With this entry, we launch a new featurette here at guttergeek HQ: “Gutter Briefs,” a hit-and-run review roundup of some titles that caught our attention but not always at the right time for us to sit down for a full and proper review. For the most part these are books I would love to review in more depth and detail if not for that whole day job thing. Time marches on and there are always new books to review, but these are a few of my favorites I don’t want to forget along the way…
Liz Prince, Tomboy (Zest Books, 2014). $15.99, paperback.
There is a lot to like a bout Liz Prince’s comics (not least of which is the fact that she still holds the prize for best title of a comic book ever with Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed?, her 2005 debut). What I like most is her ability to avoid the deadly traps of self-seriousness to which the graphic memoirist is inevitably prone, maintaining always in her work an understanding of the absurdity of this life we live. With Tomboy, a memoir about her lifelong war with gender norms, she brings her characteristic ability to laugh at the traumatic while acknowledging the trauma of the seemingly mundane. In the end, the volume might not have any messages that we wouldn’t find in an episode of Freaks and Geeks. But they are good messages beautifully rendered here, and this is a book I would recommend to freaks and geeks of any age and stripe, but especially the teenaged kind, when everything and every day is truly the end of the world. It really isn’t, Prince reminds us, but it really, really does suck. But not as much as not being ourselves would. As lessons go, that might in fact be the only one we need to make it from 13 to 30.
Katie Skelly, Operation Margarine (AdHouse Books, 2014). $12.95, paperback.
Skelly’s first book, Nurse Nurse (Sparkplug, 2012) collected her mini-comic of the same name, telling the freewheeling sci fi adventures of Gemma, intergalactic nurse. The volume was fueled with improvisatory energy, like a series of dreams after watching Barbarella with a high fever. Operation Margarine similarly collects a series of Skelly’s mini-comics, but this time around it is clear that she had a vision for the book in mind from the start, and this particular fever dream—this time with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! playing in the background—is both more structured and more satisfying. I don’t want to confess I found the ending actually moving, since that does not seem to be the intended affect, but in truth I did. Ride on, Margarine!
Box Brown, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend (First Second, 2014). $17.99, paperback.
Somehow despite having read this book multiple times over the summer, I neglected to review it. Well, that’s part of what this little corner of the guttergeek empire is for—to make wash away my sins. This biography of the professional wrestling legendAndre the Giant (perhaps best known to non-wrestling fans for his role in Princess Bride) is a pleasure from start to finish. Meticulously researched and informed by a lifetime of fascination with the history and art of professional wrestling, the biography never gives in to either minutia or hagiography, instead presenting a profoundly compelling and compassionate portrait of a man who was at once profoundly blessed and doomed from birth. Brown brings to this first major book-length project his unique style—thick lines and broad shading that plays at a simplicity that (at first) draws attention away from the obsessive design of each panel. In fact, Brown’s style somewhat mirrors the style and aesthetics of pro wrestling itself: a deceptively simple collision of forces that obscures the intricate performance that made it all possible. In addition to making new fans for Andre the Giant, I hope this book makes new fans for Box Brown. (And if you are one of those new fans, seek out his ongoing Kayfabe Quarterly at Retrofit Comics, a micropress he runs to keep the art of the floppy comic alive into the 21st century.)
Sam Alden, It Never Happened Again (Uncivilized Books, 2014). $11.99, paperback.
There have been lots of signs out there that Sam Alden’s star is rising fast, including a place of honor in last year’s Best American Comics and the anticipation surrounding the release of It Never Happened Again (not to mention winning last year’s Ignatz Award for most promising new talent, which is probably what I should have led with). In 2013 he serialized Haunter with Zack Soto’s Study Group, which has been publishing some of the most exciting webcomics around, and earlier this year published a beautiful fable, Wicked Chicken Queen, with Box Brown and Jared Smith’s Retrofit Comics, dedicated to preserving the art of the alt-floppy.
Alden is young (at least from where I sit in the cosmic timeline) and like many talented young cartoonists, his vision as an artist still outstrips by a few steps his voice as a storyteller. But the gap is closing fast, at least from the evidence supplied in this first book. It Never Happened Again collected two long stories, “Hawaii 1997” (originally published online at Alden’s tumblr site) and “Anime.” Telling the story of a childhood encounter with an elusive love-object in an unchaperoned moonlight romp, “Hawaii 1997” sparkled online, working perfectly with the vertical format and unscrolling like a filmstrip entirely made of paper and pencil. Bound now in the book, the story feels flatter, easier, and the art moves and shimmers less than it did online. Its final gesture feels like the stuff of creative writing seminars, and usually the kinds of ending that don’t, frankly, survive the workshopping. I found myself in fact going back to Alden’s website to remind myself why I found the piece so captivating in the first place, and its failure to fully translate to book form strikes me as worthy of further inquiry as we all of us try and learn more about the unique affordances of the various media and mediums in which we publish and read comics in the 21st century.
But “Anime,” which felt very much built for this volume, made me forget any deflation I experienced in re-encountering “Hawaii 1997.” “Anime” is a mature, nuanced character study of a young woman seeking salvation from her sense of alienation (with her community, her family, her job, her life) in an obsessively planned trip to Japan. Born Janet, she has renamed herself “Kiki,” the first stage in what she hopes will be a much more profound transformation. Borrowing her new name from the classic anime Kiki’s Delivery Service by Miyazaki, in which a young witch discovers a new community and a new sense of self after being transplanted to a world far from her home, our Kiki hopes for an equally magic adventure and, finally, a sense of home and belonging. In the first half of the story we see her dogged preparations—saving every penny she earns peddling tourists around town, teaching herself Japanese, and most important, watching all the magical girl anime she can get her hands on.
The second half—largely wordless—describes her experience in Japan. Not surprisingly, the real world has a hard time measuring up to the fantasies promised by Kiki or Cardcaptor Sakura. Without giving away too much of the resolution, suffice it to say that by its end the reader is not sure what to wish for Kiki. Torn between loathing and identification, we are suffused with an ambivalence that effectively calls into play our own attachments and pop culture-inflected fantasy lives.
As is clear from the pages reproduced above, Alden does all of this with what might at first appear to be pencil roughs, the kind of lines a cartoonist might use in thumbnailing a longer narrative. This is especially the case in “Hawaii” where the lines are at times so brusque and seemingly cavalier as to tend towards abstraction—perfectly capturing that first psychedelic experience of late childhood when all the structures and rhythms of normal, everyday life seem to fall away, exhilarating terrifying at once. In “Anime” Alden brings more nuanced shading to his panels, but the work remains entirely in graphite, a tool that seems at his hands suddenly to have been criminally covered over by generations of inkers. In Alden’s hand, the pencil line has a timbre we have heard too little in graphic storytelling.
Since the 2013 Ignatz award at SPX was based on part on “Hawaii,” it is “Anime” that carried the burden of revealing whether that promise was going to be realized going forward. And “Anime,” his best work to date, more than stands up to the considerable pressure a young cartoonist faces when declared “most likely” by his profession. This is a volume, and a cartoonist, that in every way lives up to those expectations and sets us up for beautiful things to come.
Eleanor Davis, How to Be Happy (Fantagraphics, 2014). $24.99, hardcover.
For 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.
In 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.
And 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.
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.
Bryan Lee O’Malley, Seconds (Ballintine, 2014). $25, hardcover.
For 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.
Eric Hobbs & Noel Tuazon, Family Ties: An Alaskan Crime Drama (NBM, 2014). $13.99, paperback.
In 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.