Thursday, August 18, 2011

A summer of amazing comics

I had some form of a breakthrough this summer. On June 30th, two days before I took off on a road trip to Canada's East coast, I went shopping. I'd received 70$ worth of gift cards to Chapters and figured they'd be put to good use by picking up several books for my trek. Scanning the comics aisle, looking for a reprint of Grant Morrison's New X-Men vol. 1, I came across a book called Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk. I was intrigued. I'd read and loved Scott McLoud's Understanding Comics but I was reluctant to read another explanation of how comics work. I thought: "I've got it, at this point". Instead, Reading Comics was a collection of essays on various authors of importance and their works, it had won an Eisner award and had high praise from a slew of worthy publications. I bought it.

It blew my mind. I knew there were plenty of good comics out there for me to read, I simply had no idea where to look, and this book told me. The chapters on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison were great reads about works I'd already read, but every other chapter offered an in-depth analysis of works I'd either heard of and written off or never encountered before. It also mentioned The Comics Journal, my new favourite website, where I've been devouring interviews, comic diaries and reviews I wouldn't find on popular sites like Comic Book Resources or Newsarama, which cater directly to the mainstream super-hero crowd.

Without further ado, here are my most recent reads, as recommended by Reading Comics.

Love and Rockets X by Gilbert Hernandez

The Hernandez brothers are legendary. Jaime and Gilbert started publishing their work together in the 80s, not collaborating, for the most part, mostly doing their own thing and then publishing it together in anthologies called Love and Rockets. I'd heard of them time and again, and one day picked up the first volume. I didn't get the fuss. I hardly got anywhere trying to read it, it was zany and all over the place, so I wrote it off. I figured, OK, maybe this is generally acknowledged as great but just not for me. Then I read Reading Comics and learned that their early stuff is where they learned the craft and honed their skills and, while it might be interesting for die-hard fans who want to see the steady evolution, the casual reader could easily skip to the good stuff without missing a beat. So I did.

Love and Rockets X takes place in Los Angeles in the early 90s, around the time of the riots, when racial tensions were at their peak. The cast of characters is quite large, mostly teenagers, who are all within one degree of separation from each other, despite the different ethnic and social-economic backgrounds. As far as plot goes, it's a little difficult to summarize. The crux of the story occurs when all of the characters end up at the same party, there to see a band play, but the show falls through and the party-goers scatter when a handful of black teens show up and the most prejudiced in attendance think it's a gang attack of some sort.

This book is great not because it deals with race, class, gender and identity issues, but rather because of how it does it. Nothing is black and white, no character is an archetype that the reader automatically "knows". The white supremacist punks turn on their leader when he goes too far, the cute and open-minded girl can handle everything except her father's homosexuality, the racist rich kid's mom makes him invite the black kids back to their house after they're chased off, etc. etc. The story flows organically, the characters are three-dimensional and the themes are their to be inferred so that nothing feels heavy-handed and preachy.

Side note: there is some sexual content and at some point the punks spray paint a swastika on a wall so you may not want to do as I did, i.e., read it while riding public transit.

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson

First and foremost, if you've never read Thompson's Blankets, do so. It's a beautiful and heart-breaking story about his teenage love and his struggles with his Christian upbringing and subsequent guilt.

Carnet de Voyage, on the other hand, is exactly what the title implies. After the release and success of Blankets, Thompson heads to Europe for a promotional tour and keeps a comics journal of his travels.

As he tours France and Spain, you get a feel for how exhausting such an endeavour is. He's always on the go, with several bookings in one day, trying to keep up in his journal as well. It's interesting to see how the promotional machine works and how it feels for the artist going through the motions.

He takes a side-trip to Morocco, which gets more personal. Recently single, he finds himself heart-broken and lonely in a country where most people don't speak his language and where the tourist zones are full of people looking to take advantage of the ignorant. He does manage to meet locals who invite him into their homes, as well as fellow tourists with whom he can pass the time.

The real attraction of this book is the art. Morocco is vibrant and beautiful. There's an interesting dichotomy between how amazingly he draws the country and how little he's enjoying his stay. Even at his lowest points, he not only sees the beauty around him but captures it perfectly.

While the art is gorgeous throughout, another beautiful passage is his stay in the Alps, at a friend's cabin. This time, the art and narration suit each other perfectly, as he gets to relax, sleep plentifully and enjoy his surroundings which are lusciously rendered. The cabin looks cozy and warm, the food looks delicious and hearty and the wintery landscape looks peaceful and majestic.

The only thing that I didn't appreciate was the ending. Every once in a while, he'll mention his ex-girlfriend, getting an email from her, a phone conversation, and you get the hint that things aren't quite over. The end of the book isn't really the end of anything. His tour isn't over and nothing is resolved as far as the relationship goes, at least in regards to what the reader learns. Essentially, it ends because his publisher allowed him a set number of pages, which he himself admits, and that's it.

So, pick up this book for it's amazing art, for it's insight into this great cartoonist's head, but don't pick it up if you're looking for narrative that includes closure and finality. It's a slice of life, not a story in the traditional sense of the word.

High Society by Dave Sim

I'm definitely jumping on a bandwagon by talking about this one. Sim recently finished the insane task he'd set himself when he started writing Cerebus: to make it a monthly comic that would run 300 issues. With it's last volume wrapped up, several reviewers and columnists have undertaken a massive re-reading of the series, wondering whether to call it an accomplishment, a flop, or something in between. Wolk has a great chapter about the series, The Comics Journal volume 301 has a piece about it, and Timothy Callahan writes about it in his column for Comic Book Resources.

Unlike them, I've only read the second volume thus far, and that's what this review will dwell on.

After reading Wolk's piece, I was a little trepidatious about undertaking this series. Each volume is the size of a phone book, for starters, and its author apparently develops some bizarre social and political views that he hammers into his narrative as the story progresses (and by bizarre, I mean mysonistic and weirdly religious).

Regardless, High Society is fantastic. Having skipped the first volume, which like Love and Rockets is apparently a lot of trial and error, this second volume is a great read.

The main protagonist, Cerebus, is an Aardvark, meant as a spoof of Conan the barbarian. His father, Lord Julius, happens to look and talk like Groucho Marx. A deranged and hilarious vigilante with multiple personalities goes by the name of Moon Roach, a not-too-subtle mockery of Marvel's Moon Knight.

If it sounds silly, it's because it is. And yet, it's also very political, with a world so intricate you can't help but be drawn into it. Cerebus' main motivation is money and the primary plot consists of his machinations to gain power and therefore capital. He arrives in Iest as some sort of diplomat and as that position starts to slip away from him, he campaigns for and wins an election to become Prime Minister.

This book works on so many levels, it's astounding. The art is experimental for it's time (originally published in 1986), as Sim plays with panel sizes and alignment to shift the tone. As of page 373, the illustrations inexplicably start being horizontal, forcing the reader to turn the entire volume on its side to continue reading. On page 478, Cerebus drunkenly enters a room, and each panel is drawn at a different angle, mirroring the protagonist's inebriated stumbling. Four pages later, a bucket of dirty water is thrown on him and he has a moment of clarity where everything is back to vertical layouts, as he discusses the status quo with his aid. As other characters come in and the narrative continues, the panels start rotating and all of a sudden, the panels go back to being horizontal.

An other layer to be appreciated is the blatant mocking of mainstream comics. The most obvious and previously mentioned example is the lampooning of Moon Knight, but another one of note is "Petuniacon". In the book, a political convention takes place where admirers can come in and ask questions, there are panels and discussions on the state of the nation and people flock like sheep to get autographs and lousy sketches for their collections. Do I really have to make the connection here? Sim goes to town on comic book conventions and the result isn't only funny, it's painfully accurate.

I'm definitely looking forward to reading the next volume.

I think that's enough for one day, more soon!

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