Tagged: Andrew Wheeler

Review: ‘Logicomix’ by Doxiadis, Papadimitriou, Papadatos, and Di Donna

Review: ‘Logicomix’ by Doxiadis, Papadimitriou, Papadatos, and Di Donna

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
Written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou; Art by Alecos Papadatos; Color by Annie Di Donna
Bloomsbury, September 2009, $22.95

Ever so often, there’s an object lesson that proves the saying so many of us like to make: that comics aren’t just for adventure stories, that they’re suitable for any kind of story. If we’re lucky, those paradigm-breakers are also really successful – and Logicomix is both of those things. It’s a major graphic novel on an unexpected topic – the life of Bertrand Russell, with a strong emphasis on his work attempting to create a solid foundation for mathematics, and thus all of learning – and it’s been quite commercially successful, alighting on bestseller lists occasionally and moving a surprising number of copies.

Logicomix, though, is also a piece of metafiction – the first character we see, on the first page of this graphic novel, is co-author Doxiadis, talking to the reader about this very story, and introducing us to co-author (and logician/computer science professor) Papadimitriou, and then to the art team, Papadatos and Di Donna, and their researcher, Anne. The authors and illustrators return to the stage – very literally, in one case at the end – several times in the course of the graphic novel, mostly to explain the details more carefully, and, occasionally, to lightly debate with each other about the meaning and import of the story.

After that bit of throat-clearing, Logicomix starts up in earnest…with another frame story, in which Bertrand Russell arrives to speak on logic at an unnamed “American University” on the eve of WWII, in 1939, and finds himself interrupted by protestors who want him to stand up unequivocally for pacifism, as he did during The Great War. Russell instead launches into his speech, which forms the narration boxes – and occasional interludes – for the rest of the graphic novel, as the panels depict first Russell’s youth and then his early mature years, as he worked on the foundations of logic.

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Manga Friday: Down the Rabbit Hole with ‘Pandora Hearts’, ‘Karakuri Odette’ and ‘Night Head: Genesis’

Manga Friday: Down the Rabbit Hole with ‘Pandora Hearts’, ‘Karakuri Odette’ and ‘Night Head: Genesis’

Most of us, it’s safe to say, will never be told that our sin is our very being. (Unless we were brought up in the Deep South, in which case we’ve heard it twice a day and five times on Sunday.) We’re also not going to learn that the odd new girl in our high school is actually an android. Nor will we find that we’re trying to stop the extinction of mankind, along with our brother, with only our innate psychic powers to guide and aid us. That’s what manga is for – in a manga, those things are only to be expected, and it would be a bland story without something like that happening by page five.

Pandora Hearts, Vol. 1
By Jun Mochizuki
Yen Plus, December 2009, $10.99

Oz Vessalius, scion of one of the four great dukedoms, has arrived at the mansion that his family uses only for coming-of-age ceremonies to be officially proclaimed heir to his non-present father, along with a large semi-feudal entourage. (Though this book is set, as best I can tell from the floppy, ornate manga clothes and the background details, no earlier than the late Victorian.) It seems like an awfully big place to only use for a few days every generation, but I’ve learned not to let logic get in the way of my enjoyment of a manga story.)

However, all does not go smoothly – there are signs, portents, and other weird events that don’t make a whole lot of sense – and the ceremony is interrupted by a group of knife- and chain-wielding hooded figures, who seem to be about to kill Oz for the sin of existence. But he’s saved, sort-of, by a girl named Alice, who is also a giant black rabbit, and both of them are cast into the Abyss, a punishment dimension from which no one ever escapes.

Pandora Hearts skitters about like a bean on a griddle, so it doesn’t then do anything as predicable as settling down to tell the story of how Alice and Oz travel across the Abyss for a few dozen volumes and come to trust and confide in each other. No, they get out of the inescapable Abyss in time for afternoon tea – with Oz still very suspicious of Alice’s intentions and power (and rightfully so) to meet and confront the hooded folks, who are some manner of secret police.

This is a confusing book, with explanations shouted during battles and other confrontations that don’t actually explain much, and are often written in manga shorthand that substitutes Ominous Capitals for clarity. The Alice in Wonderland parallels so far seem limited to Alice’s name and other form, and there’s no particular significance here to Oz’s name, either. Pandora Hearts is messy and loud and disheveled, like a sorority girl at 3 AM on a Friday, but it – like that sorority girl – remains oddly attractive even then. It’s not a great story, but I have hopes that it will make sense, one day.

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Review: ‘Vatican Hustle’ by Greg Houston: Blaxploitation comics… the way you never expected them!

Review: ‘Vatican Hustle’ by Greg Houston: Blaxploitation comics… the way you never expected them!

Vatican Hustle
Greg Houston
NBM, December 2009, $11.95

There are stories that are inextricably mixed up with their original media, stories that would make very little sense translated into another form. Imagine a Gothic Romance novel as a puppet show, or a John Wayne Western as an opera. Until the moment I opened this book, I thought “Blaxploitation movie as a comic” was another example.

(I’m not completely sure I’ve been convinced otherwise, either.)

Vatican Hustle is a Blaxploitation movie done as a comic – when it’s not being a parody of a Blaxploitation movie, or vaguely wandering off into Chester Gould territory, or just being terrifically proud with and impressed by itself. If the art style – fairly well described by the publisher as “a hilarious mash-up of Ralph Steadman, Basil Wolverton and Chester Gould’s bad guys,” though that misses Kevin O’Neill, whom I’d list first and foremost – doesn’t tip you off that this is wacky with a capital Wack, the fact that the hero is named Boss Karate Black Guy Jones will certainly do the trick.

It’s set in Baltimore, in an unspecified time that could be the ‘70s as well as today, and our hero – whom I will refer to as BKBGJ for brevity – is, of course, a black dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks. (Literally – the book begins post-coitally, with BKBGJ walking his latest conquest to the door and chatting about his “shorty robe” before dealing with the inevitable arriving gangsters who arrive to take him, by force if necessary, to see their boss.) BKBGJ is the absolute best, feared and respected even by the mob, and so is hired by that mob boss to retrieve his beloved runaway daughter before her boyfriend uses her in donkey porn.

The trail leads to Rome – as the title implies, or promises – and to the Pope. The Pope is also a tough guy: hard-drinking, hard-living, perhaps the only man in the world who can stand up to BKBGJ. But that implies much more of a linear plot than Vatican Hustle provides – this is a loose-limbed book, sprawling in all directions in search of laughs or snickers from clowns with leprosy, “theme hobos,” dive bars, Gould-level deformed faces, and anything else Houston can think up and throw in.

Vatican Hustle isn’t consistently funny – not even in the places where it’s deliberately trying to be funny. But it is consistently weird, and Houston either has no fear or no filter – and whichever one it is, it makes for a succession of bizarrely fascinating pages. This is definitely the work of a unique talent, and there isn’t anything else like it. I’m not sure whether to hope that Houston settles down and learns to modulate his talent to consistently replicate his hits and avoid his misses, or to expect that he’ll get even more extreme and bizarre. Either way, Vatican Hustle is like no other book you will read this year, and that’s damn impressive.

Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.

Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.

Hey, Kids – Graphic Novels! A Review of Three Books for the Young ‘Uns

Hey, Kids – Graphic Novels! A Review of Three Books for the Young ‘Uns

Of course, we all know that comics can be for adults now…but
they don’t have to be. Some of the best books
out there now were made for kids – which is just the way it was fifty years
ago, come to think of it. Now, I’m not claiming that these three books are the
best out there – my reading has been slipshod and random this year – but they’re
all worth reading for the right audience:

Tiny Tyrant: Volume One: The Ethelbertosaurus
By Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice
Parme
First Second, May 2009, $9.95

Trondheim is a prolific French cartoonist for both younger
readers and adults, with books like Kaput and Zosky and A.L.I.E.E.E.N. for the rugrats, the Dungeon series (with Joann Sfar and others) for various
audiences, and books like his diary comics (
Little Nothings) for adults. Tiny Tyrant sees Trondheim in full kid-pleasing mode, with pint-size
King Ethelbert of Porto Cristo running amok and terrorizing all the adults
around him (with the possible exception of the nearly unflappable Miss Prime
Minister).

This volume collects six stories of King Ethelbert, as he
discovers dinosaur bones, avoids assassination, engages in an
all-crowned-head-of-state motor race, meets Santa Claus, chases his favorite
author, and replaces all children in his domains with robot duplicates of
himself. Nothing ever turns out as he hopes, of course, but the stories have massive
amounts of verve and energy along the way, propelled by Parme’s stylish and
classy art (reminiscent of the UPA style).

Ethelbert is the kind of fictional character we’re all
deeply happy is purely fictional – he’d be a massive pain in person, but he’s
utterly funny and lovable when contained between the pages of a book.

(One note to consumers: this volume contains
exactly half of the stories published in 2007 in the book just titled Tiny
Tyrant
. In publishing as in
business, the name of the game is putting together things that were originally
separate, and then separating things that were together. Repeat every few years
until interest runs out.)

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Review: Three Will Eisner Reprints – ‘A Family Matter’, ‘Minor Miracles’, and ‘Life on Another Planet’

Review: Three Will Eisner Reprints – ‘A Family Matter’, ‘Minor Miracles’, and ‘Life on Another Planet’

Will Eisner has a towering place in the modern comics field
– the premier awards in the field are named after him, and for good reason –
due both to his pioneering Spirit
newspaper insert from the ‘40s and ‘50s and to the graphic novels he started
creating in the late ‘70s, after a long hiatus from the field. And that puts
him in an enviable position, in that huge swaths of his work is in print much
of the time. But perhaps that
isn’t
all that enviable, since it means that some, well,
lesser work gets reprinted as well.

The three books below were brought back into print this year
by W.W. Norton as part of their large and growing Will Eisner Library; they’re
packaged handsomely and would fit well on the shelf along with other books in
that series. But these three titles also show some of Eisner’s most glaring
faults and problems, particularly the biggest issue: his unbreakable addiction
to the most obvious strains of melodrama.

A Family Matter
By Will Eisner
W.W. Norton, July 2009, $15.95

Norton’s cover for A Family Matter­ – originally published in 1998 by Kitchen Sink –
telegraphs the melodrama here, as a dumpy Eisner middle-aged woman bawls, her
hands clenched in front of her dramatically underlit face. (The clichéd pose is
to the negative, but, on the other hand, Eisner is one of the few major comics
artists willing and able to draw realistic, unattractive people regularly and
put them at the center of his stories. And since the majority of humanity
is unattractive, it’s important to have artists who show
them as they are.)

The story is set in familiar Eisner territory: a rich patriarch
has been ailing for years, and is essentially unable to communicate now. But it’s
his ninetieth birthday, so the entire squabbling clan – and no one squabbles
like Eisner characters – must gather for the occasion and maneuver for position
in the old man’s good graces. There’s the ne’er-do-well son, the daughter who
married a successful man, another daughter whose husband isn’t quite as
successful, the downtrodden lawyer son (lawyers are always harried and
overworked in Eisner; always small storefront shysters rather than high-powered
white-shoe types), the artistic younger daughter, and a sprinkling of kids from
the next generation. Despite one cell phone, the story feels like it’s set in
the usual Eisner time and milieu – vaguely mid-‘50s, relatively prosperous but
with dark clouds, with domestic servants for middle-class people, and all the
women wearing dowdy dresses and aprons all the time (and probably have
whale-boned foundation garments underneath).

Eisner’s characters also talk a lot, explaining the plot,
their motivations, and dreams to each other – it’s a bit like a musical on
paper in that way, and has to be taken in a similar spirit, as a contrivance
that makes thoughts manifest. (Eisner doesn’t use captions in this story, and
was never much for thought balloons – his people say what they feel, no matter what.) But he’s also
rehashing three generations of family history here, much of it only alluded to
or mentioned once, so there’s a density in
Family Matter which is uncommon in a graphic novel outside of the
work of Gilbert Hernandez. But, again, that’s the soap-operatic aspect of
Family
Matter
: there’s always another
complication, another skeleton in the closet, another grievance.

Family Matter is soapy and sometimes obvious, a comics version of
the mid-20th century ethnic soap operas. (Though, thankfully, he’d
toned down his most over-the-top Borscht Belt Jewish material and the bold and
dotted E*M*P*H*A*S*I*S in
dialogue that he used so heavily earlier.) It will feel very old-fashioned and unusual
to readers used to the cool, deadpan modern independent comics scene. But
Eisner is wonderful with body language and character types, and his people
never lack for motivation, so books like this will continue to be of interest –
particularly to aspiring creators, who want to see the broad, obvious ways of
creating effects so that they can then work on making those ways more subtle
and quiet.

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Review: ‘Stitches’ by David Small — a comics memoir of an amazingly bad childhood

Review: ‘Stitches’ by David Small — a comics memoir of an amazingly bad childhood

Stitches: A Memoir
David Small
W.W. Norton, September 2009,
$24.95

You can’t write a memoir these days unless you had a bad
childhood – call it the Law of Oprah. You have to have some horrible secrets,
either your own or those of your parents/keepers/guardians, that you can
reveal, tearfully, to an enthralled TV audience when called upon. You may not
make it to that TV-show couch, since the competition for a bad-enough childhood
is fierce, but that’s the aim. Memoirs of anything positive are utterly passé –
even a book like Eat Pray Love needs to
start with heartbreak before it can get to happiness.

Then there’s the unrelated but equally unsettling
requirement that only non-fictional graphic novels can be taken really seriously by the outside world. From </span><em>Maus</em><span style="font-style: normal;"> to </span><em>Persepolis, from </span><em>Fun Home</em><span style="font-style: normal;"> to </span><em>Palestine, it’s only respectable if it’s real. As far as our mothers and cousins and next-door neighbors know, “graphic novels” means expensive comic-book stories about either superheroes or the author’s tormented relationship with his family.

Stitches is perfectly positioned at the intersection of those two publishing trends: it’s the true story of author David Small’s appalling childhood, told as comics pages with cinematic “camera motions” that will appeal to readers not used to reading comics. Even the art style Small uses in Stitches adds to the seriousness; Small has a sketchy, loose line of variable width here, strong to define the figures and lighter and looser for backgrounds, and washes in various tones of grey. In fact, the whole
book is grey – even the black line looks like just another shade of the murk.

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Comical Lives: A Paired Review of ‘Little Nothings 2’ and ‘Giraffes in My Hair’

Comical Lives: A Paired Review of ‘Little Nothings 2’ and ‘Giraffes in My Hair’

The impulse to anecdote is ubiquitous in mankind; we all
want to tell our own stories. Since those stories happened to us, we naturally think that they’re fascinating…and
sometime are surprised when the rest of the world doesn’t agree with us. Comics
creators have been spilling out their lives onto their pages for a few decades
now – since the undergrounds, if not before that – and the autobiographical comic
is now its own cliché. But there’s still room to do interesting things with autobiographical
materials – at least, I
hope
there is, since it seems that we’re destined to be deluged with books of true
stories…

Little Nothings, Vol. 2: The Prisoner Syndrome
Lewis Trondheim
NBM/ComicsLit, March 2009,
$14.95

Trondheim mostly makes fictional comics – Dungeon and Kaput and Zosky and Mister O and many more – but he also has kept a comics blog
in French, mostly focused on the small moments of his life. Three collections
from the blog have been published in his native France; the first two have been
translated so far for the English-speaking world. (I reviewed the first one
here back in March of last year.)

For the “Little Nothings” blog, Trondheim works in
watercolor, mostly in single pages – each one the record of a single event, or
a short conversation. The emphasis is on observation – each strip is a crystallized
instant, and clearly the blog as a whole is not intended to seriously chronicle
Trondheim’s life. As with the Dungeon
books, all of the people are drawn anthropomorphically – Trondheim and his
family are various kinds of bird, and most of the others look like different
kinds of mammals – rats and dogs and cats. (In the usual unsettling way of
anthropomorphic comics, Trondheim’s family also has a pair of real cats, Orly
and Roissy, and other actual animals show up from time to time.)

Either Trondheim travels an awful lot or travel is more
conducive to diary comics than his regular life, since a clear majority of the
comics here are about trips – to the Angouleme comics festival (a year when he
was the Guest of Honor), several other comics events, and vacation in Greece,
Guadeloupe, and Corsica. That does keep Prisoner Syndrome from being a succession of Trondheim-sitting-at-his-desk
pages – there are a number of those, of course, since that’s where a cartoonist
spends most of his time – and ties nicely into the title. In one of the early
strips in this book, Trondheim learns about “Prisoner Syndrome,” in which
people who spend all of their time in the same place gradually get more and
more tired from doing less and less – and so he decides to go to more comics
festivals, to keep himself healthy.

There are no grand gestures in Prisoner
Syndrome
, no deep thoughts or big
moments – the series is
called Little
Nothings
for a reason. But there
are many thoughtful little moments, of the kind that make up all of our lives,
and Trondheim is an artful and nuanced portrayer of his own internal life. It’s
a lovely book of the small things that go together to make up an everyday life.

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Two Bleak Futures: David Ratte’s ‘Toxic Planet’ and ‘Ball Peen Hammer’ by Adam Rapp and George O’Connor

Two Bleak Futures: David Ratte’s ‘Toxic Planet’ and ‘Ball Peen Hammer’ by Adam Rapp and George O’Connor

Everything is going to hell. Everything is always going to hell, and always has been, of course, but
it’s going to hell even more now than it ever has been, and quicker, too. And
so we get ever more stories about those hells – like these two very different
books that I have to talk about today. They even both have people with gas
masks on the cover!

Toxic Planet

David Ratte

Yen Press, August 2009, $12.99

Sometime in the future, the world is so crowded and polluted
that everyone wears gas masks all of the time, and the natural world is
essentially forgotten. Toxic Planet is a
satire – and a broad, obvious one at that – so there’s no point to asking what
kind of food these people eat; it’s not designed to show how this world
actually works, but to make obvious points about our own world.

Our hero is a factory worker named Sam; his blonde wife and
aged grandmother are never named, but that’s OK; they’re all such broad
characters that real names are superfluous anyway. Other characters include an
unnamed owner of the plant and his young son, the President of the United
Global States, who is an odd combination of Bush and Sarkozy, and the union rep
Tran, who gets to be the voice of reason (reason here being very much a
relative concept). Later on, Sam’s long-lost parents – they’re ecologists,
which is about as popular and mainstream in this society as a combination of
Muslim, Communist, and child molester would be in darkest Alabama – return from
the countryside (yes, the world is completely polluted everywhere, and yet
there’s still an unspoiled “countryside,” but don’t ask), with his younger
sister Orchidea, and they get to be the even more obvious voices of reason.

Toxic Planet is funny
here and there, and dull and axe-grinding equally as often. And it’s really
much, much too long for the message – yes, we all agree that polluting the
entire planet, declaring war on defenseless countries, and similar things are
Really Bad, but we don’t need to keep seeing heavy-handed double-reverse
sermons on the subject over and over for more than a hundred pages. Ratte’s
world isn’t clever or interesting; he just wants to make it dirty and
unpleasant, and he succeeds. The one interesting part of watching the axes
grind are the times when Ratte’s French ideas of what’s obvious and true – so much
so that he doesn’t have to say them, just have his characters parroting whatever
he considers the opposite – aren’t at all clear to a North American audience,
and so the reader can’t quite tell what he’s so worked up about.

Ratte’s art almost makes up for that, even
laboring under the constraints his writing has given it – no faces, only gas
masks, and characters who have to be differentiated mostly by hairstyle and typical
clothing – with an appealing lightness and energy. But Toxic Planet is the kind of book that can make a reader want to
drive a SUV to McDonald’s for lunch and then go prospect for oil in a
wilderness, just out of spite.

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Review: ‘Asterios Polyp’ by David Mazzucchelli

Review: ‘Asterios Polyp’ by David Mazzucchelli

Asterios Polyp
David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon, July 2009, $29.95

Comics are an essentially mongrel art, bred out of the
scraps of two prior art-forms in the great kennel of popular culture. That’s no
bad thing, despite what the mandarins might say – mongrels typically have the
strengths of both parents, without the fussiness and decadent weakness
characteristic of arts that only breed incestuously. Of course comics then are
called bastards, which is both a slander and absolute truth. The slander only stings
if one thinks being a bastard is a bad thing.

Asterios Polyp, for example, is a bastard, and the graphic
novel that bears his name is – and this is only one of the things it is, but we’ll start there – the story
of how he finally, much too late in his life, learns how not to be quite so
much of a bastard as he was before. We see Asterios in appropriately classical
form: both before and after his downfall, as if he’s both at once. More
importantly, though, </span><em>Asterios Polyp
is the story of comics themselves, as it dramatizes the interplay of the
elements that come together to make up comics. Asterios is a renowned teaching architect:
serious, linear, dogmatic, didactic, Apollonian, a maker of dichotomies. And he
comes up against the Dionysian side of the world again and again, symbolically
ramming his axe-shaped head into the places where the world doesn’t fit his
categories, willing it into the forms he’s decided are right for it.

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Review: George Sprott: 1894-1975 by Seth

Review: George Sprott: 1894-1975 by Seth

George Sprott: 1894-1975
Seth
Drawn & Quarterly, May
2009, $24.95

Comics very, very rarely tell stories about old, fat, boring
men, which most people probably don’t think is a problem. But no art form can
ever become mature if it ignores large swaths of the world, and it’s
indisputable that our world is filled
with men who are old, or fat, or boring, or (even worse) all three at once.
Maybe none of us would ever want comics to be
only about the Sprotts among us, but the fact that there’s
now room for comics about them is a good sign.

George Sprott: 1894-1975 is an expanded version of a story that originally appeared from late 2006 through March of 2007 in single-page installments in the New York Times Magazine’s “Funny Pages” section. (Which, by the way, seems to have quietly ended with
Gene Luen Yang’s story “Prime Baby” a few months back.) In the Times serialization, each installment of Sprott was a single large page, essentially a chapter of
the longer work. Those pages appear here, in the same sequence and not apparently
changed, but they’re surrounded by new work – both Seth’s usually impeccable
(if chilly, and in his typical blue tones) book design, with illustrations and
decorations, and some new comics stories to expand that original story. Primary
among the new work is a sequence of eight stories – each one three pages long, and
each taking place on one particular day, in a different decade over Sprott’s
long life, arranged from 1906 through 1971 as the book goes on. There’s also an
impressive six-page fold-out, near the end of the book, that looks to depict
Sprott’s scattered thoughts as he died. On top of those, there are short
introductory and ending pieces: the first is thematically interesting, if
mostly wheel-spinning, while the new two-page “Sign Off” from the fictional TV station that Sprott worked for is another slab of very provincial Canadian
bacon added to a plate already swimming in maple flavoring and Timbits.

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