Burmese Days

One of the primary tenets of the “comics as literature” argument is that comics are simply a medium of communication, and are therefore capable of telling a story or conveying information without being artificially limited to certain genres and maturity levels. An author or publisher need not assume that their audience is an adolescent male who is only interested in power fantasy and violent action. for those tuned into the medium, this couldn’t be more obvious, with books being released all the time that cover a wide range of styles, genres and moods. Even non-fiction is an option, which many people may find counter intuitive. How can you claim to be presenting a true story when you’re drawing the events? How can there be any objectivity in such a presentation? Of course, objectivity doesn’t come any easier from the viewfinder of a camera, or a writer’s pen (or word processor). And non-fiction doesn’t mean objective, impersonal, or unbiased. Are Persepolis or Maus any less true than a prose memoir?

French Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle has been mining this territory in his output. Shenzhen and Pyongyang are autobiographical memoirs that recount his stay in the titular cities, in comics form. His third book in this vein, Burma Chronicles, is being released by Drawn & Quarterly in September.

I have to admit up front that I’ve never read Delisle’s previous books, but after my experience with Burma Chronicles, they have quickly risen to the top of my “must read” list. In Burma Chronicles, Delisle, his wife Nadege, and their young son Louis travel to Burma under the auspices of Doctors Without Borders, where they live for several months. Delisle recounts his period of adjustment to life in the dictatorial country, coping with everything from linguistic deficiency, culture shock, bureaucratic insanity, sweltering heat, and carpal tunnel. Everything from finding a house, to bribing the local officials, to searching for ink to work on his children’s book brings with it a new series of surprises, sometimes pleasant, sometimes thrilling, sometimes harrowing.

The politics of Burma are unavoidable, and color daily life for the locals and visitors alike. The house they end up staying at is within walking distance of Aung San Suu Kyi,the Nobel prize winner and political prisoner who has been kept under house arrest for over 12 years by the military junta she opposes. Between the daily sight of soldiers surrounding her house, the obvious and widespread censorship in domestic and foreign media, and the counterproductive machinations of the military bureaucracy, the atmosphere of Burma Chronicles is permeated with oppression.

Not everything is dour and cynical though.The family’s interactions with the locals run the full gamut of possibilities, from selfless generosity to annoyance and anger. Through the people they interact with, we get a vivid picture of daily life for Burmese people of all walks of life. Details like their household assistant’s Betel juice stained teeth, or the fat monk who comes by at an inappropriate time for alms, flesh out the social environment of the country.

His artwork is highly stylized, with angular, iconic figures that are nonetheless expressive. His backgrounds and scenery truly shine though, giving a real sense of locale and character to the places he’s presenting. The architectural pretensions of the nouveau riche are contrasted with the practical, rustic sprawl of the outlying areas. A handful of side trips are illustrated as wordless grids of small panels that feature surprisingly evocative drawings of the countryside and it’s ancient temples. There are beautifully detailed panels highlighting everything from the local plant life, to the evolution of a streetside folk art monument.

Burma chronicles is a quick, compelling read, that feel surprisingly deep and rewarding. The casual, personal tone is only occasionally interrupted to present essential background information on the history or culture of the region, but even that is engagingly presented. It’s ultimately a rich picture of a land that is completely foreign, both culturally and politically, through the eyes of a Western visitor. I finished it with a sense of familiarity, as if I’d been there myself, and seen it with my own eyes. It’s refreshing to see more work like this, or Persepolis, or Palestine, being released. An understanding of other cultures, especially ones that are presented antagonistically in much of our social discourse, is essential to a balanced an informed worldview. Comics are an accessible way to present that understanding to a wide audience, and thankfully, there is a small but growing number of authors willing to do that presenting.

2 comments | Categories: Artist, Reviews | Permalink

Fashionably Late

The plight of the poor comic book fan is a lamentable one. New books pop out from companies big and small every week, and magically wing their way to your local comics emporium. They taunt your impecunious self from the shelves, their inviting covers sullied by that capitalist formality known as a “price”. It’s easy to get discouraged. That fistful of dollars you scraped together by eating ramen for a month doesn;t go very far in a world of $3.00+ pamphlets and $20 trades.

And this is how you come to miss out on books that yo’ve been waiting for, getting excited for, even craving. Stop going to the comic shop, and everything ends up passing you by. Books you’ve been following for years start slipping past you, new gems you should be discovering come and go without being noticed.

This is how I ended up missing Suburban Glamour when it was originally published.

See, we here at the Successless Comics Blog are big fans of Phonogram, the music-as-magic Britpop exegesis in comics form by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. Gillen’s story dug deep into the troughs of nostalgia and critical appreciation for one’s past, ably aided by McKelvie’s stark and delicious ligne claire artwork. Throw in a giant helping of Britpop minutiae, and you have a recipe for excellence. The resulting 6-issue series was a sure success on all levels, and I look forward to the ofrthcoming follow-up with baited breath.

But While I waited, I noticed that McKelvie had a solo book due out soon! Not to tortue the Phonogram band metaphor too much, but I wondered if it would be a breakout solo release by a capable collaborator, or a side project doomed to languish in obscurity and mediocrity. I was pretty sure the art would kick ass, either way.

Then I went broke and missed it when it was published. Fortunately, Half Price Books in Capitol Hill came to the resuce this weekend, and I scored a full run for hlaf off the cover price. A little tattered, but here at Successless, we know comics are for reading, not collecting.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. The title Suburban Glamour, and the fashionable young characters gracing the hip covers made me think it would continue in Phonogram’s music/fashion/youth culture obsessive tradition, and I was partly right. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Take the word Glamour in the title, for instance. We typically associate the word with style and fashion, but it’s original meaning was more closely related to magic, witchcraft, and enchantment.

The first issue works this wordplay rather nicely, starting out like a teenage melodrama, repletewith hip students mourning the suburban doldrums they’re trapped in, attending parties and ditchng school. The title appears totally appropriate in the mundane, modern sense of the word. Then things get weird, of course.

This is no simple disaffected suburban youth story, but a tale that combines that youthful ennui with the epic fantasy and fairy tales  you would be expecting if you paid attention to obscure definitions of words like glamour. Imaginary friends from chilhood return to life, mystical creatures appear in the night, and long lost fairy worlds come crashing into the normal reality of the teenage protagonists, turning their lives predictably upside down. Once concerned with being slipped drugs at a party, and the viability of a career as a rock star, they are now faced with possibly fatal battles and life-altering revelations.

It’s a surprising twist to the first issue, and handled rather well. Afterwards, the story plays out quickly, if a little predictably. The mysterious stranger who seems to know what’s going on turns out to be involved in exactly the way you would expect. The otherworldly and mundane dilemmas dovetail nicely into moments of personal growth that seem a little too tidy at times. Overall, while it lacks the meta-narrative complexity and nuance of Phonogram, Suburban Glamour is a solidly told tale, gorgeously illustrated. The trade is out now, and for only $9.99, it’s well worth picking up, assuming you’re not as broke as some of us *ahem*.

3 comments | Categories: Artists, Reviews, Seattle, Whine, Complaining, & Griping | Permalink

Sneaky Peeks

If you care at all about comics, you need to go here, now.

Ok, there’s some cool stuff at the top there….some great illustrations, some preview pages, some cartoonist-y chatter….

Oh hey! What’s this at the bottom? King City 2, Chapter 1?

For those of you not in the know, King City Vol. 1 is 2007’s breakout graphic novel by Seattle cartoonist Brandon Graham, whose previous works include the Elevator collection from Alternative Comics, and a handful of erotic comics for Amerotica. The book came seemingly out of nowhere, filling the minds of comics readers everywhere with a vision of a dirty, streetwise future in a sprawling sci-fi city populated by spies who use cats as weapons,veterans who can’t forget the zombies they fought in Korea, and addicts whose bodies slowly become the drug they consume. It’s a wildly imaginative book that packs bizarre asides and puns into a story that’s actually heartfelt and sensitive.

These first pages from King City Vol. 2 showcase the wild flights of fancy that Graham’s story often takes, highlighting the main character’s training as a cat master (a spy who uses a cat like Batman uses his utility belt and gadgets), along with plenty of eye candy (the overhead establishing shot of the King City freeways is particularly nice) and background puns (”cervix entrance”….heh).It’s definitely a book to look forward to.

And that’s where this gets bittersweet. See, King City Vol. 1 was put out by Tokyopop, and their recent shakeups have left the future of King City, like many of their other OEL manga books, in doubt and maybe in search of a new publisher.  That’s if the company decides to release the rights to these books back to their creators.This aprticular book has a confirmed publisher for it’s french language edition, but the non-francophone among us will have to wait and see what happens before we get to sink our teeth into a print version.

Silver linings? With no deadline, the book is getting longer, with scenes that weren’t originally going to make the cut being reconsidered and added back in. Also, it looks like we’re going to be treated to new chapters on his Livejournal periodically, until a deal is worked out, or until it’s all online. Or, I guess, until he changes his mind. Also, Multiple Warheads, his Eisner nominated floppy-format serial that’s being published by Oni Press, is still safe and set to reappear soon, so the world won’t be deprived of his talent for too long.

No comment | Categories: Artist, Commentary, Linkdump, Publishers, Seattle | Permalink

Nate Beaty Love

One piece of trivia that won’t surprise anyone is that we here at Successless have perennial favorites. One of these favorites is Tugboat Press‘ anthology Papercutter.

Excitement mounts when new issues come out, but I must admit I’m definitely partial to the second one. Peep the cover Nate Beaty did:


Goddamn if that is not the most beautiful thing ever. Follow the link to fawn over more sketches and exceptional photography as well.

And this completes your daily dosage of fangirling.

No comment | Categories: Artists | Permalink

Buying time

Inconsequential update: Hellacious, ass-kicking quarter complete. Commence catching up with comics and whining about not making it to San Diego for Comic-Con. While drinking beer. And maybe playing Katamari Damacy.

While I mentally compile and organize my unread books (starting with The Hot Breath of War by fellow NorCal rad guy Trevor Alixopulos that has been staring at me since Stumptown),  I wanted to do a quick linkdump to direct you to some cool interweb things that have delighted me…

Etsy.com interviews Jessica Abel

Tatiana Gill and her adorable illustrations

BeaucoupKevin takes beautiful photos at MoCCA, which reminds me how much I suck for missing this event every year.

How to separate feminist and psuedo-feminist comic fans and maintain moral superiority

Hope Larson debuts Chiggers at MoCCA, which gets me like a sucker punch as I was able to fawn over her preview copy at Emerald City.

Chiggers at MoCCA by radiomaru

No comment | Categories: Linkdump, Slacking, Whine, Complaining, & Griping | Permalink

The heart of Perry Bible Fellowship

Waking up early to drive from Seattle to Portland made us here at Successless drowsy and a bit irritable. Rolling into town around 10:30 am, we hustled to the Lloyd Center Doubletree just in time to see one of our favorite artists. Nicholas Gurewitch, creator of Perry Bible Fellowship, seemed as low energy as we were. His thoughtful, drowsy way of fielding questions from the crowd (including Scott McCloud) while noshing on a bagel made me happy that we were easing into the festival spirit with the low energy panel. That is, until he dropped some nuggets of genius onto the unsuspecting cloud.

Did you know that the secret to Gurewitch’s success is a robot manufactured with the help of an engineer? This robot does all the hard work - coming up with the art style of the strip, the biting humor, and the beautiful lettering? Yeah, neither did I.

The dial below the slot is key to balancing the distinctive comedy/tragedy tone to his comics. The phone is what he picks up to relay three key ideas he wants in his comic (like pigs, chicken, sex). To illustrate the danger in mis-calibrating this balance, he set the tragedy dial to high and out popped Watchmen.

And finally, one last piece of advice from a brilliant cartoonist:

There you have it ladies and gentlemen - the tale of worldwide success, of how to become syndicated print darling, and how to piss off Hasbro (who sent a cease and desist letter because of the likeness of the cover to Candyland) .

No comment | Categories: Artist, Convention | Permalink

Stumptown Comics Fest Photos

Content to follow. After feet are rested.

No comment | Categories: Convention, Photos | Permalink


A recent livejournal post by Bryan Lee O’Malley led me to check out the manga series Gantz, by Oku Hiroya, recently. Dark Horse is set to start publishing the series this summer, but the 250+ chapters that have appeared so far in Japan are available as scanlations for the impatient. O’Malley’s description reminded me a little bit of Battle Royale, and it sounded like it was worth checking out.

I spent the next several nights reading multiple chapters per night, intrigued, impressed, horrified, and disappointed at times.

The concept of the series is this: an assortment of people who have just died, suddenly find themselves alive again, sitting in an unfurnished apartment overlooking Tokyo. The only other thing in the room is a mysterious black ball, Gantz, which soon starts issuing forth orders. Their mission? To use weapons and combat suits (provided by the ball) to engage in a hunt for aliens in the city. If they survive, they can return to their lives…until the ball decides to bring them back to do it all over again.

The natural first reaction is confusion and disbelief, but the unwilling participants soon find that this game is deadly serious.

Like Battle Royale, Gantz uses the hyper-violent and fantastic narrative framework as a way to explore the moral and ethical choices of the characters. Do you let the other players in the game die to further your own survival? Do you put your life on the line to ensure the survival of others? Do you act out of altruism, self-interest, sadism, or fear? The hunts also come to represent exaggerated versions of the struggles in the “normal” lives of the protagonists. The central character, Kei Kurono, comes to anticipate the hunts as a way to feel a sense of self-worth, recognition, and accomplishment, in contrast to his undistinguished life as a middle school underacheiver. Masaru Kato, Kei’s former schoolmate, fights to protect those around him, the same way he fights to be a guardian for his younger brother.

Apart from the long, nuanced character arcs and copious gory action, there’s a sense of mystery to Gantz that keeps you hooked, at least for a while. Circumstances arise and the characters are forced to accept them and fight before they can try to rationalize or understand their situation. There are questions right from the start. What is Gantz? Why and how does it gather these people, and why and how does it transport them around Tokyo at it’s whim? Are these aliens real, and do they deserve to be killed? Why are the hunters and aliens invisible to the world at large during the hunt? Is there an end to this sadistic game? Answers come slowly, and each one only leads to more questions.

Despite the interesting subtext, Gantz is seinen manga at it’s heart, characterized by flashy battles, gallons of blood, and gratuitous nudity to appeal to its teenage male audience. The stakes of the game keep climbing, and the body count follows suit, as each chapter tries to top the last for outrageous violence. This is Gantz’s downfall, in my opinion. The central mystery takes a backseat, and becomes simply an excuse for increasingly sociopathic outbursts by the nominal protagonists, outbursts that spill over into the “real” Tokyo between hunts, at one point including a cold-blooded massacre of innocent civilians.

At some point, there’s a sense that Hiroya has stretched himself too thin. New elements are introduced to the story seemingly out of nowhere, and only serve to detract from the human focus of the first few story arcs. Psychic powers and vampires show up with no warning, reducing the contrast between the day to day reality and the supernatural scenes. Every chapter tries harder to push the envelope of violence and depravity. What started out as a way of exploring the human conscience becomes a series of brutal bloodlettings.

There could be something interesting to say about the resignation and acceptance of these circumstances by the characters. Gantz could work as a metaphor for war, for the increasing callousness of modern society, for the inundation of ultraviolent media, but in its race to keep the readers adrenaline levels pushed to the limit, it loses the provocative subtext. The latest chapters are adolescent power fantasy (which has been an element all along), with only lip service paid to the idea of right and responsibility.

It’s worth reading, if you’re the type of reader who can stomach over-the-top gory violence, but it’s also worth stopping at some point. Sadly, it looks like some of the most interesting ideas the series originally explored have fallen by the wayside.

No comment | Categories: Commentary, Publishers, Reviews | Permalink

Sounds of Your Name

Nate Powell, Sounds of Your Name

Microcosm Publishing, $18.00

My first exposure to Nate Powell was through my 2006 trek to Olympia Comics Festival, where I picked a few issues of his “Walkie Talkie” series. In true post-festival form, I was too busy coming down from the high of meeting so many cool artists and the low of having aching joints that his issues sat unread and neglected for a period of time.

Once I read my way through the stack, I came face-to-face with “Walkie Talkie.” The quality of printing was low, but the talent and writing was high. So impressed was I that I scoured high and low for more of his work. About a year ago I found a copy of Sounds of Your Name and devoured it. In fact, about every three months I find myself in that comic slump where everything feels the same, looks the same, and makes me feel the same. My antidote is reading Nate Powell’s work. And for far too long, I’ve kept this praise to myself.

Sounds of Your Name collects comics dating back to 1992, but unlike some retrospective collections you would not be able to figure that out by flipping through the pages. His art has been very consistent in quality and character, without any missteps showing amateur abilities. The fluidity of his lines set a highly emotional tone to his work, with expert shading and facial expressions rounding out the character of his art. When looking at his panels, it is impossible to only see it in the black and white tones that he is actually restricted to.

But the writing - oh boy - this is the good stuff. His words carry great weight, as he uses dialogue in an economic way. There is a sad quality, colored with angst, but it’s done with such quiet tones that it is barely detectable. He makes you pay attention, and once you do the cadence of the voices mixed with the fluidity of his art create a highly dimensional world where you can get lost in, kick your feet up, and let it wash over you.

This, folks, is the stuff that I live for. And thanks to the folks at Top Shelf, I’ll get another Nate Powell fix in September with his new book “Swallow Me Whole.”

No comment | Categories: Artist, Reviews | Permalink

At the risk of being Seattle-centric

Ellen Forney gets validated by the City of Seattle! It looks like someone deserves a toast for the decision to hire her for custom artwork to be installed in the Capitol Hill Sound Transit Station.

I can’t wait to go to my neighborhood station and see one of our favorite artists. If you are getting weepy with jealousy (as you should), ask nicely and I’ll take you on an Ellen Forney tour of my neighborhood. Unfortunately some of the spots here her art was featured are gone (R.I.P. The Globe), but fear not as there are many more haunts to visit.

No comment | Categories: Fandom | Permalink

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