Friday, April 24, 2009

An Especially Long Friday Afternoon Comics Ramble

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time and energy to blog. First I was sick with a vicious little stomach bug, then I was away for my sister’s wedding. Suddenly a few weeks got away from me. But I did manage to do a fair bit of reading while offline, including:

Dr. Strange Classics #1-4 and the Marvel Milestones Edition of Dr. Strange's first appearance – Believe it or not I’m not very well read when it comes to early Marvel superhero books. I’ve read most of the Ditko Spider-Man books in reprints like Marvel Tales, but I had never read any Dr. Strange. Anyway, when I realized that Marvel had done a nice reprint of some of the early Strange Tales stories in a cheap four issue mini-series back in the mid-80s, it was easy enough to track down on eBay. The story featured is the one where Dr. Strange battles Mordo who is secretly powered by the Dread Dormammu, and while it’s a fairly predictable, overly-melodramatic-in-a-way-only-Stan-Lee-could-write story, it’s Ditko’s surrealist alternate dimensions which are what warrants the “classics” moniker. And while I am sure this has been written about hundreds of time, in much more depth and intelligence than I plan to go into here, the imagination and visionary alternate worlds and dimensions that Ditko created in these stories really are incredible. I enjoyed these stories enough to want to track down more.

Gentleman of the Road – I’ve read almost all of Michael Chabon’s books, and while I can still appreciate the author’s mastery at verb usage and sentence construction, I found his last couple books to be lackluster. Summerland was explicitly intended for teenagers, but the story’s inner logic and tendency to heap coincidence upon coincidence, got a little predictable and boring after a while. This story, by contrast, is better than Summerland, but still lacks the character depth and sympathies of Chabon's earlier novels like Mysteries of Pittsburgh or Wonder Boys. The story’s unusual genre (a medieval swashbuckling quest) is also a stretch for Chabon, which is not to say the author is not up to the challenge, or should be limited in pursuing his imagination to its farthest boundaries, but it did seem that Chabon was hovering just behind the curtain, like a puppeteer, manipulating his characters through their paces. I also found the language Chabon used a little too academic and impenetrable for the type of story he was telling, essentially, a boy’s adventure tale. The book did have one major highlight that made the whole experience worth it, however, and that was the spot illustrations by Gary Gianni, an artist whose work on the syndicated Prince Valiant made him perfectly suited for the style and drama of this story.

Tales from Outer Suburbia – Shaun Tan’s latest book is a revelation. Whereas The Arrival was itself a revelation in that the comics world discovered a major new artistic talent, Tales confirmed that Tan is also a great writer with a charming and outlandish imagination. The book consists of about fifteen short stories, a few in pure comics format, but most skillfully blending text and illustrations in a way that is rare, yet remarkably comfortable and seamless. Often the text was used as a buildup to some magnificent illustrated punchline. The stories range from modern fable to distorted reality, and are reminiscent of Steven Millhauser’s early short stories, while Tan's wide range of art techniques (photo distortion, pencil drawings, paintings, collage, mixed media, etc.) is reminiscent of David Mack's Kabuki. Of all the books I read recently, this was my favorite by far. Here's a nice little ten-page preview which will give you a flavor for the book's charm.

Drawn & Quarterly Showcase vol. 4 – This is also a great book. I had picked up this volume of D&Q’s periodic anthology at Midtown Comics half off sale, and it turned out to be a great purchase. This is the best volume of the series by far (though I haven’t read the fifth), and features three short stories. The first, a story by Gabrielle Bell, is the best work I’ve read of hers. Included in the recent collection, Cecil and Jordan in New York, it tells the story of a young woman artist struggling to find her place in the art world, when she is unexpectedly hired by a famous artist to tutor his son. It is a touching story, subtle yet pointed in its assessment of the modern art world, and Bell’s panel-to-panel storytelling is confident and assured. Bell is followed by Martin Cendreda whose short story focuses on how an old urban legend from the Philippines still informs a small town in America. Cendreda’s thin-lined clear artwork is a joy to look at. His simplified figures retain the essential elements of personality and humanity in much the same way Ivan Brunetti’s do. The story itself is charming and unfolds slowly, like the lazy afternoon it depicts. The final story in the book is among the greatest anthology pieces I can remember reading. It is Dan Zettwoch’s impeccably researched re-telling of his grandfather’s experiences during the great Louisville flood. Zettwoch takes us on an adventure as his grandfather journeys through the city in a homemade boat, and experiences firsthand the disruption and general mood that pervaded the city during that extraordinary time. Zettwoch’s commitment to the faithful reproduction of the event itself is impressive, including maps of the city and extensive photo-referencing. The bibliography at the end of the story reveals just how much time and effort was expended on research. It is an unforgettable and unsympathetic depiction of a human tragedy, and it draws you into its world and makes you feel as if you were actually there.

City of Glass – I also re-read City of Glass, one of my all-time favorite graphic novels and the one I think is most under-appreciated among hardcore comics fans. Paul Auster’s story of a writer who decides to assume the life of one his characters is as original today as when it was first published back in the 80s as part of the New York Trilogy, and Mazzucchelli and Karasik’s adaptation of it takes the story and transforms it into a layered visual metaphor of memory and symbology. The artwork is rich with detail without overwhelming readers, and enhances the lead character’s experiences by providing visual cues to the character’s inner thoughts. The story also explores the meaning of language in society, and both Karasik and Mazzucchelli use the artwork as a similar exploration of the visual language of comics by diverging from the simple depictions of characters speaking. I think I’m struggling to define exactly what makes this work such a classic, and I’m sure there are some better essays on this book online, but I’m not exaggerating when I say this is near the very top of my list of all-time favorite graphic novels. This is the third time I’ve read it and it won’t be the last.

Webcomics - Finally, I’ve read three comics online recently that are worth checking out if you haven’t already. Generally, I’m not a huge fan of reading comics online because I like to hold the book in my hands (I know, I’m old school. I also still bag and board), but these are all excellent for different reasons and are not available anywhere else. First is Paul Pope’s short six-page story about Mr. Spock in Wired magazine. Anything Pope does is worth looking at for the art alone, and that’s really all this one is worth, too. The story is really just a promo for the upcoming Star Trek blockbuster which is sure to disappoint, but Pope’s interpretation of the characters and the Enterprise are worth gazing at for a few seconds.

Second is “Life Insurance,” an old pre-Code horror tale penciled by John Romita and inked by Les Zakarin from Weird Mysteries #11 posted by David Zuzelo (link from Journalista). It’s just one of those random old stories in the EC vein that featured a clever twist and some stunning artwork, but it’s definitely worth a read, and the artwork reminded me of Tim Lane’s Abandoned Cars.

Finally, Maira Kalman’s latest illustrated essay in the New York Times, entitled “And the Pursuit of Happiness,” features a look at the origin of laws and some of the leading women in American politics. Kalman’s paintings and photos are always stunningly beautiful, and her rambling, stream-of-conscious philosophies are often insightful and endearing. This is one of her stronger pieces of the ones she’s posted recently, and its definitely worth a look.

As for new comics, I’m just not that into them anymore. I still follow Walking Dead, Ex Machina, Daredevil (though I’m out of there when Brubaker leaves), Fantastic Four, Mome, Criminal/Incognito, Young Liars and a few other mini-series, but for the most part, I’m trying to save money in case I lose my job. I did just pick up Miss Lasko-Gross’s new GN, A Mess of Everything, but haven’t read it yet. There’s a lot of stuff I’m curious about, including just about everything Fantagraphics publishes, and maybe I’ll go back and pick up some of the best stuff someday, but I have so many comics I’ve bought and never read, others that I kept because I want to re-read (like City of Glass) and also have access to a lot of good stuff at the public library for free, that it just doesn’t make sense to spend too much money on new comics anymore.


Alan David Doane said...

" just doesn’t make sense to spend too much money on new comics anymore."

Brother, ain't THAT the truth.

Great piece, Marc! I love a lot of these books, and D&Q Showcase is a consistently excellent anthology that doesn't get talked about enough...

Marc said...

Thanks Alan!

BTW, I have you to thank for turning me on to those Dr. Strange Classics. I had no idea they existed.

Alan David Doane said...

Ha! I was wondering if that's what brought them to your attention! :-)