There are just two things I didn’t really like about Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, the new young-adult graphic novel by writer Prudence Shen (making her comics debut) and artist Faith Erin Hicks (Friends With Boys, The War at Ellsmere, Zombies Calling, other stuff). And they are minor things — quibbles, really — but I’m going to go ahead and lead my review with them anyway, as otherwise I have nothing but gushingly nice things to say about the comic, and I would hate to lose my reputation as a hard-to-please critic.
First, the supporting character Ben (second from the right on the cover) looks so much like actor Richard Ayoade that I found much of his panel-time during my first reading distracting, as I kept trying to place where I’ve seen him before.
Second, two other supporting characters are twin roboticists, and, naturally, when I think of twins who are also roboticists, I think of Kyle and Ken Katayanagi, Ramona’s fifth and sixth evil exes from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. While the designs of the two sets of twins are pretty different, I think Hicks’ style bears a close enough resemblance to O’Malley’s (a little in the eyes, a lot in the manga-influenced action scenes) by dint of the two artists sharing similar influences, that the feeling of “Hey, haven’t I seen these guys before?” may be exacerbated. At least among the younger, more casual, more mainstream comics readers that this book is likely to appeal to (and by that I mean this is a comic that readers will be finding in bookstores and libraries more often than the comic book stores they visit once a week; it’s a comic for people who don’t already have a life-time habit of comics, in addition to those that do).
Comics critics like myself like to talk about living in the “golden age of reprints,” and indeed, it is exciting (and somewhat astonishing) to see classic stories and strips that often were only glimpsed in anthologies or discussed in glowing terms in historical chronicles (Skippy, King Aroo) finally be made available. Works long regarded by fans as stellar – Little Lulu, Captain Easy – now have the ability to reach an audience beyond the handful of collectors that had the time and resources, or simply the obsessive-compulsive capabilities, to track down the musty old newspapers and crumbling funny books.
And yet. And yet the success of these collection projects has often encouraged publishers to seek out work that might not be worthy of such lavish format and attention. Do we really, for instance, need a complete run of Hagar the Horrible or Wizard of Id in hardcover? Do these humorous but rather mediocre and ephemeral strips really deserve that sort of focus?
More to the point, does Bazooka Joe?
Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights
By Sergio Toppi
In his foreword to Sharaz-De, Walt Simonson describes picking up Sergio Toppi comics in their original Italian during the ‘70s. Though Simonson doesn’t read Italian, he was attracted to the art, and it’s easy to see why. Every page invites the reader to stop and study. Toppi is a master at cross-hatching. He gives people, animals, and settings layers and layers of detail through thousands of short lines, all directing the eye to exactly the place he wants it to go. He pulls me in not just panel after panel, but figure after figure. Fortunately, Sharaz-De has large pages with lots of room, and as adept as Toppi is at filling those pages with ink, he’s equally skilled at using negative space to balance out compositions and give the eye a break.
I empathize with Simonson’s being so pulled into this stuff even though he didn’t understand the text. I’ve often been tempted to pick up European comics that I couldn’t read simply because they were beautiful. I’ve always resisted though, because I’m too interested in story to be able to enjoy comics purely for their visuals. That’s why I get excited when publishers like Archaia translate these books for English readers.
I read Toppi’s Sharaz-De back-to-back with another graphic novel, A Flight of Angels by Rebecca Guay and Friends. There’s a line in Guay’s book that was written by Holly Black: “Tricksters tell the truth in a way that makes it lies.” That stuck with me, because I think the opposite is true of great storytellers, who tell lies in a way that makes them truth. That’s an appropriate description of what’s going on in Sharaz-De. It’s not only what Toppi is doing, but his main character as well.
It’s 2013, and headlines reading “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore” have been cliched for about 25 years. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a classic, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is widely read and widely taught. The late Harvey Pekar’s name is, if not a household name, as close to one as those of most prose authors get in America. Thanks to Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel and Jeffrey Brown and John Porcellino and Joe Matt and Chester Brown and dozens of other cartoonists, journalism, autobiography and memoir are successful, respected, even commonplace genres for the graphic novel, which, it’s worth highlighting, is a term that exists now.
In fact, autobiographical graphic novels are so mainstream that Jess Fink’s We Can Fix It reads like an outlier — a subversive, transgressive reversion to the good old bad days of comics. Her new memoir, with its fictive premise, is differentiated from most in the genre by the prominent inclusion of elements from the medium’s trashy superhero and humor past. Its protagonist wears a skin-tight bodysuit, she travels through time in a big, goofy time machine that goes ZIPPITY ZAP, and there’s a sixth-grade lunch period’s worth of scatalogical humor.
Despite the embrace of the low-brow aspects of comics history — We Can Fix It looks and reads like an autobiographical comic book, not an autobiographical graphic novel — Fink’s new work ultimately ends up in the same thoughtful, dramatic, epiphany-having place that the slicker, more obviously literature-focused comics works do. This is a very funny comic book that is functions as an effective piss-take on the autobio genre while, remarkably enough, simultaneously being one hell of an autobiography.
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.
IDW may be one of the Big Five publishers in the direct market — that is, one of the five publishers whose titles are listed separately from those of the hoi polloi in Diamond Comic Distributors’ Previews catalog. But unlike the Biggest Two, IDW’s line consists mainly of comics based on a variety of licensed concepts*, and therefore do not feature shared settings like the DC Universe or the Marvel Universe.
You’d think that would prohibit the company from doing the sorts of line-wide crossover stories that DC and Marvel have been pumping out with regularity, but IDW has found a pretty clever way to have its licensed comics cake and eat its intra-company crossovers as well, by dreaming up a fairly generic threat, and then having that threat appear in a bunch of unrelated comics whose characters never really meet.
Rather than all the characters teaming up to fight the same threat on the same battlefield at the same time, as in your Crisis on Infinite Earths or Civil War or whatnot, IDW’s crossovers are a bit more like individual battles in large-scale wars taking place in different dimensions.
So, for example, 2011′s Infestation crossover pitted zombies from the publisher’s Zombies Vs. Robots comics against characters from G.I. Joe, Transformers, The Ghostbusters and Star Trek, in two-issue miniseries set in different universes. That was followed by Infestation 2, in which Lovecraftian space-god-monster-things invaded the home universes of G.I. Joe, Transformers, Dungeons & Dragons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and 30 Days of Night.
More recently, IDW published a much smaller-scale, simpler crossover story of sorts in Mars Attacks …, in which the little green skull-faced men of the 1960s Topps collectible cards (and 1996 Tim Burton movie) “invaded” comics featuring a comically diverse group of licensed characters. For the more patient among us, it arrived in trade format this month, in a collection titled Mars Attacks IDW.
What is it about childhood that makes us forget about ours so easily? Whether consciously or not, we seem all too eager to not only put our younger years behind us, but obliterate them from our memories. Even as parents we frequently grow exasperated and angry with our own children, seemingly incapable of remembering what it was like to be little.
While many cartoonists are cited for their “childlike” abilities, precious few are able to accurately convey what it actually feels like to be a child – what makes up the significant joys and anxieties of your average 12- or 6- or 3-year-old and how they best express those complicated emotions.
There are a few, however. Lynda Barry is one, Kazuo Umezu is another. Add to that short list Gilbert Hernandez, as evidenced by his latest book, the excellent Marble Season.
It’s the episodic story of Huey, a the middle child of a moderately sized family living in California in the mid-1960s. His adventures, such as they are, consist of avoiding scary things, like neighborhood bullies or the crazy lady in the spooky house down the road; discovering cool stuff, like Mars Attacks cards; and inventing and playing games with the kids in the neighborhood. Taking a page from Peanuts, we never see Huey’s parents or any of his teachers (indeed we never see him in a classroom). The entire book is staged and presented from the viewpoint of Huey, his brothers and their friends.
The title of Tom Gauld‘s You’re All Just Jealous of My Jet Pack, a collection of the Goliath artist’s comic strips from The Guardian, comes from the punchline of one of his many gags about literature (you’ll be hard-pressed to find another collection with half as many jokes about Charles Dickens as this one). A small circle of dull-looking people identified with an arrow as “Proper Literature” are tut-tutting, while an astronaut with a rocket-shaped jet pack, shooting out fire, billowing black smoke and little star-shaped sparks, identified by arrow as “Science Fiction,” diagnoses their problem with him (a comic strip is, of course, worth a thousand of my words; see above).
If sci-fi’s great advantage over proper literature is its cool stuff, like jet packs, then comics’ great advantage over prose is that we can not only imagine jet packs, but we also get to see what they might like look like as filtered through the imagination of an artist with a unique and compelling style. Someone like, oh, say, Tom Gauld.
Note: My schedule has been all goofy lately which means I haven’t been able to post on a regular weekly basis or contribute to Cheat Sheet or What Are You Reading in the manner I’d like to. I know: Wah, wah, wah.
Meanwhile, the books keep piling up. And piling up.
So, in an effort to assuage my guilt, I attempted to run through some of the titles I’ve received in the mail in the past few months. Warning: I might do this again. I might not. I’m mercurial.
You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack by Tom Gauld (Drawn & Quarterly)
As appreciative as I am that we live in an era when cartoonists are encouraged to, and do, create lengthy, thoughtful, multi-layered stories, there’s something to be said for the simple pleasures of a gag strip – the fleeting joy that a really short, well-constructed joke can provide. I didn’t realize how much I missed that sort of thing until I read You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, a collection of short strips that cartoonist Tom Gauld did for The Guardian. The bulk of the strips play upon classic stories, genre fiction or publishing in general. Gauld’s jokes are are silly enough and play upon familiar cliches well enough to make the reader feel smart even if you haven’t read, say, Zola’s “Germinal.” His minimalist, silhouetted style helps get the joke across as well. He’s also rather fond of diagrams and maps, which puts him in good company with folks like New Yorker cartoonists Roz Chast and Jack Ziegler I didn’t care much for Gauld’s last book, Goliath, which I thought milked a rather weak joke (gosh, the Biblical Goliath was actually a really nice guy!) but Jetpack had me frequently laughing out loud in the way that only my favorite comic strips do. Comics need more of this sort of “get in, get out quick” work right now and I’m happy that Gauld is here to fill that void.
It seems like only last year that artist Lisa Hanawalt’s illustrated reviews/reactions to movies like War Horse and The Vow at online magazine The Hairpin were making me laugh and grab the closest person to the computer to cajole with “Dude, you have to read this!”
And now Drawn and Quarterly has released a beautifully designed collection of some 120 pages of Hanawalt’s work, including those illustrated humor pieces, comics and straight-up “fine art” artwork.
What’s that? It was only last year? Wow. D+Q sure didn’t waste any time on putting a Hanawalt collection together, but anything that brings the artist to the attention of more readers is fine with me — it will cut down on my cajoling friends, family and co-workers.
My Dirty Dumb Eyes assembles a great deal of Hanawalt’s previously published work from all over, meaning you can find much of it online for free, but the book format doesn’t bombard you with a low dose of electrical radiation, and is therefore much safer to read.
Something like a cross between fan fiction and minicomics, doujinishi are most often defined as self-published parodies, extrapolations or fantasies revolving around popular, existing (and generally copyright-protected) characters and franchises. They’re generally created by fans for other fans, although the doujinishi culture is so pervasive in Japan that the phenomenon is tolerated and, in some cases, even encouraged and participated in by professional creators (and copyright holders).
Western otaku have likely seen more than their fair share of doujinshi, but more casual Western comics fans likely haven’t had any real exposure.
Enter Dark Horse’s recent Neon Genesis Evangelion: Comic Tribute, an officially sanctioned, professionally curated and created, $11, 170-page doujinishi-style anthology, produced and published in the digest-sized tankobon format made familiar to American manga fans over the past decade and a half or so.
But what is it, exactly? A bunch of different manga creators, the most prominent among them probably being Sgt. Frog‘s Mine Yoshizaki, providing short, parodic riffs on various aspects of the Evangelion franchise. Think of it as the manga equivalent of a celebrity roast.
I like interpersonal melodrama and physical conflict between people possessing fantastical powers and wearing unusual costumes as much as the next guy, even here on ROBOT 6 at Comic Book Resources, where pretty much everyone likes such things a whole lot.
As fond as I am of the superhero genre, however, there’s room in my heart for other genres, like that of Giant Monsters Wrecking Stuff. Obviously, there are many more superheroes comics than giant-monster comics, as comics are the superhero’s home medium, and the giant monster belongs first and foremost to film. That said, there are still a goodly amount of giant-monster comics, many of which are good giant-monster comics.
Here’s one, for example: Kodoja Terror Mountain Showdown #1.
Kodoja is a super-slick, self-published, black-and-white giant-monster comic by writer Keith Foster and artist Rory Smith. The title character is the monster, a 15-story-tall man-made “mondroid” (as one character calls it, only to be told, “Technically, the correct term is ‘DNA Droid’”) that was apparently built by the United States military and then decommissioned for being a little too good at destroying things.
“Ah, young love,” the poets like to sigh. But as intense and memorable as childhood (and early adulthood) romance can be, it can also be fraught with insecurity, awkwardness and trauma, a fact Canadian cartoonist Patrick McEown underlines in his latest graphic novel, Hair Shirt.
The story centers on John, a veguely insecure twentysomething who, while mourning the death of a long-term relationship, stumbles into the arms of Naomi, a former childhood sweetheart who happens to be attending the same university.
And while John seems happy to reconnect with Naomi, it’s clear from the start their budding relationship is fraught with problems. For one thing, both John and Naomi are haunted by the ghost of Chris, Naomi’s rather swinish older brother who died in a car crash when they were teenagers. Chris and John had been friends as kids, and there seems to be a cloud of guilt and apprehension hanging over John concerning how his relationship with Chris soured as the latter became more of an obnoxious bully. While never completely stated, John hints at horrible things that happened to Naomi in her formative years, and there’s a specter of abuse — either physical or sexual — that haunts her and by extension John.
If one were writing a history of film, 1961′s Gorgo would barely merit a footnote, if that. Even if one were writing a history of monster movies, Gorgo likely wouldn’t get much attention, perhaps only being mentioned in relation to King Kong, Godzilla or the original Lost World, all of which obviously influenced parts of the film.
So if it’s such a relatively minor work in its own medium, what makes it important to comics art scholars and connoisseurs? Well, it earned its own comic book series from Charlton between 1961 and 1965, much of which was drawn by Steve Ditko … at the same time he was co-creating Marvel’s flagship character Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, during what was one of the most fruitful periods of American mainstream comics-making.
That’s the subject of Steve Ditko’s Monsters Vol. 1: Gorgo, an IDW Publishing/Yoe Books effort that collects about 200 pages of the Joe Gill-written, Ditko-drawn Gorgo comics, after a fairly thorough introduction by Craig Yoe contextualizing them. (Those Gorgo comics by other artists like Joe Sinnott and Vince Colletta are likely also worthy of revisiting, but outside the scope of this book, which is devoted to Gorgo as part of Ditko’s career, not the other way around.)
Justice League International had respectable sales, but nevertheless was one of the earlier cancellations of DC Comics’ New 52. Justice League Dark is similarly doing decent business, but, like JLI, it’s still not doing anything close to the monster sales of the Geoff Johns-written flagship Justice League.
So it’s not exactly surprising that DC is taking another whack at expanding the Justice League into a franchise, and that for this second attempt, Johns is involved. On Wednesday the publisher debuted Justice League of America and Justice League of America’s Vibe, and both will almost certainly be considered successes (the former has more than 50 state-specific variant covers as an added kick in the pants).
But are they good comics? I could answer yes or no, but that would make for an awfully short post. Join me below for a discussion of each.