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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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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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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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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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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Book Review: 5° and Other Poems by Nicholas Christopher

five degrees and other poems is a poem of thirty-five interlocking parts that combines a seemingly strange set of images and subjects to form a whole.  The poem takes place in a mysterious city in which it is 5°.  The subjects seem totally disconnected- Houdini; John Dee, English mystic and mathematician; Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh; Nazi occupation; Persephone and the underworld; and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Each poem could stand on its own, but when read in sequence the images of iron, exploration, nightingales, ice, stars, coins, and angels begin to connect the poems intimately.  There are allegorical and fantastical elements, but I’ll leave that to the individual reader.  Christopher’s writing is very accessible, which is a way of saying that he doesn’t write holier-than-thou-snotty-abstract poems that take a PhD in literature to “understand.”  At the same time, he is an inventive and skilled poet.  5° is an enjoyable read that sparks the imagination.

The book also includes twenty-five lyrical and narrative poems, including one of my favorites, “Terminus.”  These poems range from the reflective coming-of-age poem “The Quiñero Sisters” to a reflection on the Los Angeles riots in 1992 in “May Day, 1992.”   “The Palm Reader” gives the reader a glimpse into the all-too-human life of a – wait for it – palm reader. Her husband, drinking a beer, serves lunch to the kids in the living room on paper plates. Several of these poems also contain mystical elements, which seem to be a favorite of Christopher’s.  “Your Father’s Ghost” contains a taxi driver with one are, one eye, and one ear.  The car only has wheels on one side.  In “Bees,” each of the five stanzas give a short magical quality of bees, ending with Cellini’s statue of Medusa with bees for hair instead of snakes.  The statue emitted a low hum.  These poems are intelligent and well-crafted; every reader can find something valuable that he or she can take away from this collection.

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Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

If stitchesyou have ever questioned whether graphic novels can be as poignant and powerful as traditional novels or memoirs, Stitches proves that they can. In fact, I don’t think David Small’s memoir could be told as powerfully in any other format.

David’s mother was a “difficult” person to live with, and everyone in the house retreated into their own forms of silence. Tragically and ironically, David is left a virtual mute at the age of fourteen after what he thought would be a simple operation to remove a cyst in his throat. It was cancer, but no one thought he needed to know that. As his family crumbles under his mother’s austere dictatorship and his father’s belief that he gave David the cancer, David finds his voice through art and escapes the mental illness that seems to haunt his mother’s side of the family.

stitches1stitch_01The simple artwork in Stitches captures the mood of the Small family perfectly. Pages will go by without a word, beautifully capturing the silence and agony David was experiencing. It would take pages and pages of text to describe what Small is able to express in a few simply rendered panels.

This is a great graphic novel and memoir. Check it out here.

Another great ARC from ijustfinished.com

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