HOW TO BE HAPPY

Eleanor Davis, How to Be Happy (Fantagraphics, 2014). $24.99, hardcover.

Howtobehappy_covFor fans of Davis’ short stories, this volume is the treasure we have been waiting for. For those new to her work, this is going to be a treat. Collecting a wide range of her stories from various anthologies, including Nobrow 7 (“In Our Eden”) and Fantagraphics much-missed Mome (“Nita Goes Home,” “Stick and String,” “Seven Sacks,” “Thomas the Leader”), along with several pieces previously only encountered online, How to Be Happy is the highly anticipated first volume of one of our most talented cartoonists.

Having read her work in small installments over the course of several years, I had not realized until reading them in How to Be Happy how much of a piece they truly were. As the title suggests, the stories are overwhelmingly about individuals trying to define and achieve happiness, and about all the internal and external obstacles that stand in the way of that fundamental human fantasy. Indeed, as one fairly brutal short story, “Darling, I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You,” reminds us, many of us owe our very existence to our parents’ fantasy that having a baby would compensate somehow for their own profound unhappiness (raising the inevitable question: if humanity found this happiness we are seeking, would we in fact have no future as a species?). However, “Darling” is relatively exceptional among the works collected in this volume in its bleak tone, and the majority of the stories—even as they present happiness as always slipping just out of reach or changing fundamentally its nature in the possession—celebrate the beauty of the pursuit.

It is only appropriate that the volume opens in a utopian community, where “Adam”—an ex-manager of a Bass Pro Shop in Tampa formerly known as Darryl—watches his fellows abandon his society one after another, until only “Eve” remains. “I’m ready,” he declares at the story’s end, “for the weight to lift.” Are we to read the final panel’s embrace as a promise that this wished-for release might finally be coming? Or, an in “Darling, I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You,” is this yet another retreat from the reality of the failure to achieve “bliss” on earth? Like most of the stories in this volume, Davis does not give us the answer. She neither condemns nor romanticizes her characters, but accepts them on their own terms.

Howtobehappy_1In the science fiction story “Nita Goes Home,” for example, a young woman  who has abandoned the hypermodern city of her childhood for a rural life  returns home to say goodbye to her dying father. She is full of righteous contempt for the pop-ups that dominate every square inch of the city, for the hazard suits everyone must wear to go outside, and for the artificial fruits and vegetables that populate the grocery stores. But her own life on the farm—growing foods in the earth and living free of protective garments—is one that is possible only because of the full dome that protects its citizens from the elements and one financed by the extortionist prices they charge for their “gaiagrown” produce to those trapped in the city. Is one life more “pure,” more righteous than the other? More urgently, given the title of the volume, has Nita found happiness?

Once again, Davis doesn’t so much invite us to pass our own judgement so much as she welcomes us to engage the characters and their choices without judgment. In a society in which our every lifestyle choice is publicized on social media as if it were scripture and scrutinized by the mob of rival would-be messiahs we call “friends,” being asked not to judge the pursuits of happiness of others feels truly strange. And beautiful.

Howtobehappy_2And the book is, in every way, beautiful. Bringing together works in color (often layers of color without lines) with black-and-white pen and ink stories that activate the narrative energy of negative space in surprising ways, the volume is a delight just to stare at. Even for those stories that did not for me rise to the affective level of “Nita” or “In Our Eden”—such as “Summer Snakes”—the visual storytelling is so rich as to more than compensate for an undercooked narrative.

How to Be Happy is a book I will be returning to many times in the years to come, not in the hopes that it will, in fact, teach me how to be happy (Davis offers a disclaimer to that effect in the “Author’s Note”), but with confidence that it will continue to remind me why the pursuit of happiness can be such a beautiful thing indeed.

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NOTE: I do have one significant bone to pick with the volume, or its editing. A collection  such as this demands a proper accounting of original dates and sites of publication for each of the pieces, along with a table of contents—and not only for old bibliographers like myself.

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SECONDS

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Seconds (Ballintine, 2014). $25, hardcover.

seconds_covFor someone who writes a lot of reviews, I don’t read them very much. I am, after all, a highly-impressionable boy and so I try and make my own way and forge my own opinions as best I can. But upon finishing Bryan Lee O’Malley’s new book, Seconds, I could not resist the temptation to see how other reviewers were handling what seemed to me a “delicate” matter: the author of the beloved Scott Pilgrim series had written a brilliantly-rendered and beautifully-packaged second-rate book. Surely the resounding chorus of crickets that accompanied my reading of the book was still echoing in the ears of all other reviewers as they sat down to pay their respects to this ambitious but ultimately middling book.

Boy, was my face red! Turns out I was pretty much on my own (gosh, maybe I always am! Maybe I should read reviews more often…). The only thing to do for it was to reread the book, which was in truth appropriate for a book about rewindings and replayings. Unfortunately, try as I might in the end I could not successfully change my first impressions of the book the second time around: it remained beautiful to look at and profoundly underwhelming to read.

Heck, beautiful to look at is a good thing, especially for a visual medium. After all, Scott Pilgrim was a work-in-progress in terms of O’Malley’s development as a cartoonist, truly hitting its full stride in the final volumes when the artwork fully caught up to the energy and wit of the script. And in Seconds there can be no question of O’Malley’s skills as a visual storyteller. Working in color, with a larger format, his experiments with the pace and rhythms of the layouts are a pleasure, and the climactic scenes of super-weirdness at the book’s end are downright stunning. The character design for the protagonist, Katie, is pitch-perfect kuwaii: cute, cool but still believable as an ambitious 29-year old chef on the verge of opening a new restaurant. All of it is laid out beautifully, like a meal at Seconds, Katy’s restaurant (and home) and the setting for most of the drama that unfolds in this book. And the coloring by Nathan Fairbairn is stunning, at times even stealing the show entirely.

All of which is to say, there is a lot to like here. I do not regret the price of admission, and I for one am delighted to see O’Malley move past what was surely the daunting burden of all-eyes attention following Scott Pilgrim with what is by any account a solid single to centerfield. But that’s what we have here. Trying to make it more than it is simply because we love O’Malley and want him to hit a home run is revisionist thinking of the kind this book discourages.

On the level of script the book is at best uneven, struggling for tone and structure throughout and ultimately losing control of both by the end when everything goes apocalyptic and then suddenly ends with a disappointingly flat, “happy” ending. And I put scare-quotes around happy here because, well, really? We are supposed to be happy that Katie ends up having her cake (her new restaurant) and her other cake (Max, the pretty-boy ex who everything in the story up to the end suggested was not right for her). Not much of a lesson here; nor is one to be found in the big meaning Katie derives from her experiences of going out of control with her housesprite-inspired and mushroom-fuelled power: “there are things we can’t change, and we just have to accept that.” OK, it’s a fine lesson, but we didn’t need a 320-page book to tell it to us: there are plenty of motivational posters and AA bumperstickers that can tell us the same thing  much more economically. And, it needs to be said, unlike Scott Pilgrim, the book is just not funny. Not once in two reads did I laugh. OK, I came close once, but that was more of an embarrassed giggle when O’Malley recycled his own “bread makes you fat?” joke from Scott Pilgrim.

So, look. I’m glad this book is out there. Given the expectations, let’s call it a solid effort and move on. But let’s not pretend that this is a book we will be returning to again. I occasionally take some ribbing from my more caustic colleagues for being overly generous in my reviews, and it is true I generally  write reviews of books that I think are worth reading. After all, life is short and the marketplace is increasingly overcrowded with really strong (and expensive) books. For fans of Scott Pilgrim, this book is worth reading (although you can surely wait for the paperback edition). For folks who haven’t read Scott Pilgrim, well, read it, already. And if you want to read a funnier, smarter and more moving story about how and why you shouldn’t go back in time and try and change your life, read Jess Fink’s We Can Fix It (Top Shelf, 2013).

And let’s call Seconds single a single and stop trying to stretch it into a home run.

Seconds

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FAMILY TIES

Eric Hobbs & Noel Tuazon, Family Ties: An Alaskan Crime Drama (NBM, 2014). $13.99, paperback.

Family Ties_covIn 2010, Hobbs and Tuazon published The Broadcast, a sharp and compelling drama set against the backdrop of the Mercury Theater’s 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Reviewing the book at the time, I described it as a remarkably effective and efficient novella “that takes advantage of the unique affordances of the comics medium to tell a complex tale interweaving several sets of characters and individual dramas with minimal dialogue and remarkably little explication.” With their newest collaboration, Family Ties, they bring similar talents to a complex story, adapting Shakespeare’s King Lear to a modern-day crime syndicate in Alaska.

King Lear has not always translated well into other media and settings (think Godfather III), but for the most part it works well in Family Ties. Here, an Alaskan crime boss has come to the end of his career, his retirement made somewhat urgent by the onset of dementia. Here the role of Cordelia is played by the crimelord’s son and very unwilling heir, a male nurse recently returned from his studies. And along the way eyes are gouged out, guts are perforated, and backs are stabbed with furious abandon, as is of course entirely appropriate for one of the Bard’s bloodiest tales.

Hobbs does a terrific job in translating a fairly talky play into a predominantly visual medium, although in truth he at times depends for the effectiveness of his distillation on the reader’s familiarity with out least the broad outlines of the plot of Lear. The real star of this production is Tuazon, whose fragile linework competes bold swaths of inky grays to create just the right atmosphere for this murky tale of hubris and denial. He never makes us exactly care about any of the characters, but Lear is not a play where I much like any of them, including Cordelia. But Tuazon does make us believe in them and even forget, for a time, that they are acting out an old and familiar drama whose ending we already know.

In the end, Family Ties, while a successful endeavor, doesn’t quite rise to the level the two achieved in The Broadcast. Until late in the book, the setting of Alaska seemed largely irrelevant: it could have just as easily and convincingly been Chicago, or Miami, or Fargo. And even after the setting is used to some narrative and visual effect, it still feels more a gimmick than a necessity. And ultimately the turn to Lear for the story felt a bit like an undergraduate assignment, a step back for a writer who has already shown himself capable of crafting complex stories of betrayal and self-delusion without leaning on the shoulders of giants. But as a fan of crime comics, this volume most definitely convinced me that these two would make a great ongoing crime series. As much as I admire their efficiency and economy, I would really like to see what they could do together with more room to breathe.

family-ties

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RIP Chris Reilly

The sad news that Chris Reilly has died arrived last night. We here at guttergeek HQ had the pleasure of working with this mad genius for a stretch back in the day when we were hosted at TCJ.com, and before that we had the pleasure of reviewing what remains my favorite of his scripts, Igor: Fixed by Frankensteins

We will miss his bizarre and often outrageous sense of humor and his genuine love of comics storytelling in all its forms.

My favorite piece he did for us at guttergeek was an interview with Stan Lee, one now  lost to the sands of the internet (or, equally likely, removed by Disney/Marvel lawyers (vestiges of the completely inappropriate interview can be found at http://classic.tcj.com/blog/guttergeek-interview-stan-lee/ Among his surviving guttergeek works are an interview he conducted with one Chris Reilly; and inter/reviews with/of Michael Kupperman, Evan Dorkin, Graham Annable; and Derf, the bearer of the sad news.

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CELESTE

I. N. J. Culbard, Celeste (SelfMadeHero, 2014). $24.95, hardcover.

celeste-covAs a big fan of Culbard’s earlier work, especially his masterful adaptations of the works of Lovecraft, I was very much looking forward to the release of his first original graphic novel. In some respects, the book lived up to my anticipation. Freed from the constraints of adaptation, Culbard was able here in Celeste to open up his pages and show off some virtuosic graphic storytelling moves. For example, early in the book, there is a splendid two page spread in which the three central characters each engage in the act of tying—shoelaces, a necktie, a noose—in three tiers layered over a space-eye view of the earth and moon. Like so many pages in this book it is beautiful and reveals a talented and thoughtful visual storyteller with tremendous potential. Unfortunately, in Celeste, Culbard does not have a story that lives up to that potential.

For me at least, the story itself felt contrived, unconvincing, and overwrought. It is not that the theme—the temptations and perils of solipsism—is not a worthy one, but in the end, the script felt like an odd mashup of an after-school special and a scifi horror that did not wholly succeed as a strong entry in either genre. I could not help but compare it to Frederik Peeters’ recent Pachyderme (also published in English by SelfMadeHero), which similarly works with a story that is often obscure and heavily dependent on symbolism, and which could be read as similarly resolving itself into a fairly conventional “message” (in Peeters’ case, one having to do with the central protagonist following her repressed dream of pursuing a creative life). Why did the one work so effectively for me on all levels while Culbard’s equally ambitious and challenging book seemed to show its seams and its eagerness to be ambitious? At its core, such a question lead us into the places where creative alchemy does its magic—or fails to do so—and a lifetime of thinking about storytelling has convinced me that no efforts at reverse-engineering will ever deliver the recipe.

That said, I do think that in Culbard’s case it is possible that too much time in the Lovecraft trenches has held back his own storytelling voice and vision. As I have written elsewhere, I admire Culbard for taking a writer I find overrated at best and cringe-worthy at worst and transmuting his work into powerful and effective narratives. But too much time staring at the purple prose and occultist stagecraft of a second-rate author is not a healthy diet for any author. Celeste reads like a first book by an accomplished artist, which is exactly what it is: a work of storytelling juvenelia by a very mature artist. I look forward to watching his skills as a writer catch up with his artistry in the (I hope) original graphic novels to come.

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