Graphic novels & art-comics—late May/early June 2012 

Graphic novels & art-comics—late May/early June 2012 


Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic has a powerful hook: It isn’t just about Bechdel’s childhood in the small Pennsylvania town where her family ran the funeral home of the title; it’s also about her father, an ill-tempered, closeted gay man who was hit by a truck and killed at age 44, perhaps in a suicidal moment. Fun Home is clearly a story that Bechdel needed to tell—a strange and defining fragment of her own biography—and she didn’t botch it. The art is precise and engaging, and Bechdel’s deliberate, probative approach to the material allows her some space to engage in a little literary analysis, and to describe her own sexual awakening as a lesbian, all while contemplating the mystery that was her father.

Bechdel’s follow-up book Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) doesn’t have that same sense of clarity, either in the drawing, which is softer and sketchier, or in the storytelling, which is more open-ended. If anything, Are You My Mother? seems mostly like an extended footnote to Fun Home, meant to answer the question that Bechdel likely heard over and over from readers and interviewers in the years after the first book was published: “What does your mother think of all this?” Bechdel’s mother is a remote and only occasional presence in Fun Home, and to some extent Are You My Mother? explains why, revealing how Bechdel’s mom has long been stingy with her affection and approval. Bechdel describes how she’s relied on psychotherapists to be mother figures, and how her romantic relationships have been affected by her feelings of lack. She also continues the exploration of literary parallels that she began in Fun Home, this time quoting extensively from Virginia Woolf and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. At the center of Are You My Mother?, though, is what Bechdel went through while writing Fun Home, and how she agonized while waiting to hear her mother’s response to the book. 

In theory, this kind of mother-daughter conflict is more relatable than the intense psychodrama of Fun Home, since nearly everyone—male or female, gay or straight—can identify with the complicated relationships some people have with their mothers and fathers, as well as with the experience of getting to know parents as people. But it’s perhaps because the situation in Are You My Mother? is so common that Bechdel struggles to find a shape for it, even admitting at times that there are almost too many ways in to this story for her to choose just one. Meanwhile, Bechdel’s fascination with Winnicott prompts a lot of therapy-speak likely to be more meaningful to those who are active in that world than those who aren’t; and the book ends on a feel-good note that comes off as forced.

All of that said, the way Bechdel openly wrestles with her subject matter makes Are You My Mother? a riveting read throughout, as she tries to be honest about who her mom really is to her: not a monster, not overly angry, and not even estranged, just a little chilly. And though Bechdel’s linework isn’t as confident and clean as it was in Fun Home, the overall visual design is more daring. Bechdel begins each chapter with a dream sequence, and finds subtle ways to extend that nightmarish unease into the waking world: by setting a scene of her rehearsing telling her mother about Fun Home in the middle of a tense traffic jam, for example, or by using excerpts from her mother’s lengthy telephone monologues as background noise for scenes that are ostensibly about something else. And Bechdel masterfully distills some big topics: reducing her relationship history to a handy timeline on one page, and later explaining her views on God and the cosmos in three wordless panels.

So while Are You My Mother? is indulgent in ways that Fun Home wasn’t, it’s also more formally exciting, just as a work of comic art. Even if it’s ultimately just a book-length addendum, it’s a necessary one, filling in some big gaps in Bechdel’s previous bestseller. It might be different if Bechdel took a different tone with these memoirs: If she were more judgmental or conclusive, the books might be harder to take. But she’s clearly on a journey here, looking to her past to understand her present and future, and her willingness to take detours and acknowledge dead ends has resulted in work that’s at once personal and universal, simple and ambitious, awkward and virtuosic.


Also…

Frank Frazetta is one of the few comic-book artists whose name is practically a brand, even though Frazetta’s most familiar product—vivid paintings of muscular warriors, flanked by dragons and scantily clad ladies—is best represented on book covers and movie posters, and not so much in his comics. In his comics, Frazetta was more eclectic, adapting his approach to whatever the assignment required, and showing an uncanny ability to ape artists as disparate as Al Capp and Walt Kelly, while still adding his own personal stamp. The Craig Yoe-edited-and-designed Frazetta—Funny Stuff (IDW) collects a generous sampling of the stories, covers, and spot drawings that Frazetta did while in the employ of Standard Comics in the late ’40s. The work is mostly in line with the norm for that era: slapstick melodrama played out by funny animals and people. But Frazetta’s knack for realism tugs against his obvious joy at drawing exaggerated figures, resulting in comics that look unlike anything else that was being produced at the time (outside of some of the work coming out of Will Eisner’s shop). Kooky creatures with long faces and enormous ears strike rubbery poses in front of elaborately detailed forests, while finely shaded human beings deliver punchlines at the end of wacky one-pagers. It’s not just that the form and content are at odds with each other; the form is often at odds with itself. In just about every way—from the name above the title to the offhanded stylistic experimentation—the comics in Frazetta—Funny Stuff defy expectation, and thrillingly so… 

In the 1950s, Joe Kubert joined his friend Norman Maurer as an editor/artist at the innovative publisher St. John, which released 3-D comics and early examples of what would come to be known as “graphic novels.” St. John was also one of the first comics companies to license the likenesses of movie comedians like Abbot & Costello and The Three Stooges. The Best of The Three Stooges Comicbooks Volume 1 (Papercutz) collects stories from three issues of Maurer’s St. John Stooges comics, along with stories from three issues of the Dell Three Stooges, drawn by Pete Alvarado. The Maurer work (co-edited by Kubert) is more appealingly funky, as well it should be, given that Maurer was married to Moe Howard’s daughter, and would go on to write, produce, and direct some of the team’s later shorts, features, and cartoons. Even in this book’s sometimes-murky reproductions, Maurer’s comics have a Golden Age look and an emphasis on dense, slangy language that gussies up all the Stooge-ian head-knocking. The Dell Stooges are cleaner and more generically nutty—more like the mid-’60s animated TV series. But it’s good that Papercutz combined the different approaches in a single volume, since part of the whole Three Stooges experience is dealing with different casts, and arguing over whether the trio’s comedy is better when it’s simpler…

Beyond St. John, Joe Kubert had a hand in some of the most unusual projects of the pre-alt-comics era, including The Bible (DC), a 1975 addition to DC’s giant-sized “Limited Collectors’ Edition” line, perhaps best-known for such classic ’70s “treasuries” as Superman Vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali, and Christmas With The Super-Heroes. Now available again in hardcover, The Bible was written by Sheldon Mayer with art by Nestor Redondo and Kubert (who also edited), and relates some of the familiar passages from Genesis: the creation, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, the tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and so forth. The emphasis isn’t on Biblical scholarship—though there are a few interstitial pieces about what daily life was like thousands of years ago—but on enormous pages filled with flood, fire, and divine wrath. It would’ve been nice if DC had added an introduction or some other kind of contextual material, but the art is still stunning, with its towering structures and heroic-looking characters bringing new life to some oft-told tales. …

DC does better by Spirit World, a reprint of a rare magazine-format experiment from the days when the publisher was letting Jack Kirby try more or less whatever he liked. In this case, Kirby’s idea was to mix comics, collage, fumetti, and text pieces, all built around stories of psychic phenomena and the occult. As with much of Kirby’s DC work, Spirit World is both undisciplined to the point of incomprehensibility and bursting with so much creativity that every page is still a marvel. The new hardcover edition of Spirit World includes some explanatory remarks by Kirby expert Mark Evanier, as well some bonus Kirby stories that were intended for the never-published second issue of Spirit World (but that ended up being burned off in DC’s more conventional supernatural anthologies). About all that’s missing here are the other Kirby magazine experiments for DC: mafia comics and romance comics that either never saw the light of day or were barely released. But perhaps they’ll get their own prestige volumes somewhere down the road…

Oftentimes the first volume of an archival project gets greeted with a lot of ballyhoo while later volumes fail to get any ink, even though the later books represent the subject in question better than the earlier, more fumbling work. So let this serve as notice that the third volume of the Blake Bell-edited series of Steve Ditko’s Charlton Comics works is the best one yet, showing Ditko in 1957, about to turn 30 and learning to deploy his distinctive faces and abstract shapes in the service of stories with real flow. The excerpts from the likes of Strange Suspense Stories, This Magazine Is Haunted, and Mysteries Of Unexplored Worlds that Bell collects in Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 3 (Fantagraphics) are still run-of-the-mill “eerie” pulp tales with twist endings, but the nightmarish visions of stories like “The Man Who Lost His Face” and “The Last One” are classic Ditko, with off-kilter panel designs and anguished figures conveying a sense of sanity slipping away…

By virtue of its cover tagline alone—“The Angst Of Being A Teen, The Thrill Of Being A Boat!”—the YA graphic novel Teen Boat! (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) earns a recommendation. The comics inside the book are pretty good, too. Collecting serialized eight-pagers from writer Dave Roman and cartoonist John Green’s webcomic, Teen Boat! delivers exactly what it promises: the adventures of an ordinary high-school student who has “the power to transform into a small yacht.” Roman and Green use this premise to lightly spoof Saturday-morning cartoons and preachy teen sitcoms, but their story sense and cartooning sense are strong enough that Teen Boat! could actually pass as a good version of what it’s mocking…

Cecil Castellucci and Nate Powell’s YA novel The Year Of The Beasts (Roaring Brook) is much edgier than Teen Boat!, and more experimental. Alternating Castellucci’s prose with Powell’s comics, the book tells the story of two small-town sisters flirting with boys at a summer carnival (in the prose sections) and the deeply allegorical story of a girl who wakes up with Medusa snakes for hair (in the comics sections). The prose eventually connects to the comics by the end of The Year Of The Beasts, but it wouldn’t necessarily matter if the stories were unrelated. Both, in their way, are about coming of age, and dealing not just with physical and emotional changes, but with the way previously secure relationships get tested in the lurch. The Year Of The Beasts might be a little too abstract and elliptical for most teens, but on a page-to-page basis, Castellucci’s words and Powell’s pictures capture the bound-together feelings of wonder and disgust that compose adolescence…  

Following up on Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Eisner-nominated 2008 textbook Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, the new Mastering Comics: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures Continued (First Second) gets deeper into the nuts and bolts of how to create comics that aren’t just visually effective, but also sustain reader interest. In addition to being cartoonists themselves, Abel and Madden are instructors at the School Of Visual Arts, and even more than Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, Mastering Comics is designed to be used in a classroom setting, with chapters and sidebars that make it easy for teachers and students alike to follow along. The book contains useful artistic exercises alongside analysis of successful and unsuccessful panels and pages, and it offers the kind of insights that only a couple of pros could pass along. Mastering Comics is far from the only how-to ever produced by working cartoonists, but given that Abel and Madden’s interests lie more with the literary and artsy side of the industry, the tips here go a little deeper than just “how to draw in perspective,” toward “reading rhythm” and “symbolic color.” This is a rich resource, in other words, and worth engaging just as a thesis statement on the medium, even for those who have no interest in picking up a pen… 

Meanwhile, for those looking for an instruction manual for life itself, writer C. Spike Trotman and artist Diana Nock offer Poorcraft: The Funnybook Fundamentals On Living Well On Less (ironcircus.com), a compendium of tips on how to eat, dress, travel, learn, find housing, and stay entertained without defaulting to the most expensive, least nourishing options. A lot of the ideas in Poorcraft are just common sense—“Buy food at a grocery store and cook it yourself rather than ordering take-out all the time”—but there are also handy guides to home repair here, and lists of what every home should have on-hand, all explained clearly and cheerfully by Trotman and Nock. Poorcraft would make a perfect gift for any graduate; at the least, it will prepare them for life better than Oh, The Places You’ll Go!