Thursday, October 30, 2008

Review: Stinky

The new publisher TOON Books, created by New Yorker art editor Fran├žoise Mouly and her husband Art Spiegelman, has released a number of children's comics that are worthy of a place on your kid's bookshelf. Here is the first of three reviews of their newest books.

In Eleanor Davis's Stinky (TOON Books, 2008, 40 pages, $12.95), the title character is a smelly monster who tries to defend his beloved swamp from the encroachment of a friendly boy. Stinky doesn't want the boy around because he thinks kids don't like mud, smelly things, or monsters. But hey - this kid does! And so they become buddies in spite of Stinky's initial feelings.

It's a very sweet story, and one that I felt comfortable reading to my three-year-old. It's fun, moves along quickly, and includes lots of little funny bits about all the gross stuff that Stinky loves.

And the art really is perfect. In fact, in my review of America's Best Comics 2008, I wrote about how creator Eleanor Davis's creatures "seemed to come straight out of childhood nightmares and fairy tales." Well, meet her new creation, Stinky:

You can tell that Davis was born to draw stuff like this. The art is distinctive yet attractive, simple enough for children to follow but never dull. Plus, Davis drew two things that I would have LOVED as a kid:

(1) A Map of the Swamp:

(click to enlarge -- and EXPLORE!)

(2) A cut-away view of a "bottomless" pit:

These two bits give you an idea of the playful nature of this book. The whole thing is a pleasure to read. It's a great comic book for kids.

You can see sample pages here, and you can buy the book here: Stinky

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Review: The Best American Comics 2008

If you are interested in being exposed to a wide range of good comic book work, I recommend seeking out the recently-published anthology The Best American Comics 2008 (Lynda Barry, ed., Houghton Mifflin, 2008, 352 pages, $22), which includes contributions from twenty-six creators, some well-known, others relatively unknown but up-and-coming. Like ordering the beer sampler at your favorite micro-brewery, you'll find here a collection of short, well-crafted, interesting comics and an easy way to figure out whether you might like to see more from these creators without blowing your wallet.

Editor Lynda Barry, who contributed her own comic as an introduction (it looks just like her recent book What It Is), picked the comics (or pieces of longer comics) to be included in this volume, and she's done a good job. From Nick Bertozzi's The Salon, a murder-mystery starring famous modernist painters, Barry smartly plucked the segments showing the relationship between Picasso and Georges Braque and their invention of Cubism. Chris Ware's Thanksgiving Series from The New Yorker also is reprinted here, which is nice for me because I wasn't able to see the whole thing when it was originally published. And it really is heartbreaking work.

As one might expect from an editor who is a veteran of alternative weekly strip comics, Barry also selected a number of works from that realm: pages from Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For, Derf's The City, Matt Groening's Life in Hell, and Kaz's Underworld all make an appearance here. (At times, reading Best American Comics 2008 felt like reading The Chicago Reader.) Of these, my favorite was Bechdel's -- her talent for characterization, which you can see in her terrific graphic novel Fun Home, really shines here where she has spent years writing these people. Plus, its obvious she just loves these characters, and that always helps me to enjoy a comic book too. I didn't really like the material from Kaz or Derf -- I've never been fond of either's art, and didn't think the writing was very interesting -- but Groening's stuff was fun, exploring childhood and brotherly competition (with good jokes).

I thought Lilli Carre's The Thing About Madeline was fascinating. This comic, which won the 2008 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Story, shows how Madeline, living a humdrum life and spending her evenings drinking at the local bar, finds herself replaced by . . . herself. It's not explained whether the events that Madeline sees are "real" or not, but I thought the story successfully depicted what mental illness might feel like. Carre's new graphic novel The Lagoon just made its debut at SPX, and I'm definitely interested in reading it on the strength of The Thing About Madeline.

(by the way, this comic may be in color in the published book)

Eleanor Davis's Seven Sacks just creeped me right the f*** out. This short tale is about a ferryman bringing several creatures across a river, each one carrying sacks filled with unknown objects. The creatures seemed to come straight out of childhood nightmares and fairy tales.

(this is probably in color too)

Other pieces that stuck with me included Sarah Oleksyk's Graveyard, Jaime Hernandez's Gold Diggers of 1969, and the excerpts from Rick Geary's The Saga of the Bloody Benders and Seth's George Sprott (1894-1975).

As with any kind of endeavor of this nature, there were a few comics here that I didn't care for, but on the whole the book really is a good look at the state of the (non-superhero) comic union. Drink it up.

You can purchase the book here: The Best American Comics 2008 (The Best American Series)

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Daredevil: Cruel and Unusual

The creative team from the critically-acclaimed series Gotham Central recently reunited for a four-issue story arc in Daredevil: Cruel and Unusual, and I'm glad the band got back together. Artist Michael Lark and writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka have turned out an enjoyable mystery that highlights many of the best aspects of Daredevil comics -- the sleuthing, the lawyering, the acrobatic kicking and punching -- but feels like it needed one more issue to really land a knockout blow.

The story follows Daredevil and his private investigator, Dakota North, as they work to uncover why bad guy "Big" Ben Donovan falsely confessed to murdering three children. Their investigation soon reveals a dastardly plot involving federal agents, gangsters, and ... dockworkers(!).

Brubaker and Rucka both are regarded as two of the best mainstream comics writers, and for good reason. Their dialogue snaps, their characters are believable individuals, they are able to mine the drama out of the relationships involved, and they know how to construct a sturdy plot.

(click to enlarge)

One of the best things to come out of Brubaker's run on Daredevil (normally, he's the solo writer on the series) is the way he has brought Matt Murdock's supporting cast to the foreground. He has fleshed out these characters and given them real, distinct personalities. And he's shown us how they all work together and how Murdock's law office operates. It makes everything feel more real and gives us a reason to care about these people.

Michael Lark, joined by artist Stefano Gaudiano, also does excellent work here. One reason I like Lark is that his art helps the "real" feeling of the book -- his people look like people, as opposed to too-pretty pin-ups dashing around in spandex. Even Dakota North, a former model, just looks like a person. I guess this is another way of saying that the art is appropriate for the book. Lark also is very good at choreographing fight scenes (which is pretty much required for a Daredevil artist).

The final issue in the arc has a very effective sequence that repeatedly jump-cuts between one scene involving Daredevil's battle at the docks and another scene showing paramedics attempting to save someone's life. Both scenes are easy to follow and the jumping back and forth helps to build the suspense and excitement. It shows how well the creative team worked together to achieve something that is fairly difficult to pull off.


(click to enlarge)

As I said at the beginning of this review, however, the comic isn't perfect because it seemed like the story ended a little too abruptly. (I'll try to write this without giving it away, so forgive me if I'm a little vague.) After the writers did an excellent job setting up the mystery -- "Big" Ben Donovan's secret, the coverup involving federal agents -- they made it too easy for Daredevil to solve. One guy gets knocked around and offers up the whole story, and that's it? I was expecting a really big-time grand finale, but instead the fireworks show ended in a single poof.

That criticism aside, the comic was a good read and a well-made piece of entertainment. I'd recommend it to anybody interested in solid superhero storytelling.

Daredevil: Cruel and Unusual originally was published in Daredevil issues 107 through 110, but Marvel already has put out a collected volume. You can buy it here: Daredevil: Cruel and Unusual

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Alan Moore + Batman + Clayface = Corduroy?

The 2006 book DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore collects many of writer Alan Moore's well-known tales featuring the DC superheroes, including Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, For the Man Who Has Everything, and The Killing Joke. One story that I had never heard about, however, is called Mortal Clay, originally published in 1987's Batman Annual #11.

Mortal Clay is about the villain Clayface, and shows how he came to live in a department store with his love, a mannequin. (Yeah, he's insane.) It's a good short story.

While I was reading Mortal Clay, it struck me that it has many odd parallels with another, more famous story: the story of Corduroy, the children's picture book by Don Freeman. Corduroy is a teddy bear that also lives in a department store.

Let's follow the Corduroy and Clayface through their department store adventures.

First, Corduroy realizes that he has lost a button on his overalls, so he sets off one evening to find it.

And he does find a "button."

Clayface, on the other hand, originally winds up in the department store while searching for his lost love, a "woman" named Helena.

Then Corduroy has a run-in with the night watchman:

And so does Clayface:

Eventually, a hero rescues Corduroy from his plight:

Something similar happens to Clayface.

The hero takes Corduroy to his new home:

And Clayface is also taken to his new "home": Arkham Asylum.

By the way, Corduroy is written and illustrated by Don Freeman.

Mortal Clay was illustrated by . . .
George Freeman.

No relationship, as far as I know.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Review: Alan's War

Emmanuel Guibert's graphic novel Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope (First Second Books, 336 b&w pages, $24), is not quite a biography and not quite a memoir, but more a visual translation of the stories told to Guibert by his friend, Alan Cope. The book recounts episodes from Cope's life in the United States army during World War II and his time in America and Europe in the years following the war. This is not an action-packed blockbuster, but instead a deeply personal reminiscence by a thoughtful and charming man.

The book is broken into three parts. Part one follows Cope through his training, his work as a radio operator student and then instructor, and his trans-Atlantic voyage and arrival in France. The second part details Cope's "war adventure," racing with little rest and ammunition in an armored car across France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. The final part finishes up the story of Cope's time in the army and depicts Cope's post-war life in America and his eventual permanent return to Europe.

Cope is a wonderful narrator; one can see why Guibert spent years listening to his stories. His memory of the events of his life is incredible, and he has the ability to make even the most mundane details seem interesting. That is not to say that his life is dull, however.

(click to enlarge)

Cope's storytelling ability really makes this book soar. Some of the most engaging parts of the book show Cope's interactions with his friends, as Cope's love for them shines through in his narration. Here, he describes his first meeting with his best friend:

(click to enlarge)

Cope strikes up many friendships over the course of the book, and although these parts of the book are very enjoyable, they are also set up as a solution to one of the problems that faces biographical non-fiction, which is that rarely does a person's life fit into a typical narrative structure. Here, Cope's friendships help to tie together the various episodes of his life and are a focus of Cope's late-in-life moment of self-realization, which could be seen as the climax of the book. The book does not completely overcome the problem, however, and seems to wander somewhat in the final third of the story. I did find myself wondering at several points why certain scenes were included. But I still enjoyed reading those episodes, as Cope's tales are always interesting.

Guibert's distinctive black and white ink washes expertly convey Cope's story. The art somehow seems simplified and yet detailed at the same time, almost like Guibert took actual photos of Cope's life and then turned up the abstraction dial just enough.

(click to enlarge)

The page below takes place during Cope's sea voyage from the United States to France:

(click to enlarge)

I found this almost magical; although the drawing is black and white, when paired with Cope's description of the scene, somehow the colors appear. The best parts of the book are like this page: a perfect union of words and pictures that breathe color into Alan Cope's fascinating memories.

You can read an excerpt of Alan's War here and order the book here. It goes on sale on October 28, 2008.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

All Star Superman: An Alternate Reading

Sorry I'm late to the party. If you didn't know already, the ending of All Star Superman was awesome. And there has been some discussion about the character of Leo Quintum: was he the future self of Lex Luthor, returned to help humanity? What I want to discuss is something different, however:

Do the last two pages of All Star Superman #12 tell us whether Leo Quintum is a "good guy" or a "bad guy"?

Does he want to help Superman or destroy him? It seems as though everyone involved in the discussion linked to above assumes that Quintum is a "good guy"; that, even if he is Luthor, he has reformed and become a better person. But I wonder if writer Grant Morrison left open the possibility that Leo Quintum -- whether or not he is Lex Luthor's future self -- is a bad guy.

Here is the final scene from issue twelve (SPOILERS):

(This takes place after Superman has dispatched current-day Luthor and left Earth -- possibly for good -- to restart our Sun and save the world.)

Now, there are two possible interpretations of this conversation, if you ask me: Quintum is good, or Quintum is bad.

Here is the script, for easy reference:

Quintum: Even Luthor seemed to find some closure in the face of renewed global calls for his execution. He seems so faded, so small, now that he finally got his dearest wish. A world without Superman. There's a challenge to human ingenuity. We all have to make sure it gets taken care of while he's gone.

Agatha: But what if Superman never returns? What then, Mister Quintum?

Quintum: I wouldn't worry too much about that day, Agatha. Now that we know how it's done ... I'm sure we'll think of something.

If Quintum is Good:

When Quintum says, "A world without Superman. There's a challenge to human ingenuity. We all have to make sure it gets taken care of while he's gone," he means that "we all have to make sure the world gets taken care of while Superman's gone, and that task is a challenge to human ingenuity." And when Quintum tells Agatha not to worry, he means that she shouldn't worry if Superman never returns, because he's got Project 2 to help take care of the world.

If Quintum is Bad:

Here is where it gets a little trickier. First, when Quintum says, "A world without Superman. There's a challenge to human ingenuity. We all have to make sure it gets taken care of while he's gone," he means that "we all have to make sure that Luthor's dearest wish -- a world without Superman -- gets taken care of while Luthor is gone, which is a challenge to human ingenuity." This interpretation is possible because of the ambiguous "it" and "he" in Quintum's statement, which I have italicized. The "he" could be Luthor, since he is going to be executed and will be gone, just like Superman. And if the "he" is Luthor, that means the "it" could be "Luthor's dearest wish, a world without Superman." Note that although Quintum says that Luthor "got" his wish, Quintum might believe that Superman might not permanently be out of the picture and thus Quintum will have to take care of Luthor's wish while Luthor is gone.

Next, under this interpretation, when Agatha asks, "But what if Superman never returns? What then, Mister Quintum?" and Quintum responds, "I wouldn't worry too much about that day, Agatha. Now that we know how it's done ... I'm sure we'll think of something," he means, "I wouldn't worry too much about the day that Superman returns because I've got Project 2 to fight him." Also, Quintum's statement, "Now that we know how it's done," means, "now that we know how to get rid of Superman." This interpretation follows from the interpretation in the above paragraph.

(As a side note, the interpretation also is supported by how Quintum responds to Agatha's question: she asks about what happens "if Superman never returns" and Quintum tells her not to worry about "that day" -- if he is good and is telling her not to worry about Superman never returning, he wouldn't say "that day" (since you can't pin down Superman "not returning" to a single day); instead he'd tell her not to worry about "that" or "that issue." If, on the other hand, he is bad and is telling her not to worry about the day that Superman returns to face him, he would say "that day," since when Superman returns will be on a certain day.)

So there you go: two possible interpretations for the final sequence of All Star Superman. Do you agree that there are two interpretations? If so, do you think Morrison intended it?

All Star Superman #12 in One Panel

Following up on this post, here is All Star Superman #12 summarized in one panel (click to enlarge):

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The SPX Haul

Well, I'm back from the 2008 Small Press Expo. I arrived a little late due to I-95 getting shut down because of an accident. Then I got totally overwhelmed by the amount of amazing-looking stuff available; I could have spent several days and several thousand dollars without seeing everything worthwhile.

But I got it together enough to buy some stuff, and I said hi to a bunch of folks that have been nice enough to send me review copies, including Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics, Cory Casoni at Oni Press, and Chris Staros at Top Shelf. (Anyone know why First Second was not at the Expo? They seemed like the only publisher that should have been there but was not.) I also introduced myself to a bunch of artists and writers, including Becky Cloonan, who seemed to remember that I had reviewed her book Pixu #1, so that was neat.

And I got to see the Critics Roundtable, which was sort of interesting and sort of too short to really go into depth on anything. Jog comes off as just as smart in person as he does in his writing, and seemed to be a good listener. He also interviewed Bryan Lee O'Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim, and seemed to know more about O'Malley's history and influences that O'Malley did. But the interview was fun, and it was interesting to see the amount of fan love for that comic on display in the room -- people really do like it. (edited to add:) And I do too!

But man, did I mention the amount of awesome comic book goodness? Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, Oni, AdHouse, Picturebox, Fanfare/Ponent Mon, Buenaventura: all had tables packed with what seemed like their entire back catalogs. And there were tons of other publishers and people with their self-published comics. I really wanted to get Skim, which ended up winning the Ignatz award for Best Graphic Novel, but I held off. And the only thing that I wanted but couldn't get because it sold out (I saw it, but when I went back it had disappeared) was Gerald Jablonski's Cryptic Wit #2.

So here is what I got:

5, by Becky Cloonan, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, Rafael Grampa, & Vasilis Lolos (self-published). This is a mini-comic published in 2007. I loved Pixu, so I was happy to grab this.

Crogan's Vengeance, by Chris Schweizer (Oni Press). I love pirates, and historical fiction, and this book about a pirate is the first in a series of adventure graphic novels following the history of various members of the Crogan family. So count me in. Plus, it seemed like something that my kids would like when they got a little older. The author Chris Schweizer was very friendly and drew a great little picture in there for them.

Escalator, by Brandon Graham (Alternative Comics). This is an older work, but I really can't get enough of Graham's stuff. If you haven't read King City or Multiple Warheads yet, go get them IMMEDIATELY.

Ganges #1 & 2, by Kevin Huizenga (Fantagraphics). I've been thinking about getting these for a while, so now here they are.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Chapters 1 & 2, by Sarah Glidden (self-published). This was nominated for an Ignatz Award, and it looks like the book has been picked up by Vertigo.

Otto's Orange Day, by Frank Cammuso & Jay Lynch (Toon Books). This was published by the new kid's comics company run by Francoise Mouly and her husband, Art Spiegelman. I already have the company's newer stuff, so I got this. And Frank Cammuso drew a picture in it for my kids, which is cool.

Superf*ckers #1, by James Kochalka (Top Shelf). I dug his kid's comic Johnny Boo, and he was very friendly. I also got Rainbow Frog, a comic made by his five-year-old son (promising work; good use of negative space, har har). When I went to buy this he was talking with Heidi MacDonald from The Beat about being famous, or something like that.

So that's my story from SPX. I had a good time, and hopefully I'll head back again next year.