Jon McNaught’s Birchfield Close Is a Tranquil Visual Poem

A few weekends ago, I spent several days primitive camping on a tiny, rocky island off Cape Canaveral. The weather was miserable and the fishing was poor, but the company and bourbon offered cheer. Still, by the time I got home I was terribly sore, thoroughly damp, and inhabited by one of those hangovers that sets up shop inside one’s soul as a kind of second-consciousness, coloring the world a dreadful surreal blue. I wanted to see my family, but they were out playing tennis. There was a small stack of packages waiting for me though—review copies for this blog—with Jon McNaught’s Birchfield Close neatly nestled atop. After showering, I lay on my soft soft bed in the afternoon, read through the brief poem-novel-comic, and drifted into a gentle warm hazy nap. It was the most marvelous medicine. Sublime.

I read Birchfield Close again later that night and then every night for a week. McNaught’s work—see his longer novel Dockwood—is its own aesthetic experience: Minimal, gentle, tranquil, but also evocative and complex. Birchfield Close is (maybe) the (non-)story of two lads who climb upon a roof and spend the day observing (or not observing) their neighborhood.

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They see birds and people, dogs and snails, balloons and bikes (etc.), all rendered in gentle gradations of orange-pink and grey-blue and black-black.

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In one of my favorite little episodes, one boy reaches for a branch. His imagination transmutes the branch into a rifle, and a play-shooting spree ensues.

Birchfield Close is comprised entirely of such moments, yet none of its episodes feel discrete. Rather, each panel pushes (pushesThat’s not the right verb!) into the next, a miniature gesture that creates—that somehow is—the entire work. The effect is soothing.

I’ve read Birchfield Close a dozen times now (read? Is that the right verb?), and I’m still (happily) unsure what commentary McNaught might be making on media. The story is full of images of “entertainments” that may or may not be at odds with the neighborhood’s ambiance: a handheld video game, a banal soap opera, a pop song on the radio. In another favorite episode, we move from rooftop to an airplane flying through the sky to the actual inside of the airplane, where a passenger watches Nemo’s reunion with his overprotective father. On the next page, we are treated to the imaginative forms that the clouds might take—formations that the airplane passenger, wrapped up in viewing Finding Nemo on a tiny headrest screen, perhaps misses. But if there’s a judgment here, McNaught seems to leave it to the viewer to suss out. As we pan back down to the boys on the roof, we see that one remains watching the clouds, shaping them in his imagination (or perhaps he’s sharing an imaginative vision with the airplane passenger), while the other boy has returned to his own tiny screen to play a fighting game. He misses the sunset.

Or does he miss the sunset? Maybe it’s simply part of his own aesthetic experience with the game, a peripheral, environmental occurrence, one he enjoys as transitory and ambient, an event promised to repeat again and again. I like this second reading more, as it fits neatly with my own reading experience of Birchfield Close—the book is an ambient aesthetic experience, calming but quizzical, deeply enjoyable—physical: light, color, the touch of the fine thick paper. I’ve tried to capture some of that reading experience here but have undoubtedly failed. Better you read see think feel for yourself.

Birchfield Close and other books by Jon McNaught are available from the good people at Nobrow Press.

Jon McNaught’s Dockwood (Book Acquired, 11.21.2014)

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Jon McNaught’s Dockwood. From Nobrow. It’s beautiful. Full review forthcoming.
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Stephen Collins’s Allegorical Fable The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil Reviewed

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Stephen Collins’s début graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil tells the story of Dave, an especially average (forgive the oxymoron) guy in the neat-and-tidy island of Here, a place where conformity rules and difference is unthinkable. Dave fits like a cog into his tidy world until a beard erupts from his face, severing him from society.

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Despite its neat and tidy contours, an omnipresent dread of otherness gestates in the egg-shaped isle of Here. That dread manifests in the fabled land of There. Dave’s psyche is haunted by There; its very existence threatens both body and mind. Collins renders this anxiety in a remarkable series of panels that concretize Dave’s nightmare of otherness:

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Dave’s nightmare highlights his subconscious realization that there cannot be a Here without a There. The realization leaves him abject, torn, and destabilized, even before his beard appears. When the first hairs do arrive, Dave’s interior existential crisis spills outward, his messy difference oozing out to disrupt and upset the tidy normalcy of Here.

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Poor Dave.

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The beard quickly becomes a national emergency requiring enormous resources. Police, military, the media, and eventually the entire society become entangled in the crisis. United against a common foe, the citizens of Here are nevertheless distracted, letting their grooming habits slip. Things become less tidy. In their battle against the beard, they overlook the greater war on weird.

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The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an allegorical fable. Collins attacks conformity and fear of otherness, but also depicts just how complex and horrifying otherness can be. While the island of Here is clearly a stand-in for England, Collins’s satire of xenophobia and the dangers of groupthink will resonate pretty much everywhere. All kinds of 21st-century anxieties writhe under the text: fear of immigration, the collapse of cultural homogeneity, ecological devastation—the end of a particular way of life. The angry mob castigating poor Dave call him a terrorist, but they are the authors of their own terror.

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In an unexpected and rewarding fourth act, Collins examines the aftermath of what comes to be known as “The Beard Event.” The Untidiness that happened while the citizens of Here were distracted dealing with Dave becomes the new normal. Fits of nonconformity inevitably become trends, then commodities.

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The Beard Event eventually becomes “A story many times retold and resold,” complete with its own museum (enter through the gift shop). Collins offers a clear depiction of difference—how it’s first feared, then resisted and attacked, and eventually absorbed and recycled.

I’ve tried to offer enough of Collin’s words and art to convey a sense of his simple but refined style. His lines are often gentle and always precise, his subtle shading all the color this tale needs. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil succeeds visually on the strength of Collins’s pacing and panel design. Collins seamlessly integrates his prose into the panels, moving the story along in a lilt of rhymes and non-rhymes evocative of Edward Gorey or Roald Dahl. Collins nimbly avoids the potential pitfalls of preachiness or meaningless absurdity here, leading to a confident and convincing début. I look forward to more. Great stuff.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is now available in the United States in hardback and ebook from Picador.

The first page of Chris Ware’s new novel The Last Saturday is up at The Guardian

CWChris Ware, one of the greatest living American novelists, will be publishing his new novel The Last Saturday, “tracing the lives of six individuals from Sandy Port, Michigan,”
in installments in The Guardian this fall.
 New episodes every Saturday.

 

Roman Muradov’s Enigmatic Graphic Novella (In a Sense) Lost and Found Reviewed

If you regularly read The New York Times or The New Yorker, you’ve probably already seen Roman Muradov’s compelling illustrations. If you’re a fan, you also know about his strange and wonderful Yellow Zine comics (and if you don’t know them, check out his adaptation of Italo Calvino).

Muradov’s début graphic novella (In a Sense) Lost and Found was released recently by Nobrow Press, and it’s a beauty—rich, imaginative, playful, and rewarding. And it smells good.

(In a Sense) Lost and Found begins with a nod to Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

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Although we’re told by the narrative script that our heroine F. Premise (faulty premise?) “awoke,” the surreal world Muradov creates in Lost and Found suggests that those “troubled dreams” continue far into waking hours. The story runs on its own internal dream-logic, shifting into amorphous spaces without any kind of exposition to guide the reader who is, in a sense, as lost as the protagonist becomes at times on her Kafkaesque quest.

What is F. Premise’s mission? To regain her innocence, perhaps, although only the initial narrative script and the punning title allude to “innocence.” The characters seem unable or unwilling to name this object; each time they mention it, their speech trails off elliptically, as we see when Premise’s father (?) confronts her at the breakfast table:

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Muradov’s imagery suggests Kafka’s bug again—the father’s antennae poke over the broadsheet he’s reading (the book is larded with readers), his strange mouth sagging out under it. Even more Kafkaesque though is Muradov’s refusal to reveal the father’s face, the face of authority, who sends his daughter back up to her room where she must remain locked away.

She sneaks out of course—would there be an adventure otherwise?—and it turns out that faceless father is right: F. Premise falls (literally) under the intense gaze of the community. F. Premise is startlingly present to others now by virtue of her absent virtue.

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Muradov uses traditional nine-panel grids to tell his story, utilizing large splashes sparingly to convey the intensity of key moments in the narrative. The book brims with beautiful, weird energy, rendered in intense color and deep shadow. Muradov’s abstractions—pure shapes—cohere into representative objects only to fragment again into abstraction. (Perhaps I should switch “cohere” and “fragment” here—I may have the verbs backwards).

The art here seems as grounded in a kind of post-cubism as it does in the work of Muradov’s cartooning forebears. In the remarkable passage below, for example, our heroine moves from one world to another, her form nearly disappearing into complete abstraction by the fifth panel (an image that recalls Miró), before stabilizing again (if momentarily) in the sixth panel.

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It’s in that last panel that F. Premise returns to her adopted home (of sorts)—a bookstore, of course. Earlier, the kindly owner of the bookstore loans her a pair of old plus-fours, and all of a sudden her identity shifts—or rather, the community shifts her identity, their penetrating gaze no longer trying to screw her to a particular preconception. Identity in Lost and Found is as fluid and changeable as the objects in Muradov’s haunting illustrations.

I have probably already belabored too much of the plot. Suffice to say that our heroine’s quest takes strange turns, makes radical shifts, she descends up and down and into other worlds. Embedded in the journey is a critique of nostalgia, of the commodification of memory (or, more accurately, the memory of memory). Is our innocence what we thought it was? Can we buy it back like some mass-produced object?

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As I noted before, Lost and Found is stuffed with images of readers. There’s something almost Borgesian in the gesture, as if each background character might be on the threshold (if not right in the middle of) their own adventures.

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It’s in the book’s final moments though that we see a move from reading to writing: Our heroine F. Premise picks up the pen and claims agency, writes her own life. She is indeed the narrative voice after all, the imposing script that, like some all-knowing hand, guided us into the narrative in the first place, only to disappear until the end.

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I loved Lost and Found, finding more in its details, shadowy corners, and the spaces between the panels with each new reading. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. The book is probably not for everyone—readers looking for a simple comic with an expository voice that will guide them through a traditional plot should probably look elsewhere. But readers willing to engage in Muradov’s ludic text will be rewarded—and even folks left scratching their heads will have to admit that the book is gorgeous, an aesthetic experience unto itself. And it smells good. Highly recommended.

 

(In a Sense) Lost & Found (Book Acquired, 7.26.2014)

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I’ve read Roman Muradov’s debut graphic novella (In a Sense) Lost & Found a few times now and it’s great—hits the trifecta of strange, beautiful, and smart. It’s new from Nobrow Press. Here’s their blurb:

(In a Sense) Lost and Found, the first graphic novel by rising star Roman Muradov, explores the theme of innocence by treating it as a tangible object; something that can be used, lost, and mistreated. Muradov’s crisp, delicate style conjures a world of strange bookstores, absurd conspiracies, and charming wordplay. A surreal tale in the mold of the best American alternative comics, In a Sense retains its distinctly Eastern perspective.

Muradov lets the art tell this surreal story of a girl looking for something that the narrative refuses to reveal to us. There is no exposition, and readers looking for dialogue that explains everything to them will likely be perplexed. The book is gorgeous, rich, dark—I would include some panels here but the pages are so thick and dark that my iPhone simply can’t handle them. (The picture I took of the cover, above, does no justice to the book’s aesthetics). I’ll get some hi-res images for the full review I plan to post next week though. Great stuff.

Michael Cho’s Shoplifter (Book Acquired, 6.06.2014)

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The nice people at Pantheon sent along a bound galley of Michael Cho’s graphic novel Shoplifter when they sent me a copy of Charles Burns’s Sugar Skull. Both titles are out this fall.

I read Shoplifter in one short sitting—it’s a pleasant read, and Cho’s talent shows in the small panels and big splashes alike.
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His blurb:

Corinna Park used to have big plans. Studying English literature in college, she imagined writing a successful novel and leading the idealized life of an author. After graduation, she moved to a big city and took a job at an advertising agency—just to pay off her student loans. Now she’s worked in the same office for five years and the only thing she’s written is . . . copy. She longs for companionship (other than her cat),gets no satisfaction from her job, and feels numbed by the monotony of a life experienced through a series of screens. But whenever she shoplifts a magazine from the corner store near her apartment, she feels a little, what? A little more alive. Yet Corinna knows there must be something more to life, and she faces the same question as does everyone of her generation: how to find it?

Is the story a bit familiar? Sure. But Cho updates it to the post-social media world, where advertisers have convinced almost everyone (especially themselves) that what they are doing is Important Art. There’s a smallness to Shoplifter—the book shouldn’t be an epic, of course, but 96 pages feels slim here. I guess I would’ve liked to see Corinna the biblioklept, you know, steal more. Still, her ultimate resistance to a mundane life feels like a victory in the end.