The three stories in this collection are separated by wildly different genres and subjects, but are linked by the central conceit that all is not as it seems, or perhaps everything you know is wrong. The walls between fantasy and reality are not so strongly constructed here, and the three main characters, engaged in self-deceptions of one sort or another, all undergo consciousness-raising events. Remember "The Truman Show"? This is like that, only not as good.
I'll try to give you a sense of what is going on without giving too much away, so forgive me if this is a little oblique. In "Duncan's Kingdom" (actually previously published by Image Comics in 1999), the titular character is a member of the Royal Guard in what appears to be a standard-issue medieval fantasy setting. But all is not well in the land - and I'm not just talking about the frog-men who have murdered the king. Nope, something is wrong with the very reality of Duncan's life, something that Duncan is hiding from himself. All is not as it seems!
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In "Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile," Gran'pa is a frog with an Uncle Scrooge complex, complete with an overwhelming desire to fill his swimming hole to the brink with gold coins. But - again! - all is not well, and when Gran'pa engages in violence that is just a little too over the top, he learns that his entire world is not what it appears to be. Everything you thought you knew is wrong!
And in the final story, "Urgent Request," Janet is an office worker who decides to respond to the classic scam e-mail from a Nigerian prince seeking access to her bank account. How will this affect her self-confidence? Don't answer that e-mail -- NOOOOOO!!!!
The Eternal Smile has a similar feel to writer Gene Luen Yang's earlier book, American Born Chinese: a candy-coated, cartoony shell contains a tougher center of difficult themes and issues. All three main characters are presented with a choice of realities to inhabit, and all three learn about themselves merely by recognizing that there is a choice to be made.
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Unfortunately, I can't say that I was very taken with this one. It was just a little too saccharine, and I wasn't blown away by the "twist" in each story. While each story has a hopeful outlook, they come off as kind of sugary because not enough is done to earn that feeling. There just was not enough meat on any one of the stories, enough space to get to know the characters, enough stuff that felt new. "Duncan's Kingdom," for instance, does very little to differentiate itself from a run-of-the-mill Dungeons & Dragons adventure, until the twist happens and the story ends abruptly afterward. My thought process on that one basically went: dull, dull, dull, hey this might be interesti-oh it's over.
The art is attractive and has a nice airy, cartoony look to it. Derek Kirk Kim adopts a different style for each story, but you can tell it's the same artist on all three, which helps to both differentiate and link the stories. The creators made an interesting choice by changing paper color for the final story, going from a bright white to an off-white, yellowish color. This softens things up a bit and adds to the dreamier quality of Janet's tale. Plus, the colors on her story are quite pretty.
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It's not a bad book, and although I was not bowled over by it, the book is appropriate for (and will probably be most enjoyed by) high school students. It does contain some graphic violence (including decapitation) and discussion of Second Life genitals.
The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert, by Marc-Antoine Mathieu, 2008, NBM, 62 pages, $14.95
Whenever I visit a museum, I get distressed by my inability to see everything on display. I simply do not have the time and energy to take it all in. Do I spend time in each room, reading about every piece of art on the wall, or do I race from room to room to try to see as much as possible? By the end of my day at the museum, I'm typically exhausted and ready to head home, and have only seen a fraction of the museum.
But what if I had nothing else to do for the rest of my life but explore the museum? Would that feeling of being overwhelmed ever dissipate? Could I catalog and internalize it all?
Marc-Antoine Mathieu's excellent The Museum Vaults is part of a comic book collection co-published in France by Futuropolis and the Louvre museum. The other books in the series are Nicolas De Crécy's Glacial Period, Éric Liberge's Odd Hours, and Bernard Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carrière's The Sky Over the Louvre. NBM has publishedGlacial Period and The Museum Vaults in English; hopefully the others are coming soon. The collection was produced as part of the Louvre's exhibition on comic books that will run until April 13, 2009. (Thanks to Heidi MacDonald at The Beat for the link.)
The story concerns Monsieur Volumer, an expert tasked with evaluating and indexing the collections of a museum so ancient that the original name has been forgotten. Volumer, accompanied by his assistant Leonard, soon learns that the subbasement area housing the collections is enormous almost beyond comprehension. As his days underground become months and then years, Volumer visits room after room filled with the odds and ends of the museum, always learning, searching, and cataloging.
Each chapter opens with a splash page and a caption stating the name of the particular location and how long Volumer has been underground ("Day Thirty-Three: Technical Galleries"; "Day Forty-Six: The Flooded Gallery"; and so on). A helpful staff member typically appears to guide Volumer through the gallery and explain what makes that room unique and important. In the scene excerpted below, Volumer (in the hat) examines "The Repository for Molds," located in the eighth subbasement, on Day Two Hundred Twelve of his journey:
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This is one spooky museum, if you ask me. Thank goodness each area contains a member of the staff to show Volumer around. Because of the style of the art and the oppressive, dark setting, I almost wondered if Hellboy was going to pop up. But we never meet an antagonist, never encounter any dangerous beasties -- this place is just huge, like an ancient wonder of the world, something beyond the ken of modern men and women. That in and of itself is kind of terrifying.
The art does a terrific job of conveying the scope, as well -- some of these underground chambers are stories tall. Here is one of my favorites:
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Volumer learns that the eye "constitutes but one part of an ensemble the size of which we cannot fathom. The fragments stored in the storage areas 11 and 12 correspond to a hand. Storage 9 contains fragments of a shoulder, and so on."
Beyond the exploration of this fantastic world, the book clearly has something to say about the nature of museums. Many of the galleries that Volumer visits involve the theme of the importance of original art: in the restoration workshop, the staff acts like surgeons, delicately touching up a painting; the staff member in the department of copies discusses the once prized practice of copying and laments the debasement of the genre. Mathieu is raising the question of why museums exist. Why is it important to see original art? Why not just view a copy? Why collect pieces of art and put them on display for the public? It's an interesting undercurrent of the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in this book. Track this one down.
I just found this interesting interview with Mathieu. It mentions his sense of humor, which I neglected to discuss in my review -- I should have mentioned that there are parts of this book that are funny and playful, in the midst of all the oppressive weighty stuff.
Black Jack volume 3 (of 18), by Osamu Tezuka, 2009, Vertical, 318 pages, $16.95
I reviewed volumes 1 and 2 of this series here. Since I've already explained the premise of the series and stated some general thoughts about the writing and art, I'm going to delve into my favorite story in this volume and talk about why I think it is simultaneously endearing and completely bonkers, just like all of the others.
(SPOILERS) The story, called "The Boy Who Came from the Sky," opens with the dramatic landing of a harrier-type military jet outside of Dr. Black Jack's cliffside residence. The pilot and his wife have defected from their country to seek the doctor's help in saving the life of their son, who has Eisenmenger's Syndrome, a heart defect that can destroy the blood vessels of the lungs. Black Jack explains how, if only he had been able to operate on the boy a year earlier, he might have been able to save him, but now the condition is incurable. Distressed, Black Jack spends the night racking his brain until he hits upon the idea of surgically connecting the boy to his mother so that the blood from her lungs will flow into his heart. The mother will carry her son on her back until they can obtain a healthy set of lungs for the boy. The surgery is successful, but Black Jack rejects the father's money because he knows that the family will need it to survive as fugitives, offering instead to take the expensive jet as payment. The father tells Black Jack that he must account for his actions as an officer, asks Black Jack to say "farewell" to his wife and son for him, and blows up the plane (and himself with it). The mother and child sleep peacefully as the wreckage burns.
By the way, that happens in eighteen pages. Like all of the stories in the book, Tezuka packs a ton into it, zig-zagging between Black Jack's melodramatic outbursts of frustration, technical cutaway diagrams of the boy's heart condition, and tender images of the parents cuddling their dying son. When I called these stories bonkers, it's partly because of the fantastical problems and cures that Tezuka conjures up, and partly because they careen between emotional highs and lows within the space of a few panels. I don't think many creators could successfully pull off these feats of storytelling, but Tezuka does it so effortlessly that the reader runs right along through the story without a second thought.
And I can only consider Tezuka's storytelling mastery in hindsight, because while reading I am completely enthralled by the drama and excitement, and the compelling character of Black Jack, a man who professes to care only about money but who is deeply concerned for the well-being of his patients.
The art, of course, always helps to get the blood flowing with its dynamism and power, but my favorite images from this particular story are relatively quiet:
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I thought that those two panels of the mother and her son bonded together are breathtaking. They capture everything that a parent will do for her child and the love between them. Every so often Tezuka creates panels like these, ones that are simple, beautiful, and profound.
I hope I've gotten you interested in the book with my description of this one story -- there are fourteen others in the volume, by the way, and each one terrific -- but here's one more page. This is from "Two Dark Doctors," in which Black Jack faces off against his nemesis:
The second Johnny Boo book is just as much of a delight for my three-year-old son as the first volume (which I reviewed here).
This time around, Johnny Boo and his buddy Squiggle get into a spat that can only be resolved by Johnny flipping up his hair, which Squiggle thinks is hilarious. Squiggle heads off to visit the stars, while Johnny encounters the Ice Cream Monster (also featured in volume one). Soon, the three characters have a grand time inventing "wiggle power."
My son finds the story fascinating and funny, and the simple, straightforward cartooning is easy to follow. Kochalka has a good handle on what kids like to read about, whether it's ice cream and burping (volume one), or silly hairstyles and butt wiggling:
The comic won't drive you nuts even after multiple readings, which is always a big plus when you're dealing with books aimed at little children. For the next volume, I wouldn't mind reading a story that has a real beginning, middle, and end (right now it seems like they sort of wander and things just happen), or perhaps seeing Johnny Boo and Squiggle meet a new character, but I think my son would happily follow them anywhere.
written by Chris X. Ring, directed by Jesse Heffring, photography by Pawel Pogorzelski, art by Angus P. Byers and Jesse Heffring, 2008, Gravitron Publishing, 221 pages, $23.95
This science fiction graphic novel is an ambitious work but has some major problems.
The book tells the story of a man with no memory who obtains super-powers through his dreams (it's similar to how the characters in The Matrix are able to download martial arts techniques and other skills). He uses the powers to hunt down some bad people, progressing from street punks to terrorists, and eventually he becomes humanity's savior in a battle against an alien invasion.
The story is pretty silly, veering from over-the-top, grotesque violence, to failed attempts at humor, to dull conversations that seem to drag on without leading anywhere. The characters are not people with real motivations for their actions, and often don't appear to serve any purpose besides being an excuse for the main character to tell everyone what is happening. The book suffers from trying to hard to be epic -- there's way too much going on, way too many half-baked ideas tossed out -- and goes on long after it should have ended.
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Unfortunately, the art doesn't help. The creators turned digital photographs of real actors into black-and-white images, but the process left the art without any gray tones. It's as though they turned the "contrast" knob all the way up so that only the whitest whites and blackest blacks show up. It blots out any details in the images and any nuanced acting from the characters, and makes the book almost unreadable at times.
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The creators have obviously put a lot of effort into the work, but the book would have benefited if they had scaled back its scope to something more manageable. As it is, I can't recommend it.
Today on the train to and from work, I got to spend my time witnessing daring sea rescues, battles with skeletal alligator robots, and graveyards of broken planets, instead of, you know, commuting. Needless to say, it was a welcome escape.
I think children especially would love this rollicking adventure by Tony Millionaire (Maakies, Sock Monkey), starring a bright young girl named Becky and her new friend Billy, who is actually animated garbage brought to life by a pack of mice. Kids would probably be particularly interested in Billy's gross origin -- he starts out with flies in his eye sockets -- in the same way that they are fascinated by "yucky" stuff like earthworms and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. But the book doesn't really get rolling until the second of its three chapters, when Becky and Billy head out to locate the resting place of the Moon and run into the aforementioned robots, piloting a flying pirate ship. It only gets wilder from there.
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The art and story have a great old-timey comic strip feel, and Millionaire is adept at avoiding outright silliness. The book is deeply rooted in childhood fantasies, with rocking horses roaring across fields and elephants firing the cannons of a giant ark at the enemy's flying ship.
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So yeah, once I got over my initial queasiness, I dug it.
You can buy it from Fantagraphics (and see a short preview) here, or get it from Amazon here: Billy Hazelnuts
Also, although it isn't listed on Fantagraphics' website yet, it looks like Millionaire is planning to release Billy's next adventure sometime this spring. You can pre-order it from Amazon here: Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird [edited to add:] Now it looks like that book came out in August of 2008, according to Amazon.
------ Related -- My reviews of other Fantagraphics books:
by Eddie Campbell, based on a screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell, 2007, First Second, 144 pages, $16.95
This is a little crackerjack of a mystery from an artist who is on top of his game.
In 1899, in Lebanon, Missouri, a group of masked men blow up a train. The quick-thinking team of investigators at the Black Diamond Detective Agency believes John Hardin, a local farmer with a mysterious past, committed the crime. Hardin escapes their grasp and flees to Chicago to try to solve the crime himself. With the detectives hot on his trail, will Hardin catch the true perpetrators in time? And why has Hardin's wife disappeared? And just how many different styles of facial hair will make their appearances?
Eddie Campbell (From Hell, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, The Fate of the Artist) has produced a solid and straightforward tale that feels like a turn-of-the-century comic book version of The Fugitive with a little bit of A History of Violence thrown in to liven things up. He keeps the plot moving along at a nice clip and doesn't treat his readers like idiots. A side plot involving federal agents feels a little underdeveloped, but the mystery is a good one with some nice twists. Hardin is an interesting, somewhat inscrutable character, and the gents from the Black Diamond Detective Agency are an entertaining bunch.
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The art is first-rate, and the colors are especially appropriate -- nice drab grays and browns, with the occasional dash of bright red to wake you up. One interesting formal flourish shows up during a couple of the action scenes, where Campbell deliberately makes the panel sequencing difficult to follow, offering two or more possible ways to read the scene. This makes it feel like everything is happening at once, and quickly. Here's an example:
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It's a neat effect, and works in a book where everything else feels like good old-fashioned storytelling. You'll be trotting along smoothly, and then lots of BLAMS and yelling and running and ducking come flying out at you, helping those action scenes really stand out and deliver some excitement.
This is an assured, focused work, and highly entertaining. If you are looking for a good diversion, it does the job.