One big potential problem with any Superman incarnation is his relationship with the audience. Even if the story centers around a credible moral dilemma, it risks having him make a choice with which the audience disagrees. Put another way, you can start with a Superman with a definite code of ethics, who always tries to do the right thing, and who puts others’ welfare above his own, and you might still end up with the Injustice comic, the pure-Straczynski issues of “Grounded,” or Superman Returns. For a significant group of fans, these are cautionary examples of How Not To Do Superman (although apparently those Injustice comics sell reasonably well…).
Accordingly, it helps if the audience trusts the particular Superman writer, which is where Scott Snyder, David Goyer, and Christopher Nolan come in. Snyder is already a big deal at DC thanks to his Batman work. Likewise, last year Goyer (screenwriter) and Nolan (producer/director) wrapped up a wildly successful Batman film trilogy.
Still, it’s easy to do Batman. For one thing, Batman doesn’t need to be a nice guy. Like James Bond or Don Draper, his main focus is the work, and the style with which he gets the particular job done. If Bats gets to make a hard moral choice, as he did at the conclusion of The Dark Knight, that’s just gravy.
With that in mind, we turn to the week’s two newest Superman vehicles, one an ongoing comic book, and the other a new film incarnation, to see what choices they present to our hero.
There’s a growing number of small-press publishers popping up these days, from Koyama Press to Oily Comics and beyond. No doubt that’s in large part due to the increasing number of indie-comics conventions like CAKE and SPX, the relative ease of selling your work online, more and more cartoonists trained in basic printing and business skills thanks to schools like the Center for Cartoon Studies, and perhaps even more affordable printing technologies. (I’m guessing at that last one. OK, I’m guessing at all of these.)
Whatever the reason, we are blessed (or, depending on your viewpoint, cursed) with a plethora of minicomics from new and up-and-coming cartoonists. Here then are some short-ish reviews of minis that came to my doorstep from two relatively new publishers: Yeti Press and Retrofit Comics.
Our Ever Improving Living Room by Kevin Budnik ($20): This is a chunky-sized collection of a series of four-panel journal comics Budnik did while attending college. It’s similar in style and presentation to James Kochalka’s American Elf, although Budnik portrays himself as being a bit more reserved and anxious than Kochalka. It seems like just about everyone and their cat is doing a diary comic of some form these days, and while I can appreciate how the daily rigamarole of that type of comic can improve one’s artistic and storytelling skill, there’s always a danger in discovering that the examined life turns out to be rather dull. While he’s not above highlighting the cute moment or indulging in some unnecessary naval-gazing, Budnik manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of his peers by possessing a self-effacing sense of humor and an appreciation for the minor victories and miseries of life. This is early work, and rough at times, but it shows a good deal of promise and I want to see what he does next.
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.
by Basil Wolverton
Fantagraphics Books, 272 pages, $39.99
When Fantagraphics and editor Paul Karasik re-introduced comic book readers to the work of Fletcher Hanks via the books I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets and You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation, the work seemed like a complete anomaly, separate in tone and manner from what every other Golden Age cartoonist was doing in the then-nascent medium.
Now, with the release of Spacehawk, Basil Wolverton’s sci-fi superhero series, it’s clear that Hanks’ work wasn’t as much of an oddity as previously thought. While Spacehawk isn’t quite as surreal or unsettling as any of Hanks’ best stories, it nonetheless shares some of the same crazed brutality.
“Hey Izadore! I’ve just realized that you have microscopic tribes of violent spore lords living on the surface of one of your eyeballs! One eye is at war with the other and both sides have been using your brain as a nightmare particle factory and fueling their attack vehicles with your blood! What are you going to do?”
What are you going to do indeed? So goes a sample of dialogue from Theo Ellsworth’s latest book, The Understanding Monster, the first volume in a projected three-book series. As the above excerpt might suggest, this is a trippy, almost hallucinatory comic, given to frequent bouts of digression. There’s a temptation to call it psychedelic, although that seems too limiting. Suffice it to say that that it’s an experience utterly unlike any other comic that’s out right now.
Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories
By Harvey Kurtzman et al.; edited by Gary Groth
Fantagraphics Books, 240 pages, $28.99
Came the Dawn and Other Stories
By Wallace Wood, et al.; edited by Gary Groth
Fantagraphics Books, 208 pages, $28.99
In an essay that ran in issue #250 of The Comics Journal – and was recently republished on the Hooded Utilitarian website – the critic Ng Suat Tong took to task one of the comics’ most sacred cows, EC. In the essay, entitled EC Comics and the Chimera of Memory, Suat argues that nostalgia has blinded critics and readers to EC’s many faults; that while the house that Bill Gaines built might have influenced many and laid the groundwork for the underground era, the stories themselves rarely deserve the lofty reputation they have attained.
While I don’t agree with everything Suat says in his essay — I think he’s far too harsh on poor Bernie Krigstein for example — I do agree with several of his points. My main takeaway from his essay is that we need to be more careful and much more selective when discussing EC’s aesthetic value. Rather than saying “Mad was great,” we should be saying which stories in Mad were great because, as anyone whose read the first three issues knows, Kurtzman and company weren’t always firing on all cylinders. In fact, a good deal of the EC material could be less than stellar to put it mildly, and many stories that were initially regarded as exemplary haven’t held up well over time.
There are two things I love about Sam Hiti’s work. One is his unique artistic style; his stuff looks like nothing else on the planet. But as much as I love that, what I especially look forward to in his books is layered storytelling. Even when I can’t read the language he’s writing in, like the Spanish comic El Largo Tren Oscuro, Hiti’s visuals communicate that there are multiple things going on for anyone paying attention. That’s especially true in longer graphic novels like Tiempos Finales and Death-Day.
I wasn’t sure then what to expect from Hiti’s first children’s book, Waga’s Big Scare. I knew I’d love the art, but what would the story be like? Fortunately, Hiti’s one of those authors who knows that children can handle more than people usually give them credit for, both in terms of story and frights. Waga is a demonic little monster that’s lost his “scare.” Hiti doesn’t explicitly describe what that means, nor why Waga will disappear if he doesn’t get his scare back by morning, but there’s food for thought there if you want to figure out what the scare represents and how it relates to nighttime. The story works on different levels.
Children and adults both will relate to looking for something that’s gone missing, just as everyone will delight in the spooky, creature-filled landscapes and scenes Hiti creates for Waga to go searching through: monster parades, creepy woods, graveyards, and dark, dank caves. There’s also a growing sense of urgency and tension reminiscent of The Monster at the End of this Book. The closer Waga gets to the end of the story, the more worried I got that he wouldn’t find his scare.
But then, why was I rooting for him in the first place? Hiti describes him early on as “the meanest, trickiest, most terrible monster that ever lived.” Do I really want him to get his big scare back? Don’t I want him to fail and disappear? It’s to the book’s great credit that the answer to that last question is “no” and I imagine it’ll be the same for kids.
Go, Waga, go! Find that scare and terrify the poop out of me.
Although I sometimes revisit old favorites of mine, I never re-read a book as soon as I’m done with it. Ever. Life’s too short, and I have too much on my reading pile, so it just isn’t done. It is a Rule. But it’s a rule I broke with Sailor Twain.
When I finished it the first time, I had a feeling similar to the one I had after seeing The Sixth Sense. Sailor Twain doesn’t rely on a big reveal at the end the way that movie does – Mark Siegel unpacks the mysteries of his story slowly and all along its course – but at the end I still wanted to go back and re-read earlier chapters knowing what I’d learned in later ones. And the experience of the book was so enchanting the first time that I wouldn’t mind reliving that again as well.
Sailor Twain begins at the end with the title character Captain Elijah Twain sitting with a beautiful woman in a rough-looking pub near the Hudson River. They’re impatient with each other. She’s eager to learn what he knows about the death of someone they were both close to; he’s eager not to tell her. But she presents a curious stone on a necklace, and that’s enough to make him tell the tale.
What hath Larry Gonick wrought?
OK, the author of such acclaimed books as the Cartoon History of the Universe and the Cartoon Guide to Genetics isn’t the only person responsible for the glut of nonfiction graphic novels that litter bookstore shelves every year — folks like Scott McCloud and Joe Sacco share some responsibility as well. Still, when considering the plethora of comics about the Constitution, or philosophy or science or history that have come out in the past decade, it’s hard not to see how Gonick’s success has resulted in more and more .
Gonick’s influence is certainly all over Economix, a detailed look at how the economy — specifically, the U.S. economy — operates. Writer Michael Goodwin unabashedly pays homage to Gonick in the acknowledgments and indeed, the book mimics Gonick’s rhythms and format to a tee: Namely, present a fact in the text and then underline or undercut it with a visual joke.
The book is more history lesson than economy textbook, spanning from the medieval era to modern day while pausing every so often to delve into a particular author’s theories, such as those of Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes.
The main thrust of the book is on American economics, though, and Goodwin doesn’t have any problems letting readers know where he stands. A confirmed Keynesian, he views most conservative, laissez-faire policies as detrimental to the economy and out of touch with reality, to put it mildly. To his credit, he is methodical in his reasoning and fact-checking, and his viewpoint certainly aligns with my own, but I find it hard in this abrasive, partisan age to imagine any reader with the slightest conservative leanings to be willing to regard Goodwin’s thesis with anything less than disdain.
Are You My Mother is one tough nut of a book. Dense, analytical, filled with allusions to classic literature and psychoanalysis, it consciously resists easy interpretation or tried and true conventions. It’s an adventurous, thoughtful and fascinating book — I have no qualms about recommending it — but it’s chilly and distancing, and I suspect it will frustrate many readers, even those who cherished author Alison Bechdel’s previous book Fun Home.
Mother is in many ways a direct sequel to Fun Home, Bechdel’s highly touted and incredibly successful (at least in comic book terms) memoir of her father. It’s not impossible to come to Mother never having read any of Bechdel’s previous work, but the book refers directly to issues raised in Fun Home, so being acquainted will undoubtedly help.
Best of Enemies: A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations, Part One 1783-1953
by Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B.
Self Made Hero, 120 pages, $24.95
Perhaps it’s just the tenor of the times (quite likely) or perhaps it’s the influence of Joe Sacco (not quite as likely but still a possibility) but there’s been a lot of graphic novels focusing on the Middle East lately. In the realm of fiction there’s Craig Thompson’s Habibi, G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker’s Cairo and the various works of Marjane Satrapi. In the realm of nonfiction, there’s Sacco’s own Footnotes from Gaza. and Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Now two new books have joined the conversation on the nonfiction side of things: Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem and Best of Enemies, from historian Jean-Pierre Filiu and Epileptic author David B.
When the announcement broke that Rob Liefeld and Image Comics were reviving the Extreme Studios titles, I was pretty excited, and not because I was a huge fan of the imprint back in the day. In fact, the only Extreme titles I can remember buying and reading were the first few issues of Youngblood. The whole Image Comics phenomenon hit around a time that my interest in superheroes was waning, as I started to shift more to things like Sandman. So as they left Marvel’s biggest superhero books, gradually I did, too, at least for a little while. And I didn’t replace them with these new books from the hot young company formed by seven rebels who decided to forge their own path. No, I was on to Neil Gaiman and Jeff Smith and Hellblazer and Sin City and other things.
I do remember the Image thing as being a huge phenomenon, though. I remember my friend Mike showing me the CNN segment he had recorded about the birth of Image Comics, about how all these guys who made X-Men, Spider-Man, etc. such hot titles had decided to do the unthinkable and form their own company. I remember seeing Liefeld on Dennis Miller, the Levi’s 501 ads, the long lines at the Dallas Fantasy Fair for a bunch of artists who weren’t even the original seven, but still commanded an enthusiastic crowd … I remember being at the comic book store flipping through a copy of some random title when two kids and their mom came in looking for the Bloodstrike “Rub the Blood” cover. They came in, bought their weekly allowance’s worth of Image books, and taped them all up in bags with the hopes, I guess, that they’d be worth something some day. “Aren’t you going to read them?” I asked. They just looked at me. “They don’t read their comics,” their mom said proudly. Ah, the 1990s.
Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth
By Jon Chad
Roaring Brook Press $15.99.
This is a clever, literally slim book, designed as skinny as possible in order to highlight its central conceit. You see, the running gag here is that you have to turn the book sideways to follow Leo on his downward trek to the Earth’s core, and then turn it another 180 degrees as he heads back up.
The book combines science with fantasy, with Leo discovering lost worlds filled with crazy monsters while spouting out science facts like “Some countries like New Zealand and Iceland harness the awesome power of lava for their own uses in heating and generating electricity. Though the juxtaposition of fantasy and hard facts seems a bit jarring, it actually adds to the book’s charm. There’s something about a guy standing on a giant underground ogre while discussing thermal generators that’s too silly to dislike.
Though Leo himself is one step up from a stick figure, Chad fills the pages with as much detail as possible and his ornate underworld scenes take on a “Where’s Waldo”-like mania at times, especially as he eschews panel borders to instead depict various versions of Leo crawling across a wide (but narrow) vista. Basically, it’s a fun introduction to geology that the elementary-school set will really dig (sorry, couldn’t help the pun).
I spent the weekend reading big piles of children’s graphic novels, prepping for my Eisner judging duties. There were two that stood out to me for the same reason: They demanded more of the reader than just following along. While they are clearly intended for young readers, both are interesting enough to hold an adult’s attention and would definitely make good gifts for a child who will immediately demand that you read them aloud.
Written by Victor Quinaz; Drawn by Brent Schoonover
The premise of Mr. Murder is Dead isn’t a unique one. It’s the story of a retired, Dick Tracy-like, police detective whose arch-enemy turns up murdered. As the cops investigate the crime, the detective – who may or may not have committed the act; that’s part of the mystery – wrestles with his own aging and what it means to his life that such a central part of it is now gone. Aging heroes aren’t new, nor is the technique of looking back on their lives through a series of retro-looking comics, but Quinaz and Schoonover bring depth to the concept that’s missing from similarly-themed books.
Most of the books like this that I’ve read have a strong meta-context to them about the history of heroic fiction. Depending on the author’s point-of-view, the point is often to either glorify or demonize the past in comparison with contemporary trends in adventure stories. If it’s venerating the Good Old Days (the more popular choice, I’ve noticed), the elderly hero will rail against the complicated darkness of modern stories by longing for simpler times depicted with clean lines and basic colors. If it takes a cynical view of Days of Yore, a younger protagonist may reflect on old injustices and stereotypes with art that highlights those elements. Mr. Murder, on the other hand, isn’t all that concerned about commenting on the past. At least, not our collective past. Its story is more personal than that and more affecting.
A better comparison for Mr. Murder would be something like Joshua Hale Fialkov and Noel Tuazon’s Tumor, also published by Archaia. The books are completely different in plot and tone, but they share an interest in looking at an old detective’s struggle to come to terms with his more exciting past. In Tumor, that takes the form of invasive memories making it difficult for Frank Armstrong to separate the past from the present. Mr. Murder’s Gould Kane (aka The Spook) is all there mentally, but has a ton of emotional crap to sort out: the murder of Kane’s fiancée on her wedding day, Kane’s later relationship with his dead bride’s best friend, the child that he may or may not share with her, his changing feelings about the law and what society owes him after so many years of service and sacrifice. Kane is a complex character and Mr. Murder rightly chooses to focus on him and his flaws. It’s not as interested in referencing or paying homage to crime noir stories as it is just being one itself. It goes about the business of doing that in a really interesting way though.