Presidential graphic novels abound with Barack Hussein Obama and The Hypo

Presidential graphic novels abound with Barack Hussein Obama and The Hypo

There’s a key page early in Steven Weissman’s book of bizarro-world presidential cartoons Barack Hussein Obama (Fantagraphics). It’s just four panels, featuring an outline of the 44th president of the United States, within which Weissman has scrawled an anecdote about a dead dog, and about an Indonesian doctor who used to lie to a local missionary about how sick his patients were. The cartoon doesn’t advance any kind of narrative, any more than any of the other absurdist, smart-ass strips in BHO do; and it doesn’t have any insights into the current administration, so much as it trades on familiar names and situations, just like the rest of the book. But in using the basic shape of President Obama, then filling it with whatever he likes, Weissman is, in effect, delivering a thesis statement.

Barack Hussein Obama is a strange and frequently very funny book, in which President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, the first family, and various cabinet members, world leaders, and ghosts of former presidents have adventures both mundane and surreal. Obama goes to the movies in a couple of strips, and expresses his love for crinkle-cut “lightning fries” in another. Then, for one long stretch of strips, the president turns into a bird and carries his daughters away to a desert island. If there’s any satirical point being made in this mix of the merely goofy and the aggressively bizarre, it may be that political leaders are so powerful, and inspire such devotion, that they become mythic. But that reading is likely much heavier than Weissman intended. For the most part Barack Hussein Obama is just wild fun, built around the notion that a president can be easily reduced to his public image—and that we, the people, have the right to manipulate that image for our own delight.

Noah Van Sciver’s graphic novel The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln (Fantagraphics) also takes it as a given that the lives of great men are open to interpretation, though Van Sciver’s take on Abraham Lincoln isn’t intended as a spoof. Based on Lincoln’s own letters about his frequently depressed state of mind—what he called “the hypo,” short for hypochondriasis—The Hypo weaves pieces of Lincoln’s biography into a character study of a moody attorney, getting his start as an Illinois state legislator. There’s little in the book about what made Lincoln great; even though some of the characters talk about the man’s inspiring speeches and his commitment to the Whig party cause, Van Sciver doesn’t illustrate that. Instead, he applies his bulging, Gahan Wilson-like lines toward a depiction of a man wracked with self-doubt over his ability to earn enough money to marry the aristocratic Roberta Todd—a woman whom he doesn’t even love that much.

The Hypo is steeped in actual history, set against a pre-Civil War backdrop where fiscal crises and duels of honor are part of the everyday reality. But Van Sciver bends that history to his own ends, in order to focus on the president-to-be as just another restless young man in his early 30s, settling into the course of his life and wondering if he’s condemned himself. There’s been a lot of speculation about Lincoln’s private life over the years, given that he lived during an age when the lives of important men were well-documented only to a point, leaving a lot for historians to read between the lines. Van Sciver takes advantage of those gaps to render an American icon as a lumpen everyman, fighting through the same fog that many people find themselves in—even if few of those ordinary folks wind up in the Oval Office. 


Philippe Ôtié and Li Kunwu’s A Chinese Life (SelfMadeHero) also filters history through a personal perspective, but this time in service of a story that Li experienced firsthand. Li was born in 1955 in a small town in rural China, the son of a Communist Party official. He grew up in the time of Chairman Mao, and was raised to believe that China was at the forefront of a glorious, worldwide proletariat revolution—even though that new era required years of starvation, and periods when neighbors reported each other’s petty infractions to the party bosses. Li’s own father spent years imprisoned in a “re-education” camp, while Li was serving in the army as a sign-painter and propagandist. Then, just when everything seemed to be turning around for Li’s family, China began to liberalize, forcing Li to adjust again to a country where businessmen were valued more highly than farmers.

Ôtié recorded Li’s stories and then laid them out as a narrative, for Li to illustrate. The combination of the two men’s sensibilities—with Li’s personal insights shaped by Ôtié’s more Western-oriented storytelling—made A Chinese Life a success in France when it was published there as three volumes between 2009 and 2011, and it should make the book just as easy for American readers to grasp. Li focuses on how the sweeping changes in the political landscape during the second half of the 20th century reached ordinary people in unexpected ways, provoking changes in fashion and diet, and in how men and women courted each other. More importantly, A Chinese Life explains what it’s like to be born into unusual circumstances, feeling like all the bizarre turns the culture was taking were normal, not crazy. This is an absorbing book—all 700 pages of it—reminiscent at times of Zhang Yimou’s epic Chinese history film To Live, and reminiscent at others of George Orwell’s 1984, recast as non-fiction.

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The smartest decision that writer Frank M. Young and artist David Lasky made with their comics biography The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (Abrams ComicArts) was to divide the lives of the country-music pioneers into short vignettes, almost like a series of songs revolving around a single theme. Young begins the story of Alvin Pleasant Carter and his wife, siblings, and kids at its humble start, just before they recorded some of the earliest commercially released “hillbilly music,” and subsequently dealt with the kind of complications that fame and wealth bring to a poor family from rural Virginia. Lasky’s colorful art splits the difference between family-album portraiture and the Sunday funnies, turning the Carters into characters in a sprawling, Little Orphan Annie-like soap opera, complete with marital squabbles, financial woes, unscrupulous businessmen, and plucky perseverance. Don’t Forget This Song documents how the Carters gathered old folk songs and then came up with innovative ways of arranging and performing them; and it shows how success became a kind of beast that needed constant feeding, consuming relationships along the way. Was it all worth it? Young and Lasky seem to answer that with a CD included in the back of the book, of the Carters on the radio in 1939, entertaining people with songs that still echo through the ages… 

Mark Siegel’s fantastical graphic novel Sailor Twain: Or, The Mermaid In The Hudson (First Second) isn’t about the writer Mark Twain, though it’s populated by characters who could’ve appeared in Twain novels: a rakish French riverboat owner with a missing older brother; a mysterious Mark Twain-esque author revealed to be a woman writing under an assumed name; and a riverboat captain named Twain, who hates being mistaken for the writer Mark Twain. The reason for all this metafictional play? Siegel is merging American mythology with actual mythology, and he strengthens this combination once Sailor Twain’s title character encounters a mermaid and learns a secret about what lies deep within the Hudson River. Siegel’s characters look like they stepped out of European adventure comics, though his art is fuzzier, with lovely shades of black, white, and gray. The look matches a story that begins with the exoticism of late 19th-century America, then gradually gets hazier, until it becomes like a dark dream, full of ominous portent (and with a smidgen of sex). This is a bold and beautiful book, that winds like the river that carries it along… 

Cartoonist Rich Tommaso reportedly has big plans for his character Sam Hill, whom Tommaso has said he wants to feature in possibly a dozen graphic novels, spanning the 20th century to tell one long saga about a Jim Thompson-esque pulp-fiction writer who has his own hard-boiled adventures. Tommaso is a very good writer and artist, and his ambitions are admirable, but The Cavalier Mr. Thompson: A Sam Hill Novel—Sam’s Early Days: 1924 (Recoil/Fantagraphics), while generally enjoyable, ultimately proves as unwieldy as its title, introducing way too many characters and far too much backstory to set up what is essentially a slight crime story. The setting is vivid—a hotel in a ’20s West Texas oil town, where the teenaged Sam Hill works security for his past-his-prime father—and the individual pieces of Tommaso’s story are well-researched and nicely varied, suggesting multiple possibilities for where The Cavalier Mr. Thompson could’ve gone, and where future Sam Hill books might go. But as it stands, this graphic novel reads like an epic-to-be in its first half and a pat murder-and-mobsters potboiler in its second half; though again, Tommaso’s talented enough that The Cavalier Mr. Thompson might one day be seen as the lurching beginning to something truly great… 

The heroine of Glyn Dillon’s graphic novel The Nao Of Brown (SelfMadeHero) is a half-Japanese/half-English pop-culture obsessive and graphic designer, who works in an upscale London toy shop, and who visits a Buddhist meditation center to cope with a mental disorder that has her imagining herself violently assaulting friends and strangers. Nao Brown is a tricky character, who comes off initially as too twee and flighty, but by rooting the plot in her OCD, Dillon keeps finding new emotional depths to The Nao Of Brown—especially late in the book, when Nao’s relationship with a hard-drinking, poetry-quoting washing-machine repairman is threatened by her habitual unreliability. More importantly, the art in The Nao Of Brown is absolutely gorgeous. Glyn Dillon, like his brother Steve, was part of the phenomenal wave of writing and drawing talent that emerged from the UK in the early ’80s, but Glyn drifted away from comics and into commercial illustration and storyboarding. The Nao Of Brown is a remarkable return to the medium, mixing soft realism and elaborately rendered fantasy sequences, to tell an intense story about a young woman who fights as hard to get out of her own head as some superheroes fight to save the world… 

Largely compiled from pieces posted on cartoonist Gabrielle Bell’s website over the past five years, The Voyeurs (Uncivilized) is partly the diary of a successful New York artist with some famous friends, and partly the fantasy version of that diary. Bell writes and draws about trips to comics conventions and university symposiums, and about a relationship-ending vacation in France with her ex-boyfriend Michel Gondry; but she also shares anecdotes about hanging out in Brooklyn with her friends, and sometimes Bell exaggerates the actual facts of her life, as when she re-imagines herself as a world-famous feminist author. The title of The Voyeurs is something of a tip-off to what Bell’s up to here: She’s inviting her fans to peek behind the curtain, and then admitting that what’s behind there may be too bland and/or self-indulgent for public consumption. It’s fascinating to watch Bell wrangle openly with this issues—though it helps that she remains a superior cartoonist, unafraid of cluttering up her panels with people and scenery because she knows she can make each line distinct and meaningful… 

For much of the past decade, Adrian Tomine has filled the gaps between issues of Optic Nerve by contributing cover art and illustrations to The New Yorker (among other magazines). New York Drawings (D&Q) collects those commercial assignments, adding sketches and a few stray comics, with some brief commentary at the end of the book. They’re all a treat to look at—even the ones drawn to accompany reviews of sometimes long-forgotten movies and TV shows—but the best pieces here capture the quirks of life in New York in the 21st century, where new technology is transforming the way people relate to each other and to the city. Like most of the cartoonists that The New Yorker has been inviting to contribute covers and drawings in recent years, Tomine knows how to tell an entire story with a single image; but Tomine also has a wit all his own, and an eye for the small gestures and moments that others might miss… 

Two semi-underground periodicals that mix alt-comics with text pieces have just released notable new installments. Humor zine The Devastator has released its sixth issue, which pokes fun at everything “indie”—from music to movies to comics—with pages by the likes of R. Sikoryak and Noah Van Sciver, while the Secret Prison anthology uses its seventh issue to pay homage to the Japanese alt-manga magazine Garo. At only 50 pages, The Devastator #6 is lively and amusing from start to finish, and while its jokes tend to be based on the cliché of the pretentious, trendy hipster, they’re still funny jokes (and not exactly inaccurate). The best gag: a Micki Grover-written, Matt Taylor-drawn two-pager about a snobby nerd who invents a time machine so that he can journey back and become the first person to like Neutral Milk Hotel, Banksy, and dinosaurs. The 150-page Secret Prison #7 is more of a mixed bag, though it does convey the variety and openness of Garo via strips about sex, monstrous violence, bodily fluids, and manga itself. Even more valuable: the articles that address the magazine’s enduring international influence… 

Beginning in 1958, the UK’s Daily Express partnered with Ian Fleming to produce comic-strip adaptations of Fleming’s James Bond novels and stories, and when the Express ran out of Fleming material, the strip’s writers and artists came up with their own plots. The James Bond Omnibus Vol. 004 (Titan) collects nine of those later story arcs, written by Jim Lawrence and drawn by Yaroslav Horak between 1972 and 1975. Truer to Fleming’s rougher-hewn Bond than the movies tend to be—and much sexier than the typical American comic strip, up to and including nudity—these comics are tonally and narratively similar to Darwyn Cooke’s recent adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, albeit tailored to the repetitive rhythms of the daily newspaper. And Horak is an artist deserving of greater recognition, capable of conjuring exotic worlds and dangerous men with just a few scratchy lines, flanked by deep blacks… 

In 1960, Gasoline Alley creator Frank King started giving his longtime assistant Dick Moores primary control of writing and drawing the strip, and in 1964, King finally allowed Moores to sign his own name, beginning the process by which Gasoline Alley would become wholly Moore’s (which it remained until 1986, when Moore died and his assistant, Jim Scancarelli, took over). Early 20th-century comic-strip fans who’ve been enjoying Drawn & Quarterly’s gorgeous—but too infrequent—collections of King’s Gasoline Alley run may not recognize Moores’ work in the book Gasoline Alley: Daily Comics 1964-1966 (IDW/The Library Of American Comics). By the mid-’60s, the strip’s cast had grown well beyond the core of Walt, Skeezix, Phyllis, and “the alley bunch,” with storylines frequently involving the adventures of ragged but good-hearted junkmen Joel and Rufus, and the villainous, Lionel Barrymore-like miser Pert. Moores’ art is very different from King’s: less gentle and playful, more curvy and thick-lined. But the tone of Gasoline Alley remained about the same, with old-fashioned melodrama mixed with light character comedy and the occasional bit of slapstick. Moores wasn’t King, but he made responsible use of King’s creation, extending his original idea of tracking the small changes in the life of one family across decades… 

The Graphics Classics series has produced some of its best work in the horror genre, so it’s no wonder that Graphic Classics Vol. 23: Halloween Classics (Eureka) is so much fun, adapting the likes of The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and giving them EC Comics-style introductions. The lineup of writers and artists isn’t as packed with well-known names as some past collections, but Those Annoying Post Bros. creator Matt Howarth brings color and style to scripter Tom Pomplun’s version of Caligari, and British cartoonist Nick Miller renders Antonella Caputo’s brief, funny take on Mark Twain’s “A Curious Dream” with suitable wackiness. On the whole, this is a fine mix of the macabre and the classy, with the EC framing neatly connecting classic comics with Classics Illustrated… 

Finally, after a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign (followed by over 100 increasingly confusing Kickstarter updates), the rollout of the digital version of Dave Sim’s classic graphic novel Cerebus Volume 2: High Society has finally begun. The first issue is available for free here, with additional issues coming weekly for 99 cents each. The digital files are available in multiple e-reader-friendly formats (including PDF, CBZ, and ePUB), and also available as a Quicktime movie, featuring close-ups of the panels and pages that the camera scans while Sim reads the text himself, doing all the voices. The result is halfway between an audiobook and a motion comic, with sound effects and music enhancing Sim’s spirited reading. The downside to the audio/video version is that by the time of High Society—which began in issue #26, a little over four years after Cerebus debuted—Sim’s pages had become so graphically complex that they don’t lend themselves easily to being read aloud. The upside is that Sim has always been undervalued as a writer, and even though some of his best jokes don’t land without the rhythm of a comics page to put them across, his rich description of life in the bureaucracy-choked city-state of Iest (and how the arrival of one barbaric aardvark changes the political dynamic) sounds as good as it reads. The strange directions Sim eventually took Cerebus over the course of its 300 issues have led to the series and Sim himself often being excluded from the larger comics canon, but make no mistake: Warts and all, Cerebus is a must for fans of the medium, and High Society is pretty much flawless from start to finish (give or take the occasional dated superhero parody). Anyone who’s never read the comic should feel comfortable starting here, and should expect some pleasurable reading—and listening(?)—in the weeks to come.

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