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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

City of Clowns

Written by Daniel Alarcón
Art by Sheila Alvarado

I picked up the graphic novel adaptation of Daniel Alarcón's short story, City of Clowns.

It is the story of a young man in Lima, Peru, named Oscar, but called Chino.  His father has recently died, which has made it impossible for Chino to hide from the fact that his father had another family.

Chino's mother has become close with her husband's mistress, and has even gone to live there, while Chino feels himself somewhat lost, and prone to wandering the streets of Lima.  He is supposed to be on an assignment, reporting on the ubiquitous clowns that fill the streets, but is largely unable to concentrate.  He ends up posing as a clown himself for a while, while also sharing with the reader his memories of his father and his childhood.

Chino, whose family had come to Lima from a poor mining town, had been given the opportunity to receive a quality education thanks to the kindness of his mother's employer, yet he never quite felt a part of his peer group.  Having to help his father renovate and maintain his peers' homes did not make it any easier (although his inevitable involvement in the robbery of their homes did help salve his wounded ego).

This is a hard story to describe without the benefit of Sheila Alvarado's expressive art.  She lays things out beautifully, and uses the images to enhance the story in a way that is uncommon in literary adaptations.

I'm a big fan of South American writers like Roberto Bolaño, and see some clear parallels between some of his writing, this graphic novel, and the brilliant Daytripper, one of my top five favourite comics, by Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon.  Perhaps it's just because Chino ends up writing his father's obituary, but I thought of that book numerous times while reading this.

I highly recommend this comic.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Think Tank Vol. 1

Written by Matt Hawkins
Art by Rahsan Ekedal

I tend to stay away from Top Cow comics because of some bad experiences in the past, but had heard some good things about Think Tank and thought I should check it out.  This first volume of the series is pretty delightful.

David Loren is a scientist working for the US military.  He was recruited as a child prodigy, alongside his closest friend, and has basically spent his adolescence and early adulthood in a hidden lab, where he has worked to develop some serious next generation weapons.  As he's gotten older, David has begun to feel the guilt of his complicity in mass death, and as such, has begun to rebel a little against the system.

After sneaking out to party, he meets a woman, and then decides that it's time to retire from this job forever.  The problem is that the military doesn't let people with his type of knowledge leave, nor are they too happy to learn that he shared some secrets with this young woman.  David has to use all of his skills to escape, and that leads to a pretty exciting sequence of events.

The tagline on the cover of this book says that reading it will "make you smarter", and while I don't know about that, I can say that Matt Hawkins displays a great deal of intelligence and thoughtful planning in writing this.  David is both a likeable and scorn-worthy character, and it's a little hard to decide to what degree the reader should be on his side.  Rahsan Ekedal is a very skilled artist.  I loved his Echoes with Joshua Hale Fialkov, and am pleased to enjoy this stuff here.

I do have the second volume of this book in my to-read pile, and am looking forward to it, but at the same time, I feel like this volume closes things off perfectly, and that Hawkins could have easily finished the story here and it would all be fine.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Kinski

by Gabriel Hardman

I've been a fan of Gabriel Hardman's work for some time now (I think he first came to my attention when he was drawing Hulk for Greg Pak), and have especially been enjoying his work with his wife Corinna Bechko on Invisible Republic, not to mention their excellent Planet of the Apes and Star Wars: Legacy work.

Kinski is a recent solo outing for Hardman, and it is a hard book to get a read on.  Joe is a guy in town on business when he finds a lost dog, names him Kinski after the actor in a favourite movie of his, and decides to keep him.  When he finds out that Kinski already has a family (and another name), that doesn't stop him from kidnapping the dog, and embarking on a journey that is a very unfunny comedy of errors, costing him his job, friendships, and really, sense of reality.

What's strange about this book, and is the thing that kept bothering me about it, is that Hardman never really explains Joe's motivations.  His friend and co-worker suggests that he has some kind of unresolved childhood issues towards a family pet, but Hardman never makes that clear.  This makes the book a little more unsettling, but also much more effective in its role as a portrait of insanity.

Hardman's art is always nice, but feels a little cleaner and simpler in this book, as if he were using it as a way of escaping the more intricate and planned work of Invisible Republic.  Hardman shows us a part of the US where giant RV tent cities are unremarkable, and where relationships are as precarious as the employment.  I guess it makes sense that Joe wants to have some kind of connection to something loyal, even if it doesn't make sense to anyone else that he would risk his well-being for someone else's perfectly content pet.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Blacksad: A Silent Hell

Written by Juan Díaz Canales
Art by Juanjo Guarnido

I read and loved the first Dark Horse Blacksad graphic novel quite a while ago, and for some reason I've really taken my time in getting around to the second one, A Silent Hell (although the third is already in my to-read pile, so that will come a lot quicker).

Blacksad is a private investigator in a world of anthropomorphic animal people.  In this issue, he's come to 1950s New Orleans with his reporter friend Weekly, and has been hired by a dying jazz label impresario to track down a missing junkie piano player, who the old man loves as a son (and more than his own son).  Very quickly, as this is a fast-moving story, writer Juan Díaz Canales has us immersed in the underbelly of the jazz scene, as the old man's son tries to stop Blacksad, and some very questionable things start happening.

This book is absolutely gorgeous.  Artist Juanjo Guarnido employs a watercolour technique that leads to some truly stunning pages.  He also takes many, many pages to explain his process and show us a variety of sketches and colour treatments he executed to get the book to look this good.  This section would be a real boon to artists just starting out, or ones who are established and want to learn to use watercolours for comics.

I really enjoyed this book, which I devoured in one setting.  It gives us an interesting look at New Orleans and its black and creole cultures, and is a master class in pacing and using flashbacks to structure a story.  The two short stories added on the end are excellent as well.

I know that there are more Blacksad albums in Europe than there have been published in English, and I'm hoping that more of them will be made available to us.

Friday, August 26, 2016

ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times

by Andrew MacLean

I enjoyed Andrew MacLean's Head Lopper, so I decided to pick up his earlier graphic novel, ApocalyptiGirl, when I saw him exhibiting at TCAF this year.

This is a fairly typical post-Apocalypse kind of story.  Aria is on her own, aside from the cat that she found who now travels with her everywhere, searching the ruins of a major city for something.  Her day usually consists of singing the arias that she is named after, and trying to get Gus, a large robot of some sort, working again, while also chasing any signals she happens to pick up.

She's not completely alone in the city though - there are two warring groups, the Blue Stripes and the Gray Beards, who she mostly avoids.

This not being a very long book, it's not long before there's a lot of mayhem going on, as a Stripe finds her makeshift home in the subways, and she has to fight for her survival, just as she finds the thing she's spent years looking for.

MacLean has a refreshingly minimalist approach to his artwork.  The drawings are lush and colourful, and while they are detailed, they are also very stylized.  It was his artistic approach that attracted me to Head Lopper, and it works well here too.  This was a decent read.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Fifth Beatle

Written by Vivek J. Tiwary
Art by Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker

I've never been a big Beatles fan, largely because to me, it's the music of commercials and montages in comedy movies.  That said, I'm always interested in serious graphic novels that examine periods of history, and so I thought it would be good to check The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story out.

Brian Epstein was the Beatles' manager, 'discovering' them in a small bar in Liverpool, and using his industry connections (he managed a large music store) to get them started on the road to superstardom.  This book is his story, mostly focusing on how he balanced his ambition, his hidden homosexuality, and his abuse of prescription medication.

Vivek Tiwary, the writer of this book, is incredibly knowledgeable about the Beatles, and does a great job of keeping Epstein squarely in the middle of this story, resisting the urge to make it be about the members of the band, who largely remain interchangeable and lost in the background, aside from Paul McCartney, who seems to have had a stronger connection with Epstein than the rest did.

Andrew Robinson is one of those artists who I always feel deserve a lot more renown than they get.  He excels at this kind of character-driven story, while also evoking the era beautifully.  The Kyle Baker segment is a cartoonish look at the band's adventures in the Philippines while on tour, and I felt that it kind of disrupted the flow of the whole story.

As a whole, this is a very sensitive and understanding look at the life of a man whose work is remembered much more than his name, and who had to live secretly and unhappily in order to achieve his goals.  It's sad, but also triumphant.

Hip Hop Family Tree 1975-1983 Gift Box

by Ed Piskor

It's surprising that I hadn't read any of Ed Piskor's incredible series before now, considering that I'm almost as much a hip hop head as I am a comics head.  The Gift Box Set contains volumes one and two of Piskor's oversized Hip Hop Family Tree series, as well as a 90s-style ashcan comic about Rob Liefeld.  Despite a pair of excellent FCBD issues that I enjoyed, I waited until now, which with the release of The Get Down on Netflix, is the perfect time to read this comic.

Piskor's set out to tell the entire story of hip hop music and culture in these books, sharing it in short one or two page strips that combine to tell the much larger story.  The first volume begins in 1975 with the earliest forms of hip hop, and this box takes it through to 1983, and the emergence of Run-DMC as a new powerhouse.

Piskor's research and attention to detail is incredible, as is his ability to keep things interesting and coherent, even though the story jumps all over the place without chapter breaks, blending it all together.  This becomes even more complicated when hip hop breaks out of New York and starts to appear in other parts of the country, such as the early LA scene.  I can see how, as the book moves into the late 80s and 90s, this is going to become more and more complex, since each major city developed its own regional variations.

Anyway, this is a great read, and an example of true virtuosic work on Piskor's part.  The design of the book is incredible, and every aspect of it has been clearly thought out and planned meticulously.  I like the way that the pages look like yellowed pages from that era, but when Piskor shows a scene from later, the colouring and design reflects that era (bright and clear for the late 80s, for example).

I also like the fact that, as I read this book, the Internet makes it possible to pull up artifacts from that time, like Blondie's horrendous 'Rapture' video, and to watch Charlie Ahearn's classic film Wild Style on Netflix, since I was really young during the period that Piskor is portraying.  It feels like early hip hop has become popular again (see The Get Down to see what I mean), and I wonder if Piskor has had something to do with that.

Reading all of this, I am left with one burning question though, and that's my desire to know just what it is that Piskor has against Russell Simmons.  He's really not kind to the man...

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Absence

by Martin Stiff

I grabbed the hardcover of The Absence, which was originally a six-issue self-published series that ran from 2008 to 2013, on a whim.  The art didn't particularly appeal to me, but there was something that grabbed me when I flipped through it.

The story is set in a small English village on the channel coast, starting in 1946, when a storm starts ripping apart a cliffside church, and the local priest has to decide which is better, continued existence in the village, or being dashed to the rocks below.  His choice gives us the sense that maybe thingsaren't so great in this town.

The story really begins as Marwood Clay, the only local boy to survive the war, returns home.  No one is very pleased to see Marwood - there was some sort of scandal before he left, and the town basically considers him a murderer, although we have to read almost the entire book before we can find out why.

Somehow, during the war, Marwood had his lips and the skin around them ripped off his face, leaving him a ghastly sight, which probably doesn't make it any easier to relate to for both the villagers and the reader.  We learn that there is someone else new in town as well, a Dr. Temple, who has brought a small army of workmen with him to construct a bizarre house to very exacting specifications.

As this is the type of English village that doesn't react well to change, no one is particularly happy about anything for the first chunk of this book, and the questions start to pile up.  What did Marwood do that makes everyone hate him so much?  Why does only one girl, Helen, seem to feel differently about him?  What is Dr. Temple's true purpose in building this strange home, and why is so exact about its measurements?  Who is the old man who keeps trying to get in contact with him?  What did Temple do during the war?  Why does he seem to be able to predict random events with such accuracy?  Why do people in the village keep disappearing, including the young boy who tries to befriend Marwood?

Stiff packs a lot into this story, and while parts of it feel very improbable, it is a deeply satisfying read.  I enjoyed the look at life in an English village, but found myself becoming more and more intrigued by the work that Temple was doing (although I never understood it).  His art is kind of rough and sketchy, but it tells the story well, and helps to preserve an idea about a way of life that is pretty much gone.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Tiger Lung

by Simon Roy

I'd read the first story in this hardcover when it was serialized in Dark Horse Presents, but didn't realize that there were two more Tiger Lung stories in the book.

Simon Roy is a very interesting creator, whose work I've been following ever since I bought a copy of Jan's Atomic Heart from him (or maybe it was Ed Brisson) at TCAF in 2009.  He stood out as a strong emerging artist, and confirmed that as he went on to work on Prophet with Brandon Graham, and has just completed an excellent story, Habitat in Island, the amazing anthology that Graham edits.

Tiger Lung is set in the Paleolithic era, and centres on a shaman who works to set his father's spirit to rest, to rescue a girl from hyenas, and to rescue another woman from a malevolent spirit.

Roy's put a lot of thought into what people and their tools would have looked like, but more than that, he's worked to recreate the thought patterns and beliefs of these primitive, yet still complicated, people.

This is a very nicely put together volume.  The map at the end of the book suggests that there might be more Tiger Lung stories to come (six more, according to the legend), and I hope that's something we see soon.  Actually, I'm equally okay with Roy going on to create yet another world on the scale of Habitat too; whatever this guy does, I'm going to follow him to it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Squidder

by Ben Templesmith

I've been a fan of Ben Templesmith's art since he worked with Warren Ellis on Fell (or perhaps sooner, but I can't think of what that would have been), so I was curious to see what the results of his Kickstarter campaign were.  Never one to hide from the weird in the world, Templesmith created the world of The Squidder, and it is a pretty different one at that.

The future of the Squidder is one where the Earth has been taken over by squid-creatures from another dimension.  After years of rule and some weird genetic stuff, humanity is on its last legs.  Our hero, who never gets a name past Squidder, I don't think, is an augmented human, the last survivor of a push to get rid of the invaders.  Many years later, he ekes out a quiet, secretive existence, until the usual stuff happens, and he gets dragged back into the conflict.

I like this story, but I feel like it could have used some more time or space to develop.  I didn't feel like I knew the main character until the back half of the book, and much of what is going on can feel pretty obscure.  At the same time, I appreciate that Templesmith put a great deal of philosophy into this story (it can be read as a fight between collective action and individual thought), and of course, the artwork is phenomenal.  We don't see enough from Templesmith these days...

Ramshackle

by Alison McCreesh

The myth of the North plays big in Canadian consciousness and literature, and it is this curiosity about Northernness, coupled with the fascinatingly detailed watercolour that makes up the cover, that had Ramshackle: A Yellowknife Story calling to me from a table at TCAF.

Alison McCreesh has collected her various comics strips, drawings, and ideas about her and her boyfriend's summer visit to Yellowknife a few years ago.  The pair, freshly graduated and unhurried about settling down, by a beater of a soccer mom minivan, and drive it from Quebec to the Northwest Territories (clear across the country/continent, for the less geographically-inclined), before spending most of a summer living in it in an abandoned field.

McCreesh fits nicely in the Canadian tradition of honest comic memoirists, giving us a clear portrayal of the downsides of her adventure as well as sharing the beauty of the land and the people who live there.  She alternates between grey tone illustrations and rich watercolours, and gives a strong sense of place to this book.

As much as I enjoyed reading about Alison's experiences, I found that I really gravitated towards the parts of the book that dealt with the way in which Yellowknifers have constructed their day-to-day existence in a city just below the Arctic Circle.  Details about the inability to construct sewage or water pipes on solid bedrock, and the subsequent system that has developed around 'honeybuckets' - pails used to collect washroom waste which homeowners have to take to a disposal site themselves, fascinate me.  Likewise, I was very interested to learn about the informal community called the Woodlot, a group of quasi-legal shacks that have become the nexus for a very special part of the city.

McCreesh has done some very good work in this book, which entertained me as much as it informed me.  Recommended.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

In Search of Charley Butters

by Zach Worton

I really enjoyed The Disappearance of Charley Butters a year ago, so I was looking forward to getting The Search for Charley Butters. Charley Butters was an obscure and unknown artist who went off to live alone in a shack in the woods in the 1960s and was never seen again.  Travis and his friends (I use that word loosely) discovered the cabin in the first book, and Travis became a little obsessed with Butters's journals.

This book opens a year later, and Travis is not in a good place.  He was squeezed out of the documentary about Butters that his friend Stuart made, his girl left him, and he started spending way too much time drinking and venting to strangers.  Travis gets tossed out of a theatre screening the documentary, and his boss forces him to take a short vacation to pull himself together.

Travis creates a scene on Stuart's doorstep, and then heads back to Butters's cabin, where he discovers a few other things about the artist, and finds himself a little refreshed.

This is very much a middle book.  It advances the plot without introducing much in the way of new story elements, instead focusing on Travis's general disintegration.  Travis is not a likeable character, but Worton's storytelling is compelling, and you find yourself rooting for him a little.  Most interesting is the mystery of what happened to Butters, and who is still living in those woods.

Here's hoping that the next volume will be out at next year's TCAF.