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.
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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.
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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) .
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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.”
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The previous litmus test for superhero status as a comics artist was the 24-hour comic, a grueling trial of artistic output. A 24-hour comic, for those who don’t know, is a 24 page comic, created from scratch in a single 24-hour period, usually with the aid of a large quantity of coffee, Mountain Dew, Red Bull, etc. Having tried this before, I can attest to the fact that it’s a difficult ordeal, fraught with the perils of exhaustion, delirium, and questionable artistic choices.
But look out. There’s a new challenger in town.
John Campbell (stereotypist on livejournal) is currently creating hourly comics, consisting of 2 panels drawn for every hour he is awake in the month of January. He’s done this a few times in previous years, and the results are all available on the Hourly Comics website, sorted by day. The end result is similar to American Elf or Snakepit, but at a much more granular level. Like those daily comics, some installments feature almost no notable action, while others veer into the unexpected and absurd. You develop a sense of intimacy, despite the relatively crude drawing style. Like XKCD, the subject matter transcends any limitations the art might create.
If you enjoy the hourly comics, you’ll probably also enjoy his 50 Answers project, absurdist comic strips drawn as responses to reader-submitted questions. There’s plenty of other material on his Livejournal page to indulge in as well.
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You may not remember, but when this blog originally launched, I began an enormous Cerebus re-read project. I ended up finishing the re-read (oh god, even the text-only portions of Latter Days, which was enough to make me want to jam a menorah through my brain), but not the chronicling. Probably for the better. There’s only so much to be said about a creator who can so willfully dismantle everything appealing about his creation just to spite his dwindling fanbase for rejecting his cloud-cuckoo-land formulation of anti-feminism. It’s a pretty singular act of creative self-immolation, and Sim’s continued defense of his “philosophy” tends to sway between denying that his arguments lead to the conclusions they plainly do (basically trying to have the cake he’s already eaten), and insisting that a feminist/leftist/homosexualist cabal is the reason his ideas aren’t more widely accepted.
So naturally, the announcement of his new comic project has caught me somewhat by surprise.
Now, after you’ve digested that link (assuming you can stomach the awful Flash site, complete with horrible typography and retina-charring pink-on-white halftone EVERYWHERE), you probably had the same impending trainwreck feeling deep in your gut that I had. Famous misogynist launches new comic book series with female lead, exploring the nuances of the world of fashion? I can’t imagine what motivated him to even start this project, let alone bring it to market.
Naturally, the thing that fascinates about Sim is that he’s a damned fine cartoonist, probably one of the best and certainly one of the more driven. His grasp of caricature, lettering, world-building, and pacing is second-to-none, and even when his writing declined into a melange of projection, ministering, and revenge fantasy, his artistic standards remained high. But he did have his longtime collaborator, Gerhard, turning out those incredible backgrounds up until the end of Cerebus, so who knows how his first solo flight in several decades will turn out. Will we get the silhouette-heavy backgrounds of High Society?
In the end though, I have to admit I’m somewhat torn on this one. It seems unfair to dismiss a new book based solely on the unfortunate ideas of its author. This could turn out to be perfectly enjoyable. I’m inclined to doubt that outcome, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that I should at least give the book a chance. Maybe I’ll see what the general comic blogging public has to say about before I venture in.
(Link via Metafilter).
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I was pretty excited when I discovered that Tom Kaczynski was going to be one of the new Mome contributors, back in the Spring 2007 issue. I’d picked up a few of his minicomics at APE, and was impressed by his aesthetic, from drawing style to color choices and cover design. Definitely an artist to watch, and his first couple of contributions to that anthology kept me interested. But his most recent piece, 976 sq. ft., really struck a chord with me.
His previous Mome work is steeped in modern anxiety, a theme he’s continued from his work in the free-associative minicomics Transalaska, Transsiberia, and Transatlantis. While those minis featured first person, stream of consciousness ruminations on the nature of modern society and his place in it, specifically through the lens of his upbringing in Communist Poland, his two initial Mome pieces placed those themes into loose narratives that borrow heavily from the psychological thriller genre.
976 sq. ft. is similar, examining the changing face of urban neighborhoods through the obsession of one couple. When I started reading it, I had to flip to the back of the book and check his biography, to see if he was living in Seattle, since it described so well what was happening all over town. Turns out he’s currently in Minneapolis. But his description of the condominium onslaught in a sub-neighborhood of an unnamed city could’ve easily described one of several neighborhoods here in my town. The tiny chunk of non-descript buildings that suddenly becomes a “Neighborhood,” complete with catchy marketing name and accompanying upscale junk mail, the construction site changing the visual and auditory nature of the neighborhood, the growing unease of the current residents. I felt like I was reading about Ballard, Capitol Hill, Fremont. Like the recent mourning over the death of a certain block of E. Pike here in Seattle, 976 sq. ft. uses a single piece of development to underscore the psychological impact of gentrification. It’s a palpable feeling for those of us enduring the rental market in one of the few cities where the housing boom is still going strong, rather than creating foreclosed ghost towns. It’s a great piece that’s timely, and interesting as a story in its own right.
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Geographically speaking, we are lucky enough to live in a hotbed of HAWT COMIC ACTIVITY. Seattle is lucky enough to shove Fantagraphics, a hip library system that names Perspeolis as Book of the Year, awesome shops like Zanadu, artists from Peter Bagge to Tatiana Gill, et al. into one small area.
So when Newsarama interviewed a Successless and Seattle favorite cartoonist Ellen Forney, I squealed a bit. We’ve definitely written about our deep affections for her work, and it’s nice to see other folks taking notice as well.
Forney has had a banner year, with I Love Led Zeppelin being praised by all types of media outlets, and the New York Times taking note of her book with Sherman Alexie (another Seattle native - see how cool we are?!), things will get only better. Walking by Cornish College (where Forney teaches) everyday on my way to work serves as a reminder of the seven degrees of awesome Seattle represents.
If we were sports fans, which we are not, this would be like the Mariners going to the Super Bowl. Or is that the Seahawks going to the World Series? Or is it the Sonics going to the Olympics? (note: I’m totally kidding. I do not need to be schooled in the art of sports championships, so quiet in the peanut gallery.)
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Jen Wang massages my senses. Her art is powerful and her words are mighty. In real life, when I’ve encountered her at APE and Stumptown, her effervescent, sweet quality almost makes you forget how intimidating of an artist she is. And to compound her coolness, she is usually surrounded by an equally stunning group of cartoonists including Erika Moen, Vera Brogsol, and Kazu Kibuishi. Collectively, these cartoonists comprise the ‘A’ group. You know, the kids you’d like to sit with during lunch and have inside jokes with because they seem to have a knack for making everything seem fun. Beyond popularity, these folks also comprise some of the brightest talent out there.
But back to Jen. Ranging from her contributions to Flight 1 and 2 to the stunning artwork she has posted to her livejournal, there is something very moving in her artwork and ability to craft a beautiful story that makes her exciting to watch mature.
The first piece from Jen that really made me sit up and take notice was “Destiny Express” from Flight 2.
Without stating the obvious, the unique quality about her cartooning is fresh and new. From the soft watercolors in this piece to the lyrical nature of the story construction, there is a loveliness and sweetness to the story that gives away a bit of her naiveté.
Next up is her minicomic Home Portrait. Initially reflective and nostalgic, the story morphs into a moving tale of a young couple forging their own story. Delicate lines and a quiet sentimentality push this story forward.
Finally, her most recent release, a minicomic called Touchfood. Small in nature, but formidable in tone, this comic spins a tale of a man, his muse, and the eventual demise.
Her website is quite comprehensive and has all of her minicomics up in complete form, so you can get to know her work on your own terms. She also has some “Monster Sex” prints for sale. If someone out there really likes me, they can send me one. I’d be totally fine with that. Really.
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Ellen Forney, the Capitol Hill and The Stranger (Seattle’s alt-weekly) comic darling, presented her book I Love Led Zeppelin to a fully packed and enthusiastic crowd at Bailey Coy Books. Her book, put out by Seattle’s own Fantagraphic Books, is a collection of pieces she’s done from 1992 to the present, featuring collaborations and autobiographical pieces.
Other comic artists may just do a signing to celebrate and introduce their work. Some artists may book a large town hall for a Q&A and signing (a la Marjane Satrapi in her “Seattle Reads Persepolis” event at Town Hall in June). But no one that I know has ever done something like Ellen. With an admirable amount of gusto she sauntered out in a very tiny skirt with guns in holsters printed on the fabric indirectly announcing how bad ass she is and how everyone should listen up. Everything about her is accessible in her comics: her hairstyle, her love of muscle cars, her love of Led Zeppelin, and her biting sense of humor. But one thing she could never portray is how expressive and commanding she is in performance.
What Ellen did was nothing short of theatrical genius: she acted out four of her stories from her book. With animation of her work. And loud music.
The first vignette was of her piece “The Final Soundtrack”. The story is about a dramatic, glamorous death and what should be playing from the crumpled car’s stereo, from the perspective of the innocent bystander stumbling across this scene straight from film noir. Ideally, the music blaring should be something grand and dramatic, like Led Zeppelin. But as we all know, there is a small, inexcusable chance you could be listening to something sucky and secretly loved, like Sheryl Crow or Berlin. And through use of various audio tracks and animated scenes of the fiery car crash, Ellen expertly tapped into her inner actress to express the woe and embarrassment of such a tragedy.
Following her first act was her exploration of Seattle’s erotic landmarks, like the phallic Key Tower building on Cherry Street and the now retired “Magic Pussy” glowing blue flame on top of the Puget Energy Building. This slightly perverted and sweet ode to Seattle touch many fans in the audience.
Next up was her version of a date with Camille Paglia. Failing in her quest to collaborate with Ms. Paglia, her consolation prize was a date request from the woman who thinks female genitalia resembles a smelly primal swamp. The use of “Immigrant Song” every time her image was on screen was hilarious and well thought out.
Wrapping up the circus was her Margret Cho collaboration, “How to be a Fabulous Fag Hag.” Through the wiping of tears through the recounting of always having a back up ride home and occasionally hanging out with someone who wants to sleep with you, it definitely was appropriate for this audience.
Perhaps it was because I knew this was the first of many presentations, I couldn’t shake the feeling of this being a momentous moment in Ms. Forney’s career. In a field which most disregard as an irreverent art form, she is blazing a new trails by combining theater with art with writing with comedy with music. It’s certainly not something every comic artist could pull off, but using her love of performing and laughter to her advantage is nothing short of brilliant and I hope it takes her very, very far.
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