A Month of Wednesdays | ‘Unico,’ ‘Marble Season’ and more
Letting It Go (Drawn and Quarterly): When we last saw Miriam Katin, it was in the pages of her We Are On Our Own, her 2006 graphic memoir about how she and her mother survived the Holocaust, hiding out from the Nazis in the Hungarian countryside. Her new memoir continues that story, by skipping ahead to her current life as a middle-aged artist living in New York City and harboring the deep and bitter prejudices against a city, a country and a people that her childhood understandable instilled in her.
The subject matter is awfully heavy, but it’s presented quite lightly — this is a fun, funny comic about a grown woman coming to terms with the irrational prejudices and bias born of the irrational prejudice and biases of others.
When we meet the Miriam of Letting It Go, she and her husband are seemingly living an idyllic artistic life, he in a room playing his clarinet, she procrastinating starting to draw something. When her grown son says he wants to move to Berlin, she reacts negatively instinctively, and gradually comes to terms with it, visiting him in Berlin, and then returning a second time almost immediately in order to see some of her art hanging at a show there, learning the word vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) and how to start doing it … if not how to pronounce it.
Katin’s graphic novel is border-less, the “panels” implied ones formed by the consecutive, often overlapping images, giving the artwork a winding, rhythmic flow that moves over the pages like water. That and the somewhat-sketchy nature of the art, in which you can see each and every line that goes into the drawings, gives the book an incredibly intimate feel, as if a reader has simply discovered Katin’s sketchbook, rather than something mass-produced.
In addition to a highly personal story with an almost alarmingly fearless sense of sharing (if I were to ever shit a hotel bed, for example, I doubt I’d tell anyone, let alone draw a four-page sequence of it in a book), with pages of a carnet de voyage embedded within, Letting It Go is full of flights of fancy, including animals making asides, a sequence in which Katin assigns dialogue to the pigeons she’s watching out her window to explain their seemingly random behavior and an explanation of the big bedbug outbreak in New York a few years back.
I read a lot of great new graphic novels this month, some of which are discussed in this post, several more of which aren’t, but this may be the greatest not simply because of the skill with which it was created, but also because of its important personal/univeral subject matter, its deft handling of it and the unexpected, surprise-like nature of its high-quality. I mean, Tezuka or someone with the surname Hernandez producing a really great graphic novel is just par for the course, right? But Katin is still (relatively) new at this particular format, and she’s produced another must read that I suspect many comics readers might not have known they must read, but, believe me, they must.
Marble Season (Drawn and Quarterly): As a critic, I generally dislike assessments of works that posit them as the mathematical result of adding two other works together. You know, like saying “Graphic Novel X is Comic Y meets Comic Z” or whatever. However, in the case of Gilbert Hernandez’s new semi-autobiographical graphic novel, there’s one so accurate that I find it impossible to resist.
Hernandez’s Marble Season is Love and Rockets meets Peanuts.
It isn’t just that the book is focused on children and the minor tragedies, triumphs and, above all, humorous anecdotes that occur in their day-to-day lives. Nor is it that it’s set in the 1960s, and thus is a nostalgic look at a childhood of a particular vintage that may be as alien to many of its readers as the world of Charlie Brown and his pals could be to post-baby boomers reading those comics for the first time in Fantagraphics’ collections. Nor is it that Hernandez rather studiously avoids putting any adult character on-panel, despite that the parents of the children are often just off-panel.
It’s also that Marble Season, although a graphic novel with a clear narrative arc, is presented almost episodically, as if it were occurring in semi-staccato strips. Each page or so is an anecdote of its own, and while the story continues from anecdote to anecdote, the book feels a bit like a comic strip collection, too.
It stars Huey, the middle of three brothers, as he navigates a large cast of child characters of various ages, the youngest being his little brother Chavo, who can’t yet speak, the oldest being teenagers who are coming of age and beginning to notice the opposite sex. All live in the same neighborhood, and all cross paths more or less constantly, like actors in a stage play.
The childhood of marbles, 12-cent comics, collectible bubble gum cards and transistor radios that Hernandez captures is that of my parents, rather than my own, but I’ll be damned if this book didn’t make me nostalgic for their nostalgia.
Point of Impact (Image Comics): This was the most existential comic I’ve seen in recent memory. As I was reading it, and for days afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a comic book was, what makes a story a comic book story instead of a story for another medium, and why writers write comic books in the first place.
It’s a trade paperback collection of a four-part black and white crime series by writer Jay Faerber and artist Koray Kuranel. In it, a woman is murdered, and her newspaper reporter husband, her ex-Marine lover and a couple of cops are trying to find out who killed her and why.
It’s not exactly a murder mystery, as clues and suspects aren’t presented in any fashion in which a reader could try to puzzle things out; we just passively follow the characters as they discover things. There’s no high concept premise or unique twist in the telling, so it’s not one of those illustrated screenplays/comics-as-movie pitches that it reads a bit like. The closest thing I can’t think to compare it to is an episode of Law & Order, perhaps, only here the cops aren’t as interesting as the TV cops, and aren’t positioned as the stars or point-of-view characters.
I really couldn’t tell you what the point of the comic was, or why Faerber decided to write it, or why Image decided to publish it. It’s basically a generic Law & Order script, or perhaps a rather bland airport paperback prose crime novel, turned into a comic book by Kuranel’s artwork.
Luckily, that artwork is excellent artwork, and while it would be going much too far to say that it redeems book and makes it one worth seeking out, it is by far the best part of the comic. That leads me to believe that what ever the point of Point of Impact was, it is likely to end up someday being a line on the resume of an accomplished artist.
So Long, Silver Screen (Picture Box): I feel extremely ill-equipped to discuss this new book by acclaimed French artist Blutch, and not merely because I am so unfamiliar with his comics (this is, according to the back cover, his first full-length work to be published in English, after all). Rather, I’m unfamiliar with the subject matter, or at least many of the specifics of that subject matter that are cited throughout the discussion.
That subject is film, and So Long, Silver Screen is a collection of graphic essays in which the author’s stand-in, or perhaps the author himself, discusses cinema, why he loves it, why we as a people love it, why he hates the loving of it, its impact on him and its many strengths and weaknesses as an art form and a human experience, a discussion mostly conducted with a female character or three. The essay/stories all flow into one another, like scenes changing in a film, so although lines can be drawn between where certain discussions begin and end, and there are a few clear asides or sidebar stories, it’s also all a single — and singular! — work.
The specifics involve a lot of French, Italian and European cinema in addition to old Hollywood, and while several of the players mentioned will be familiar to most any American reader, several — perhaps the majority — won’t be (I was on surest footing during the discussion of primates in cinema, during which Blutch draws a King Kong, a Planet of the Apes panel and a sequence featuring the Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan and Cheeta Tarzan movies, because Tarzan and King Kong are more familiar to me than the work Michel Piccoli, or even Burt Lancaster. Because I like apes. Because I am a secret 6-year-old).
At the risk of dismissing all of the sharp, incisive writing included herein, I’m not sure how important it is to get every reference, though, not when Blutch draws like he draws. The drawing chops on display in every panel of this thing are simply astounding, as is the way images from film are “covered” in the artwork the way a rock band might cover the work of a band from a previous generation and seamlessly integrated into narrative.
Regarding the subject matter, I imagine one’s enjoyment of the book will depend on what foreknowledge a reader brings to it. Regarding the artwork, though, I imagine one’s enjoyment of the book will depend only on whether or not the reader has eyes. If so, you’ll want to direct them toward Blutch.
Unico (Digital Manga Publishing): It’s a testament to Osamu Tezuka’s immense talent and staggering productivity that even his relatively minor, little-discussed series can turn out to be masterpieces of considerable scale. Such is this case with his Unico, newly available as a 400-page, full-color brick of a book, the production of which was at least partially funded through Kickstarter.
The title character is an almost disturbingly adorable young unicorn with the potent magical power to do just about anything to make his friends happy, so long at those friends truly and genuinely love him. (Among his many feats are transforming into a full-sized, ride-able unicorn, growing wings, shrinking to the size of a bug, lengthening his horn, using his horn like a drill, turning children into adults and cats into people, and on and on.)
The made-for-serialization premise is that Unico is the beloved pet of the mortal Psyche, whose charm and beauty are turning worshipers away from the jealous Greco-Roman Venus. The Olympian therefore orders the spirit of the west wind to carry Unico away through time and space, depositing him with no memory beyond his name in a new and strange place. Each chapter of the book therefore finds Unico making a new friend in a new place, only to be carried off to a new setting and story after the climax.
The constant changes in setting and cast no doubt kept Tezuka from getting bored, and, read all at once, the book scans like a novel built out of novellas, many of which feature our protagonist intruding in a charmingly garbled version of a classic story or general genre of story.
So, for example, after Tezuka’s take on classical age mythology, Unico finds himself befriending a little Native American boy in the Old West, a princess and a cat in a pair of Grimm (by way of Disney) style fairy tale stories, an orphaned sphinx in a Midsummer Night’s Dream riff that prominently features the fairy court characters, a rat in a ’70s specific environmental message story in which an automated factory falls in love with a little girl, and so on.
Tezuka’s art and storytelling style are here most evocative of his Princess Knight, although there are two obvious differences. First is the color, which only adds to the Golden Age of American animation vibe of his work, and the other is his unusual use of panel borders, behind which the art in each panel extends a millimeter or two.
While not one of Tezuka’s best-known comics, the content and the way its conveyed — down to the left-to-right reading and colored art — might make this one of the artist’s most accessible works for young American readers, but be warned there’s a strongly elegiac quality to these stories.
Not only is Unico always snatched away just as he gets to the cusp of living happily ever after (which can be read as the insidious nature of Venus’ punishment, although it more likely has to do with Tezuka re-setting the stage for a new conflict when one is resolved), but several of the stories don’t end all that happily for some of the participants, and one — in which Unico is banished to the end of the world, where the only other living being of any kind is the demon of solitude — is downright bleak.