The Incantations Of Daniel Johnston (Two Dollar Radio) relates the story of the real-life cult musician and artist. The graphic novel begins with Johnston floating in his mother’s womb, moves to his Beatles’ obsession and him recording music in his garage, then hits the how-he-became-famous high notes: Johnston appearing on MTV, Kurt Cobain wearing a T-shirt for one of his albums, Johnston playing SXSW.
Incantations also describes the other well-known piece of Johnston’s biography—his bipolar disorder. The novel’s illustrator, Ricardo Cavolo, and writer, Scott McClanahan, consciously (and smartly) avoid the cliché of treating mental illness as a “cool” part of an artist’s life: Telling of a time when Johnston attacked his manager, McClanahan writes, “So if you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art—then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe.” This is a pretty funny novel. It’s also an homage that doesn’t pander, a biography that doesn’t stick to the facts. It’s complicated and full, and a lot to take in all at once, which may very well be the point.
Cavolo’s art is lush, cartoonish, and red, red, red—the better to illustrate Johnston’s giant heart and big, big love for all the girls in his life who already have boyfriends. Also: There are a shit-ton of eyeballs. Everywhere. Barely a page goes by without disembodied eyes poured across the background—in clouds, on mountain peaks, on volcanoes—illustrating Daniel’s growing paranoia. In a two-page spread, one enormous eyeball wearing a letterman sweater says to another, “Hey man. I’m an eyeball.”
This is McClanahan’s first graphic novel, and the writing, while funny, is less clearly in his voice than previous work, where he builds complex humor and pathos through longer stories. Incantations speeds from moment to moment and idea to idea so fast that it can be hard to keep up, despite circling back to particular themes. McClanahan’s voice isn’t absent, however. Lines like, “Everyone was someone’s child once,” and, “You’ll never be as young as you are right now or the people you know” could have been lifted straight from his messing-with-the-facts memoir, Crapalachia: A Biography Of Place.
Readers won’t find a straight biography with Incantations either, but rather a self-referential story that acknowledges the odd ways that society constructs culture and celebrity and how hard it can be to fully capture a life, especially when that person is famous, or “cult famous,” as the case may be. But as McClanahan and Cavolo struggle to show the heart of a man who himself struggles to make art and live his life, they show their hearts as well—big, red, and beating. [Laura Adamczyk]
Anthologies rely on two things to attract attention: the theme and the people contributing. Many of the most successful anthologies manage to combine the two, with books like Moonshot and Beyond featuring creators who are united by some aspect of their identity, making art that’s based in no small part on representing themselves and people like them. In the case of New World: An Anthology Of Sci-Fi And Fantasy (Iron Circus), the only thing that links the creators together is an immense talent. It’s no surprise that C. Spike Trotman, well known in self-publishing circles for her success with Kickstarter, brought together over 30 people to make two dozen excellent sci-fi and fantasy stories. With two editions of Smut Peddler already under her belt, Trotman has the experience and knowledge required to pull together an intriguing and visually stunning anthology.
As with any anthology, the stories are as varied as their creators. The only unifying element of the art is that the entire book is printed in grayscale, with several in pure black and white. Though each creator’s style is different, the level of skill and talent is consistently high and there is something for every reader’s taste. Many of the stories—particularly those that lean a bit more toward the sci-fi end of the scale—focus on conflict and warfare, which after all is where most of the genre sits. It’s a little disappointing, but the quality of the art and storytelling more than make up for that. Of particular note, though, are the pieces that depart from that trope entirely: Trotman’s own “Impression”; “Clean Up” by Ainsley Seago; Magera Gordon’s “Peopleology”; and “Free” by Yáo Xiāo are four incredible examples of what sci-fi/fantasy stories can do when they focus on something other than violence. But all 24 of the comics are excellent in their own right.
If there’s one thing that ties all of the pieces together beyond the genres they fit into, it’s that each forces a character or characters to make an incredibly weighty choice. Some of them—as in “Free” and M. Dean’s “Fear And Fascination”—are deeply personal and isolated in scope, impacting a small group or individual alone. Others, like Evan Dahm’s excellent “The Quiet World,” are still focused on a singular character but have clear implications for the world beyond them, for the way things are in the rest of the universe. Each of the pieces has a clear perspective and message, as much speculative fiction does, but every single one of the creators avoids heavy-handed manipulation and preachiness, two common pitfalls for less skilled sci-fi/fantasy creators. Rather than lecturing the reader, they start a conversation by shifting perspectives and inviting introspection, which is speculative fiction at it’s best. Meg Gandy’s “The Brides Of Cetus” is the perfect example of the nuanced and precise stories that New World has to offer; firmly and beautifully constructed, rooted in the sympathy readers feel for the main character, it doesn’t force agreement but instead lets readers feel apparently conflicting things at the end of her story and leaves room for ambiguity, not nearly common enough in comics of late. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Originally published as I Viaggi Di Gulliver, O Gulliveriana, Gullivera (Humanoids) is Milo Manara’s retelling of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels with an erotic twist. Here, Manara subjects his unnamed woman to similar sights as Swift’s Gulliver—Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, and the land of the Houyhnhnm—though his locales are more risqué. In Lilliput, the woman arrives wrapped in a dress she’s made out of a Union Jack flag, and the Lilliputian king conspires to spread her legs. In Brobdingnag, two giants get her drunk so that she’ll strip for them. In Laputa, which is unnamed, the “merry Bacchantes” of the island are orgiastic women who like to whip each other while their men sleep all day and stare at the stars all night. And in the land of the Houyhnhnm, also unnamed, the race of intelligent horses are just exceptionally horny.
Sex permeates every page of Gullivera, but there is nothing consummated. Instead, the strange peoples the woman encounters simply want to watch her, to ogle her. In this way, they reflect the voyeuristic desires of the reader themselves. Under Manara’s pen, the woman displays her body for unseen eyes—posing, blushing, biting her lips. He presents her full body, and he rarely segments her into discrete components. She takes pleasure in presenting herself for the viewer. But when she encounters other characters, she is repulsed and frightened, and this feeling only increases throughout the story. She is playful with the Lilliputians, but is viscerally frightened of the violent sexuality of the Laputians, and she flees the moment a talking horse starts hitting on her. Given these and other storylines, Gullivera could be read as a repugnant “cautionary” tale—the story of a woman who was “asking for it,” only to be irrevocably given what she’d asked for.
However, it’s not clear if this is what Gullivera is saying. A reading of the book must necessarily be problematized by the way Manara renders his telling. Gorgeously illustrated with thin, intricate lines, flat textures, and worn, saturated colors, Gullivera is a sensual book, and Manara has mastered the aesthetic of expressing sexual exhilaration. He draws with incredibly detail—particularly when it comes to hair—and his women have a texture and weight to their bodies. They bite their lips in obvious, though effective, performance, and Manara excels at making his figures feel tactile, visceral, and real. The book is sexy, and, during these moments of sexual delight, the woman is in a state of ecstasy, which is inconsistent with the fear and repulsion she experiences both prior to and following these events. But this sexiness, and its inconsistency, coupled with the books jovial tone—full of humorous wordplay and juvenile physical comedy—makes it unclear how this book is intended to be understood. As light erotica, it’s quite enjoyable—breezy, fast, and replete with beautifully drawn women. But because of the way it displays women, as fetishistic objects waiting in the wings to be consumed by scopophilic men, while also warning women of the dangers of such performative teasing, Gullivera appeals and repulses, arouses and disgusts. It is appropriate, though, that the woman is sure she’s home safe when she encounters a Barbie doll. [Shea Hennum]
The great chief Matarka lies dying without an heir. Fifty worthies from across the kingdom are summoned to her deathbed for the reading of the will, which reveals the means by which her successor is to be chosen: the sorceress Niope will test the resolve of every assembled grandee through a series of tests. The winner of these tests will become the next chief, while the losers will pass on to death as Niope’s slaves. Alongside such notables as the Chief Judge, the High Priestess, and the Grand Wizard is the humble Kite Lord’s daughter, Io, entered in the contest by unknown forces (possibly her parents), and committed to finding a way out of the test. But there is no withdrawal without forfeit…
Geis, pronounced “gesh,” is a Gaelic word for curse or taboo—or, as Niope says, “the binding fate.” Alexis Deacon’s Geis: A Matter Of Life And Death (Nobrow) is a surprisingly dark tale of seemingly ironclad supernatural destiny told in a style that sits somewhere between that of a children’s book and a European graphic album. Deacon is most famous as a children’s book illustrator, and so Geis maintains the rhythm and feel of a children’s book even as the content and tone remain just a shade too dark to recommend the book to younger children. To fail any of Niope’s tests means an upsetting and vivid death, only to be resurrected as a blank-eyed flying revenant, or a skull-headed zombie.
Although on paper there is something eminently familiar in the book’s setup—a plucky young heroine must defy death to defeat a dangerous old witch with the fate of a kingdom hanging in the balance—Deacon manages to steer clear of familiar cliché through the consistently unsettling tone. Io didn’t choose the contest and finds herself entered against her will. Although it’s obvious very early in the book that she is singularly resourceful and level headed, she’s also taciturn and reluctant. She takes charge of those contestants willing to resist Niope’s plotting in hopes of somehow surviving the contest without dying, simply because many seem incapable of defending themselves. The first test is simple: the contestants, scattered to the four winds by the witch’s spell, must return to the castle by sunup or risk death. Io almost doesn’t make it back and half her face is caught in the first rays of the morning sun. With one side of her face stained by Niope’s magic, the effect is ominous. She has been half-corrupted already, before even the end of the first book (of a projected three).
Geis is a genuine surprise, an engrossing fantasy tale that manages the neat trick of seeming both familiar and fresh. A courageous heroine standing up to an evil sorceress is standard fair, but Deacon’s ability to render these familiar stakes in such a compellingly melancholy fashion puts an interesting spin on the fairy-tale atmosphere. Deacon’s elastic pencil and watercolor illustrations appear welcoming on first glance but reveal themselves to be surprisingly distressing over the course of the increasingly downbeat narrative. This is a story of otherwise normal people caught in a life-and-death struggle against supernatural evil in front of the backdrop of a prosperous kingdom in crisis, and although it seems probable that Io will ultimately triumph, it’s really not clear how. Geis is an extraordinarily thoughtful book that confirms Deacon’s arrival in comics from the world of children’s literature. Even if the presentation still has one foot in that genre, there is enough genuine dread within to keep grown-up readers turning the pages. [Tim O’Neil]