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Graphic Novels & Art-Comics—late March 2011

Freeway (Fantagraphics) brings back Mark Kalesniko’s dog-headed, semi-autobiographical protagonist Alex Kalienka—star of his books Alex and Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself?—for a 400-page graphic novel about being stuck in Los Angeles traffic. Or at least that’s the central plot. As Alex creeps along the road, his mind wanders, flashing back to when he was TV-obsessed kid in Canada, to his first trip to L.A. as an aspiring animator, to his early years working for the Disney-like Babbitt Jones Studios, and to his failed relationship with a co-worker. Alex also shifts easily from memory to fantasy, imagining himself as a Babbitt Jones employee in the ’40s (when he believes craftsmanship was more highly valued), while also imagining his own imminent death in multiple grisly ways.

As someone who’s worked in the animation industry himself—for Disney, in fact—Kalesniko has ample insider insight into how it feels to see a love of drawing be converted into the daily drudgery of a 9-to-5 job. But Kalesniko’s animation-influenced style also makes Freeway a fluid read. His artwork emphasizes motion, in striking compositions that guide the eye across the page smoothly. The book’s subject matter is dishy, the design is bright, and Kalesniko has a flair for slapstick-y visual gags. Only a persistent “woe is me” sourness—as common to Kalesniko’s work as his expressive lines—keeps Freeway from being an unfettered delight.

Pessimism aside though, Freeway is often stunning. Kalesniko spent 10 years on the book, and the time and care is evident in the structural complexity. Freeway weaves freely between the past and the present, and fantasy and reality, pivoting sometimes on a similar image, and sometimes on parallel action. One of the unique properties of comics—utilized well by artists like Chris Ware and Richard McGuire—is the ability to connect disparate pieces of information using the page like a chart. Kalesniko doesn’t draw any arrows or experiment with layouts, but he does convey the impression of a man dealing with his daily frustrations by letting every sight, sound, and sensation send him on a trip through his own head. And in Freeway, Alex Kalienka’s head is as vivid as the book’s depiction of key Los Angeles landmarks. Kalesniko renders both the exterior and interior spaces with a mix of loving care and impassioned disgust.

The tone and content is very different from Freeway, but Oji Suzuki’s short-story collection A Single Match (D&Q) is just as concerned with capturing the way human consciousness drifts from specific remembrances to outright reveries. Even the first image in A Single Match, from the story “Color Of Rain,” is both direct and dreamlike: A giant hand reaches down from the sky, just above a train car that’s on its way to a station where a little boy is waiting. Did the hand set the car down? Is it about to lift the car? Is the boy dreaming the hand? And why, as he’s lying in bed with a fever, does the boy insist to his grandmother that he saw his brother on the train, when he has no brother? 

“Color Of Rain” sets the tone for A Single Match, a set of stories about life’s little mysteries. Suzuki’s characters frequently tell stories about people they knew, such as the madwoman who roamed the streets turning out street-lamps, or places they’ve been, such as a seaside town suffused with dampness. And sometimes those stories take a turn for the surreal. Suzuki uses children as protagonists often, perhaps because in the mind of a child, it’s not so unusual for Ultraman to appear and teach a lesson about bedwetting, or for a bird-driven rocketship-bus to arrive to defuse an embarrassing situation.

Suzuki doesn’t treat the wilder flights of fancy in his stories as that big of a deal. They’re pitched at the same level as the more realistic milieu of “World Colored Pants,” an elliptical tale of sexual awakening and an uneasy friendship, and “Crystal Thought,” a short anecdote about a son pestering his dad to buy him a radio the family can’t afford. Suzuki’s artwork alternates between conventional cartooning and panels that look more like standalone portraits, just as his text varies straight-ahead dialogue and free-floating poetic phrases. The effect is striking—a sketch of the woes and wonders of everyday life that makes room for those moments when we zone out.

For even more powerful “Is this memory or fantasy?” comics action, it’s hard to top Ben Katchor. The MacArthur and Guggenheim-winning alt-weekly cartoonist uses simple two-tiered strips to conjure up whole worlds that never existed in fewer than 10 panels. The Cardboard Valise (Pantheon) collects a series of those loosely related strips—some previously unpublished—into a weird travelogue, taking readers on a tour through an island famous for its restroom ruins, a two-dimensional nation that exists on the borderline between other countries, and a metropolis where citizens pine for vacations in these exotic locales. Some characters recur, and there are even little mini-plots that play across a handful of strips. But by no means should The Cardboard Valise be read as a graphic novel.

Really, it’s inadvisable even to read The Cardboard Valise in one sitting. Each strip is an adventure in itself, dense with wordplay, ruminations, and recollections, falling into pleasantly familiar patterns for page after page. To prevent fatigue, it’s best to read a dozen pages at a time, savoring the descriptions of, say, a rare refreshment called “molarade” (mixed with vinegar and lemon), or the culinary culture that developed in a seaside community accustomed to consuming the canned food left by passing sailors, or the plight of an urban couple who decided to seal their apartment off from all new cultural influences as of April 17, 1993. (“The struggle to keep up with celebrity names and new aesthetic sensibilities—to bemoan the steady decline of quality in all manufactured things—was not worth the effort.”) Read just a little of Katchor’s nostalgia for the never-was each night before bedtime. You’re bound to have some remarkable dreams.

Originally developed for DC’s young-lady-friendly Minx line, writer Deborah Vankin and artist Rick Mays’ Poseurs (Image) follows three Los Angeles kids as they dabble in the Hollywood party scene. One’s a servant who shares his impressions of the upscale on the Internet; one’s a rich foreigner looking to disappear into the crowd; and one’s a poor aspiring artist who gets hired to make a party look fuller and livelier. Vankin’s dialogue is too cutesy-hip at times, and the story develops a “wrong side of the law” element that gets unnecessarily heavy. But Mays’ linework and layouts are clean and attractive, capturing the surface appeal of a glamorous life; and Vankin, who’s on the culture beat at The Los Angeles Times, knows her characters and her milieu so well that she describes them in lively, sympathetic language. (The denizens of Echo Park, for example, as summed up as, “Immigrants, artists, and movie producers trying to look like immigrant-artists.”) For the most part, Poseurs is breezy and exciting, and though the “Los Angeles has its own rules” theme has been done plenty of times before, Vankin really gets underneath the way even the seemingly successful in L.A. can feel like phonies, and how their self-doubt can be exploited. … 

Cartoonist Nick Bertozzi’s take on American adventurers Lewis & Clark (First Second) won’t surprise anyone who’s read Bertozzi’s The Salon (about the early 20th-century Paris art scene) or Houdini: The Handcuff King (about a day in the life of the famous magician, written with Jason Lutes). Bertozzi tends to aim for a relatable, down-to-earth rendering of history, so in dramatizing the 1804-06 cross-country journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, he emphasizes the conflicts (both internal and with the natives) and the narrow escapes, all while showing Lewis in particular as headstrong and underprepared. Lewis & Clark is episodic and anecdotal, so anyone looking for a detailed, cohesive narrative will likely come away disappointed. Even in his brief intro, Bertozzi warns that the book “is in no way intended to be a replacement for the many scholarly recountings of the journey,” adding, “It is my hope that something of equal value is communicated here: the experience of that remarkable expedition.” At the latter, Bertozzi succeeds. Lewis & Clark gets across the hardship and industriousness of true pioneers, along with the inevitable confusion of spending every morning for two years waking up in a strange, dangerous land. …

Artist Ross MacDonald and designer James Victore offer what they dub “a loving parody” of a kid-lit classic with their humor book In And Out With Dick And Jane (Abrams Image), though theirs is a tough kind of love, to be sure. Over the course of 90-odd pages, MacDonald and Victore allow their Dick and Jane to see murder, drug abuse, bigotry, perversion, cruelty, and waste—giving children’s books the sick humor twist of Nicholas Gurewitch’s The Perry Bible Fellowship. Of course, In And Out isn’t as clever as Gurewitch, or as darkly visionary as Al Columbia’s somewhat similar Pim & Francie. MacDonald and Victore do satirize real-world problems, but mostly they’re attempting to shock readers into laughing—and with a joke gets over-familiar quickly. Still, the book only takes about 10 minutes to read, and it rewards that minimal time-investment with a few good, inappropriate chuckles. …

Speaking of inappropriate humor in children’s books, author Alexander Theroux’s The Strange Case Of Edward Gorey (Fantagraphics) considers the life and work of an artist who became a favorite of odd kids everywhere for his dark, violent, pseudo-Victorian cautionary tales. Because Theroux knew Gorey personally—and remains a fervent fan—The Strange Case jumps from memories of the man to a more generalized biography, in between astute analyses of what makes Gorey books like The Hapless Child and The Gashlycrumb Tinies so haunting. The Strange Case isn’t organized like a conventional bio or critique; it’s more rambling and personal, working carefully past the psychic blockades of a man who once explained away the darkness of his work with the non-committal comment, “I don’t know any children.”… 

A former assistant to Popeye creator E.C. Segar, Bud Sagendorf had hoped he’d be tapped to take over the Thimble Theatre strip when Segar died in 1938; instead, he was put to work on some of the ancillary Popeye products, including taking charge of the original Popeye stories produced for comic books. (Sagendorf did finally get to take over the strip too, though not until 1959.) Popeye: The Great Comic Book Tales By Bud Sagendorf (Yoe Books/IDW) offers a selection of some of the Sagendorf’s best Popeye comics, in a handsome hardbound book edited and designed by kiddie-comics expert Craig Yoe. Like a lot of well-known properties that were converted into comic books in the ’40s and ’50s, Sagendorf’s Popeye takes place in “backlot America,” a generic small town with exactly the buildings and scenery needed to tell each story. But those stories are distinctively Popeye-ish, with all the mush-mouthed wordplay and crazy adventures that fans of the spinach-eater expect. And the extra space of a comic book allowed Sagendorf to stretch out, both in his storytelling and his art, which looks a little like Dr. Seuss, a little like Basil Wolverton, and a lot like a super-sized E.C. Segar. …

For a taste of the real Segar—along with every other major newspaper cartoonist of the past century—look no further than Comics: The Complete Collection (Abrams ComicArts), a massive volume collecting Brian Walker’s excellent histories The Comics Before 1945 and The Comics Since 1945. Outside of an unhelpful table of contents, this is a niftily researched and organized book, placing the great comic strips in the context of their times, with plenty of sample strips as evidence. Walker also digs up some lesser-known artists and strips, like John Held Jr.’s dashingly modern, art-deco flapper comic Merely Margy and Roy Doty’s short-lived Laugh-In cash-in. In short: This is a terrific collection both for novices in need of an overview and for aficionados looking for new discoveries. If you come across Comics: The Complete Collection in someone’s house a decade from now, expect it to be well-thumbed.