Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011, but even before his death the process of canonization was well underway. In May of that year Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Creation Myth” was published in The New Yorker. This was a step beyond hyperbole: The creation of Apple computers had already then attained the status of legend, with Jobs in the position of Gilgamesh, the ancient hero who fought to steal the secret of eternal life from the gods (or, in Gladwell’s telling, Xerox). Jobs, like Gilgamesh, didn’t quite achieve true immortality, but they’ve both got the next best thing: people obsessed with retelling their exploits long after their respective deaths.
Jessie Hartland’s Steve Jobs: Insanely Great (Schwartz & Wade Books) is the latest in what has already become a voluminous library dedicated to Jobs’ life and work. It is also, as you may have guessed from the title, an unapologetic hagiography that falls well in line with the popular consensus of Jobs as a kind of secular saint, a visionary businessman who changed the world with skill, tenacity, and wit. Hartland’s volume tells Jobs’ story in just over 200 breezy pages, but leaves out quite a bit along the way.
Although Hartland is a popular artist whose illustration work has appeared in numerous magazines and books, her style is singularly unsuited to a comics narrative. An eccentricity that may be endearing in a spot illustration becomes tedious or troubling when spread over the length of a book. Her figures float in space without any connection to foreground or background. Characters other than Jobs are assigned facial features more or less at random. Her lettering is an awkward mix of block script and cursive that never seems to fit in the space allotted. Frankly, it’s a chore to read.
None of these problems, however, are as glaring as the void burning at the book’s heart: Jobs himself. Hartland touches on all the familiar beats, like stations on the cross—the founding of Apple, the Apple II, NeXT, the iMac, Pod, Phone, and Pad—but there’s no sense of drama or conflict. The worst thing that happens to Jobs is that one of his businesses might fail just in time for another business opportunity to come along with the potential to revitalize the world. It’s a frictionless Horatio Alger story that does a remarkable job of covering up all the ways in which Jobs failed to live up to Apple’s humanistic hype machine.
You will search in vain throughout Insanely Great for the word “Foxconn,” or any mention of the regulatory violations of which the company and its overseas suppliers are routinely guilty. You will find no mention of Jobs’ reflexive instinct for tax evasion, not merely on the corporate level but on the personal level as well (he bought a new car every six months just to avoid paying registration fees). You hear lots about his Buddhism, but maybe only just a little bit about his frequently savage disposition. You do, however, hear the story of his and Steve Wozniak’s first business venture, selling “blue boxes” designed to circumvent long-distance costs back in the days before cell phones. The anecdote is supposed to be funny but, really, it’s just dispiriting and petty. Much like Jobs himself. [Tim O’Neil]
Printed on the inside of the slipcase for The Complete Eightball (Fantagraphics) are cross-sections of various body parts, including the brain, heart, guts, and penis. It’s a brilliant design detail that reflects how much of Daniel Clowes went into the creation of his seminal comic series, and the 18 issues collected in these two hardcover volumes offer a comprehensive portrait of a cartoonist working through creative and personal frustrations to develop his signature voice and style. The collection isn’t technically complete—Eightball #19 though #23 dramatically departed from the single-issue anthology format of these first 18 issues and are not included—but this is the material that Clowes considers the proper Eightball, which, in its original incarnation, allowed the cartoonist to wildly experiment by including multiple stories in each installment.
Eightball’s early issues are jam-packed with material, devoting a sizable chunk of their page count to the surreal serialized story “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron” and splitting the rest among shorter strips that largely criticize modern society and the mainstream comics industry of the early ’90s. (“The Future” is an eerily prescient hypothesis of what the world will potentially become, and many of Clowes’ predictions have come to pass, albeit in less exaggerated forms.) There’s a tone of anger and revulsion at the start that dulls as the series progresses, but the passion of Clowes’ negativity leads to comic strips with a very strong point of view. Not everything works, but expressing his aggravation without a filter helps him build up the storytelling confidence that will elevate his later work.
By reprinting each issue to match the original printing as closely as possible, The Complete Eightball traces Clowes’ (and his publisher’s) rise in popularity by showing how the physical form of the comic changed from 1989 to 1997. The pages go from black-and-white newsprint to a glossier, colored paper stock, and toward the end of the series, the covers are printed on a thick card stock that lends the book an air of prestige. This tactile element tells its own story, detailing the rapidly shifting landscape of alternative comics in the ’90s through touch as the reader feels Eightball’s upgrade in production values.
The letters pages show Clowes interacting with his readers and peers, and a letter from cartoonist Joe Matt in Eightball #12 can be viewed as a turning point for the series. Matt tells Clowes that he feels the “absurdly funny throwaway strips” are a waste of the cartoonist’s time and that he should focus on long-form narratives that are closer to “the realm of ‘art,’” and the contents of the proceeding issues suggest that Clowes takes this criticism to heart. He begins to limit the amount of stories in each issue, which brings a deeper focus to each individual piece. By Eightball #18—containing the final part of “Ghost World” and the cynical superhero tale “Black Nylon”—it’s clear that Clowes has come to prefer more expansive stories, making it easy to see why he would embrace the graphic novel format as his primary mode of creative expression moving forward. [Oliver Sava]
Uniform and consistent, the pages of If You Steal (Fantagraphics), Jason’s anthology of short tributes to the B-movies of the 1950s, are laid out in 2-by-2 grids. Almost entirely devoid of text, the communicative onus is on the acting and pantomiming of the characters, and Jason does not give himself much space to linger on. Fortunately, the ease with which Jason paces his pages—sometimes cross-cutting between the future and the past, reality and surreality—without once infringing on the fluidity and clarity of his storytelling demonstrates the potential of his disarmingly simple aesthetic and is exemplar of how finely he’s honed it. This stoic, stilted style has the same power as a Wes Anderson tracking shot—the two-dimensional, flat aesthetic of live theater is recreated to charming effect. Part and parcel of this effect is Jason’s use of opaque, relatively muted colors, which recalls the mid-century work of Hergé and Joost Swarte, and this color palette plays into the very understated, innocuous atmosphere that he works hard to create and sustain.
A cartoonist who exemplifies the idea that drawing is writing with pictures, the mononymous Norwegian ensconces a complex and fecund style of storytelling within his traditional ligne claire style of rendering. For example, in “If You Steal,” the first story in the collection, Jason—riffing on the types of pulps that inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s Band Of Outsiders and Alphaville—takes the plot of a simple crime story and twists it. He plays with linearity, and the exact sequence of events, and how they fit together, needs to be puzzled out. He then infuses it with overt allusions to René Magritte—he homages The Son Of Man and Golconda. Instead of a formulaic caper, “If You Steal” takes on a perplexing quality, and its parts need to be examined and inspected. It’s a brief story, but Jason is able to endearingly frustrate with his technical competence, and he’s able to wrench strong emotional reactions with unaffected, emotionless characters. These simple deviations from tropes and clichés are the most compelling aspects of Jason’s cartooning, and, in his hands, these otherwise rote stories take on a whimsical charm.
Not every story is as coarse and emotional as “If You Steal,” though.“Lorena Velazquez” and “Night Of The Vampire Hunter,” for example, are lighter, funnier stories that are predicated on the effectiveness of a couple sight gags. Some, like “Polly Wants A Cracker,” which features Frida Kahlo as an assassin, are both humorous and melodramatic. But Jason binds this diverse bundle of stories together like a musician would an album. While they don’t all have the same intonation or emotional resonance, they play well off each other, complementing and contrasting. Unlike other short story collections, If You Steal never feels like anything but a complete work; it never feels like an anthology or something cobbled together from disparate places. And unlike other allusive comics, its pastiche never once crosses over into tired regurgitation or cliché or remix. [Shea Hennum]
Working closely with a family member on a creative project is an inherently risky move. For every genius partnership, there are countless relationships destroyed in the face of the pressure of making something together. The Sun brothers, Wesley and Brad, prove to be one of the former, much to the luck of graphic novel readers. Their eponymous company has put out several books, but Chinatown (Sun Bros Studios) is one of the strongest. For anyone who’s lived in or around a Chinatown, much of the imagery is instantly familiar, almost comforting: the lucky cat with its slightly disconcerting grin on the cover repeats throughout the book, and the skyline past the streets is easily identifiable.
The story itself feels familiar in places, oscillating from children daring each other to summon urban myths to a man who has returned to his community in an attempt to revitalize a struggling area that relies on tourism to stay alive. But for all that the individual pieces of Chinatown may have been seen before, the way the Sun brothers put the puzzle together to display a complete picture is where the real magic happens. The book unfolds slowly, apparently disparate plots coming together to twist into a tight central theme. Though the book itself isn’t long, the characters are given enough space to breathe, to be understood for who they are, both individually and to one another. And though there are elements of this story that could happen anywhere, in any community isolated by culture and language rather than geography, there are some touchpoints that are culturally specific, and the book is better for it. There’s an authenticity in this book borne out of familiarity and respect that makes the characters compelling in a way they might not be if the creators weren’t as confident telling this particular tale.
Brad Sun, the artist of the two brothers, has a sparse but sketchy and dynamic style that’s put to great use in Chinatown. He uses backgrounds more than a lot of artists, leaving them sparse sometimes and filling them with easily missed detail when they need to be, providing context clues with color and changing art when the characters slip into dreams and flashbacks. Though some of the characters aren’t particularly demonstrative, he’s also got a hand for expressions that makes the intentional lack of emotion that much more unsettling. Some of the panels are cinematic in framing and scope, and the story lends itself to that kind of work. Chinatown would be a great short film, a mix of horror, emotion, and action that would feel deeply satisfying on-screen.
Chinatown is darker than the bright colors and jokes may initially lead readers to believe, though judging by the rest of the work that the Sun brother have put out, that’s fairly par for the course. There’s a quick-witted humor that masks the grimness for a little while, but with twists and memory or dream sequences that would make David Lynch proud that thread of horror is never too far from the surface. The fact that Chinatown doesn’t feel hopeless after all that gristle and macabre introspection is a testament to the Sun brothers’ excellent storytelling. Monkey Fist and Apocalypse Man, two other books from Sun Bros Studios, only cement the impression that the Sun brothers have found a horror- and humor-filled niche for their talents that serves them very well, a niche under-served by a lot of other publishers. [Caitlin Rosberg]