The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy

I’m just going to get it out of the way up front.  I’m not a big fan of The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy.  It’s not terrible by any means, but I just struggled with the storyline and the art didn’t excite me that much. I’m sure it’s just a failing on my part as a reader, and you should check it out for yourself.

The Wake fits neatly into the cli-fi category (climate fiction). A shady government character brings together a team consisting of an expert on whale songs (I can’t remember the scientific name for that), an expert in mythology and folklore, and an expert hunter of all things of the ocean, whether legal or illegal, to investigate something that has been making mysterious noises in the ocean and has peaked the attention of U.S. Homeland Security.  I don’t want to give away spoilers, but the plot moves quickly.  Before you know it the team is trapped in a deep-sea base trying to escape the thing making the mysterious noises.  I think growing up with Alien and so many other movies where the protagonist is running from a monster in some weird industrial setting just made this section of the series seem stale to me.  The good news is the second part of the series is better, in my opinion.
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Fast forward to after the apocalyptic climate event, and we have a new protagonist, a descendant of the expert on whale songs.  She’s trying to figure out mysterious messages being broadcast from somewhere far away.  She’s convinced they hold the key to saving the world, but the government in the new waterland-ish world doesn’t necessarily want anyone to figure it out. This part of the series seemed fresher to me; however, there’s a lot fanciful semi-evolutionary, semi-spiritual hypothesizing about human origins and why events have happened.  Some of it just seemed half-baked to me, and several times I wasn’t quite sure what was going on or what it meant to the story as a whole. I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, so I enjoyed that aspect of the book, but as a whole I was disappointed. Check it out and see what you think.


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Saga, Volume 4

I haven’t written about Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples to this point, because I figured there were enough people singing its praises (and rightfully so).  Also, I’m just always late to the party. It is a phenomenal series—original and beautiful. If by chance you haven’t seen it or heard about it, you should definitely check it out. Be warned. It’s not for the squeamish and earns its mature rating, but once you start reading it you’ll likely not want to put it down.

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I like to read in a longer format, so I typically wait for the collected volumes. Volume 4 prompted me to write, because it seems to be a big departure in terms of storyline and tone. Up to this point, Alana and Marko, star-crossed lovers in the vein of Romeo and Juliet, are on the run from the authorities, assassins, and tabloid journalists.  They are from separate warring planets, and knowledge of their relationship and love child would harm the war machine (or what we call the industrial military complex).  They are determined to keep their baby, Hazel, safe. This drives the story and adventure.

In volume 4, Hazel is now a toddler and speaking, but more importantly Alana and Marko have settled into family life.  There’s no fairy-tale married life in this fairy tale. Alana is working to put food on the table, but her job doesn’t give her any true satisfaction or meaning in life. In fact, it is soul sucking.  So, she starts looking for something to fill the emptiness and keep her going. Marko is a stay-at-home dad, which you don’t see often in comic land. This doesn’t give him true satisfaction, and with Alana working all the time, he starts to feel like he needs something more. Vaughan captures this shift so perfectly.

This mix of character reality with the fantasy world is what makes Vaughan’s stories so compelling. The characters and worlds are so original I can’t fathom how he comes up with the stuff, but then there’s the “here’s what really happens in relationships after the honeymoon.” It’s some of the best writing out there.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still plenty of action and adventure in the volume.  A janitor goes off the deep end and kidnaps the newly born robo-prince. As fate would have it, his path crosses with Marko, Alana, and Prince Robot IV in what looks like it will be a wild ride in volume 5.  Don’t forget. There are assassins out there and other craziness. Keep reading.

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Wolverine – Old Man Logan by Mark Millar

Growing up, my cousin had this thing where no one was allowed to like anything he liked or he accused you of copying him, and sometimes he would punch you.  He loved Wolverine, so I said whatever.  I didn’t read much Wolverine. There was a lot of other good, if not better stuff out there.  Like Elektra: Assassin.

Now that we’re older, I’m much bigger than he is.  There will be no punching.  So, I’ve started reading some Wolverine comics.  Like I said in my Just A Pilgrim post, I like post-apocalyptic stories, and Old Man Logan is kind of a post-apocalyptic Marvel universe.   On the “Night the Heroes Fell,”  evil won, the good guys disappeared, and the villains have been running things ever since.

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The bad guys have split up the U.S. into fiefdoms, extorting those living on their land.  The story starts with a pacifist Wolverine living on a ranch in the Sacramento desert with his wife and two kids.  He’s late on his rent to the Banners, the grandkids of Bruce Banner.  They are a nasty bunch. Hawkeye proposes a delivery job (read illegal smuggling) across the country that would raise enough money to pay the rent.  It has a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feel to it.  You can see where this is going.

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This is a fun road-trip comic with a pretty cool concept.  The old villains (or their descendants) and some of the heroes pop up in surprising ways.  There are several rabbit trails and plot twists on the journey.  Although the ending isn’t necessarily a surprise, the details leading up to it are certainly entertaining. Check out Old Man Logan here.

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The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

The Underwater WelderJeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder is a powerful example of how graphic novels / comics can be just as artistic, important, and poignant as traditional literature.  The story follows Jack, an underwater welder for an oil rig.  Jack and his wife are expecting their first child, but Jack is struggling with issues from his own childhood and his relationship with his father.

Jack feels an overwhelming need to be alone, and the only place he can find the peace and quiet to deal with his thoughts is underwater welding at work.  The story takes some surreal and unexpected turns as Jack deals with his past and ultimately tries to answer that nagging human question, “Who am I?”  In the introduction to the book, Damon Lindelof describes it as “the most spectacular episode of the Twilight Zone that was never produced,” and that describes the book perfectly.

Lemire’s art is simplistic and raw, which really captures the isolation in the story and Jack’s state of mind.  Lemire uses large panels liberally with minimal text, which also highlights the internal contemplative aspects of the story.  I had an English professor who said that in good literature everything is there for a purpose.  Nothing is superfluous.  The craftsmanship and vision displayed in The Underwater Welder is the perfect combination of writing and art to create a powerful story.  It is good literature.

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I highly recommend The Underwater Welder.   The book is over 200 pages, but reads very quickly.  And then you will want to read it again to figure out how Lemire captured so much story and emotion with black and white simplicity and sparse text.

I seriously doubt there will be a better graphic novel released in 2012. The Underwater Welder is published by Top Shelf Productions. Check it out here.

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RASL: Volumes 1-3 by Jeff Smith

I was turned on to Jeff Smith’s RASL by The Best American Comics of 2011.  RASL is much different than Smith’s famous masterpiece, Bone.  Where Bone is a epic lighthearted fantasy adventure, RASL is a dark and gritty sci fi noir.  RASL, the main character, is a hard drinking art thief with a mysterious past.  His girlfriend is a prostitute, but he has another girl’s name tattooed on his arm.  There’s time jumping, a history lesson on Tesla, a government conspiracy, and a bad guy who looks like a lizard (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) chasing RASL across parallel timelines.  Of course, RASL is not his original name, and I’ve yet to figure out what it means.

The overriding theme is the need to make things right with the past, but the harder RASL tries the higher the cost to himself.  There is some Native American imagery regarding life being a maze, and the time jumping lends to the theme.  There is the recurring image of a pebble being dropped in water and the resultant ripples.  It reads like a blend of Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, and LOST. Good, dark  fun all around.

The series is steeped in mystery, and Smith is a master of cliffhangers.  I don’t want to give away much of the plot because the mystery of it all is what drives the series.   Rumors are circulating on the interwebs that the series will come to an explosive conclusion in 2012 or 2013.  Issues 1-11 have been collected in three volumes. You can check out the hardcover volume here.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: A Graphic Novel

Do Androids Dream of Electric SheepLike most people these days, I came to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Philip K. Dick through Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner.  I knew the film was based on the book and always had it on my to-be-read list, but that list grows faster than I keep up with it.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep kept its spot as other books piled on.  Then I stumbled onto this comic adaptation by Tony Parker and BOOM! Studios. It’s word for word from the book with panel-to-panel continuity.  I couldn’t resist.

If you like Blade Runner, you really owe it to yourself to read the book or comic.  Both the film and novel are excellent, but they are really two different animals (pun intended).  The film is very character driven and its thematic focus is very narrow. It’s good, but it’s narrow. The novel is idea driven and is much more complex than the film.  Philip K. Dick was as much philosopher as storyteller.  There are some crucial scenes and ideas in the novel that make it superior to the film, because they add so much more depth and meaning to the story.

For example, one crucial element in the novel is Mercerism, a religion that uses technology to give people a sense of connectedness.  People can plug in and feel connected physically and spiritually to Mercer (and all humanity as a result) as he eternally struggles up his hill, like Sisyphus.  As his invisible persecutors throw rocks at him, everyone connected feels the pain.  They actually bruise and bleed.  This is a human need that androids do not understand.  The film doesn’t have enough time to develop this idea, and it is too far removed from Dekker’s primary mission.

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The Mercer idea also leads to Buster Friendly, a media personality constantly broadcasting on TV and radio.  Everyone loves him.  Everyone watches.  He has a cast of silly characters that join him similar to variety show and late night TV.  The idea of Mercerism and Buster Friendly are just two examples of Philip K. Dick’s prescience.  They also contribute to the development of Deckard’s character and the difference between humans and androids.

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I’m not sure if the comic adaptation now constitutes a third animal in addition to the film and traditional novel.  It includes everything in the novel, and readers who know the film will recognize elements of it in the comic as well.  Tony Parker’s illustrations are brilliant and flow seamlessly with the text.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually reading a novel that was written in 1968.  Everything fits and looks perfect in this adaptation.

Parker’s illustrations also illuminate Dick’s underlining themes and the bigger questions at play.  What does it mean to be human?  If the androids are more than human, what does that mean?  What is empathy and why do we have it? Deckard feels like he is increasingly becoming dehumanized by the hunt for the escaped androids.  During Deckard’s internal monologue, Parker often illustrates him imagining that he is killing the androids.   By the time that moment comes in reality, Deckard has already done it in his mind repeatedly.   There is a sense of anti-climax.  It doesn’t mean that much anymore. He has lost some of that empathy.

In addition to the great adaptation, the comics also include an essay at the back of each issue by the likes of Warren Ellis, Jonathan Letham, James Blaylock, TimPowers, etc. The essays are very different from one another.  Some discuss the book and film from an academic perspective.  Some discuss Philip K. Dick in general.  Some are like memoirs. I found all of them illuminating after reading the respective issue.

In short, the comic adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is fantastic.  I loved every second of it.  I managed to use the internet machines to track down all 24 issues of it, but BOOM! has issued 6 volumes that collect the whole series.  I will close with a quote from Gabriel McKee’s essay at the end of issue 21:

Dick’s universes have shaky walls and insubstantial foundations.  But throughout it all—and this is where I think many of Dick’s academic admirers get him wrong—he never abandons hope that an authentic ultimate reality exists.  At the core of all of that anxiety… there is a faith that something real is hidden beneath the veil, and that it can and will break through that veil to help us.  And it is that hope, more that the surface anxiety, that gives his stories such power.

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Supergods by Grant Morrison

supergods-coverWhat Morrison does very well in Supergods is offer an analytical history of superhero comics from the perspective of a fan and talented insider. The book is organized chronologically and progresses through the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance. Unfortunately, Morrison interjects his own memoir and belief systems, which are not all about comics. The book reads as if it should be two or three separate books, and the further Morrison gets away from analyzing the history of superhero comics, the more disjointed the book becomes.

Supergods is subtitled, “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human,” which sounds like a great germinating idea for a critical examination of superhero comics. The first section of the twenty-six chapter, 426 page book comes the closest to living up to the subtitle. Morrison begins at the logical beginning:

In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment—and from their union, something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear. Superman was the ferocious attempt of two young men to show us ourselves at our very best.

Morrison goes on to write an engrossing analysis of the creation of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the small cast of popular early superheroes in the Golden Age. He includes the perfect amount of historical context, pop references, and commentary on the writers and artists to keep the book from becoming overly academic. I found his detailed analyses of the covers of the first issues of Superman, Batman, and Fantastic Four fascinating. Morrison’s prose is full of hyperbole, and his imagery keeps the discussion lively, although at times it’s self-indulgent. At the end of the Golden Age section, he writes:

Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won World War, Americans were more frightened than ever before… There was the space race, with its launch into the limitless unknown, and Kinsey’s groundbreaking surveys into the sexual habits of Americans, opening the dripping treasure chest of a buttoned-up country’s inner life, revealing a sleep world of polychromatic polymorphous perversity acted out behind a camouflage of pipe-smoking patriarchs and Stepford wives. There were as many different kinds of fear as there were brands of gum.

flash-coverAs the book moves into the Silver Age section, Morrison examines the fifties and sixties era comics in the context of the growing popularity of psychoanalysis and the space race. Along those same lines, He injects his own initiation to comics into the chronology, but this quickly turns from comics to his family life to his belief systems regarding time, the fifth dimension, and the multiverse. From that point the analysis of superhero comics, which is still good, is interrupted by Morrison’s own memoir about his many identity crises, drug inspired occult experiments, and new age philosophy.

The memoir interruptions take over in the Dark Age and Renaissance sections as Morrison’s career takes off, and the organization and logic of the book are derailed. He writes:

If I found some dangerous or interesting ritual in a book, I’d give it a go to see what effect it would have on my consciousness. The results were never less than revelatory. Psychedelics gave these experiences the fidelity of a Star Trek 3-D holodeck experience. Demons and angels had faces now of white-hot, razor-edged purity or grotesque puzzle box monstrosity… I have no really explanations for a lot of this but numerous speculations that may find their way into another book one day. I simply allowed all this to happen under some vague direction from a diamond-interior Protestant straight-edge self that seemed to never lose control.

How Morrison can say with a straight face that his “Protestant straight-edge self” never lost control while he was taking drugs and performing occult experiments is completely illogical to me, especially since he claims to have rejected the Bible at an early age and completely botches the central theme of the Gospel message early in the book.

Between the memoir sections in the last half, Morrison gives an excellent analysis of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work. Yet, he could not restrain himself from including his previously mentioned “speculations” about his mystical experiences. He explains that a life-changing drug induced epiphany he had in Kathmandu gave him his “very own superpower.” He can now “’see’ 5-D perspective.” He goes on for the majority of the last section of the book discussing his “experiments” and explaining his new found understanding of time and the universe. His analysis of more recent comics is painfully thin and focuses on his own work. The end of the book loses all coherence with the rest, and a whole chapter is dedicated to movie adaptations, rather than following the established chronological order of the book.

The history and analysis of superhero comics is excellent through three quarters of the book, but after the Silver Age, the reader has to pick through the new age philosophy and identity-crisis memoir to find the good stuff. I’m sure there are readers, especially diehard fans of Morrison, who will find the memoir and personal philosophy interesting. But as Morrison even seems to recognize, those topics would be better suited for another book. I will say that my advance copy of the book has obvious signs that it was a draft and would be edited.

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X’ed Out by Charles Burns

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It should be common knowledge by now that X’ed Out, the first volume of a new trilogy by Charles Burns, is chock full of weirdness, mystery, and beautiful artwork.  The book is part revision of Hergé’s TinTin, part tribute to William Burroughs, part Alice in Wonderland, and something new yet to be revealed.  Within all of that, there are some interesting themes that I’m sure Burns will expand on in the next two volumes.

Doug, the protagonist, has suffered some mystery trauma and spends most of his time in bed in the basement of his parents’ house looking at old Polaroids of his girlfriend.  The narrative slips back and forth between this reality, a Burroughs inspired dream world induced by Doug’s painkillers, flashback sequences where Doug meets and falls in love with Sarah (the girl in the Polaroids), and past conversations with Doug’s father.

The idea of motherhood, or more specifically failed motherhood, runs throughout this first volume.  Doug’s mother is mentioned, but never seen.  Doug and his father both want to avoid her.  In one flashback sequence Doug remembers his father saying, “Your Mom and I…We started out with such high hopes…But I guess things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.”  Like Doug, his father retreats downstairs, which Burns has admitted is a symbol for the womb.  Doug comes upstairs for Poptarts and reminds himself that his mom will not be home from work until 5:30 He says, “…at least I don’t have to deal with her.”

Sarah has a thing for fetal pigs in jars, one of which gets broken by her “psycho” ex-boyfriend at the party where Doug meets Sarah.  She poses topless with one fetal pig as a Madonna and child (she poses topless a lot).  There is a panel of an actual Madonna and child.  Lizard-like fetuses and eggs are everywhere in Doug’s dream world.  To top it off, a cartoonish version of Sarah appears in the dream world.  Doug’s nameless, baby-like alien guide tells him she is the new Queen of the hive, a breeder.

Identity is another interesting issue in the book.  Doug’s alter-ego is Nitnit.  He puts on a mask that resembles TinTin when he reads his cut-up poetry in reality, perhaps subconsciously wanting to hide from his audience.  In his dream world, Doug is Nitnit.  Doug also identifies with his father.  Like his father, Doug spends his time in the basement looking at photographs and dwelling on the past.  Doug’s guide in the dream world smokes like his father and, I would argue, vaguely resembles his father.  Adding to that, Nitnit has several visions of his father while he is with the guide.

What does this all mean?  It’s too early to tell.  The book is short and leaves more questions than answers, but it is only volume one of what should be a great trilogy.  Burns has stated in interviews that all of these “threads” will come together in the next two volumes.  And let’s not forget the beautiful artwork.  I’ve compared Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork to fever dreams before, but I have to say that Burns has really captured that particular strangeness in his vivid colors and style.  The next volume, The Hive, is slated to come out sometime in 2011.

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The Black Dossier by Alan Moore

LOEG-coverIf James Joyce’s Ulysses is the demonstration and summation of modernist literature, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier is the paradigm for post-postmodernism in graphic novels.  Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has received critical acclaim for its structure and interconnecting stories.  She has a section consisting of PowerPoint slides, and another that includes text messages, but those techniques pale in comparison to what Moore accomplishes in The Black Dossier.

Volumes 1 and 2 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series are critically acclaimed mash-ups of Victorian literature, pulp fiction, steampunk, and Moore’s own twists.  The Black Dossier was to serve as a standalone sourcebook between volume two of the series and a proper volume 3, but it grew into much more.  Moore has stated in various interviews that he and Kevin O’Neill realized early that the series was growing into an attempt to map the entire fictional world and how it relates to fact.  It is a study and commentary on the popular imagination.  But in the structure and complexity of The Black Dossier, I also see the growth and culmination of literary movements throughout history into something new.

Similar to Joyce’s Ulysses, The Black Dossier is very experimental in its structure and construction.  Critics of the book have noted that the narrative plot is very weak.  Mina Harker and Allan Quartermain have recovered The Black Dossier, which contains the secret history of The League.  Emma Night (Peel), Bulldog Drummond, and a young James Bond chase them all over London and Scotland trying to stop them.  In true Moore style, you would have to do a tremendous amount of research to figure out all of the references and allusions, and Moore throws in his twists on characters and events for good measure.  For example, James Bond (Jimmy in the book) is a sadistic womanizer and the events take place in 1958 after the Big Brother government from George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty Four has fallen.

The narrative is merely a shell for The Black Dossier itself, which Mina and Allan stop to read at various points in the narrative.  The Dossier takes over the story metafictionally (if that’s a word) using faux historical texts, comic strips in various styles, a “lost” Shakespeare folio, prose in the style of H.P Lovecraft and Jack Kerouac, post cards, Big Brother posters in the style of English WWII posters, maps, and more.  Throughout these artifacts are mysterious handwritten notes that point back to the narrative at hand and the previous volumes in the series.  The complexity of it all is overwhelming.

To add to the complexity, the graphic novel contains a 3D section set in “the Blazing World” with glasses.  The cover to the Kerouac section mimics the paperback style of the early Kerouac books when they were published, down to the creases they would have had from being read.  Like Ulysses, you need an annotated version to understand it all.  Some folks have been kind enough to put one together- Black Dossier annotated.

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So what separates Moore’s book from A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Ulysses for that matter?  As a medium, the graphic novel has the potential to capture the contemporary human experience far better than the traditional novel.  We are inundated with visuals and images by television, advertising, and internet.  So much could be done with the medium.

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I think it goes back to the perceived weakness of The Black Dossier– narrative.  Egan’s book, though experimental in structure and technique, is about characters and narrative.  They are “real” characters with “real” stories.  The themes capture truths about the human experience that run deep.  If Moore could capture that along with the genius he has for pop culture, structure, and technique; we would see a phenomenal new literature.

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Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley

sp1-coverHow can one describe Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life?  Hipster-absurdist-arcade-kung-fu-musical?  Whatever you want to call it, the book exudes coolness, and it’s not the pretentious brand of hipster coolness.  It’s a goofy, kind of stupid and fun coolness.

Scott, 23-years-old, announces that he is dating a high school girl, Knives.  He’s in a band and doesn’t have a job.  He epitomizes the laid-back slacker mentality.  His friends give him grief about the relationship, but before things get hot and heavy with Knives, Scott falls for Ramona, a rollerblading delivery girl.  As the story progresses, the absurdity increases.

Both girls show up at the band’s show, which causes problems.  The real problem, however, is that Ramona’s ex-boyfriend also shows up.  He’s able to summon some kind of demon-girl fighters, and an arcade style kung-fu battle, partially set to a musical, breaks out.  The premise for the rest of the series is established.  Scott will have to fight Ramona’s seven ex-boyfriends if he truly loves her.

The story is a take on the classic medieval epic, but Bryan Lee O’Malley fills it with tributes to manga, retro arcade games, music, sit-coms, and slacker attitude.  There is humor throughout.  It’s a perfect mix of realism and absurdity.  It’s just fun.

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