Sunday, May 21, 2017

Pope Hats #5

by Ethan Rilly

There is no comic more associated in my mind with TCAF - the Toronto Comic Arts Festival - than Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats, a title that I've bought almost every issue of at that annual festival.

This year, I didn't even know that there was going to be a new issue, so I was excited and happy to see a nice shiny stack of the new, 64-page issue at Rilly's table.

This issue returns to Frances and Vickie, the two stars of the series.  Last issue was built around short stories that didn't feature these two characters, so it's been a couple of years since we've seen them.  Vickie is in LA working for a TV show where she plays a crimefighter, and without her, Frances is more disappointed with her job and life than ever before.

Pretty much the entire issue is centred on France's daily grind, working as a law clerk for a powerful (and eccentric) figure at a big corporate law firm.  There is constant office intrigue as people jockey for position and quickly turn on one another.  Rumours of big changes sweep through the office, and Frances's boss offers her a large promotion and position of responsibility, but she's not sure if this is the life that she wants.

Rilly's got a very strong sense of these characters, and it seems like he just allows them to take over the storytelling as needed.  There is little in the way of plotting here, yet I found myself immediately drawn back into the story.  Frances is not someone who finds happiness easily, and Rilly does a terrific job of making that clear here.  Her friendship with Vickie, who is her opposite in so many ways, is what makes this book work.

It was great to revisit these characters, and to see how Rilly has grown as a cartoonist and writer.  I hope we don't have to wait too long for a new issue to come out.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Shadow Hero

Written by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Sonny Liew

I've long been a fan of Gene Luen Yang, Sonny Liew, and the characters of the Golden Age of comics, so The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel that reinvents the mostly forgotten character The Green Turtle was right up my alley.

The Turtle experienced a very short publishing run in 1944, as a comics artist named Chu Hing tried to give America its first Asian hero, although he was coloured as if he were Caucasian, and his face was never shown.  The title didn't last past a handful of issues, but I suppose he made enough of an impression that Yang and Liew decided to revitalize him.

This is the story of Hank, the American-born son of two Chinese immigrants living in the fictional Pacific city San Incendio.  Unknown to everyone, before coming to America, Hank's father agreed to be the host to the Tortoise Spirit, which lived in his shadow.

After a run-in with some bank robbers and the Anchor of Justice, the local superhero, Hank's mother decides that she wants him to become a hero, which she views as better than becoming a meek grocer, like his father.  He's forced into months of training, but his first foray as a hero is a disaster.  Later, he discovers that his father is being mistreated by the local Tong, and that leads Hank on a series of adventures that will establish him as a true hero.

Yang's writing, from his own cartoons like American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, through to his work on DC's New Super-Man is always tight, and his love for his characters and his purpose in writing this book is clear.  He both avoids and embraces some of the racial stereotyping so inherent in the Golden Age, and provides us with a lot of depth.

Sonny Liew, who has most recently worked on Doctor Fate at DC, is a very talented artist (I loved his Malinky Robot comic).  There's a real chemistry between him and Yang in this book.

I would be very happy to see or read more of the Green Turtle's adventures.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Roughneck

by Jeff Lemire

I've been a fan of Jeff Lemire's work since I first read his Essex County trilogy, and I really feel like he's returned to his roots, only as a better cartoonist, with Roughneck, his latest project.

Set in the town of Pimitamon (which means 'crossroad' in Cree), a fictional community in Northern Ontario, Roughneck digs into one man's relationship to his family, childhood, and the source of his anger.

Derek Ouelette played professional hockey for a short time before being kicked out of his league and returning home, where he seems to split his time between working at the same diner where his mother used to work and getting into drunken bar fights with tourists who recognize him.  Derek's world is pretty small - he is friends with the local ranking OPP officer, Ray, and that has kept him out of jail for a while now, and with Al, an older man who lets him live in the janitorial room at the local hockey arena.

Derek's sister, Becky, who he hasn't seen since he originally left town, shows up one day with a black eye, a drug habit, and some other surprises.  This book is, from that point, about the re-establishment of a fractured family.  His story brings in elements familiar to Northern Canadian communities - alcoholism, domestic abuse, opioid addiction, the legacy of the residential school system, and disconnection with traditional ways of living.  At the same time, it also weaves in the importance of connecting with the land, and the strength of familial bonds.

This is a very mature work from Lemire, who I imagine, got the idea while visiting Northern communities in preparation for his (short-lived) run on Justice League United at DC, which featured DC's first Cree superhero.  There is a definite understanding of these communities evident here, but also a strong sense of character that propels the story.

Artistically, this is definitely one of the best things that Lemire has ever done.  His pages and panels are expansive and broad, and he allows the landscape, and the characters' relationship to it, to tell much of the story.  There are a few pages that are quite touching, such as when Al takes Derek hunting for moose, and his use of colour, which is limited to a blue wash with red highlights unless the scene is a flashback, adds much to the comic.

I'm not really sure how I feel about the end of the book, but I also can't say much about that without spoiling the story.  I just feel like it might not have been fully justified, although I did enter Derek's confrontation with Becky's ex with trepidation.

While Lemire has received a lot of attention lately for his Secret Path project with Gord Downie, this is by far the stronger graphic novel, and will likely turn up on many best-of lists at the end of the year.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

High Crimes

Written by Christopher Sebela
Art by Ibrahim Moustafa

I really didn't know what to expect when I started reading High Crimes, the Dark Horse edition of which collects the original online Monkeybrain series by Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa.  My only other exposure to Sebela's work wasn't all that memorable (Welcome Back?  something like that), and I had not heard a whole lot about this book going in.

Well, that's hard to understand, because this was one of the best-written, most suspenseful comics I've read in a long time.  The story is centred around Zan, a former Olympic snowboarder who basically chose to throw her life away, and is now working with a shady associate, Haskell, in the Himalayas, where they recover and repatriate mountain climbers' bodies for money.  When not working at this (or often while), Zan keeps a pretty steady stream of drugs and alcohol, not to mention self-loathing, flowing into her body.

Haskell returns from a trip up Mount Everest with the severed hand (it's too hard to bring the bodies down on spec) of a man Sullivan Mars, who died right beneath the summit of that storied mountain.  When his prints are run, it alerts a secretive US agency, and the plot of the book gets underway.  Zan discovers his journal and some hidden microfilm in Haskell's things, and takes it with her.

When this agency arrives, they force Haskell to take them up the mountain to find the body, while Zan decides that she needs to rescue her friend.

From there, Sebela and Moustafa give us a dense and layered story that explores Zan's character deeply, while making sure that tons of cautious readers will never attempt an expedition up the mountain.  They do an amazing job of capturing the majesty of the setting, and contrasting it with the constraints and difficulties of making a planned climb, let alone the drug-fuelled desperate attempt initiated by Zan.  There is a depth of research on display here that really impressed me, and the images of frozen corpses littering the trail to the summit will stick with me.

I really enjoyed this book, and wish that it had a higher profile.  It's fitting that the foreword to the book is written by Greg Rucka, because the writing here frequently reminded me of his style and intelligence.  I cannot recommend this book enough.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

My Friend Dahmer

by Derf Backderf

I'm sure everyone has seen, after someone shoots up a mall or school, the interviews where their neighbours talk about how quiet and normal they were.  My Friend Dahmer is an exploration of cartoonist Derf Backderf's memories of growing up alongside, and sort of being friends with, notorious serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.

They attended high school together, and Dahmer became a source of obsession and hilarity for Backderf and his friends, who formed a Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club, mostly out of appreciation for his imitation of his mother's cerebral palsy-suffering interior decorator.

Basically, this book is one part memoir of growing up in a boring little place, a faithful reconstruction based on well-sourced interviews, articles, and books, of the troubled childhood of Dahmer, and a very successful attempt to weave the two together.

Dahmer was not a happy kid.  His parents argued a lot.  His mother suffered from untreated mental health issues, including a tendency to have standing seizures.  Dahmer himself, ashamed of his homosexuality, began to fixate on roadkill, weird animal experiments, and necrophilic fantasies, which later informed his choice of victim and murderous methods.

What this book also reveals is the cluelessness of youth, and the callous ways in which teenagers can use and drop people who they feel do not meet their social standing.

I liked this book (really, I'm a sucker for most books with detailed endnotes), and am glad that Backderf didn't rely too much on obvious tropes or reactions to things.  It's slightly disturbing to find how funny some of this stuff really is, but I think that's human nature, which Backderf explores nicely.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Palefire

Written by MK Reed
Art by Farel Dalrymple

Palefire is a very attractive graphic novel that makes for a quick read.  The artist, Farel Dalrymple, is someone I have a lot of respect for, both for his solo work like Pop Gun War and The Wrenchies, and for his collaborations on Omega: The Unknown and Prophet.  I'm not used to seeing him draw such a straight-forward drama story, so I was curious to check this out.

Alison is a pretty typical small-town teenager, who finds herself drawn to Darren, a kid with a reputation for starting fires.  When they attend a party together, Darren gets singled out and angry, and so they end off going into the night together, and Alison gets to discover the truth behind what everyone says about him.

The story is charming, but ultimately kind of slight.  The thing about realistic stories about teenagers is that teenagers are a little boring - especially the ones who just want to party and complain.  I'm not saying that this book is boring, just that the characters are pretty typical, and not all that compelling.

Dalrymple's black and white drawings, however, are lovely, and he brings a lot to the project.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Guerillas Vol. 3

by Brahm Revel

Guerillas started life, at Image, as a semi-regular comic, before it shifted to a graphic novel format at Oni.  The delays between volumes are long, and this Volume three, which came out last May, is the first to contain all-new material.  It took me a while to get around to reading it, but now I remember why I was so enamoured with this project in the first place.

Guerillas is a story set during the Vietnam War, and concerns itself with a platoon of chimpanzees trained to be soldiers in the United States Army.  They've gone rogue, and are continuing the fight on their own, without direction.  Back in the first volume, they rescued a hapless private, Clayton, and taken him under their wing (mostly because he can light their cigarettes).  At the same time, a group of human soldiers, along with the German scientist that trained the chimps, and his trained baboon Adolf, are out in the jungle looking for them.

Where this kind of set-up could easily lead towards a solid comedic series, or feature just a ton of extreme style violence, Revel is approaching the concept directly, and with seriousness.  The chimpanzees, especially the leader, Goliath, have very distinct personalities that come across strongly in Revel's storytelling and drawing.  Revel digs into Goliath's past, and that of another of the squad.  Clayton is also a more multi-faceted character with this volume, as he reflects on his childhood and relationship with his grandfather (who died when he was quite young).  We also get a better look at Dr. Heisler, who started this program with his twin brother.

There is a very Apocalypse Now scene in an old temple to Shiva that really helped demonstrate some of the themes of this series.  I feel that, as Revel works so slowly on this book (mostly, I believe because he has other projects and film work), he really spends a lot of time making it more rich and complex, to the readers' benefit.

I don't know when Revel is going to complete this series, but I do know that it's a title that deserves a lot more recognition.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Atmospherics

Written by Warren Ellis
Painted by Ken Meyer Jr.

I recently came across this limited edition sketch hardcover version of a slim graphic novel by Warren Ellis that was published by Avatar in 2011.  It was pretty inexpensive, and I usually love Ellis's more self-contained work, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

Atmospherics is a strange story.  A woman, Bridget, is the only survivor from the small town of Helen, where everyone else has been horribly mutilated.  The entire story is told from the perspective of a man who is interrogating her in a room somewhere after the events have played out.

The reader learns very early on that nothing is right with the scenario we are seeing.  Bridget claims that aliens cut up the entire town, except for her, but she does not agree with her interrogator around simple issues such as whether she walked or drove out of the town.

As the story unfolds, Bridget is accused of driving over some FBI agents, possibly having a rare, homicidal sensitivity to heroin, and questions arise over whether she is being interviewed in a hospital or police station.

Ellis does his usual thing, shifting the reader's understanding of just what is going on nicely.  The truth, of course, is stranger than anything presented so far.

This is a very quick read, and it works.  Meyer's paintings tell the story nicely, without being too flashy.  I liked it when Avatar used to come out with stuff like this more often.

A Sailor's Story Book Two: Winds, Dreams, and Dragons

by Sam Glanzman

I read the first of Sam Glanzman's A Sailor's Story a while ago, and wanted to see how the second volume compared.

Glanzman served on the USS Stevens during the Second World War, and as such, saw a fair amount of action on the Pacific, including surviving kamikaze attacks.

Like with the first book, Glanzman takes an episodic approach to the war, sharing anecdotes and taking time to teach the reader about the ship's various weaponry.  There aren't really any themes that he explores, and aside from a recurring bit about his difficulty finding a quiet place to sleep under the stars, no real narrative progression.

What the reader does get is a good sense of both the monotony and terror of life on a Destroyer while the War was going on.  Glanzman's art is capable without ever being flashy, and holds the reader's attention.

There are some strange end pages where black and white battle scenes are liberally splashed with flat red ink, that look pretty dated now.  Aside from that, this is a great document.

I know that there is a new publication of both of Glanzman's graphic novels, and I would be curious to see if they have updated the colouring or left the book as it was originally published.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash

by Dave McKean

I've long held an interest in the First World War, and spent a lot of time studying the ways in which it was portrayed in, and shaped, art while I was in university.  I'm not all that familiar with the British artist Paul Nash, however.  Still, the news that Dave McKean, of Sandman, Signal to Noise, Violent Cases, and Cages fame (also he did this book called Arkham Asylum you might have heard of), got me pretty excited.

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash is, first and foremost, an absolutely beautiful book.  McKean takes his usual multi-faceted approach to it, employing a variety of painting and drawing techniques to tell his equally multi-faceted story.

McKean explores Nash's war experiences and mind-state through his dreams, which tend to feature a black dog.  The story jumps around in time and location, leaving the reader to piece together much of it for him or herself.

McKean does a terrific job of capturing the strangeness of the first industrial-scale war.  Nash narrowly avoids sniper bullets in one instance, and in another, is able to have a calm conversation with his brother in a underground bunker while a barrage falls outside them.

Coming away from this book, I'm not sure that I learned a whole lot more about Nash, but my esteem for McKean's art has grown.  This oversized volume is really lovely, and well worth owning.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Blacksad: Amarillo

Written by Juan Díaz Canales
Art by Juanjo Guarnido

The Spanish Blacksadcomics are a real visual treat.  Artist Juanjo Guarnido is absolutely incredible, in the way that he combines a nostalgic eye for mid-twentieth century architecture with incredibly realistic anthropomorphized people.  Each page is a wonder to behold.

In this third Blacksad story, our hero finds himself broke in New Orleans, without enough money to get home.  He refuses a loan from Weekly, who is flying back to New York, and instead lucks into a job driving a car to Texas for a wealthy man.

As Blacksad's story begins to unfold, it crosses paths with that of two beatnik writers, stand-ins for Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who steal the car, setting John on their path.

This story is highly dependent on coincidence, as the FBI agents from the first Blacksad story get in on the chase after Lowell (the Kerouac stand-in) busts up a mailbox, a federal crime.  This tale involves a game of William Tell that leads to actual murder (I love seeing William Burroughs portrayed as a genteel flamingo), another murder at a circus, a laughing hyena lawyer, hidden identities, car chases, and a train scene.

This is a very entertaining read, which is elevated by the power of its art.  I'm not sure if any other Blacksad books have been published in Spain, but if there are more, I hope Dark Horse translates them soon.

Odd note:  I was surprised to see that legendary comics artist Neal Adams is one of the translators for this book.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Divine

Written by Boaz Lavie
Art by Tomer Hanuka and Asaf Hanuka

I remember first seeing this image of Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twelve year old twin leaders of the Karen God's Army, who fought in Myanmar, back in 2000 or so, and immediately wanting to know more about them.  At the time, I thought that their story would make a great movie or something, and never really forgot that picture.  When I first saw the cover of The Divine, a graphic novel by Boaz Lavie and the Hanuka brothers, it immediately reminded me of the earlier image.

The Divine is about a magical version of the Htoo twins, who live in the fictional Asian country of Quanlom.  They don't show up in the first half of the book though.

The story is told from the point of view of Mark, an explosives technician who is also an expecting father.  When a promotion at work doesn't quite work out the way he was hoping, he decides to join a friend in an off-the-books explosives mission in the secretive and war-torn nation of Quanlom.  His friend, Jason, plays the role of the Ugly American quite well, and Mark is not all the comfortable with the way his friend treats the locals who they are working with.

When Mark discovers an injured child who might be endangered by the detonation he's planned, he decides to get him treatment and to accompany him home.  This puts him in contact with Luke and Thomas, the Divine.  They appear to be commanding a small army of child soldiers in the jungle, and we learn that Thomas has great abilities.

The story gets pretty mystical at this point, and becomes more and more gripping as it moves towards its conclusion.  The art, by the Hanuka brothers, is beautiful and often luminous.  I have enjoyed every piece of their work that I've read, and was quite pleased to see them working together on this book again.

This was a pretty impressive comic, and I was especially excited when I got to the backmatter and learned that the same photo of the Htoo brothers that impressed itself upon me almost twenty years ago had the same effect on the creators of this book.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Virgil

Written by Steve Orlando
Art by JD Faith

Steve Orlando first caught my eye with his excellent Image series Undertow, and has since become a bit of a sensation at DC, with his Justice League of America launching soon (although I much prefer his excellent Boom! title Namesake).  I felt like it was time to check out what I think was his debut graphic novel, Virgil.

This is a pretty impressive book.  It's set in Jamaica, and centres on Virgil, a police officer in Kingston who hides the fact that he's gay from everyone in his massively homophobic environment.  He has a boyfriend, Ervan, but they aren't able to spend much time together, and have to live completely in secret.

When Virgil's secret comes out, he is assaulted by his coworkers, and his lover is taken away.  What follows is a pretty bloody revenge story, which Orlando described as pure "queersploitation".
What really makes this book stand out is the way in which Virgil disproves or runs counter to just about every common stereotype we see portrayed in just about every form of media.  I thought that the decision to set this book in Jamaica makes it feel unique, although it also makes it easy for a North American audience to avoid examining its own entrenched and systemic homophobia.  At the same time, it makes the story more vivid and believable.

JD Faith's art works very well with this book, and the entire package is a very satisfying read.  Orlando and Faith are both up-and-coming talents that people need to keep an eye on.  Good stuff.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker

Written by Julian Voloj
Art by Claudia Ahlering

It wasn't all that long ago that I watched Rubble Kings, the excellent documentary about the 70s Bronx street gang the Ghetto Brothers.  It explained the backstory behind the excellent Truth & Soul rerelease of the Ghetto Brothers album, which I enjoyed a great deal.  When I saw this graphic novel, there was no way I could resist it.

This book tells us the story of Benjy Melendez, a co-founder and leader of the street gang which eventually negotiated a truce with all of the other Bronx gangs, and ushered in a short-lived period of relative peace, quiet, and social organization in one of New York's worst neighbourhoods during a time of great upheaval.  For the most part, there's not a lot here that you wouldn't already know from the documentary, except for a couple of facets that shine a little brighter here.

One is the focus, both in the story and in the introduction and backmatter, on how the truce Benjy initiated paved the way for the birth of hiphop.  It's hard to read this now and not think about the Netflix series The Get Down, which is set in the same era.

Another thing that was new to me was the way in which the story focuses, towards the end, on Benjy's learning about his Puerto Rican family's Jewish roots, and how learning about his roots helps centre him and give him direction in life.

The book is narrated from Benjy's perspective, and while writer Julian Voloj did meet with him extensively in preparing to write this story, he does note that there are some places where he altered details to improve the narrative flow, which is unfortunate.  I'd rather be able to trust this as a straight biography.

Claudia Ahlering's drawings are often too cramped to really enjoy, and I wonder if this was originally designed for a European-sized format, and was later shrunk to this version, which is smaller than a standard comic book.  It does make it hard to recognize characters in some places.

This is a decent book that helps bring more light to a fascinating story.  We need more people like Benjy, who are resistant to the narrative that the world wants to write for them, and who puts other people first.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Realist

by Asaf Hanuka

I've been a fan of both Asaf Hanuka and his twin brother Tomer for a while now, but had never read any of his strips done for the Calcalist, an Israeli newspaper.  For a number of years, beginning in 2010, Hanuka provided the paper with a weekly strip, consisting either (typically) of a nine-panel grid or a single splash page (although other formats were used).

The content of these strips, collected in The Realist in English for the first time, is very autobiographical.  Hanuka covers fatherhood, his rather turbulent relationship with his wife, their trips as a couple or a family, and what life is like in Tel Aviv for someone in the creative class.

Of course this book can get pretty political in places, but Hanuka rarely strays from looking at how things affect him.  When politics or conflict creep in, it's because I imagine it touches everything in the country, and is inescapable.  Hanuka is careful to avoid expressing clear opinions on the major issues that Israel faces - its occupation of Palestinian territory, its apartheid policies, or the rise of fundamentalism within Israeli society.  Instead, we see how he goes about his days, and what effect all of these things have on him and his family.

Hanuka's art is beautiful.  He employs a variety of styles here, depending on what kind of short story he's trying to tell, or what point he wants to make, but every page is gorgeous.  It's hard to imagine these pages in a newspaper.

This is an impressive book.