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?
Paul Pope, Battling Boy (First Second, 2013). $15.99, paperback.
What the world does not need now is another review of Battling Boy, and so I am not going to write one. Because I don’t need to, thanks to my friend Charles Hatfield, who wrote pretty much everything I have to say on the subject over at TCJ.com. This is a good thing for several reasons, the first being that he writes a mean good review (“mean” in this case signifying “awesome”). Second, I am lazy. Third, I want to go read Battling Boy again, and then force my kids to read it so I have an excuse to read it a third time over their shoulders. So, I’m just going to quote Charles:
Battling Boy is a paean to the world-building powers and reckless energy of cartooning. Dynamic, brash, stuffed with surprises, yet also knowingly crafted, tightly braided, even subtle, it is Pope’s best balancing act yet between the joys of rampant mark-making and the responsibilities of story.
What he said. This book feels always one false move away from being out of control, off the tracks and in pieces on the floor. But it doesn’t make a false move, or ever truly come close—instead leaving you teetering over the edge of the coaster pretty much the whole way, unconscious of the remarkable engineering keeping the whole rickety enterprise erect and, appearances to the contrary, safe as houses.
For all his eloquent praise of the book, CH did mention two disappointments. First, the book, published in First Second’s standard format, is perhaps too small to let Pope’s electric lines truly hum. I get that, and there were times my aging eyes were wishing for a magnifying glass . But I also understand what First Second was thinking in going with this smaller size—looking at the new comics-for-smart-younger-readers marketplace Battling Boy is competing in (Amulet leaps to mind), keeping the price of the volume under $20 is a smart move. And have no fear, aging fan-boys and -girls, there will surely be a deluxe, oversized, hardcover edition for our demographic down the line.
Charles’ other concern is a tougher one to counter: the book just…. ends. No one likes a cliffhanger more than me, but here it feels more like the tape ran out. Pope’s relative lack of experience in plotting 400-page serial arcs and managing the gaps between installments might be the culprit here. But you know what, as long as we get volume 2 soon, all will be well…
And here is where I start getting edgy: when is the next volume coming? This first had been teased for a good long time before we got to hold it in our over-eager hands. And not bound by the demands (increasingly unenforced though they might be) of traditional serial comic book formats, it is hard not to feel anxious about the uncertain wait for volume 2. And it is harder still not to fret that Pope might really mean it when he says this is to be a two-volume project. Really? We’re just getting started! Surely we need 3… or maybe 10?
Alright. I’ll breathe deeply and return you back to the calmer hands of Charles Hatfield. (But PP, if you’re listening: how about we compromise? 5 volumes?)
Gabriel Hardman, Kinski (Monkey Brain, 2013), #1-3 of 6. digital.
There has been a hole in my life ever since David Lapham stopped serializing Stray Bullets, a hole unfilled by any of Lapham’s subsequent efforts. Three issues in, Gabriel Hardman’s Kinski is laying its claim to the vacant space and setting up shop.
And yet, just three issues in to this digital series, I don’t have a clear sense as to why. After all, so far the first three issues feature no crime more horrible than the stealing of a dog from a young boy—pretty horrid, yes, but that would be a kittens-and-teddybears moment in Stray Bullets. In fact, the first three issues have covered precisely the following plot points: #1: stealing of dog; #2: decision to drive dog the fifteen hours home after the airplane won’t allow him in the cabin; #3: the decision to return the dog.
But over it all hovers an air of menace, instability, coiled danger as intense as anything in Lapham’s Baltimore. Much of this lies with our protagonist, Joe— Kinski’s would-be rescuer, chicken feed salesman and delusional gallant who is clearly heading into a world of trouble he can’t begin to anticipate. The spare, gritty black and white effectively captures the jagged edge on which Joe is riding, taking us into a world at once etched in hard, spare lines and simultaneously out of focus, as if shrouded in fog. The feeling is very much one of riding shot gun towards a car crash, everything slowing down to a series of storyboard fragments before the final impact.
Half-way through the six-issue series, I am still not sure what to expect when all the pieces collide, but I am strapped in (and subscribed) for the rest of the ride. Don’t let me down, Joe. I’m counting on you.
With one week left to go in their kickstarter campaign, it is time for one last blast of my feeble trumpet to rouse the comics-hungry masses to Cartozia Tales—the shared-world, collaborative, kid-friendly and adult-tasty serial anthology comics that you’ve all been waiting for (even if you didn’t know it yet).
Imagine aanthology comics like Dark Horse Presents got together with a shared-world scifi/fantasy book like, say, Metatropolis. And they had a love child. And that love child got together at a groovy orgy with Elfquest, Chickenhare, Grickle, Castle Waiting, Bone … well, you get the idea. Just like that, but a lot more kid-friendly than this overly graphic and extended metaphor. What you end up with is something that looks like this:
Still with me? OK, let’s switch metaphors now, because unlike the genetic hybrid of complicated multigenerational comics procreation Cartozia Tales continues to evolve with each and every issue, as the core creators trade storylines and characters amongst themselves (if you are still attached to last paragraph’s sexytimes analogy, you might think of adding Spiegelman’s Narrative Corpse to the orgy you’ve concocted in your sick and sordid imagination).
But wait: there’s more! In addition to a terrific team of core contributors to this storyworld, they invited guest artists to join their world on a regular basis, folks like James Kochalka, Kevin Cannon, and Dylan Horrocks. And even these transient friends of Cartozia can and will add characters, places previously undiscovered, powers previously unimagined. And so on until comics utopia on earth is finally established and we can shake off our mundane existences for a two-bedroom cottage in Cartozia.
Heck, even if we don’t quite get there, this is a project every lover of comics should support, if only to see how this grand experiment plays out. I confess to not being a neutral observer here, and not because I am fond of the book’s super-smart, Isaac Cates. No, I am far from objective because I want my Cartozia Tales, and I don’t see how this can go forward without the community pitching in to let this universe take flight into the future.
Need more? Isaac and company have an awesome assortment of premiums available—original art, commissions, and fun goodies and extras. Want to see more? Explore the Cartozia website at cartozia.com.