On the Graphic Novel by Santiago Garcia

On the Graphic Novel

On the Graphic Novel by Santiago Garcia  is a scholarly, in-depth look at the history of graphic novels.  It’s a hefty book, coming in at over 300 pages, but it’s so worth it. Garcia not only covers the history of sequential art, but the evolution of the form.  If you have more than a passing interest in comics, this is a great education.

There are a lot of great quotes from writers and artist in On the Graphic Novel. Perhaps the best place to start is with Garcia explaining what he intended with this book:

And this is the question that this book answers: not what comics are, not what the graphic novel is, but rather what the meaning of comics for us was, what it is now, what different functions comics have performed in our society and culture, and how the idea of the graphic novel is related to that.

Garcia starts with a discussion on the definition of graphic novel and comics.  Eddie Campbell says, “It’s undeniable that there is a new concept of what a comic is and what a comic can be and what it can do that has arrived in the past 30 years.”  This discussion takes us into the complex ambiguity of comics, their history, and their weird place in our culture.

On the Graphic NovelOn the Graphic Novel

Historically, Garcia begins with illustrations in the 18th and 19th centuries and walks us through to the 2000s.  He covers all the important artists, characters, and evolutions in format and style. On the Graphic Novel discusses the golden age of superhero comics, but more importantly studies the non-superhero comics of the time.  Romance, crime, humor, and horror comics lead the way for the modern graphic novel. All of the great contemporary books are discussed—Maus, Blankets, Black Hole, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, et al.

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Garcia also discusses MAD Magazine, Raw, and Heavy Metal.  Perhaps my favorite section of the book dealt with the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s.  That era has always intrigued me.  On a side note, if you have never seen the documentary Crumb, you need to check it out.

On the Graphic Novel is worth the read for anyone interested in the workings of comics and the modern graphic novel.  It’s a little pricy, but I think the weighty content will give you your money’s worth.

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White Collar: A Novel in Linocuts

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White Collar: A Novel in Linocuts by Giacomo Patri is a striking work of art.  This is a great example of an early graphic novel. Patri originally self-published the book in true DIY style in the late 1930s.  The novel depicts the trials of an advertising illustrator and his family in the years following the Great Depression.
The story begins in 1929 when the illustrator is gainfully employed.  He seems to look down on or at least ignore the struggling blue collar workers he passes on his commute.  He is the proverbial company man.  Then the stock market crashes. He loses his job, and we see his family’s journey on the downward spiral. White collar is obviously socialist labor movement propaganda; however, the simple truths it embodies are profound.
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Like a silent movie, the novel has no dialogue or traditional narration panels. Patri sparingly uses words on books, bills, and signs to give clues of the action taking place. He captures a remarkable amount of emotion in the stark black and white of the linocuts. The interactions between the illustrator and his wife are particularly painful.  As a graphic novel, this is a early example of illustration being used to deliver a long-form story with serious content meant for adults.
White Collar: A Novel in LinocutsWhite Collar: A Novel in Linocuts
The original copies hand made by Patri are difficult to find and very expensive.  Luckily, Dover Graphic Novels has recently published affordable versions in hardcover and paperback. It’s a very nice piece of graphic novel history.

 

 

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Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire

lost dogs coverTop Shelf Productions published a remastered version of Jeff Lemire’s Lost Dogs in June 2012.  Chris Ross re-lettered the book and helped Lemire repackage it.  This is a powerful short story of a graphic novel using three colors and a brush.

Timothy Callahan reflects in his introduction on the first time he saw the Lost Dogs at a comic show.  He walked away without buying it.  He writes:

And before long, I returned.  The glimpses of imagery haunted me through the rest of the day at the MoCCA art festival.  Before I left for home, I stopped at Lemire’s booth and bought a copy of Lost Dogs, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (at a comic book show, at least).

That’s the kind of book Lost Dogs is.  It’s haunting, and it sticks with you. If you’re familiar with Lemire’s work, you will not be disappointed. Lost Dogs is his first work, and he is finding his style and voice. You’ll see how his work has evolved and become more refined without losing any of the power or rawness.

I came to the book from Lemire’s most recent graphic novel, The Underwater Welder.  The artwork in Lost Dogs is certainly rawer, but the power of the story and even some underlying themes remain the same.  The book has Lemire’s signature full page panels that stun you with their ability to capture crucial story elements.  I just linger on those pages.  And the text is kept to the bare essentials. Not one word is unnecessary.

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Callahan’s introduction really captures the work well:

Lost Dogs is rough, it is raw as hell, but it’s rough like a bareknuckle fist fight and raw like a rusty knife into your gut.  Lemire’s artistic style has tightened up since he first worked on this book, but the grammar, the fundamental storytelling elements, remain the same as what you might see in the Essex County comics, or in his work for Vertigo.  He’s a true cartoonist, in the sense that his words and his pictures flow from the same source.

If you’re a Jeff Lemire fan, do yourself a favor and pick this up.  You’ll read it through it one sitting and then want to read it again.

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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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Lucille by Ludovic Debeurme

lucille-coverThe art in Lucille consists of sparse, mostly black and white line drawings, and the subject matter deals with anorexia, alcoholism, dysfunctional father-son relationships, and OCD.  Heavy topics for a graphic novel, but that’s the beauty of the medium.  It can handle anything.  The book clocks in at over 500 pages and is just part one in a series.  It’s unique, to say the least, but well worth the read.

The book focuses on Lucille and Arthur, who are both coming-of-age.  After being sheltered by her mother and ignored by her peers, Lucille becomes hermetic and anorexic.  Arthur, who has OCD, grows up with an alcoholic father who he often has to escort home from the bar.  As with all awkward adolescent suffering, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for the two, until they meet each other.

Ludovic Debeurme excels at capturing the intimate thoughts of these characters in their flashbacks, dreams, and internal dialogues.  Lucille wants to become light and fly away, “Slender as a thread,” she says.  The bare line drawings support Lucille’s aching desire to shed all excess weight and get to the core of being.  Debeurme does not use the typical comic panel format. The scenes flow seamlessly on the page, which works especially well in the dream like sequences.

I didn’t feel that Lucille’s character was the most interesting in the book, because the reasoning behind her anorexia has sadly become so commonplace.  Arthur’s dysfunctional family and his relationship with his father are developed much more in depth.  Arthur goes from being the stereotypical dark and awkward misfit, to having to take on his father’s role within the family, including taking on his father’s name.  Arthur continuously struggles to escape his father’s shadow, and Lucille becomes the only beautiful thing in his life.

The book (part one) ends with a suggestion that Lucille will develop much more in the next part.  The book won several international comic prizes in its original French, and Debeurme is well respected in Europe.  Lucille should bring him to the attention of U.S. readers, especially those who enjoyed Blankets by Craig Thompson and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.  Topshelf will publish the English translation in July, 2011.

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X’ed Out by Charles Burns

Xed-Out-01POSSIBLE SPOILERS

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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