Graphic novels: From old-school to new-school to New Testament-school!
It’s time for some reviews of graphic novels. I have a long list of books to review, so strap in! Plus: Yes, a comic about the New Testament. Well, parts of it. I’m ecumenical around these parts!
(As always with these posts, click to check out bigger views of the scanned art.)
In fact, let’s check out that Christian comic first. It’s called Blinded and it’s written and drawn by Steve Ross. Seabury Books (an imprint of Church Publishing Incorporated) brings us this book, and it costs $20. It also features an introduction by Bill Jemas, who started a company that has translated Genesis in an attempt to reconcile Creation and evolution. Good for him!
If you know anything about the Bible, you can probably guess that a book called Blinded is about Paul of Tarsus, the man who basically wrote most of the New Testament (of course, he didn’t know he was doing so; it just worked out that way). Ross decides to make it more accessible to the modern audience by setting the story in a world where the government has modern weapons and (almost) everyone dresses in modern fashions, and it’s not a bad way to go. If you’re looking at Paul’s message and eliding the historical context to a degree (Ross doesn’t get rid of the historical context of Paul’s life, but he does mess around with it a bit), it doesn’t really matter when you set the story. It’s a story of a man who experiences a life-changing event and becomes a Christian, after all. That can happen anytime after, you know, the life of Jesus.
Blinded is a bit of a mess, unfortunately. Ross does a good job fitting his cartoony art into the story, and he has a nice feel for character development and design. Occasionally, the style gets in the way of the story, but for the most part, it’s a nice-looking comic. The story breaks down on several occasions, though. First of all, despite updating the look of the people to place everyone in modern times, the locations all remain the same. Therefore, when Paul goes to Damascus, he’s actually going to Damascus, Syria, and not a symbolic representation of it. This is weird when Ross shows Jerusalem, for instance, as what looks like a typical American small town. Then, in Athens, Paul ends up in a stadium that looks like the Colisseum in Rome. There’s also a brief idyll on what looks like an antebellum plantation. Ross is certainly trying to make Paul’s story as universal as possible, but the melding of time periods is jarring and doesn’t work completely. Ross is obviously influenced by Jesus Christ Superstar, but that story was internally consistent and, as it didn’t have the geographical scope of Blinded, could remain somewhat grounded in its oddness.
It’s been a while since I read the Bible (five years, probably) and although I know a bit about Paul’s life, I don’t claim to be an expert. However, what makes Paul interesting is that he basically created Christianity as we know it today – if you’re a mainstream, western Christian, you’re probably practicing Pauline Christianity. Paul was a bureaucrat before his conversion and he remained a bureaucret, codifying Jesus’s somewhat radical socialism (if you really follow Jesus’s words, you give away everything you own and you never speak to your family again) into a faith that was palatable to a middle- and upper-class audience. Paul was also a bit of a jerk, even if he’s not quite as anti-woman as many people think. The fascinating thing about Paul is that, as Saul, he was firmly entrenched in the establishment, and once he converted and found himself on the outside of the establishment, he spent the rest of his days turning that into the establishment. He didn’t succeed, but his efforts made it acceptable for “decent” people to be Christians, and 300 years later, Rome recognized the inevitable and made Christianity its official religion.
I apologize for the history lesson, because Ross does a lot to change it, and it hurts the story. Saul is hardly ever seen in this book. He has his “Road to Damascus” moment on page 12, so Ross doesn’t bother to establish his character before his conversion. We get a few moments in which he’s a bad-ass who gets the job done (I’ll get back to that), and then he’s on the run for being a Christian. The rest of the book (it’s 208 pages) is devoted to his trials and tribulations after his conversion. Ross gives us a clichéd scene in which a child is killed and Saul doesn’t care, but we don’t really get a sense of who he is and why Jesus showing up in the back of his car has such an effect on him. Only after his conversion do we start to see what a jerk he is and how desperately he wants to bend Christianity to his will, and while that’s the crux of the story (how Paul comes to see that that’s probably not a great idea), the fact that we don’t really think Paul has changed all that much isn’t a good selling point for Christianity. We need to believe Paul has changed when he converts, but we don’t.
Paul goes through plenty of trials, but none of them seem that deep. Ross has a lot to get to in 200 pages, so it’s not surprising that he skims, but that means we don’t really believe it too much. The ending (I suppose it’s not a spoiler to mention that Paul and Peter are killed in Rome) is quite powerful, and the epilogue is as well, but Ross doesn’t seem to earn it. Paul is busy zipping around the world, trying to get people to do what he wants, and only at the end does he seem to realize what a fool he’s been. His conversion on the Damascus road seems to mean nothing, because it changes nothing about him. We’re not really sure why he acts, at the end, the way he does. Peter gets the most incisive observation of the book, and Paul doesn’t seem to understand. Yes, the ending is very good, but because it’s just been a case of Paul wandering around and not learning anything, we don’t get any insight into the ostensible star of the book.
This confusion extends to the larger frame of Paul’s world. Ross doesn’t seem to know which group he wants to skewer as the “Romans,” so it ends up being a bit of a mess. In the beginning, Saul is working for a group called “Patriot Cleaners,” and it seems like a purely governmental agency. But which government? If it’s the Romans, it’s perhaps necessary to point out that Saul was persecuting Christians (or “Flesh Eaters,” as they’re called throughout a good deal of the comic) for the Jews, who had carte blance in Palestine to persecute heretics. The Romans really didn’t care about the divisions among Jews (and, of course, Jesus didn’t necessarily want to start a new religion), as long as everyone was loyal to Caesar. It was only after Paul took the faith international that the Romans started getting grumpy. Anyway, Ross seems to be implying that Saul works for a Bush-like Administration that illegally wiretaps meetings that might be viewed as seditious. Later on in the book, there’s a clear Ronald Reagan parody, which makes the connections to Evil Republicans even stronger. But the people being spied upon are Christians, so there’s a hint of those godless Commie liberals trying to stop righteous people from worshipping. Like the rest of the book, it’s a bit muddled. Ross obviously had a reason for modernizing the book, but his targets are not clear.
Ultimately, Ross makes Paul a bit more liberal in his thoughts than Paul proves himself to be by his letters (which were probably edited, but still). Paul appears to come down on the positive side of homosexuality, for instance, which is a bit odd, as it’s fairly clear he didn’t like them. It’s to the book’s credit that Ross makes Paul a fairly unsympathetic character, so it’s strange that he would put that in. But the fact that Paul is rather unsympathetic is why this comic doesn’t quite work. The story of Paul is interesting, but not necessarily inspiring. Ross keeps making Paul unlikeable, which is why he doesn’t earn his ending. It’s an unusual way to tell the story of Paul, and it’s certainly not terrible, but the lack of focus in the book is its ultimate downfall.
I received this copy in the mail, and I’d like to thank the people at Seabury Books for sending it to me. It’s always cool to see comics tackling unusual subjects, even if they don’t quite work.
Shifting gears a bit, we find Ace-Face: The Mod With the Metal Arms by Mike Dawson. It’s a mere $6.95, packed with content, and comes to you from the fine folk at AdHouse Books. Dawson, you might recall, garnered some good reviews with Freddie & Me, his memoir about his obsession with Queen’s lead singer. I didn’t read that, but after reading good stuff about it and his contribution of Ace-Face to Project: Superior, I figured there was no reason to not read this!
Unfortunately, it’s disappointing. Dawson is quite a good artist, and he does a fantastic job bringing Ace-Face (Colin Turney) and his world to life, from his influences in the 1960s to his current life as a college professor. Colin was born with no arms, so his eccentric uncle made metal arms for him – full-sized ones, which gives the book some of its humor, as a young Colin doesn’t fit the arms. Dawson does a fine job shifting styles, from a nicely detailed style showing Ace-Face and his various adventures to a slightly more comical style when he tells stories of Jack and Max, young brothers with superpowers (Jack is telekinetic, Max can teleport) to a very simple but still effective line to tell stories of Colin’s son, Stuart. The book is essentially a series of vignettes forming a biography of Ace-Face, with manic adventures of Jack and Max interspersed (they’re both brats) and Stuart’s troubles with neighbors in Brooklyn forming a kind of counterpoint to Colin’s more manly adventures.
Despite the nice art, the main part of the book – the adventures of Ace-Face – don’t work too well. It’s basically a superhero adventure, and while there’s nothing all that wrong with it, there’s nothing too original either. Some creators have a nice take on their own superheroes way outside the Big Four (David Yurkovich comes to mind), but Dawson doesn’t really do too much that’s new or interesting. Meanwhile, Jack and Max are simply annoying and not all that funny. Yes, they’re brats who fight all the time. Yes, they use their powers on each other. It would be funny for a few pages. Dawson gives us far too much of them, and it becomes grating.
Ironically, the best part of the book is Stuart’s “adventures” in Brooklyn, which revolve around his and his wife’s inability to sleep because punks on the stoop of their building are making too much noise. Stuart goes through every conceivable scenario to get them to shut up, but every one seems to lead to disaster (all in his mind, of course). It’s oddly touching and charming, wryly funny, and brings up all sorts of societal constructions without being obvious about it. Dawson can obviously create interesting characters, and it’s too bad he doesn’t do more with them.
Ace-Face is mildly entertaining, but it could be so much more. Dawson is extremely talented, and it will be interesting to see what he does next. I hope it’s more successful!
Let’s go old-school next, as Fantagraphics brings us Blazing Combat, a collection of war stories from 1965-66, written by Archie Goodwin (except for one, which was written by Wallace Wood) and drawn by a ton of fantastic artists. It retails for 29 dollars, but it’s worth it for several reasons.
If you’ve seen any reviews of this book on the Comic Book Internet, you know the backstory and why these comics are so important. They were published by James Warren of Warren Publishing, the company that brought you Creepy. Warren wanted to publish war stories in the vein of Harvey Kurtzman’s EC war comics, so he tapped Archie Goodwin to write the series and scooped up several excellent artists, many of whom were about to be employed by the Big Two. Goodwin wrote stories about many different wars, focusing on Vietnam (this was, of course, just when American combat operations were heating up in Southeast Asia), Korea, and World War II, but also featuring World War I, the Spanish-American War, the Indian Wars, the Civil War, the American Revolution, a Thermopylae story, and even a post-Apocalyptic story just for fun. The stories themselves are quite excellent, but the book folded after four issues. In issue #2, Goodwin wrote a story called “Landscape” that the U. S. military and the American Legion decided was anti-American. The government refused to sell the comic on military bases, the American Legion pressured distributors to stop moving the book, and together they effectively killed the comic. Only four issues came out, and that’s what collected here.
There are two excellent interviews in the back of this book that explain the situation much better. Michael Catron, who acquired the rights to the comics in 1993, interviewed both James Warren and Archie Goodwin in 1993-94 and got a lot of information about the creation and death of the comic. Catron also goes over how comics were distributed back in the day, and if you think Diamond is evil, things are a lot better today than they used to be! The interviews are part of what makes the comic so fascinating.
Of course, it wouldn’t matter if the stories weren’t good, and they are. They’re anti-war, true, but not really anti-American, at least not how the Legion thought. “Landscape,” the story that got Warren and Goodwin in trouble, features an old Vietnamese man who simply wants to grow rice on his tiny plot of land, but can’t because both sides keep sweeping through and messing things up. First the Viet Cong “liberates” his village, and the old man thinks “So many have ‘freed’ this village … Japanese, American, French … who can say …” Then the Americans clean out the VC. Then the guerrillas come back and assault the village, destroying quite a bit of it in the process. Finally, to make sure they get rid of the VC, the Americans take a flame thrower to the old man’s rice fields. The old man gets caught in the crossfire, which is probably what the American Legion objected to, but Goodwin makes it clear that it could be either side who kills him – we’re not sure. I guess the idea of American soldiers ignoring the civilians in their haste to kill guerrillas was anti-American enough for the American Legion!
The stories in the book follow mainly in this vein. Goodwin tends to focus on individual soldiers forced to make horrific choices under extreme circumstances. As you might expect from war stories, the tales are loaded with bitter irony – the Civil War soldiers put aside their differences to bury a comrade, but can’t escape the divisions of the country at large; the World War I soldier who’s desperate to kill Germans stumbles upon one when he’s not ready; the World War II soldier who thinks no one cares about a German soldier, when of course that’s not true; the young boy who can’t even fire a rifle when he arrives on the front but soon comes to be a bit too attached to it; the captured sailor on board a U-boat who loses sight of who the enemy is; the soldier who inadvertently finds an enemy patrol and is hailed a hero, even though his reasons for being near the enemy are sinister; the young man who learns to love the mud-filled trenches he formerly loathed. Goodwin does a fine job keeping each story fresh and even getting into the heads of the characters, which isn’t bad when each story is 6-7 pages long. It’s a testament to Goodwin’s ability that he manages to write 28 (generally) anti-war stories, but never feels like he’s simply repeating himself. Yes, the themes are similar, but he still manages to put unique devices in each story. He even tackles some non-war themes, like racism.
The art helps the book shine, as well. Frank Frazetta painted the covers to each issue, and inside, we get stories illustrated by Joe Orlando, Angelo Torres, George Evans, Gray Morrow, Reed Crandall, John Severin, Al Williamson, Alex Toth, Gene Colon, Wallace Wood, and Russ Heath. There’s not a poorly-illustrated story in the entire book, and some are eerily beautiful. John Severin’s stories are probably the most exquisite, but every artist brings their A-game, probably because they needed to draw only a few pages, plus Goodwin was always acknowledged as one of the nicest guys in comics, so maybe the artists were motivated by that. I don’t care what the reasons are, because the art is uniformly terrific. (The only complaint I have is that Frazetta’s covers aren’t reproduced in their original-sized glory. We get to see them, but they’re very small and don’t have the same impact.)
These are both excellent comics and fascinating historical documents, and Blazing Combat is totally worth a read. If the price scares you, find it on-line! You won’t be disappointed.
As we leave the past behind, let’s check out The Eternal Smile, a collaboration between Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim. I’ve been eagerly anticipating Yang’s follow-up to American Born Chinese, one of the best graphic novels from a few years ago, and while I’ve never read anything by Kim, I’ve heard good things about his work. So this was a slam-dunk! It’s published by the good folk of First Second Books and costs a mere $16.95. The credits don’t say which creator writes and draws what in the book, so I guess it’s a true collaborative effort!
This isn’t quite as powerful as American Born Chinese, but it’s still a very good book. Like that comic, there’s a strong sense of metafiction here, but Yang and Kim use it in a different way than Yang did in ABC. The Eternal Smile contains three separate stories that are very, very loosely tied together (only two panels hint that they take place in the same “universe”), but they all contain similar elements. Mainly the stories are concerned with the reality behind situations and whether that reality is something we should strive for. Yang and Kim don’t take the easy way with any of the stories, which is quite appreciated.
The first story, “Duncan’s Kingdom,” concerns a young knight who’s in love with the princess and sole heir to the kingdom. One night her father is brutally murdered in his bed by the Evil Frogs (see above), and she promises to marry the knight who brings her the Frog King’s head. Duncan gets some help from a strange monk-like friend, Brother Patchwork, who gives him a magnificent sword with which to fight. He’s captured and brought before the Frog King, but uses his sword to slaughter the king’s soldiers. Then, when he’s about to take on the king himself, the other suitor, a tall, blond, arrogant knight shows up and tries to steal the glory. He fails, but when he pushes Duncan out of the way, our hero slams against a wall on which is a giant ring. The Frog King willingly sacrifices himself once he extracts a promise from Duncan that he won’t pull the ring. Of course, Duncan pulls the ring, and finds something inside that ties into a dream he’s been having, a dream of a woman sitting at a table crying. From there, things begin to spiral out of control for Duncan, until he’s unsure what’s real and what’s not.
In the second story, “Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile,” a frog modeled after Scrooge McDuck is always looking for gold to fill a swimming hole. He continues to come up with one money-making scheme after another, until his assistant, Filbert, finds a smile hanging in the sky. Filbert speaks of the power of the smile to make him calm and peaceful, and Gran’pa Greenbax jumps on this as a money-making opportunity – he builds a church and begins charging for people to see the smile. This all goes to hell quickly, and a tragedy occurs, and Gran’pa Greenbax discovers what the smile really means. As with “Duncan’s Kingdom,” there’s a yearning for the truth that leads to someplace else, a place that may or may not be better, but at least it’s true.
The final story, “Urgent Request,” focuses on Janet Oh, a worker drone at a company that manages Internet services for various companies. One day, after a lackluster performance review and the brush-off from her boss about a better job within the company, she receives one of those e-mails from a Nigerian prince who wants money from her. She overhears her boss talking to a co-worker about her pathetic attempt to get the new position, so she answers the e-mail. Of course, things spiral from there. Janet eventually meets the scam artist – it’s not too hard to find him, as her job makes him easy to track – but she’s not angry. The story takes a sweet turn, as Janet learns what’s important to her and we learn why she answered in the first place. Unlike the first two stories, there’s only Janet’s reality, but she still finds truth in fantasy. It’s a slightly more saccharine story than the first two, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as powerful.
The stories, taken together, speak to a yearning among all of us for something greater than ourselves. Duncan wants to save the kingdom and marry the princess, but he comes to learn that maybe getting everything you want isn’t necessarily all that great, especially if you have to leave things behind to get it. Gran’pa Greenbax learns that there’s more to life than money, but not because of the false religion he cooked up, but because of a deeper truth behind the smile. And Janet desperately wants to break out of her cubicle life, and the only way she knows how is by responding to an Internet scammer, even though she knows it will cost her money. But, as Gran’pa Greenbax might say after his revelation, it’s only money.
This is a wonderful comic, the kind that’s fun to read on a basic level but reveals deeper themes the more you consider it. It looks great, too, with each story showcasing a different style or even styles. In the case of this book, the art helps peel back the layers of reality as much as the writing does, and it’s very impressive to see. As I mentioned above, I have no idea who did what art (Kim, I believe, does the art for “Urgent Request,” but I could be wrong), but no matter which story you’re looking at, it’s quite good.
Even if, as I wrote above, it’s not quite as good as American Born Chinese, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out. In fact, get them both! That’ll be some good reading right there!
Coming up next in the queue is Pherone, a collection of strips from Heavy Metal that has been published by Image. It’s $25, and it’s not quite worth that, unfortunately. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s a good chunk of money to spend for something that falls short of greatness. Technically, it’s Viktor Kalvachev’s Pherone – Kalvachev drew it and wrote some of it. The other two credited writers are Patrick Baggatta and Jim Sink.
It’s not hard to see where the focus of the book is, as Pherone looks absolutely terrific. Kalvachev has a neat style, kind of a less severe Brian Steelfreeze look with some Eduardo Risso influences. Given that Pherone involves shady characters doing shady things, the art works well in the story. It takes place in and around Seattle, which allows Kalvachev to drench everything in rain, giving it a true noir feel. Much of the book is in black and white, which gives the colored sections a bit more pop, and Kalvachev shows a nice skill in changing his style when he goes into a flashback to a Middle Eastern desert, where the colors become warm and exotic. And, of course, the blood is red, which brings home how brutal this book can be. The characters are wonderfully drawn, from the gorgeous femme fatale Eve, the star of the book, to the more grotesque people on the fringes of the book. Even though Kalvachev idealizes his two main female characters a bit, they still look like actual people, and although they live in a noir-ish world, it’s still recognizable as our own. The book is almost worth it for the art alone.
The plot is fine, although not terribly original. The government develops a drug called Pherone that blocks memory, making it perfect for agents who will not remember their mission and therefore won’t crack under torture. Yeah, it doesn’t make too much sense, but what we need to know is that Eve, who’s an agent, has gone off the grid for some reason and the government wants her back. She, naturally, doesn’t remember all the stuff she’s done for her bosses, and the idea of her having short-term memory loss is actually one of the more effective parts of the book, as it keeps us off-balance. The book is a chase, as Eve’s bosses are looking for her, while the police want her for questioning after some people turn up dead early in the book. There’s a bit of a love interest, as Eve hooks up with an old lover, but it never goes very far. And the ending is disappointing because it appears this book was just to set up another one, and who knows if we’ll ever see that. The most egregious part of the book is the scripting, which never rises above the level of mediocrity. It tells the story, for the most part, but the book begins with meaningless narration that does nothing to advance the plot or set the mood and ends with people standing around explaining things to us. It’s frustrating, because Kalvachev’s art is good enough to tell the story in a lot of places, so they could have dispensed with the narration, and they could have found a better way to exposit when it was necessary.
I can’t really recommend Pherone, but I’d love to see more of Kalvachev’s artwork. It’s very keen.
Let’s move on to Walled In, a new book from Ape Entertainment that will set you back $16.95. It’s written by Roger Micheff, illustrated by Dennis Calero, and is apparently a “prequel” to a direct-to-DVD thriller of the same name that came out in March.
This is an odd book, because the text blurb on the back pretty much gives it all away, but I’m not going to do that, or at least not as much as the back of the book does. It’s the story of Joseph Malestrazza, a brilliant young architecture student in Paris who wants to achieve greatness through his buildings but might be a bit ’round the bend. Mincheff does a good job making Malestrazza an interesting if not particularly sympathetic character, and the plot is interesting, as Mincheff delves deeply into what architecture means to Malestrazza in particular and humanity in general. When Malestrazza arrives in Paris, he comes under the tutelage of Professor Michelson, who continually challenges him to strive for more. He also falls in love with Michelson’s daughter, Rose, which complicates things, as the professor doesn’t think their love is a good idea.
Meanwhile, Mincheff does a nice bit of horror, as people mysteriously disappear from various rooms while the narration is a psychiatric examination given to the 11-year-old Malestrazza after his mother’s suicide. Gradually, all these threads tie together, but before that, Micheff goes through a history of architecture, leading us to a horrifying conclusion about what makes buildings great and why some have lasted through the centuries. What makes the book work is that Malestrazza would be the kind of person to discover the secrets of Roman cement, for instance, and he would also figure out a way to make it viable in today’s world. We already know that Malestrazza is a bit kooky, and Mincheff does a nice job showing how he spirals further down as the book goes on.
Calero’s art is very nice, as well. Calero seems to work well on comics like this, where he’s freed from the constraints of mainstream monthly superhero books and can dabble in a wider range of styles. His photo-realistic style is dominant here, but unlike other artists who work with that, he does a nice job making the panels moodier than you might expect, and when he does simply use a photo for, say, the skyline of Paris (as it appears he does in one scene), he adds enough of his own pencils to make it less a creepy reproduction that’s out of place and more an integrated part of the comic. He does a good job altering his style for certain scenes, too, like when some of the people are abducted. Those scenes have a much more organic, rough feel to them, befitting what’s happening in them. Calero isn’t a great artist, but he’s much better when he’s given some space to breathe, and here, the artwork complements the story very well.
Walled In, as a “prequel,” ends a bit ambiguously, but unlike Pherone, it’s not as bothersome, mainly because Mincheff tells a complete story, just one that doesn’t end very well and can go several places from where it does end. It’s a pretty good horror comic, though, one that doesn’t rely on gore to get under your skin, just the suggestion that humanity is a lot more evil than we like to think. Ironically, I’ve read some reviews of the movie, and they think that it feels incomplete, as the film doesn’t get into Malestrazza enough. I certainly wouldn’t suggest those reviewers buy this comic, as their job is to review the text that is presented to them, but it sounds as if this comic gives us a much better story than the movie, which is supposed to resolve some of the issues that crop up here. I would certainly recommend this comic, as it’s smarter than your usual horror comic. And who doesn’t love a smart horror comic every now and then?
Our next selection was sent to me by the fine folk at The New Press, who also sent me Jews and American Comics (which I reviewed here). This time around I received a graphic adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working, which came out originally in 1972. Paul Buhle edits this version, and many of the stories (though not all, as the cover implies) are adapted by Harvey Pekar. It will cost you $22.95.
Working is an odd comic. The book, in case you don’t know (and I didn’t), is an oral history in which Terkel interviews dozens of people about their jobs and how they feel about those jobs. Pekar and his collaborators edit those stories, of course, but it feels like they captured the essence of what Terkel’s subjects were going for, so it doesn’t feel like we’re missing anything. The art is quite interesting, as dozens of artists worked on the book. Sharon Rudahl, who herself adapts and draws eight chapters, has a soft, almost nostalgic line to her work that, coupled with her amazing attention to detail, makes her a perfect artist for her stories, most of which deal with either jobs in the past (well, the past for 1972, which is now even further in the past, naturally) or those that fill an odd niche in society (jockey, for instance). Her stories feel kinder than some of the others, mainly due to her gentler art. Lance Tooks, who adapts three stories, has a more dynamic and “modern” look to his art, but one that also feels a bit Art-Deco, fitting his stories (two of which are about a jazz musician and a bar pianist) very well. Peter Kuper’s almost oppressive, Soviet-style propaganda art (I mean that in the best way possible, if that’s possible) is perfect for the story of a union organizer (perhaps ironically, but still). Bob Hall, meanwhile, provides the art for the two most “high-profile” characters in the book (probably, although some might disagree with me) – Rip Torn and Steve Hamilton – and his naturalistic art fits well with people who might be a bit more well known and therefore resistant to intrepretation (the subjects themselves might not be resistant – and Hamilton’s dead, so he doesn’t care – but people know what Rip Torn looks like, so perhaps they want their comic book version to “look” like him).
While the art is uniformly good and nicely diverse, the stories are a different animal. It’s not that they’re bad at all – in fact, Terkel did a nice job selecting people who know how to tell stories well, or he (or Pekar and the other adapters) did a good job editing them. The stories are interesting and some are actually gripping even though none of them follow a “plot” in any sense of the word. Kuper’s tale of Bill Talcott, Organizer, is fascinating, largely because of the art, but also because of the way Kuper illustrates some of Talcott’s more mundane but important observations about relations between labor and management. Sabrina Jones’s story of Roberta Victor, Hooker, is wonderfully illustrated but also devastatingly tragic. Dolores Dante, Waitress, one of Lance Tooks’s stories, is a fascinating and articulate character in her own right, as she gives us insights into service that even people who worked shitty wait jobs when they were teenagers might not know about. Rip Torn’s story, adapted by Danny Fingeroth, is a clever little anecdote about status in Hollywood and how no one likes people who rock the boat, even a tiny bit. The final story in the book, Elmer Ruiz, Gravedigger (adapted by Pekar and Ryan Inzana), is a beautiful tale about death and how it enriches life. Some of the stories are a bit too verbose, but none of those are too long, and therefore they don’t drag the book down too much. As the interviews were done in the early 1970s, there’s quite a bit more of the “old vs. young generation” than you might expect to get today (you’d still get it, of course, but perhaps not as stridently as it’s expressed in some of the stories). But that’s a sign of the times, and it’s why this book works differently than it probably did 35 years ago.
What makes the book most interesting is not the individual stories. Bill Talcott, Organizer, says at one point, “The problem with history is that it’s written by college professors about great men … That’s not what history is. History is a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life for themselves and their kids.” This is the crux of the issue when it comes to studying history. Social history (very generally, the “Annales School of History”) like what we find in this comic was very popular in the 1960s and ’70s. It still is, to a degree, but there’s been more of an amalgamation of “great man” history and social/economic history, and Bill Talcott’s assertion is a bit dated. This book goes from being a snapshot of American life in the early 1970s (and not a terribly accurate one, as I’ll point out) to a historical document that is something to be studied in context. The problem with it is it’s oral history, one of the most mutable and biased form of history you can get. Consider: these people are telling their stories, which is fine. Terkel, however, uses no corroborating “evidence” to add context to their stories, and therefore these people become the sole authority on what happens. Why is that a problem? Well, everyone is a hero in their own mind (even people with low self-esteem will act the martyr because it makes them heroic), and therefore, no matter how hard they try to be unbiased, they will portray themselves in a positive light. I’ve never met someone yet who doesn’t do this, and there’s nothing wrong with it – it’s fairly unconscious, and as long as someone isn’t actively lying, I don’t have a problem with it. But it becomes very difficult to take everything someone says at face value – there’s another side to the story, after all. When Dolores Dante, Waitress, slags on her fellow waitresses for being jealous of her great service, we automatically side with her because her voice is so endearing and we’re only hearing her side. What about those she is insulting? This is a problem with all history, of course, as even official documents can be biased, but with actual history, you find as many sources as you can and try to form an unbiased picture from occasionally contradictory documents. That’s impossible with this book, as we get only one voice.
This obviously isn’t a problem with people like Brett Hauser, Supermarket Box-Boy (another Pekar/Inzana collaboration), whose story is interesting but doesn’t have too much impact on the world at large. Hauser is obviously biased, but that’s what makes his story compelling. Overall, however, it colors the way we see America in the early 1970s, and that’s why the book, while not a perfect historical document, is a fascinating piece of somewhat leftist propaganda. That’s not a criticism – there’s nothing particularly wrong with leftist propaganda (or rightist propaganda, for that matter), as long as we recognize it as such and approach it from that angle. The New Press even treats it as leftist propaganda – in the press release I received with the book, they specifically mentioned that the book would be released on “May Day” – they didn’t identify it as 1 May, but specifically linked it to International Workers’ Day – and that it honors “the social and economic achievements of the international labor movement.” So the book becomes far less of a valid historical document and more of a propaganda piece celebrating blue-collar workers (Pekar is referred to as “blue-collar” in the press release). It’s not a true view of work in the early 1970s, because there is one (1) story about a person who could reasonably be called “white-collar” – a stockbroker. To use an example from my own life, my father worked for Sperry Univac in 1972 as a solid white-collar worker. As far as I know, he loved doing what he did – he has always been fascinated by computers, and he got into the field in 1965, so he was able to grow with it – and he made good money doing it. There are no teachers, policemen, firefighters, store managers, salesmen, or executives in this book. Its implication is that people who are higher up on the totem pole in terms of employment are unbelievably corrupt and secretly just as desperate as blue-collar workers, while working for the “Man” is just a horrid idea. This is where the oral history breaks down a bit, as very few of the interviewees can resist making sweeping generalizations about everyone else, and Terkel never calls them on it (or at least he doesn’t in this adaptation; he might in the book). There’s an unspoken agreement among Terkel and his subjects that they’re right about everything, and that those who disagree with them are oppressors. Even the elderly barber, who might be expected to be a bit more conservative, rolls his eyes when a customer agrees with Joseph McCarthy about there being too many communists in government. Again, I want to stress that there’s nothing wrong with this, but to argue that this book shows an accurate portrait of workers in 1972 or 2009 is ridiculous. It does its job well, which is to get us to sympathize with the plight of the downtrodden, but when we step back and consider the whole, Terkel simply gives us anecdotes, and there’s no reason to base a historical record solely on anecdotes.
As a comic book that entertains while illuminating the lives of hand-picked people, Working is quite good. It also gives us a fascinating look at the forces working in American society in the late Sixties and early Seventies. That it must be taken with a huge grain of salt doesn’t make it any less powerful or interesting. And it’s a chance to see several very good artists work their magic, which is always keen. I’d like to thank The New Press for sending it along to me.
Moving on (we’re in the home stretch!), we come across a book I’ve really been looking forward to: Britten and Brülightly by Hannah Berry (it’s her first comic, which is even more impressive). It’s published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC (or is it Metropolitan Books?) and costs $20. It’s gotten some nice reviews, including one by my Internet pal Roger, who somehow got a free copy, making me writhe with envy! Still, it’s worth spending money for anyway, so I wasn’t that put out.
First off, the art is fantastic. Berry has a gorgeous cartoony style that is not realistic but is still imbued with realism – the characters don’t look quite real, but they each have a finely-drawn personality, and Berry puts them in a world that, as depressing as it is (it rains all the time), has a true sense of place (although we never actually learn where the story takes place). Berry comes up some beautiful panel layouts, swooping in from above and following the rain straight down on characters in some places, pulling back to show full-page spreads that isolate the main character and help heighten the despair he often feels. Berry’s color palette works well, too. Much of the book is gloomy, but when Berry uses brighter colors, they stand in nice contrast to the rest of the book, even if they’re still somewhat muted.
Berry’s story is well done, too. Her main character, Fernández Britten, is a private investigator who made his name finding cheating lovers, so much that he earned the nickname “Heartbreaker.” Now he only takes cases that involve murder, which is what he gets at the beginning of the book. His client, Charlotte Maughton, wants him to investigate the suicide of her fiancé, Berni Kudos, because she doesn’t believe it was actually suicide. Britten takes the case, of course, as he believes that Charlotte deserves the truth about what happened. He learns through the course of the investigation, however, what private investigators in fiction often learn: perhaps the truth is a bit too much for people to handle.
The actual case is handled nicely, as Britten and his rather odd partner, Stewart Brülightly, start digging and peel back layer upon layer of the truth. Berry does a fairly good job at leading the reader from clue to clue without throwing too many red herrings in the way. Britten recognizes the name “Berni Kudos” from an old case, and even though it seems that case has no connection to the current one, Berry even pulls that in at the end. Berry can’t quite make the case completely original (it’s very noir-ish, and if I told you the two movies it reminded me of, it would give too much away), but she does a good job with Britten and how relentless he is in pursuing the case. Unlike many noir detectives we’ve seen in the past, Britten isn’t a big-time tough guy who dishes out punishment as much as he figures things out. Britten is definitely non-physical, almost effete, and therefore there’s a sense of menace when tough guys threaten him, and when he does get physical, it’s a clever little scene because he doesn’t just use his fists.
The central problem in the book is Britten’s quest for the truth and why he feels the need to pursue it to the bitter end. Through his previous cases, Britten has come to believe the worst about humanity, and throughout the book, he constantly comes across people who have wrapped themselves in lies in order to hide their true natures. He believes that if he figures out what happened to Berni, he can bring some measure of peace to Charlotte, but as he slowly figures things out, he wonders if that’s really such a good idea. Of course, at the end, he needs to make a decision about how much he’s going to reveal, and to whom. Britten is a fascinating character, because he himself lies, in a more unconventional way, but he lies nevertheless. How can he bring the absolute truth to others when he won’t face it himself? The interesting thing about the comic is that Berry doesn’t dig too deeply into Britten’s particular problems, allowing the reader to discover it and make what they can of it. It’s a tragic book for many reasons, and Britten’s fate is just one of those.
Britten and Brülightly isn’t a perfect book, as the mystery relies far too much on coincidence and falls a bit too much into noir clichés (Berrry subverts some of the clichés, which is nice, but can’t escape from all of them), but as I like noir, it didn’t bother me as much as it might you. The book is very good, however, as Berry does a fine job with these restrained characters who are walking the knife’s edge of despair and even sanity, trying desperately to tread carefully. And, as I mentioned, it looks great. (Interestingly enough, however, the lettering is awful – I’m not sure if you can tell from the scans. The cursive in the book is fine, but the print sections are often very difficult to read, and Berry’s capital Gs often look like Cs, making the reading more of a chore. It’s very rare that I notice the lettering in a book, and usually only because it’s bad. This is one of the worst-lettered books I’ve seen in a while, which is odd, as everything else looks so good.)
As we rush toward the end of this post, those of you I haven’t lost already can read my review of T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon. Usually, Ottaviani publishes his “science comics” through his own company, G. T. Labs, but this comes to us from Aladdin Paperbacks, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and costs a mere $12.99. As with most of Ottaviani’s comics, it’s quite good.
Ottaviani does a nice job making the race to the moon in the 1960s, which we all know the Americans won (U! S! A!), into something that’s actually pretty tense. We know the timeline, generally (well, I assume we do; do they even teach the space race in school anymore?), and Ottaviani helpfully provides a countdown to Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, so it’s not like we think he’s going to throw us any curve balls, but there’s still a nice back-and-forth between the Americans and the Russians, as each side tries to one-up the other. Ottaviani even goes back to 1883, when Jules Verne fired everyone’s imagination about landing on the moon, and the 1930s, when Robert Goddard was firing rockets into the New Mexico night. He conflates characters, naturally, and speeds through twelve or so years of history (1957-69), but he never shortchanges us on the technical aspects of putting men into space, even though he does simplify it quite a bit. He doesn’t skip the tragedy of Apollo 1 or the death of Vladimir Komarov in 1967, which, along with the death of the Soviets’ chief engineer, basically ended their efforts to win the race.
The most interesting part of the story is probably the Soviets’ efforts to win the race, because of the problems inherent in their society. As we know now, the Soviet Union was a stunted state with hardly any economic development and a distinct lack of freedom to make mistakes. The chief engineer, Sergei Korolev, was imprisoned for six years after Stalin’s Great Purge of 1938, and Ottaviani makes it clear that the Russians working in the space program, while not fearful of being thrown in a gulag if they failed, were under a great deal more pressure than the Americans. Plus, their entire operation was far more primitive than the Americans’, and the fact that they were ahead of the United States at any point in time during the 1960s (the first satellite, the first man in space, and the first space walk were all Russian accomplishments) is almost unbelievable.
Once the Russians drop out of the race, Ottaviani focuses on Apollo 11, and the book soars from a tense drama about the U. S./U. S. S. R. rivalry to a celebration of the human spirit. Ottaviani chooses not to show Armstrong actually stepping on the moon, which is a neat touch, as the Cannons pull back from the moon just as he’s about to jump off the ladder and show the Earth and then the cosmos. Ottaviani then returns to Earth, where the engineers are already thinking about Skylab and the space shuttle. It’s a neat way to show that for the scientists, nothing is ever finished.
The Cannons’ art is excellent, especially given that a lot of the book is scientists sitting around talking. They do some very nice stuff with the narrative, however, from fun maps showing, for instance, Nazi scientists fleeing with the Americans after World War II to drawings simplifying the complex concepts that are being discussed. Ottaviani always makes sure his artists can do this in his books, and the Cannons do it deftly. As the book shifts more to space, the art, like the narrative, takes off, and when Apollo 11 reaches the moon, there are a few breathtaking pages, including, as I mentioned above, the moment when Armstrong steps on the moon. There are a lot of characters in this book, almost all of them white men, and it’s a tribute to the Cannons that we can follow who everyone is.
With the 40th anniversary of the moon landing coming up (I doubt that it’s a coincidence that this book is coming out now), it’s interesting to be reminded of why these men strove for the stars. It’s also a reminder that we’ve grown a bit more timid about going into space, something that drives Warren Ellis, for instance, nuts. It’s always good to remember the utter balls it took for these people to go into space in the 1960s and the devotion it took to build these rockets. T-Minus is a very good book, not only for the entertainment value, but for the historical value as well.
Now, when we’re so near the end you can see it, we reach Jan’s Atomic Heart by Simon Roy, which is published by New Reliable Press and costs a measly $5.95. It is, to be fair, somewhat short, but it’s still a good price!
Jan’s Atomic Heart takes place in the “far-ish future,” according to the frontispiece, and the events occur in Frankfurt. I mention this because, well, it’s important, but also because I used to live near Frankfurt. Yay, central Germany! The story is remarkably straightforward: A man named Anders meets his friend Jan, who was recently in a car accident and has a “loaner robot” body while his recovers. We learn that in the future, there’s a separatist group on the moon that is launching terrorist attacks on Earth, and Jan’s robot body is a model that was used in one of the bombings. This freaks Jan out, and then he begins to think someone has messed with his memory. He and Anders investigate, and they don’t like what they find out. The title of the book comes from the fact that Jan’s robot body is powered by an atomic fuel cell, which is never a good thing in fiction.
The plot, although straightforward, is tightly packed and sufficiently twisty to keep us intrigued, but Roy’s scratchy and gritty art is what makes the book. Frankfurt in the far-ish future is a city that has been internationalized by the EU, and Roy does a fantastic job subtly showing how the breakdown of national borders might work. There’s a lot of Russian writing all over the place, for instance, and although it’s still distinctly German, we get the sense that a lot of other cultures have moved into Frankfurt. We also get a good sense of the military presence in Frankfurt without it being too obvious – this is a city under martial law, it appears, and it’s interesting to see that it’s a state with which everyone seems familiar. Roy also does a good job humanizing Jan’s robot body, as robotic prosthetics are the norm in this book, so everyone is perfectly comfortable using them. There are a lot of nice touches in the art, from the “facial expressions” of Jan’s robot body to the sad-eyed Russian who gives Jan a crucial piece of information about what’s been happening to him. Roy will most likely get better in just simple execution, but he has a lot of the necessities of comics art down, and it’s good to see.
This is a nice, cheap book that is a tense game in which we’re not sure what the next page will bring, but it’s also a bit deeper than that, as Roy considers terrorism and what some people will do to achieve their goals. Look for it at your local comics shoppe!
And finally, ladies and gentlemen, the last selection for this post. Yes, you’ve almost reached the end. I think you deserve a beverage, so crack one open before you read this last review. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Oh, you’re back. I myself would be sitting here with a Waikato Draught if I lived anywhere near, you know, New Zealand, but we needs must make due with what we have! Our final selection is Super Human Resources by Ken Marcus and Justin Bleep, the four-issue mini-series that recently finished from Ape Entertainment and the trade of which was recently solicited in Previews. Ken Marcus was nice enough to send me .pdf files for the entire series, and I never got around to actually reviewing the confounded thing. I do feel very guilty about that, but I’ve read the entire thing now (I read the first issue at least thrice, but kept getting distracted and never got around to reading the rest), so I shall now offer some thoughts! No scans, though, because I don’t have the actual hard copy in front of me. You can check out Justin Bleep’s site up above for examples of his art, plus you can read the first three issues for free!
This is a charming series about Tim, a temp who goes to work at SCI, Super Crises International. It’s a company that employs superhumans, and Tim is there to work in accounts receivable. Tim is witness to the dissolution of the company, as a guy from corporate headquarters is there to clean house because it costs far too much to keep SCI afloat. But is there something more sinister going on???? Well, of course there is!
The plot, however, is just something to hang the jokes on, and Marcus chucks as much goofy stuff as he can think of into these four issues. In the first issue, Tim meets the zombie receptionist, who we later learn is on a diet (sadly, no brains for Zombor) and gets poisoned by a ninja who thinks he’s there to compete for a job. He meets dozens of superheroes, and Marcus has a ton of fun with them (Bog, the Swamp Thing analog, likes to get high, mainly because he’s completely made out of weed). There are way too many gags to go into now, and not all of them work, but in general, Marcus does a fine job keeping things light and funny. Even when things get “sad” (to an extent), we know Tim will save the day, and not even a hot girl from Iceland will stop him! Along the way, Marcus skewers not only superheroes (which isn’t difficult and we’ve seen a lot before), but office politics, which is far funnier because it’s something many of us can relate to. When the copier achieves sentience and tries to take over the world, its use of toner as a weapon cracked me up, because who doesn’t hate toner????? Well, bureaucrats, but you can’t trust those dudes anyway.
Bleep’s art, while not completely to my taste, works very well for this kind of story. He has a nice, angular line and a wacky energy that fits in with the “throw-everything-at-the-wall” script that Marcus provides. He does a nice job with all the crazy characters, and makes the book very cartoonish, which is perfect for the tone. It’s my personal preference that I don’t like it all that much, but I do admit that Bleep works well on the book and his character designs are very solid.
The one big problem I had with the book was the use of the word “crises.” I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t harp on stuff like this so much, but this word is used exclusively in the book, and usually, the usage is singular. If it was a one-time thing, I could excuse it, but “crises” is used a lot (including in the title of the company, where I’m not sure if it’s singular or plural), and it really bugged me. I hate pointing stuff like this out, because it makes me sound like a snob, but there’s a clear difference between “crisis” and “crises,” and someone should have noticed this error. (Zeus uses the word “thine” incorrectly, too, but he only does it twice or maybe three times, so it didn’t vex me as much.) It really messes up my reading experience when I keep seeing something like this. Maybe it won’t for you.
Other than that, though, Super Human Resources is quite the nice comic book. Marcus and Bleep have a fondness for the subject matter that comes through very well, and it will make you laugh much more than it will make you groan when the jokes don’t work. Go read the first three issues if you want to make up your mind yourself!
Dear Lord, are we done? Why yes, we are! I’m sure you’ve imbibed yourself into a stupor by now, but I’d still like to review, because that’s what I do when the damned posts get out of control on me:
Blinded: An interesting take on Paul the Apostle, but a bit uneven in the execution. Not awful, but a bit of a mess.
Ace-Face: The Mod with the Metal Arms: Nice art, some interesting bits, but ultimately disappointing because the main story, that of Ace-Face, doesn’t do anything new with the superhero genre.
Blazing Combat: Excellent war comics by Archie Goodwin and some of the 1960s’ best artists.
The Eternal Smile: A rumination on truth and faith and wonder, brilliantly done.
Pherone: Stunning work of art, even if the story doesn’t hold up as well.
Walled In: Nifty little horror comic, with nice, creepy art.
Studs Terkel’s Working: Fascinating piece of early 1970s propaganda, with all sorts of excellent artists.
Britten and Brülightly: Gorgeously illustrated detective story, bleak but occasionally bitterly humorous. A very good comic.
T-Minus: Very good narrative about the race to the moon, dense and chewy, with strong art throughout.
Jan’s Atomic Heart: Keen science fiction, gritty art, and a tense drama about the horrors of terrorism.
Super Human Resources: Very funny look at office politics, goofy cartoony art (in a good way), and a solid if somewhat gentle satire of all things superheroic.
I’d like to thank you for sticking with me through this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do something easy, like read Finnegan’s Wake. Nothing but fun there!