Category: Reviews

Mudman, Vol. 1 by Paul Grist

Mudman, Vol. 1 by Paul Grist

This is nearly everything, but not quite everything. Mudman ran for six issues from Image in 2011-2013, and the first five of those issues were collected in Mudman, Vol. 1 .

It’s clearly a teen superhero comic, another one in the long line spawned by Spider-Man, and slightly more conventional than creator Paul Grist’s previous superhero comic Jack Staff . I knew, going in, that there was just one collection, and assumed the series was dead, but I didn’t realize there was one stray uncollected issue out there, taunting me.

Owen Craig is a teenager at the beginning of a new school term in Burnbridge-on-Sea, a sleepy English village that’s probably in some specific part of the country (on the sea, obviously – I got that part – but I bet Grist has a county and rough location in mind, too). Some not-really-explained thing happens, in an abandoned “Scooby Doo” house out on the sea-side, and Owen gets fabulous mud-based powers!

Spoiler: mud-based powers are not actually all that fabulous.

As with Jack Staff, there’s a lurking sense that Grist can’t quite take all of this superhero stuff essentially seriously. Oh, he has a mysterious cool-looking figure who says cryptic things, has unknown powers, and radiates danger, and he’s toned down the random splash pages that were so fun in Jack Staff. But this is still a comic about a teenage boy – a gawky, bullied, more-than-a-little goofy boy – who gets mud-based superpowers, and it’s really hard to say, “Yeah! Mudman! Splat that bad guy!”

(It reminds me of my joke in college, when a group of friends were fake-creating a superteam. I came up with a guy called String Boy, who could control anything made out of string. Obviously pathetic: that was the point. The big deal was going to be that, several years in and probably as part of a big Crisis hoo-haw, String Boy would discover Cosmic Strings – an actual scientific theory, which I think I only broke as much as comics writers ever do – and bootstrapped himself up to Beyonder-level powers to Show Them All.)

This is not exactly an arc; Grist is following a much older comics model in which every issue is an actual separate story on its own. So we have five loosely connected, and consecutive, tales of Owen as he gets the powers of Mudman and starts to figure out what the hell their deal is. There are bank robbers, and that mysterious (ex-hero? world-class villain?) figure, and Owen’s father, a local police detective. There is the new girl at school he has a crush on and a female figure who appears mostly in visions and may have died decades ago. There’s a whole lot of complications that Grist didn’t really get to do much with, because this ended in six issues, likely because the superhero audience was not as excited by a mud-based superhero as he hoped.

So this is fun, kind of a lower-key Jack Staff, and good for people who like that Paul Grist superhero stuff – I do, and I wish more people did – but it’s also a decade old, not particularly successful when it came out, unfinished, and about a British kid whose power is to hurl balls of mud at people. C’est la vie.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed

Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed

Anyone who’s traveled in the lands of SF has heard the complaints about worldbuilding: too much research and not enough life, a love of one’s own creations, special pleading and crank ideas. But most of fiction never went that far down the rabbit hole to begin with; most genres could use more worldbuilding, more thought put into how fictional worlds work, more rigor and more demonstrations.

I have no idea if Deena Mohamed ever heard any of those SFnal arguments: she’s Egyptian and works in the comics form, but it’s a big world full of ideas that bounce around, so anything is possible. Her new graphic novel Shubeik Lubeik  is a masterclass in how to do worldbuilding well, immersing the reader in an alternate present that’s a lot like our world in many ways, with the usual One Big Change.

This is a three-part story, and, from the author’s acknowledgements, I think they originally appeared separately when published in Egypt. So call it a trilogy if you have to, but it’s all one thing, and the US publication puts it all under one set of covers, the way it should be. I can’t find a translation credit, and the acknowledgements seem to be in the same “font” as Mohamed’s comics-pages lettering, so I’m guessing this was either originally in English or that Mohamed translated it into English herself. Either way: this is the kind of graphic story that’s the product of one person, from ideas to layout to words to colors to letters.

One quick note: this reads right-to-left on the page, like manga – or, more relevantly, like Arabic in print – rather than left-to-right, as English-language comics generally do. I didn’t see a notice to that effect in the digital copy I read; it should be more obvious in the physical book. And the first few comics pages have just a few panels, stacked vertically, which can obscure the reading direction at first. If you’ve ever read “unflipped” manga, it shouldn’t be any issue, but it’s something to know in order to read Shubeik Lubeik correctly.

“Shubeik Lubeik” are the traditional first words of a djinn: what he says when he’s released from his lamp or bottle or whatever. In English, it would be “your wish is my command,” which means we’re getting shortchanged compared to the graceful rhyme in Arabic. Mohamed tells the story of three wishes here – three powerful, life-changing wishes – in a modern-day Cairo where the last century was subtly different after wishes were discovered, systematized, and industrialized.

There’s some interesting background details there: Mohamed doesn’t dwell on them, but she clearly understands well how colonialism works and has worked out the different ways it would have affected this changed world. Some of that is plot-relevant, especially near the end, but a lot more is just the world our characters live in. Wishes are consumer products, so there’s international commerce and consumer-protection legislation, wish-mining nations and wish-refining nations, standard levels of wishes and international agreements about all of that.

That’s the first thing to know about Shubeik Lubeik: it’s deeper and much more resonant than you might think. It’s not the story of a djinn, or multiple djinni. In this world, a wish is a powerful piece of transformative magic, but not a person. The people who matter here are all human, and what matters to them is what matters to all of us: family and partners, how to fit into the world, friends and working life, history both family and official. The difference is that they can buy wishes – strong ones are very expensive, dangerous ones are cheap – and try to phrase what they want in just the right words so they actually get it.

All three stories start with Shokry, who runs a kiosk on a Cairo street – in an American context, think of it as a concentrated, one-man convenience store or bodega, open to the air and crammed full of stuff to sell to passers-by. Among that stuff is a case with three first-class wishes: he’s had them for a long time and would really like to get them off his hands.

Shokry is a good Muslim, of a tradition that says that using wishes is sinful, no matter why. So the wishes are a burden of conscience to him: he doesn’t want to keep them, after all these years. He doesn’t want to be the cause of bad acts of others. They are valuable, but it’s a value he’s never been able to tap, and he will never use them himself.

All three wishes do get used, one per section. If you know anything about wish-stories, you can guess the paths will not be smooth for the people wishing, and that having a wish is only the beginning. The three stories are all serious, with flashes of humor – the first is the most serious, with a lower-class woman, Aziza, who runs into bad trouble just trying to use her wish.

In between the three sections are more of those worldbuilding details: text features that mimic government bulletins or consumer pamphlets from this world, explaining the history and regulation of wishes, giving warnings about the dangers of third-class wishes or detailing the new Egyptian requirements for all wishes to be registered with the government and their uses approved beforehand. This sometimes prefigures things that will be important in the story later, sometimes adds color and detail to the world, sometimes makes it clear that Great Powers are just as rapacious and destructive in this world as in our own. All of it is depth: this is a living world, full of complex people, and the addition of wishes didn’t change life, but it did make things different in new and inventive ways.

Mohamed has delivered here a major work, full of engaging cartooning and real people and emotionally resonant stories. She immediately leaps as a major comics-maker on the world stage, telling us stories we wouldn’t hear otherwise, from a perspective new and exciting and particular and specific. Shubeik Lubeik is a magnificent achievement and sure to be one of the best graphic novels of the year.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Back to Basics, Vol. 4: The Flood by Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet

Back to Basics, Vol. 4: The Flood by Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet

Jumping in at volume four, you might want a Synopsis for Latecomers .

Or, perhaps, you might want to know what happened in earlier Back to Basics books. This is a humorous, more-or-less autobiographical comics series originally published in France in the early Aughts, soon after the events depicted. Cartoonist Manu Larcenet moved from Paris to a small rural town – Ravenelles is either the name of the town, or the house he lives in, or something like that – along with his partner Mariette, and these are stories of his adventures there, almost entirely in the traditional “rural people are stoic, laconic, and good at everything, while urbanites are neurotic and mostly useless” mode. There’s also an element of “I am a total goofball who is barely useful at anything, and my partner is a wonderful angel in everything,” which is also deeply traditional.

The credits are unclear, and the story of the creation of this series is played for laughs in this series, but my current theory, based on what we see in this book and the previous one, is that Larcenet told stories of his life to Jean-Yves Ferri, who then scripted them for Larcenet to draw. How much Larcenet altered those scripts in the drawing is an open question. For this US publication – in the mid-Teens, about a decade after the French originals – they were translated by Mercedes Claire Gilliom.

The substance of Back to Basics is ninety half-page comic strips in each book – think of them roughly as modern Sunday-comics size, sometimes one big panel, sometimes a 2×3 grid, sometimes somewhere in between – which each have their own setups and punch lines but tend to cluster into storylines and tell one general overall story for the book. 

This fourth book, The Flood , follows Real Life , Making Plans , and The Great World . It it, the baby born at the end of Great World is now a loudly squalling bundle most of the time, as babies often are. Her name is Capucine, but she mostly functions as a noisemaker and a burden here.

So this is largely the-baby-is-crying humor, with sidelines in how-can-I-get-away-from-the-crying-baby and don’t-make-any-noise-the-baby-is-sleeping and our-lives-are-suddenly-different, as usual. The other big event is implied by the title: there are massive rainstorms, which flood large portions of this countryside but don’t really affect Larcenet and family directly.

Oh, a rave does descend on their house because of the rain, I suppose. But it’s mostly baby stuff, which is entirely normal: babies are overwhelming and completely transform your life.

It’s fun and funny and continues the stories from the previous books – I don’t want to overstate “stories” here, since this really is something like a daily comic, with those kind of rhythms – and I’d recommend it for people who like that kind of thing.

One quirky thing: I don’t think this series is available to buy anywhere in the English language. I read it through the Hoopla app for libraries – which is full of stuff, and I hugely recommend it if your system uses it – and it’s also available on Kindle Unlimited, but there doesn’t seem to be a print edition or even a get-your-own-set-of-electrons version.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Wallace the Brave by Will Henry

Wallace the Brave by Will Henry

Books aren’t just catapulted out into the world willy-nilly, no matter what some people might think. There’s always a complex calculation on the publisher’s side, to figure out who the audience is and how best to get to those people. The books that don’t have any clear audience, or obvious way to reach them, are the ones that tend to be rejected.

Newspaper cartoons, on the other hand, tend to be thought of as “for everyone,” at least by your less thoughtful kind of editor. And who else is left in the newspaper industry after thirty years of cutting? Admittedly, newspaper strips tend to skew to the older side, like everything else in a dead-tree newspaper, but that can mean that the more thoughtful editors – I’ve been told they still exist, perhaps like the Sasquatch, eternally rumored and never witnessed – try to counter-program, picking features and investigative series and even strip cartoons that appeal to different, even younger audiences.

But I didn’t think Will Henry’s “Wallace the Brave” strip was particularly one to appeal to current-day kids. It’s set in the modern world, as far as I can tell, and it features a central cast of kids, but the tone feels like nostalgia, like an imagined version of what growing up used to be like, before helicopter parents and cellphones and Internet, set in a rinky-dink New England fishing town that might as well be cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a very constructed world, is what I mean: a vision of what never was, but that older generations always talk about as if they lived through it.

But the first collection of that strip, called Wallace the Brave , as is traditional, includes a bunch of activities for kids at the back, so my guess is that someone actually thinks this will primarily appeal to actual kids, and not just adults who want to believe their youth was carefree and wonderful. Those someones may even be right, though I wouldn’t want to try to attract elementary-school kids to a dead-tree newspaper feature these days.

Anyway, this first Wallace book came out in 2017 and collects what looks like roughly the first four to six months of strips. It has 166 pages of comics, and pages are mostly a single daily, so that’s how I do the math. Henry, or his editor, has laid this out more like a graphic novel, with longer strips and sequences – I think mostly Sundays, but potentially week-long continuities, or maybe even new material for the book? – a few panels to each page, making the whole book flow more than the average strip collection.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: the  majority of pages here have what seems to be one daily strip. But Henry sticks to four-panels for a daily less than most, so some dailies are turned sideways to get one long panel in, some have three or five or seven panels arranged in two or three tiers on the page, and some places, as I said, it’s clearly a longer sequence stretching across multiple pages.

The strips are about a kid named Wallace – that’s him at the right on the cover. He’s the traditional pushy dreamer for stories like this, the guy who wants to do everything and experience it all, impatient with rules and limitations and always ready to do “real” things. The two overlapping circles of the cast are his family (fisherman father; stay-at-home mother; younger brother Sterling, who is not quite as feral as he later becomes in these early strips) and his friends at school (neurotic best friend Spud, overwhelming new girl Amelia, teacher Mrs. Macintosh).

Wallace the Brave is not a direct descendant of Peanuts, but Henry’s kids are smarter, more thoughtful, and better-spoken than their real-world counterparts in the same ways Schulz’s were; they’re neither realistic six-year-olds nor the doll-like joke-engines of strips like Family Circus. And what they do is in the vein of early Peanuts, or Calvin & Hobbes – more-or-less what real kids do, only more so. Sometimes more so because that’s what makes it funny, sometimes more so because that’s the “perfect childhood” mythology here. Sometimes both.

Henry has a great illustrative line, detailed and energetic – it reminds me of a lot of the great strip cartoonists of a century ago, back when they had more space for extra detail and complication.

This is a fun strip, which I started reading maybe a year ago, maybe a bit less. You can search out the books if you want – I think there are three more after this one, so far – but the best way to read a daily is daily, so either look for it in your paper (assuming you have one) or check it out on GoComics , and slot into its daily routines.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Who Will Make the Pancakes by Megan Kelso

Who Will Make the Pancakes by Megan Kelso

Comics take a long time to make – especially if the creator has other things to do with her life. (Like: making money, living, family…all of those usual things.) So there are wonderful creators a reader could almost forget about, just because it’s so long between new books.

Megan Kelso is a wonderful creator, a thoughtful writer and detailed artist of stories that are realistic, more or less, and always about people rather than abstractions or genre furniture. I think she’s had only one full-length graphic novel, the interesting allegory The Artichoke Mother, but her shorter pieces have been collected in Queen of the Black Black  and The Squirrel Mother .

And, not to bury the lede, but she just had a new book published: Who Will Make the Pancakes: Five Stories , which has two hundred big pages of Megan Kelso comics, comprised of, as it says, five fairly-long stories.

My sense is that Kelso’s stories all grow out of her life, but aren’t necessarily about her. They might be – that’s always a possibility – but the reader can’t assume.

Actually, that’s a good rule for any creator: the reader can’t assume. 

These five stories are mostly about women – “Cats in Service” is more complicated, closer to the allegory of Artichoke, and “The Golden Lasso,” I’d say, is more specifically about girls [1] – ranging in time and space from WWII-era to the modern day. Since there’s only five of them, I feel compelled to write a bit about each one, but they’re all good, all strong stories. You could stop reading now and just go get the book; I wouldn’t be offended.

Kelso’s most famous story leads off here: “Watergate Sue,” part of The New York Times Magazine‘s experiment with comics storytelling in the late Aughts. (They stopped after eight storylines, by eight great creators. No idea why; there were plenty more people who would have been happy to do it.) What I like about this story is how it’s not exactly about Sue – who is thirty-two and pregnant in the modern side of the story – and not exactly about her mother Eve – who was probably just slightly younger and became pregnant in the historical side, set in 1973-74 – but about both of them, the way they compare and contrast. Kelso shows intensely here: none of these people will explain what they care about or want, for all that they talk incessantly throughout the story. And the Watergate hearings and Nixon’s eventual downfall is not just background, it’s important…but, again, Kelso won’t tell you what to think about that, or how it connects to her characters.

“Cats in Service” is, in its odd way, the most obvious story in the book – or maybe I mean straightforward. It’s a dream- or fable-like story about a family that trained cats to be domestic servants – yes, upright in livery, Downton Abbey-style – and how that all worked out. I don’t know if Kelso meant it as an allegory or metaphor – for domestication of animals or for dehumanization of servants, or something more complex – but it can be read a few different ways, and leaves a reader unsure but wondering.

“The Egg Room” has the most interesting central character in Florence. Kelso’s main characters often run to a type, in visuals and personality: thoughtful, contained, smallish women deeply connected to others. Flo is louder, larger, pushier than that, and she looks different from the average Kelso protagonist, clearly older and maybe even from a different ethnicity. Her story is about…well, a lot of things. One of the strands that spoke to me the most – I’m not claiming this is central, or even important – is how she wanted to make great art, wanted to be creative and productive, but that didn’t happen for her. She’s not the only person in the story, either, but I like to think of it as her story. The title here is another metaphor or allegory, which I won’t try to explain or spoil.

“Korin Voss” is a historical story: the title character is a single mother right after WWII, with two daughters who don’t understand or appreciate her life…as children never do of their parents. She’s one of those people who has unspoken rules about how she lives and what she should do, but doesn’t always live up to the best interpretation of her own rules and has trouble bending her rules to help herself and her family. This one is pretty closely centered on her: it does jump around a bit in time, but not too much – it’s all this era, all this part of her life, all about the changes she needs to make as the world changes around her.

And last is “The Golden Lasso,” which I suspect may be the closest to autobiographical. It’s about a girl named Diana in about 1980-81, when she’s twelve and thirteen. She wants to be good at rock-climbing, maybe because it’s something physical she can do well, maybe because an attractive slightly older boy is a guide, maybe because of a male adult leader. Maybe a lot of maybes: it’s something she grabs onto as a way to stand out, to work hard, to excel. All of that is great, no matter why she found it. Later, as the story goes on, there’s some modern commentary, of Diana talking to other girls she knew then, many years later, about the things they didn’t talk about then. And she does have a golden lasso, like that more famous Diana, in some scenes, which forces the truth, mostly from birds and other creatures. It’s not real. Or it is as real as it needs to be. It’s real for the story; it’s real for Diana, when she needed it.

All of Kelso’s art is supple and smooth; her lines usually thin around rounded figures, somewhat towards the minimalist or ligne claire without heading all the way in that direction. Three of the stories are colored – all in somewhat different styles and ways, I think – while “Cats” and “Korin” are black and white. I tend to see some Carol Lay in Kelso’s people: the roundness, the open faces, the gestures.

These are five excellent, meaty stories, ones that will live in your head afterward and make you think. You should read them.

[1] There’s a long history of men writers using “girls” to mean adult women, at least subconsciously infantilizing. I try to be aware of that, and never to do it. So here I do mean girls, not “girls.”

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan by Jason Shiga

Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan by Jason Shiga

Just over a decade ago, Jason Shiga made a big, complex story engine in book format, called Meanwhile… , telling a choose-your-own-adventure-style story with clusters of comics panels connected by “pipes” and numbers, driven by the reader’s choices. It was twisty, it was complex, it was inventive, it was brilliant, it was a hell of a lot of fun. It rewarded an obsessive re-reading, to get to every page, every path, and was equally amusing and thought-provoking.

As far as I can tell, there’s been nothing else like it since – not from Shiga, not from anyone else. But this fall, what looks to be the first in a series with somewhat smaller (presumably easier-to-achieve) goals appeared, to show that Shiga is back with his pipes and story choices.

That’s Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan . This one is a small-format book, which cuts down the amount of real estate devoted to the story, and it’s a more straightforward D&Dish adventure: “you” are an adventurer in a tavern in a fantasy land, and “you” get hired by an old sea captain to retrieve a fabled artifact that is at the center of your land, Cloud Harbor.

The story is much simpler than Meanwhile: there’s a “good” ending and a “bad” ending, but all of the other mishaps that could potentially lead to other bad endings tend to dump “you” on an island for exiles and miscreants, and, if you paid attention, you know how to get back from that island to the mainland.

In terms of story structure, if the average choose-your-adventure book is a branching bush – a few choices lead to a lot of different, mostly unpleasant endings – then Leviathan is a latticework, with multiple paths through and around it but almost always another connection that loops back to places you’ve been before.

So, while reading this book, you may find certain sequences of pages come up multiple times, especially navigating around this small world. In that way, it’s a lot like an computer adventure game: even the way Shiga draws the world-view pages echoes classic games like Zelda and early Pokemon titles. The cover reading line does say “Part comic! Part maze! Part game!” and that is roughly true, though the maze elements are pretty simple.

Shiga has always been a rationalist, both at the base level of his stories and in how he works out permutations of his premises. I don’t want to give away the details of Leviathan, but that’s still the case here, even if a fantasy world seems to be an odd choice for such a science-focused creator.

In the end, this is fun and entertaining, with a lot of small details that are important when looping back around and a mostly-serious tone. It’s not as ambitious as Meanwhile, and doesn’t hit the heights of that previous book, but it’s a good, inventive story-machine mostly for younger readers. And the promise of more books like this is also intriguing: will they also be set in Cloud Harbor, or somewhere nearby, or will they be entirely separate stories? With Shiga, I would always bet on the side of complexity and connection, but we’ll have to see.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a world-famous 1963 semi-autobiographical novel, and the 1977 movie based on it, about one woman’s mental illness and survival. It’s also a bland 1970 country song by Lynn Anderson.

And a number of other books as well. Probably other things. Titles can’t be copyrighted; the evocative ones get used over and over again. But when they’re used for something big in the same area, a careful writer will want to make sure that any baggage from that title are appropriate, that the connotations are resonant, that the title has a purpose.

I have no idea why Mannie Murphy’s debut graphic novel is named I Never Promised You a Rose Garden . But, then, there’s a lot of things about this book I don’t understand: it’s in large part a series of very specific artistic decisions that baffle me.

I want to be clear: this is at least partially a Me Problem. Murphy’s Rose Garden circles a knot of topics that are obviously very important to them, and that they deeply believe are inextricably interlinked. But I did not find the book itself made those connections clear, or told its story cleanly, or could even stay out of its own way consistently.

Perhaps the deepest issue is the place of Murphy in the book itself. This is a deeply told book, with a specific point of view, often angry, politically committed, specific and local to Portland, Oregon. But the book tells us nothing about Murphy; they remain just the voice telling this story – this story which, the book says repeatedly, is personal but will never say why or how – with a few disjointed, random facts about their life dropped in, almost by accident. There’s also a friend named “Alder” who reappears multiple times, maybe as a stand-in for this whole Portland community Murphy is trying to represent, but is never seen on the page.

So we don’t know who Murphy is. Murphy’s voice in this book wants to tell us this is all important, and that we should believe them because they know this world…but gives us no reason to rely on that voice. Worse, the voice rambles and wanders, jumping from topic to topic in a way that may be carefully planned but feels chaotic and disjointed. The occasional wrong word choice or obviously agit-prop smash cut (“suddenly, a hundred years earlier, there were racists!”) only adds to the shakiness.

We want to believe in Murphy. We want to settle in and believe this voice will tell us the truth, connect all these disparate strands into something specific. But, as the book drones on and on, we start to think it’s the comics equivalent of one of those scrawled manifestoes sent into a newspaper, making the grand case for water fluoridation being the world-controlling tool of the Trilateral Commission or that the Alien Space Bats are coming to steal our spleens.

So: what are the topics of Murphy’s Rose Garden? First, the overdose death of River Phoenix in 1993 – Murphy clearly identified with or loved the actor Phoenix was, and there’s a semi-buried note of wanting to find people to blame for Phoenix’s death throughout the book, that this needs to be someone’s fault. Related to that – partly because Murphy seems to be most focused on Phoenix in the movie My Own Private Idaho, partly because what’s most important to Murphy all of the time is how Portland anything is – is the filmography of Portland local Gus Van Sant, who Murphy seems to loathe with the heat of a million suns.

The first section of the book stays mostly focused on Phoenix and Van Sant and Keanu Reeves, the other lead of that movie, as Murphy passive-aggressively attacks Van Sant over and over again for…this is not quite clear to me. There’s a sense that Van Sant is just wrong – about the people and places of Portland, about what queer life is like, about everything and anything in the world. To Murphy, every single artistic choice Van Sant made is the wrong one and everything he did was horrible…except that Murphy is also clearly obsessed with Van Sant and his movies. There’s also an implied theory of art that needs to be correct – that some viewpoints, some stories are just wrong, and can be discarded because of that, and that the good people will obviously know which stories and themes and ideas are right and which are wrong.

Along the way, Murphy uses first names exclusively, as if these were close friends and not famous people that the pre-teen Murphy, as far as I can tell, never met or interacted with. “Gus” does this, and “Keanu” surely must feel like that, and obviously “River” is a dark, tormented, perfect, lovely soul, too good for this world. It’s all personal, as Murphy takes that tween-fan connection and bases a whole implied theory of Portland, queerness, and white supremacists on what seems to be primarily the first awakenings of sexual desire.

From that first section, Rose Garden swerves hard into white supremacy. You see, one character in Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy was loosely based on a locally-known Portland-scene guy, who led a hate-crime murder somewhat later and also appeared on an episode of Geraldo with a bunch of skinheads. As with many things in Rose Garden, the sequence of events is muddy – I’m never sure if this is just the way Murphy is telling the story, jumping to ideas as they come to mind, or if they’re being deliberately obfuscatory about dates that don’t line up to tell the clean story they want to be true. And, again, everything Van Sant ever did is either deliberately evil or accidentally malevolent, according to Murphy.

(Note: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Van Sant movie; I have no dog in this fight. But it’s really, really important to Murphy.)

All of the connections in Rose Garden are on that level: things that are so blindingly obvious in Murphy’s head that they can just jump from one thing to another, leaping decades or centuries or from film criticism to racist murders and get right into the thorny messy details that an outside reader doesn’t know or recognize or, frankly, often care about.

Most of Rose Garden is about the specific Pacific Northwest manifestation of white supremacy, as seen from the outside. Looking back on the book, I’m surprised there’s no queer critique of the obvious homosocial nature of that movement: Murphy seems to think of anyone in any level of that mindset, from any time in the past two hundred years, as equally evil and culpable for all bad things, utterly unredeemable and horrible and never distinguishable as individuals. For Murphy, Portland is the epicenter of evil white people, and that’s it.

But every American city has a racist past. Every American state is based in some way on white supremacy. Every region in the US has a history of cops killing people – usually POC, usually poor, usually low-status – that stretches to the present day, and a history of those cops getting away with it. I find it really hard to believe that Portland and Oregon are vastly more so than, for example, Birmingham and Alabama. So Murphy’s arguments comes across as special pleading, at best, or, more often, as a failure to see a large picture and a relentless focus on the parochial.

Bluntly, Murphy never makes the case that this place is different. Rose Garden never shows an understanding that other places even exist, that larger systemic problems exist, that any of this is more than just personal. In the end, I came to believe that Murphy cares about these issues because this is where they live and the people they know.

And, to quote Terry Pratchett, “Personal isn’t the same as important.”

Rose Garden‘s physical form also tends to aim in that personal direction, to make it look like a scrawled personal manifesto rather than a reasoned, generally-applicable argument about the wider world. Murphy’s pages are all split, half hand-written scripty text and half blue-wash images, one big picture per page. Again, it’s personal without being specific: Murphy doesn’t give away many details of their life here. It’s all public stuff: what school they went to, the media they cared about, people in the wider world. The viewpoint is personal, but Murphy doesn’t particularize it: we never learn what kind of person Murphy is, besides the clichés of someone who really liked River Phoenix and really hated white supremacists.

So, in the end, I want to believe in Rose Garden and to agree with its stances. I mean, I am against white supremacy – I hope anyone reading this can agree with that. And it is sad when young talented people take a lot of drugs and kill themselves. But Rose Garden is confused enough, and gets in its own way so much, that’s about as far as I can go. And that’s disappointing, but I think Murphy is still a young creator – there’s plenty of time to do more, to get more specific, to tell better stories, to make a clearer case. The energy is there, the spark is clear: it just needs focus.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi

Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi

There seems to be a decent-sized, and maybe still-growing, sub-genre of graphic novel biographies out there in the world. I’ve been away from that end of publishing for a while now, so I can’t speak authoritatively to the reasons why, but my cynical side thinks they’re aimed at the middle-grade need-to-do-a-report crowd, the modern equivalent of heavily illustrated “junior biographies” from my day.

But maybe there’s a serious adult market for comics biographies of random people – who knows? The world is big and full of unlikely things. I’m definitely seeing more of them, for whatever reasons.

Such as this random book today: Lugosi: The Rise & Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula , from the cartoonist Koren Shadmi. Shadmi is Israeli by birth, and some of his early comics stories were first published in France, but he’s now resident in New York and works in English. 

I’ve seen two very different books by Shadmi before: recently his fictional graphic novel Bionic , and a while back his debut short-story collection In the Flesh . From his website , I see he’s got a bunch of other books, roughly mixed between non-fiction and fiction, coming out more-or-less annually for the past decade – Lugosi is his most recent book, published last year.

It’s a fairly standard biography in comics form, starting with a loosely related introduction by a vaguely famous person (Joe R. Lansdale, the horror writer) that talks a lot about the subject of the book and very little about Shadmi’s work. Shadmi frames Lugosi’s story through the lens of a 1955 stint in rehab, near the end of his life, and returns to that frame periodically, mostly for a few panels or a page. I see that structure a lot in non-fiction comics – The Incredible Nellie Bly, where my post hasn’t gone live yet, does very much the same thing – but I think it’s mostly a fashion or style; it doesn’t necessarily add a whole lot to the chronological story to know that the subject eventually got old. At best, it’s a dash of pathos when we’re reading about an arrogant, womanizing guy who we might not be inclined to like all that much. (And we are doing that here.)

Other that returning to that frame story periodically, to show Lugosi in the grips of delirium tremens for dramatic effect, Shadmi tells Lugosi’s life in order, starting off with the usual early material on his youth in Hungary and how he got to America. The bulk of the book covers his American career, starting with the Dracula play in New York in 1927, when Lugosi was already in his mid-forties. The play is a hit, it goes on tour, Lugosi ends up in Hollywood, he stars in the film version – and his career is launched. From there, the book is a sequence of this movie and that one, feuding with Boris Karloff, and so on, with a few highs and a whole lot of mediums to lows. But Lugosi mostly kept working, and he made a lot of money for a while, so it’s hard to feel too bad for him when he cheats on yet another wife and runs through all of his money again.

Speaking of which, Lugosi was married and divorced four times – I don’t remember if the book gets into #3 much; there’s several decades of turmoil in his private life to get through here – and clearly was chasing a lot of other women for a long, long time. The book mentions the chasing without dramatizing much of it, besides the reason for one of his divorces, but the reader gets the sense that Lugosi was always on the make until nearly the end of his life.

Lugosi does what it aims to do: tell the story of a quirky, interesting life, hitting the moments that the people who really care will want to see – especially covering all of Lugosi’s late work with Ed Wood, the often-proclaimed worst filmmaker in the world. Lugosi’s life doesn’t make much of a story, and it’s not really uplifting, since he was a grandiose horndog who mostly made crappy horror movies and died half-forgotten, but Shadmi tells it truly and honestly, which is all anyone can do.

If you want a comics biography of Bela Lugosi, I don’t see that you could expect anything more comprehensive, fair, and thoughtful than this one.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

I’ve mentioned the short story “Snow, Glass, Apples” before – it’s both one of Neil Gaiman’s best, most pointed short pieces and one of the most successful of the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling-inspired burst of revisionist fairy tales from the early 1990s. (I see that my memory was slightly false – I thought it originally appeared in one of the “Red As Blood” anthologies, but it was a standalone chapbook and then reprinted in the 1995 Datlow/Windling annual.)

As so often with successful things, it’s part of different clusters – all those anthologies of nasty fairy tales, first, and then more recently an odd program that seems to be trying to turn every one of Gaiman’s best stories into individual graphic novels. (See How to Talk to Girls at Parties  and Troll Bridge ; I’m pretty sure there have been several others that I missed.)

So, in 2019, Colleen Doran adapted “Snow, Glass, Apples” (the short story) into the standalone graphic novel Snow, Glass, Apples  – which is what I’ve just read. Like most of the “Neil Gaiman Library” and similar projects (the Coraline  adaptation, the two-volume Graveyard Book  adaptation.) that I’ve seen, it’s a very respectful adaptation, using as many of Gaiman’s original words as possible and just illustrating them rather than attempting to transform the prose story into something new.

Which, somewhat ironically, is the opposite of how Gaiman works when he adapts things – he’s always been deeply transformative – but he’s a Big Deal and his fans want Pure Gaiman, so I assume his editors and publishers know exactly what they’re doing.

Snow, Glass, Apples is thus pretty much exactly the short story, or at least very large chunks of the prose of that story (which is pretty short to begin with), illustrated in a detailed, mostly Art Nouveau style by Doran, on mostly flowing, panel-less pages full of gorgeous, evocative art. If you know the story, this is it, literalized and illustrated by Doran. If you don’t know the story, this is nearly as good a way to discover it. (I’m enough of a purist to insist on that “nearly” – the original precise prose is better.)

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Ordinary Victories, Vol. 1 by Manu Larcenet

Ordinary Victories, Vol. 1 by Manu Larcenet

I may have this wrong, but here goes: Ordinary Victories is a series of four somewhat autobiographical bande dessinees by French cartoonist Manu Larcenet, originally published in French from 2003-2008 and published in two omnibuses in English soon afterward. The current English-language editions are back to being published individually, and seem to only be available in electronic formats. Their main character is a photojournalist named Marco Louis, and in the course of this first book he meets a woman, Emilie, who has a longer-term relationship with. (I also saw the second omnibus way back when, and wrote about it for ComicMix.)

At almost the same time – as in, starting the previous year, 2002, and putting out five volumes through 2008 – Larcenet also started a more specifically autobiographical series of books, Back to Basics, which he did with Jean-Yves Ferri. (See my posts on Back to Basics volumes one and two .) Basics features “Manu”, who looks almost exactly like “Marco” in Victories, but who is actually a cartoonist. Manu’s partner, “Mariette,” also bears a very close resemblance to “Emilie.”

I have the very strong suspicion that Victories is only very slightly less autobiographical than Basics, though it’s in a much more serious mode: this is more of a soul-searching “what should I do with my life” kind of story, while Basics is a lighter “moments from our crazy life out in a goofy rural town” story. I also think that Victories is largely about the years before Basics: they don’t tell the same story, or tell it in the same way, but, together, they tell two phases of Larcenet’s life.

So all that was in my head as I read this first book of Ordinary Victories : wondering how much of Manu is in Marco, and how much of Marco I could retroactively read into the Manu of Basics. But they are separate projects, in different genres: they may show complementary views of one life (or, maybe, they really don’t, and I’ve misunderstood), but they are still each their own things.

Marco is around thirty. He’s had a solid career, on the dangerous and unpleasant side of taking pictures professionally, but is on an extended break from it. He’s been seeing the same therapist for years, and thinks he’s “better” enough to stop now. But he’s starting to have panic attacks, for no obvious reason. This is the story of how he starts to move on from that moment – perhaps even more, he has to get to a point where he wants to move on. He has to see something in the future that he wants to change for, to move on from smoking “Big Fat Joints!” with his brother and thinking about how he used to work as a photographer.

Along the way, Victories is mostly a slice-of-life story. Marco sees his brother and his parents, he meets and starts dating Emilie, and he semi-regularly runs into an older man who lives near his new rural cottage. I’m not sure at all if this “rural” is the same “rural” as the Ravenelles of Basics – this could be two different ways of looking at basically the same move, or two stages of getting further away from the bustle of the big city. Or, again, they could be two different stories doing different things with some of the same material from Larcenet’s life.

By the end of Victories, Marco finally is ready to move out of his comfortable box. I won’t say why, or how – the way to learn that is to read the book. But he does it, and he does it in an interesting, believable way, and we the readers want to see Marco succeed: maybe not go back to being a photojournalist, but to find something to do with the rest of his life. And I plan to see how that plays out in the next book, and, probably, to re-read the back half of the series again a decade later to find out how Marco ends up and see how that all hangs together once I’ve started from the right place.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.