VIP: The Mad World of Virgil Partch (Fantagraphics, 2013). $49.99, hardcover.
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?
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.
Frederik Peeters, Pachyderme (SelfMade Hero, 2012). $19.95, hardcover.
Most of us in the States haven’t seen much of Frederik Peeters since the 2008 translation of Blue Pills. And so there may be some surprise to readers familiar with that earlier work’s style, both textually and visually, upon picking up Pachyderme. But for readers in the Francophone comics community, the transformations in Peeters’ work from Blue Pills, originally published in 2001, to his most recent work will be quite familiar.
Indeed, Peeters is a reminder of something I talk about at some length in a recent piece at Public Books: the fact that living, as we do, in a relatively golden age of Franco-Belgian comics in translation serves only to remind us how much amazing work still remains inaccessible to English readers. Aside from the translation of Peeters’ 2001 book and his collaborative work with Pierre Wazem on Koma, we have little sense of the Swiss cartoonist’s career on this side of the Atlantic (and Koma, a dizzying and moving dystopian fantasy, received shockingly little attention when Humanoids published an English edition in 2012). Fortunately, SelfMade Hero is going to change all that, having picked up the English-language rights to his celebrated sci-fi series Aama, already out in the UK and making its way to these shores in the spring.
In the meantime, however, there is more than enough to bring stateside readers up to speed with the range and talent of this cartoonist, whose Blue Pills, engaging as it was, now looks a bit like juvenilia in comparison. It feels almost hubristic to offer my own thoughts on a book endorsed in glowing, if somewhat mystical, terms by the late, great Moebius in his preface. But Pachyderme is itself a work that celebrates and perhaps inspires hubristic flights of fancy, so that will serve as my excuse. Telling the story of a young wife dreaming-walking her way through the tail end of a marriage towards the realization of dreams long deferred, it is a book about claiming confidence and embracing dreams, however messy they turn out to be.
And our protagonist’s dreams are messy indeed. Beginning with a traffic jam extending for miles down a country road, we meet our heroine striding purposely past the fallen elephant which lies at the center of the chaos, confronting a policeman attempting to bring order to the madness, and then taking an expected detour into the woods in search of an elusive hospital. There she will meet a blind shepherd and his pigs and a mutant fetus-baby before finally arriving at the hospital where her husband has supposedly been taken. And that is when things start to get really strange.
All of it has the feel of a hallucinogenic fantasy straight out of the acid-trip travelogues of the late 60s. But from the start, the linework, framing, the misé-en-page, and the carefully modulated expressive coloring all serve to assure the reader that a storyteller is very much in control here, inspiring confidence seemingly simultaneously in both reader and protagonist, as together they delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries that surround her, in search of a key that will unlock the door through which the larger reasons for this voyage will at last be clear. For both the reader and the protagonist, the payoff is in every way worth the confusions and frustrations that arise along the way.
The book is a testament to the power of graphic storytelling. But it is also a declaration of an artist who has arrived at the height of his powers and is, like his protagonist, ready to show of the full strength of his artistry.
Ales Kot, et al, ZERO (Image Comics, 2013). #1-2 (ongoing). $2.99.
Two issues in, and I confess I am a bit underwhelmed by Zero, Kot’s much-anticipated new series at Image. Kot’s last book, Change, was so off-the-hook ambitious and convoluted that I hardly knew where to begin writing about it. Zero, on the other hand, feels (at least comparatively) so familiar and generically bounded that I can’t help but wonder if someone has the real Ales Kot tied up in the Image warehouse?
Alright, I’m exaggerating, of course. But this guy is seriously talented and original I don’t want a solid but recognizable comics from him. Two issues in, this series is still better written than most and more than engaging enough to keep me on board. But that is the kind of praise I usually reserve for young comics writers who haven’t yet found their voice. Here it seems as if Kot temporarily lost his, letting a pastiche of genre-clippings from Ender’s Game and the Bourne series fill the void.
If the opening arc is being somewhat bounded by narrative convention and generic expectations in order to lure in a broader audience for Kot’s brand of scripting, then all will be well. In the meantime, the series needs to find an artist and stick with it. Changing pencilers for each of the opening issues might be justifiable formally in terms of the conceit of Zero’s 1001 nights of storytelling that the book is playing with, as our protagonist tells his life story in installments to a child-assassin who is holding a gun to his head. But it feels forced and it risks undermining what I am hoping is the goal of building a broader readership dedicated to the series and its main character.
And while we are on the subject: can we let the kid put down his gun? I mean, even Shahryār had to sleep sometimes while Scheherazade came up with new stories.
Dash Shaw, New School (Fantagraphics, 2013). $39.99, hardcover.
I have never reviewed a Dash Shaw book despite his impressive achievements over the course of the last few years. Few young cartoonists have produced a more substantial body work in such a short time, and fewer still have garnered such overwhelming praise. But despite appreciating Bottomless Belly Button (2008) and Body World (2010) I found myself sitting on the critical sidelines, unable to rise to the rhapsodic praise of the comics press and uninterested in playing the part of the contrarian. After all, I didn’t dislike Shaw’s work, I just couldn’t bring into focus a clear response, one way or the other. With New School, I found myself for the first time tipping the scales from relative ambivalence and its accompanying writer’s block towards a small rush of prose and its accompanying adrenaline. And yet now, having made the mistake of not quite getting around to the review for several months, I find it hard to easily summon up my initial enthusiasm after finishing the book.
Part of the problem I confess comes from the physical space that New School has occupied on my cluttered desk for these many weeks, where it has been waiting for me to prose some prose and the find it a permanent home in the library shelves. With each passing week, as my initial buzz of reading New School faded, it seemed increasingly that the book was occupying more real estate than it had earned. Twice I started the review, as I usually do, by writing out the author, title, etc up front, only to stumble over the price of the oversized hardbound volume. Did it, too, demand too much in relation to what the book ultimately had to offer?
My second-guessing, of course, was due to my failed attempts to try to recover the initial burst of energy with which I was infused after reading the book for the first time, it does not quite deliver a repeat performance. The playful humor of the over-labored Victorian diction that had so delighted me when the father gave his dramatic synopsis the plot of Jurassic Park—”I can think of it no more! It is far too horrifying to recount!” didn’t seem quite so funny now. Nor did our protagonist’s Cassandra-like vision from the early 90s of a future live-action version of X-Men starring Patrick Stewart as Xavier. The humor, turned out to be a one-time gift, as humor often does, but so did the story. The tale of two brothers and their shared but ultimately very different transformations during their pilgrimage to Clockworld turned out to be less loaded with buried possibilities than the narrative’s tonal resonances with Ben Katchor’s work had led me to expect.
But a second time through and months removed from the initial reading, the book now captivates for different reasons and in different ways. Now, instead of turning the pages to find out what happens next, each two-page spread commands a pause, a different reading, one that leaves the narrative—such as it is—behind in favor of other pleasures and rewards. Now I find myself transfixed by the colors, the patterns and rhythms of the panels and the negative space colonized, often violently, by what at times feels to be a Sharpie deployed by a gloved hand. The characters, their absurd concerns and ambitions, seem to recede in the background, trading places with purely visual elements and something closer to abstract comics.
Now, and only now, I get the reasons why this book is produced as an oversized hardbound volume, more closely resembling an exhibition catalog than a comics volume. This is a comic that transforms, as if by magic, into an art book, closer to an exhibition catalog than a graphic novel. Unlike almost any graphic narrative I can think of (outside those collected in Andrei Molotiu’s 2009 volume), I want to see these pages on a gallery wall. I find myself tempted in a way I have not been since I first encountered a cut-out paper toy in Acme Novelty Library many years ago to pick up a pair of scissors and start cutting this book up and pasting it around my office walls. Thankfully, the good folks at Fantagraphics made a book that costs (and whose printing and quality in every way justifies) forty dollars, so the scissors stay in my drawer and the book remains intact. All of which is a good thing, because who knows what this book will become the next time I sit down with it?