Tagged: Non-Fiction

Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio & Efa
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Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio & Efa

There are people who can keep all of the Impressionists straight – who can even say which of those famous 19th century French painters are really Impressionists and which aren’t. They can quickly and easily explain the differences between Manet and Monet, have strong opinions on Renoir and Degas, and their minds contain at all times an accurate timeline of the major exhibitions.

I am not not one of them. I know I’ve seen Monet’s paintings here and there, and can nod appreciatively at them, but if you showed me a big sheaf of unlabeled Impressionist paintings and asked me to match them with painters, I can confidently say I would attribute most of them wrongly in defiance of all laws of probability.

So I come to Monet: Itinerant of Light , a 2017 graphic novel written by Salva Rubio, painted by (Ricard) Efa, and translated by Montana Kane, with the attitude of a student or a dilettante. I will not be able to tell you if Rubio – a historian by training – got the facts and dates right, though I assume he did and his notes tend to back that up. I will not be able to give any deep explication to the many times Efa references or mirrors a famous painting – by Monet, or by others – as a panel or full page in this book, though there’s about a dozen pages of notes and images in the back of this book pointing out many of those.

I’m pretty sure this is definitive and true, visually as well as factually. Efa does the book in what I think are full paints, and his pages are gorgeous, full of color and energy and of course delighting in the play of light where appropriate. But I do have to assume all of that.

It’s organized as a fairly standard biography, starting with an aged Monet getting a cataract operation and then flashing back, through his memory, to tell the vast bulk of the story in normal sequence, starting with Monet as a young teen first starting to paint. The Impressionists were upstarts and rebels, which means a lot of the story is about poverty and strife, as Monet spent years painting things that made only a little money and got only scorn from the critics.

We all love that story, since we’re reading it a century later, and we can be on the side of the eventual later critical consensus without any effort. The fact that it’s a true story makes it even better, of course.

Monet is gorgeous and interesting and I have to assume true. It is best, I think, as an introduction, and a graphic novel is, in my opinion, the very best format for a biography of a visual artist, since it can show what the work looks like in a natural, organic way. I hope some of it will stick, and I will be slightly better at Impressionist-spotting going forward, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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

Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls

Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls

We are all haunted by history, one way or another. For some, it’s personal; for others, it’s public. After the 20th century we had, for all too many it’s both, intertwined.

Tessa Hulls is in her thirties, the second child of two first-generation immigrants to the US, brought up in a tiny Northern California town where she and her brother were  the only people at all like them. Her mother Rose is mixed-race, born in tumultuous 1950 Shanghai to a Swiss diplomat who had already run back home before the birth and a Chinese journalist, Sun Yi, who thought she could weather any storm.

Hulls tells the story of all three women, over the last hundred years, in Feeding Ghosts , a magnificent, impressive first graphic novel all about the ways Tessa and Rose, and Sun Yi before them, are haunted by history.

Hulls is the one telling the story, and that frames it all: she has those core American concerns of “who am I?” and “where did I come from?” Making it more complicated, she’s here exploring her Chinese identity as the daughter of two generations of Chinese women who had children with European men, and as someone raised in America entirely in the English language.

One more thing: one very big thing. Sun Yi was moderately famous: she escaped China for Hong Kong in the late 1950s, when Rose was a child, and wrote a scandalous memoir of her life under the Communist upheavals of the previous decade. She got her daughter, Rose, accepted into a very highly regarded boarding school in Hong Kong, despite not really having the money to pay for it. And then she mentally collapsed. Sun Yi spent the next two decades in and out of mental hospitals and was eventually cared for by her daughter in America starting in 1977, when Rose was 27. Rose spent her teen years in that boarding school, alternately worrying about her mother’s care and being molded to be part of an internationalist elite. And then Rose fled to America, first for college, then for a brief nomadic freedom that her daughter would eventually emulate.

Let me pull that all together: Tessa Hulls, whom a lot of Americans would cruelly call “one-quarter Chinese,” grew up in a town with no other Chinese people. Just a mother, quirky and specific and tightly controlled, the kind of mother who has Rules for everything that are rarely said explicitly, never explained, seemingly arbitrary, and core to her concept of the world. And a grandmother, trapped in her own head, scribbling every day as if she was eternally re-writing that famous memoir, and speaking only the smallest bits of broken English. That mother and grandmother spoke a different language together – I think mostly the dialect of Shanghai – which they never taught Tessa. “Chinese” was that language, that mysterious past, the symbol for all that was hidden and frightening and different for Hulls growing up.

Hulls has a lot to get through in Feeding Ghosts: a lot of family history and related world history, a lot of nuance and cultural detail that she learned as she was researching her family’s past. She tells it all mostly in sequence, after a brief prologue, but “Tessa Hulls” is present throughout, our narrator and filter, the voice telling us how she learned the story almost as much as she tells the story itself. This is a story unearthed and told, not something pretending to be purely dry and factual. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s primarily about Tessa’s journey, how she decided to figure out this tangled knot of her family history, to do it with her mother as much as possible, to reconcile the two of them and try to come to a place here they could better meet and understand each other.

Hull’s pages are organic, specific, inky. She uses swirling white outlines on a black background as a visual element regularly – the pull of all of those ghosts, if you want to be reductive – to open and close chapters, and more subtly in the backgrounds of fraught moments.

One of the hallmarks of a great big book is that it leaves you wanting to know more. I was enthralled by the stories of young Sun Yi and Rose, and how Tessa learned what they did and what it meant. (The latter is the more important thing, in an ancient, rule-bound, formalistic society like China – maybe even more so in a time of such transition and upheaval as the early Communist years.) But I felt that she was less forthcoming about her own youth. This is very much a story of these three women, but I wondered about other figures: Hulls’s father is almost entirely absent, signposted as a British man with a thicker accent than Rose and seen only a handful of times. And Tessa’s brother, just one year older, growing up in this same house and environment, is even less present – did he feel any of these pressures? Or was this so much a matrilineal thing, tied into those cultural assumptions of what men and women do, that he was able to “be American” in ways more closed to Tessa?

But that’s not the story Hulls is telling. And every story casts shadows: the story that-is dimly showing flickers of other stories that could have been, or might yet be. The brightest, most brilliant stories cast the clearest shadows – that may be why I wonder so much about Hull’s father and brother; they’re dark, mysterious shadows just outside the circle of these three women, brilliantly illuminated and seen in depth.

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

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television by Koren Shadmi

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television by Koren Shadmi

When I was a lad, the standard bio-for-young-people format was a small hardcover, heavily illustrated but written in prose, in short, punchy chapters and topping out at maybe a hundred and fifty pages. There were a lot of them: I recall shelves in classrooms and school libraries full of the things, some of them in specific series from particular publishers.

At some point since that dim misty past, the format seems to have shifted – or maybe a new format has been added, but I think the old style is at least declining if not dead – into a graphic novel that covers roughly the same territory but in a more visually exciting (and reluctant-reader-appealing) way.

Now, let’s be clear: the new style is not just for middle-schoolers who need to do a report on Random Famous Dead Person a couple of times a semester. But that is a large and powerful audience, with vast collective library and school budgets seeking books to buy all the time, so it’s not surprising that things tend to be published that will fit that model, even if they were conceived for different purposes and audiences.

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television , a 2019 book by Israeli-American cartoonist Koren Shadmi, fits pretty comfortably into that category: it covers Sterling’s whole life, with a Twilight Zone-ish frame story where most readers will guess the payoff very early (which is very Twilight Zone, and so deeply appropriate), tending to play up the drama and struggle to give a clear arc of a life.

It’s crisp and clear and sweeping, covering Serling’s fifty years with a central focus on what every reader really wants to know: how he got to create Twilight Zone, what those years were like, and how it affected him afterward. To be reductive: he was an award-winning writing superstar for the then-popular TV anthology-show format; super-busy and stressful, with increasing network trouble over the five-year run; he didn’t live long enough to get a real third act, and his second act was all reaction and scrambling for any, usually tawdry, work as the anthology-show format entirely disappeared.

Shadmi has been doing this sort of historical non-fiction book fairly regularly the past few years – I’d previously read his Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula , which came out two years after Twilight Man. He’s good at it: it takes a lot of research and synthesizing to present wads of historical context and full conversations (or large chunks of TV-show dialogue) in an engaging way, and Shadmi does that consistently here.

He tells this story in Serling’s voice, which is appropriate for the man who so intensely narrated his most famous production but presents certain potential pitfalls. As far as I could see, Shadmi avoids them all: Serling comes across as understandable but clearly a man of his time, with the right cadence and style in his speech. Shadmi also keeps his trademark cigarette in hand consistently – I wonder if that was less of an issue in this book because it came out from Humanoids, a dedicated GN publisher, rather than the young-readers division of a major house? I would not be surprised if some school districts avoided buying it because it has a cigarette on the cover.

Twilight Man aims to tell the story of this one guy, and somewhat show what writing for TV was like in his heyday of the ’50s and ’60s – it does the former well, and gives at least a Serling flavor of the latter. The second half of the subtitle is more expansive than the book itself; it really is just about Serling. I see Shadmi has a couple of other similar books I haven’t found yet; I’ll be looking out for them.

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.

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.

As a Cartoonist by Noah Van Sciver

As a Cartoonist by Noah Van Sciver

I used to personalize far too much when I read, to reflexively attribute ideas or thoughts in a book to the author. To blame the author, some times, for how I reacted to the book, or just hold them responsible for how I, or anyone, responded to a book. [1]

I got better; I got older and (I hope) smarter.

One quirk of that growing-older change is that, as I seemingly have less and less time to read, I’m willing to give writers more and more chances, to assume it’s a book that’s not working for me rather than the author. And I try to be more generous to creators, to assume positive intent, to get away from that young-huffy pose of outrage that’s so energizing to so many of us read-everything types for so long.

So I keep coming back to creators that don’t quite work for me, especially if I see things I like in them. I just read a Katie Skelly book a couple of weeks ago, for example, liking it better than I did her past stuff. And I’m here again with another Noah Van Sciver book despite thinking Fante Bukowski  wasn’t really my kind of thing and finding Saint Cole  technically strong but something of a slog to read. [2]

That’s what brought me to As a Cartoonist , Van Sciver’s short book of mostly autobiographical comics from last year. It’s a thematically connected collection of comics, collecting work from what seems to be all phases of his career, from his first comic Blammo to a bunch of newer work. It’s not a single narrative, but it is organized, mostly, by chronology: the main spine of the book is Van Sciver’s professional life over the past decade. Van Sciver provides a list of original publications in the backmatter – have I mentioned recently that creators who make original publication clear are the very best people in the world? they are – and a number are listed as “never published,” which could mean they were new or could mean they just didn’t make it into anything else.

My guess is that Van Sciver was thinking about a book like this for a while – the autobio cartoonist is a clear type, and he seems to be in an indy-cartoonist world that includes a lot of autobio guys. And, as seen from some of the work here, he does have a confessional streak, or an urge to tell stories from his life, to tell his stories and express things that happened to him. But he’s not relentlessly confessional, like James Kochalka or even John Porcellino – the strips with Van Sciver as a character are focused and directed, all about his career and work. They’re not the kind of general “here’s what I was doing and thinking” daily-comics: it’s all about his aspirations and fears and life as someone trying to make these kinds of stories, in a world that mostly doesn’t value that.

His life As a Cartoonist, you might say. He did.

Mixed in with the focused autobio material are some jokier pieces from Blammo about “Notable and Tasteful 19th Century Cartoonist,” a now-forgotten and unnamed hack from a century ago, and some quirkier related pieces, like a page Van Sciver sold as a print, of him dancing under the title “How it feels to be a cartoonist.”

It’s not the kind of book that is a single thing; it coalescences and explores rather than explains, showing us some aspects of what’s been like to be Van Sciver over the past decade, some hints of his personal life and history. (His childhood is fascinating – he came from a big family that seems to have been on the edge of poverty for a long time; his mother separated from his father and their Mormon faith when he was young; it looks like they moved around a bunch, too – but I think he’s only told bits and pieces of that story, here and elsewhere.)

The title is arch and implies a certain distance, but Van Sciver is more of a warts-and-all cartoonist: he’s grappling here with what it means to be a professional in this field, how to handle various situations, how it feels to be “a cartoonist,” for good or bad, in mid-career, after the shiny newness has worn off and he’s just trying to do something else and keep his life and career going. He portrays himself as well-meaning but not always successful, self-doubting and conflicted, prone to be taken the wrong way and somewhat odd because of his unusual upbringing. He’s a specific, detailed person telling stories about interesting, particular things in his life – and making those stories just as long as they need to be.

It’s a strong collection, with more of a focus and connection than you might expect from the sources. Even the “earlier, funnier stuff” – as Van Sciver has fans repeatedly tell him they like best, in an echo of Woody Allen – works really well in context, both as comic relief and as parallax: a hundred years on, all cartoonists will be half-forgotten.

[1] My theory is that I did this because I started out in SF, the field that never saw a metaphor it didn’t turn into concrete. And I grew up at just the right time to be indoctrinated by a long string of Heinlein author stand-ins and form the assumption that was normal.

[2] One of the bits in this book also explained to title of Saint Cole to me, making me feel like a dunce. Van Sciver does mention most readers missed it, but it was a smart touch and it totally flew over my head.

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

Fortune & Glory by Brian Michael Bendis

Fortune & Glory by Brian Michael Bendis

I went through a Bendis kick, around the time a lot of the hip comics kids did, back in the mid-Aughts. I at first liked Powers, and then thought it ran at high speed away from everything that was originally good about it. I was mostly impressed by Alias. And I think I wandered away about the time he, inevitably, like every other new writer in comics, was fully subsumed into the Wednesday Crowd and started writing sharecropped superheroes all of the time.

{Spongebob Narrator Voice: Fifteen Years Later}

I just re-read Fortune & Glory , his least representative book. It was there in the app I used to find comics, since this spiffy new edition was just published in May, and I’m always up for nonfiction these days – the curse of the middle-aged man.

I see I didn’t actually review Fortune the first time I read it, back in 2007, so I might as well go into some of the details here. Bendis created this – he started off as a writer-artist, which might be forgotten, since he’s been just writing for a long time now – as a three-issue miniseries back in 1999. He’d done a few comics, mostly self-published, at that point – Goldfish, Jinx, Torso – all of which were dark mysteries and most of which I think were set in his native Cleveland. He was “hot” in the way it usually happens, though I doubt a self-publishing mystery series would pop now: his books were growing in popularity and getting media attention, so the bigger fish were starting to nose around.

In particular, Hollywood studios started reaching out, looking to option his books. Bendis had some loose contacts to actual Hollywood types, and was introduced to a newish producer here called David Spree, who became something of an advisor and also became “attached” to a couple of Bendis projects. Bendis also got a Hollywood agent, and started talking and taking meetings.

Fortune is the story of, basically, how those first three comics projects of his got him in the door to a whole bunch of places, got him a whole lot of meetings, and apparently led to a fair bit of money for options and writing the script for Goldfish…but did not, in the end, lead to any movies being made.

For Hollywood, though, that’s a massive success: Bendis got a new line of income, got taken seriously, and even pitched pretty strongly (with fellow comics writer Marc Andreyko, the idea that became the comic Torso) and successfully. The Torso movie, in particular, seems to have almost happened, though Bendis is vague about how it fell apart – my guess is that it was a “personality conflict,” probably not anywhere near him, and that the real story will only be told in memoirs thirty or so years down the line.

So this is a talking-heads book, heavy on the dialogue. I’m not sure if Bendis has been doing the Mamet-esque rat-tat-tat dialogue in his superhero books, but this is a real-world version of that, full of smiling tanned people lying to each other and Bendis’s cartoony avatar – that’s him on the cover – gamely making his way through the middle of a whole lot of bafflegab and bullshit and blatant lies.

Bendis was always a better writer than artist; I think he says that, in almost exactly those words, somewhere in this book. So it’s not surprising in retrospect that he turned in the drawing board to focus on the word processor. This is, I think, one of the last big projects he drew, and it’s fun and cartoony and full of energy – I don’t think a story this personal and “here’s what happened to me” would work as well drawn by someone else – so it was a suitable way to wind down that part of his career.

And the Hollywood stuff is entertaining, in the vein of a million other Hollywood stories from the past century or so: the names change, but the story is always the same.

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

MBDL: My Badly Drawn Life by Gipi

MBDL: My Badly Drawn Life by Gipi

I don’t know if I’m missing cultural context or just goodwill for a well-known creator, but I was missing something when I read this book. It’s gotten a lot of praise, around the world, since it was originally published in Italy in 2007, so this could easily be a problem on my end. But this felt like a long, self-indulgent shaggy-dog story that – ironically – had some quite nice art along the way, but didn’t actually tell its story in a clear or coherent way.

Also, is the title really supposed to be MBDL , with “My Badly Drawn Life” as just the subtitle? That’s a level of self-indulgence well beyond the normal range. [1]

MBDL – I’ll use the abbreviation, since it does seem to be official – was a mid-career book by Gipi (Gianni Pacinotti), who seems to be most famous as a cartoonist for his previous project, Notes for a War Story. It was translated into English by Jamie Richards for publication last year, which implies (to me, at least) that it was seen as a more difficult book than War Story, which was translated more quickly.

(I don’t know if this is at all related, but Gipi seems to be one of those modern entrepreneurial/artistic types who are all over the place. Besides doing full-length BD books, he’s also made multiple films and a card game.)

OK, so MBDL is not the story of Gipi’s life. Or, rather, it’s a loose and discursive memoir that circles one aspect of his life, in a very wordy, heavily narrated, almost sketchbook style most of the time. To be blunt, it’s a Medical Problem Memoir, but it’s told in a very obfuscating way, maybe because the subject is embarrassing and maybe just because that’s the way Gipi works.

The medical problem…well, Gipi never talks about it in any medical detail, which is part of the problem. He also – admittedly, in his notes at the end – says that this book is only about the doctors that didn’t help him, who were “bad guys,” because he only cares about “bad guys.” (Cf.: one of the other threads of the book, in which Gipi mythologizes his teenage, or maybe young-adult group of ne’er-do-well friends, who do the usual young-man incredibly stupid things and manage not to die from any of it.)

What Gipi says on the first page is “I told him about this thing I have on my peen.” He also repeatedly refers to his ailment as something that turned him into a “sexual spastic, a Bobby Brown.”

And, I’m just, um, what?

He uses those same words over and over again. Never actually calls it a penis or cock or John Thomas, just “his peen,” like a snickering ten-year-old boy. Never says what the thing is – a lesion? an erectile dysfunction? some kind of fungus? a discoloration? the yawning mouth of hell? the head of Ronald Reagan ? Never explains – does he mean “sexual spastic” in that he avoids sex, because this thing is painful or off-putting or both? Or does it affect how he has sex?

And what the hell is “a Bobby Brown” in this context? My Prerogative Bobby Brown? I can’t even come up with options here; it’s just a huge “what the fuck does that mean?”

I spent all my time reading MBDL trying to figure out what the deal was with Gipi’s peen, which is annoying and frustrating, particularly once I realized he never would do anything but say those three things over and over again.

MBDL is a fairly long graphic novel – about a hundred and twenty dense pages, full of narration and words. Not of detail – Gipi uses the same words and ideas over and over again, about everything else as much as his peen. We see the crazy friends of his youth, over and over again. We see him talk to doctors, who are all useless at best.

And we slowly get more details about an event that happened when he was ten, at night in a room he shared with his eight-years-older sister. Somehow – we never learn why or how or even much of what – a “bad man,” “the man in the dark” came into that room and threatened them. It sounds like a stranger, an intruder, but even that isn’t clear. The Bad Man threatened to rape Gipi’s sister, but (I think) was unsuccessful.

Let me be blunt. MBDL is the story of how Gipi associated some kind of penis-related deformity he had in early adulthood with his trauma from being powerless to protect his sister from sexual violence when he was a child, and how that trauma apparently led him to consider all strange men as horrible monsters and yet not to ever question the sexist nonsense he and his close friends stewed in all day every day.

One of the things I’m most uneasy about is Gipi making this all about him. On the one hand, he’s the one telling it, and he’s clearly deeply wrapped up in his own head. But the core traumatic event is not about him. How did his sister react to this? Has she had medical problems? How did she get “the bad man” to leave? What actually happened?

I frankly don’t care that this made Gipi sad and that he later had “a thing on his peen.” I worry about the woman who was almost raped, especially since the “almost” is partially a guess.

On the positive side, it is not badly drawn. There’s a fictional thread, which I won’t spoil, that’s fully painted and looks amazing. I also would not call it badly written, though Gipi writes frustratingly and elliptically at all times. If I were God of Books, I would force it to be retitled My Badly Explained Penis.

Gipi is a fine cartoonist and observer: there are great pages and sequences here, and his work is engaging throughout. But there’s a massive lack at the center of the book that I could never get around, and I can’t really call it successful because of that.

[1] Answering my own question: the Italian original is LMVDM: La mia vita disegnata male, so, yes, this does seem to be very deliberate.

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

It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood

It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood

This is all true, as far as I know. Zoe Thorogood says this book is the story of six months in her life, as filtered through her own head. But everything everyone ever sees or knows is filtered through their heads, so that’s reality as best we know it, always.

It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth  is the name – I guess you’d call it a graphic novel, since it’s in comics format. Or maybe a comics memoir, or graphic non-fiction.

I suspect it’s vastly more carefully constructed and conceived than it seems to be: the best works of art always have a lot of prep-work and invisible details. Centre of the Earth says it’s the comics pages that Thorogood made during this stretch of time, to be a GN memoir, to chronicle an expected trip from her native England to the US for the first time.

She also says, up front, that she wants it to be a positive story, a particular kind of story – one of those “learn to live with yourself” stories, the kind with a quirky girl who gets better.

If this were a movie, the audience would leave the cinema feeling fine, maybe bordering on pleasant. But this isn’t a movie – and I’ve been considering stabbing myself in the neck with a sharp knife.

Her previous GN was that kind of story, fictional. It got good reviews. Thorogood sees the parallels. She doesn’t explicitly say why this new book is autobiographical, but Center of the Earth is all about art. She cares a lot about making art: drawing comics pages, telling stories, turning her own pain and confusion into something better and maybe, just maybe, getting one of those quirky-girl endings for herself along the way.

It’s not impossible, right? If you treat your life as a story, and tell that story really well, you can get the right ending, can’t you?

How Thorogood works through that is what happens in Center of the Earth. She doesn’t talk about any particular diagnosis – I get the sense that institutions have not done well by her, that whatever peace and balance she’s found has been hard-fought, and not aided by medication or therapy or diagnoses, even as a reader suspects any or all of those things, done right, would be hugely positive for her.

Call it depression, I guess, if you need a name to hang on it. Suicidal ideation at times. Thorogood draws it as a grinning tall devilish figure, mostly a dark silhouette with what looks like a frozen mask for a face. It’s there a lot of the time, lurking around the edges of a lot of these pages. That’s what it’s like: it’s always there, somewhere, sometimes more prominently than others. Whispering to her, saying unpleasant things she can’t unhear.

Thorogood draws herself many different ways: there’s a realistic version of herself, at her current age, that is more or less the “protagonist” of the book. But there are also younger Zoes, at several ages. There’s also a cartoony-headed version that takes over page-space for long stretches – I think the cartoon version is the maker of comics and the realistic one is the character in the story, since they interact with each other.

All of the versions of Thorogood interact with each other. At times it’s a little cluster of Zoes, though, as you might expect from someone this hermetic and lonely, they’re not much of a support group.

The pages circle those core concerns: living the story, telling the story, constructing the story. Living in the world, the way she wants or can, the way the world wants her to, the way maybe she can get to someday. Planning for that big trip, having it cancelled once, planning again, finally going.

I’m making this sound messy and complex, but it isn’t. It’s organic and straightforward and personal. It’s Zoe Thorogood’s story, told by all of the Zoe Thorogoods. It doesn’t quite go the way she wants it to, and that’s a large part of what Center of the Earth is about: what you want, what you get, what you make of it.

Her art is inventive and quick and supple, changing modes and styles within individual panels and mixing up levels of representation all the time. I’ve never seen her work before, but she has some serious art chops, and brings thought and skill and insight on every page to tell this story in the strongest, deepest way she can.

Centre of the Earth is masterful and moving; there’s a moment a few pages from the end that nearly made me tear up. I hope that all of the positive things are true and that all of the negative things are overstated; I wish Thorogood all of the happiness in the world and a long career making books just as surprising and magnificent as this one.

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

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley

I have children, but I didn’t carry them: I’m the other parent. I have children, but their birth was a long time ago: my younger son was born in 2000.

Which is to say I inevitably read a book like Kid Gloves , Lucy Knisley’s comics-format memoir of her pregnancy and the things that came before it, with interest and some knowledge but a definite detachment.

Another way to put it, inspired by a restaurant my family likes in a nearby town: when you have bacon and eggs, you know the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed.

Lucy Knisley, like my wife, was committed. All pregnant people are, and this is a book slightly more for them than it is for their non-pregnant partners (and for adoptive parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so on). If I wander into criticism anywhere below, remember it’s likely that Knisley, having lived it, is right and I am mistaken.

Knisley, up to this 2019 book, had a comics-making career entirely focused on memoir, in ways that may have made a lot of people jealous. My life is absolutely nothing like Knisley’s, starting from the basic not-able-to-get-pregnant thing, and she made me jealous a few times – she told the stories she had to tell with grace and insight, making them deeply moving and resonant. There were two books of extended European travel, French Milk and An Age of License . A book about family and learning to cook, Relish . A book about traveling with older relatives, Displacement . And, immediately before Kid Gloves and most relevant to it, the memoir of her wedding and all of the planning and events before that, Something New .

Now that I’ve scared away the people upset by pregnancy cooties – which more men than you’d expect, and not a few women, have serious cases of – I can get into the Trigger Warning. Knisley had two miscarriages before her healthy baby, and there were some medical complications when she did give birth. For some people, that will mean you want to steer clear of this book, and maybe even have already stopped reading.

But miscarriages are vastly more common than many people (me, certainly) realize: one in four pregnancies ends in a miscarriage. Knisley explains what that means while also telling her own story: the strengths of Kid Gloves, like all her previous work, is that combination of personal perspective with deeply researched expertise.

Kid Gloves semi-alternates between chapters about Knisley’s own pregnancy journey, starting with her troubles with birth control in earlier years, and with somewhat humorously-titled sections on “pregnancy research,” which dive into history, demography, social expectations, sexism, and a lot of biology to give a more factual look at what pregnancy is like or can be like. That makes it deeper and more useful than a “here’s some stories about when I was pregnant,” and I think of that as characteristic of Knisley’s work: she’s dependably focused on telling the truth, as deeply and thoughtfully as she can, and not just on telling her own stories.

She’s also not shy about talking about the physical side of pregnancy, which may also scare off some of those without uteruses. There’s a lot of vomit, a fair bit of breastfeeding, and the whole panoply of other body changes that come when several pounds of growing, moving new person start shoving one’s abdomen off in all directions.

Let me expand that: Lucy Knisley is not shy in her work. Her greatest strength is that desire to see clearly, to explain precisely, to guide carefully, to narrate fully – all the things she experienced, all the things she learned, all the things she wants to make sure the world knows. Her art is precise, just a bit cartoony, with soft colors and thin lines, and she’s really good at the page that diagrams a pregnant body, or explodes into multiple text boxes to cover multiple aspects of a single thing, or just shows how she felt when something happened. 

Kid Gloves is not for everyone – there’s more body stuff in here than will be comfortable for a lot of people – but it’s a strong book and one that I hope will find a lot of people who might become pregnant in the future and give them a lot to think about and plan for their own lives. And, along the way, tell them the story of this woman and her family and eventual healthy, happy baby – and that’s why people will want to read it.

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