Category: Reviews

Scoop Scuttle and His Pals by Basil Wolverton

Scoop Scuttle and His Pals by Basil Wolverton

So much goes into comedy

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, especially comedy in comics – there’s funny writing, and funny drawing, and the intersection of the two, plus personal taste and sometimes all of that obscured by the passage of time. Something can be done well, with lots of wordplay, well-thought-out drawings and solidly amusing premises, but still feel outdated or just flat to any particular reader.

That’s where I land with Scoop Scuttle and His Pals: The Crackpot Comics of Basil Wolverton . It collects four series of stories from the 1940s and early ’50s: the reporter Scoop Scuttle, the diminutive Indian fakir Mystic Moot (and his Magic Snoot), indestructible cowboy Bingbang Buster, and goofy SF hero Jumpin’ Jupiter.. There are detailed story notes by editor Greg Sadowski

, and the whole package is well-designed and organized, with comics pages about as clear and crisp as you could hope for stuff printed on newsprint seventy years ago.

I didn’t laugh once. I might have had a wry smile a couple of times. Some of it, especially later in the book, was amusing and fun, but nothing got that immediate humor reaction from me. The Scoop Scuttle stories in particular felt too stuffed: too many words with too much supposedly-comic alliteration, too much minor-vaudeville business. So I am not a good person to tell you what’s great about these Basil Wolverton stories.

Now, I’m pretty sure this is minor Wolverton. But I’m no Wolverton expert: I’ve seen some of his stuff here and there, but never dug deeply. This book was titled and published in a way that made it look like it was saying “this is the good stuff!” Looking more carefully after reading it, it seems to actually say “this is some obscure stuff, mostly made as the Golden Age was dying, nicely cleaned up for Wolverton fanatics, and we’re not making any claims about its quality.”

These are all anthology-filler comics stories, from an era where comics were 64 pages long and needed to be filled with various stuff. Part of that Golden-Age-dying was the shrinking of those comics; it looks, from this distance, like Wolverton was squeezed out during that shrinking. What gets squeezed out is not necessarily by quality: popularity is first, and what most closely fits the overall theme and style of the book tends to stay. Wolverton being goofy and sui generis made him an obvious early target for removal: this material would have been the most different stuff in any of the comics it appeared in.

So, if I’m telling you anything you didn’t know about Wolverton, this is not a book for you. This is a book for people who already know a lot more about Wolverton than I do, or maybe people whose comic sensibility is more attuned to mass-market alliterative and nearly-rhyming jokes from mid-century.

One very random example:

“I’m from the Daily Dally! I’m looking for Lester Fester!”

“I’m not Lester Fester! I’m Esther Tester! Now take it on the lam, ham, and scram! I’m strangling my husband, and I don’t want any interruptions!”

If you enjoy wordplay along the lines of “take it on the lam, ham, and scram,” you will find a lot of it here.

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

No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson

No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson

Naturalism is not a single thing: every art form has a different kind of naturalism. So if I say that R. Kikuo Johnson’s graphic novel No One Else  leans towards a prose fiction kind of naturalism, I don’t mean just that it aims to tell a story about real people in a real world.

Comics naturalism is close to film naturalism: use the panel like a camera eye, honestly, depicting what a person would see in that position and following sequences of events as they happen. Everything may not be clear at any moment, but the information to understand the story is all there, on the screen or the page, for the eye to process.

Prose naturalism, though, since Raymond Carver, is about not saying things – it’s about what’s deliberately left out of the story, the things careful readers will notice and catalog. This is inherently trickier

, since it presupposes an ideal reader, one who can tell what’s missing. So it’s a form that can break easily, over time or with new audiences; I’d never want to try to translate a writer like Carver.

I think Johnson is playing a Carveresque game here. I’m just not sure if I’m clearly seeing the missing pieces, or if there are aspects to life in Hawai’i, or something else, that I don’t know. The trouble with prose naturalism is exactly that: not being sure if you’re seeing the holes that are in the story on purpose, or the holes that are in your necessary experience to read the story.

No One Else is a family story, the story of three people: Charlene, her brother Robbie, her son Brandon. The back cover copy focuses on Charlene, but she’s the least knowable of the three, the most tightly sealed. She’s a nurse, both for pay and for the aged, dementia-broken father who lives with her and Brandon.

Brandon is young – late elementary-school, I think, just old enough to be left to care for himself but not all that good at it or happy with it. He loves his cat, Batman, and isn’t that thrilled with anything else.

Robbie is the prodigal; he shows up partway through the book. He’s a working musician on a low level: it looks like he tours a lot, playing small gigs, and that covers his living expenses, but he has no house or roots or anything else to tie him down.

You may guess that he and Charlene have entirely different views on life.

Among the things No One Else will not say or touch on:

  • Charlene’s father’s name, or more than a hint of his history
  • Anything at all about her mother, dead or estranged
  • Anything at all about Brandon’s father
  • Charlene and Robbie’s childhood
  • The significance of the boat sitting in Charlene’s yard
  • Why brush fires lurk around the edges of this story
That last is, I think, one of the important gaps: sugar-cane cultivation includes burning fields, which is controversial. (Cane growers like it; everyone else who lives anywhere near does not.) It’s also a clear visual metaphor for other elements in the story.

But are those other pieces important the same way? This is a family story; are the holes in this family significant? I’m not sure. Johnson is quiet and naturalistic, as I said – his panels and pages are naturalistic in the comics sense as well – so he shows us a lot of events and leaves it for us to understand.

There’s a major event in the first few pages, for example, that we need to understand clearly. A question of responsibility, in particular, and whether that influences behavior later in the story. I’m not going to spoil that event, but it sets up the entire book: everything else happens because of that. So I’m also not going to talk about plot at all here: the plot is that something happens, and then we see what happens afterward.

Johnson’s pages are excellent, his people real in their faces and movements and unknowable depths. No One Else has depths that I don’t think I’ve plumbed, which is impressive for a short book of half-size pages. But I do worry that I might not be able to completely understand it: that there are aspects of this book that require an ideal reader with experiences I don’t and will never have, who grew up somewhere else among other people, who knows and believes other things. I may have to chance that, and read it again.

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

The Golden Age, Book 1 by Roxanne Moreil & Cyril Pedrosa

The Golden Age, Book 1 by Roxanne Moreil & Cyril Pedrosa

The title is ironic. Or maybe more than ironic: this is not the story of a golden age, but there is a book in this fictional world called “The Golden Age.” So it is, perhaps, a story called “The Golden Age” that centers on another story called “The Golden Age.”

The back cover says The Golden Age, Book 1  takes place in the kingdom of Antrevers: the narrative never gets that specific. It is a medieval kingdom

, somewhere vaguely Western European. Given that the creators – co-writer Roxanne Moreil and writer/artist Cyril Pedrosa – are French – you could call it a fantasy version of France, and not be far wrong.

In the manner of fairy tales, there is no wider world: we don’t know what countries border Antrevers, and it doesn’t matter. This kingdom is the world of the story; everything will happen within it.

Antrevers has been getting poorer and life harder for a generation or so. Crops are not as fertile, life is not as easy. Again, trade and development are left unmentioned: this is a single kingdom in a static, medieval world. The nobles have been increasing taxes to maintain their position; the peasants have been complaining, and starting to rebel, in turn. Repression of those peasants has been ramping up, under Louys de Vaudemont, one of the most powerful nobles.

The old king has just died. If his name was thrown out, I didn’t catch it. He leaves an aged wife – also left unnamed, and her exact title after his death is vague, too – and two children. There’s a younger son, but his older sister, Tilda, is expected to inherent – this is not a world with a Salic Law, I suppose.

Tilda is our main viewpoint character: a bit headstrong, determined to use her authority and power to make life better for the entire kingdom, to reverse the downward slide of all of Antrevers. To that end, she has been talking about shaking up the power of the nobles – not eliminating that power, probably not even curtailing it that much, but putting some royal limits on what nobles had gotten used to doing unfettered. She is young and energetic and sure she is right. She will learn others are equally sure of their rightness

, believing entirely different things.

We enter this world like diving into a pool: Pedrosa’s first few pages are full-bleed, with bright colors, single images in an illustrative, almost impressionist style filling our vision. He mostly settles down to bordered panels after that, but breaks out the full-page art for major moments: this is a visually stunning book. He brings all of the fairy-tale energy and life of his earlier Three Shadows, combining it with the mastery of color and space he showed in Portugal .

Similarly, Moreil and Pedrosa introduce us to a group of peasants first: our story may be mostly among the powerful, but it’s about all the people of this kingdom. From there, the narrative makes its way to court and Tilda, as she meets faithful retainer Lord Tankred and the young swordsman Bertil, who may also have been a childhood playmate of hers. The three of them are soon traveling together, for reasons I don’t want to spoil, but you can guess at how the old nobles are reacting to Tilda’s impending coronation.

Tilda looks to gather allies: we’ve heard a lot about “the Peninsula,” and she heads there, to rendezvous with Lord Albaret, who she knows is loyal to her. They will find other places along the way, particularly a hidden community of women – something like a secular nunnery, or sanctuary – as the story circles around the ideas of governance, power, and noblesse oblige. Tilda has good intentions, but do revolting peasants want any Queen, even a fairly benevolent, forward-thinking one? And can Tilda conceptualize a government without someone like her ruling it by decree?

On top of all that, this is a fantasy story. There is some power that Tilda will find, at the end. She also has visions throughout: visions that make her weak, shattering her normal life and making her collapse, visions of war and fire and danger, in which she is an imposing, commanding figure.

This is Book 1. It ends on a cliffhanger, after more than two hundred pages. But the story, I’m told, ends in the second book, which is out now. I can’t tell you about that book yet – I need to find it now, myself – but I can tell you the first one is compelling and gorgeous and all-enveloping and amazing.

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

REVIEW: The King’s Man

REVIEW: The King’s Man

Once upon a time, Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons produced a cheeky series called The Secret Service, which got turned into a fun film called Kingsman. While the comics remain fun reads, the film series has deteriorated when left entirely in Matthew Vaughn’s hands. He’s good filmmaker as witnessed by Kingsman and the underrated Stardust. But, the tone and satire of the spy genre that infused the comic is missing, especially from the prequel installment The King’s Man.

Out now from 20th Century Home Entertainment, the film failed to engage audiences when it was released during the holiday and has appeared on streaming and disc in rapid fashion. What this portends for the series remains classified.

Set in 1914

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, we get a sense of how the independent covert intelligence agency got started, born in the wake of tragedy. Orlando (Ralph Fiennes, Duke of Oxford watches helpless, as his wife Emily (NAME) is gunned down on a visit to a concentration camp in South Africa. He is left to raise his young son

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, honoring her dying wish that he never see war again. Raised in a rarified cocoon by manservant Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and nanny Polly (Gemma Arterton), Conrad (Harris Dickinson) craves to see the world and join the military.

In time, he discovers Orlando, Shola, and Polly have been covertly gathering intelligence as Europe moves toward The Great War, pitting cousins King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas (all Tom Hollander) against one another. Events propel father and son into action, testing their bonds as the world teeters on the edge of chaos.

There are definitely some fun moments such as the network of servants and household staff around the world that share information, feeding Polly (Arterton, who may be having the most fun), who synthesizes the information for Orlando. But they are overshadowed by the over-the-top antics of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and a collection of cardboard villains led by The Shepherd. a shadowy figure who is anything but menacing. (And sharp-eyed viewers will figure out his identity.) The notion that Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) seduced Woodrow Wilson for the Shepherd to blackmail is an absurdity.

The action is fine as it is but doesn’t get the heart stirring. The characters are predictable and two-dimensional and newcomer Dickinson can’t keep up with the stellar cast, which also includes Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, and Daniel Brühl. Vaughn and co-writer Karl Gajdusek are at fault here. Vaughn’s direction is fine but not enough given the weak material he created.

The film is out in the usual formats including the sturdy Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD Combo Pack. The 1080p transfer is perfectly fine for home viewing in 2.39:1. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is excellent.

There are a handful of perfunctory Special Features including Recreating the Trenches (2:17); A Generation Lost (11:22); Oxfords and Rogues (18:33); All the World’s a Stage (26:41); Instruments of War (17:01); Fortune Favors the Bold (11:46); and Long Live the Kingsman (4:11).

REVIEW: The 355

REVIEW: The 355

Students of history know that 355 was the code name assigned to a woman who spied on behalf of George Washington, during the war for independence. We never learned who she was and the digits have been immortalized in pop culture ever since. Most recently, it was appended to the female empowerment action film The 355

, out now on disc from Universal Home Entertainment.

The brainchild of star Jessica Chastain

, she pitched it to Simon Kingberg as they were shooting X-Men: Dark Phoenix and it should have been out in 2021, but you know, Covid-19. The movie is overall an entertaining enough experience but its overall laziness in design and execution makes it a lesser effort.

While it’s nice to see operatives from CIA, MI6, Germany’s BND, China’s Ministry of State Security, and Colombia’s National Intelligence Directorateavoid political considerations to band together, the film also takes a very cynical approach to their efforts. We have several members of these agencies betray their principles and oaths, endangering the entire world. The MacGuffin in this case is a hard drive containing a one-of-a-kind piece of software that can pierce any firewall and seize control of nuclear missiles, electric grids, etc.

We have CIA agent Mason “Mace” Brown (Chastain) betrayed by her best friend and new lover, Nick (Sebastian Stan), which means the harddrive is in play. Mace crosses paths with German agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) who are rivals who beat one another until they find common cause. NID’s Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez) seems to have taken for himself, which means psychologist Graciela (Penélope Cruz) is sent into the field for the first time to retrieve it. When it goes into the wild, Mace recruits MI6’s Khadijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o), now out of the game, to aid her since she understands the enormity of the threat.

In time, they form bonds and kick ass. The MacGuffin continues to move from hand to hand, country to country until it is in Shanghai, up for auction which brings in Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan). Then things continue to unravel and go boom.

What’s missing here is a true sense of surprise. The agents are types, not characters, their dialogue and personality quirks perfunctory rather than refreshing. Kingberg cowrote this lackluster script with Theresa Rebeck and they seemed to be filling out a Bingo card.

Don’t get me wrong, the action is swell and the set pieces are well worth watching, with the leading ladies doing most of their own stunts, but after a while, it feels tired. Details are missing, questions at the end are left unanswered and the denouement is dissatisfying. Worst of all, they never connect the title to the team of women.

The film is out in the usual packages including the trusty Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Combo Pack. The movies looks great, the 1080p transfer nicely capturing the colors and details. The lossless Dolby Digital audio track does a fine job capturing the explosions, dialogue, and score.

The film’s special features include two Deleted Scenes (6:19); Chasing Through Paris (4:57); Action That Hurts (5:26); Reconstructing Marrakesh (5:33); Chaos at the City of Dreams (3:50). Two VFX Breakdowns (2:12, 2:43).

Good Night, Hem by Jason

Good Night, Hem by Jason

I had the wrong idea about this book. I feel like I say that a lot in this blog, but why not say it if it’s true? We all come into new experiences with expectations and ideas, and we’re all wrong a lot of the time. There’s no shame in saying so.

I expected Good Night, Hem  to be a standalone graphic novel about Ernest Hemingway. Since it’s by the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, I thought there might be a genre element of some kind, or that it might be told slyly in some other way: I didn’t expect a straightforward biographical story.

I wasn’t far wrong, but I’d forgotten that Jason had already written about Hemingway and his Paris circle of the 1920s in The Left Bank Gang – well, sort-of, since those characters had the names of the Lost Generation circle but were comics creators planning a bank robbery. And I didn’t know that Good Night, Hem is also a sequel to The Last Musketeer [1], since Athos is a major character here.

So, to sum up: Good Night, Hem is not really a sequel to the previous Jason book in which “Ernest Hemingway” appeared, but it is a sequel to a completely different Jason book that was not about Hemingway. This is par for the course for Jason: you don’t go to his books for straightforward and obvious.

Oh, one other thing: it’s not a single narrative

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, but three loosely linked shorter stories: one in Paris and Spain in 1925, when Hemingway is inspired to write The Sun Also Rises; one in Paris and other points in 1944, where Hemingway is inspired to lead a group of young Frenchmen (are they supposed to be writers? I’m not sure) to train, airdrop into Berlin, and capture Hitler to end the war early; and a short coda set in Cuba in 1959, where Hemingway muses on Athos, their combined histories, and life in general.

So it is largely about Athos, in a sideways, Jason fashion. Hemingway is the focal character, but Athos is more interesting and harder to understand – the story is told from Hemingway’s viewpoint, but it’s largely about Athos (except that odd middle section).

I also think Jason’s books have gotten less dense recently: he switched from a mostly nine-panel grid to a four-panel grid, so each page has bigger, more open panels with less action and dialogue. On the other hand, I don’t have the books in front of me to check, but I also think his recent books are longer – so I may be saying they have about the same amount of action, but spread out onto more pages, so it feels longer and more relaxed.

What happens? Well, the first section is pretty straightforward and relatively close to history, only with the addition of an immortal musketeer in the group going to Pamplona: it’s focused, like Sun itself, on the sexual tensions within the group, and adds to them by having Athos and Hemingway be essentially doppelgangers. (Not that Jason has that many character types to begin with, so this may be lampshading in his part.)

The second section is an old-fashioned nutty Jason story, along the lines of I Killed Adolph Hitler, in which completely crazy, impossible things are presented straightforwardly and just happen anyway.

And the ending is, again, more of a coda, summing up Hemingway’s view of Athos and cataloging all of their interactions. (He also inspired The Old Man and the Sea!)

I didn’t think this completely came together as one thing – the middle section is too different in tone, style, and concerns – but all of the pieces are good, and all show Jason doing good work in his mature style. I wouldn’t pick this up as a first Jason book – Hitler or the newer Lost Cat or maybe Werewolves of Montpelier are better choices to start – but it’s a fine continuation.

[1] No good link for that book: it was the first Jason book I read, in March of 2009 when I was an Eisner judge, so I stuck it in the middle of a massive post covering the 94 books I read that month.

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

Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith

Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith

I cannot prove that this book originated as a story pitch for The Incredible Hulk, sometime in the dim misty past. But I fervently believe it, and that’s what matters in the world today, right?

Monsters  is a massive graphic novel written and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith; he apparently has been working on it, off and on, for thirty-five years. (I didn’t hear a word about it until it was published; I’m not clear if he worked on it quietly the whole time or if he had mentioned it and I just never heard.) It aims to be a serious book

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, but it has an inherent pulpiness that drags it back down over and over again, and a loose-limbed structure that introduces its own issues.

For most potential readers, the big point is that it contains over three hundred and sixty pages of BWS art, some of those among the best in his career. It’s all also entirely in his mature style; there’s no visual indication in this book that it took four decades to make. So this is a visually stunning book: BWS has been a great craftsman of comics pages for about fifty years now (counting from his game-changing stint on Conan), and this is a major, major milestone in any appreciation or evaluation of his career.

The story though, does feel like a lightly warmed-over Hulk story. There’s a monster: gigantic, almost indestructible, mentally tormented, uncommunicative. There are evil scientists (some of them, inevitably, Nazis) and almost-as-evil military types. There’s abuse from a father in the past. There’s an escape, under gunfire, from a military base, the monster hiding out with a helper in an isolated house with military choppers angrily buzzing overhead, and a shoved-in “power of public opinion” moment that nearly gets lost.

There’s also a major thread about supernatural powers, which are not terribly well defined and seem to be able to do whatever the story needs them to do. (Not to save their owners from death, admittedly, but being dead doesn’t slow possessors of “the shine” anyway.)

It’s all told in more-or-less straightforward comics, but it’s not particularly well-structured for the length. All of these pages, all of these moments, could have formed a stronger story if corralled somewhat more tightly, reorganized a bit, and if BWS or an editor had imposed a stronger structure on the story. (This, though, would have meant redrawing or reworking some number of pages – probably including some from thirty years before. That may have not been plausible.)

Instead, the story meanders, telling us one thing and then another, adding layers and depths as it goes – but in a fashion that leads this reader to suspect it happened as BWS worked on the pages, and that he didn’t go back to integrate his new ideas into old pages. One particularly egregious example: one character barges in

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, declaring that he’s the Governor of this state, and is accepted as such….but he admits, a hundred pages later, that he was just pretending. Now, in this world, the Governor of a state is a public figure, and everyone knows who that guy is. So this is just not a ruse that can actually work.

The Nazi, who is basically the main villain, is unavailable for the big ending, so he gets understudied by a military guy – who, humorously to me, is actually named Ross, as if that was the only word remaining from the Hulk pitch.

It’s all set in the late ’40s (mostly 1949) and 1964-65, but only the furniture (cars, hairstyles, WWII uniforms) makes it feel like a period story. I suspect there are multiple expressions used in dialog that are anachronistic; this feels like a contemporary story told in a different time to make the Nazi/WWII connection make sense.

All in all, this has pretty much exactly the strengths and weaknesses of a book that a respected but idiosyncratic creator worked on quietly and alone for decades: it looks great, it has a lot of good ideas and moments, the characterization is excellent. But it’s also lumpy, with a structure that feels like a sequence of pages in the order that the creator thought of them rather than the order that would best serve the story, and later revelations that are not adequately set up. It’s good, but you can see the better book that it should have been.

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

Patience by Daniel Clowes

Patience by Daniel Clowes

It’s never a good thing to realize, halfway through, that you’ve read a book before. Especially when you’ve just bought a shiny new copy, and the realization includes the fact that another copy – just as shiny, also bought new – is probably on a shelf upstairs in your house. (I haven’t looked yet; maybe it isn’t. Maybe I read it from a library the first time?)

You see, if you read a book again on purpose, that’s fine: it means you remember it, and want to experience it again. And reading a new book is obviously normal. But thinking it’s new to you when it isn’t – that’s not a good experience.

So I re-read Patience  yesterday (as I write this). It was the 2016 graphic novel from Daniel Clowes, and is still his most recent book. I read it for the first time in 2017, and let me take a second to re-read what I wrote about it then.

OK, I agree with all of that. Clearly I didn’t remember it deeply, and I trusted my Books Wanted list more than I should have, but it’s a solid Clowes story, very much in his usual style and manner. For all of Clowes’s characters’ histrionics

, I find I don’t really engage emotionally with them: they are very emotional people who Clowes often seems to be examining like a scientist with a bug.

That may be one reason why I don’t remember Clowes stories viscerally: they’re all distanced to begin with. The Clowes affect subliminally says “these people are damaged and wrong in various ways; pay attention to them but don’t care about them.” I doubt Clowes intends this affect for Patience, but it’s so ingrained into how I read his work, so tied to his art style and method of viewing characters, that he’d need to change a lot to break that habit. And I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Anyway, Patience is a good Clowes book that didn’t impress itself strongly in my memory. Everything I said in my old post is still how I’d characterize it as a story. I have no new insights to impart. Come back tomorrow; with luck, I’ll have a read a book for the first time and have something interesting to say about it.

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

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Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Joshua W. Cotter

The memory of a book is not the same as an initial assessment

, or a re-read. Looking back, when starting to write about Joshua W. Cotter’s excellent graphic novel Skyscrapers of the Midwest , I see that I read it at almost the same time as Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole. At the time, I said Skyscrapers was my favorite, but I’ve thought about Swallow much more often in the past decade, and returned to Powell’s work in a way I haven’t for Cotter.

So which of the two is “better”? 2008 Andy thought it was Skyscrapers. The default Andy of about 2010-2020 would probably say Swallow if asked to choose between the two. And today, after I’ve just re-read Skyscrapers?

Today I think I’m going to say picking between two books by completely different people is a silly game, that books are not in competition with each other in any sense other than for attention in the moment. The world is wide; there’s room for everything. There’s especially lots of room for strong books.

But today I have just re-read Skyscrapers. And I seem to be avoiding writing about it directly – maybe because what I wrote in 2008 is still entirely applicable and I don’t really have anything to add to that. This is the story of a boy who probably is a semi-fictionalized version of Cotter himself, at the age of 10 in 1987. I wrote about a lot of the impressive elements of the story a decade ago, and I only have a few things to add to that.

There’s a subplot here about a young man – eighteen or twenty, I guess – who looks a lot like the young protagonist and is in a bad relationship (almost entirely because of him) with a woman of the same age. Reading Skyscrapers this time, I wondered if that was supposed to be a flashforward, the same boy a little older. I don’t think so: the rest of the book is set in 1987, and there’s no transitional elements to imply that shift in time. More importantly, he interacts with the main plot once, so he must be a different person – maybe similar, maybe a warning of what the protagonist could become.

There’s also some fake-nonfiction elements as part of the package – the letter column is answered by a cowboy named “Skinny Kenny,” as the biggest example, but there are also some fake ads and similar stuff. This is loosely incorporated into the overall story, since “Skinny Kenny” replies to letters that, at least in one case, is clearly by a character in the story and is about the story.

But those are the only major pieces I didn’t mention in my old post: otherwise, I agree with what 2008 Andy said. This is impressive, and it still struck me in 2021 as a lot like a more humanist, less formalist version of a Chris Ware story: similar elements about a similar childhood, with the story heading in a different direction and with a very different art style. In Ware, the story is about how a boy is irreparably broken – whether because of comics, or just adjacent to comics isn’t really important. For Cotter, the hermeticism of a boy’s imagination is both positive and negative, like so many things in life, and his characters need to have other connections, especially to family, to get through those tricky years.

We do sense that this boy will get through; he won’t be broken like a Ware character. And I’m reminded that I’ve lost track of what Cotter has been doing for the past decade, so I really should see if he’s done anything else this strong.

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

In. by Will McPhail

This graphic novel is just too damn good to be Will McPhail’s first book-length project. He has to have a drawer-full of stuff, or maybe he’s published short work somewhere. The drawing I completely believe; I’ve seen his cartoons and they’re assured enough that I believe he could easily make the jump from single panels to juxtaposed images. But the story here? How does someone go from a one-line joke to a full-realized story of almost three hundred pages?

So, um, yeah, this is pretty good. In. is apparently the first long narrative Will McPhail has created, and it works from beginning to end.

It’s about this guy, Nick, who lives in a big city (not unlike McPhail, who lives in Edinburgh, though this city is more vaguely New York) and works as an artist (also not unlike McPhail). He’s got a sister, Anne, and a mother, Hannah, and early on he meets a woman, Wren, who could turn into a girlfriend if everything goes right.

But he feels like he doesn’t connect with people, like he just skates across the top of conversations, saying generic things back and forth with people, and never gets to know anyone. He’s not sure if he wants to get deeper into other peoples lives, but he feels like he’s missing something, as if he’s just play-acting at life. In fact, he’s actually play-acting in the first contemporary scene of the book, as if this is how he thinks adults, or normal people, act with each other.

But then he connects, unexpectedly – he says something really honest and really listens to the answer. McPhail illustrates this conversation, and similar ones later in the book

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, as a surreal scene that Nick falls into – it’s related to the topic, loosely and visually, but McPhail is not illustrating what Nick learns. Instead, he’s showing what it feels like: a visual, comics metaphor for a deep human connection.

The rest of the book looks like McPhail’s cartoons: line art with light washes of gray for emphasis and texture. But the surreal sections are fully painted, and striking every time they appear. (McPhail also signposts that a color scene is about to begin by zooming into the speaker’s face and showing their eyes in color: another nice visual metaphor about seeing that only works in comics.)

I don’t want to detail what the story is about from there: every story is in the telling of it. Nick does start out a bit immature, a bit unconnected – that’s the point – and learns how to be different. Along the way, McPhail does things right both big (those surreal scenes, the overall flow of the book, all of the characterization) and small (a dozen throwaway joke names for coffee bars and alcohol bars, an amusingly arch depiction of Nick and Wren’s first sexual encounter).

One of the most impressive things, particularly for a first book, is that I can point to something like a dozen things that McPhail does really well, and nothing at all that I’d seriously criticize. No book is perfect, but I’d be hard-pressed, even as a former editor, to point to anything in In. that I’d have red-penciled or asked for revisions on.

So: yeah. Really impressive. Thoughtful, deep, meaningful, lovely. Takes advantage of the comics form brilliantly, though I can still see someone wanting to turn this into a movie. (They’d probably screw it up, since it’s already as good as it can be, but it would have four great parts to entice various actorly types.) If you haven’t read it, you probably will want to.

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