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CSBG Archive

Yes, it’s time for even more graphic novel reviews!

Hey! The title of the post says it all! Let’s delve in!

I went alphabetical last time, but I’m not going that way this time! So our first book is B. P. M. (Beats per Minute) by Paul Sizer. If that title doesn’t give it away, this is a book about deejays. It’s the “Café Digital Extended House Mix,” according to the cover. You might find these affectations twee. But did I???? Sizer self-published this bad bear, and it will cost you $15.99.

Sizer writes in an introduction about his love for music and comics and how this book is an attempt to meld the two, which is a nice sentiment. He tells the story of Roxy, a young DJ, talented but safe in her choices. She meets a burnt-out legendary DJ who runs a record store in Greenwich Village, and he becomes her sensei. Through him, she grows into a force to be reckoned with, until she gets a break and becomes a new star in the New York club scene. The biggest conflict in the book is the fact that Roxy ignores her girlfriend, Hannah, to the point where she gets dumped. She and Hannah can’t figure out how to make it work, mainly because they’re both more concerned with their careers than each other (Roxy more so, but Hannah is also very career-oriented). So that’s the narrative.

Of course, Sizer is aiming for more. He wants the book to be like an extended dance mix (hence the subtitle), with scenes subbing for songs and the entire book acting as a great night out clubbing. He goes pretentious on the first few pages and on the last page, as he writes of the beat of the planet/universe and how it compels you to go to a club and have your eardrums blasted out (as you can probably guess, I’m not much for the club scene, nor was I ever). He also includes tracks at the bottom of each page to play while you’re reading the book. I tended to ignore these; I had heard of several of the songs, but I have never enjoyed being told what I should listen to while I read, mainly because I don’t listen to music while I read (I’m old-fashioned and not at all good at multitasking; if I listen to music, I want to sing along, which is difficult when you’re reading). However, when Sizer remains grounded in a particular culture (that of the New York club scene), the book works better. He doesn’t really earn the pretentious parts, so they’re weaker in context.

The book doesn’t really work, however, even in the stronger portions. It’s interesting because of the subject matter, but once the novelty of that wears off (and if you go clubbing in New York, it might not even be a novelty at all), there’s not much else to recommend it. The characters are largely ciphers, because Sizer doesn’t spend enough time getting to know them. Roxy, as the focus, is supposed to be tortured about her choice of career over love, but she isn’t really. We get a few scenes of her fretting about her treatment of Hannah, but she gets over it really quickly, and we just never believe that a) she ever cared about Hannah in the first place; and b) she ever considered making changes in her life to accommodate a relationship. Her relationship with Philippe Robicheau (Robie), the ex-DJ, is fleshed out a bit more, but he remains largely enigmatic too, as everything she hears about him is hearsay, and he just stands around suggesting killer music selections for her. Even Roxy’s rise isn’t done particularly well, as she doesn’t really run into any adversity on her way. Sure, she’s late to some gigs and she doesn’t have a very good set, but that’s nothing serious, especially when Robie takes her under his wing. We’ve seen stories like this many, many times before, so in order to make it interesting, Sizer needs to put some kind of spin on it. But he doesn’t. It’s a straight-forward telling of a girl learning how to be a good DJ, and there’s almost no tension whatsoever. At the end, Sizer has Roxy basically spell out the path her life is taking, which grinds the narrative to a halt. This leads to the pretentious ending and is part of the reason why the final page doesn’t work. It’s as if Sizer had a nice ending to the story but he didn’t want to leave any ambiguity to it, so he shoved in a lot of late exposition. It doesn’t work particularly well.

Sizer’s art is fine, but nothing dazzling. He writes in the endnotes that he wanted to capture a real-world kind of feeling with some of the locations, and this means blending traditional cartoon drawings of the characters and interiors with actual photographs of some exteriors, including the record store that Robie runs. It’s a bit jarring to see a cartoon Roxy in the middle of what is obviously a picture of a record store – it reminds one of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and not in a good way. The problem is Sizer’s drawing, which isn’t “realistic” enough to fit in his “real-world” photographs. On its own, it’s fine, and some of the club scenes almost reach the vibe he’s going for. But as a whole, the blending takes us out of the story and calls too much attention to itself. When you’re trying to meld comics and music, you don’t need anything distracting your reader, because that’s hard enough as it is.

The idea behind B. P. M. is fascinating, and the idea that comics and music can give you the same feeling is not new, especially, but it can be a nice juxtaposition. Sizer just doesn’t pull it off, and it highlights the inadequacies of the rest of the narrative. It’s a shame.

Our next selection is Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell. This is published by the fine folk at Top Shelf and costs $19.95.

On the one hand, Swallow Me Whole is absolutely brilliant. It’s gorgeously illustrated, harrowing yet moving, and it has fully realized characters who interact like people do and struggle with horrific problems that lead to terrible and sweet epiphanic moments. It’s the kind of book that, if there was any justice in the world, would get a ton of press and sell like gangbusters. That it won’t makes me sad.

On the other hand … I hate to admit this, but I don’t get it. Well, the ending, that is. I’m desperately trying to avoid reading other reviews of this until I type this up, because I don’t want others to influence what I write, but I’m really tempted in this case. On the back of this book are long pull quotes by noted comics curmudgeon Alan David Doane, who loves this like I love My So-Called Life (i.e., in a probably unhealthy and unnatural manner) and Steve Duin of The Oregonian, whose work I used to read when I lived in Portland and whose opinions I tend to respect. Neither quote goes into the ending, but I’m really tempted to fire up Google and find out if any reviewer as yet discussed the ending and can explain it. [Edit: After I wrote this, I did just that. Most reviewers talk about the ending in the vaguest terms, which either means they don’t want to spoil it (which is more probable) or that they, too, don’t get it but don’t want to admit it. Not me! I’m brave enough to admit when I’m dumb!]

But let’s not dwell on that! Let’s dwell on the rest of the book, which is stunning. Powell gives us the story of Ruth and her brother Perry, Arkansas teenagers with … let’s just say some strange tendencies. Ruth collects insects in jars and arranges them in her room, while Perry is compelled to draw pictures by a tiny wizard. Interestingly enough, Ruth is diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia and put on medication, while Perry is left alone to “grow out of it.” It’s part of the tension in the book – what should be done about people who are out of step from the mainstream but pose no real threat? One of the awful things about this book is watching as people who have Ruth’s best interests at heart (and some, admittedly, who don’t) slowly destroy her. This is the power of the book – we watch in sadness as Ruth is turned into something else, and we mourn for what she has lost. Powell does a wonderful job showing us that her illness is crippling her, but at the same time it’s also liberating her. The tragedy of the book is that an incident that has little to do with her schizophrenia sets her off and enables those who know better to move in and complete their job of assimilation. It’s a small thing, but Powell is able to show how these things snowball until the child is lost in a wave of repression. It seems (and this is where I get confused) that Perry pays the ultimate price, and therefore Ruth’s illness has ruined two lives. But perhaps not.

Powell also does a great job with the secondary characters, especially Ruth’s grandmother, who is dying and comes to live with the family so she doesn’t have to die in a hospital. Ruth’s grandmother also suffers from schizophrenia, so she understands what Ruth is going through and tries to warn her about the consequences of it. This warning comes in a wonderful sequence where Ruth’s grandmother speaks of her own painting and why she was compelled to do it. Ruth doesn’t understand her grandmother, but she does by the end. It’s a family tragedy, because Ruth’s parents are dealing with her dying grandmother and their sick daughter and we see them fraying at the edges, as well. Powell never makes this explicit – he simply allows us to witness events and see how the parents seem to be deflating as the book goes on, until they too are beaten by the system.

The art is amazing, as well. Powell drenches the book in shadows, giving it a dream-like quality, but his figures are sharp and defined, each with a unique personality. The ethereal parts of the book work as well as the grounded parts, and the final 39 pages are almost completely wordless, as Ruth’s life collapses soundlessly, which makes the terror all the more disturbing. It’s a marvelous comic to look at, because each page contains so much detail and information that we want to absorb it all.

I was curious about one thing, however, before I got completely confused by the ending. One page implies that this is not the “real” world. I could be completely misreading it, and maybe I don’t really know what’s going on in public schools in Arkansas, but there’s a scene in a biology class that is unlike any other biology class I’ve ever heard of and is out of sync with the rest of the book. Has anyone read this? Am I misreading this page? (To be fair, that’s not beyond the realm of possibility.)

And then we get to that nearly wordless ending. It’s tough to discuss it, because I’ve only given away some very vague stuff above and I’m not sure I could give anything away anyway, as I don’t get it. It becomes very symbolic (moreso than the rest of the book), and while I could guess at what happens, it’s extremely vague. I don’t really care about an exact resolution, because the book is more about Ruth’s transformation because of her illness, so maybe I should just relax and accept that it’s deliberately ambiguous, but it bugged me because it made me feel stupid, like I should have understood what was happening but couldn’t. If it’s completely figurative, okay, but certain panels make me think it’s very literal, and nobody seems bothered by it. Again, I realize I’m being vague, but it is a powerful ending, even though I don’t quite understand it, so I don’t want to give it away. Sorry.

The weird ending notwithstanding, this is a fantastic comic book. Powell takes a topic with which many of us have little experience and makes what schizophrenics go through feel both terrifying and liberating, which is a difficult trick, it seems to me. We never get comfortable reading this book, which is a good thing, as it makes us pay much more attention to what is happening to Ruth. It’s the kind of book that you want to read again and again, because the characters draw you in and demand to be heard. And maybe you’ll love the ending! I can’t recommend this enough, and I look forward to more of Powell’s work.

And so we find ourselves at our next selection, which is Jobnik! by Miriam Libicki. This book is self-published and will cost you $18. There’s nothing after the decimal point, people!

There are a lot of impressive pull quotes in this book from a variety of people, but I won’t be one of them. Libicki’s book is a memoir about her time in the Israeli Defense Force in autumn of 2000, during the Al Aqsa intifada. On the surface, this sounds promising – Libicki isn’t a combat soldier, but she’ll still have to deal with sexual harassment, which will get twisted up with the fact that she falls in love with anything with a heartbeat (or so it seems), and she’ll have some issues with the fact that she’s not a native Israeli, and there’s the threat of violence hanging over it all! That’s gold!

Unfortunately, Libicki doesn’t pull it off. Autobiographies are always tough to manage, no matter how interesting your life is, and despite what seems like an interesting life, Libicki manages to drain the tension out of it. The book is really a series of seemingly disconnected episodes – Libicki meets some people, has sex with some of them, worries about the uprising – which remains outside of the story, mainly on the television screen and in newspapers, and eventually takes a leave to visit Toronto for a convention honoring her favorite band, Moxy Früvous. Nothing connects, there’s very little narrative arc, and Libicki doesn’t grow as a person. This turns into someone sitting down with you a few years after the fact and showing you their photo album and saying, “And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened …” I suppose that’s fine if you’re family, but it doesn’t really do much as a story. Autobiographies don’t necessarily have to have a good story as long as we get some semblance of character development, but we don’t really get that in this book. I’ve always said that I’m not a fan of autobiographies, but I do like to see them if they’re well done. This is not well done.

Libicki’s art is nothing great, either. It’s nice to see characters who aren’t perfect people, but everyone Libicki draws looks exactly alike, man or woman. The figure drawing isn’t that egregious, and some of her panel layouts are quite nice, but her sense of perspective is often way out of whack, with a bizarre lack of depth in some panels and poorly placed figures in those panels. It’s a disconcerting read at times and draws us right out of the story (such as it is), and it’s frustrating. Libicki occasionally comes up with some very nice pages, including the one that is reproduced on the cover, where she goes outside and sees silhouetted jets and Stars of David in the sky instead of pinpricks of light, but those sorts of moments are few and far between, and the rest of the book is very rough.

The most frustrating thing about the comic is that we keep waiting for something to happen, and it never does. I get that Libicki was a teenager when the book takes place and so we shouldn’t expect her to be all that mature, but she’s pretty much the same person at the end as she is at the beginning. Meanwhile, the Palestinian uprising is only referenced in the background. There are very few moments of epiphany, and the book even ends very abruptly. I admire the effort put into the comic, but it’s not really worth your time.

Coming in next is La Muse, which is written by Adi Tantimedh, drawn by Hugo Petrus, and colored by -3-. Don’t ask me why he is named that. It’s a Prince thing, I guess. The book costs 20 dollars and is published by Big Head Press. On the back of the book it warns consumers, “If you are not mature please do not even attempt to read this book.” Tee-hee. This was once a webcomic, but again, I don’t like those there comics on my computer screen (how am I supposed to read in bed?), so I picked up the print version.

Alan Moore likes this book, and that should be enough for you, right? But I’m still sticking my two cents in! The story tells of Susan la Muse and her sister Libby. Susan is a superhero – or so we think. She has many strange powers, and we learn quickly that she has decided to change the world for the better using her powers. Libby, who has no powers, is a talent agent, and she gets drawn into Susan’s crusade because of that fact – Susan becomes a worldwide celebrity and needs representation, after all! Of course, as Susan does her thing, the powers-that-be get all grumpy and try to kill her, but she’s so powerful they find it difficult. And, over the course of the book, we learn about Susan’s powers, where they come from, and why Libby doesn’t have any. We also get into their family history, which is a bit odd and leads to the major conflict of the book. No, the major conflict is not between Susan and the powers-that-be – she’s way too powerful for them.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Petrus has a clean style that looks “realistic” without relying too heavily on photo-referencing (he probably uses it, but he does a good job disguising it). He’s called upon to draw dozens of characters, and he does it well, and when Tantimedh’s story gets a bit cosmic, Petrus is up to that, too. The pencils and colors help make the book pop, and it goes well with the slightly slick take on superheroes that Tantimedh is going for.

The story has its moments, although ultimately, this is a disappointing book. It’s not really the execution, because Tantimedh keeps the story humming along and always has a way to subvert our expectations. Susan is always one step ahead of those who would bring her down, and it’s a fun way to show how a super-powered being would go about changing the world. Some moments are pure genius – how Susan deals with a neo-Nazi group who tries to kill her is particularly cool. If I were so inclined, I would go on a rant about something I’ve noticed in the past – how superhero writers seem to love dictatorships, as long as they’re “good” dictatorships – but Tantimedh isn’t going that deep into this thesis, so I won’t. The best part of the book is watching Susan’s plans unfold, because we always think something will stop her, but she always has an answer for everything.

The disappointment comes from the fact that this is just another superhero book, ultimately. It’s not really “superheroes done right,” even though Tantimedh does a nice job with showing how someone with real power could change the world. Despite a decent execution of the ideas contained herein, as I read it, I just kept wondering what the point was. Tantimedh slips in something near the end about the power of creation and destruction and how to use it wisely, linking that to a generational conflict, but that theme is underdeveloped and therefore not strong enough to make this worthwhile. Tantimedh is unafraid to show what a superpowered being would, for instance, think about sex, and that’s partly where the “mature” label comes from – this is a book that has fun with sex, but is also mature enough to admit that people do, actually, have sex. There’s just a vague feeling of familiarity around the whole thing, and although Tantimedh could make it work through the telling of the story, he doesn’t do a good enough job to transcend the limitations of the story.

It would be nice if I could recommend this, but I can’t. Sorry!

Septic Isle is our next tale. It’s written by Andy Winter and drawn by Mick Trimble. Moonface Press published this, and it’s $5.95.

You know, I read this a little over a week ago, and when I started writing a review, I had to go back and look at it, because I honestly couldn’t remember much about it. That’s not a good sign for the review, is it? It’s not that the book is that bad, it’s just that it’s extremely paint-by-numbers, so much so that it’s instantly forgettable. It’s an espionage comic, which is why I was drawn to it. We meet Jacob Marley, a retired MI5 agent who wants back on the job after his daughter is blown up in a terrorist attack in London. He’s paired with Maggie Firestone, an American agent, and the two of them go after Jerome Quinn, the head of a neo-Nazi organization that is forcing Muslims to commit suicide attacks by holding members of their families hostage. This is all to turn public opinion against Muslims so that Britain can be “pure-blooded” again. The twist is that Quinn works for the British government, or he did, until he decided that it was more fun to start a race war. Marley and Firestone go undercover to stop him.

It all plays out exactly as you expect, and that’s why it’s so forgettable. The idea of using racial politics in England to tell a solid action thriller is a good one, but Winter never really gets into it too much, preferring instead to stick to clichés. There are, interestingly enough, hardly any Muslims in this book, and the one who does have a fairly prominent role is there simply to provide a hackneyed ending. I won’t give anything away, but anything you can possibly think of as a spy thriller cliché is in this book. I’ll give you one example: Marley, a man, is teamed with Firestone, a woman. Could they possibly end up in bed after an argument? Of course! Meanwhile, Trimble’s storytelling skills are fine, I guess, but there’s nothing special about the art either. It does its job. It’s part of the whole bland package.

The depressing thing about this is that after the 7 July 2005 terrorist attacks (which is referenced in the comic), the racial problems in Britain could make not only a good thriller, but a good look at how problematic this is in British society. Perhaps Winter and Trimble didn’t have the room for that, which is fine, but at least they could have done better on the “thriller” part of the equation. There’s just really nothing to recommend about Septic Isle.

Last but not least, we find Damnation by David Wynne. Wynne is a frequent commenter here at the blog, and he was nice enough to send me this, his self-published effort at graphic-noveling. It can be yours for 13 thin dollars, or 6 thin pounds!

Given that it’s a rookie effort, it’s bound to look a bit rough. That’s fine, though – it adds to the book’s charm and, given the subject matter, helps a bit. Wynne’s tale is set in AD 2085 in London, after global warming combined with a nuclear bomb going off in Antarctica (as explained in a short sequence of events at the beginning of the book, no one knows who set the bomb off) makes sea levels rise dramatically, and most of London is now underwater. Meanwhile, a private security force made up of the remnants of a white supremacist Christian group now controls the city. Yes, it’s a post-Apocalyptic setting, and there’s a murder to be solved! Into this mix Wynne drops Perceval Blake, an ex-soldier with an attitude. He’s called in by his ex-boss because the victim listed him as next of kin, and he’s immediately embroiled in a high-level conspiracy that, naturally, targets him.

If this all sounds a bit pedestrian, well, it is. Wynne isn’t treading any new ground with Damnation, but that can be okay, because it’s hard to come up with totally new ideas – often the execution is what carries the day (as other books in this post attest). Wynne has some very interesting ideas that wouldn’t be out of place in a Warren Ellis or Grant Morrison comic – the way Blake can read minds is particularly neat: he injects himself with a drug that can detect magnetic brain waves. This is fairly useful as an investigator, but of course, abuse of it can mess you up. As Blake unravels the mystery of why the victim was killed, he uncovers a scheme to create a perfect soldier, but at a horrible cost.

Wynne puts Blake through his paces, and while there’s a bit of a spark in the writing, it’s still fairly conventional. Blake doesn’t do a lot of standard detecting, because he’s busy reading minds, but he does figure things out nicely. Unfortunately, he’s the only character who’s really developed well – everyone else is a prop to move the plot along, and the book suffers for it. Said plot, as I’ve mentioned, isn’t strong enough to overcome the lack of characterization. While everything moves along at a decent clip and Wynne keeps Blake jumping through the hoops he has to jump through to solve the mystery, it doesn’t rise far enough above a standard post-Apocalyptic tale to stand out. Wynne’s art, though rough, is better than the story. He has some problems with longer shots, as the flooded city never looks as majestically depressing as it probably would, but his panel layouts are very nice, especially when Blake is reading minds – diagonal squares invade the serenity of the horizontal panels and show images flickering across the brains of those he’s reading. It’s a cool effect that helps convey a lot of information without dialogue. Once again, we turn to ADD, who writes on the back that the art has a Paul Grist feel to it, and he’s right, especially with regard to Chastity (who kept reminding me of the infected Grendels in Grist’s arc on Grendel Tales). Wynne’s brooding and brutish style fits well with a London that has gone even more to seed than the London in Hellblazer, and it helps compensate for the weaker aspects of the story.

I’d love to recommend Damnation unequivocally, because it’s always impressive to see a self-published work by someone who has a lot of passion for the creation. I really can’t, though, because of the weaknesses in the story. If you’re a big fan of post-Apocalyptic stories, you can do a lot worse than this, certainly. I often want to like books more than I do, and this is a prime example of that. But hey! don’t take my word for it – check it out on-line! And I’d like to thank David for sending it to me, even if I don’t love it. It’s the kind of thing that makes me curious about what he’s doing next, because he obviously has talent.

That’s all for this time around. The star of the post is obviously Swallow Me Whole, and I would encourage you to check that out. I don’t love any of the others, but they have their charms. Support your non-corporate comics today!

9 Comments

The art for La Muse looks a lot like Simon Frasier’s. Which is a good thing.

Hmmm… while I am obviously and, I think, understandably heartbroken that my book didn’t change your life and cause you to worship me as a god, I’m still pretty chuffed to read your review of it. For what it’s worth, I agree with your criticisms, and I’m working on improving the characterisation for the next book (this time: TWO fully rounded characters! Hurrah!). Your concerns about the “pedestrian” plot are, to my mind, really criticisms of the execution- I set out to make a piece of pulpy genre fiction, and that’s always going to be covering well-worn ground. The trick is to make it feel fresh… and that’s obviously a trick I need to practice some more! And as for where the art lets it down… well, I’m always working on improving my art.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read it, let alone review it! That gave me a kick. And I’ll besure to send along a copy of the next one when it’s done.

From your reviews, it looks like Swallow Me Whole seems to be the only one of the bunch spending money on, whatever Alan Moore seems to think…I will say, some of the others at least look good.

Walid: You can read Damnation and (I think) La Muse online, so there’s that!

David: I look forward to more from you. As I noted, I really wanted to like it more, so I’m keen to see what else is floating through your twisted mind!

I’m keen to see what else is floating through your twisted mind!

You are a brave man.

I haven’t heard of any of these. … Awesome!

Hey Greg,
Thanks for the very thorough critique on B.P.M. Sorry it didn’t click for you, but I do appreciate such an in-depth and complete analysis on the book as a whole. As with any project, I always wish I could go back and perfect certain things, but truthfully, having reviewers give the piece a once-over is still really important, pro or con. As a self publisher, I’m happy when anyone puts my stuff under the microscope.
Thanks again for picking the book out to review.
Paul

No problem, Paul. I’m always interested in seeing comics with some different stuff in them, and it’s always cool to see someone self-publishing. I wish it worked better for me!

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