Tagged: comics

Success Is 90% Spite by Jane Zei

Success Is 90% Spite by Jane Zei

I admit this is a weird thing I do: I read full books from webcomics that I don’t follow. But I want to argue that it isn’t weird.

First, why would I want to read a book of a comic where I’ve read all of the comics already? Well, OK, yes: if you like a thing, you like it, and often want to do it again. And I used to do this a lot in the years when print comics were powerful and dominant over the land: Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side and plenty of others. All right, maybe that’s not the convincing side of the argument. But, still: you can see not wanting to do the same thing again, right?

So, then: why not read a whole book of something that you think you’ll like? Sure, you could find wherever it lives on-line, navigate back to the beginning of time (assuming you can figure out how to do that) and then one-day forward through it. But isn’t the whole point of a book that it’s just easier?

I always thought so. And that’s why I read the first (and maybe only) collection of Jane Zei’s “The Pigeon Gazette” (which seems to live in multiple places equally: Tumblr , Instagram , and Webtoon ), Success Is 90% Spite .

Now, I do have to complain about the book format, too. At least in my library app, it’s a reflowable “book” (I’m going to guess ePub; the system hides that) rather than a “comic” (in PDF, so each page displays as a page and can be pinched to expand/shrink). So each strip is a specific size, and if I want to view them slightly larger on my tablet, I have to turn the thing sideways, which has the knock-on affect of adding a blank page after each cartoon.

(The part of me that works with UX people is hanging his head, muttering darkly, and cursing the world.)

But enough blather about formatting!

Zei has a funny, cartoony style, which was solid right from the beginning of this strip, and a strong central character in the version of herself that she presents. You’ve probably seen her strips somewhere; they’re the kind of thing that gets shared socially, usually with no attribution. Luckily, most of Zei’s strips feature her avatar centrally, so random readers have a decent chance of realizing all these separate funny things are part of the same big funny thing, and finding it. (That’s more or less how I did it.)

Of course, in the way of all good things, The Pigeon Gazette seems to have quietly ended last summer – like so many webcomics, it seems to have been tooling along at a comfortable pace and then just stopped. We may be at the point where we get a random “sorry it’s been so long! I promise to get back to a regular pace!” strip every three months, or a flurry of things before another final silence, or that all the web presences just quietly disappear one fateful day.

But the book exists, which loops back to my original main point (and I do have one). It was published in 2020, by Andrews McMeel, a big name in the funny book biz, and Success will survive and be findable for a long time, no matter what happens online. And that’s why I prefer books. This one is funny and zippy and – that horrible webcomics word – relatable, and I suspect a lot of you would like it roughly as much as I did.

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

Buni:  Happiness Is a State of Mind by Ryan Pagelow

Buni: Happiness Is a State of Mind by Ryan Pagelow

This strip isn’t exactly new to me – I’ve seen a bunch of Buni  cartoons over the years, all over the place – but it’s not one I ever made an effort to read regularly. So I’m coming at it as a mostly-uninformed reader: I know it’s wordless, that the title character is happy and positive in a world that very much tends to the opposite direction, and a vague bit about the other characters.

But if there’s a serious Buni discourse going on, I’m unfamiliar with it. So, as I often do, I need to signpost here that I could be wrong, and that I know it.

Buni has been running – I think consistently three days a week – since 2010, written and drawn by Ryan Pagelow. Buni: Happiness Is a State of Mind  is the first, and I think only, collection of the strip so far: it came out in 2018. 

Buni is the main character – that happy-go-lucky guy on the cover. He’s a bunny – hence the name – in a world mostly of teddy bears. He’s also a happy, positive person in a world where pretty much everyone else hates and attacks and eats each other. (This is not the kind of world where sentients avoid predating on each other – rather the opposite, actually.) His main character notes are that he is almost always sunny, and that he has a unreciprocated (and never will be) crush on BuniGirl, who has a boyfriend.

(Here I might note that all names, besides Buni himself, need to be discovered outside of the comic itself, because of the whole “wordless” thing.)

This seems to collect the strip from the beginning, so we start with Buni himself, see him crushing on BuniGirl (and her instead spending time with the hulking fellow I guess we should call BuniBoyfriend or BuniRival?), see his father (BuniDad) arrive by breaking out of prison and immediately become a ray of gloom and nastiness in Buni’s world, and the two bunnies adopt a crippled dog, whom I understand is called either Dogi or BuniDog.

Most of the strips are one-offs, though, in which Buni finds happiness in an unusual way (imagining he’s riding a unicorn in a fantasyland while actually on a kiddie ride in a horrible alley), Buni finds his world is sadder and creepier than expected (the sushi restaurant serves body parts of the staff), or – and, as I noted before, this is more common than I expected – someone tries (and often succeeds) to eat another clearly-sentient person in the strip.

There’s a fun one, about halfway in, where BuniDad and the next-door neighbor (a bull) hate-eat members of each other’s species at each other, which is a pretty emblematic Buni strip. It’s about spite, and performative nastiness, on that level, with the title character himself floating above that like a visitor from some happier, sunnier, massively-licensed strip.

It’s an interesting combination, and making Buni central is really important: the world would be too much of a one-joke premise for a long-running strip otherwise. It sets up a gigantic, very central conflict that gives Pagelow a lot of room to work with, while also allowing strips that are just quirky odd bits about either Buni or other characters – this world is dark, but it’s cartoony dark, and not dark all the time everywhere.

So this is fun, and there’s more depth than you might expect for a wordless strip – or that you might realize, seeing one random strip once in a while float across your social feed. (That’s how I previously saw Buni: I’m not saying you are me, but I’m assuming it’s typical.) And if you’re looking for a comic strip way more centrally about cannibalism than you suspected was possible, it’s really your only choice.

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

Funny Things by Luca Debus and Francesco Matteuzzi

Funny Things by Luca Debus and Francesco Matteuzzi

There aren’t all that many books where the format is an inspired choice – most books are what they are, arranged in the same way as a thousand others much like them. Every so often, you see a novel in epic verse, or a non-fiction book of advocacy that’s basically one big infographic, but those are rare.

Funny Things  is part of that rare company: it may take a couple of pages to realize it, but this biography of Charles M. “Peanuts” Schulz is laid out like a book of Peanuts strips. Generally six dailies – though it starts with a short week of five – and then a Sunday, over and over again, just like Schulz’s own working life for fifty years.

The subtitle gives that away, if you catch the reference: it’s called “A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz.” But that’s easy to miss; it’s not like “a comic strip biography” is an established thing. Maybe it should be – I don’t know if other creators could do something as interesting as Luca Debus (co-writer and artist) and Francesco Matteuzzi (co-writer) do here, but it’s a great concept, and great concepts deserve to be used more than once.

(Is this the first big biography of Schulz since the Michaelis Schulz and Peanuts prose book back in 2007? I just checked my old ComicMix review of that from back in the day to remind myself of how someone else showed the contours of Schulz’s life, and was reminded of the kerfuffle over how Michaelis portrayed Schulz’s divorce. Luca and Matteuzzi are more allusive here – much less specific – but they seem to be telling the same story Michaelis did.)

As usual for a biography, Funny Things spends the bulk of its space covering Schulz’s pre-fame life; the early years of toil and struggle are always more interesting than the fat years of fame and relentless work at a drawing board. Otherwise, it’s a biography: it covers Schulz’s life from childhood up to a few days before his death, in about as much detail as you’d expect from a biography in comics form. It all seemed reasonable, vaguely similar to the Michaelis and other things I’ve read about Schulz’s life – Luca and Matteuzzi don’t turn Schulz into an avatar of Snoopy or anything weird like that.

Luca draws this in a style reminiscent of Schulz without trying to mimic Schulz’s character designs or linework, which is a good choice. It looks the most like Peanuts in the early going, of course, when Schulz and a lot of the people he interacts with are kids. Luca and Matteuzzi also signpost a lot of interesting moments or references – people named Van Pelt, Schroeder, and “Charlie Brown,” for example – without making a big deal out of them. They’re cartoonists; they’re used to needing to keep words few and precise.

I didn’t find the need for a “punchline” in every “strip” was a problem, but it might seem artificial to some readers – this is a book with a very particular rhythm and feeling, deeply baked into that idiosyncratic format. But that format is so appropriate for Schulz that I thought it strengthened the book: Schulz was a man who struggled with being happy, and one of the ways he found happiness was to make it, crafting a funny or thoughtful moment for every day of fifty years. So having that same rhythm, that same drive, built into the structure of the book itself underlined that core of Schulz’s persona, giving a strong through-line to his story.

So this is a fine biography in a quirky, very successful format, about a creator worth celebrating who lived an interesting life. It’s one of the more interesting drawn books this year, and I hope a lot of people find and enjoy it.

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

The Last Days of Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Stefano Simeone

The Last Days of Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Stefano Simeone

A cynical reader, such as me, could look at that title and think “oh, good, they’re finally ending this repetitive superhero waffling that never actually goes anywhere.” But that reader would be wrong.

This is not “last” in the sense of anything actually ending. This is a superhero “last,” meaning it’s about something in the past, and retelling a story already at least half-told multiple times before – but now telling it in greater detail. Even more so, what we have here pretends to be the actual issues of the 1986-era comic in which the original Black Hammer snuffed it, with covers that have fake high numbers and everything.

So The Last Days of Black Hammer  is actually a prequel to nearly all of the Black Hammer stories we’ve already seen. (Black Hammer ’45  takes place almost entirely before this, as does Barbalien: Red Planet , but I think those are the only ones – OK, maybe Doctor Andromeda , too.)

The whole premise of the entire vast Black Hammer-i-verse was that there was a big superhero fight (cough Crisis! cough) against the “Anti-God,” who looks nothing like Darkseid, in the sky over Spiral City, which apparently also turned the skies of the rest of the world red, because that’s the thing comics geeks still latch onto from Crisis even thirty years later, and that the Greatest Hero of All Time, Black Hammer, whacked said Anti-God with his big, um, Black Hammer, and that made the Anti-God go all “ouchie!” and run away forever and forever but also alas! killed Black Hammer in the same way that every superhero dies at least once.

For the dull ones in back: Black Hammer is the Silver Age Flash. He died so worlds can live. Got it? (Character-wise, he’s actually more like the Black Racer crossed with Thor, but that’s a different kind of derivative-ness.)

This pretends to be the 1986-era issues 234-237 issues of the Black Hammer comic book, including both a “hero no more!” and an “all-new! all-different!” cover, plus the double-sized epic conclusion. There’s also a coda or epilogue at the end, outside that “old comics” schema, to show how Sad it all was, how Important was The Sacrifice of Black Hammer To Save Us All, and that His Daughter had to Grow Up Without a Father, Alas! 

Otherwise, though, this is exactly what we already know and what we expect. Black Hammer is conflicted, and wants to give up hitting things with a big hammer to Spend More Time With His Family Before It Is Too Late. But, alas! He Is Needed, because The Bad Guys Will Destroy The World And Only Black Hammer Can Stop Them. The superhero group that still doesn’t have a name – the Spiral City Sluggers? the Saviors? the Bad Guy Whompers? the Fabulous Dudes? – more or less breaks up after the events of the first “issue” here, having stopped what was believed to be Their Greatest Threat, and several of them need to be brought back out of retirement – quickly, perfunctorily – for the big ending.

Reader, there is nothing here you will not predict, nothing that gives a true moment of surprise or wonder, nothing that isn’t entirely derivative and utterly pre-determined. This is a piece of product, an engineered jigsaw puzzle piece that slots in exactly in the middle of all of the other pieces to make a bland picture of people punching each other.

I usually praise creator Jeff Lemire’s writing when I talk about these books, though I know it feels like faint praise. (He can, and does, do a lot better than this. But the Black Hammer books are professional, and the characters are as dimensional as anything in generic superhero-dom can be.) This time, the art is from Stefano Simone, who has a looser, sketchier line that might not quite say “1986 Big Event Comics” to me, but it’s energetic and fun and doesn’t look like fifty years of superhero comics, so I count that as a plus.

But, as always, I question the whole point of the exercise. We know everything here already. Last Days adds nothing.

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

Tin Man by Justin Madison

Tin Man by Justin Madison

First up, I have to answer the question I had when I picked up this book: yes, that tin man. Well, one of those tin men, to be clearer.

Justin Madison’s debut graphic novel Tin Man  is set in a version of L. Frank Baum’s Oz, and his tin man, Campbell, has the familiar shape and form Americans expect from their tin men since 1939. But that’s not particularly clear at the beginning of the story, and it’s never important. It’s something bigger than an Easter egg, I guess, since there are plenty of references to Baum here, but it’s all background.

We’re in a recognizably modern world: suburbia, TV news, two-paycheck families, junkyards, high school students who play video games and hang out to do mischief. The land is called Oz, which is mentioned but not emphasized. It looks mostly like our world, with a few tweaks.

There’s a major space industry, and people can build space-capable ships in their backyards, in best Tom Swift fashion. Kids can aspire to get out of their dead-end towns by getting into the very selective VASTE Institute, something like a STEM magnet high school with much more emphasis on spaceships and big wrenches.

But they’re still kids, and that’s what Tin Man is about. Three young people who each want something – though they don’t all exactly know what they want, when the book begins – who meet, and who each find something like what they want (or need) by the end.

One of them is Campbell, the tin man. He grew up with his people, in the forest, chopping down trees. But he heard of a wizard, in a far-off city, who makes mechanical hearts for tin men that allows them to feel, and Campbell wanted that for himself. His father didn’t understand why; they fought; Campbell ran away. There’s a bit more to the story, but that comes out in the course of the book.

Campbell meets Fenn in a junkyard. Campbell is there: living or hanging out or just existing. Fenn is a local kid, maybe ten or so. He’s obsessed with space; his hero is Jed Astro, a famous explorer. And Fenn is picking through junkyards as he tries to build a spaceship himself – he finds a mechanical heart, he befriends Campbell, he’s the glue that pulls this story together.

The third character is Fenn’s older sister, Solar. She used to be an academic whiz, head of the class at her high school, recruited for VASTE. But she’s hanging with the stoners and bullies now, dating the worst of them: slacking off, skipping school, avoiding work and responsibility, looking to get a job at a local garage and give up on all expectations.

Fenn wants his old sister back: the one who cared about space and science and the future. The one that worked with him and was good at the same things he cares about.

Solar wants… Well, she used to want to go to VASTE, to go to space, to get out of this town and make something of herself. Now, she doesn’t seem to want anything.

Campbell wants that mechanical heart, we think – but we learn that he’d already gotten it, and how that went.

Meanwhile, Terrible Twisters are running through Oz, getting closer. And Solar’s new friends – especially her boyfriend, Merrick, their leader – are mean and destructive and getting worse. And we learn why Solar changed, what happened in her life (and Fenn’s) recently that soured her on life.

And they all get what they want, or maybe need, at the end, as the twisters hit and Merrick continues to be a horrible human being and Fenn’s homemade spaceship turns out to be unexpectedly useful.

Madison has a somewhat indy-comics style, a little grungy, with dot eyes: it reminds me a little of Jeff Lemire, though not that grungy. His places are real, his people expressive, his colors crisp and bright. And he’s just sneaky enough, with his Oz references and unobtrusive storytelling, for a reader like me who eats that stuff up. Tin Man is another one of the flood of recent graphic stories aimed at teens, but, like the best of that flood, it’s not limited to them.

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

In Waves by A.J. Dungo

In Waves by A.J. Dungo

A.J. Dungo obscures the central theme of his first graphic novel for a long time. The cover copy only hints at it. I have to assume that’s all on purpose. And, to be a fair reviewer, I feel like I should do the same.

But know that In Waves  is a true story, that it’s about something major and important in Dungo’s life – I hate to say “that happened to him,” for reasons that would only be clear to people who’ve read the book – and that is related to but very distinct from what In Waves says it is about. I might say a little more, at the very end here, if I can do it without spoiling.

In Waves says it’s about surfing. And it is: it’s a four-hundred page graphic novel that largely traces the history of the sport, from pre-contact Hawaii through the greats of the early twentieth century.  It’s informed and interesting, a cultural history rather than the story of a sport’s winners and rules and contests. But that’s just one-half of the book; as the minimal back-cover copy puts it, the other half of In Waves consists of Dungo’s “personal narrative of love, loss, and the solace of surfing.”

Dungo came late to surfing, personally, despite – as far as I can see – growing up in Sothern California, somewhere near the beach. His girlfriend, Kristen, loved to surf, as did many other members of her family, so that’s how Dungo got into it. That half of the book is the personal part, the part I’m going to avoid talking in detail about. It is a narrative of loss, in the end – Dungo constructs the story so the loss happens about mid-way through the book, but it’s clear from early on that this will not be an entirely happy story.

Dungo tells those two stories on crisp light pages – the present-day storyline in a green-blue, a couple of shades lighter than the cover, and the past in a similarly light amber. He gives them both lots of pages, plenty of room to tell the story, to have small moments in both timeframes. The modern story is more personal, more immediate than the historical one, as of course it has to be. The historical story is mostly background or explanation: what this all means, the deeper history or significance, and maybe what Dungo researched and learned about to process that loss. But the core of In Waves is his story, as it should be.

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

Maids by Katie Skelly

Maids by Katie Skelly

The most interesting creators are the ones you have to learn how to read. They tell stories their way, making their choices but not going out of their way to explain. And it can take reading a few books to figure that out: not all readers will want to spend that much effort.

I think I’m beginning to understand how to read Katie Skelly’s comics. I’m getting more excited, more interested, with each new book I read, which is a good sign: creators should be engrossing, should be exciting, as you learn what they care about and how to see things through their angles. So I may not have quite clicked with My Pretty Vampire , but there was something unique there, which brought me back for The Agency .

And now I’m back again for Maids , Skelly’s 2020 book. I think this is her most important book to date; it’s also her most recent major graphic novel, which might be saying the same thing in a different way.

This is a true story, at its core – a true crime story. As I think is her standard, Skelly works in a cinematic fashion, connecting scenes through images and having a clear “camera” that views the action on her pages. Also as usual, she doesn’t go out of her way to explain things: she’s not one for captions, and her people talk to each other in the ways real people do; they’re not going to explain themselves for your benefit.

It is 1933 France. Christine and Lea Papin are sisters, who grew up poor – dumped in a convent school by their mother. Christine has been a maid for the wealthy Lancelin family for some time; she’s just gotten them to hire Lea as well.

The hours are long, the work both endless and tedious and never enough. The Lancelins – mother and daughter – are not actively oppressive or cruel out of proportion to their station and time, but that still leaves a lot of ground for oppression and cruelty. It is a horrible life for the young Papin sisters. They see no other options, no ways to get any better life. And Lea has visions or breaks; if she was living in the modern world she would probably get medical treatment, but a poor woman in 1933 just has to muddle through.

Skelly’s work is about women, always. The murderers and victims here are all women; all the violence, in both directions, physical and emotional and economic, is from women to women. The anger and scorn and fear and disgust are all between women.

And I think Maids is the purest, most extreme expression of that so far from Skelly, the book where her cinematic eye and genre-fiction influences click together to tell one crisp story of death and revenge and oppression and horror. I don’t know that I’d recommend this book for people who haven’t read Skelly before, but I do recommend it.

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

The Man in the McIntosh Suit by Rina Ayuyang

The Man in the McIntosh Suit by Rina Ayuyang

The publisher describes this graphic novel as a thriller, but I’d put it solidly in noir – that may seem needlessly nitpicky, but if you’re the kind of reader who has strong opinions on the location of the border between mystery and thriller, it may be helpful.

It’s written and drawn by Rina Ayuyang in a soft, mostly blue palette – I am not an expert on art or tools, but it looks like some kind of art crayon or soft pencil to me, with lots of texture and shades of a few colors but relatively muted lines drawn with a quick, energetic hand.

It’s 1929, somewhere in an agricultural field in Northern California. There’s a group of fruit pickers, who seem to be all Filipino. They aren’t exactly mistreated directly, but the larger white society is prejudiced against them, worker protections are scanty to begin with, and these guys do the poorest-paid, lowest-skill work: it’s a hard life. They all, we think, came here to the US to make money to send back home, either intending to return once they made “enough” or to bring more family members over, one by one, to make a new life in the USA.

The story starts centered on three of the workers, but one quickly becomes central: Alessandro “Bobot” Juaňez, trained as a lawyer in the Philippines and married to Elysia, who he hasn’t seen since he emigrated and hasn’t heard from in longer than he’s happy about. (The other two workers are Angel and Edison; they’re not unimportant, but Bobot is our viewpoint character.)

Bobot is mercurial, with a strong sense of justice and a tendency to do things when they come into his head rather than thinking them through. He’s clearly smart, but doesn’t always let his smarts guide him. His life hasn’t gone the way he hoped it would, but he seems to still be looking forward, planning a better life in California. But he wishes he would hear from Elysia: it’s not clear if he even knows whether she’s in the Philippines or America.

Bobot gets a delayed letter from his cousin, Benny, saying Elysia is in San Francisco; he steals Angel’s fancy suit – this gives the book its title, The Man in the McIntosh Suit , though the suit itself isn’t as important as the weight that title seems to give it – and heads out to find her.

And that’s where it gets noir – or more so, since “migrant workers looking for better lives among prejudiced locals” can already be pretty noir, and there were hints of that plot in the first pages – as Bobot looks for Benny, and gets caught up in the local Filippino community in SF. He gets a job in a small restaurant, alongside Danilo and Dulce, who know Benny – he’s away on some sort of trip, vaguely explained, when Bobot arrives.

He sees the woman Benny wrote him about: La Estrella, the star of the late-night Baranguay Club (probably a speakeasy of some kind, illegal in at least one way), the center of the nightlife of the Filipino ghetto. His impulses get the better of him, and he runs afoul of Renato, who runs the Baranguay and, as he says, pretty much all of the Filipino community in SF.

Bobot wants to get La Estrella away from the Club, and she’s…not uninterested in him. But it’s more complicated than it seems, and Renato might either just swat Bobot down or have work for him to do. And some other players have aims that are not entirely aligned with Bobot’s – for instance, who did send that letter, and why?

All that adds up to noir: people living tough lives, with tough choices, random violence, and outbursts of anger. Men and women in relationships sometimes hidden, sometimes not what they seem. People not who they seem, hiding or mistaken for others. All of them looking for more, for better, and willing to go to extremes for it. And, above all, people making bad choices: that’s the core of noir.

Bobot makes it out at the end of this book; the very last pages imply he will return again. Ayuyang is not done telling the story of this 1929. But McIntosh Suit tells a full story: it stands on its own. It’s a deep dive into a murky world, focused on that essential noir hero, the man who can’t stop himself from his impulses and keeps getting dragged deeper into problems.

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

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

Identity is important in American life – the “what are you” question that probably can be asked politely, but rarely is. We’re a nation that needs to put people into specific boxes, to celebrate or denigrate based on what your parents and ancestors were and did – or, more reductively, what you look like.

I’m sure similar things happen in other nations. But it’s so central to American life, especially if you’re not the default. As it happens, I am the default: male, Northeastern, very WASPy, and now middle-aged. But even people like me can see how it works if we pay attention.

So the result is: many, possibly most immigrant memoirs by first- or second-generation Americans boil down to: this is who I am, this is where I came from, this is what’s important to me and my family, and this is why that matters. Those are the questions they keep hearing, so they answer them. Those are the things that are assumed to be central to an American identity: what’s on the left side of the “something-American” hyphen?

Malaka Gharib grew up in a diverse city – Cerrittos, California, mostly in the ’90s – and still had to deal with that question more than most of her peers, because her family wasn’t one thing, like most of her schoolmates. (There’s a page here where she shows a schematic of her highschool, with every group – Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipino, Pakistani, Portuguese, Mexican – in their clusters, and her all alone in the middle.)

The back cover of I Was Their American Dream , Gharib’s debut graphic novel from 2019, is a very slightly different version of a page from the book asking that very question, in that blunt American way: “Malaka, what are you?” (And note, of course, it’s always what, like a thing, and not who, like a person.) The book is her answer.

The short answer is that her mother was Filipino and her father was Egyptian; they met in California, fell in love, married, and had this one daughter before divorcing. Gharib tells that story here: that’s the start of every American story, explaining who your people are. But Gharib has two kinds of people: the Filipinos and the Egyptians. She lives mostly with the extended family of her mother, but spends summers with her father in Egypt.

They’re both part of her identity. She’s different, special, unique. Which is not known for being a comfortable thing for a teenager.

American Dream tells that story – how she grew up, discovered she wasn’t typical, and how that worked out for her through school and college and early adult life. (She was around thirty when she drew this book.) The voice is the adult Gharib looking back: this is a book that could be read by younger readers, but not one specifically pitched to them.

Gharib had a second memoir, the more tightly focused It Won’t Always Be Like This , a few years later. That book is more thoughtful and specific, but American Dream is bigger – this would be the one to start with, I think. And Gharib has a mostly breezy tone and an appealingly loose art style throughout – she may be grappling with some serious themes, but not in a heavy-handed way. She seems to have had a happy childhood, and is celebrating that – comics memoirs so often come out of the opposite impulse that it’s important to mention that. This is the story of a happy childhood, in large part because it was quirky and specific and filled with interesting, loving people from two different cultures.

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

Keeping Two by Jordan Crane

Keeping Two by Jordan Crane

Each reader brings a different perspective to a book. A lot of the discussion about this book has focused on the central couple’s squabbling – about how couples fight each other, that snippiness you get with someone you love and don’t want to really hurt but still want to win when you’re exasperated with each other.

And that’s in there, to be clear. But it’s not as central, to my mind.

Instead, I read Keeping Two  – a magnificent, encompassing, deep graphic novel Jordan Crane put out last year – as a meditation and exploration of catastrophizing, of all the ways we think through what is happening now and what might have happened and how will I go on if it’s really the worst.

We open with a couple in a car, coming home from what was supposed to be a restful holiday weekend. Connie and Will are grumpy: maybe at that point where they’re just a bit sick of each other after so much time together in close spaces. Traffic is horrible – stop and go – and Will is driving too aggressively, following too close. Connie is reading a story out loud, some kind of literary novel about a couple (like them, not like them) and the tragedy of a pregnancy.

Crane uses that novel as a way to show the reader how to read Keeping Two: flashbacks, dreams, fiction, imaginings will be presented with wavy panel borders. Reality has solid straight borders. It’s a small difference, easy to mistake, so the reader has to pay careful attention as panels bounce back and forth between real and imagined. The mind can slip into fantasy at any moment – a stream of thought moving from what is to oh god, what if at any time.

It begins slowly. They do get home, before too many pages. They’re still snippy with each other, but clearly love each other – the couple in the novel are nastier, saying more cutting, thoughtless things, in a worse situation.

One of them goes out to pick up food for dinner; the other one stays to wash up the dishes left in the sink. And time passes.

Again, this is a book about catastrophizing. About those intrusive thoughts of they’ve been gone too long and what could have happened and what if they’re lying dead in a ditch. (In my family, the term is usually “if I get hit by a bus.”)

So reality is intertwined with the novel – we see the end of that couple’s story, and Connie pointedly says that story ends at a moment of inevitability but before we know what really happens, so the ending is our decision, each individually – and with those worries and intrusive thoughts, all the horrors we all imagine all the time. (We do, right? It’s not just me?)

It ends brilliantly. That’s all I’ll say about that part of it. I do wonder if Connie’s point about the novel’s ending is a clue about this ending, though I have to be very elliptical to avoid spoilers. There’s no obvious impending threat for Connie and Will, as there is for the novel’s couple – but something happened, and has not been, um, addressed before the last page, and so could have complications for one of them – potentially very serious complications. I don’t think that’s a “Lady or the Tiger” ending, the way the novel is: I think Crane’s ending is more straightforward – as evidenced by the fact that the last dozen pages have consistently solid borders: they’re together, in reality, living now.

Well, except. The very very end, the iris out. The panel borders disappear entirely, hidden on most of one full-page panel and gone on the closing double-page spread. It’s beautiful, emotionally satisfying, a perfect moment: a clear ending for Connie and Will.

All the catastrophizing is over, for this moment at least. Everything is all happening at once. And they are together for it.

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