Monday, January 21, 2008

Review: King

By Ho Che Anderson
Published by Fantagraphics Inc.

This is an old review from 2004, slightly revised, that I thought I would repost in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

There’s no doubt that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was a passionate leader and a great orator or that he inspired a movement whose effects are still felt today, nearly 40 years after his assassination. However, Ho Che Anderson’s graphic biography takes a decidedly humanistic approach to contrast this legendary view most people have of “ML,” as his friends called him. Anderson presents King as a man with inner demons - plagued by his own ego, prone to excessive drinking, repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, never completely at ease in the spotlight and burdened with an increasing number of death threats as his popularity rose. I don’t know how much is true, but the portrayal is both unsettling and fascinating.

King toes the line between biography and historical fiction. Though the author appears to have done extensive research, much of the dialogue, settings and detail were invented. No records exist of the private conversations that are presented here, and many read like a narrative summary of events rather than natural conversation. Anderson, aware of this tension, even writes in the afterward, “Maybe it’s best you think of this book as fiction. Think of it as one man’s riff on the life of another, part truth, part ephemera, a doorway into which I hope you will trip so that you might look around on your own.” Yet King is much more than simply “a riff” on another man’s life, it is part homage to a great man’s achievements, part deconstruction of an icon (a theme ever-present in the world of comic books) and part artistic exploration.

In many ways, King’s speeches are his greatest legacy and Anderson presents many of these in their entirety. Rereading them in little word balloons, the power of his words to conjure visual images have lost none of their potency. Another of Anderson’s narrative techniques, referred to as “the Attestors,” gives voices to the fictional eyewitnesses of the civil rights movement, brilliantly offering accounts of each of the major events from varying perspectives (the white supremacist, compassionate Southerner, etc.).

In the first 2 sections, Anderson’s Dave McKean-style artwork makes incredible use of shadows and mood. The use of color, however, is sporadic, without any particular pattern. For example, ten pages of black and white story are followed by a 9 panel page with panel 7 in color. It’s an interesting experiment, but I found it confusing, wondering why the author chose a particular panel to color. Wilfred Santiago, Anderson’s co-creator on the short-lived Pop Life series, illustrates 9 pages of section two. This artistic shift further breaks the pace, but if his help was pivotal in getting the author to finish this book, then he should be thanked rather than criticized.

The third section, perhaps due to the ten-year gap between volumes (the book was originally serialized in three parts), is a drastic artistic departure from the first two. The beautifully detailed black and white pencil work is replaced with painted panels and distorted photo collages. Anderson’s use of photo imagery is a powerful technique, but it’s diminished slightly by more experimental coloring (where in the first two sections, perhaps 5-10% of the panels are in color, 90% of the third section is in color). Yet these photographs lend a sense of realism to the narrative, giving the story an historical context and a visual power. On the rare occasion that Anderson does pencil a panel in this final section, he employs a much more simplified style. Although it’s undoubtedly beautiful, reminiscent of Teddy Kristiansen’s House of Secrets work, when compared to the first two volumes, it feels rushed, which may have been the case as after 10 years, the artist must have felt an urgency to finish.

There have been numerous other biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. written, and most are likely to be more detailed, more adherent to the facts and better researched. In the historical record, I suspect Anderson’s graphic novel will have little place beyond a self-indulgent curiosity. However King is an ambitious personal work, one that regardless of its historical relevance, stands as a crowning artistic achievement by one of alternative comics most talented creators.

As a complete work, the feeling of inconsistency is an unfortunate distraction from what is otherwise an excellent graphic novel. The art, though vacillating between multiple styles and artists, is always dynamic and visually powerful. If the inconsistency is a distraction, it can never be faulted for lack of craftsmanship or inventiveness. Never once does Anderson lose his passion for the subject matter. Along with Maus by Art Spiegelman, King is perhaps the greatest graphic biography ever published, and stands among the best graphic novels, whose scope reaches beyond established borders and never fears bold experimentation in its storytelling.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Nighthawks in the Studio

Did you ever get so hooked on a CD, you just can't stop listening to it? That's what's happened to me. I was down in the Village a few weeks ago meeting some friends for a happy hour, but I got there early and decided to kill a few minutes in the best bootleg shop in the city which happened to be right around the corner. I wasn't planning on buying anything, but when I found this incredible Tom Waits bootleg, I couldn't resist. It's a live interview/jam session he did on Vin Scelsa's radio show back in 1976, right around the time Nighthawks at the Diner came out. The sound quality is superb and it's interesting to hear Waits scat and tinker on the piano while reminiscing about his childhood in California. I haven't been this hooked on a CD since Citizen Cope's The Clarence Greenwood Recordings.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Best of (what I read in) 2007

2007 was the year I finally jumped off the new release treadmill. Trying to keep up with every major indie release (not to mention the handful of mainstream books still worth following) was not only becoming too expensive, but also too time-consuming (especially with a four month old in the house). So this year, along with some new stuff, I decided to dig through my long boxes and revisit some old comics I had bought but never read. When you read this best of list, please keep in mind, this is the best of what I read, not what was published in 2007. Enjoy!

1) Love & Rockets vol. 1 - No surprise here, right? I made it through 16 issues this year, #13-28. In that run, both brothers' really find their voices, so to speak, and the storytelling becomes more ambitious and accomplished with each issue. The highlights were, of course, Gilbert's Human Diastrophism and Jaime's The Death of Speedy Ortiz, but there are many other lesser known treasures to be found in this run. Some of my favorites were Jaime's The Little Monster (#14), House of Raging Women (#16) and 8:01 am - 11:15 pm (#18), as well as Gilbert's Love Bites (#16) and Bullnecks and Bracelets (#20). I won't go into much detail about what makes these stories so great since I've already covered that in my
Shelf Life columns at Sequart, but if you haven't read them, you really should.

2) Sandman Mystery Theatre - I read all 70 issues of this excellent series in 2007. Although it originally came out from Vertigo in the mid-90s, (sadly succumbing to lagging sales at its creative peak in 1998), it essentially reimagines the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, and his girlfriend/sidekick Dian Belmont, in a war-torn New York City in 1940, just before the full advent of WWII. The writing by Matt Wagner and Steven Seagle (Wagner wrote the series in the beginning, until Seagle came aboard breaking down Wagner's ideas and eventually taking over writing duties late in the run) is sharp, insightful and unpredictable. The series takes a little while to get going, as Wagner struggles to find the real pulse of his characters, as well as the rhythm of the story in the beginning. As a result, the first 16 issues (each story arc is 4 issues long) are average. But by the mid-20's, the series is clicking on all cylinders. Guy Davis, the regular artist, contributes some of the best artwork of his career. His jittery, scratched lines, which he inks himself, often resemble rough sketches, but the storytelling and details are always clear, and his scenes are incredibly well-researched. This has got to be the most overlooked and underrated of all of Vertigo's major titles, and it's one that has aged particularly well. So far only the first half of the series has been released in TP format, but the second half is where the real quality is to be found. Hopefully Vertigo will continue to release these trades, and keep the entire series in print. SMT is as well written and enjoyable as anything currently being published from the mainstream companies.

3) The Comics of Eleanor Davis in Mome - There have only been three new artists in Mome who, in my opinion, have lived up to the promise of the anthology, and none that are more exciting than Eleanor Davis. Davis, whose mini-comics Beast Mother and Mattie and Dodi were among the best minis of 2006, contributed three stories to Mome in 2007. Though "Thomas the Leader" was more grounded in reality than "Stick and String" or "Seven Sacks," each featured Davis' unique artistic sensibility, with slightly distorted perspectives and imaginative mythical creatures. The Summer 2007 issue also featured an insightful interview with Davis and I'm excited to see what 2008 brings from this talented young cartoonist.

4) Minnow #1: Drawings by Theo Ellsworth - Ellsworth's self-published oversized art book is not a comic book. It's the result of an artist pouring his raw, unfiltered imagination onto a blank page. Minnow will definitely appeal to fans of Mome and others who are always on the search for up and coming artists. Ellsworth's artwork combines the surreality and looseness of David B. (Epileptic) with the incredible detail and symmetry of Jim Woodring, yet manages to imitate neither. It's a wholly original vision from an artist who, in my opinion, is on the verge of breaking through.

5) All Star Superman - There's no need to go into this one. You either get it or you don't. The only thing I will add is that with all the deserving praise that has been heaped upon Morrison and Quitely, it is easy to overlook the contribution of digital inker/colorist Jaime Grant, who literally makes the artwork pop off the page. Who says superhero stories have to be formulaic?

6) Mister Wonderful - The
NY Times Funny Pages, in which one full size, full color comics page is published in the Sunday Magazine each weekend, has been a fascinating and mostly successful experiment. Past contributors have included Chris Ware, Seth, Megan Kelso and Jaime Hernandez. Dan Clowes' latest story, currently in progress, is among the best work of his career, and is hands down my favorite of all the Funny Pages features thus far. The story, like many of Clowes' past works, focuses on a pathetic loner, a man-child yearning for the love of a woman who is so lost in his own head, obsessed with his own neuroses, that he's barely able to hold a normal conversation, much less sustain a relationship. So what happens when this guy goes on a blind date? It's free, so there's no reason not to check it out, and actually, I would pay good money to see these Funny Pages stories collected into a nice hardcover anthology.

7) The Principals of Uncertainty - Speaking of NY Times features,
Maira Kalman's The Principles of Uncertainty, which was first serialized on the Times art blog and later expanded and collected into a beautiful hardback book, caught me completely off guard. More sequential poetry than traditional storytelling, Kalman's lush, brightly water-colored artwork and photo collages are at once meditative and philosophical, wandering aimlessly between the abstract and minute, capturing beautifully those quiet little moments when the chaos of life comes briefly into focus. It's thought-provoking and beautiful, and utterly unique as well. As the medium continues to branch outward, poetry will be one of the next frontiers of alternative comics, and Kalman's book is one of the early and best examples yet of just how little of this artistic landscape has been explored.

8) Superspy - This was the best new graphic novel I read in 2007. Kindt's long-running online comic (part of which was printed in The Prophecy Anthology) is a stunning collection of cleverly designed vignettes, each featuring subtle character work and intricately crafted espionage tales. The book is not, strictly speaking, one coherent narrative, but like it's subjects, it operates as a sort of secret code, which requires a second reading, in non-sequential order, to fully appreciate. I'm sure that sounds confusing to those unfamiliar with the book, but Kindt's laid out a very thought-provoking graphic novel that is much more than a simple WWII spy thriller. This is a book I could actually see myself going back and reading for a third time.

9) Batman #663 - I haven't enjoyed all of Grant Morrison's run on Batman, in fact most of it has been below average by Grant's standards, but this particular issue, which features the prose Joker story, The Clown at Midnight, stands out as the highlight.
I posted an extensive review of this issue at Sequart, responding to the story's generally negative critical reception, and comparing it, in principal, to J. D. Salinger's similarly misunderstood and maligned story, Hapworth 16, 1924.

10) Walking Dead - There is nothing particularly innovative or creative about this title, it's in every way just another mainstream comic book. But it's one that consistently holds my interest with storylines that advance, compelling cliffhangers, characters that resonate just enough, and a premise (surviving in a world overrun with zombies) that despite being cliched, satisfies my craving for dystopian stories in a way that no other comic book has in a long time. I don't pretend that this is great art, but it's one of the few books I look forward to reading as soon as it comes out each month.

11) Shortcomings - Serialized in Optic Nerve #9-11, this is Adrian Tomine's longest sustained narrative, and definitely his best work to date. Aside from the fascinating psychological obsession that afflicted his protagonist, unable to let go of a toxic relationship, the story spotlights Tomine's strengths: sharp, realistic dialogue, multi-layered, often psychologically damaged characters, and a clean, Dan Clowes/Jaime Hernandez-inspired rendering style. This is the natural next step for one of indie comics most celebrated artists, and will hopefully be the first of many novel-length works for Tomine.

12) Bookhunter - Jason Shiga, the self-proclaimed "mathematical genius," and author of Fleep and Double Happiness, released his best graphic novel to date in 2007. Bookhunter is essentially a hard-boiled detective noir, with a dash of The Matrix thrown in as parody, but what makes it fascinating is it's unusual setting in, of all places, the Oakland County library system. The story unravels the intricate mystery involving the forgery of a rare book. Shiga's art style is loose and simplistic; most of his characters have circular heads and large round eyes, yet there is a complete mastery of panel composition that suits the story perfectly. This may not have the broad mainstream appeal that Tomine's work does, but it's every bit as strong a graphic novel.

13) Chicken with Plums - Released a couple years ago stateside, Marjane Satrapi's English language follow-up to the universally acclaimed Persepolis and Embroideries once again confirms her position as a first rate autobiographical storyteller. This graphic novel focuses on the death of her uncle in Iran, after his marriage and musical career are simultaneously destroyed.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier - If I were an editor at DC Comics and Alan Moore pitched the idea for this graphic novel to me, I can't even begin to describe how excited I would be. A sweeping history of the league, told in varying visual and prose styles, using all kinds of clever formats, all wrapped up neatly in a framing story about a stolen dossier and the chase to retrieve it; on paper it sounds like a home run. And yet, the actual book is tedious, drowning in its own efforts to mimic styles foreign to most comics readers, while painfully light on any real drama, conflict or narrative flow. Even the joys of seeing Moore successfully recreate so many different literary characters and movements (and he is talented enough to pull off the vast majority of them convincingly, even mimicking Shakespeare himself, though his 'beat novel' is unreadable) are not enough to redeem the book. And despite the praise I've read in some circles, I felt more alienated than impressed by Moore's overwhelming assualt of literary trivia. Kevin O'Neil generally rises to the occasion, although with so many differing narrative styles, his artwork begins to feel out of place as it fails to vary itself enough to keep up with Moore's wildly shifting documents. That's not to say it is poor craftsmanship on O'Neill's part, far from it, in fact. But the artwork just feels out of place at times, at odds with the meandering text. Overall, this book was an interesting experiment, and was well written in so much as it recreated various distinctive literary voices, but as a story, it was more frustrating than entertaining.