Category: Comics

Where’s my head at?

Posted by – January 26, 2013

In lieu of some longer reviews right now, here a few scattered thoughts on what I’ve been reading and otherwise seeing or hearing the last few weeks:

  • Cyborg 009Ezra Claytan Daniels’s serialized Upgrade Soul comic on iPad: Andrew Hayward clued me into this one via his review at Mac|Life. It’s a slightly animated multimedia version of a comic with surreal and sci-fi elements, and it makes much better use of its medium that most other motion comics or similar narrative presentations that you’ve probably run into. I recommended trying an issue and seeing if it’s to your liking.
  • Girls is back on at HBO, and I’m caught up with the first two episodes of Season 2 as of today. It’s interesting that show dived right into responding to last season’s race criticism by introducing Donald Glover’s new character Sandy. Nevertheless, it’s been a pretty shallow response as far as the writing goes. They’re upping the ante as far as Adam’s creep factor goes, but right now this is still a show my heart’s only about half into whenever it’s on.
  • It started reading George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows, and was quickly steered toward reading the book simultaneously with A Dance with Dragons by Sean T. Collins. I’m reading Sean’s chapter remix sequence at the moment, and it feels very natural. Also, I think this is the approach that any real Tyrion lover should take, based on what I’ve seen so far.
  • For $2.99, the new Archaia take on Shotaro Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009 was a pleasant digital surprise. I picked up issue #0 from comiXology, not realizing that the new comic came with 60 pages of the original manga packed into the file as well. I’ll definitely be with this one for at least a few issues, but both the old and new material were a steal for the price.

Review: ‘Wizzywig’ by Ed Piskor

Posted by – October 9, 2012

Ed Piskor’s Top Shelf graphic novel “Wizzywig” was another title that I picked up a few weeks ago at SPX. I first became aware of his work years ago when he collaborated on “Macedonia” with the late Harvey Pekar, and I even interviewed Pekar about that project for an article at my old job. Looking at Piskor’s work now and then, it’s easy to see why he and Pekar fit together so well (besides the elegant similarities between their names). Piskor’s illustrative style slips intelligently between fits of comic expression, burdensome human experience and detailed attention to minutiae—a skill that suits him well in this near-historical fiction tale of a hacker’s life.

“Wizzywig” follows the social and intellectual growth of a young man named Kevin Phenicle. Piskor’s take on the character, who goes by the handle “Boingthump,” is simple and brisk in its pace. The kid has a Tintin-like face in a world of slimy, unfriendly people who don’t understand his curiosities and motivations. Ultimately, the story leverages that condition to frame Kevin’s incarceration and the media-promoted fear that he inspires in the general public through his hacking. And the book winds up feeling full and balanced at the end as a result—littered with jargon and touchstones from the time, such as phreaking and bulletin board systems.

Piskor doesn’t waste a beat in “Wizzywig.” It’s not a graphic novel that cares a great deal about exploring the inner feelings and emotional connections between its cast members. Instead, the story unfolds a arms’ length from the reader, inviting questions and disgust as characters affected by Boingthump’s action sound off in panels and on TV about what they think he must be like. The whole book is set up to juxtapose Kevin’s life against that shrill chorus of the uninformed public and riled-up punditry, and it invites discussion about how Kevin should be treated or understood as a hacker.

There is certainly a Mark Zuckerberg-in-”The Social Network” quality to Kevin’s life, driven by social inadequacies to pursue other ways of relating to the world and enriching himself. Also, it brings his life to a head at the end in a way that I’ll admit caught me a little off guard, connecting his story to that of Bradley Manning and Wikileaks.

The convergence of their themes and stories makes sense. Piskor seems to be asking, after fully exploring Kevin, “Who in today’s society is facing similar treatment for rogue behavior and the invasion of secret places?” The conclusion leaves everything on a slightly off note, which is fine and unsettling, even if it does come of as a bit preachy from a book that has otherwise avoided much moralizing.

As a tour through the subject matter, a quick history lesson and long-form comic laced with Easter eggs for nerds, I think it’s safe to recommend this book. Be prepared to digest its political message, and be ready to learn a thing or two if you aren’t a regular reader of 2600, but I would think if you’re already considering giving it a look, these are all things that you would be open to.

Review: ‘Bjornstrand’ by Renée French

Posted by – September 23, 2012

Two elements that I can definitely walk into a book ready to love are the giant, mysterious monster genre and the furry, soft-focus art of Renée French. Her comic “Bjornstrand,” which I picked up at SPX last weekend, delivered on both counts, and it was every bit the plushy, bizarro children’s book belonging in a box alongside David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” that I would have expected it to be.

I remember one of the first indie titles I got to review for Wizard Magazine when I was on staff there back in the day being a Renée French book (2007′s “Micrographica,” I believe), and that was my introduction to her work.

“Bjornstrand” the book is an extension of the creature/character exploration French has been doing in her webcomic “Baby Bjornstrand.” In one sense it’s a little reminiscent of “Cloverfield,” in that it’s about a mysterious, potentially deadly creature emerging out of nowhere—and the story is being told through the lens of French’s art, which endows any comic story she’s telling with a slight sense of vagueness.

The tale is playful, due to the inherent contradictions being implemented. Every page is devoid of any anger or wrath, though the language of the tiny speck characters is full of obscenity. Bjornstrand is gigantic and capable of rampant destruction, but his eyes are cute, shiny balls that make him look like a blown-up Pokémon critter. Even the art style, which is soft and dreamlike contrasts with the realistic banter and harsh tension that drive the comic.

Like Tom Spurgeon, I found myself wondering about the significance of the title character’s name and whether or not it’s a nod to Gunnar Björnstrand. (I wondered about this ahead of SPX, but neglected to bring it up when I had the chance.) I have seen a lot of Ingmar Bergman movies starring Gunnar Björnstrand, and it’s certainly noteworthy that many of those films take place in isolated locales near the water, much like the setting in French’s comic.

Additionally, I am going to break out my Swedish knowledge here and point out that if you split that name into two pieces—”björn” and “strand”—those words mean “bear” and “beach.” So there is a possibility the name is just there to poke fun at the dichotomy that is Bjornstrand (or embody the essence of a beast emerging from the water).

Personally, I like to think that all of these competing ideas are in play, helping French’s narrative to keep the reader on their toes as she treads carefully, writing a cute story that could topple and plunge into horrific chaos at any moment.

SPX 2012: Reviews incoming

Posted by – September 15, 2012

I’m pretty sure today marked my fourth visit to the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md. I’m about 95-percent certain on that count, but don’t hold me to it. It was piles of fun, I brought home piles of comics, and I saw a few legends of the medium.

The first of those was Daniel Clowes, and I didn’t get to see him speak. Fortunately, I did drop by two supremely memorable panels—the first of which featured Françoise Mouly speaking about her history in publishing, and the second of which featured Gilbert Hernandez in conversation with Sean T. Collins. Given that Sean is one of the best read and most insightful Love and Rockets readers around, this turned out to be a highlight of the show, especially when a fan chimed in at the end to ask Gilbert how he feels about the band Love and Rockets.

I also flipped through loads of great new books and brought a few home. I miss my minicomics hook-ups in Chicago dearly, so SPX provided a great chance to grab some indie/alternative works and make up for lost reading time since my move out to D.C. What you see here is a sampling of that haul, so as you can imagine I plan to run a few reviews here in the coming days.

In fact, expect to see a few thoughts on Renee French’s “Bjornstrand” shortly.

Review: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)

Posted by – August 12, 2012

Fair warning here. This review contains some spoilers.

As an event in history, director Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film is almost impossible to consider apart from two tragedies—the Aurora shooting and the death of Heath Ledger that forever colored “Batman: The Dark Knight.” In turn, both of those events have forever colored how people discuss “The Dark Knight Rises” and how Nolan’s trilogy will be remembered.

“The Dark Knight Rises” deserves to be considered as a single film and as Nolan’s final word on the title character, though, and those are the two perspectives I brought to my final evaluation of a Batman film that failed to articulate Batman’s meaning and nature as gracefully as its predecessors, yet ultimately shut the door assertively on Nolan’s Gotham City universe, leaving a memorable history and culture behind with a few successful, pleasant surprises.

In the scheme of the trilogy, I see the underlying premises of Nolan’s Batman films thusly:

1. “Batman Begins” (2005) — Who is Batman?

2. “The Dark Knight” (2008) — Who isn’t Batman?

3. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) — What is the absence of Batman?

The franchise’s first two installments worked so well because Nolan was working with a blank slate and almost incessantly hammered away at what Batman means as a symbol, how that makes him more than just a man and why that struggle against competing ideologies is what defines him. In the cultural backdrop of this discussion were the 9/11 attacks and the real-life urban terror that the actions of villains such as Ra’s al Ghul, The Joker and Bane now resemble in the public eye.

My esteemed colleagues Rick Marshall and Laura Hudson (as well as many others) have already identified the odd plot holes and technical oddities that populate “The Dark Knight Rises.” Before moving on into my broader critique, I would just state for the record that the bomb’s blast radius, Bruce Wayne’s climbing apparatus and Bane’s stabbing are all noticeable hiccups for the film. I accept the necessity of the suspension of disbelief for sci-fi, fantasy and superhero films as genres, but these errors all seem like problems that could have easily been addressed through tiny script tweaks or camera angle swaps.

Meanwhile, the underlying problem I kept returning to as I watched this story dealt with Bane’s nature as a character. Heath Ledger’s Joker made for a compelling contrast against Christian Bale’s Batman because the two were so clearly linked by their disregard for the letter of the law but separated by their choices to channel their anger into distinct livelihoods. The Joker chose anarchy and rampant, amoral destruction, while Batman chose the preservation of life. Ra’s al Ghul believed in wiping out un-correctable civilizations in favor for rebuilding better societies in their places. In both of those cases, Batman had overlapping experiences but was defined by a clear difference of opinion or tactics.

That understood, Bane’s story came packaged in potential. “The Dark Knight Rises” seemed like it could be the ultimate post-financial-collapse Batman story with a heavy dose of “Knightfall”-inspired beats. Ultimately, however, Bane’s nature, motivation and backstory changed considerably from the comics. He became a kind of Ra’s al Ghul lite who was built up as a mastermind, only to be demoted by a plot twist (one which I didn’t see coming and did appreciate for its shock value, by the way). Bane could have been the ultimately dirty-tactics Robin Hood, but instead he became diluted by camp and bravado that limited the scope of his character. We were left with something much more digestible as a perceivable character than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, but much lower on the totem poles of gravitas and genius than Liam Neeson’s Ra’s and Ledger’s Joker.

The Russian-doll-style twists toward the end compounded the problem left by Bane’s motivational vacuum and put a lot more pressure on the film to succeed as the third chapter of a trilogy, especially since it began bending over backwards to slip in quick story recaps and cameos in the final act. “Dark Knight Rises,” didn’t succeed in illuminating anything new about Nolan’s Batman for me, but land the franchise in an unexpected way that felt like it made sense. DC films have a weird tradition (and by tradition I mean “Superman Returns” and “TDKR”) of turning their heroes into family men now. That’s another issue altogether, but—corny, forced Robin reference aside—Nolan’s trilogy has been put to bed in a way that settled lingering plot threads and provided surprises.

“TDKR” is always going to be my third-favorite Nolan Batman film, but it’s still a Nolan Batman film, and it lived up to my baseline expectations of camera-trickery, and jolting plot revelations. In the tradition of great trilogy-enders such as “Return of the Jedi” and “Return of the King,” this one isn’t likely to be remembered on equal footing. It performed its duty honorably, though, and for that, we can be thankful.

‘The Drops of God’ Volume 1 Review: There’s only so much wine

Posted by – July 1, 2012

I don’t necessarily avoid manga in my reading diet—it’s just not a staple. I’ve enjoyed Cromartie High School, Ghost in the Shell, Akira and even a little Yotsuba&!. Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto’s The Drops of God was little off the beaten path for me—not something I would have come to naturally. As David Brothers over at ComicsAlliance wrote last year, though, it’s manga about wine. What’s not to be interested in?

Being neither a manga nor wine connoisseur, this book only had things to teach me. It’s a comic about the son of a famous wine critic, who has a quest that conveniently allows him discover and describe real-life wines or trigger a lesson on the history of French winemaking. After you begin to understand the structure and story beats that are going on, you start to get curious as a reader about what’s around the corner, what’s on a label that’s being obscured or why a wine tastes a certain way.

Yes, there is a hokey quality to the melodrama that permeates the pages of The Drops of God. Those groan-inducing sequences of a manager belittling an employee or the story’s villain pondering his master plan snowball hilariously into moments of revelation that punctuate the chapters and keep things going at a respectable pace.

I’m only one volume into this series so far, but I’ve already learned more about Henri Jayer and French vineyards than I ever would have read and remembered anywhere else.

The near-photorealistic illustrations of the labels and bottles integrate seamlessly with cartoonish illustrations to stitch together the non fiction with the fiction.

And I should note that you won’t walk into the wine department at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods able to dazzle your friends with observations and interpretations after reading this manga. In fact, most of the knowledge you glean will only be useful under significantly more expensive circumstances. However, if you do happen to wander onto some French vineyards in the future, you may find yourself significantly more informed about why a crop of grapes is going to be ideally suited for whipping up a particularly good batch of wine, as well as why that batch shouldn’t be enjoyed for at least 20 years.

Reading with Pictures’ ‘Graphic Textbook’ Kickstarter is funded and then some

Posted by – May 16, 2012

With a solid 37 hours left to go right now, it looks like Reading with Pictures’ Kickstarter campaign for a new book of educational comics can be considered a success. I interviewed Josh Elder for Education Dive a few days ago, and he was optimistic. It would seem that his positive thinking was appropriate, seeing as how this project has now raised more than $67,000.

RwP wants to do some big things in the education world, and I’m anxious to see what kind of reception this book gets when teachers start deploying it in the classroom.

It should also be interesting to see if any other textbook projects follow RwP to Kickstarter to try this model out. Just getting a textbook approved by schools is a high enough hurdle in and of itself; depending on how things go, this grassroots approach, like e-textbooks in general, could really open up some doors for new and innovative products.

Lessons from the week’s webcomics reading: 5/16/2012

Posted by – May 16, 2012

My webcomics feed was full of all kinds of knowledge this morning. Here are a few morsels that felt particularly meaningful:

xkcd taught me to be grateful that Apple hasn’t named an OS iteration “Ocelot” yet.

Scenes from a Multiverse taught me that if Jon Rosenberg ever starts a band, that bunny panel should be the group’s first album cover.

Penny Arcade taught me that Diablo III is lurking on the horizon, ready to suck up my life.

Ectopiary taught me that Hans Rickheit can still get into my brain and do all kinds of weird things at 3:30 a.m.

• And Diesel Sweeties reminded me about how meat is murder.

Link Sausage: 10/16/2011

Posted by – October 16, 2011

• If there’s a new English translation of a Haruki Murakami novel coming out, chances are it’s already on my read it ASAP list. After reading this perspective piece by Yuka Igarashi at Granta today, I think the priority level for 1Q84 has been upped. The reworked and recycled motifs of Murakami’s writing are a big part of what keeps me coming back to him. Terror and religion are two topics I’ve wanted to see him explore more deeply, so I’m really looking forward to diving into this book sometime in the near future.

• I’ve been wrestling with Craig Thompson’s Habibi since I read it a few weeks ago, and Robyn Creswell obviously did in her New York Times review as well. I agree with G. Willow Wilson that the review discounted Thompson’s art to a huge degree, but I also share Creswell’s frustrations with the neo-Orientalist style and tone. For me, the underlying question at the end of the book was much the same as hers in regard to whose fantasies were being expressed and how to parse them.

• As far as I’m concerned as a reader, the announcement that there’s more of Geof Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy on the horizon from Dark Horse was the finest news to emerge from the New York Comic Con weekend.

• If you’re a Wolverine follower and Sabretooth fan, you may have found the news that Jeph Loeb and Simone Bianchi are bringing him back to be a bigger deal.

• Oh, and then there was that new phone from Apple that came out. The premise of Siri is definitely something I can get behind, but when it comes to my capacity for skepticism, halfway decent voice recognition software rivals UFOs and Bigfoot. Nevertheless, this guy got Siri to run on an iPhone 4, which was fascinating.

‘Habibi’: A review in progress

Posted by – September 26, 2011

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund let a few copies of Craig Thompson’s new graphic novel, Habibi, out of the gate early at SPX, and seeing how I’ve been waiting to read it for the better part of the last decade, I hopped in line and snagged one. I was prepared for Thompson’s extravagant attention to detail and densely packed pages of storytelling, but Habibi surprised me in some ways that I’m still grappling with critically.

This is almost without question one of the most important graphic novel releases of the year. It overflows with elegant, elaborate and brilliantly composed hybrid imagery. Moreover, the story exists in an odd, isolated universe that feels like a fable but also teases the novel’s relationship to real world events and anchors.

The place where I’m still coming to terms with the book, though, lies in refrain of sexual violence that defines the main character. The economies of enslavement and survival that she lives through drive almost every major plot turn from beginning to end, and along the way they bring horrific moments and choices.

Habibi is a challenging and sobering read, and it’s one of those books that will make you feel like you’ve lived through a lifetime reading it. In the end, however, Dodola’s personality and humanity feel very distant and underdeveloped at times. There’s a tragedy in that absence that’s provocative, which may be the point. I’ll be interested to see some other takes though.