Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth by Chris Ware

jimmy corriganSimply put, Jimmy Corrigan is the pinnacle of what graphic novels are capable of as an art form- story, structure, graphics, everything.  I’m ashamed to say that I’m very late in reading the book, so I’ll let you read proper reviews here:

Guardian

Flak Magazine

The Independent

I’ve heard some people say that the book is frustrating and difficult to read because of the nontraditional structure, but the structure is part of the meaning.  It is not just a story with pictures, as many comics are.  It is more than that, and I compare any difficulty in reading it to the difficulty of reading any quality literature (think Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, et cetera).  Check it out here.

Some excerpts (these are random, except for the third and forth pages here, which are presented in order):

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Special Exits by Joyce Farmer

Special-Exits-HCIn this graphic memoir, Joyce Farmer  chronicles the gradual decline of her elderly parents’ health and how that decline affects their relationships, their emotional well-being, and their day-to-day existence.  Farmer’s parents, Lars and Rachel,  face their suffering with a stoicism that borders on insanity, refusing to see doctors or simply just not telling their daughter they are seriously ill because they don’t want to bother her.  Lars tells Farmer at one point, “Things get worse in such small increments you can get used to anything.”

Farmer’s parent live in a bad neighborhood in southern Los Angeles.  They experience the 1992 L.A. riots as shut-ins, her mother not being able to leave the couch.  Farmer’s father can see the flames from their front door.  Their house is in disrepair, and like most elderly couples, they get to a point where they just can’t keep up with the cooking and cleaning.  Farmer regularly visits to clean the house, shop for groceries, and learn about her parents’ lives; but it is too much for one person to do part-time.  She hints throughout the years that they need assisted living, but both of her parents refuse until it is no longer an option.  In fact, her father makes her promise that he will be able to die in his own house.

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Anyone who has cared for a loved one in that last season of life, or witnessed their parents care for their grandparents, will attest to the heartbreaking truth about the human condition Farmer has captured in pen. This book, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus,  will likely become a classic in the graphic novel medium for its artistic craftsmanship and emotional power.

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The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman

The_Sandman_-_Endless_Nights_c02This is the first The Sandman that I’ve read, and it was obvious that this is not the place to start.  I imagine that you have to already know these characters and their stories to get much out of this.  Each vignette focuses on one of the Endless, who are evidently some mix of mythological god-like incarnations of human emotions… or something. There is not a lot of explanation for anyone new to the series.  Some of the vignettes are stories.  Some are fragmented portraits of that specific character.  I thought the stories were weak, but that could be because I came into the book knowing nothing about the characters.

The artwork, on the other hand, made it a worthwhile read.  I particularly enjoyed the artwork in “Fifteen Portraits of Despair”   by Barron Storey and, of course, “Delirium Going Inside” with art by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Storey’s portraits of Despair are fragmented and bizarre, capturing the terror and hopelessness that accompanies despair.

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Sienkiewicz is a personal favorite.  Delirium actually has a story, but I couldn’t make much sense of it.  Maybe that’s the point, seeing that it is Delirium, but I got the feeling that there is a back story that I didn’t know that would have explained it.  However, Sienkiewicz’s collage and watercolor style is brilliant as always.

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Palestine by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is one of a very unique and rare breed of journalist and war correspondent.  He reports in comics- longish, book-length comics.  His research is scrupulous, and he is painfully honest about his intentions and subjectivity to the subject.   He’s also a little self-deprecating, which is refreshing coming from a war correspondent these days.

Palestine is the result of Sacco’s trip to the West Bank and Gaza strip in the early 1990s during the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation).  It was first published in a series of 9 comics in 1993 and then collected in paperback form in 2001.  Palestine is generally considered groundbreaking for its form and subject.

The book chronologically follows Sacco’s arrival  in Cairo to his departure.  For context, he occasionally provides flashbacks to historical events, the Gulf War, and the beginning of the intifada.  But for the most part he provides story after story and scene after scene of desolate conditions and broken lives in the Palestinian refugee towns.

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The 2001 edition I have has an excellent introduction by Edward Said, which I will liberally quote from rather than bore you with my drivel.  Said writes:

In Joe Sacco’s world there are no smooth-talking announcers and presenters, no unctuous narrative of Israeli triumphs, democracy, achievements, no assumed and re-confirmed representations — all of them disconnected from any historical or social source, from any lived reality — of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis.  What we get instead is seen through the eyes and persona of a modest-looking ubiquitous crew-cut young America man who appears to have wandered into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world of military occupation, arbitrary arrest, harrowing experiences of houses demolished and land expropriated, torture (“moderate physical pressure”) and sheer brute force generously, if cruelly, applied (e.g., an Israeli soldier refusing to let people through a roadblock on the West Bank because, he says, revealing enormous, threatening set of teeth, of  THIS, the M-16 rifle he brandishes) at whose mercy Palestinians live on a daily, indeed hourly basis.

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My only problem with the book is that the avalanche of wasteland-like refugee towns and Kafkaesque stories of torture being told over endless cups of tea in small living rooms packed with people showing their wounds all run together.  Even Sacco says that he has “heard this all before” at one point, and that is roughly halfway through the book.  I felt like I never really got to know any of the Palestinian characters.  They all seemed like the same character with that same broken-spirit expression, except maybe the woman in the segment “The Tough and The Dead.” I liked her.  I think the character issue is just a problem of sheer mass of information.  And of course that’s my opinion.  I could be totally wrong.

Even with that one fault, it is a great work of nonfiction, and I don’t know of anything like it dealing with this subject.   Said writes in his introduction:

…his comics about Palestine furnish his readers with a long enough sojourn among a people whose suffering and unjust fate have been scanted for far too long and with too little humanitarian and political attention.  Sacco’s art has the power to detain us, to keep us from impatiently wandering off in order to follow a catch-phrase or a lamentably predictable narrative of triumph and fulfillment.

I’ll leave you with that.

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Godspeed: The Kurt Cobain Graphic by Barnaby Legg, Jim McCarthy, and Flameboy


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Wow, where do I begin?  I couldn’t resist the novelty of this, but I feel a little dirty after having read it.  This is pretty much a fairy tale, not a biography.  I don’t think the authors had any intention of writing a realistic biography, but how do you write a “fictional biography” (as a graphic novel no less) about someone like Kurt Cobain?  I don’t know.

The book is told from Kurt’s first person perspective looking back on his life after he has committed suicide.  Obviously from the very beginning, liberties are taken imagining what Kurt might have to say and what he was thinking. The last few days of his life are a mystery and so certainly the authors here are imagining, just as other biographers have imagined, what happened in that time period.

I have read about many of the major scenes in this book in other well-researched biographies.  Other information and dialogue appears to have been taken directly from interviews.  The questionable material is much of Kurt’s inner dialogue and his thinking process.  Since the book is told in the first person from his perspective, that can be a problem for discerning readers.

The artwork is okay, but I think it is hard to capture the grunge scene of the early 90s in glossy comic art.  It was kind of anti-glossy, you know?  The religious symbolism- Kurt with halos, Kurt with a crown of thorns, Kurt at the last supper/drug intervention- is ridiculous and only serves to perpetuate the rock icon myth, which he loved and despised at the same time.  The man was mentally ill and self medicated with heroin.  He was a brilliant songwriter and musician, but he was not sacrificing himself and he certainly wasn’t innocent.

All in all I see this being something teenagers, who don’t know the facts, would like.  It’s all about the fairy tale rock-star-rebel-hero myth, which angst ridden teens eat up.  I know because I used to be one of those angst ridden teens, and I was coming-of-age when Nirvana exploded.  Looking back, the music has weathered well.  It’s still brilliant.  All of the rest, well… I guess I’m getting old.

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Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner


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I know some will think I’m committing heresy when I say I did not like this nonfiction graphic novel.  I imagine some of my dislike is due to the fact that I’m also reading So Much For That by Lionel Shriver, which also details a character’s battle with cancer and how it affects her care-giver.  So Much For That (fiction)is just a phenomenal book on all levels. I know the supposed beauty of Harvey Pekar’s writing is the simplicity, but when I read it in conjunction with Shriver’s book, it just made Our Cancer Year seem flat, amateurish, and poorly written.

Pekar and Brabner’s account of Harvey’s battle with lymphoma is poignant enough, but it takes some time to get to Harvey even going to the doctor.  The first quarter of the book is all about Joyce’s friends and dealings with the international peace movement, which seems completely disjointed and… well, self-centered.  Characters just appear and the reader is supposed to care about them because Joyce tells us in a few panels that they have had tough lives and are good people.  We get brief updates on these characters through the book, but again it’s like someone telling you about a friend of a friend who you don’t know… while the main character (and her husband) is writhing on the floor from chemo treatments.  And essentially, it all comes across as part of Joyce’s political agenda, which really should have been a completely unrelated book.  SPOILER ALERT: These people, who we really don’t know, come to visit at the end and it helps “heal” Harvey’s depression.  I imagine learning that he beat the cancer has something to do with it.

The dialogue and inner-dialogue throughout seems very, very simplistic and unrealistic.  There are parts where I felt like I was watching that scene in all CSI episodes where they over-explain everything they’re doing so everyone with a fifth grade education can understand it.  It just doesn’t work well in literature, which is disappointing because Pekar is a literature lover.

I wanted to like the book because I have heard so many times that it is a classic, but I just couldn’t get past what seemed like poor writing to me.  I have not read any of the American Splendor series, so I have no way of telling how much of this book is Pekar’s writing and how much is Brabner’s, whose character I didn’t care for.  I saw the movie adaptation when it came out years ago, but honestly the only thing I remember is that Robert Crumb was Pekar’s friend.  Maybe watching it again would give me a better appreciation for the graphic novel.

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Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

Maus

I read the first volume of Maus by Art Spiegelman several years ago.  It is a classic in the graphic novel medium, and I felt I didn’t need to add much to the plethora of reviews and praises out there in Internet land with my amateur musings.  The book is part of college English and history curricula now.  But honestly, now that I have read the second volume, I think Maus II is the better book. I think the two volumes are now technically considered to be one book, but volume two was published in 1991, five years after volume one.  The collection won the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992.

A lot has been said about the book’s value as a Holocaust narrative, and how it illuminates the cost war has on families generations later.  The second volume picks up the story of Spiegelman’s parents as they enter Auschwitz and are separated. Spiegelman’s father recounts his time in the prison camp and his eventual release. I think what really makes Maus interesting is how Spielgelman weaves together his father’s Auschwitz narrative, his own difficult relationship with his father, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it all by writing the book. I have seen it mentioned many places, and it is true: the last page of volume two is heartbreaking.

There are still many who don’t give the same weight to good graphic novels as they do to traditional literature. I have to stress that Maus is not just a graphic novel or comic book.  This is literature, deep and wide and heavy.  If you have never read a graphic novel, do yourself a favor.  Pick up both volumes of Maus and read them.  I guarantee you will have a new appreciation for the medium.  You can find Maus II here.

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A Small Killing by Alan Moore & Oscar Zarate

Small-Killing-00fcA Small Killing surprised me.  I thought I had this thing figured out about halfway through the book, and lo and behold, the end adds whole new levels.  Alan Moore called this a “deeply personal” story.  If you are looking for people in tights, conspiracies, and social commentary, this isn’t the book for you.  There are no explosions.  It is a relatively quiet book.  The story is built around introspection and is one of the more literary graphic novels I’ve read.  Younger readers tend to translate that to mean “boring,” but it was nice to read a graphic novel that didn’t rely on pure action to drive the story.

The story follows ad-man Timothy Hole (pronounced “Holly”) as he returns to his childhood home in midland England.  He is working on an ad for a huge account selling a diet soda in Cold War-era Russia, but he is struggling.  Tim’s mind wanders through his past and the mistakes he has made. He once wanted to be an artist, but he is now middle-aged and a part of the system he once hated.  On top of everything else, he thinks a young boy is following him, and perhaps, trying to kill him.

There is a disorienting tension that builds throughout the book, and parts of Tim’s inner dialogue are in a stream-of-consciousness style, which adds to the sense that Tim is losing his mind. Oscar Zarate’s dream-like artwork also adds to the overall tension.  The other characters often have a Rocky Horror Picture Show look to them.  Several panels depict passersby with dummy heads with no faces.  In scenes with large crowds, I was reminded of the scene in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where the people at the bar turn into blood drinking lizards.  And this all hinges on Tim’s inner crisis.

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As Tim gets closer to his childhood home, his memories also return to his childhood.  Overall, the book is about the loss of innocence and the compromises we make.   And I’m sure this will sound politically incorrect, but I think the reader would have to be at least thirty-years-old to really feel what Moore is getting at with Timothy Hole.  The book is about regret and guilt and how we end up places we never wanted to be. I’m sure younger readers will understand the concept, but they might shrug their shoulders and say, “So what.”  Reading it as a thirty-something, I get why Moore said this was a personal book.

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Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics

I was sixty pages into Understanding Comics when I realized it had already earned a spot  in my top-ten favorite nonfiction books.  Don’t ask me what the other nine are because I had never thought about my top-ten favorite nonfiction books until that moment.  I just know that Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is one of them.  This is a graphic novel about the theory, history, and art of comic books.  What hooked me though was McCloud’s presentation of how the human mind handles images and language, and he does it within the comic format.  It is nothing short of genius.

McCloud begins the book trying to answer the question “what is comics?”  The definition he comes up with is “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He goes on to examine that definition by looking at how comics have evolved through human history, from the Aztecs to the 1400s to modern day.  What we often consider to be a childish form of entertainment today is a form of communication that seems to have been natural to humans since our beginning. And McCloud argues that comics are a legitimate art form that has largely gone unstudied.

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It is chapter two that begins to look deeper into how images affect us.  I found it fascinating, and like I said, by chapter three I was hooked.  McCloud’s theories are not really new.  Marshall McLuhan, Will Eisner, Neil Postman, and others have written about how media affects us, but McCloud’s presentation makes all the difference for me.  What’s Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying?  The medium is the message?

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McCloud goes into the theory, the nuts and bolts if you will, of comics making- panel arrangement, the different types of transitions, the style of art, time, line, and color.   What keeps all of this accessible to those of us who aren’t artists is the fact that McCloud always brings it back to how the reader is a participant in all of this.  A discussion on how time is handled in comics didn’t mean much to me until I saw how I create the time and motion from the ink on the paper.

Another recurring theme is how all of this is a relatively new art form in terms of being examined and pushed to its limits.  Novels, poetry, music, art- virtually everything that could be done has been done.  McCloud argues that comics still have a lot of unexplored territory.  He touches on how some artists and writers have experimented with the aforementioned aspects of comics, like time and color. He encourages new writers and artists to do more.

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I would have loved to have used this book when I taught High School English.  I’m sure it would have saved the lives of some of the gang members I taught.  As an English major, I feel slightly cheated that this wasn’t in the curriculum.  It should be required reading in College English classes, but as McCloud states, new art forms are judged by their predecessors.  Any study of language, art, and what it means to humans would greatly benefit from Understanding Comics.  Am I laying it on too thick?  I can’t say enough good things about his book.  Art Spiegelman, author of Maus,  writes this:

Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple-looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comix while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art, and the Cosmos! The most intelligent comix I’ve seen in a long time.

The Cosmos, people.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  Check out Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art here.

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Ruins by Warren Ellis

I recently read Marvels by Kurt Busiek and was impressed with the originality of the story and the art.  I was asked if I had read Ruins by Warren Ellis, which is evidently the sequel but in an alternate universe.  Ruins is comprised of two books:  “Men On Fire” and “Women In Flight.”  Like Marvels, Ruins follows photojournalist Phil Sheldon, who is again trying to write a book about super heroes.  In this alternate timeline, instead of documenting super heroes being super, he is trying to make sense of a nightmare world.  The book opens:

For every kiss, a bullet in the face.

For every action, a reaction.

For every event, there exists in potential,
A mirror event, an exactly opposite possibility.

If the world you know is one of Marvels,
Where heroic women walk invisibly through horror,
And men of fire ride the upper reaches of the air…

…Then only a misstep or a stopped heartbeat away,
Is a world of Ruins.

Ominous stuff.  And for good reason, I guess. This book is very, very dark.  How things get to this point is not quite clear.  Phil Sheldon has a premonition that something good could have come of all these “paranormal” stories, but instead it has gone terribly wrong.  He is dying and racing against the clock to make sense of it all and finish his book.

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The story is very fragmented and abstract, jumping from place to place as Sheldon visits the surviving heroes and witnesses.  We know there has been a war, that the national guard has killed at least most, if not all, of The Avengers. Professor X has somehow become President (I’m assuming by using his mental powers) and has become evil and reclusive.  A lot of the X-Men are mutilated and imprisoned. the Fantastic Four never survived their trip into space. Ellis systematically goes through the list of heroes and shows their bizarre and horrific fates with little to know explanation.  Things just didn’t work out.  It’s not a nice world.

Cliff and Terese Nielsen handle the art in book one, and Chris Moeller joins them in book 2.  The watercolors are well done and give the books a dreamy feel to compliment the nightmare quality of the story. The images are often shocking and gruesome. It is definitely not one for the kiddies. I guess Moeller takes over about halfway through book two, because the style changes.  I find that a little annoying.   His colors are brighter, which I think changes the feel that has been established up to that point.

There is a strange two page sequence in book two where Phil is all of a sudden beside a lake. It seems like a dream sequence, but again, there is no explanation given.  The grass is green; the colors are bright.  It is a drastic change from the grays and browns that permeate the books.  Phil muses, “These people, these paranormal ruins of men– They were dropped on the world like a stone. Their shockwaves have touched all edges of my world.”  He compares this to dropping a stone in the lake and waves slowly making their way to all the shores to make sure we understand the metaphor and theme.  A little girl walks up and asks if he is lonely and invites him to a picnic.


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That scene sums up the major differences between Ruins and Marvels for me.  Busiek’s story was very structured.  It flowed through different historical periods, illustrating people’s varying responses to the heroes.  The themes were subtly woven throughout narrative.  It stood on its own.  Ruins, like the  previously mentioned scene by the lake,  is very scattered and random.  The structure emulates the confusion and panic Sheldon feels, but without any background or orienting narrative, it can’t stand on its own.  And in order to link it all together with a theme, Ellis has to be heavy-handed (ie- stone thrown in lake metaphor).  It was okay because I had already read Marvels and understood what point Ellis has making, but without that reference I’m not sure it would make much sense.  I felt the writing just wasn’t on par with Marvels.


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