Graphic novels & art-comics—June 2012

Graphic novels & art-comics—June 2012

Dan Zettwoch and Kevin Huizenga are both St. Louis-based cartoonists in their mid-30s whose comics combine straightforward storytelling with strange interludes: some abstract, and some more like diagrams cribbed from an instruction manual. While the two men have some commonality in their approach—and both produce very good comics—the kinds of stories that they tell differ. Zettwoch’s new book Birdseye Bristoe (Drawn & Quarterly) concerns eccentric characters clustered in a colorful rural community, where the strange becomes normal; while Huizenga’s Gloriana (Drawn & Quarterly) is set in a more familiar suburbia, where the normal sometimes seems strange.

Gloriana continues Huizenga’s “Adventures Of Glenn Ganges” series—or more accurately, it collects a few Ganges pieces previously published in mini-comics. In one of the longer stories, Glenn imagines becoming a father; in another, he encounters some neighbors who are spooked by a full, red moon, and he considers the scientific explanation for the phenomenon. As with all of Huizenga’s Ganges stories, the particulars of what’s actually happening to the hero matter less than what’s going through his head. Huizenga has a gift for depicting distraction: showing what it’s like to be kept awake by nagging worry, or to have difficulty completing a thought because other ideas keep elbowing in. The book culminates in a sequence of densely illustrated pages—connecting astrophysics to optical illusions—complete with charts, labels, and helpful arrows. It’s a powerful contrast to Glenn’s reveries earlier in Gloriana; the hero has difficulty describing how a sunset makes him feel, but he has no problem explaining why a moonrise looks the way it does.


Birdseye Bristoe is also big on explanations, as Zettwoch breaks out schematics to show how his characters live. The book’s eponymous protagonist is an elderly landowner who spends a summer looking after his niece and nephew while trying to convince his neighbors to sign off on the giant cell-phone tower he wants to let a telecom company build on his property. Zettwoch begins at the end of his story and never completely circles back around, letting the reader fill in some of the gaps. But as with Huizenga, Zettwoch doesn’t seem to consider clear narratives to be his primary artistic goal. Birdseye Bristoe is more about Zettwoch’s detailed cross-sections of Uncle Birdseye’s home, where nearly everything is made out of bungee cord and empty 3-liter pop bottles; and it’s about the place the hero lives, which is one of those just-off-the-interstate nowheres that consists of a bait shop, an adult bookstore, and a few scattered farmhouses. There’s both love and awe in the way Zettwoch draws people surviving in a place with no name and no resources, beyond what some corporation chooses to dump at their doorsteps.

Both Gloriana and Birdseye Bristoe feature a fold-out section: In the former, it’s an elaboration of what’s going through Glenn Ganges’ mind as he watches the sunset; in the latter, it’s an annotated drawing of the giant cell tower. In the context of their respective books, both foldouts depict human imagination: one as inward and inarticulate, the other as bold and foolhardy. But in the context of comics as a medium, it matters less what the foldouts say than that they’re there at all. They’re examples of Huizenga and Zettwoch unifying content and package, and considering new ways of presenting information. Even Huizenga’s introduction to Gloriana is clever, presenting Huizenga’s scrawled-out notes rather than an actual intro, as if acknowledging that some ideas are too unwieldy to be contained by mere words on a page.


Also… 

Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon—no relation—have teamed up on a new project called Double Barrel (Top Shelf), an attempt to update the serialized-anthology format for the iPad era. Double Barrel is being pitched as a monthly publication, available digitally from multiple comics apps for two bucks an issue. The first issue introduces Zander Cannon’s graphic novel Heck, about a gate to hell and the middle-aged has-been who tries to monetize it; and Kevin Cannon’s Crater XV, a sequel to his rousing Arctic adventure novel Far Arden, bringing back that book’s seafaring hero, Army Shanks, for a new story that involves oil companies and space travel. The Cannons add some extra strips and a letters column to bring the whole volume up to 122 pages; and though future issues won’t be so generously packed, the two main features merit a return visit, even at a shorter length. Crater XV’s clean cartooning, dynamic hero, and Tintin-inspired storytelling make for entertaining reading, while Heck is darker and more mysterious, but no less fun. Both these stories will one day be collected, but given how they nod to classic pulp adventures, they may actually be more enjoyable if experienced this way, sliced up into monthly pieces. At the least, this experiment with applying old ways of comics packaging to a new technology is something fans might want to support, just to see where it leads…  

The life of early-20th-century model and artist Alice Prin gets the comic-book equivalent of the prestige-biopic treatment in writer José-Louis Bocquet and writer-artist Catel Muller’s Kiki De Montparnasse (SelfMadeHero), which tells the story of how Prin rose from poverty to become the premier party girl of 1920s Paris. Muller and Bocquet take a very “and then this happened” approach to their subject, moving through the major events—and lovers—of Prin’s life, one after the other, while sprinkling in famous artists like Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. The storytelling is more event-focused than character-focused, and Muller’s depictions of the freewheeling decadence of post-WWI Europe are lively and appealing, recalling a world alive with new ideas and new people, where money mattered less than merit… 

Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story Of Cairo (Metropolitan) was originally published in Egypt in 2008, then immediately banned for its hard-hitting story of a software designer driven to crime by the corruption of the Mubarak regime. Metro’s political elements—now given more historical significance by what happened in Egypt shortly after this book was finished—add edge to what is otherwise a familiarly noir-ish tale of a good man pushed to turn rogue. But El Shafee’s art too is distinctive, with pages and panels that are loosely drawn but smartly designed. Rooting the action in his hero’s knowledge of Cairo’s social strata and subway tunnels means that El Shafee does, as promised, tell the story of a city as much as of the desperation of its people… 

As big of a revelation as it was two years ago to read Bob Montana’s early Archie newspaper strips—and to see the Riverdale bunch when they were less cutesy and more kooky—it’s even more of a kick to see Montana’s work in the collection Archie’s Sunday Finest: Classic Newspaper Strips From The 1940s And 1950s (IDW/The Library Of American Comics). Montana’s daily Archie alternated gag-a-day fare with longer storylines, but the Sunday strips in this book are almost all play: slapstick one-pagers not too far removed from the comic-book Archie, but jazzed up by Montana’s weird close-ups of faces and his offbeat pacing. Montana’s Archie wasn’t always about punchlines; he liked to capture teenagers’ strange slang and habits first, and then throw in a gag where they get crammed into a tuba or hit in the head with a coconut. These strips from the first four years of Montana’s three-decade newspaper run are funny and odd—a piece of post-war Americana that hasn’t lost its charm…

Two new books take very different (but equally valuable) approaches to delivering a comprehensive history of the American comic-book industry. Writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey’s The Comic Book History Of Comics (IDW) is a breezy run through the major points in the timeline, from Famous Funnies to webcomics, all rendered in exaggerated cartoon form. Writer Christopher Irving and photographer Seth Kushner’s Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins Of American Comics (powerHouse) has a more personality-based take on the subject, offering short profiles of the major comic-book writers and artists, from both the superhero and art-comics realms. Both books have their limitations: The Comic Book History tries to fit so much in that it feels cramped, while Leaping Tall Buildings lacks the space to give more than a cursory introduction to each of its subjects; and neither book will tell comics fans much they don’t already know. But both are enjoyable to read and to look at—especially Leaping Tall Buildings, which includes some gorgeous Kushner portraits—and are fascinating for what they include. In the case of Comic Book History, it’s Van Lente and Dunlavey’s special effort to engage with labor issues and larger cultural trends that sets it apart; with Leaping Tall Buildings, it’s the inclusion of worthy but lesser-known artists like Irwin Hasen, Bob Fingerman, Larry Hama, and Dash Shaw. Every piece of art history serves to build the canon, and these two books make some novel choices, construction-wise… 

There’s the comics canon, and then there’s the canon-canon, which editor Russ Kick’s new “Graphic Canon” series seeks to address. The Graphic Canon Volume 1: From The Epic Of Gilgamesh To Shakespeare To Dangerous Liaisons (Seven Stories) is the first of a proposed three-volume set—all three of which are due this year—covering the classics of world literature, as rendered by the likes of Hunt Emerson, Peter Kuper, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, and Rick Geary. Some of these pieces were created for the book, and some are pre-existing—some of the latter are excerpts of existing works, which isn’t always the best way to experience them. Still, on the whole, Kick has put together a remarkable package. There are more than 400 pages of comics here, with ample information about the artists and about what they’ve adapted. But even better is that Graphic Canon is so idiosyncratic in its selections. Kick has picked artists like Vicki Nerino, Ian Pollock, and Roberta Gregory, with distinctively expressive—but not always realistic—styles; and alongside obvious selections like Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and Gulliver’s Travels, Kick brings in an Incan play, some classics of Eastern literature, and even a little erotica (albeit via John Donne). In other words, this isn’t just a heftier version of “Classic Comix;” it’s a mostly successful attempt to match essential texts with original, inspired images… 

Shortly after cartoonist Richard Thompson launched Cul De Sac—easily the best new newspaper comic of the 21st century—he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which has led to a reduced production of new Cul De Sac strips over the past year. While Thompson’s been dealing with his health issues, his friend Chris Sparks has been pulling together the book/charity drive Team Cul De Sac: Cartoonists Draw The Line At Parkinson’s (Andrews McMeel), in support of The Michael J. Fox Foundation. An eclectic group of Thompson’s colleagues take a crack at Cul De Sac’s characters: the bossy preschooler Alice, her nervous older brother Petey, and the rest of the Otterloops’ friends, acquaintances, relations, and pets. Some of them—like Evan Dorkin, Patrick McDonnell, and Bill Watterson—do portraits. Others—like Stephan Pastis, Lincoln Peirce, and Ruben Bolling—do strips, incorporating the Cul De Sac world into their own comics and styles. Team Cul De Sac is a coffee-table book first and foremost, filled with terrific art, but it’s also a tribute to Thompson from his many admirers, who have noticed how in just a few short years, Cul De Sac has already become a classic, with a universe rich enough that 100 different artists can approach it and find something uniquely wonderful to highlight. 

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