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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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:

ChapterThree Figure02

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.

Heromachine1

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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