Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hey Kids! Comics!

Blustery and frigid winter has made February its home here. We got a mild November and December, January could not make up its mind, but the last 2 weeks have been definitive, lock down winter.

We even have snow, of which the Squish approves. I feel cheated when it's frigid and brown. I love the kind of minimalist landscape and diffuse light that the snow brings, and would probably be distilling the bleached gray blues and fat yellowy whites in ink on paper right now, if I hadn't committed to some part time work to pay some bills.

That will come. Right now I'm bunkered in, fiddling with my rabbit ears to pick up al Jazeera reports on Egypt; peeking in on the yearly cultural car wreck of the Helmet Bowl, the epitome of American Sporting Exceptionalism (one team wearing garish satin capri pants will be declared "World" Champion, but I've usually forgotten which one it is by May).

Mostly I've been reading. I have a small stack of Atlantic Monthly, featuring the usual blend of abstract speculations, mixed with hard nosed, iconoclastic bubble-bursting (After expounding on Tea-Baggers' inherent self absorption, one recent issue advised that coal is the key to our energy future.)

The latest McSweeney's is always a good read, if you can ignore their bizarre, almost perverse, love affair with Roddy Doyle. OK, I actually read the latest thing for once, and it was a sort of a departure, meaning, not quite as "Commitments"-like. You also have to indulge them in a typical, gratuitously silly short story about a Pontiac Sunfire that enrolls in high school. But I like that they're not afraid to try different things.

But this here bloggy-blog is going to be about comics.

There are several graphic novels out in the last few months that are worth a peek. I've been playing catch-up on these, as the outlay has gone up, and all the big names get a release date near Christmas.

For those who don't indulge in this far corner of the literary universe (including those who don't consider it even a part of the literary universe), a bit of recent history: As the alternative comics movement, which traces its lineage back to R. Crumb and Mad magazine, has made a progressively larger impression on the mainstream, with some of the bigger names appearing in the Times and New Yorker etc, the publishing strategy has transitioned from traditional comic book format to a more European "album" format. This means top artists are being seen in nicely bound, even hardback Tintin-style books which appear about once a year. This makes for attractive, more easily accessible complete stories that appeal to the adult they're written for, rather than the booklet form, which adult readers still associate with adolescent entertainment. it also makes for prices in the 15-$25 range, rather than 3-$5, but perhaps I'm getting bitter.

I'll start with a title I've spoken of before, Love and Rockets, which is a continuing story (30 years, now!), but which contains semi-complete episodes within the larger whole. Love and Rockets New Stories #3 is such a jumping on point. There are several stories written by two brothers, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. Gilbert's stories tend to be bizarre, cinematic and hyper violent. They have their rabid fans and are interesting to me, but I'll concentrate on my favorite of Los Bros, Jaime. He presents three separate but subtly interconnected tales here, and looks to have returned to his "Locas" ( "Crazy Women") storyline after a diversion into a tangentially connected space fantasy.

Two of the tales take place in modern day suburban L.A. and concern his primary heroine, Maggie Chascarillo, and one takes place in 50's Oxnard, CA, and fills in details about Maggie's youth. They're worth reading for their cleanly written dialogue and simple graphic power. You sense the vast backstory underlying the characters, but the subtly interacting narratives here are perfectly functional as independent tales.

"Wilson" , by "Ghost World" auteur Dan Clowes is a completely self contained book , which actually features a series of blackly humorous one-page gags. There is a complex set of influences in the shifting styles, including "Peanuts" and Mad Magazine, and as we follow the main character, we realize that these gags are interconnected, too, and a satiric narrative on the notion of "family" emerges.

"Wally Gropius", by Tim Hensley, a newcomer, satirizes 60's comics such as Richie Rich and John Stanley teen comics with a visually kinetic and subversive, sometimes even surreal, sight-gag type humor.

Comics superstar Chris Ware has also published a new episode in his ongoing Acme Novelty Library (#20), and though interconnected with other ongoing characters, this story is actually a stand-alone tale of one person's life and struggle to find meaningful connection. Ware can be a real mope, but his quiet depiction of aging, and his hugely influential design sense which has expanded well beyond the borders of comics and into popular culture at large, make him the first name in modern graphic narrative. Though he will probably never equal his breakthrough masterpiece, "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth".

X'ed Out is the latest opus of Raw Magazine veteran Charles Burns. This may be the most intriguing new book on the list. Raw, which kept the flag flying for cutting edge, adult oriented graphics during the 70's and 80's, has given us many breakthrough artists over the years, such as Art Spiegelman (Maus); Gary Panter (Jimbo, Peewee's Playhouse, and countless Zappa LP covers) and David Sandlin (Land of a Thousand Beers).

Burns has been contributing to The Believer magazine, and has now released a hardback album format graphic novel, which is not complete, but this is the first segment, so it's a good time to jump in. Burns traffics in the horror that lurks just behind the mundane, and seems to be on his game here. We enter immediately a dream-like mise en scene which carries over even after the main character has "woken up", as if the whole story was the kind of lucid, cyclic dream in which you believe you've awoken, only to realize you are dreaming still. The art is clean and depthlessly noir. We'll have to see if Burns can keep the narrative moving as briskly as the first segment; his last major work, Black Hole, did seem to bog down a bit.

You can get a nice, inexpensive overview of current efforts by these and other artists by seeking out The Anthology of Graphic Fiction by Ivan Brunetti, which seems to have entered the close out market. Brunetti, with out getting didactic, tries to link all the diverse strands of this movement toward comics' artistic maturity, and even throws in a few of the lesser known classics of the newspaper era.

Ultimately, the recent history of graphic fiction and humor is one of censorship and marginalization. Creative magnificence abounds, as well as truly affecting characterization, but as with 80's and 90's Rock, there's no way to see what you've been denied until you just jump in.


  1. Thanks for the tips. Slim pickings for graphic novels at my library branch, just found 'HitGirl' on the new books shelf.

  2. Not familiar with that, which is not unusual. Artist name? I'm always getting tips from others, especially Owen. We have a couple of faves in common, but the market is vast right now.

  3. Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.
    Movie was pretty good.