From In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman, Pantheon, 2004.
Bats and Cats, 2020 by Samplerman (Yvan Guillo)
A week or so ago, Mike McCubbins offered me a review copy of Anasazi, the graphic novel that he made with Matt Bryan. He sent a link to the Anasazi’s Kickstarter page. I skimmed over the art, was impressed and immediately interested, and then read their blurb:
Anasazi is a nearly wordless 212 page, 8″ x 8.5″ full-color cloth-bound graphic novel. Its a story of war, assimilation, and cultural divisions on a colorful alien planet that combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, mythology, world history, and horror.
…16 chapters. 16 words. There is no English dialogue or exposition in Anasazi. Instead each chapter heading contains an alien language glyph along with a non-English word or phrase meaning and its literal English translation. These glyphs then appear as dialogue throughout the story.
The art, overview, and the concept of a story told in glyphs intrigued me, and I trusted my intuition not to read the brief “What’s the story?” section of Anasazi until after I’d read the novel. I read it twice; once the night it showed up, and then again the next morning. The story synopsis (three short sentences) hardly spoils the narrative, but it offers enough context for anyone wholly lost to find their footing.
The joy of Anasazi is sinking into its rich, alien world, sussing out meaning from image, color, and glyphs. The novel has its own grammar. Bryan and McCubbins conjure a world reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels, Charles Burns’ Last Look trilogy, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as the fantasies of Jean Giraud.
The sixteen English words in Anasazi are all chapter names, and all are loan words, as the novel’s title suggests. Some (“M’Aidez,” “Sheol,” “Melaina Chole”) were more familiar to me than others (“Zinduka,” “Gweilo,” “Shuv”), and all take on a strange tone in the novel, as if the glyphs the characters speak are rough transliterations of something far more refined than our alien ears could comprehend.
I really enjoyed Anasazi, and I aim to have a full review soon. But I plan to read it a few more times first.
The Comics Journal’s lengthy write up of “The Best Comics of 2019” is up. Here’s my entry:
I’m reading Ishmael Reed’s 2011 novel Juice! right now. The narrator, a version of Reed, is a cartoonist whose comix on the O.J. Simpson case cost him his career and family. It’s not a comic, but it’s comic, and I love it.
Reed and Reed’s narrator repeatedly evoke George Herriman’s Krazy Kat strips, and I’ve returned to their slapstick surreal ebullience. There’s an ecstatic nihilism to Krazy Kat (or do I mean nihilistic ecstasy?), a radical absurdity that seems to both diagnose and describe Our Big Dumb Zeitgeist of 2019 in the most perfectly oblique way. The strip’s (il)logic runs on a strange Dada engine, crashing into both sensibility and decorum. It’s a wonderful anarchist romp. I have no idea if there was some new Krazy Kat compendium that came out in 2019, but Herriman’s strip is the best critique of 2019 I can think of. (Also: Read more Ishmael Reed.)
Speaking of: Drew Lerman’s collection Snake Creek reverberates with the spirit of Krazy Kat mixed and mushed with the apocalypse ghost swamp of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, along with tinges of Garfield Goes Total Nihilist. (Who am I kidding? Garfield was always a total nihilist.) Lerman’s shaky strips approximate our own shaky days and shaky daze, evoking a Florida fit to sink into its own wild psychosphere.
I loved Rat Time by Keiler Roberts. I missed one of my nephew’s baseball games because I started reading it one Saturday morning and then lied about having to do something work-related—like an emergency—because I wanted to finish up Rat Time instead. It made me feel Warm (& Fuzzy), despite how dry Roberts’ humor is. (Desiccant dry, folks.) Roberts’ autofiction is utterly real.
I also really admired Ben Passmore’s comic Sports Is Hell, a send-up of American massculture that simultaneously stings and enlivens its reader. The novel takes place during the aftermath of a Super Bowl featuring a Kaepernickesque (Kaepernesque?) star player. The Big Game devolves into a Big Riot, with its heroes fighting their way through the madness—think Walter Hill’s film The Warriors by way of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. I hope Ishmael Reed will read it.
I got a copy of Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek strips a few weeks ago and have been reading a strip a day, or sometimes reading two or four strips a day, or sometimes reading no strips a day.
Snake Creek comprises the first volume of Snake Creek comix created by Lerman between the summers of ’18 and ’19. Lerman made one each day, as far as I can tell, which, like props.
The heroes of Snake Creek are maybe-human Dav (an altar-ego for Lerman?) and maybe walkin-talkin potato/maybe-mutant Roy, who spend their days and nights strolling the beaches, riffing on life, and extemporizing poems and songs. They take up with a dog and one point, and later encounter strange ducks. (I’m sure there’s more—I’ve been trying, like I said, to limit myself to a few strips a day.) It’s all a big anarchic kick.
Snake Creek has an absurdist and occasionally nihilist bent, flavors I love. Never too bitter, the strip’s sweetness is anchored in the weird friendship betwixt Dav and Roy, who wander and wonder along a Miami Beach that Lerman turns into a kind of desert island running on Prospero’s magic.
Snake Island’s chords and rhythms resonate with Walt Kelly’s Pogo, another Floridaish strip, as well as George Herriman’s zany strip Krazy Kat. Lerman seems like a willing descendant of Kelly and Herriman, but Snake Island is also wholly contemporary, a comic that begins with a discussion of old G-chats.
I’m really digging the collection, and I hope not to gobble it up too fast.
Let’s start with the title. Rat Time is a great title.
What is Rat Time? Rat Time is a graphic novel—or graphic autofiction, or graphic discursive memoir—I’m not really sure what genre it fits into, nor does that matter—Rat Time is a very funny and often moving book by cartoonist Keiler Roberts.
And so what is “rat time”? Rat time is the time that Keiler shares with her daughter Xia and their rats Sammy and Mateo Too. “We eat dinner, then rat time, then bed time,” Xia explains to her classmates during show and tell.
When poor Sammy dies though, “rat time” takes on a different meaning. “It’s not a time of day,” Xia declares. “It’s the time when had rats.” Keiler optimistically points out that “We still have Mateo Too.” (Care to guess what happened to Mateo One?)
The early vignettes in Rat Time intersplice rat time with riffs from Keiler’s therapy sessions, calls and visits with her parents, and child memories. Although Rat Time’s structure might be at times oblique and discursive, Roberts’ pacing and pages are often surprisingly traditional and darkly comic, as in this little episode, in which Keiler recalls a pet’s death:
Initially, Rat Time appears to have an elliptical structure. Vignettes and riffs and one-pagers succeed each other without the usual narrative linking devices we might expect from a traditional graphic novel. Roberts’ humor is so dry too that for the first few pages the tone of Rat Time may be difficult to comprehend. The more I read though, the more I laughed, and the more I cared about Keiler and her daughter.
Roberts’ mines her life for material, and the material is often painful, coming out in unexpected ways. We learn that rat time originated as a coping mechanism, a response to a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis:
Rat Time features scenes of Keiler going to the hospital for blood work, or visiting a chiropractor for treatment, all with a wonderfully droll humanity that resonates with just how damn specific the moments are. We also see Keiler in her therapist’s office, and see how her friends and family react to her bipolar disorder, as well as how she manages it. Making oatmeal seems to provide Keiler a lot of comfort, and while I’m not a fan of oatmeal myself, I deeply relate to her feelings on breakfast:
Some of my favorite parts of Rat Time hover around Keiler’s experiences as an art instructor. There’s an intense pathos to Keiler-as-teacher, even when she seems mean:
Keiler’s teaching vignettes are balanced with her own memories of teachers past. Roberts frames these moments with the clarity of detail that telegraphs raw honesty. There’s the gym teacher who humiliated her on the bus to the bowling alley, the art teacher who showed the class a cadaver, and the political science professor who earned Keiler’s admiration for “stating a truth so plainly” (namely, “I know this would be more interesting if I were entertaining, but it’s worse if I try.”)
Roberts’ spare, plain style is effective in achieving her punchlines, but it can also affect the reader with a strange poignancy:
At one point, Roberts includes a polished piece in Rat Time, which creates a wonderful moment of narrative dissonance, a strange reverberation between Keiler the hero-narrator of Rat Time and Roberts the author-illustrator of Rat Time.
Indeed, a major theme of Rat Time is storytelling itself. Keiler wants to be a writer of fiction, but it seems like her own life is far more interesting than the ideas she brainstorms. Rat Time is perhaps Roberts’ way of sussing out why her genre is ultimately autobiographical.
Rat Time, like any good autobiography, is crammed with life, brimming with vivid moments that feel authentic and real. Often funny and sometimes painful, Roberts’ book is sweet without sentimentality, sour without caustic meanness, and generous to both its subjects and its readers. Highly recommended.
I finally dug into Chris Ware’s forthcoming graphic novel, Rusty Brown yesterday. A finished review copy arrived on August 7th, 2019, the day that David Berman died.
I had spent some time simply looking at the book’s exquisite book jacket, which unfolds into a kind of two-sided poster thing, complete with notes and suggestions how the reader might personalize the jacket by folding it in different ways. The spine section of the jacket is also quite amusing—a sort of TV Guide goof that stages Rusty Brown as a television special (in four parts, including comedy, western, sci-fi, and drama). There’s also a crossword puzzle, a maze, and other minutiae. If you’ve read Ware, you’ll know that his work is often crammed with little details like this. Here are two pictures that fail to capture how gorgeous this thing is:
Here’s the inside cover, too:
So well and anyway. I tooled around with the cover for a half hour or so on that Wednesday then started in on making dinner, the making of which was interrupted by a text from a friend telling me about Berman’s suicide.
If you’ve read Chris Ware—maybe you’ve read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth or Building Stories, both of which are exceptional—hell, Building Stories is like the invention of a new genre of reading itself—if you’ve read Chris Ware you likely know that his work can be really fucking sad.
I have not wanted to read anything really fucking sad for the past few days.
(I’ve been rereading Berman’s collection Actual Air and reading Charles Portis’s comic picaresque The Dog of the South.)
On Sunday afternoon I decided to dig in. I met the cast of Rusty Brown:
–and picked up the setting:
The introduction of Rusty Brown runs over a 100 pages and intertwines several of the characters’ perspectives. If there’s a lead though, it’s Woody Brown, a miserable son of a bitch who hates his life (wife, kid, teaching job) and daydreams about running away or even killing himself.
Woody’s poor son, the titular Rusty, daydreams as well, fantasizing that he’s gained superpowers (well, a superpower—incredible hearing) and fixating on his Supergirl action figure, who enters his bored mind when he’s at school. School is bad for Rusty, too; he’s bullied terribly. Ware depicts these scenes with honesty and pathos, but also humor. Consider this little cut scene:
The comic timing frequently leavens the first part of Rusty Brown. The thought bubble here cracked me up:
We also meet Alison and Chalky White, a brother and sister who are starting their first day at a new school. They’ve moved in with their grandmother; they’re new to Nebraska, and they’re miserable. Ware runs their story concurrently with the Browns’ story, and the two occasionally sync up in wonderful little plays on perspective.
Ware also inserts a version of himself into the story. Mr. Ware is the art teacher at Rusty’s school. Ware’s depiction of Mr. Ware is a kind of mean self-parody, but also very funny and even warm at times.
Mr. Ware has been working on a series of Pop Art paintings that he hopes will achieve “an intuitive transcendence of culture and corpus.”
Ware has been working on Rusty Brown for over a decade and a half now (you might’ve read bits of it here and there over the years), and the depth of storytelling here shows. Full review forthcoming, but for now, here’s publisher Pantheon’s blurb:
Rusty Brown is a fully interactive, full-color articulation of the time-space interrelationships of three complete consciousnesses in the first half of a single midwestern American day and the tiny piece of human grit about which they involuntarily orbit. A sprawling, special snowflake accumulation of the biggest themes and the smallest moments of life, Rusty Brown literately and literally aims at nothing less than the coalescence of one half of all of existence into a single museum-quality picture story, expertly arranged to present the most convincingly ineffable and empathetic illusion of experience for both life-curious readers and traditional fans of standard reality. From childhood to old age, no frozen plotline is left unthawed in the entangled stories of a child who awakens without superpowers, a teen who matures into a paternal despot, a father who stores his emotional regrets on the surface of Mars and a late-middle-aged woman who seeks the love of only one other person on planet Earth.
From Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Classics Illustrated edition (February 1990) is one of my favorite Moby-Dicks.
Can you ever really go home again?
This is the central question of Jaime Hernandez’s Is This How You See Me? Collecting serialized comics from the past five years into a cohesive graphic novel, Is This How You See Me? is a moving tale of friendship, aging, and how the past shapes how we see the present.
Is This How You See Me? takes place over a single weekend in the mid-2010s. Best friends Maggie and Hopey return to their childhood hometown Huerta (or “Hoppers,” in Love & Rockets slang) for a punk rock reunion party and concert.
First two paragraphs:
Not much happens in Jon McNaught’s latest graphic novel Kingdom. A mother takes her son and daughter to Kingdom Fields Holiday Park, a vacation lodge on the British coast. There, they watch television, go to a run-down museum, play on the beach, walk the hills, and visit an old aunt. Then they go home. There is no climactic event, no terrible trial to endure. There is no crisis, no trauma. And yet it’s clear that the holiday in Kingdom Fields will remain forever with the children, embedded into their consciousness as a series of strange aesthetic impressions. Not much happens in Kingdom, but what does happen feels vital and real.
“Life, friends, is boring,” the poet John Berryman wrote in his fourteenth Dream Song, before quickly appending, “We must not say so / After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns.” In Kingdom, McNaught creates a world of flashing sky and yearning sea, natural splendor populated by birds and bats, mice and moths. In Kingdom Fields, waves crash in gorgeous dark blues, the sun rises in golden pinks, rain teems down in violet swirls, and the wind breezes through meadows of grass. It’s all very gorgeous, and the trio of main characters spend quite a bit of the novel ignoring it. The narrator of John Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song understood the transcendental promise of nature’s majesty, yet also understood that “the mountain or sea or sky” alone are not enough for humans—that we are of nature and yet apart from it.