Robot 6

A Month of Wednesdays: Clowes, Seth and Mother Goose

The Death-Ray (Drawn and Quarterly): I have two distinct reasons to be exceedingly grateful to Drawn and Quarterly for republishing Daniel Clowes’ 2004 comic book Eightball #23 (originally published by Fantagraphics) as a bound hardcover album, bearing the title of the comic’s full-length story.

The first is highly personal. While I greatly enjoyed reading the issue in its huge, newspaper-sized, stapled format, as soon as I finished, I was faced with a problem: Where on earth do I put the damn thing? Obviously it wouldn’t fit in a long box or on any of my bookshelves, either laid flat or standing. If I simply set it on an end table or a coffee table, not only would it take up a lot of space, but it would collect dust and need regularly dusted. And it wasn’t like I had a lot of comics of similar size—only Lauren Weinstein’s Goddess of War, really—so I couldn’t stack it up with my other gigantic comics in a corner somewhere.

Ultimately, I stuck it in an oversized shipping envelope and hid it in the space between a bookshelf and the wall of my apartment, although even there it bothered me, as I knew it was there. And, of course, every time I moved I would pull it out, look at it, and realized I’d have to find a place to keep it in my new apartment as well, before I ultimately would decide to hide it behind a bookshelf in my new place. (It occurs to me now that while Clowes probably didn’t plan that experience for me, it does replicate the feelings of some of the characters in the story, who come into possession of something they can’t really get rid of, but can’t have others know about and have to secretly store for years).

But now that it’s got a spine and hard covers, now that it’s a book-book instead of a floppy, it can stand up on a bookshelf next to other similarly-sized books! The problem is solved! (Although I’m not quite sure I can bring myself to part with Eightball #23 just because I have the same story in an easier to store format now…)

The second reason I’m grateful for the re-release of this story in the new format is a more general one: It gave me another excuse to reread it, another excuse to write about how great it is and it will give a the world a new chance to read a truly great comic, one of the better superhero comics of the last decade, even though a lot of superhero comics fans probably didn’t consider it as such, given that it was published by two art/lit comics publishers and was created by the guy who did Ghost World and Wilson.

After a bold new cover of its star, wearing a Mike Allred-esque, vaguely Spider-Man like costume and clutching the titular weapon and a title page in which the tile glows in an explosion of pink radiation, we meet a middle-aged man named Andy in the year 2004. He talks directly to the reader, before he notices a man littering and confronts him.

When the man challenges him with “What are you going to do about it?,” the tale begins in earnest, as we learn the secret origin of Andy, aka The Death-Ray, who has the most terribly perfect weapon imaginable (Not only does it cause death, but it completely erases its target from existence, leaving not a molecule of physical remains for evidence, and it only works for Andy).

The panel-packed pages are mostly drawn in Clowes’ default style, in flat but brilliant colors that evoke maximum old-school superhero comics. The style gets looser or tighter here and there, but it doesn’t fluctuate as much or as intentionally as in some of Clowes’ more recent works.

The story does drift in and out of differently formatted comic strips though, so that the two page spread “The Origin of Andy” features him talking about his life and his default best friend Louie, the next page brings a series of headshot panels of Andy’s high school classmates following a title panel “What Do You Think of Andy?”, followed by newspaper Sunday strip-sized “Louie At Home,” in which we watch Louie have dinner with his family.

Andy’s story echoes that of Spider-Man’s and other post-Spidey relevant and relatable super-stories, as he’s the orphaned son of a famous scientist who secretly did experiments on him, and doesn’t discover them until he’s a put upon teenager just about to come of age.

The problems he faces are more real and more troubling though. He doesn’t have a single supervillain or rival superhero he ever has to trade blows with, but he does have to deal with a world full of damaged people hurting one another constantly, intentionally and accidentally, and figure out how to use his incredible power responsibly, or, at the very least, not make things all that much worse (“How the hell does one man stand a chance against four billion assholes?” is how adult Andy puts it).

It’s actually pretty terrifying, but it’s also pretty funny and a perfect example of a rather rare animal you probably here about all the time, but harldy ever encounter: A superhero comic book for grown-ups that is itself actually grown-up; one that doesn’t just add adult content like too much frosting on a child’s cake, or deconstruct superhero conventions in nihilistic or semi-sarcastic fashion, but is actually a piece of literature with aims beyond entertainment and time-killing.

Now in a more convenient format.

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (Drawn and Quarterly): Seth explains the province of this work in an introduction, an explanation alluded to in the banner along the bottom of the cover reading “A Story From the Sketchbook of the Cartoonist ‘Seth’.”

Apparently it began in his sketchbook, and it wasn’t something he had any intention of publishing, nor was it something he felt was entirely publishable at the time it began. He abandoned it to work on Wimbledon Green, a work with which it shares a worldview and tone, a fantasy version of comics in comics are the most exciting thing in the world; in otherworlds, a point of view that literalized the way a lot of us feel about the medium. In Wimbledon Green, it was the readers and collectors who were the focus; here it’s the creators.

Encouraged to publish, however, Seth returned to the story and finished it, reworking portions of it now that its audience was broader than just himself.

The resultant book is a guided tour—presumably conducted by Seth himself, as the few glimpses we get of our docent resemble the artist—of the The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists club headquarters. It’s an amazing place, something like the old 19th century explorers’ clubs of London and gentlemen’s clubs in the U.S., although it  is devoted to Canadian cartoonists, and it’s a little too amazing in its conception and design.

Essentially, Seth has created a fantasy Garden of Eden for himself, one full of so many quirky details, from an elaborate history to the sorts of niggling political and interpersonal problems that you’d find in a real place rather than an imagine paradisical one, that it all sounds, looks and feels completely real—or at least just on the other side of the line between realistic and fantastical.

In the process, the Seth character also gives the reader—imagined here as a guest he is leading through the rooms of the club–a guided history of Canadian cartooning and comics, and again the line between what’s real and is invented is a bit blurry. Real names and characters are in there, like Doug Wright and his creation Nipper, but so too are a lot of characters that seem like they can’t possibly be true, and some, especially among the cartoonists, who seem like they have an equal chance at being real and being invented by Seth for the purposes of this book. That’s how good he is at detailing and selling his fantasy world.

And it is a whole world. While the Seth and reader character never leave the grounds of the G.N.B. Double C. (as the club is called), it’s an entire world that is being imagined and evoked. It’s pretty much identical to ours, save for the place cartooning and cartoonists have in it.

I suppose part of the mysterious, almost magical effect of Seth’s blending the real and the ideal into such a convincingly told story, the appearance of a middle ground between obviously true and obviously not in which a reader is unsure of whether or not he is being told the true truth, relies on the Canadian setting, and the chance that the reader—like this particular reader—has never been farther into Canda than Niagara Falls, and thus it’s a place that is only slightly more real to me than, say, Narnia or Middle Earth or Metropolis and Gotham. “Canada” is a place I read about all the time, but never really see for myself.

I think this is at least a tiny, tiny part of the reason Scott Pilgrim hit as it did with readers—a Canadian could tell an American that Toronto magical land, and chances are the typical poorly traveled American can’t count on her own personal experience to refute it.

Basically, Seth could knock on my door and tell me that elves account for 2.5-percent of the modern Canadian population, and while I would be quite skeptical, I wouldn’t know for an absolute fact that he was lying, particularly if he lies as elaborately and convincing in person as he does in comics. (I can’t even look up some of the dubious-but-not-impossible characters and creators on the Internet as I write this, as I am doing so in a house without an Internet connection; I didn’t look anything up while reading the book for the first time in early October because I couldn’t put it down).

Beyond the considerable virtues of Seth’s abilities as an artist, world-builder and storyteller The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists should appeal to anyone who loves comics—for what they are, for what we wish they were, for what they could be and for what they will never be.

Nursery Rhyme Comics (First Second): We devoted a relatively large amount of attention to this hardcover anthology of short comics versions of nursery rhymes by some of the greatest cartoonists working today throughout the past month. Savvy readers will realize that this means it is probably a very good book, or, at the very least, one deserving of a great deal of attention, and would likely thus come to the conclusion that a formal review of it on Robot 6 is rather superfluous.

Savvy readers would be right, but I’m going to go ahead and review it anyway, as it is worthwhile enough to deserve all the coverage it gets.

There are 50 contributors, and chances are your favorite cartoonist is among them, as the list includes Jules Feiffer, Craig Thompson, Stan Sakai, Gahan Wilson, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Tony Millionaire, Kate Beaton, Gene Luen Yang, Richard Sala and so on. There are some somewhat surprising contributors as well, including two of the best artists working in the newspaper strip field at the moment: Mutts’ Patrick McDonnell, who draws “The Donkey,” and Cul de Sac’s Richard Thompson, who draws “There Was an Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket.”

The contributions are all quite short—these are just rhymes, not whole poems, after all—ranging from one to three pages, and some containing as few as three panels. The great fun of reading it, in addition to its function as a who’s who of comics art and, I imagine, a great primer for who to read next for anyone interested in getting into comics, is seeing the various strategies the artists take in adapting sometimes non-narrative nonsense into a story of some kind.

This can be as straightforward as Stephanie Yue giving the mouse a reason to run up the clock in her “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” or Sala a reason for the mice in “Three Blind Mice” to chase after the farmer’s wife, or adding uniquely idiosyncratic interpretations to the starting point.For example, Lucy Knisley makes the old woman who lived in a shoe the tattooed proprieter of “Ruth’s Rock & Roll Baby-Sitting,” and when she “whipped them all soundly,” it was with rock and roll, as she leads them in a rock performance (the bass drum reads, “The Whips”). Meanwhile Tao Nyeu and Cril Pedrosa add wolves to “Rock-A-Bye Baby” and “This Little Piggy” to add some cartoon predator/prey conflict.

My favorite of these re-interprative riffs, however, is probably Dave Roman’s “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe,” in which a bearded professor uses ten clones to help him engage in a weird  extreme sport involving sticks of butter and a giant chicken, which is a genuine marvel of making something weird, cute, funny and original from next-to-nothing.

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Discussion Questions:

1.) Did you purchase Eightball #23 in 2004? If so, where and how did you store it?

2.) Who is your favorite cartoonist? Are they in Nursery Rhyme Comics?

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5 Comments

My store didn’t carry Eightball…

For 1):

Yup. Stored it flat, horizontally with my large-size Comics stuff—- that large (signed) RASL Comic-Con Preview, a Indiana Jones “Memorial Day 2008″ portfolio of Drew Struzan art, BIG NUMBERS #1— that are kept inside the large plastic baggie for the RASL, all of them laid atop my hardcovers on the bookshelf…

(Btw, after buying the copy from COMIC RELIEF at SDCC, walked down the aisle and got it signed by Clowes at the FANTAGRAPHICS booth.)

1) I purchased Eightball #23 it at SDCC as well. The last one I ever been too. It’s stored pretty crappily, in an un-boarded bag right next to the hardcover.

2) The greatest cartoonist to have ever lived Basil Wolverton. Living though, Richard Thompson. The guy is just too damn good.

1) No. Finding Eightball was always an impossible dream back then.

2) Favorite currently alive and working? A toss-up between Kevin Huizenga and Chris Ware. Are they in the Nursery Rhyme book? I dunno.

Seth has been one of my favorite creators in the industry since “It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken”. As a Canadian I am very proud of one our native sons getting his time in the sun. If you haven’t taken the time to read his stuff then I suggest you do so. His pencils are clean and refreshing. His stories give you a look at a time that we see in a certain light of awe. Tv never seems to get this era quite right but Seth pays homage to and expands on the mystic of our collected history. What he adds is the sense that you are reading about the common man of that era. His struggles laid out in front of us panel by panel. The stories be they a fan sales man, an obsesed comic collector, an adventurer in his twilight or a man struggling with love and family are accesible to everyone and deeply internal. Everytime I read his work I come away with something new.

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