Saturday, February 24, 2018

Genius

Written by Steven T. Seagle
Art by Teddy Kristiansen

Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen are a favourite comics pairing of mine, almost on the same level as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, if not as prolific.  They've worked on some incredible comics together, such as House of Secrets, It's a Bird..., and The Red Diary, but I somehow never learned about Genius, this slim graphic novel that came out in 2013.

Genius is the story of Ted, a theoretical physicist who has gone years without an idea worthy of publication, a prerequisite for him continuing in his job.  At the same time that Ted worries about his employment, things are starting to get out of control at home.  His wife is getting sick, and needs to be able to access his health care.  His teenage son is becoming ever more interested in girls, and his daughter feels more and more out of place.

Ted's father in law, who suffers from dementia, has been holding onto a secret of Albert Einstein's ever since he worked as a guard for the great man after the Second World War.  Ted becomes obsessed with the notion that this knowledge could put his life back on track, but is unsure how he can extract it from the bitter and confused old man.

Seagle and Kristiansen tell a quiet and muted story in this book, aided by Kristiansen's muted colour palette, and his minimalist art.  These characters come alive, and much of the story stuck with me after reading it.  Middle age is portrayed as a reckoning, a coming to terms with the extent of personal limitations, and the story feels very timely in an era where even middle class employment feels as precarious as everyone's health.  It's not a cheerful book, but it is kind of affirming.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Eternal

Written by Ryan K Lindsay and Eric Zawadzki
Art by Eric Zawadzki

Black Mask has become one of the most exciting and interesting publishing house over the last couple of years, and one that is very hard to pin down.  I somehow didn't know that Eternal was coming out, and so its appearance on the shelf at the comic store this week was a nice surprise.

Eternal is a Northern European story in the tradition of Northlanders, Black Road, or Viking.  A small settlement is populated only by women and children after the men left and never returned.  As such, they've become the target of brigands and an evil sorcerer named Bjarte.

Luckily, they are protected by Vif, a shieldmaiden and leader who has honed the women into an effective and aggressive fighting force.  They take the fight to Bjarte, although the consequences of that are not what they were looking for.

The writer of the original story, Ryan K. Lindsay, had envisioned this as a smaller story, but the artist, Eric Zawadzki, of the exceptional Black Mask book The Dregs, expanded the story, adding longer scenes and many rich visual elements, really making the story his own.

And it is because of Zawadzki that you would want to buy this affordable OGN.  He excels at grizzled and dirty characters, and portrays the landscape beautifully.  Dee Cunniffe's colours add so much to this book.

I really liked this comic, and look forward to reading it again and poring over Zawadzki's art.  I would love to see him collaborate with Brian Wood on another book like this again soon.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Americatown

Written by Bradford Winters and Larry Cohen
Art by Daniel Irizarri

It's crazy to think that this terrific graphic novel started being published in the summer of 2015, considering how well it seems to be responding to the events of 2017.

Americatown, written by a couple of TV writers, is about undocumented immigrants from America eking out a life for themselves in Buenos Aires, having to deal with ruthless smugglers, heartless Immigration officers, and an orange-skinned mayor who is staking his reelection campaign on showing "tough love" to people who are in the country illegally.

The story is set in the near future (Bruce Springsteen is a very old man) and, as inequality and climate change have worked hand in hand to erode living standards in the US, many people find they have no choice but to risk their lives to arrive in Argentina, where the lucky ones subsist by working multiple jobs and living in shared apartments.

Owen Carpenter is a new arrival, but he's had some help getting there.  His son has started working for Tonto, an American Native who runs a successful smuggling ring.  While Owen and the people he travelled with are waiting in a safehouse, La Migra raids them, and Owen and his son, Derek, are able to escape, running over an officer in the process.

Derek gets nabbed, and ends up in prison, while Owen tries to figure out how things work in Buenos Aires's Americatown.  He finds jobs and friends who are willing to help him, and puts a plan into action to try to reunite his family.

This book is a very compelling read.  The inversion of having privileged Americans selling hot dogs on the street and complaining that they can't celebrate the Fourth of July openly is a novel one.  It draws attention to the plight of migrants, but also raises some much needed warnings about where the world is headed.

Winters and Cohen put together a tight story, although I thought that the ending was a little needlessly ambiguous (maybe I'm just tired though).  Irizarri's art is very nice, and I especially like the little ways in which he introduces extrapolated versions of modern technology.

Apparently the serialized version of this series got cut short, with half the run only appearing online, but this handsome hardcover is probably the best way to read the story anyway.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Solstice

Written by Steven T. Seagle
Art by Moritat

Solstice first entered the world as a three-issue miniseries in 1995 that was never finished because its publisher went bankrupt.  It was completed and published as a trade paperback in 2006, but was then reworked a little, and published again as a hardcover in 2016.

I've been a fan of Steven T. Seagle for quite a while, but had never noticed or heard of it until I came across it for the first time.  Moritat is a great artist, although the original 2/3 of this book date from when he used to go by his actual name, Justin Norman.

The book is told, in an ever-shifting narrative, by Hugh Waterhouse, who has been dragged into the jungles of Chile to search for the legendary fountain of youth.  Russ Waterhouse is a truly terrible person - he's a rich bully who has dragged a number of people into his lifelong obsession, which has become more pressing since he has developed terminal (yet symptom-free) cancer.

The story jumps all over the place, as Hugh describes his childhood, and two earlier expeditions to Arctic Canada and to Siberia, both of which came with great risk to his body and mind.  The Chilean expedition is no different, as Russ barrels through, and the group attracts the attention of some (kind of stereotypically rendered) indigenous groups.

Moritat's art is pretty nice throughout.  His art reminds me a little of Tim Sale's here, which made me think a few times of his book with Seagle, The Amazon.  The real draw is just how well Seagle builds up the two Waterhouse mens' characters, adding layers as he goes to make the ending a little more poignant.

I'm glad I picked this up - I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Killer Vol. 4: Unfair Competition

Written by Matz
Art by Luc Jacamon

I remember being very impressed with the first Killer mini-series, when Archaia first started published translated versions of the French series.  It had a tight plot and I loved Jacamon's art.  I was also intrigued by the title character, who floated through the world as an expert assassin, and who doesn't think much of people, or connect to them.

I followed The Killer through his next two miniseries, but when Archaia was bought by Boom!, either they never published this fourth volume as a mini, or I somehow missed it.

It was good to return to these characters, but the storyline in this volume is pretty unfocused and a little unbelievable.  The Killer's drug connected friend decides to diversify, what with the drug cartels becoming too murderous, and decides to start an oil exploration company in Cuban territory that really irks the United States.

The business stuff, even when the wheels are greased with drug money, seems just too easy and quick in the context of the story, and there is a definite lack of suspense or danger to this story.  There are places where things wake up, but in the final analysis, this series became a case of diminishing returns.

Jacamon's art remains a real high point, but this volume incorporates a lot more photography than the previous one.  There is one more volume in this series, which was published last winter, but I'm not sure that I'm all that interested in reading it.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

RAID.ONE

edited by Rob Coughler and Ramón Pérez

RAID, the Royal Academy of Illustration and Design, is a Toronto comics studio, and home to Francis Manapul, Ramón Pérez, Gibson Quarter, Ian Herring, Irma Kniivilia, Nimit Malavia, Taran Chadha, Anthony Falcone, Scott Hepburn, Gabe Sapienza, Marcus To, Eric Vedder, Joe Vriens, Tri Vuong, and Tonci Zonjic.

The studio got its start fifteen years ago, when it consisted of Cameron Stewart, Kagan McLeod, Ben Shannon, and Chip Zdarsky, and when, if we believe Chip's introduction, its acronym stood for Racists Against Impaired Driving.  They all left over the years, making way for the talented list above, who have now put together this very handsome and well-designed anthology, which debuted at Fan Expo this year.

RAID has been bubbling away in the Toronto scene for some time, with many of its members being regular attendees at local comics shows.  They released an anthology comic for Free Comic Book Day this last year, but it is with this book that their diversity, versatility, and collective talent really shines through.

As with any anthology of this size, there is something for everyone, and some stuff that doesn't resonate with every reader.  I was pleased to see another chapter in Ian Herring and Daniel McIntyre's Junior Citizens, a series I've liked since I picked up an issue at TCAF a few years back.  Marcus To's story, Peaceful, shows artistic depth not usually seen in his Marvel and DC work.  Likewise for Francis Manapul's story, which has his usual close eye for layout and design, but more heart than I find in his DC writing.

Pérez closes out the book in fine style, with a mostly silent story about a clown that reminds me of his wonderful work adapting Jim Henson's A Tale of Sand.

The best story in this book though, is Tonci Zonjic's 'Not Dead', which has a pair of scavengers working their way through a debris field in space.  Zonjic told a similar story in the FCBD book, as he explores themes of isolation in the future.  This story stuck with me more than the others.

In all, this is a gorgeous book filled with top and emerging talent.  I would love to see more collaboration between these creators, and more showcases for their work like this.  I highly recommend picking this book up, even if you don't live in the Toronto area (here's the link again).

Monday, August 14, 2017

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Written by Neil Gaiman
Adapted by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá

How to Talk to Girls at Parties began its existence as a short story by Neil Gaiman, but last became a graphic novel adapted by the brilliant Brazilian twins, Bá and Moon.

The story is about Enn, a fifteen year old who finds that it's very difficult to talk to girls, a problem not shared by his best friend, Vic, who is very good at this.  Vic drags Enn to a party he doesn't really want to go to, and they are both blown away by the beauty of the girls there, especially the one they think is the hostess.

As Vic spends time with her, Enn wanders the house, and has a few increasingly strange conversations with some of the girls who are not busy dancing.  It doesn't take long for the reader (although it takes a lot longer for Enn) to figure out that there is something very odd about these girls, perhaps even something otherworldly.

Bá and Moon are stunning artists.  I didn't really buy Enn or Vic as fifteen year olds, but aside from that, I love how they construct these scenes and build character through facial expressions and body language.

This is a good quick read, although I have to say I'm happiest when the twins are writing the stories they draw.  I think it's time for them to give us a long-form story like their Daytripper, which remains one of my all-time favourite comics.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Journal of the Main Street Secret Lodge Vol. 2

by Steven Gilbert

I read the first Journal of the Main Street Secret Lodge about three years ago, and enjoyed it, so was happy to pick up Steven Gilbert's return to this title when I saw it at TCAF this year.  Like the first book, it depicts the town of Newmarket Ontario at the end of the nineteenth century, and involves a group of American robbers looking to take advantage of the small town.

They have heard that there is no real police presence in the town, and a lot of money, but they are not aware of the fact that the retired Captain Woodrow looks after things.  Once they arrive, and burn down the town's main hotel, the Captain goes after them, Rambo style.

Gilbert is a gifted artist, who takes a languorous amount of time getting to his actual story.  Along the way, we get a highly repetitive newspaper column on the methods employed by pickpockets, we see some kid take a voyage on a boat along the Mississippi, and learn about how the land that became Newmarket was taken by force from some Haudenosaunee.  None of these things are essential to the story, but I guess they provide atmosphere, as do the pages and pages of establishing shots that show up throughout the book.

Now, I like those establishing shots a lot, as I feel that Gilbert is at his strongest when depicting such scenes.

This is a good book, but a very unfocused one.  I would still return to the Main Street Secret Lodge (whatever that might actually be) for a third volume some day.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Dark Night: A True Batman Story

Written by Paul Dini
Art by Eduardo Risso

A number of years ago, Paul Dini, who at the time was a writer on the Batman animated series (where he created Harley Quinn), was attacked one night, mugged, and beaten viciously.  Dark Night: A True Batman Story tells the story of what happened that night, and how Dini came back from the depression and self-loathing that event plunged him into.

The book starts with a quick biography, showing us how Dini always related to fictional, cartoon, and comic book characters, with Batman and his rogues gallery playing a very special role in his life.  As a boy, the shy and reserved Dini liked to imagine his favourite characters interacting with him, and this continued into adulthood.

When the beating happened, Dini was not in the happiest of places.  His career was going great, and he was very happy with the outer trappings of his life, but he was lonely.  The girl he thought he was dating let him know that she didn't see him as more than a friend, and he was constantly living in denial of how unhappy he was (even though, we learn later, he had engaged in a strange episode of self-harm not that long before).

After he was beaten, Dini's face was a mess.  He required surgery to repair his skull, and as he recovered, he spiralled into depression and drinking, skipping work, and frequently arguing with the fictional characters in his mind.

This is a stunningly honest book, told from the perspective of years of reflection and a better mental state.  Dini lays himself bare,  and along the way, questions the value of the superhero genre as role models.

Eduardo Risso is surprisingly reserved in his illustrations, reining in his usual penchant for experimentation in layout and perspective.  I've never seen him portray a story this way, and it works exceptionally well with the type of story he is telling.  His work here is gorgeous.

This is a good book to give someone who might be recovering from a similar situation, or who suffers a more general anxiety.  Dini makes it clear that people can recover from any number of bad events in their life, but that it takes a positive support network and a little clarity about a person's situation and feelings.  It's a very good, very unique book.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Charley's War Vol. 1: 2 June 1916 - 1 August 1916

Written by Pat Mills
Art by Joe Colquhoun

I have been wanting to dive into Charley's War, which ran in four-page instalments in British weeklies starting in 1979, for a while now.  I've always been interested in the First World War, and had always heard good things about this comic.  I've had a number of the hardcovers for a while now, but didn't have the first one, and wanted to wait and read them in order.

Charley Bourne is a sixteen year old boy who lies about his age to be able to go off and fight in the Great War, arriving at the Western Front in June 1916.  He's not the brightest of lads, which he knows, but he makes up for it in heart and courage.

He is stationed near the Somme, and his unit becomes involved in that great slaughter.  Pat Mills researched this title meticulously, and has Charley exposed to many of the depravities of war, including chemical gas attacks.  He does not spare any time in making the war feel patriotic or justified - it's a terrible thing, and while Charley knows it, he does his best to make it through with the help of his friend Ginger and various other soldiers we get to know through the course of the book.

Mills uses Charley's letters home, and his family's letters to him, to help provide a lot of the exposition, which is a very effective way to get to know the characters better.  He also shows the effects that the war has on the morale and mental well being of the soldiers.  As well, we see the last cavalry charge, probably of all time, and recognize how slow the people in charge of the war were to adapt to new technology and circumstances.

Joe Colquhoun's art in this book is frequently stunning, while remaining rather cramped.  He conveys a lot of information on each page, and gives a realistic portrayal of life in the trenches.

This is a very good book, although owing to the episodic nature of the original strip, it leaves the reader hanging, which is a problem as I don't own the next volume yet.  It's time to start hunting that down...

Monday, July 10, 2017

Colville

by Steven Gilbert

Colville is a surprisingly dark graphic novel by local cartoonist Steven Gilbert.  It's set in a fictional bedroom community where kids get themselves into trouble early, and chafe at their mundane surroundings.

David is a kid in his last year of high school, who already has a criminal record for some breaking and entering.  He's basically become persona non grata in his school and community, except in the eyes of his girlfriend Tracy, who he's a little dismissive of.  Van, the guy that got him in trouble in the first place, wants his help for a theft, and although David is reluctant, the thought of a thousand dollars (in early 1990s money) is too tempting.

The job?  Stealing a BMX bike from the son of a local drug dealer with biker affiliations.  David doesn't really know how this is going to turn out, but can't help fighting the bad feeling he has and going ahead with it anyway.

Oh, and famous serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka are running around in this community doing their thing - kidnapping and drugging teens.  That was the part that kind of threw me, as they represent a level of evil I didn't expect to come across here.

Gilbert lets the story play out in a manner that has it circling back on itself in a few places, revealing more information about the characters as it goes.  It's an interesting book, and I especially enjoy the large establishing shots that show us what the town looks like and provides a lot of atmosphere to the book.

I picked up the rest of Gilbert's work at TCAF this year, and am looking forward to reading it even more now.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984

by Riad Sattouf

The Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf's memoir of growing up a mixed-race French-Syrian child in late 70s and early 80s Lebanon and Syria, with interludes in France, has been a huge sensation in the French comics world.  This English translation is engaging and insightful, but I'm not all that sure I understand the extent of the hype surrounding it.

Sattouf's father, Abdul-Razak, was a Syrian studying in France when he met Sattouf's mother, Clementine.  He pursued and married her, and then Riad came along.  He was a beautiful child, with long blonde hair.  His father secured a professorship in Khadafi's Libya, and so the family moved there at a point when the government had outlawed personal property, and so families couldn't leave their home for fear that someone else would move in.

After a while, the family moved back to France, and then to Syria, where Abdul-Rezak got another professorship that allowed him to live in his family's village.  Sattouf either has incredible recall of his early childhood or has done a great job of reconstructing things, as this book shows a lot of detail, although many of them make sense as coming through a child's understanding of the world, hence his focus on how much everyone smelled of sweat.

Sattouf's father is a huge presence in this book.  He's portrayed as naive, vindictive, and loving, although quick to anger.  He's not an abusive character, but it's pretty clear that he doesn't give a lot of thought to how his career choices put his family in bad situations.  Clementine bothers me in this book.  She seems to just drift along in her husband's wake, appearing okay to be relegated to a secondary role, and being left in rooms with women she can't communicate with.

Sattouf shows us both the dysfunction of life under these dictatorships, and the realities of growing up under-supervised in rural villages where his appearance and lack of Arabic make him a target for bullying cousins.

In the final analysis, I enjoyed this book, and see it working alongside most of Guy Delisle's memoirs, but still don't see why this book, and its subsequent volumes, are such a sensation.

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.