Posts tagged ‘Graphic Novels’

December 14, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / It All Happened So Fast

by Edwin Turner

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As seems to be the case more often than not in this series of write-ups on reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories, I’ve taken the title from the first line of the first panel (below); you can see the scale of this chapter in folded broadside in the pic above (which also reveals the heart of this episode).

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This particular episode focuses again on Lonely Girl/Married Mom/The Amputee, who has slowly emerged as the protagonist of Ware’s novel. Here, she deals with the news of her father’s illness, an event that brings her back to her childhood home repeatedly. The motif of homes and buildings evinces again too, of course—it’s a subtle but omnipresent device in Building Stories:

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And as always, Ware’s genius shows in the way he conveys so much truth in the smallest detail. Below he illustrates Lonely Girl’s disconnected relationship with her architect husband in just a panel:

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“It All Happened So Fast” is a fair name for this chapter—Ware’s panels illustrate the way that our lives (and the narrativizing of those lives) can become radically compressed, how our memories fail us, how seemingly trivial details anchor themselves to the emotional strata of our personalities even as concrete fact slips away. Still, another title could come from this panel:

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I’ll close this out by offering three panels that strike me as so utterly real, so wonderfully truthful, that I won’t bother to comment further:

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December 7, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Disconnect

by Edwin Turner

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“Disconnect,” one of the longer episodes in Chris Ware’s novel Building Stories, serves as a reminder of Ware’s strength as a prose writer. Wordiness tends to kill illustrated storytelling, at least in my estimation. Sure, there are exceptions—Joe Sacco and Harvey Pekar come to mind—but in general, I think comics are at their best when thought and word bubbles are uncluttered (or nonexistent).  Ware clearly understands the economy of his medium, and some of Building Stories’ finest moments have been wordless ones where Ware constructs the story in pure imagery. We can see so much of the plot and themes of  “Disconnect” in this full page, for instance:

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But Ware also packs plenty of storytelling into his prose in “Disconnect,” where he continues the story of Lonely Girl, who it’s probably better to now call Married Mom—I still think of her as Lonely Girl though, after first really meeting her in “September 23rd, 2000,” an episode ostensibly narrated by her diary. “Disconnect” is a second diary of sorts, her internal narration guiding us subtly through episodes in her life over a series of years. “Disconnect” focuses on LG/MM raising her young daughter against the backdrop of a strained marriage.

Lonely Girl/Married Mom’s observations ring particularly true. She points out that “When your children aren’t around, you miss them with every fiber of your being—but when they are, you just want to get them to bed so you can go read the news or something,” an observation simultaneously profound, disturbing, and banal. When our heroine recalls how her relationship to her pet cat changed after her child was born, I also saw shades of myself:  “The day we brought Lucy home, almost to the minute, all applied personality to Miss Kitty evaporated, and we saw her for what she was—an animal—and an animal who we were beholden to feed and house, with, suddenly it seemed, little to offer in return.”

Through Lonely Girl/Married Mom, Ware paints a portrait of modern disconnection and alienation, and, even as we sympathize with the heroine, Ware also allows us to see through her—or rather, to see what she can’t see, or to see what she refuses to see. The effect is an irony that tips into small, banal tragedy.

Ware’s prose is usually overshadowed by his gifts as a draftsman, an architect—he’s the builder of Building Stories, a fact that this chapter alludes to, both internally, intertextually, and metatextually. We learn, for example, that Branford the Bee is a story within a story:

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This nesting of stories emerges in the final part of “Disconnect,” wherein our aged narrator—addressing her grown daughter—relates a dream:

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The scene culminates so beautifully that it brought a little tear to my eye. Most postmodern novels contain (often more than once) their own descriptions, and Building Stories is no exception:

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And yet what we see here isn’t postmodern cleverness or empty gimmickry, but the evocation of dream and imagination and desire and creation—the spirit of the book, of what it means to build stories. Reading the final panels of “Disconnect,” I immediately recalled the epigraph to Building Stories (it’s on the interior of the box lid, by the colophon and dedication):

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November 5, 2012

Charles Burns Enriches His Wonderfully Weird Trilogy with The Hive

by Edwin Turner

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In X’ed Out, Charles Burns created a rich and strangely layered world focusing on Doug, a confused and injured young man. In his parents’ suburban basement, Doug parcels out the last of his late father’s painkillers, slipping from haunted memories of his relationship with Sarah into fevered nightmares of abject horror and then into a wholly other world, a realm that recalls William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this alien world, Doug takes on the features of Nitnit (an inversion of Tintin), the alter-ego he adopts when performing spoken word cut-ups as the opening act for local punk rock bands. What made X’ed Out so compelling (apart from Burns’s thick, precise illustration, of course), was the sense that this Interzone was a reality equal to Doug’s own “real world” — that it was somehow more real than Doug’s dreams.

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The Hive (part two of the proposed trilogy) deepens the richness and complexity of the world Burns has imagined. The title refers to a location in Interzone. Doug (or Nitnit) has found employment in The Hive as a kind of mail clerk or janitor. His primary role though is secret librarian, catering to the reading needs of the breeders of The Hive. One breeder seems to be a version of Doug’s ex-girlfriend; the other is a double of Sarah, who asks Doug/Nitnit to bring her romance comics—which he does—only he skips a few issues. These missing issues stand in for the information Doug (and Burns) withholds from the reader, the missing fragments that have been x’ed out.

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Burns uses romance comics as a framing or organizing device, a motif linking the disparate worlds of his narrative. In the “real world” — which is to say the world of Doug’s memory — we learn that he buys a stack of old romance comics for Sarah on their first date.

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Throughout the narrative, Burns plays his characters against the extreme, often hysterical dramas of 1950s and ’60s romance comics; his strong lines and heavy inks readily recall the early works of Simon and Kirby, but more precise and careful—something closer to Roy Lichtenstein, only more sincere, more emotional.

In The Hive, we learn more about Doug’s troubled relationship with Sarah, who has problems out the proverbial yingyang (not the least of which is a violent psychopathic ex-boyfriend).

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Burns weaves the story of Sarah and Doug’s relationship into the fallout of Doug’s father’s death—a death Doug was completely shuttered to, we realize. Doug’s drug-dreams dramatize the missing pieces of these narratives, and the Interzone set-pieces propel the mystery aspects of the narrative forward, as Doug’s alter-ego plumbs the detritus of his psychic fallout. Through the metatextual motif of reading-comic-books-as-detective-works, Burns explores themes of trauma, abjection, and distance. Images of pigs and cats, freaks and punks, portals and holes litter The Hive.

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Burns has always been a perfectionist of dark lines and strange visions, and his last full graphic novel Black Hole was a triumph of atmosphere and mood. With the first two entries of his trilogy, however, Burns has showed a significant maturation in storytelling, characterization, and dialogue. I often thought parts of Black Hole seemed forced or rushed (no doubt because Burns faced daunting production troubles during the decade he worked on the novel—including his original publisher Kitchen Sink folding). With X’ed Out and now The Hive we can see a more patient artist, working out an emotionally complex and compelling story in rich, symbolic layers.

I reread X’ed Out and then read The Hive in one greedy sitting; then I went through The Hive again, more slowly, more attendant to its details and nuances. We had to wait two years between X’ed Out and The Hive—and it was worth the two year wait. So if we must wait another two years—or more—for the final entry, Sugar Skull, so be it.

October 22, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / I just met

by Edwin Turner

Continuing kinda sorta where we left off

Not sure of the name of this episode, but I’ll refer to it as I just met, a phrase that repeats twice in a huge headlinish font that seems to suggest, y’know, title:

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I just met uses a few pages to tell the story of a deteriorating relationship—what happens when two twenty-somethings turn into two mid-to-late-thirtysomethings?

The comic opens with an establishing shot of what I take to be the building in Building Stories; we also get a glimpse of what I assume will be another character, the beehive, and a few other details that surely will attach themselves to these panels in future readings. We also get the general bitter tone of the couple’s relationship:

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He was one of those dudes who was once in a band; she was one of those chicks who thought guys in bands were cool.

The romance of their initial hookup is summed up neatly in the pic below; knowing Ware’s spare, precise style, the trash on the floor seems to scream symbolic detail!

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The hurt and disappointment in I just met unfolds over just a few painful pages—painful mostly in their concrete reality.

We know who these people are, even if we’re lucky enough not to be them.

Just as in  Branford, the Best Bee in the World , which I read earlier (although, to be clear again, there are no reading directions or prescriptions for Building Stories), there’s a theme of eternal recurrence, of mistakes playing out again and again in a painful, recursive loop.

Just when Ware threatens to overstate the mundane repetitions his principals suffer, he pulls off a daring and effective move, transposing his characters into the psychic collective memory of a future that’s in many ways already familiar. The effect is simultaneously jarring and oddly reassuring—the promise that our capacity for human connection and deep empathy will never buckle under the threat of drastic technological change, but also suggesting that the cost of maintaining this emotional constant is deep, ugly pain.

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January 11, 2011

JPL Hosts a Graphic Novel Workshop for Parents and Kids

by Biblioklept

For localish readers: Jacksonville Public Library will host a graphic novel workshop for parents and kids this Saturday. Info:

November 22, 2010

The Hunting of the Snark — Lewis Carroll (with Surreal New Illustrations by Mahendra Singh)

by Biblioklept

I scrapped my first two drafts for a review of Melville House’s new edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. The problem was that I was struggling to figure out Carroll’s Nonsense poem (subtitled An Agony in Eight Fits) about a ten man crew who take to the sea, to, you know, hunt a Snark. The Bellman seems to lead them. There’s the Banker, Baker, and other guys whose names start with “b” — including enemies the Beaver and the Butcher (who wind up tight allies). The poem is both silly and dense, rippling with weird wordplay and allusions that are, for the most part, beyond me. It’s often hard to follow, and sometimes has the effect of making the reader (or at least this reader) feel like he’s skating on the surface of some deeper profundities — or, alternately, maybe it’s just Nonsense, to use Carroll’s term.

Anyway. I solve my dilemma by retreating to the real occasion for reviewing the book, namely Mahendra Singh’s marvelous and strange illustrations. Singh, a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America (and an editor of their journal, Knight Letter), describes his illustrated version as “fitting Lewis Carroll into a proto-Surrealist straitjacket with matching Dada cufflinks.” In both its imagery and heavy, dark lines, Singh’s project readily recalls one of my favorite books, Max Ernst’s proto-graphic novel, Une Semaine de Bonté, as well as Henry Holiday’s original illustrations for the book. Singh lards his illustrations with visual paradoxes, puzzles, and puns, as well as references to artists ranging from de Chirico and Magritte to Dali and Bosch. There are also nods to pop culture (including the Beatles).  And Freud, because, hey, why not. Observe–

Singh’s puzzles, like Lewis’s, do not immediately reveal their meaning, but of course this is part of the joy of the book. In his instructive afterword, Singh tells us that “each drawing should make some sort of sense of the verse it explains or at least, make Nonsense.”  His greater goal though seems to be to share his love of Carroll with his readers (“in particular the younger ones”), who he hopes will “further pursue on their own that immense cultural heritage which silently — and so faithfully — awaits them.” My three year old daughter enjoyed the book very much, and had the good sense (Nonsense?) not to get too flummoxed over what Snark means. This is probably a wise course to follow. As Singh observes in his afterword, “whenever Carroll was asked what the poem meant, he always replied that he did not know. “Of course, just because its creator didn’t know its meaning (or at least claimed not to) doesn’t mean that Snark doesn’t have meaning–it’s just the kind of ambiguous meaning that floats around on dream logic, and Singh’s surrealism, with its playful, amorphous shifts, is the right choice to illustrate the poem. I’m not sure if “illustrate” is the right verb here, though. Certainly these are illustrations, but Singh’s goal isn’t so much to literally render Lewis’s words in pictures as it is to echo their spirit. Singh’s art works in tandem with the poem, accompanying it through symbolic and metaphorical transfers, arriving at times to weird conjunctions and discordances, and, perhaps, generating new meanings. Recommended.

The Hunting of the Snark is new in hardback this month from Melville House. More at Singh’s blog.

November 18, 2010

The AV Club Interviews Charles Burns

by Biblioklept

The AV Club’s Sam Adams interviews Charles Burns about Tintin, Burroughs, why he’s not involved in making the Black Hole movie, 1977, why he had to change how he colored his art, and his new book, X’ed Out. There’s also this nugget (we’d been wondering)–

AVC: Is the completed three-volume work going to be called X’ed Out?

CB: They’re all going to be different stories. So for the next one, it says “Next: The Hive.” So the next book is called The Hive.

AVC: Is there a name for the trilogy?

CB: No, not in my mind.

November 17, 2010

Charles Burns Interviewed

by Biblioklept

October 31, 2010

From Hell — Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

by Edwin Turner

Earlier this week, I pulled out From Hell with the bold intention of re-reviewing it for this site. I love Halloween and I love Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper murders, so this seemed as good an occasion as any for a reread (especially considering the “review”  I wrote back in October of 2006 is so lazy that I won’t even link to it). Alas, I misjudged or misremembered the sheer density of From Hell–so, on Halloween day, I’m still only half way through, despite staying up way past my bed time, crouching under my sheets with a quavering flashlight, scanning Moore’s erudite words and Campbell’s scratchy inks (okay, that image is an exaggeration). I’ve read it at least thrice before, so I’ll review it anyway.

From Hell posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Jack the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. Although the murders initially arise out of the need to cover up the knowledge of the existence of an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more–they are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.

One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder. From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel, in which Gull not only sees London at the end of the twentieth century, but also receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect. From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism (Patriot Act, anyone?).

Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure. Rereading this time, I realized there is no character he reminds me of as much as Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m also reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent now, a book that dovetails neatly with From Hell, both in its time and setting, but also in its exploration of social unrest and duplicitous authority. Both novels feature detectives fighting a complacent system, and both novels feature a working class that threatens to erupt in socialist or anarchist rebellion.

From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.

October 19, 2010

Charles Burns Annotates a Page from X’ed Out

by Biblioklept

At New York Magazine, Charles Burns annotates a page from his excellent new graphic novel X’ed Out. See the slideshow here. A sample–

“I don’t know exactly where he came from,” Burns says with a laugh about the mysterious guide in Nitnit’s world. “He’s got diapers, a backpack that’s got punk buttons on it. You can’t tell whether he’s young or old, but he’s kind of a street urchin. I haven’t figured out what to call him.”

October 16, 2010

X’ed Out — Charles Burns

by Edwin Turner

If you like Charles Burns, go ahead and pick up X’ed Out, the first (and very promising) entry in a new trilogy. Skip this review. You’ll probably be happier (and more unsettled) just experiencing all that vivid, glorious weirdness for yourself without any potential spoilers. If you need convincing, read on.

X’ed Out begins in a strange fever-dreamland that doesn’t immediately announce itself as such. Instead, we tentatively enter this weird world with Doug, the book’s protagonist, who, like Alice following the white rabbit, chases his (long dead) childhood cat through a crack in the wall. Doug traverses a cavernous, ruinous place, littered with murky detritus and swamped in a strange flood, to finally arrive in a bizarre desert town that approximates William Burroughs’s Interzone. Populated by mean lizards who dress like Mormon slackers and other grubby grotesques, the terrain readily recalls both Tatooine and Asian bazaars. Hapless Doug, still in pajamas, house coat, and slippers — and marked by an as-yet-unexplained head wound — soon finds himself under the guidance of a strange little diapered dwarf, who may or may not have his best interest in mind. The dreamworld unravels as Doug glances an old man — an “oldie,” as the dwarf says — who we will learn later is Doug’s father. An all of a sudden we’re back in the real world, back in waking life.

But no. That’s not right. Not “back” — we were never in the waking world to begin with. Significantly, X’ed Out begins in the Burroughsian dreamworld and then moves to a conscious, concrete reality. Burns’s dreamworld sequences explicitly reference Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s seminal Tintin comics (you can see how X’ed Out’s cover riffs on the Tintin adventure The Shooting Star here). Doug’s dream face is an expressive, stark mask, a naïve, cartoonish contrast to the bizarre nightmare to which it reacts.

 

from X'ed Out by Charles Burns

 

Doug — the waking world Doug, the “real” Doug, that is — pulls a similar mask over his more realistically drawn face later in the story when he does his “Burroughs thing” at a slummy art punk party. Alienated from the scenesters who don’t get his cut-up poetry performance, Doug takes up with Sarah, a girl from his photography class with a thing for razor blades and pig hearts. The same night they meet, he loses his girlfriend, and her crazy boyfriend goes to jail for assaulting a cop. They initiate their romance in Patti Smith records, lines of cocaine, and sick Polaroids. Ah, young love.

But all of that is in another kind of dreamworld, the past, a retreat for the “real,” contemporary Doug, who spends his few waking hours cringing in his bathrobe, poring over old photos, and eating the occasional Pop Tart. At night he eats pain pills and goes to Interzone-land, a place that seems as real and solid and valid as his past with Sarah, a past he has apparently lost. Doug bears a huge patch over half his head (significantly x-shaped in his Interzone version), and both this wound as well as the psychic trauma he’s obviously endured (and is enduring) remain unexplained throughout X’ed Out. However, Burns’s often-grisly images hint repeatedly at a past event filled with violence and loss. X’ed Out leaves us in the Interzone, with the dwarf making long-term plans for Tintinized Doug. There’s even talk of establishing residency and employment–it feels like Doug is here to stay (at least in his non-waking hours). X’ed Out ends maddeningly with a girl who visually recalls Sarah being borne by lizard men to a giant hive. The dwarf explains that she is their new queen–and like some insect queen, she is a breeder. Yuck. The ending is the biggest problem with X’ed Out, simply because it leaves one stranded, wanting more weirdness.

In Black Hole, Burns established himself as a master illustrator and a gifted storyteller, using severe black and white contrast to evoke that tale’s terrible pain and pathos. X’ed Out appropriately brings rich, complex color to Burns’s method, and the book’s oversized dimensions showcase the art beautifully. This is a gorgeous book, both attractive and repulsive (much like Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” which is very much at work in Burns’s plot). Like I said at the top, fans of Burns’s comix likely already know they want to read X’ed Out; weirdos who love Burroughs and Ballard and other great ghastly fiction will also wish to take note. Highly recommended.

X’ed Out is available in hardback from Pantheon on October 19th, 2010.

July 23, 2010

Even More Images from Codex Seraphinianus

by Biblioklept

More images from Luigi Serafini’s surreal cryptoencyclopedia, Codex Seraphinianus. Learn more by reading Justin Taylor’s essay from the May 2007 issue of The Believer.


April 20, 2010

BodyWorld — Dash Shaw

by Edwin Turner

In the future Dash Shaw proposes in his graphic novel BodyWorld, the Second Civil War and rapid industrial growth have left most of America a concrete sprawl by 2060. An exception is Boney Borough, a (literal) green zone somewhere on the Atlantic seaboard. This small secluded town is a new Eden in an otherwise gray world. Enter Professor Paulie Panther, a fuck-up par excellence. He goes to Boney Borough as part of a freelance mission to find out about a new, strange plant he’s found there via the internet. Professor Panther, you see, is a botanist and poet, a would-be scientist who finds out about the psychopharmacological properties of plants by smoking them up in big fat joints (when he’s not too busy trying to commit suicide or stumbling around on one or more of the various drugs to which he’s addicted). Professor Panther is the perfect acerbic foil to the homogeneous folk of Boney Borough. He gets hot for teacher Jem Jewel, turns-on Peach Pearl, the small town girl who wants to go to the big city, and pisses off and confuses her dumb jock boyfriend Billy-Bob Borg. The alliterative names (along with Shaw’s sharp, cartoonish style) recall–and subvert–the classic all-Americanism of Archie comics. Professor Panther soon discovers that the mystery plant, when smoked, grants the user strange telepathic abilities–namely, users sense the “body-mind” of the bodies of others around them.

The plant’s telepathic effects allow Shaw to explore what happens within a literalized I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-you-seeing-me (seeing-y0u-seeing-me . . .) structure. His bright Pop Art goes Cubist in psychedelic trip scenes, superimposing images to show a surreal conflation of not just the melding of two people’s pasts and presents, but those people’s perceptions of past and present. Very heady stuff–but seeing Shaw’s work is superior to my description, of course. Observe, as Panther sees Pearl seeing Panther seeing Pearl idealizing their attempt at romance:

BodyWorld is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic visions, guided in no small part by Professor Panther’s hilarious outsider perspective, but also tempered by Shaw’s larger project, a sci-fi satire of American exurbanist insularity. We wrote earlier this month about science fiction’s tendency to work within the dichotomy of wastelands and green zones, and Shaw’s work is no exception. His marvelous trick is to keep us within the green zone of Boney Borough the whole time and to make us identify with a waster, Panther. The greatest irony is that in this futurist vision, the zombies are the ones in the green zone.

Not everyone’s a conformist though. There are exceptions, of course, especially in the seedy Outer Rim where Panther takes up transient residence. We meet a psychotic latter-day Johnny Appleseed who certainly shares Panther’s weirdo proclivities. The episode is a marvelous spoof on the corny “origin stories” standard in Golden and Silver Age comics, with Shaw’s treatment more loving than mocking. To tell more about this weirdo might spoil the climax of Shaw’s graphic novel, and we don’t want to do that, of course, because you’re going to want to read it, aren’t you? Suffice to say that it’s part and parcel of Shaw’s program, a sweet and sour subversion of the 1950s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Shaw owes some debt to the neat precision, spacing, and rhythm of Chris Ware, as well as the haunting inks and sharp wit of Charles Burns but it would be a mistake to see this young talent as anything but original. Still, while we’re making comparisons: Richard Kelly could make a messy, sprawling treasure of a film out of BodyWorld.

You can read all of BodyWorld now at Shaw’s website, or you can do what I did and read Pantheon’s new graphic novel version (Pantheon, you will remember, brought us the David Mazzucchelli’s outstanding graphic novel Asterios Polyp). Either way, you should read it. Highly recommended.

April 15, 2010

Prelude to Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld

by Biblioklept

I’m finishing up Pantheon’s gorgeous new edition of BodyWorld, Dash Shaw’s graphic novel. Shaw originally serialized BodyWorld on his website from 2007-2009, but it’s nice to have it a big heavy physical form. Full review forthcoming, but in the meantime, check out the prelude (and go to Shaw’s website for more)–

October 8, 2009

Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli

by Edwin Turner

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Let’s get a few things straight from the get-go: David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp is a masterpiece, an unequivocal advancement of its medium, and an unqualified joy to read. It’s also not only one of the best books we’ve read this year, but also this decade. While such breathless enthusiasm might seem suspect, even a cursory look over Asterios Polyp will reveal that Mazzucchelli has produced a fully-realized work, one that fundamentally reimagines what a graphic novel is, and how it might be read.

Asterios Polyp is a boorish, solipsistic “paper architect” and tenured professor (none of his designs have ever actually been built) whose life goes to shambles after his sensitive wife Hana leaves him. The novel opens with a lightning strike that literally destroys everything that Asterios owns. He grabs three key items–his father’s old lighter, a magnetically-powered watch he bought as a child, and a Swiss Army knife he found on the beach–and hits the road, heading into the great, normal Midwest, where he takes a job as an auto mechanic (in a lovely scene, Asterios the autodidact, after accepting his new job, heads to the library to learn auto repair in an hour). Asterios’s kindly boss Stiff and his hippie wife Ursula take in the poor soul/arrogant prick. As the plot unfolds, Mazzucchelli contrasts Asterios’s past, full of faculty cocktail parties, affairs with grad students, and highbrow conversations, with his incremental rebirth into a more concrete world. “Be not simply good; be good for something,” said Henry David Thoreau–a lesson that Asterios slowly learns as he finally applies his skill and genius to real-world applications, like building a tree house for the couple’s son and creating a solar-powered Cadillac. Asterios’s emergence as a fully-realized human being contrasts sharply with hist past. Although he clearly loved his wife Hana, he was unable to appreciate her as anything other than a prop in relation to himself–how she complimented him, added to him, reflected on him. The flashback scenes with Hana are keenly realistic and loaded with genuine pathos. They are the heart of the novel.

Asterios’s twin brother Ignazio narrates the novel, only there’s a catch–Ignazio died at birth. This trope of twinning underscores Asterios Polyp‘s philosophical thrust. Asterios, in an attempt to understand (and thus control, at least figuratively) the universe, attempts to systematize it in his own intellectual yet limited projections. For Asterios, the world is all duality–life and death, in and out, form and content, exterior and interior, plastic and linear, black and white. Although he’s willing to make pragmatic concessions to shades of gray–Mazzucchelli is far-too savvy to have his lead as a flat, unrealistic allegorical figure–Asterios’s unrelenting idealism nonetheless repeatedly foils any chance for real happiness. Mazzucchelli’s discussions of philosophy, art history, and human relationships are never heavy-handed and always thought-provoking. Beyond this, his cartooning synthesizes words and art to a new level, one in which form and content are seamless, contiguous, and purposeful.

What, exactly, do we mean by this? To put it plain, there are few graphic novels that reinvent the possibilities of the medium. A handful of examples spring to mind: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Like Asterios Polyp, these books envision the graphic novel as more than just “pictures + words.” Mazzucchelli utilizes every tool at his disposal. It’s not just his obvious talent as a cartoonist whose inks recall the best work of Will Eisner. It’s not just his fantastic scripting and dialogue (undoubtedly the most neglected facet of the comics medium). It’s also his sense of space, the rhythm of his panels, the perfection of not just each page but the cohesion of all the pages. It’s also the beautiful palette of Asterios Polyp, its codified world of pastels, purples and yellow, blues and pinks, and its spare oranges and reds. It’s also the lettering, where Mazzucchelli achieves something that I haven’t seen done properly since Dave Sim: he gives each character a unique, personal tone, simply through the shape of their words.

Of course, none of Mazzucchelli’s craft and technique would matter if his story wasn’t so compelling. There’s poignancy and pathos in the tale of Asterios Polyp, and we find ourselves rooting for him as he earns his redemption. And none of Asterios’s journey feels forced, a rarity these days it seems. Instead, there’s unexpected beauty here, especially as the novel unwinds–or perhaps, winds up–to its rewarding end. For the record, we’d absolutely love to discuss the last few pages of this book with anyone who’s read it–have you read it? Why haven’t you read it yet? Without spoilers, let’s just say that the conclusion is both fitting and bewildering, satisfying and yet maddening, a perfect cohesion of the book’s thematic exploration of dualities (and the pitfalls of choosing to codify the world into a series of those dualities). Mazzucchelli’s been around forever (you probably remember him, like me, from his early work with Frank Miller on Daredevil and the groundbreaking “Year One” arc of Batman). Amazingly, this is his first solo graphic novel. Hopefully he won’t keep us waiting so long for the next one. Do yourself a favor and get this book now. Very highly recommended.

Asterios Polyp is now available from Pantheon Graphic Novels.

June 22, 2009

Ulysses “Seen” — Robert Berry

by Biblioklept

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Because of its daunting reputation, many readers shy away from James Joyce’s Ulysses, when really the book is not nearly as challenging as some literati would have you believe. It’s funny and poignant and moving, and sure, it’s loaded with so many allusions that you’d have to spend a lifetime sorting them out, but once you get into its rhythm, its voices, it’s actually not that hard to read, and it’s certainly one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever read. One of the key difficulties for readers new to Ulysses is simply penetrating those first few pages, getting a visual for what’s going on with Buck Mulligan and young Stephen. Because Joyce is transposing events, both mythically, religiously, and chronologically, the opening is particularly challenging–especially because Joyce doesn’t explicate these shifts for the reader. There are plenty of aids out there, of course, from Harry Blamires’s The New Bloomsday Book to Joseph Campbell‘s fantastic lectures, and readers new to the book should not feel daunted or put off by the fact that this book might require a good. Led by Robert Berry, the folks at  Throwaway Horse have started a new project, a comic book representation of Ulysses that is, to say the least, wildly ambitious. I’ll let them put it in their own words:

“Ulysses ‘SEEN’” is the inaugural project of Throwaway Horse LLC. Throwaway Horse is devoted to fostering understanding of public domain literary masterworks by joining the visual aid of the graphic novel with the explicatory aid of the internet. By creating “Web 2.0” versions of these works, we hope to proliferate and help to not only preserve them, but ensure their continued vitality and relevance. Throwaway Horse projects are meant to be mere companion pieces to the works themselves—by outfitting the reader with the familiar gear of the comic narrative and the progressive gear of web annotations, we hope that a tech-savvy new generation of readers will be able to cut through jungles of unfamiliar references and appreciate the subtlety and artistry of the original books themselves which they otherwise might have neglected.

So far, Berry has illustrated the first chapter (commonly referred to as “Telemachus”). Berry’s work is far more detailed than I initially had imagined was possible, and there are even useful annotations by scholar Mike Barsanti. This is truly a massive project, given the level of detail Berry has committed to the first chapter, and I think it will be an invaluable resource to readers new to Ulysses as well as those who’ve already been through the book before. Here’s hoping that we’ll get all the way to Molly’s final monologue!

(Thanks to Nick for the tip).

May 22, 2009

Will Eisner’s Adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

by Biblioklept

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Will Eisner’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was one of his last works, completed in 2001 just four years before his death. While no comic book adaptation can match Ishmael’s expansive voice, Eisner’s work here does capture the spirit of adventure and the wish for communion that underpins Melville’s tome. We think it would make a great introduction for younger readers to Melville’s massive book, and will surely interest older readers apprehensive of Moby-Dick. Great stuff.

Eisner Moby-DickMore here.

March 25, 2009

Une Semaine de Bonté — Max Ernst

by Edwin Turner

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Max Ernst’s graphic novel, Une Semaine de Bonté, is one of the coolest books I own. Comprised of concise collages utilizing black and white images from periodicals and catalogs, Ernst’s narrative is both engrossing and disturbing. Full of birds and breasts and beasts, Semaine plays out like a weird, violent, funny mindfuck, its repeated scenes of submission and domination ironizing its title (A Week of Kindness). Great stuff. There’s a decent enough chunk of the book available for preview at Google Books.

February 3, 2009

The Unspeakable Mr. Hart and Ah Pook Is Here– William Burroughs/Malcolm McNeill

by Biblioklept

In 1970, William Burroughs was living in London. While there, he collaborated with young English artist Malcolm McNeill on a comic series for a magazine called Cyclops. The series was called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart, and remains uncollected/reprinted to date. Too bad, because it looks like really cool stuff. We got these images via The Virtual Library’s Beats collection, where there’s a really cool interview with McNeill (he discusses Burroughs habit of “going to movies to admire hard-ons and talking about them all afternoon,” which is kinda hilarious):

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After Cylcops went kaput, Burroughs and McNeill continued the story in a project called Ah Pook Is Here, (a reference to the Mayan death god). Ah Pook Is Here, unfinished, was collected in the early eighties in Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts which unfortunately is out of print. And very expensive. (Feel free to send it to me, anyone).

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Fortunately, we can at least get a peek at some of McNeil’s hellish art at burroughsmcneillart.com. A few Boschian samples

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Again, we want this book. Please send us this book. In the meantime, filmmaker Philip Hunt made this 1994 6 minute animated short of Ah Pook Is Here:

November 23, 2008

Roughing It

by Biblioklept
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The American cover isn’t bad…

Simon Mason’s The Rough Guide to Classic Novels covers “a selection of 229 novels . . . from 36 countries, published between 1604 and 2002.” Roughly pocket-sized (if you have big pockets), Classic Novels provides short, simple summaries of each of the books, outlining the plot as well as contextualizing the relative importance of the novel. Mason also recommends the best English translations and discusses film adaptations (quite even-handedly), where applicable. He also includes a “Where to Go Next” bullet for each novel. Sometimes these suggestions work: liked Brave New World? Then check out Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Other times, they’re a bit nonsensical–does anyone really go to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after they’ve made it through Ulysses?

...but we prefer the British cover
…but we prefer the British cover

But this criticism is mere quibbling; Mason does a great job with an almost impossible task–after all what books would you cover in such a limited space (and you’d have to include Ulysses, and you’d have to give it pride of place over the Portrait, right?). Simon admits in his preface that inevitably “the selection is a personal one, and not likely to be the same as anyone else’s.” Of course he includes the “classics” that will jump to anyone’s mind–Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, etc., but he also includes works by Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and Haruki Murakami, along with dozens and dozens of books I’ve never heard of, but now feel that I simply must read. And in exposing a potential reader to a book they’ve never heard of, Classic Novels is a success.

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If Danny Fingeroth’s The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is less successful than Mason’s Classic Novels, that shortcoming is in his attempt to sanctify a canon in a medium that is still often misunderstood as a genre. While most of us will readily agree that Don Quixote and The Catcher in the Rye are classics, the canonical works of the comic book medium still need some sorting out, and many fans of graphic novels will find Fingeroth’s language a bit too-definitive. After a great first chapter that asks “What Is a Graphic Novel?,” a brief history of the comic book story-telling medium, and his own comic, “For Art’s Sake,” (a fun but forgettable overview of the graphic story-telling arts from an artist’s perspective), Fingeroth initiates the bulk of the book, “The Canon: The Sixty Best Graphic Novels.” As if his language weren’t definitive enough, he kicks the section off with “Ten Graphic Novels Everyone Should Read.” And while Fingeroth’s “Canon” and top-ten list are full of obvious choices that should certainly be there–Spiegelman‘s Maus, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, Clowes‘s Ghost World–there are also gaping holes on one hand and complete over-representation on the other, as well as some real head-scratchers thrown in to boot. Why, for instance, does Fingeroth include Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again over its vastly superior and more influential predecessor, The Dark Knight Returns? Why is Sin City canonized at all? Although Alan Moore’s From Hell is canonized, why is his controversial recent novel Lost Girls included over work like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or Saga of Swamp Thing–all books that had a tremendous impact on comic book storytelling? Why does Dave Sim’s massive contribution Cerebus get glossed over in a single sentence, while Kyle Baker’s trifling missive Why I Hate Saturn is given pride of place on the top ten list? Fingeroth could’ve saved himself a lot of nitpicking by simply changing his language a bit to at least admit that his choices are subjective. Far more satisfying is the next chapter, “The Icons,” covering some of the most influential persons in comic history, including Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, and the Hernandez Brothers. I would’ve liked to have seen this chapter expanded quite a bit (perhaps at the expense of the superfluous chapter on manga); if The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is to be a starting place for new readers interested in this medium, “The Icons” best represents that starting place. Those interested in discovering graphic novels they haven’t heard of will also be pleased with the many full-page art reproductions throughout the book, probably its best feature. Despite its flaws, however, there is something admirable about Fingeroth’s attempt to create a canon out of a medium that has for far too long been marginalized.

The Rough Guide to Classic Novels and The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels are now available from Rough Guides,

After the jump: Fingeroth’s top ten list vs. Biblioklept’s top ten list–

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