascination with B-movies, gothic illustrations, and general ghoulishness, this plot is right in his wheelhouse.

But The Hidden isn’t just an entertaining riff on well-worn horror concepts. Taking his cues from Mary Shelley, Sala explores human vanity and arrogance as a way of showing how everything can go so wrong so fast. The most striking sequence in the book is a flashback to a high-class party, where a group of rich men toast the new reality and then start feasting on the flesh of nubile young women, before their cannibalistic orgy rages out of control and the men become the victims. The powerful people who wreck the world in The Hidden are no different from Sala’s heroes, who tamp down their true feelings as they stumble foolishly forward into disaster. As in Big Questions and as in Daybreak, the true “hidden” in The Hidden is the content of others’ character, which is an unknown that proves disastrously volatile.


The latest volume in Rick Geary’s indispensable “Treasury Of XXth Century Murder” series is called The Lives Of Sacco And Vanzetti (NBM), referring not just to the biography of the two immigrant anarchists who were famously convicted of robbing and murdering two men, but to their subsequent elevation to iconic status by leftists around the world. As is his way, Geary takes an objective approach to the case, laying out the evidence for and against Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s guilt, while documenting a post-WWI atmosphere that saw a rise in everyday people joining socialist movements, to the consternation of the existing power structure. Does this mean Sacco and Vanzetti were railroaded? It’s not Geary’s style to say so outright, nor does his meticulous accumulation of detail allow for much of a broader historical view. But Geary’s fascination with the unknowable suits this story of two men whose fates were largely decided behind closed doors, by those intending to prove a point to those people rioting in the streets. …

Writer Jim Ottavani and artist Leland Myrick tackle a grand subject in Feynman (First Second), their biography of Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Drawing heavily on the scientist’s own autobiographies and lectures—and using Feynman himself as the narrator—Ottavani and Myrick hit the high points of their subject’s life over the course of 250 pages. They cover his early studies of quantum mechanics, his work on the Manhattan Project, his first wife’s death from tuberculosis, his Nobel Prize, and his popular series of talks about the advanced sciences. What keeps Feynman from becoming a dry, Classic Comics approach to a great man’s biography is how Ottavani focuses on the personal details from Feynman’s work—his academic weaknesses, for example, and his love of women—and how Myrick illustrates them without overstatement. Just as Feynman made complicated theories accessible for the layman, so Feynman entertainingly conveys the singular imagination of a genius. …

Prior to Harvey Pekar’s death last year, he and historian Paul Buhle collaborated on Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land (Abrams ComicArts), an anthology of comics and writing about the influence of Jewish popular art on American culture. The concept is keen, but the outcome is odd. The text-pieces and art-pieces aren’t integrated all that well—it doesn’t help that the book includes the complete text of an Allen Lewis Rickman play in the middle—and the quality of the work overall varies, with the more direct biographical and historical stories proving more effective than the adaptations of old Yiddish tales and the impressionistic sketches of great Yiddish artists. The result is more a loosely connected collection of articles—some illustrated, some not—than a cohesive case for the importance of the likes of Sholem Aleichem, Zero Mostel, Abraham Polonsky, and Harvey Kurtzman. There’s a lot of quality material here, though, including a series of concise, anecdotal one-pagers written by Joel Schechter and drawn by Spain Rodriguez. And Pekar fans will appreciate getting one more chance to read his impassioned, sometimes cranky opinions about the artists America embraces and the ones they unjustly ignore. …

Is the current kid-friendly graphic novel glut a repeat of past boom-and-bust comics cycles, or is it merely a function of the market tilting decisively toward books and away from magazines? Because as satisfying as it’s been to see children re-embrace comics, it’s also been dismaying to see how quickly the market is filling up with blah product (just like the mainstream superhero market these days). Writer Sean O’Reilly and artist Kevin Hanna’s The Clockwork Girl (Arcana), for example, has sold well and is on its way to becoming a 3D animated feature, even though it’s frustratingly slight. O’Reilly and Hanna’s story—about a robot girl who falls in love with a monster boy, defying their antagonistic masters—is primarily an excuse for Hanna to draw circuses and mad-scientist machinery, while O’Reilly writes clunky conversations about what it means to feel. The art’s nothing special, the plot’s a non-starter, and the dialogue’s awful. This is a book-proposal, not a book. …

Doug TenNapel’s Bad Island (Scholastic/Graphix), meanwhile, is a much smoother read, telling the story of a dysfunctional family that goes on a boating vacation and crashes on an island full of monsters and aliens that reflect their problems in unexpected ways. But while TenNapel’s a pro—able to fill more than 200 pages with a satisfying narrative, complete with surprises, flashbacks, foreshadowing, and all the other hallmarks of competent fiction—Bad Island still feels impersonal. It’s primarily a combination of marketable elements with a feel-good message. Any 10-year-old who picked up Bad Island from an elementary school book order would probably enjoy it; but it’s hard to imagine it becoming someone’s favorite. And if comics writers and illustrators really want to serve this demographic, that’s the reaction they should be aiming for. … 

James Kochalka’s Fungus #1 (Retrofit) definitely has the handmade, personal quality that The Clockwork Girl and Bad Island lack, though like a lot of Kochalka’s non-diary work, it’s mainly an amusing stream-of-consciousness exercise, not anything that to be taken seriously. Set among a world of humanoid mushrooms and talking moss, the two stories in Fungus follow the usual Kochalka model of cute characters chatting, fighting, reconciling, and dropping the occasional pop-culture reference. (One of the stories is a long riff on The Social Network, featuring “The Winkelmoss Twins.”) It’s utterly inconsequential, in other words, albeit charming. … 

Finally, Mome 22 (Fantagraphics) concludes the run of one of alt-comics’ longest-running and most essential anthologies. Like Weirdo before it, Mome bridged the gap between veteran cartoonists and the new breed, and though the work in Mome was wildly uneven, editor Eric Reynolds always found two or three must-read stories for each volume. (That he did so while keeping a tight quarterly schedule was all the more impressive.) The last Mome has a level of self-awareness and interconnectivity that takes some getting used to. There are multiple stories about the ends of eras—including an abrupt and comical ending to Kurt Wolfgang’s serialized apocalypse story “Nothing Eve”—and, for some reason, multiple stories about rock stars and Alfred Hitchcock. Mome 22 also contains pieces like James Romberger’s “Loving Bin Laden” (a creepy meditation on the strange charisma of dangerous men) and Nick Drnaso’s “Keith Or Steve” (about the people who pass through our lives and how we imagine them without us) that might not have seen the light of day without a series like Mome to provide a forum. Here’s hoping that as with Zap, Raw, Arcade, and so many that have gone before, another anthology will rise to take Mome’s place. And soon.