Reviews: Pulp fiction in Mega-City, how not to succeed in relationships, mystical transpirings in Egypt, bad news in Chinatown, and Alan Moore gets even weirder. It’s all here, people!
It’s about time for some reviews of longer graphic fiction, isn’t it? We all love the floppies, but let’s check out some books with some more meat on them and even (gasp) some with hard covers! Just like actual books, don’t you know!
We begin with The Simping Detective, written by Simon Spurrier and drawn by Frazer Irving. It’s published by Rebellion (and printed in Malta, which is quite excellent) and will cost you Â£11.99. Yes, it has no dollar amount on it. The Brits are just wacky that way!
If you’re enjoying Gutsville by these two gentlemen but are a bit flummoxed by the length of time between issues, I would suggest this compilation of stories from a few years back, originally “serialised” in Judge Dredd Magazine. It’s a very nice book that is much more than you might expect.
At first glance, this is a satire of noir detective fiction, set in A.D. 2129 in Mega-City 1, Judge Dredd’s stomping grounds. Jack Point is a private detective who dresses like a clown (“simp” in Mega slang, whence comes the title of the book) and acts like a hard-boiled P. I. in the Sam Spade tradition. Spurrier adds a nice wrinkle by making him an undercover judge, whose cover is that he was disgracefully discharged from the police and needs to scrape out a living as a private dick. So although he investigates cases, he also tries to bring down the well-connected criminals in Mega-City, with mixed results. In true noir fashion, Jack is always at the end of his rope when he pulls solutions seemingly from nowhere. The stories are filled with future slang, but once you get used to that, these are interesting tales of Angeltown, Mega-City’s seamy underbelly, and the criminal element therein.
Spurrier also brings in some fairly stock characters from pulp fiction, including the corrupt cop high up on the food chain, the upright and uptight honest cop (in the person of Judge Dredd, who isn’t in the book a lot but shows up occasionally), and of course, the femmes fatale. For a guy who dresses like a clown and acts like a jerk, Jack seems to hang out with a lot of gorgeous women. Spurrier takes these stereotypes and plays with them, giving us stories that feel familiar but are still fresh. It’s a tricky maneuver, but he does a good job with it.
As we follow Jack through the stories, he does change a bit, and it helps make the book better than it might appear. He always cares about doing his job, but as he learns more about the corruption in the system, he becomes more concerned about the people who might get hurt. There is, of course, plenty of action and adventure and blood and guts, but it’s not just about that. Jack needs to outthink his enemies, and he’s formidable in that regard. In the first long story (the first story is short and introductory), Jack stops a drug lab that is in business with his boss on the force by unleashing a raptaur, a silicon-based life form with sharp teeth and a voracious appetite, on the bad guys. While he’s left with no evidence that his boss was in on the operation, he’s still able to make it known that he’s onto him. This story also gives him a pet raptaur, Cliq, who becomes more important through the series (Point and Cliq, get it?). In another story he meets Galen DeMarco, one of the gorgeous women in the book, who’s a rival private eye. She also becomes important later. The series takes a darker turn when Jack investigates a man who went crazy and shot up a bar, killing 22 people. Spurrier hits his stride with this story, telling it with nice twists and turns that keep us on our toes. In this story, Jack meets Miss ThropÃ© (call her Anne), whom he describes in many memorable ways, my favorite being: “Every time she moves the air files for molestation.” She, of course, also shows up several times, and we discover later more about her hidden agenda. In the final story, which a very poignant tale, Jack wakes up in his apartment next to a dead woman, but he doesn’t remember how she got there. Again, it’s a standard set-up, but Spurrier, going back and forth in time, makes it a sweet tale of a desperate woman with nothing to lose, and the man who helped her even though he didn’t know how. Even in the midst of a pulpy plot, Spurrier does a very good job making us relate to these outlandish characters. Jack doesn’t always win, but he does get a nice ending.
Irving’s art is, as you might expect, wonderful. Most of the book is in gray tones, and when color does show up, it pops off the page. His Angeltown manages to be futuristic and seedy all at once, and he does a great job immersing us in this world. Irving’s women are stunning, but each character, even the minor ones, come alive. Irving employs caricature to great effect, juxtaposing Jack’s wacky attire with the cesspool of Angeltown, and the realism of the women (yes, they’re beautiful, but they also have real curves) with the strangeness of the perps who troll the darkness. His raptaur is magnificent to behold, seeping out of the shadows with huge triangular eyes and a mouth full of teeth. Spurrier lets us know that Jack barely controls Cliq, and Irving makes this real, with the creature eager to snap the leash of loyalty at a moment’s notice and suck on someone’s brain. In the final story, his portrayal of Meekly Roth, the woman who ends up dead in Jack’s bed, is heartbreaking. She’s a woman who has seen too much, and Irving draws her as someone who can barely stand up. Even so, she radiates beauty and trustworthiness, which is why Jack falls into her trap. It’s one of the many highlights of the book.
This is a very neat book. It looks great, and if you like pulp fiction, Spurrier does a great job using the stereotypes and turning them around to work for him. I don’t know if the two did any more with the character, but it would be nice to see Jack in more stories.
Next is Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine, which has been getting a lot of love around the comics blogaxy. This might be a compilation, I guess (it’s copyrighted 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007), but if it is, it works much better as a single graphic novel. It costs 20 bones and is published by Drawn & Quarterly.
I don’t love it as much as many people do, but I still think it’s a very good comic. I believe the Real Matt Brady told me I wouldn’t like it because Ben Tanaka, the main character, is such a dick, and I have, in the past, expressed my displeasure with books in which every character is unlikeable. Well, that’s true to a point. If the writing is good enough, every character can be a tool and I’ll still like it. What I object to is writers who aren’t good enough to make that work, because then they need a character we like to mask the inadequacies of the story. Tomine makes this book compelling for two reasons: he’s good enough to make Ben himself compelling, and the other characters in the book are somewhat likeable, so we’re not completely alienated by Ben’s dickishness.
The plot is basically about Ben and his girlfriend, Miko, who argue a lot. Miko leaves Ben to go to New York (they live in California) and they drift apart. Later, Ben goes to New York to get Miko back, but finds that she has moved on. The plot synopsis, of course, doesn’t do it justice. Ben and Miko argue about interesting things, including whether Ben is attracted to white girls, a charge he vehemently denies. Of course, it doesn’t help his cause that he hooks up with two white girls after Miko leaves for New York. Meanwhile, a friend of his, Alice Kim, is trying to sleep with as many women as she can find. Tomine does a very nice job of examining personal relationships and expanding them to fit larger cultural issues, such as racism, homophobia, and class distinctions. Each conversation, no matter how benign, feels charged with tensions just under the surface, waiting to explode. But Tomine still manages to make sure the words sound real and not polemical, even when the topics become overt. It’s a very nice tightrope walk that, for the most part, succeeds.
A big reason for the success of the book is Tomine’s art. It’s very naturalistic, and Tomine does a marvelous job expressing the characters’ feelings without using words. In comics, “show, don’t tell” becomes even more important because of the benefit of art, and Tomine often allows the art to tell us what the words don’t. When Ben goes to see a performance art show that Autumn, his first white girlfriend, puts together, Tomine makes sure that we know he’s lying when he says it’s amazing, first by his facial expression in one panel and then, more subtly, by the fact that he doesn’t hug Autumn back when she hugs him in gratitude. There are many nice touches like that throughout the book, and it adds humanistic depth to the characters even when they’re talking like idiots, which they often do.
Another reason why the fact that Ben is a dick doesn’t bother me is because he does appear to grow throughout the book. When he realizes Miko has moved on, he is forced to reassess how he has treated her and others. It’s not a pleasant thing to face, but we give him credit for trying. This book is ultimately not just a comic about a jerk, but a comic about a jerk who suddenly realizes he can’t be a jerk. It’s a long road for Ben, but the final page, which is heartwrenching and hopeful all at once, at least gives us the possibility that Ben won’t be such a jerk in the future. Maybe he’ll fail, but he’s going to make the effort.
So why don’t I love the book unequivocally? I think it’s partly because of Ben, but not necessarily that he’s a jerk, but that he’s stupid. Actually, a lot of the people in this book seem stupid to me. This is basically a “me” problem, because I can’t imagine being so mean and hurtful to another human being without recognizing what you’re doing. Every character is so selfish that they’re not willing to sacrifice even a little of their precious lives to make any relationship work. This is true for Miko and Alice as well as Ben (although, to be fair, Alice learns far more quickly that she needs to compromise). I get annoyed when I read comics or books or watch television shows or movies where the people are so unwilling to give up a little to make someone else happy. I was so angry at the characters in this comic that it lessened my enjoyment of it a bit. I’m not perfect, but both my wife and I recognized early on that you need to compromise in a relationship. We’ve been happily married for 13 years, so something has worked. Ben and Miko are so wrong for each other because they’re so self-absorbed that I wonder why I should even care if Miko leaves Ben or if Ben is being a dick. You might think this is the same as not liking a character, but I got a different feeling from the book than I would if I just thought Ben was unlikeable. It was more frustration with their stupidity. I guess Tomine does a good job because I feel like I want to reach into the book and shake some sense into all of them, but it feels a bit unreal to me, because I don’t have a lot of experience with people being this stupid. It might work better for you.
For that reason, I don’t love the book as much as others. I admire Tomine’s craft and the way he makes such simple things in conversations about much more than just what’s being said, but I wonder if he pushed that a bit too much and made the characters more caricatures than they needed to be. It’s a very good comic, but falls a bit short of greatness.
Moving on, we come to Cairo, a new Vertigo book. It’s written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by M. K. Perker and costs 25 dollars. It’s a very good book that tells an interesting story and is infused with real-world politics and Middle Eastern fantasy. It’s an unusual mix, but Wilson makes it work.
There are several characters that we are introduced to early on. Ashraf is an Egyptian con artist/drug dealer who is carrying around a hookah for some reason. Tova is an Israeli Special Forces soldier who was wounded while fighting smugglers and accidentally wandered into Egypt, where she was picked up by Bedouin and taken to Cairo. She, of course, is desperate to get back to Israel. On a flight into the city, we meet Kate, a spoiled Orange County girl who wants to check out the oppressed people of the world, and Shaheed, a Lebanese-American on his way to Beirut for something less than noble reasons. Finally, Ashraf’s sister, Salma, is carrying on a romance with Ali, a journalist whose articles are constantly censored. These people all come together eventually, as Kate gets lost looking for a hostel and runs into Ali and Salma, and Ali takes her under his wing, while Ashraf sells his hookah to Shaheed for some easy cash and later gets accosted by Tova because his car has Sinai plates and she needs a lift back across the border. Of course, the hookah is far more important than we know, as a drug lord named Nar wants it back and kidnaps Ali and Kate to force Ashraf to give it back. Shaheed soon discovers that inside the hookah is a genie (“jinn,” as he corrects Shaheed) named Shams, who needs Shaheed’s help to retrieve a box from Nar. What’s in the box? Well, that’s part of the fun of the book.
Confused yet? This is all in the first third of the book, and it’s not as confusing as you might think. Wilson and Perker do a wonderful job giving us completely real characters, even Shams, who is, after all, a creature of legend. Perker’s art is beautiful, giving us a very good sense of the city and its environs and also giving us characters who look like actual human beings from different cultures. Kate and Shaheed are innocent Americans, Kate perky and Shaheed falsely seedy, while Ashraf is actually seedy and Ali is a stuffy intellectual who never has gotten into a real fight. His women are very nicely drawn, as well, with Kate and her short blonde hair contrasted with Salma’s exotic beauty and Tova’s steely toughness. As we move into the fantastical sections of the book, Perker handles that well too. Ali and Kate end up trapped under the pyramids along an underground river, which Ali says is called the “Undernile.” Nar, who is a magician, is a runt of a man, grinning maniacally as he attempts to open the box and solve its mystery. And Shams takes Shaheed on a quest to become a hero, as we soon learn that Shaheed was going to Beirut to become a suicide bomber. Shams convinces him that there is something more noble to life than that, but Shaheed has to learn what it is. Shaheed manages to get ahold of something called “the Companion Sword,” and through using it, he comes to a better understanding of what it means to be heroic.
Eventually, there’s a final showdown with Nar, but Wilson is too good to make it play out the way many showdowns do. Every character learns something about themselves and the world in which they live. Wilson takes the fantasy of the setting and uses it to examine the Arab-Israeli conflict (with Ashraf and Tova acting as stand-ins) and America’s atttitudes toward the Middle East (with Kate as the Innocent Abroad). But even when she gets polemical, as when Kate and Ali argue about her ideas of revolution, it comes from the personalities of the characters and doesn’t feel forced. She also does a wonderful job examining the tenets of Islam, again without bashing us over the head with it. We have heard so little about what makes Islam a potential force for good in the world rather than for evil, and although Wilson doesn’t go into a deep philosophical discussion about the religion, she manages to show us why so many people adhere to it and why people are wrong when they kill themselves in a crowded area. She does this without preaching, which is a nice trick.
Cairo is a dense comic loaded with good characters and ideas. It’s a love story in more ways than one, it’s a quest saga, it’s a fantasy novel, and it’s a glimpse into a world that most Americans don’t know about. It looks great and it’s fascinating. What else do you need?
Next, we come to The Goon: Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker by Eric Powell. It’s published by Dark Horse and will set you back 20 dollars. If you’ve ever seen Powell’s art, you know it’s gorgeous. But is it worth your time? (I’m going to try not to SPOIL this, but I will probably fail. Proceed at your own risk!)
I have never been a big fan of The Goon, because I don’t think Powell is funny. The comic, despite looking very nice, is boring for me to read because I just don’t laugh at it, and that’s part of what it’s going for. When I read that this “ain’t funny,” as it says on the first page, I decided to check it out, because I do love Powell’s art and wanted to read a story stripped of what I think is a rather sophmoric sense of humor (I’ve heard that his letter columns are very tongue-in-cheek, which is good because they’re not funny either, but the book’s humor is sophmoric too).
I’m a bit conflicted over this book. Powell makes it beautiful to look at, of course, especially late in the book, when the Goon (pre-scarring) stares at himself in the mirror after something traumatic happens to him. In five full-page pictures of our hero, we see him slowly go insane, and it’s horrible to watch, but Powell does it so brilliantly we’re transfixed. As usual in Goon books, there’s a nice contrast between the weird (Franky, who has blank white eyes) and the realistic. When the Goon explodes into violence, it’s disturbing not only because of what triggers it, but because Powell makes it look like real violence, and it makes us uncomfortable.
The story switches back and forth between the present and the past. In the past, we uncover an early story of the Goon, before he was scarred and before he became as hardened as he is. He comes into contact with Xiang Yao, the crime boss of Chinatown, and in the course of his dealings with him, discovers that the man is holding an old flame of the Goon’s, Isabella, in servitude. In order to rescue her, he concedes control of the docks to Xiang Yao, and as he escorts Isabella around town, his stranglehold on the underworld weakens. Franky is particularly distressed about this, and the rift between them widens, until something happens that makes the Goon turn hard and reclaim his place. It doesn’t come without a fight, as Xiang Yao almost kills him and succeeds in scarring him, but it’s a formative event in the Goon’s life.
In the present, he faces a similar challenge from a new crime boss, the Wicker Man. This is a bit more interesting as a story, because we’re not sure who the Wicker Man is (he’s literally a wicker man, too) and what connection he has with another woman in the Goon’s life, Mirna, the singer at the bar he frequents (owns?). The Goon believed that Mirna was just being nice to him because she wanted something, and he brushed her off. He tries to apologize, but she still holds a grudge. This has implications beyond just a failed romance, but we don’t learn what it is until later. The Wicker Man, like Xiang Yao, is a significant threat to the Goon, not because of a woman, but because he is temporarily able to exploit the Goon’s weaknesses. Even though the Goon recovers and defeats the Wicker Man, the consequences of that victory linger, as it’s not as black-and-white as it seems.
Both stories illuminate crucial facets of the Goon’s personality, and the similarities between the plots means Powell gets to highlight how the Goon has changed. In the first plot, he allows a woman to influence his decisions. In the second plot, he doesn’t. How this happens is why I have a problem with the book. (And here’s where I might SPOIL it, even though I’ll try not to.) The comic is almost seeping with hatred toward women. Both Isabella and Mirna are presented differently but with contempt. The Goon is presented as Isabella’s shining knight, and she uses him for what she wants but doesn’t really love him. However, we know nothing about her, just that she doesn’t love the Goon. She’s a stereotype of a heartless bitch, and that colors the way we see her. We have no idea why she treats the Goon poorly, just that she does, and therefore we are automatically directed toward sympathizing with the Goon and hating Isabella. Mirna, meanwhile, comes off slightly better, but not much. She gets more development, but her rejection of the Goon, while more understandable in light of events in the book, is still shaded as a bitchy move, because the Goon tried to apologize to her. Why can’t she just get past what happened, the reader is invited to ask, and give the big lug a break? The relationship between Franky and the Goon is presented as the “real” one, and the women are just obstacles in the way. You may say that it’s the nature of the genre, as we often see tough guys who have bad luck with the ladies, and it’s not that the book itself is misogynistic. It’s a question of tone, however, and this book’s overarching feel is that women are not to be trusted. In The Simping Detective, several women are not to be trusted, but there are many different kinds of women and they all have different motives and some of them can be trusted. In Shortcomings, Ben treats women poorly, but we get the feeling that Tomine is not in favor of how Ben acts (whether Ben is an autobiographical avatar of Tomine or not, the tone is still unfavorable toward Ben). The Goon, however, is clearly the wronged party in this book, and that’s why I have a bigger problem with this book than the other two. It’s as if Powell is defining how we should feel about Isabella, Mirna, and the Goon, and he wants us to sympathize with the Goon. I don’t have a problem with that, because he’s the hero, after all, but it’s done by making the women stereotypical evil bitches, and that’s where I object.
There’s a lot to like about this book. It looks great, and the two plots complement each other nicely and do a decent job showing how the Goon has evolved. I can’t say it’s a great book, however, because it seems like Powell takes a bit of an easy way out when he has the format to make this a much more complex work.
I guess I can’t avoid talking about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier forever, can I? This is, of course, brought to you by Alan Moore, the Crazy Old Man of the North, and Kevin O’Neill, possibly the most underrated artist working today. The evil scumbags at DC bring this to you, although technically it’s published by Wildstorm and America’s Best Comics. It’s 30 big dollars, and it’s not worth your money, unfortunately.
It’s not that it’s not interesting. I actually enjoyed reading this book, but I can’t really recommend it. It’s far more admirable as an accomplishment than as an actual piece of fiction. Moore appears to be more concerned with showing off than putting together a coherent and interesting story. In the previous installments of LoEG, Moore used the characters to tell a story. The use of famous fictional people as both the protagonists and as the secondary characters was interesting, but didn’t interfere with the plot. In this book, however, this is all about Moore trying to fit as many literary cameos as he can, and it weakens the book. It’s far more interesting as kind of a history of this alternate world Moore has created, and as I enjoy history, it was kind of fun reading the map Moore laid out. But as you continue to read, you realize that there’s not much going on, and it becomes clear Moore is indulging in some of the things he’s gotten more and more obsessed with: high-class porn, the world of imagination, and how very clever he is. And that’s not terribly entertaining.
It’s frustrating, because Moore so desperately wants this to read as “classic” literature, but it doesn’t reach that level. It’s pastiche, and although it’s well done, the fact that we’re so very aware of the machinations of the author, it becomes more of a chore. It’s a shame, because it begins much like the other volumes – with a story populated by interesting characters who happen to be from different books. Mina Harker picks up a guy in a bar who turns out to be James Bond. She gets into the Ministry of Love and steals the Black Dossier, which documents the exploits of the various Leagues throughout history. This part of the book is quite good, as Bond is a complete tool and very funny before becoming much more frightening later on. But then Mina and Allen Quatermain delve into the book, and it grinds to a halt as Moore comes up with all sorts of clever ways to impress us. The problem is that the vignettes he tells are dispassionate and somewhat listless. Moore doesn’t really tell stories; he summarizes stories that have already happened. It’s like someone is explaining the story to us, and we keep thinking, “I guess I had to be there.” We can see that the stories could be interesting, but the way Moore tells them removes us completely from the equation because we don’t experience them first-hand. It’s a weird conceit, and it’s why I wonder if Moore wants simply to impress us. He goes through comic strips, a fake Shakespeare play, a letter from Fanny Hill to her creator about her pornographic adventures, a Jeeves parody with Lovecraftian overtones, and an absolutely awful attempt to write something that looks like the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which no one I’ve spoken to or read on the Internet has finished. Man, that thing is terrible. The main plot continues, and Mina and Allen escape to the Blazing World, where everything goes 3-D and Prospero delivers a speech and it’s all very similar to the ending of Promethea, from what I’ve heard (I haven’t finished Promethea).
The parts with Mina and Allen, as thin a plot as it is, are pretty interesting, because we’re not bludgeoned over the head by Moore’s brilliance. Sure, James Bond and Harry Lime and others show up, but at least things are happening and the narrative doesn’t come to screeching halts because of the format Moore uses. Plus, it allows O’Neill to shine, and he’s probably as big as reason to get the book as Moore is. It doesn’t matter if Moore wants him to draw a comic strip, a porn memoir, an 18th-century political cartoon, postcards from exotic locations, 1950s science fiction, an instructional pamphlet (with more porn), or a freaky 3-D world, O’Neill is up to the task. The details are maginificent, especially when Mina and Allen get to the Blazing World and O’Neill goes a bit nuts. It’s part of the marvelous package and almost saves the weak narrative.
There’s certainly a lot to like about this book. I liked reading it, but was disappointed by the way the story, such as it was, unfolded. I’m not sure why Moore has become so obsessed with taking classic characters from literature and making them fuck, but it’s not as fascinating as he seems to think it is. If you can find it for cheaper than 30 bucks, it’s an interesting book to read, but ultimately, an interesting failure. It seems like it’s a book that exists just to give Jess Nevins a job (and, as usual, he does it very well). Let’s hope Moore has gotten this out of his system and goes back to writing cool stories.
So those are some longer books that have come out recently that you might enjoy. Of course, I just got a bunch more last week, so I’ll have to review those soon too! So much good stuff abounds in the comics world!