Who wants graphic novel reviews? You do!
You just don’t realize it! But I’m here to fulfill your desires!1
1 Well, not that one. You know, that one. That’s icky. You really should seek professional help.
Yes, it’s time for another big ol’ post about a ton o’ graphic novels. These always get out of hand, and I don’t anticipate this one being any different!
Let’s begin with Black Hole by Charles Burns, which I finally got around to reading after reading the opinions of people far smarter than I am lauding it as the best graphic novel of the decade and whatnot. I know, do you really need to read another reviewer gushing about it? You can find this for $17.95 (a great price, considering how hefty it is) and it’s published by Pantheon Books, although it was originally serialized by Fantagraphics, if you must know. And yeah, it’s pretty good.
The basic plot is, perhaps, well known. Black Hole takes place in the 1970s in the Seattle suburbs, where a strange sexually-transmitted plague is ravaging the teenage population. Said plague changes people in strange and horrifying ways, but doesn’t seem to affect anyone to the point where they get sick and die. They simply change in appearance, from the girl who grows a tail to the boy with the extra mouth on his chest to the variety of people who look vaguely animalistic. Burns introduces several characters, and the book follows them, switching points of view as we go. There’s a brief murder mystery, but it doesn’t have all that much to do with the plague, so that’s all I’m saying about that.
What’s fascinating about this plague is that no one takes it all too seriously. The afflicted try to hide their changes, but Burns never goes into why they feel the need to do so. They segregate themselves from society because of the vague notion that their parents will “freak out” if they know their kids have the plague, but we never see any evidence of this; we have only the kids’ word to go on. Nobody takes many precautions when they have sex, although one of the main characters – Chris – does have sex with a plague-carrying boy under false pretenses – he thinks she knows he’s afflicted, but she doesn’t. One of the other characters – Keith – actively seeks out a plague-carrier and has sex with her, knowing full well the consequences of his actions. For all the talk of the plague, nobody seems all that concerned about it.
So what’s the point? Well, it’s a big ol’ METAPHOR, of course, and Burns manages to keep it consistent throughout the entire big package (according to Amazon, it’s 352 pages – they’re not numbered, and I’m not counting them), which is appreciated. He uses the plague to examine teenage disillusionment and ennui without beating us over the head with it, and he does a fine job. I’ve often written that I have no interest in “coming-of-age” stories because they’re usually riddled with clichés and stereotypes, and while Burns skirts that edge, his use of the plague manages to keep this book on the side of “fascinating” rather than “dull.” By externalizing the anxieties of teenagers, he makes it less of an adolescent whine and more of a terrifying experience. These kids, who are stupid and reckless and occasionally dim and often not worthy of our consideration (even the main characters do wildly bone-headed things), are saved from our scorn because Burns makes the plague so obviously an expression of all the silly-yet-desperately-important events teens go through, and we can appreciate that they do fear things not because they’re idiots, but because they don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with it. The way they deal with the plague is immature, but that’s the point. They don’t have the vocabulary to express themselves in any other way than the extreme, so while we might chuckle at their extreme reactions to a perceived slight at school or a lack of a date on Saturday night, we take more seriously their reaction to this plague that has swept through them. Ultimately, the plague is as slight as many other teenaged problems, as it affects, interestingly enough, only one’s appearance, thereby becoming a less universal metaphor for all teenaged problems and a more focused one about one’s looks being all that matters, but the way Burns has made the plague a truly terrifying event softens the blow a bit. Yes, this is a coming-of-age story, which means Keith and Chris must come to terms with the changes in their bodies (Burns doesn’t push the equation to both puberty and pregnancy, but both hints are there) and the changes in their perceptions of what it means to be a mature person, but it’s more subtle than we might expect from this kind of tale.*
(* I don’t mean to belittle the real problems many teens struggle with. I taught at a school that was populated almost completely by “at-risk” kids, and I know the very real issues teens (and even younger kids) have to face, from broken homes to drug usage to pregnancy to abuse, far more intimately than you might expect from my often-flippant attitude. My point is that the kids in this book don’t seem to deal with these problems – their problems are far more along the spectrum of “That boy doesn’t like me, woe is me!” and “My parents dumped all my weed down the toilet because they’re squares!”)
Burns’s decision to set this in the mid-’70s is interesting, as well. Burns, according to Wikipedia, was 19 in 1974 (when the story is set), so it’s not surprising he wrote about teens during this time. However, it’s more than that. Much like Richard Linklater did in Dazed and Confused and Ang Lee did in The Ice Storm, Burns captures a zeitgeist of the mid-’70s (whether it’s an accurate one or not), one that implies that the great battles of the time had been fought in the 1960s and there was nothing left against which to rage. The teens in Burns’s story (which is completely apolitical, by the way) seem to feel that tug of opposing forces: On the one hand, hippies aren’t cool anymore, but on the other hand, no one is sure what the next thing is. One of Chris’s friends has “Diamond Dogs” (which is a “new album,” dating the book) and she wonders what her friend is doing, listening to weird stuff like Bowie (Chris is happier when her friend plays Neil Young’s “Harvest”). Bowie is too weird (one wonders what Chris would make of Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music,” which came out the following year) and probably too androgynous, it’s too early for punk, funk is too black (I’m generalizing, but there aren’t any black people in this book, and while they adore Hendrix, one wonders if “Jungle Boogie” might be too much for these kids), and even disco, which drips with sex, might be too dangerous for these kids (despite their rather libertine ways). They want to rebel but don’t seem to have anything against which to rebel. The brief years between the death of the hippie movement (let’s say Altamont) and the rise of punk (let’s say late 1975/early 1976, when the Ramones released their first album) were as turbulent as any in American history, but the overwhelming sentiment in popular culture – and that includes this book – is that the great movements of history had ended, Vietnam and Watergate had made everyone cynical, and the deaths of the pop icons of the Sixties destroyed a sense of idealism and that teens could change the world. If a creator wants to show teens as disaffected youth, they set the book in the 1970s or 1980s (sure, that’s when most creators these days were teens, so it’s not surprising), because that’s when we think of teens as being disaffected (whether they were or not) without really having much about which to be disaffected. It’s a fine line that Burns walks, because, as I mentioned, he does a decent job making sure we care about these characters (whether they deserve our sympathy or not) while subtly showing us that they need to grow up, and those that do are the ones that find happiness. Once the characters get over this need to “rebel” against everything, they can grow up. In that way, it’s a typical coming-of-age book, but the way Burns tells it raises the bar a bit.
Black Hole is a horror comic, sure, but it’s also an honest look at the neuroses that make up your average teenager. Burns’s art is gorgeous, full of dark details and very creepy fantastical dreams and pained expressions on faces that say far more than the words the characters speak. It’s a marvelous comic. The best of the decade? Well, it’s in the conversation, at least.
There are a couple of conceits in this book, one fairly clichéd, the other interesting but occasionally annoying (what a way to start a review, right?). The clichéd conceit is that people dreamed of the world of tomorrow for so long that even when they became cynical and lost hope, they still ended up building it – just not in the way they might have expected. Fies writes this in his author’s note to begin the book, which might have been a mistake, as this conceit ought to be revealed in the text. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s been done, and Fies doesn’t do a whole lot with it, although the book turns out to be about something different, so it’s not that big a deal. The second conceit is that Buddy, the young star of the book, and his father don’t age, at least not in real time. Fies begins the book with the 1939 World’s Fair and ends it at an indeterminate point in the future, and Buddy and his father age very slowly, much like comic book characters do. It’s an unusual way of telling the story, but it occasionally becomes a bit annoying because the book becomes less a story and more a documentary, and it loses a bit when that happens. But it’s not the worst idea in the world, at least.
This doesn’t mean the book is a failure. It’s actually good, although it’s not great. Fies does a marvelous job capturing the spirit of each time period on which he focuses. As Buddy “grows” up, it’s interesting to track the subtle signs of cynicism creeping into his narration, because it’s what happens to everyone as they grow up. Buddy doesn’t allow it to dampen his spirits, but it’s fascinating to realize that what we might think of as cynicism is just a realistic attitude toward life, and the final chapter pays this off when Fies shows us that Buddy still believes, even as he’s changed the way he reacts to certain things. Fies does a nice job with the set-up of the book, too – he mixes his regular pencil art with photographs from each era – the most stunning pages in the book are photographs of a space walk – and integrates everything into the story very nicely. Fies also uses a nifty narrative tool – he creates comics starring Commander Cap Crater and places them throughout the book. Buddy reads them as the years go by, and Commander Crater becomes more and more cynical as the “real world” does so too (and as comics have done). These comics are the most entertaining parts of the book, as Fies does a good job reflecting the way comics were produced at certain times in history but also planting tongue firmly in cheek as he does so. The male characters in the comic are constantly ignoring the sound advice of Policewoman Mooney, and Doctor Xandra, Commander Crater’s arch-villain, is perhaps the most complex character in the book, as he tries to create a perfect world with no war, but under his command (of course). The “final” issue of Space Age Adventures is tragic for several reasons, as it parallels the realization by Buddy that perhaps the “future” isn’t as glorious as he thought it would be. Fies isn’t subtle about much in this book – both Buddy and the Cosmic Kid, Commander Crater’s sidekick, have to grow up and strike out on their own – but that lack of subtlety is fine, because Fies is dealing with grand ideas about humanity’s sense of wonder, and subtlety isn’t really required. What is required is faith, and Fies has plenty of that, which carries us through the book.
What Fies doesn’t do, unfortunately, is ever give us a good reason why we should go to the moon and beyond (“ad astra per aspera” is Commander Crater’s motto – interestingly, it’s also Kansas’s). This is part of taking the book on faith, and while Fies’s infectious belief in the good of mankind ultimately triumphs over Buddy’s (and our) cynicism, it’s frustrating because of an interesting lack in the book: women. Buddy has no mother, and it’s never explained what happened to her, or if she’s around but just never shows up. Policewoman Mooney is the only woman in the book, and although she ultimately becomes the head honcho, she’s also part of the problem in Commander Crater’s eyes. Why is this important, you might ask? It gets back to the idea of space flight in general, which is a very boys’ club kind of thing to desire. This year, of course, is the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing, and columnists in various newspapers have been writing about how we need to go back to space, because if we wait until we solve all the problems on the earth before going, we’ll never leave. One columnist I read didn’t give any practical reasons for going to space, instead writing that is was all about the glory of exploration. Another wrote that we should go to space because if we had had a scaredy-cat attitude all along, we’d never have gone into the oceans and to the edge of the world. None of these (male) writers can give good reasons for going into space – will it benefit humanity, will it bring an economic windfall, will it lead to colonization so we can alleviate the overpopulation problem? They never bring up that the great Renaissance explorers went to the New World for very solid economic reasons, not just for the “glory” of finding something new, and if there’s no economic reason to explore space, nobody is going to do it. I’m not saying it’s a lousy idea to take a step off the planet, but for the glory of it doesn’t strike me as a terribly good idea. As I was reading this book, I kept thinking of a great line from Robert Kaplan’s classic book Balkan Ghosts: “Here the men sit back like the old men of Crete, talking about nationalism and hate while the women do all the work.” It’s all well and good to talk about the glory of space travel, but the only pragmatic people in this comic are Policewoman Mooney, who early on is ignored by Commander Crater and the chief; Doctor Xandra, who’s evil; and Buddy’s daughter, who gets down and fixes stuff instead of talking about grand schemes. I may sound a bit harsh, but it’s not like this lack ruins the book – it actually heightens what Fies is trying to say. He knows that Policewoman Mooney is smarter than everyone else, he knows that Doctor Xandra has some good ideas even if he wants to be a dictator, and he eventually brings it around to pragmatism in the person of Buddy’s daughter. Fies obviously falls squarely on the side of the men, dreaming of glory, but he doesn’t completely forget that there’s a price for glory, too. He’s telling the story of Buddy growing up and becoming his own man who doesn’t live in his father’s shadow, so perhaps women aren’t necessary, but it’s an interesting absence in the book, almost a palpable void in the middle of it.
This may sound like I don’t like the book, but that’s not true. It’s a marvelous evocation of Americana and what propelled the so-called Greatest Generation to achieve, and it’s noteworthy for that. It’s also an impressive embedded metaphor for any number of things (whether Fies was conscious of it or not), from the son coming out of his father’s shadow to the arrested adolescence of anything from comics themselves to comics fans to men who never actually do grow up (and not all of them are comics fans, either!). If Fies doesn’t give us a good reason to go into space, he does give us thrilling ones, and although the subtle underpinnings of the consequences of this race for space are more interesting, both in the real world and in Fies’s comic, it doesn’t change the fact that Fies tells an good story and raises some good questions about our history and our future. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that!
I was very excited to read this book just from general Internet chatter, and then I got even more excited when I got it and flipped through it a bit. Then I was even more excited when Zander Cannon told me at San Diego how good it was (granted, he’s not an impartial observer, but still). Then I started reading it, and was even more excited by Cannon’s dynamic art and raucous storytelling. So my final observation about this comic – that I hated it more than almost any comic I can remember – probably needs some explanation. I can’t get too far into it, because I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say the ending to this book made me more angry than the ending of Wanted #6, which led to my world-famous Mark Millar boycott! That’s saying something!*
But let’s celebrate the goodness in this book, which for about 350 of its 382 pages is abundant. Cannon tells a story set in the Canadian Arctic, among all the islands that stretch from the mainland toward the North Pole. Army Shanks, a burned-out pirate who used to work for the RCAN (Royal Canadian Arctic Navy), sits in a bar with his friend Hafley, who tells him that their old ship, the Areopagitica, is docked right outside. Shanks and Hafley need the boat to avert, as Shanks puts it, “The greatest disaster in the history of the world!!!” So they try to steal the ship, are thwarted, and we’re off! Hafley is captured by Pinho and Fortuna, two people from Shanks’s past who are now in possession of the Areopagitica, and Shanks escapes, telling Hafley he’ll be back. He meets up with a young orphan, Alistair, and two college students, David and Amber. He makes promises he has every intention of keeping but rarely does, gets involved with a traveling circus, fights polar bears and environmentalist cops, and sails all over the north looking for Far Arden. Oh, wait a minute – Far Arden. Yeah, that’s the whole point of the book, really.
Far Arden is a land far to the north that is some kind of paradise due to its location over a volcano, which makes the weather warm and Edenic (one character claims it’s like Iceland, only better). Everyone wants to find Far Arden, but only Shanks’s mentor knew where it was, and he disappeared searching for it. Shanks has a map hidden on the Areopagitica, which is why Pinho and Fortuna stole it in the first place, but he doesn’t want to give it up. The book is an adventure across the islands and seas, as characters are thrown together and separated, revelations about each are revealed, connections between them are discovered, and everyone gets closer and closer to Far Arden. Cannon does a fantastic job with the plotting, as everything fits together very well (except, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what happens to Hafley, who literally disappears from the deck of a ship late in the comic and is never seen again) and every character gets a lot of screen time, making them much more real than we might expect. Cannon keeps everything moving in odd but not completely unrealistic directions, and we’re more than willing to follow along with him.
Art-wise, the book works well too. Cannon has a loose, cartoonish style that fits this style of comic quite well. The book appears to take place in the present day (the characters reference Nunavut, for instance, which didn’t exist fifteen years ago), but there’s a lot that’s very nineteenth-century about the book, and Cannon blends all the elements of this strange dichotomy quite well. The idea of this entire strange (mostly) white civilization among the islands of the Arctic Ocean is interesting, and Cannon makes it somewhat whimsical even as the tone of the book darkens slightly. He does this through both the writing and the art, but mostly through the art, where he uses sound effects to describe the character’s motions (as you can see) and does a nice job within the confines of a standard panel format to suggest a larger world beyond the borders of the book. Characters are occasionally cut off by panel borders, suggesting that Cannon simply couldn’t cram everything in there, which makes his arena seem larger. It’s a nifty trick.
And then it all goes wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. Without giving too much away, the tone of the book shifts so violently in the final twenty pages that it undoes almost everything Cannon has done in the first 350. It begins earlier, when the book gets into slightly darker territory, and as much as I was disappointed by the fate of one character, it only bugged me slightly because it did make sense in the course of the narrative. The resolution to the book, however, comes almost (but not quite) out of nowhere, and more than that, betrays the way the book has been set up, as a slightly off-kilter-with-reality adventure book. Adventure books, of course, often feature death, and that’s fine, but the way some characters die and the meaninglessness of it all belongs in a completely different book, and the shift is extremely jarring and depressing. I’m not sure how Cannon could have gotten out of where he’d gone, but I can’t imagine this was the only way. I mean, the bad guy is someone that we really don’t take seriously (despite his ingenious way of reading people’s minds, which is nasty), but suddenly, the “realism” of the world seems to overtake the characters, and we’re left with a hollow feeling inside. It’s one of those books where you ask yourself, “Why did I invest anything in this book and these characters if that’s the way it ends?” I know some people think I want all my comics to be happy and cheerful, but those people are idiots, because they obviously have no idea what I like. But I do want my comics to remain tonally consistent, and if they don’t, I want there to be a good reason for it. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Cannon ended the book this way. I mean, if he wants to let us know that life is meaningless and we’re all doomed, he shouldn’t have wasted 350 pages of adventure getting there.
I’d really, really, really like to recommend Far Arden. For much of the book, I was swept away by Cannon’s odd fable and enjoying all the twists and turns. The final twist, though, is too much. If you do get it because you think the art looks nice or the first 350 pages sound good, please put it down when you reach page 343. That way, you can make up your own ending. I guarantee it will be better than what’s printed on the page.
Now I’m depressed just thinking about the ending. Let’s move on!
* Although I should say that this book won’t lead to a Kevin Cannon boycott, because I don’t think Mr. Cannon was deliberately hateful at the end of this comic, like I felt Millar was being. I just think he wrote a completely and utterly wrong-headed ending.
Our next two books are from a relatively new publisher, Outlaw Entertainment, which so far seems to exist simply to publish comics written by Jason M. Burns (but which isn’t his own company, it seems). The first comic is Imaginary Friends, which is drawn by Dustin Evans, and the second is Praetorian, which was drawn by Ramón Espinoza. Both cost $7.99, which is a nice price for a 112-page, full-color comic book that tells a complete story and doesn’t tie in to any other comics. It’s the main reason why I want Outlaw to do well, because it’s nice to see companies release stuff like this.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how much they charge if the books aren’t any good. Neither of these comics is great, but they’re entertaining, and while neither is as good as, say, most of Far Arden, they don’t go off the rails as much as that one does either. Imaginary Friends is a tale about, well, imaginary people – a team of them, in fact, led by Rex Montana, a great Imaginary Friend who is enlisted by the International Imaginary Persons Bureau to stop a certain Shift Valentine from using a young boy’s need for an imaginary friend to become real, which would have severe consequences for the world. Why Shift Valentine would easily conquer the world if he becomes real is never explained, but the point is that Rex and his team have to stop him! Each member of the team has a crucial skill that will help them (including the beauty queen who can manifest meat out of thin air), and Burns sends them through a crazy imaginary world that includes characters such as The Bowler and Santa Claus. Evans has a nice cartoony flair that suits the story very well, and although everything that happens is fairly predictable, the story has nice energy that helps carry it through.
Praetorian is a bit more “adult” in that it doesn’t feature clowns or deer-men and is a bit more bloody. Kasandra Rodriguez, an FBI agent, is investigating a string of horrible murders across the country, and her investigations lead her into a millennia-long battle between … the forces of good and evil!!!!! Burns gives us the story of the four members of the Roman Praetorian Guard who were charged with making sure Jesus was actually crucified and who didn’t really think it was the greatest idea. Their gift for trying to alleviate Jesus’s suffering is eternal life, during which time they’ve tried to do good. However, someone known as the “Judgment Killer” is back, and this time they’re definitely going to stop him/her! (The Judgment Killer was around before, apparently, and they didn’t do enough to stop the killings.) Rodriguez is, of course, investigating the Judgment Killer, so her case intersects with the Praetorians’ efforts to stop him. It’s a solid action/adventure story, with lots of signposts along the way to tell us exactly where we’re going, and although Burns doesn’t try too hard to elevate above a standard action comic, it’s a decent read. As with Evans’s art on Imaginary Friends, Espinoza’s on this book fits the subject matter well, although it’s a bit too clean for some of the more horrific aspects.
I don’t think I can recommend either of these books unequivocally, but they’re not bad for what they are. I’m really far more interested in Outlaw and whether they can make this kind of business model work, selling decent, short, full-color graphic novels for eight bucks. Their repertoire so far seems very diverse, and I certainly hope that they can find an audience for this kind of thing. We’ll see.
Let’s move on to Smuggling Spirits, written by Ben Fisher, drawn by Mark Henderson, and lettered and “designed” by Adam Markiewicz. It’s published by Studio 407 (it’s a collection of the “critically acclaimed series,” two volumes of which came out in 2008 from a different publisher), and will cost you $20.99. It’s a bit steep, price-wise, but it’s a damned good comic book.
The back of the book claims it “blends the action-noir of Sin City with the horror and suspense of Hellboy.” It’s interesting, because I didn’t read that until after I read the book, and throughout, I kept being reminded of Sin City, as Henderson uses the same style as Miller did, but a bit less severe and stylized. The figures look far more realistic than those in Sin City, which makes the contrast with the monsters in this book more interesting. It’s a pitch-black noir tale, and Henderson makes sure the atmosphere of the book reflects that. There’s a lot of rain, for instance. He’s a marvelous artist, though, giving us terrifying creatures coming out of the night and a good sense of impending doom. The book is set during Prohibition, and Henderson, although not called upon to ground the book too much in the 1920s, does a fine job with the setting. There’s a real sense of place in this book, both when the main characters are out in the country, where monsters lurk, and when they’re back in the city, where a besieged bar seems to close in on them.
The story conceit is brilliantly simple and well executed. After the First World War, monsters known as “darklings” somehow started showing up in the United States and became a part of society. Everyone lives in fear of them, but they all seem to have a shaky kind of truce. That doesn’t preclude the darklings from killing humans, as we learn in the backstory of Nathan, the young boy in the story, whose father was killed by the monsters. Al Stone, the bootlegger who takes Nathan under his wing, is sent to the country to find out why a still hasn’t been sending alcohol into the city. Of course, it’s been taken over by darklings, and when Al stumbles across an infant monster and a strange farm in the middle of nowhere, he unexpectedly discovers the secret of the monsters’ existence. They, of course, don’t take kindly to this, and they track him back to the city, where they trap him inside a bar. Mayhem ensues!
It’s a fine story, but Fisher gives us a nice twist: Al can’t see the darklings or hear anything pertaining to them. Or rather, he sees and hears different things when people see or speak of the monsters – for instance, when a giant winged dragon attacks them on the road and Al kills it, he believes it’s a vulture. When the bartender tells him darklings probably raided the still, he hears “the feds.” We don’t know why he’s this way (we do learn it eventually), but Nathan stays with him to help him overcome this handicap. It’s an interesting way to present Al, because he believes he lives in a “normal” world, and Fisher sets up the tension that when he finds out what’s really going on, he might panic. It’s not an idea that Fisher delves into too much, but it’s there, and it adds a nice layer to the story.
Ultimately, this is a monster story, and although Fisher doesn’t do as much with the horror as he could have, he does a very good job with this society that lives in fear of things that go bump in the night. Henderson’s art does a great job adding to that atmosphere, and it adds up to an exciting comic that sells us its idea very well. Again, I’m not too sure if it’s worth 21 dollars, but I would definitely recommend you check it out.
Next is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, which has been getting rave reviews across the comics blogosphere. Pantheon Books published this bad bear, and it will set you back a measly $29.95.
Asterios Polyp is a challenging work, no doubt about it, because Mazzucchelli is largely unconcerned with narrative, so the story in this book is somewhat weak. Asterios Polyp is a fifty-year-old architect whose life is going nowhere when a lightning bolt destroys his apartment, spurring him to take a spiritual journey that gives him new purpose in life. Meanwhile, we get flashbacks that show us how he got the way he is. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the narrative, but it’s definitely not the point of the book. I’m just warning you – if you read this expecting a good plot, you’re going to be extremely disappointed. It’s much more of an epiphanic story, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The story is fairly simple: Asterios Polyp is a famous “paper” architect (meaning his designs never get built, although they are lauded as genius) whose apartment burns down on his fiftieth birthday. This leads to the dual nature of the narrative: In the present, Asterios gets on a bus and ends up in a town called Apogee, where he gets a job as an auto mechanic (despite knowing nothing about fixing cars; he gets the job, then reads up on cars at the local library) and a place to stay (his new boss is also his new landlord). In the past, we get a biography of Asterios, focusing mainly on his marriage and its dissolution. Mazzucchelli doesn’t do anything too radical with either narrative: Asterios is a cold man, not necessarily cruel, but simply unconcerned with human emotions, and this takes its toll on his marriage. His Manichean worldview also helps ruin his marriage, as does his utter self-confidence, which makes him believe he’s always right, no matter what the subject. His wife, Hana, a fine sculptor, starts working with a famous choreographer who flirts relentlessly with her, and it leads, in an unexpected way, to the emotional if not the actual end of Asterios and Hana’s marriage, which is handled beautifully by Mazzucchelli – it’s the high point, writing-wise, of the comic. In the present, Asterios grows close to his landlord’s wife, who reads star charts, has a jaundiced view of American history, and speaks of the goddess and the spirits. The Majors (with whom he lives in the present) force Asterios, naturally, to reassess his life, leading to a conclusion that is both hopeful and horribly capricious, as Mazzucchelli makes his point about not wasting time in your life rather forcefully. I’m not going to spoil who the narrator is in the book, but it’s a nice device by Mazzucchelli, as it highlights once again the duality theme running through the story.
If the story itself is nothing special, the way Mazzucchelli creates the book, both with the art and the design, is the truly amazing part of the book. He uses different color palettes for the present-day and the past in the book, which makes the sections visually stunning and even fits the locations – the cooler reds and blues indicate the East Coast elite status in which Asterios moves when he’s married, while in the present, he’s in a desert somewhere (he visits a crater that looks suspiciously like the one in northern Arizona), and the color shifts to yellows and tans to reflect the starkness of his surroundings. Mazzucchelli also integrates Asterios’s profession into the story, as he often shifts out of the “real” world to panels of geometric shapes and patterns, placing his hero into this mathematical setting to show his distance from the baseness of the world. The architectural aspects of the book are part of what makes it visually stunning – often, when Asterios and Hana speak, Asterios becomes a man of simple geometric shapes, while Hana becomes a blur of red emotions, visually showing how differently they view the world. In the final section of the book, Mazzucchelli blends the color palettes to show how Asterios has come to terms with his past and his present. It’s a nice touch. Mazzucchelli also does a nice job with lettering in the book, as each character gets a different kind of font and even the shape of their word balloons gives us an indication of what kind of person they are. The overall design of the comic is really marvelous, refreshingly unique in a world of comics that too often don’t challenge the way books can look.
Ultimately, the book falls a bit short of a masterpiece because the epiphany that Asterios has doesn’t feel earned as much as decided upon. Asterios doesn’t seem to learn too much through the course of the book, which means the bittersweet ending has less impact than it might otherwise. Mazzucchelli does such a nice job creating Asterios as a cold fish that he runs out of room to redeem him. There are some very nice moments along the way to the end, but the fact that, for instance, Asterios sees himself as Orpheus leading Eurydice (Hana) out of Hades seems less than an emotional and more an analytical response – Asterios appropriates a myth to express his emotions, keeping them an arm’s length from him even then. The final conversation of the book is very well written, but it felt like Asterios had skipped a few steps to get there.
That doesn’t mean this is a failure of a comic book. The design of the book itself is almost worth the price, and much of Asterios’s journey works well. If it’s not quite the best graphic novel of the year, that doesn’t mean it’s not a stunning work of art, and something you should consider checking out.
The Nobody is a new take on the story of the invisible man (you know, the classic movie that starred Ed Begley, Jr.?), with a mysterious man arriving in a small village somewhere, presumably, in the Midwest. Do the townspeople leave him alone? Hell, no! Where would be the story in that?
Okay, so the basic story: John Griffen arrives in the town or Large Mouth (“Home of the World’s Biggest Bass!”) in 1994, wrapped in bandages. The 16-year-old daughter of the owner of the diner, Vickie, takes an interest in him, and provides us with our point-of-view character. She spends a bunch of time with him (nothing icky happens, so don’t think of that!), and we slowly learn his story. Of course, he’s hiding a dark secret (well, beyond the fact that he’s, you know, invisible) that comes back to haunt him, and gradually, the townspeople twig to the fact that all is not well in Mr. Griffen’s life. And then it all goes pear-shaped.
This isn’t really Griffen’s story, though. We can figure it out easily enough even before Lemire gives us the answers, and it’s not that interesting. This is really Vickie’s story, and the story even of the town, which is somewhat of a stereotypical small American town. As Lemire showed in his brilliant trilogy, Essex County, he understands small towns and the way the people in small towns act, but he takes some short cuts in this book that don’t really work. Because he’s dealing with an old story and needs to focus on Griffen at least for some of the time, we get more of a stereotypical depiction of small-town life, with close-minded people who fear outsiders and are easy to jump to conclusions. The relationship between Vickie and her father is complicated and nicely handled, but it’s pushed aside too often to deal with the “villagers-versus-monsters” theme that we’ve seen in countless horror movies. While Lemire handles this with the usual building of tension and suspense, it’s just not as interesting as Vickie’s awakening to her plight in Large Mouth. This is a coming-of-age story disguised as a monster tale, and Lemire has a tough time balancing the two. It’s obvious even before Vickie says so that Lemire is comparing Griffen’s actual invisibility with Vickie’s feeling of invisibility, which makes Griffen’s story useful, but it’s still a bit less compelling than Vickie’s.
As for Lemire’s art, it’s the kind of work you either like or dislike, and you’re not going to be persuaded one way or the other. I happen to think it’s exceptional, but I can understand people who don’t like it, as it’s a bit odd. Lemire shows a bit more depth in this comic than he did in Essex County, as his characters seem a bit more realized, while his misc-en-scene is more haunting than the stark exteriors in his previous work. He experiments a bit with style, from the soft pencils of the few flashback scenes to the old-time cover homages that separate the chapters, and it works well. The one problem I had with the art is that there’s a character who’s supposed to be black, which leads to one of the townspeople calling him a “black bastard.” This is part of the theme of the close-minded townspeople, but it comes out of nowhere because the character doesn’t look African-American, and the lack of coloring in the book makes it even more difficult to tell. It doesn’t really add too much to the actual comic, and it’s strange to see it in the book. However, for the most part, the black, white, and blue color palette that Lemire uses heightens the bleakness of Large Mouth and Griffen’s isolation from the world.
The Nobody is certainly an impressive novel, and it proves that Lemire isn’t a fluke. If it falls short of his Essex County trilogy, that’s okay – the three books were some of the best comics of the past two years. I would definitely recommend that before this, but if you really dig your comics with invisible men, you can’t go too wrong with this!
Finally, last but certainly not least, we get The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke. Should we call this Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter? The boilerplate calls it simply The Hunter, so that’s what I’ll call it. Anyway, IDW published this sucker and slapped a $24.99 price tag on it. It’s the first of a series, too, which means more Cooke goodness in the future!
I must confess: I’ve never read any novels starring Mr. Parker (or is that his first name? or is he like Cher?), nor have I seen Point Blank (or even Payback, which I’ve heard isn’t very good), so I had no preconceptions about the stories going in. Of course, I have read Darwyn Cooke comics before, so I had some preconceptions about his work going in, meaning that I’m still convinced he’s a better artist than he is writer. His art is gorgeous, but his writing isn’t quite up to snuff yet. It’s too bad, because I’m not sure his work is as good as it could be until he gets better at writing. That said, I still think his best work as a writer/artist is Selina’s Big Score, not The New Frontier, so I was excited about him getting his hands on another noir story.
But he still has some issues with writing. He’s a great storyteller, art-wise, as the first twenty almost-wordless pages of this book show. He takes us through Parker arriving in New York (in 1962) and creating a false identity so he can write bogus checks and clean up a bit. Then he finds that young lady on the cover, tells her he’s looking for “Mal,” and we get a bit of the backstory between them. She overdoses on pills, he dumps the body, finds a guy who’s connected to Mal, and tells him that he’s looking for Mal but Mal better not find out about it. This is all in the first 40 pages, and the story is set up and everything is looking good.
Then Cooke makes a mistake. He begins writing a lot more. Page 47 delves into the backstory of Parker and Lynn – the dead woman – and the job that screwed up Parker’s life. While it’s necessary to get into it so we can understand why Parker is so set on revenge against Mal, the book slows down considerably because it’s simply a lot of exposition. We get paragraphs and paragraphs of simple chronological narrative, as in “Parker did this, Parker did that …” and the comic almost grinds to a halt. Cooke gets back to a good blend of art and writing soon enough, but he still indulges far too often in big blocks of exposition, and I’m not sure it’s always necessary. One of the great things about comics is that we don’t always need a lot of prose, especially when we’re dealing with as good an artistic storyteller as Cooke is. There’s too much of telling instead of showing in this book, which is odd because when Cooke does simply “show,” he’s very good at it.
The other problem with the book is personal, but it might be something others feel too. I have no problem with literature that features no likable characters, and this book certainly features no likable characters. The problem with it in prose as opposed to movies is the fact that actors can lend some charisma to roles that, even if they are despicable, we’re sucked into their orbit. Characters in comics and prose are, naturally, less charismatic than actors are, and the fact that Parker is an amoral scumbag is much more obvious here than, I imagine, it is in Point Blank, because Lee Marvin has charisma (at least he does in other movies I’ve seen him in; maybe I’m wrong about that movie). So it’s interesting to read this comic for the way Parker goes about his revenge and the sheer single-mindedness (some would say stupidity) with which he gets his vengeance (and, not to give anything away, he does, but it goes beyond that), but it’s not as compelling as it might be, because we don’t really care if Parker gets it or not. If someone had shot him through the head on page 60, we wouldn’t care that much, because the fact that he was betrayed is meaningless, as he’s not a terribly honorable guy in the first place. With some stories like this, we root for the “bad” guy because there’s some reason that gives him a bit of honor. Parker is a total bastard, so we have no emotional investment in whether he “wins” or not.
Despite that, Cooke does a nice job with the story as it unfolds, because even though we’re fairly certain Parker will triumph (he’s the star, after all), we still don’t know how he will triumph, and the story keeps us guessing. Of course, Cooke’s art is the big draw (at least for me), and it’s quite stunning. As I wrote above, he’s a great storyteller, and it’s a treat to linger over the panels in this book and appreciate the details that Cooke puts into them. It feels like the early Sixties, a time period during which Cooke apparently wishes he lived, and he just fills the book with nice touches to give it that feel. He does a great job with character design, too, as Parker moves through this book like a shark. Cooke, in fact, doesn’t show Parker until several pages in, giving us a sense of him as a menace just on the edge of our perception, which works later in the book when he’s stalking his victims. The coloring, which like The Nobody is black and white and blue, works well, too, as it gives the book a mod yet timeless look, so it’s definitely set in the 1960s but doesn’t look dated.
A new work by Cooke is always reason to celebrate, even if the writing on this book isn’t quite up on the level of the art. He has such a nice look and he obviously loves doing stuff like this, so it’s keen that he appears ready to continue with the series. This isn’t a great comic, but it’s a pretty good one, and although it might not be worth 25 bucks, it’s certainly worth a read.
Well, dang. I still have a bunch of stuff to review, but I need to wrap this up before it gets really long (that was a joke). Let’s review the reviews!
Black Hole: Believe the hype. It’s a classic.
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?: Uplifting, patriotic, and a very nifty coming-of-age story.
Far Arden: So very good for so very long, yet so very bad at the very end. So sad.
Imaginary Friends: A rather cute all-ages comic with some nice characters.
Praetorian: An interesting hook that doesn’t quite work, but it’s still entertaining.
Smuggling Spirits: A fun idea done very well, with plenty of horror to spice things up.
Asterios Polyp: One of the best-designed book you’ll ever see, even if the story is pedestrian. A masterpiece in the way it, as a comic, presents the material.
The Nobody: The character interaction is better than the suspense plot, but it’s still a very keen book.
The Hunter: Another beautiful book, and your enjoyment of the story will probably depend on how likable you want your characters.
So there you have it. Man, I need to get these posted faster. Stay tuned for even more! And feel free to tell me how very wrong I am! I can take it!