All of the books discussed in this column have been out for a while, so long that my colleague Michael C. Lorah has reviewed some of them quite a while ago and you’ve hopefully already read some of these. They’ve been sitting in a small stack in my office even longer than that, waiting for me to review them.
In an attempt to shorten the height of my review pile—and silence the incessant whispers in my head from these particular volumes, saying “Review me, review me, review me”—I decided to just steam through them all as quickly as possible. Each of these works deserve a lot more time, space, thought and quality critical writing then I’m giving there here, but I had to silence the voices, which only grew louder the longer I put off writing about them.
So here are some of my thoughts about Dungeon Quest, The Legacy, Market Day, Temperance and Wilson.
Dungeon Quest Book One (Fantagraphics) I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with top ten lists and other such best of the year rankings, in part because of how arbitrary the unit of time a “year” is and in part because reading comics is such a subjective experience, and my appreciation of them may be influenced by other factors I myself am not aware of.
So I don’t really want to declare this book by Joe Daly, the cartoonist responsible for The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book (one of the best comics of last year…oops! Shouldn’t do that!), one of the best of the year or anything…particularly since it’s only August as I write this.
But I’m quite comfortable declaring that I had more fun reading this book than just about any other comic I’ve read so far this year.
If you’ve read Daly’s Red Monkey book—and you really should have—then you’ll already be pretty familiar with Daly’s style. There’s a sort of Hergé -like mechanical perfection to his artwork; not only is it super-clean and super-crisp, but the panel-to-panel consistency is so strong that his characters sometimes don’t look drawn so much as stamped out by some sort of automatic drawing machine. (Perhaps Daly’s some sort of cyborg? With a big pen and pencil holding, steampunk apparatus for a right arm?)
Unlike Red Monkey, Dungeon Quest is black and white, and in a smaller, squarer format than the bigger, full-color album of his previous Fanta-published work. The panels here all seem bigger and closer too; if a reader watched Red Monkey from a distance, the reader is in the thick of Dungeon Quest.
Chapter One, “The Suburbs of Despair,” opens with the macroencephalic Millennium Boy (that’s a clay sculpture of him on the cover) in his perfectly normal, suburban home, swearing at his homework, the television and his boredom.
“I think I’ll go on an adventure!” he says aloud. “That’s the only antidote to this…mind-numbing mundane existence!” So he opens a chest to put on his “adventure gear” (which is explained to the reader along with M-Boy’s role-playing game stats in one of the occasional panels Daly employs to update us on his characters’ adventure status), and shouts to his off-panel mother, “Okay, mom, I’m going on an adventure! I’ll see you later! If I make it back alive!!!”
In short order he finds the esoteric book The Lands Beyond the Suburbs of Glendale by Platocrates, just lying on the sidewalk, and he builds up his campaign party—Steve, who needs a bit of cajoling (“I look at you and see a weak, de-vitalized man-child in his early thirties who still lives in his parents’ basement because he’s paralyzed by his fear of change…”), the jock Lash Penis, and Nerdgirl, who is a, um, girl.
The volume doesn’t really end up anywhere—this is Book One, after all—and mainly consists of Millennium Boy and Steve walking around town, experiencing a strange hybrid of every day reality and fantasy role-playing game. In one fight (“I’d prefer if you call it a melee, just to be professional,” M-Boy admonishes Steve), they battle what appear to be regular, every day muggers. In the next, they battle “Molelocs,” huge mole-men monsters that rise out of the ground and attack them with clubs.
Much of the comedy, all delivered in matter-of-fact, deadpan style, comes from the simple surreality of Daly’s meshing the common everyday with formal, rule oriented role-playing game fantasy. Interestingly, the characters are doing all this “for real,” but they talk about it as if it were a game, although it’s not all in their heads, it’s in everybody’s.
And, as with Red Monkey, there’s Daly’s superior dialogue writing skills. Steve and Millennium Boy are funny—sometimes on purpose, sometimes not—and it’s a pleasure to walk around with them. Especially since you don’t have to kill anyone or get attacked by Molelocs yourself.
You know how someone went and made a role-playing game based on David Petersen’s Mouse Guard? Someone should totally do that for Dungeon Quest. I haven’t played an RPG since I was a teenager, but I think I’d play a Dungeon Quest one in a heartbeat.
The Legacy (DragonFish Comics) This is a comic for people are already really into comics. Since you’re here reading this, that probably means you.
The premise is a particularly winning one.
Charles Brown (let’s ignore that name for a moment) is the son of one of the country’s most widely-loved and revered comic strip artists, the man responsible for Simple Pleasures, a gag-a-day strip that seems to have content somewhere in the Family Circus/Peanuts/Dennis The Menace ballpark, but looks a bit more like Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes in terms of the artwork.
Chas, as he’s called, likes to draw comics too, but he draws independent, self-published ones. When his elderly father passes on, it falls to Chas to continue Simple Pleasures as a legacy strip, despite the fact that he’d rather do anything but.
So he comes up with a plan, one that doesn’t involve him quitting: He’ll simply turn America’s favorite comic strip into its least favorite comic strip, and get it canceled.
As I said, that’s a pretty great premise, and the book, written by Andrew McGinn and drawn by David Neitzke, is packed with newspaper comics-specific in-jokes, from the pair’s off-brand parody versions of what’s in the funny pages these days to the way comics are made to the general public’s relationship with them.
While there are a lot of pleasures to be taken in the work, including Neitzke’s drawing of the entire narrative in a newspaper comic strip-like style, with four-fingered cartoon characters, the tone is unfortunately erratic, veering so sharply from dramedy to over-the-top absurdity and back again that it makes for an uncomfortable read.
Part of Chas’ plan to get the strip canceled is to fill it with objectionable content, but the content is so objectionable that it beggars belief. McGinn knows comics well enough to know even the slightest change, the slightest hint of salaciousness, will freak out their audience, and he demonstrates this knowledge with repeated gags referring to that very tendency.
But when Chas starts spicing up the strip, he does so by taking it into the sort of territory normally reserved for strips appearing in altweeklies, not dailies. Suddenly it’s approaching Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles/Maakies territory, and disbelief can only be suspended so far before a reader takes displeasure with the fiction asking him or her to do the suspending.
Additionally some of the gags are so eye-rollingly obvious they’re irritating, including the main character’s name, the fact that his family all have the hairstyles of Peanuts characters and the news crawl on faux Fox “Freedom News” (“GOP calls for offshore drilling off coast of Kingdom of Heaven…Uncle Sam asked by shareholders to step down as figurehead” etc.).
So it’s not a perfect work, and if this list of half-assed reviews was a shopping list, I’d put The Legacy on the bottom of it. But, flaws aside, it remains a fairly strong work, and one comics and comic strip enthusiasts will likely get a lot out of.
Market Day (Drawn and Quarterly) James Sturm’s latest is the story of the day in the life of Mendleman, a Jewish man in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Eastern Europe who makes his living by selling beautiful, hand-crafted rugs at market.
That probably doesn’t sound like the most exciting subject matter in the world, or something you as a reader might be able to easily relate to, even when you learn that this is an extremely eventful day in the life of Mendleman, as on this day he discovers the man who used to buy his wares to sell in his shop has retired, leaving his son-in-law in charge, and the son-in-law doesn’t want any rugs.
In fact, as it turns out, the shop-owner was apparently the last person at the market who really appreciated Mendleman’s work.
That’s the surface plot, but Market Day is also a story about nostalgia, and the slow-motion tragedy of changing times. And it’s an extremely effective evocation of the mundane, repetitive, “boring” parts of every day life. And it’s a character study of Mendleman, with a surprisingly suspenseful dramatic arc.
But most striking, to me at least, it captures the process of artistic creation of all kinds—where it comes from, how it works, what good it is exactly—in the form of comics. So while Mendleman may be talking about rug-making, Sturm is talking about comics-making, or music-making, or painting-making, or story-making, or whatever form of -making is closest to the reader.
These sequences are pretty amazing, even transcendental (in terms of the medium and the story being told, not necessarily mystically), and I was quite surprised to see that Sturm was so effectively able to use the comics panel to illustrate how a rug might be made.
But back to the surface level, those familiar with Sturm’s other works won’t be surprised to find how accomplished his cartooning is here. It’s so observant that it is easily used to build up a faraway setting and fill it with unique characters, some of whom only appear for a panel or so, and operates on Sturm’s usual spectrum of abstraction, packed with detail where necessary, nearly devoid of details when they’re unnecessary, and transitioning among those extremes smoothly and effortlessly.
Temperance (Fantagraphics) This amazing, sweeping epic is the work of Cathy Malkasian, an animator whose previous graphic novel was 2007′s Percy Gloom, of which I wasn’t really a fan.
But Temperance seemed like quantum leap forward.
It’s a big book. Well, its page-count is a little under 250, but its subject matter is huge; the story spans decades of time and hundreds of miles of geography, and it deals with no less than war, fear, religion, trust, memory, violence and the mysterious, barely understood ways in which these broad, vague emotions are used to form communities and society, and/or how they can tear them apart.
It’s also a unique book, one that can be extremely difficult to talk about (even for those of us whose specialty is supposedly talking about comics), partly out of fear of spoiling one of the many, many surprises and partly because there’s very little in popular media with which to compare it. I guess, visually, it has a lot in common with Percy Gloom. And there’s something almost Seuss-like in Malkasian’s ability to evoke some of the most serious problems of the real world in an original-to-her, timeless fantasy creation. But that’s about all I’ve got.
The story is that of an insane, angry little man, two girls, a tree and a stranger that seeks to intercede in a conflict involving the first two or three. The angry man builds a strange community, named Blessedbowl, surrounded by a huge wall no one can see over, which everyone save one person in the community believes to actually be a ship sailing the sea, looking for a new country free of all enemies.
Eventually, things go wrong, and an unlikely player, the title character, tries to set them right and, um, I think that’s all I can safely say.
Malkasian’s accomplished artwork all seems to be done in just pencil, making for a gray-and-white story (although there are a few scenes where the gray seems to shift toward a sepia). The tone is therefore a soft, nostalgic feeling one, which makes the spurts of brutal violence all the more shocking, particularly since Malkasian draws them with such force, the figures spreading out and streaking across panels comet-like.
I can’t recommend Temperance highly enough. It’s a book that everyone should read, and then reread.
Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly) Probably the last thing anyone needs to read today is another review of Daniel Clowes’ latest work, as Wilson has probably received more press than any other comic this side of Scott Pilgrim this year. It’s definitely the most-reviewed book of the year, by my not-terribly-scientific method of gauging such things (That is, I can’t think of any graphic novels that have received more coverage and reviews within and without the comics-specific media than Wilson as I type these words).
First, it’s a beautiful thing. Like, as an object. I like the way it feels and smells, and as I turn it over in my hands, I like the way it looks from every angle. Almost all of D and Q’s books are similarly well designed, but I just thought I’d throw this out there, as none of the ten thousand reviews of Wilson I’ve read so far this year have mentioned how nice the paper and ink smells, or that the lettering around the UPC symbol is cool-looking.
The title character is an interesting, even fascinating one. He claims to be a misanthrope, or acts like one anyway, but he clearly loves people, and is constantly going out of his way to strike up conversations with strangers. He has a weird sense of humor, however, and some problems self-editing, so he usually ends up either terribly insulting or otherwise being condescending to the people he engages, most of whom are total strangers. I don’t think it’s necessarily because he’s a grouchy or hates people or is inherently an arrogant prick; I think he’s just an extremely specific character, and specificity is something you want in a protagonist.
The format is that of one-page gag strips, each page being its own, standalone story ending with a punch line (usually a funny one, sometimes not), although the story of the book carries through them all. If you were to compare it to a prose work, I guess it would be as if every page of the prose book were its very own chapter.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talked about how all of the real action in comics being that which occurs in the space between panels, or in the imagination of the reader as he or she scans the panel and fills in the suggestive spaces between the images in the panels. Wilson sometimes sticks whole sections of story in the space between the end of one strip and the start of the next. (For example, one strip opens with Wilson suddenly wearing an orange jump suit and sitting in a prison cell, addressing the reader).
Each strip is done in a different style. Not simply in the degree of realism vs. abstraction, but also in the way Clowes colors them—the lettering of the dialogue is one of the few elements that remains the same from page to page. I’m not sure why Clowes chose to do this. There may be a deep, aesthetic reason, having to do with how people see themselves at different times and/or in opposition to how others see them. I’m glad he did do it though, as I think it looks cool; I don’t really have a favorite style of those Clowes employs here, and I’m glad I got to see them all at once like this.
Maybe Clowes was just showing off. I’m pretty sure that’s what Wilson himself would say.