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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THE HERO MACHINE

E. S. Davies, The Hero Machine #1-2 (INP). <http://www.inpcomics.com>

heromachine_cov2 As long-time readers of this site will recall (hi, kids!), Eric Davies is an old friend to guttergeek, contributing some comics, like “Adventures in Comic Book Stores,”  back in the good old days when we were were young and full of hope in the future. Ah, 2009…

In his day job Eric is an Emmy-nominated editor for The Daily Show and other geek faves like Bill Moyers; but all of that is just a cover for his work as creator of an awesome comic for creative kids: The Hero Machine. Issue #2 just premiered at MOCCA a couple of weeks ago, and it is even more fun than the first (which was, to be clear, a blast).  Some comics—the good ones—make you want to go back and read them again as soon as you finish them. Davies’ The Hero Machine is the first comics I have read since I was still in short-pants that made me go back to read it again with a pencil in hand.

Davies’ goal here is a simple one: to remind us that comics are meant to be read and made! When Superman himself was launched in 1938 in Action Comics #1, the inside cover reminded us of this fundamental fact of comics:

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Unlike movies or novels, comics was from the start storytelling everyone could make and share. Today, mainstream superhero comics rarely offer such invitations to young readers (leaving aside the fact that so few mainstream comics today offer stories young people want to read, or, if they do, which their parents would be eager for them to read). Digitally-mediated at every turn, the hand of the artist polished to invisibility, today’s superhero comics seem to convey with every panel (as their corporate overlords at Disney and TimeWarner very much want them to say): look, but don’t touch!

Of course, the lack of invitation is made clear in other respects as well: long, convoluted story-arcs that leave any dream of completism and the sense of ownership that comes with it always out of reach; multiverses and parallel universes that leave young readers new to comics always afraid to say anything  lest they get it “wrong.” It is no wonder the comics reader is aging, nor any wonder that young people prefer—if they are going to be kept at arm’s length from their heroes anyway—to consume them in manageable movie and tv series. If I were their age, I would as well.

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The Hero Machine gets back to basics: the pure fun of making up superheroes, drawing them, and sending them into narrative battle. And since young folk like gadgets, Davies and his young heroes even offer a simple machine you can make yourself (all you need is a pair of scissors, some pushpins, and some cardboard) to get the fun started. Issue #1 introduced the central characters and their marvelous machine for creating new heroes, but it is in #2 that things truly take off—as an alien somewhat suspiciously named “Yug Dab” to get our young artists and their creations to help save his planet. I won’t give away the end, but suffice it to say that if our artists are smart enough to invent a hero machine they are smart enough to spell “Yug Dab” backwards before it is too late.

Heromachine2

Comics were about participatory culture a good century before the interwebs came along and took credit for the whole idea. Davies is part of a growing movement (James Sturm’s Adventures in Cartooning series being perhaps the most high-profile member) to give back to kids the power of cartooning and the freedom to make comics in an industry that often seems to have forgotten they exist. But even if Davies’ intended audience is a few decades younger than me, it is a reminder comics readers of any age need to hear. Thanks, Eric!

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VIP

VIP: The Mad World of Virgil Partch (Fantagraphics, 2013). $49.99, hardcover.

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In the place of a review of this magnificent collection of the life and work of one of our most talented and hysterical cartoonists, I direct anyone unfamiliar with the work of Virgil Partch to my tumblr page where I have assembled a small collection of some favorites by way of enticement to seek out the volume itself. In addition to a generous and lovingly assembled collection of Partch’s work across many of his favorite themes, the book features a fascinating biography of VIP by Jonathan Barli.

And if you already know VIP’s work, you can skip the tumblr page and just go out and pick up the book. But then again, who wouldn’t want more Partch?

 

 

 

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Comics@Public Books

Over the past year or so I have been an occasional contributor to Public Books, an online multimedia review affiliated with the print journal Public Culture. Starting January 15th, we’re going to go steady with a monthly review, beginning with a piece on my favorite books of 2013. I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to be a part of the growing awesomeness of this diverse and dynamic book-loving community.

Comics fans might not yet have Public Books on their radar, but there has been a lot of great stuff going on there during the first two years of the online journal. In addition to my handful of reviews, the early years have featured review-essays on Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? by Heather Love and on Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb and Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Joseph Masco.

More recently in the midst of the holiday madness, PB published two fabulous pieces on graphic narrative that guttergeek readers might well have missed in the chaos. In the December 15th issue, guttergeek-vet and Comics Studies rockstar Hillary Chute offers a lush review of Miriam Katin’s graphic memoir Letting It Go and Cynthia Copeland’s Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce. And Paul Vandecarr interviews Laura Bolaños, one of the main author of the long-running Mexican romance comic Historia Semanal de Amor y Pasión. 

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