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.
The thing that amazes/impresses me the most about Kate Beaton’ comics is how much everyone loves them. OK, not everyone — I do know one or two stragglers that refuse to find anything amusing in her sly little comics — but a lot of people from disparate fan bases really like her stuff. Indie readers like Kate Beaton, Superhero fans like Kate Beaton,, and (perhaps most notably) people who hardly ever (if at all) read comics like Kate Beaton (like my wife). She crosses boundaries in a way I don’t think I’ve seen any modern cartoonist do, let alone a webcartoonist. I think that’s even more impressive when you consider how often she relies upon (relatively) obscure historical figures and literature as the basis for her strips.
Other than that I really don’t have much to say, except that those who own her first book, Never Learn Anything From History, and haven’t bought this one yet because they’re worried it reprints the same material can relax; it doesn’t. Basically if you appreciate intelligence, wit (or smartassery) and the chance to learn something on the side, then this is the book for you.
More reviews after the jump …
As insufferably precious as Sara Varon’s comics can seem at first glance, they’re frequently suffused with a melancholy that belies their outward cutie-pie nature. Most of her books deal with the tricky nature of friendship, both our essential human need for connection and companionship and also how we often define our own identity through our contact with others. She rarely sugarcoats these relationships, either — Robot Dreams had a rather nasty betrayal at its focal point after all. That all can seem like heady stuff for an all-ages book, but Varon smartly refuses to delve too deep into psychology blather, preferring to keep the actions and visuals as simple and self-explanatory as possible.
Resistance, Volume 2: Defiance
Written by Carla Jablonski; Illustrated by Leland Purvis
First Second; $16.99
I have fond memories of reading the first volume of Resistance. I was on a road trip with my family last year and took it with me to read in the car along with First Second’s other kids-vs-nazis book, City of Spies. I couldn’t help but be struck by the different approaches each creative team took to their similar subject matter. City of Spies is a romping adventure book while Resistance looks seriously at the reality of what opposing the Germans must have been like for children. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition and I loved both approaches so much that in comparing the two I missed some other themes, at least in Resistance. I may have missed some in City of Spies too, but reading the second volume of Resistance all by itself has allowed me to see aspects of it that go deeper than just “boy, it must have been scary for kids in those days.”
There were several themes that I expected to find in Defiance: freedom, loyalty, courage; stuff like that. What I was surprised by was a strong message that hit closer to home than those lofty ideals: relationships – especially family ones – and how incredibly hard they are. It’s difficult to live with other people – even ones that you love – and balance the variety of needs and priorities that come with several people sharing their lives. Traditional family roles can help with that (for good or ill), but what happens when your country is occupied by invading forces and everything you know and are familiar with has been turned upside down if not completely destroyed? As a mother whose husband has been taken by the Germans to work in their labor camps, how do you balance the needs of your children with the demands of putting food on the table, especially when those very Germans are extorting your livelihood for their needs?
There’s so much going on in the life of poor Mme. Tessier that it’s tempting to focus on her, but this isn’t her story. Mostly it’s Paul’s, her only son, but also it’s Paul’s sisters, teenaged Sylvie and young Marie. Though not quite a teenager himself, Paul struggles with what it means to be the man of the family; balancing that responsibility with his passion for undermining the Germans’ control on his town any way that he can. He’s not doing a very good job of it though. It’s too much to ask of a young boy and helping the Resistance is getting in the way of supporting his mom, especially when he learns that the militant Maquis are camped in the woods nearby. Joining them would mean making a real difference; much more dramatic than drawing propaganda posters and distributing flyers.
Olympians, Volume 3: Hera – The Goddess and Her Glory
Written and Illustrated by George O’Connor
First Second; $9.99
I used to hate Hera. Still do, most of the time; the way she’s portrayed. I mean, even in the Greek mythology I read as a kid, Hera was always picking on Hercules; sneaking snakes into his crib; getting him to kill his own kids. And I liked Hercules. I grew up reading comics about him and catching the occasional Steve Reeves movie on Saturday afternoon TV. How could you not like a guy who killed an invulnerable lion and then wore its skin as armor? And none of those stories – right up to and including the ones with Kevin Sorbo – had anything good to say about Hera. Not until George O’Connor.
O’Connor’s been teasing his interpretation of the Queen of the Gods since the first volume of Olympians. That one was about Zeus, whom O’Connor presented as a hero, but one who couldn’t control his own libido. He’s not defined by his sex addiction, but it certainly influences his choices and makes life miserable for the women in his life. When Zeus first notices Hera in that volume, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for her. She’s just minding her own business, talking with a friend, and Zeus appreciates her from afar. “Oh, no,” I thought, knowing where that story would eventually end up.
This third volume of Olympians is where it ends up. Over the last couple of installments – and in interviews and on his blog – O’Connor’s been saying that Hera is his favorite goddess. He explains it again in the Author’s Notes to this book. “Part of it,” he writes, “is because she’s the one person that Zeus well and truly fears.” But the reason for that – and the reason she has the reputation that she does as a shrewish, jealous wife – is because Zeus is a terrible husband. The emphasis is O’Connor’s. So, though Hera’s always been my least favorite goddess, I’ve been eagerly awaiting O’Connor’s stab at changing my mind. His first two volumes, Zeus and Athena were so excellent that I had high expectations for Hera. If anyone could turn her into a hero, it was O’Connor.
Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips Vol. 2 (1936-1937)
by Roy Crane; edited by Rick Norwood
Fantagraphics Books, 156 pages, $39.99
Roy Crane may have been one of the progenitors of the adventure comic strip, but he stood quite apart from those who followed in his wake.
While the people who picked up his torch — folks like Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth, Alex Raymond and the like — shared a fondness for the same genre trappings — exotic locales, tough guy leading men, crazy cliffhangers, bursts of fisticuffs and pretty girls — those artists were devotees of a highly illustrative, almost photo-realistic style. It was a style that quickly became one of the most predominant in the medium, at least where melodrama was concerned, as folks like Raymond influenced folks like Joe Kubert, Alex Toth and Neal Adams, who then influenced folks like George Perez and John Romita Jr. and so forth and so on, until we end up at Rob Liefeld on one end and Greg Land on the other.
But unlike all of those folk, Crane was a cartoonist of the big foot, “plop” pratfall school, less interested in perfectly capturing than in giving a guy a funny potato nose or having stars appear in circles around someone’s noggin after getting whacked upside the head with a bat or broom or even a walking cane. He was just as interested in a quick, and maybe even occasionally cheap, laugh as he was at chronicling the rip-roaring adventure stuff.
By Roger Langridge
Roger Langride, writer of the Muppet Show comics and Thor: Mighty Avenger, set the bar pretty high when he decided to use Lewis Carroll’s characters, the Walrus and the Carpenter, in his new comic, Snarked. Carroll is a tough act to follow, and there’s a big risk that the new characters will fall flat compared to the original.
Langridge has succeeded admirably, however, in not only making an enjoyable comic but making one in which his story is both an original creation and true to its roots. Carroll’s walrus and carpenter use witty-sounding conversation as misdirection while they lure unsuspecting oysters to their dinner plates. Langridge’s characters, cast as lovable swindlers in some vague past, fast-talk their way into the palace to steal some food from the king’s kitchen, but unlike in the poem, they wind up with empty stomachs after all.
Snarked #0 is a tease, a one-dollar prequel to the series, which launches with issue #1 in October. This comic features an eight-page story, plus some special bonus content—puzzles, a fake diary and newspaper that relate to the story, and all of Carroll’s poems “The Hunting of the Snark” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” with the original illustrations.
Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Vol. 1: Race to Death Valley
by Floyd Gottfredson; edited by David Gerstein and Gary Groth
Fantagraphics Books, 288 pages, $29.99
It must seem difficult for younger generations to fully understand just how integral Mickey Mouse once was to the Disney franchise. While at one time his smiling, three-circle face was the iconic symbol for the company, today that image has been shoved aside to make room for Cinderella’s castle. The Disney bread is now officially buttered by a bunch of divas and Buzz Lightyear. These days Mickey is relegated to stalwart supporting cast member, fit for entertaining the preschooler crowd on daytime television, though efforts like the recent Epic Mickey video game show an interest in making him a viable player in their stable once more.
Even for my generation (that’s Gen X for those of you keeping score), understanding Mickey’s appeal was a tough proposition at times given how bland he seemed to appear in various cartoons and other products we or our parents were expect to shell good money out for. Everything about him stank of goody-two-shoes pitchman. No wonder he eventually faded from the limelight.
by Yuichi Yokoyama
Picturebox, 320 pages, $24.95.
It might seem odd at first glance to describe Yuichi Yokoyama’s work as dynamic, given his minimalist, antiseptic style that edges ever so closely to outright abstraction without ever crossing the line. Yet a close inspection of his work, particularly his latest book, Garden, shows what an utterly apt adjective it is. Nothing of significance ever happens in Yokoyama’s world, at least not in the sense we think of it when talking about narrative. There’s precious little plot per se, no threats or crisis, and no character development to speak of. Yet everything is in constant motion, in constant flux, if not already transforming then ready to be transformed into something else or at least be moved about. No one stands still in Garden, and their actions are depicting in tight close ups, off-kilter worm’s-eye-views or panoramic vistas. He’s Jack Kirby without the bombast or violence.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
by Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn and Quarterly, 368 pages, $24.95.
Disclaimer: At the request of the publisher, I wrote a letter of recommendation when they were applying for a grant from a nonprofit organization to aid in the publication and promotion of this book.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is nothing less than a spit in the face of militarism, war and feudal attitudes. It is an angry book, but it doesn’t shriek its indignation, though the temptation certainly seems to be there. There are few histrionics on display or scenes of outright, explicit condemnation. Rather, the book is content to let the general inhumanity on display speak for itself.