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Graphic novels & art-comics—late May and early June 2011

In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud devotes the better part of a chapter to dissecting the appeal of Mickey Mouse, not as a character, but as a piece of design. McCloud suggests that people everywhere are drawn to cartoony faces because they’re blank, and thus can be filled with the audience’s own values and personality traits. The same could be said of the way Walt Disney’s stable of animators and cartoonists handled the boss’ signature creation over the years. In early cartoons, Mickey was a mischief-maker; later, he became a wide-eyed adventurer, then a domestic everyman, then a TV host. Meanwhile, in comic books and daily newspaper strips, Mickey Mouse has nearly always been an action hero, facing life-or-death situations around the world, in the mold of a Steve Canyon or Buz Sawyer. 

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: Race To Death Valley kicks off Fantagraphics’ latest series of vintage newspaper strips, collecting the daily comics overseen by Floyd Gottfredson—renowned for being to Mickey comics what Carl Barks was to Donald Duck. Gottfredson came on board the strip in 1930, just as King Features had asked Walt Disney to start steering Mickey Mouse away from gag-a-day fare and toward serialized adventure. That first extended storyline kicks off Race To Death Valley, and takes a while to find its rhythm and voice. About halfway through the arc, as Mickey and Minnie are ducking local law enforcement in the desert while searching for a hidden mine, Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse begins to develop the characteristics that would sustain it for decades to come: a fast pace, frequent narrow escapes, and an industrious hero who throws himself fully into every endeavor, in ways that both get him into trouble and help get him out.

The initial Fantagraphics Mickey Mouse volume contains two years of comics, to which series editor David Gerstein adds more than 50 pages of contextual material, including critical essays, appreciations, histories, and photos of memorabilia. Given the character’s cross-media presence, it would’ve been easy to load up Race To Death Valley with pictures and merchandise related to the animated version of Mickey. But Gerstein rightfully keeps the focus on Gottfredson, who took the broad idea of a good-natured mouse and sketched in his own attitudes about hard work, courage, and the importance of having reliable friends when the jams get especially sticky.

Having a cartoony protagonist definitely helps Jason Shiga’s Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) (Abrams Comicarts), a deconstruction of romantic comedy tropes that would likely be insufferable if it were played out by flesh-and-blood actors, if only because the hero is such a dope. As a comic book though—and a cleverly structured one at that—Empire State feels more universally bittersweet. It’s no longer just the story of one painfully naive young man.

Inspired by an actual incident from Shiga’s life, Empire State is all about Jimmy, an Asian-American from Oakland who takes a cross-country bus trip to New York to pay a surprise visit to Sara, an old friend who moved to Brooklyn to take a job in the publishing industry. Jimmy imagines an Affair To Remember-style happy ending for himself and Sara, where he screws up the courage to tell her he loves her, she lets him into her cosmopolitan life, and he lives contentedly in the big city while working in web design. The only complication? Sara’s an actual adult, who has put in the time and work to make her dreams come true, while Jimmy’s an inexperienced man-child who hasn’t yet mastered the basics of modern life, like how to open a bank account or buy a plane ticket. (He took the bus because he assumed he’d need some kind of special documentation to fly.)

Empire State is subtitled “A Love Story (Or Not),” though there’s very little doubt about which way that particular wind is going to blow. Still, Shiga generates some narrative tension by cutting back and forth between scenes of Jimmy and Sara in their chummy Oakland days and scenes of their sad, sad reunion. Shiga also wrings a lot of wry comedy and even a little pathos from Jimmy’s cluelessness, as the protagonist comes to realize that even with topics he thought he knew a lot about—like literature, computers, and his own cultural heritage—he’s a babe in the woods. When the book begins, Jimmy comes off as irritating; by the end of Empire State, Shiga’s tiny, simply drawn little hero becomes sympathetic, standing in for any reader who’s ever taken a chance and ended up way over his or her head.

Shigeru Mizuki’s 1973 graphic novel Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (D&Q) takes the concept of the broadly outlined hero to an even more sublime level. Based on Mizuki’s memories of fighting in World War II, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths opens with three pages of tiny heads, laying out the book’s 30 major characters, but it’s really not that necessary to memorize all those names and ranks. Here’s what matters: which ones are the officers and which are the grunts. It’s easy to tell the two apart because the former are usually slapping the latter silly.

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a remarkable work that connects on a number of levels, all unified by Mizuki’s mordant sense of humor. A character dies roughly every 10 pages in this 350-page book, typically in ways that are more blackly comic than tragic. Soldiers get shot while sneaking off to extract a few drops of water from tree roots, or they choke while trying to carry fish in their mouths. Those are the kind of quirky details that could only come from personal experience, and they’re mixed in with page after page of soldiers dealing with hunger, illness, horniness, and the dehumanizing abuse of their superiors.

Mizuki combines detailed, often beautiful illustrations of small Pacific islands with characters rendered far less elaborately, setting up the climactic suicide mission of the book’s title, where the men become little more than meat. In a brief interview included in the appendix, Mizuki says that Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths didn’t draw much attention when it was published in Japan, perhaps because there wasn’t much demand for WWII stories in the land of the people who lost. Now though, the book seems more invaluable than ever. In popular culture, the Japanese perspective on the war has largely been defined by the West. But it’s going to be hard to picture the Imperial Army as robotic fanatics after reading Onward, with its mass of rounded faces all yearning for an extra spoonful of rice and one last shot at getting laid before they charge into the abyss.


Over the past several years, Gilbert Hernandez has alternated stories featuring his Love And Rockets characters with frequently bizarre graphic novels that ramp up the inherently surrealist elements of pulp novels. Hernandez’s latest book Love From The Shadows (Fantagraphics) is a confounding hybrid, inserting Love And Rockets’ watermelon-chested, lisping Fritz into a violent dream-novel that combines the fluid reality of Luis Buñuel with the two-fisted crime sagas of Jim Thompson. Ostensibly the story of a brother and sister dealing with the legacy of their comatose father (a best-selling author), Love From The Shadows evolves into a study of identity in which characters frequently switch roles, sometimes as part of a larger scam, and sometimes because it just feels liberating to be somebody else. Love From The Shadows isn’t as seductively weird as Hernandez’s Chance In Hell or The Troublemakers, mainly because it’s so convoluted that it takes a second read to follow the constantly evolving narrative. But the beauty of comics as a medium is that it invites re-reading; and Hernandez’s mastery makes Love In The Shadows easy to pore back over, savoring how its meaning shifts from page to page. …

Speaking of confounding comics, Leslie Stein’s bizarre Eye Of The Majestic Creature (Fantagraphics) collects the first four issues of Stein’s self-published comic, following a free-spirited nature-girl named Larrybear and her anthropomorphic guitar, Marshmallow. Stein riffs on loneliness, relationships, creativity, family, and intoxication via cutely psychedelic art and short vignettes that are heavy on fancy and light on explanation. At times the book comes from so deep inside Stein’s head that it reads almost like notes for a comic, not a finished work. But then Stein pivots into a moment or image of deep emotional resonance and beauty—such as Larrybear and Marshmallow twirling gratefully in the rain after the heroine’s depressing visit with her parents—and the loose narrative style pays off. These four issues do get better as they go, so consider this a promising introduction to a potentially major new talent. …

Gilbert Hernandez’s peer Peter Bagge is back too, with Hate Annual #9 (Fantagraphics), the latest in his yearly reports on the life of his slacker-turned-entrepreneur character Buddy Bradley. Usually Bagge fills out the Hate annuals with strips he’s drawn for other publications throughout the year, but #9 is nearly all Buddy, and it’s one of the best Bradley stories in years, as Buddy flies across the country with his wife Lisa and their son to meet Lisa’s aging parents for the first time. It’s a classic Bagge scenario, featuring people who nurture decades-old resentments toward each other, even though they themselves prove to be deeply flawed. The story is wonderfully digressive in the best Bagge tradition, too, making time to consider religious hypocrisy, alternative methods of child-rearing, and the wonders of marijuana-infused peanut butter. …

Fans of Bagge and Hernandez can now also get their hands on the complete run of their short-lived collaboration Yeah! (Fantagraphics), an all-ages comic that Bagge wrote and Hernandez drew for DC back in 1999 and 2000 (until the series was cancelled after nine issues). An overt attempt to bring back the silly rock-’n’-roll fun of Josie & The Pussycats and Jem & The Holograms, Yeah! follows the adventures of a girl-group that’s wildly popular on other planets, but can’t get any attention on Earth. Bagge tackled rock culture more incisively in Hate, and neither he nor Hernandez ever quite cracked the “kid-friendly” code in the their writing or art—the content’s clean, but still a little too mature for the Archie crowd—but Yeah! is still a pleasure to read, with an anything-goes storytelling style and an infectious affection for pop music, as well as for pop culture about pop music. …

Cartoonist Jessica Fink has shown the rare ability to make all manner of perversions look adorable in her erotic short stories. Fink goes long-form with Chester 5000-XYV (Top Shelf), a Tijuana Bible-style comic about an Edwardian-era inventor who builds a robot to satisfy his sexually insatiable wife, then gets jealous when she falls in love with the gentlemanly hunk of metal. The story is thin—it’s mainly an excuse for page after explicit page of hot robot-on-human action—but the feelings of want and lust are palpable, and Fink’s ornate art is both sexy and charming. This is pornography with a heart.