Tagged: The Past Is a Foreign Country

Victory Parade by Leela Corman
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Victory Parade by Leela Corman

It can be easy to lose track of just how much work and time goes into a single comics panel – to think of a graphic novel like prose, where you can strike out a line and rewrite it at any time. But comics are much more architected than that, built up in stages, and you can’t build a penthouse unless you have the right foundation.

It’s more obvious with books that don’t tell simple, direct stories – ones where the architecture had to be laid out more carefully, planned more fully, and where the foundation had to be chosen to tell this particular version of all of the possible stories circling in the creator’s head.

I bring this up with Leela Corman’s stunning new graphic novel Victory Parade , because this is not a straightforward book. It’s skips around in time and space – not hugely, but enough that the reader needs to pay attention – and is not telling one single narrative, but a loosely connected skein of stories weaving through an interconnected cast during WWII. It starts in the middle of a situation, and ends without a single big moment, like life.

Victory Parade is mostly the story of three women, of three different ages, starting in 1943 New York. All are Jewish, which is important, alongside a dozen other facets of their personalities and lives that are also important. Rose Arensberg is working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard while her husband Sam is fighting with the Army in Europe – and she’s also sleeping with the maimed veteran George Finlay, who lives in the same building. Her daughter Eleanor has the least to do of the three, as a mostly-innocent primary-schooler. Then there’s Ruth, a Jewish refugee from Germany who has been living with Rose and Eleanor for several years – she came as a young teen, and is now twentyish. 

Ruth is the only survivor of her family, as far as she knows.

Ruth is also pretty enough and young enough that she gets endless attention from men – grasping, crude, horrible attention – and hot-headed enough that she fights back and gets in trouble for it. An opportunity arises for her to use all that as a wrestler, and she takes it, starting to train and fight matches.

Late in the book, we also see Sam – first back from the war, then in flashback, after the liberation of the Buchenwald camp. He’s as admirable or relatable as the other characters: that can be “a lot” or “barely at all,” depending on the reader, of course.

Corman tells these stories on pages that feel smaller, more constrained, than the reader expects – mostly four-panel grids, as if a whole tier was cut off or never existed. Her drawing is organic, her people have sharp, strong faces – none of these people are pretty, but then their world isn’t, either. There are multiple dream sequences, sometimes bursting into waking life, full of violent imagery, particularly severed limbs.

Again, Corman is not telling one story, and there’s no crisp “plot” running from beginning to end. All of these people do things, feel things, worry about things, suffer things. Not all of them make it to the end. And standing behind all of them are the millions who didn’t make it through WWII, both the dead of the Holocaust and the soldiers on all sides doing their best to kill each other. We’re seeing the stories of a few of them: mostly women, mostly in New York, mostly Jewish, mostly survivors. But “surviving” is a moving target; there’s a lot of brokenness that isn’t quite “actually dead.”

Victory Parade has an ironic title: there are few victories here, and no parades. It’s a powerful, deep story that will not tell you how to read it, how to feel about it, or about whom to care the most.

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

Thorn by Jeff Smith
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Thorn by Jeff Smith

It’s always complicated looking at the early stuff. Especially when “the early stuff” hasn’t been publicly available for a few decades, and was very much a trial run for the later stuff, which used a lot of the same elements and ideas in a more coherent, consistent way.

That’s why it took until 2024 for Thorn: The Complete Proto-Bone College Strips 1982-1986  to be published; Jeff Smith knew that as well as anyone, and Bone, even now, is his major work, the core of his resume, and probably still his largest source of income. Add that to any creator’s standard disinterest at looking back at juvenilia, and this is work that could easily have stayed moldering in a vault indefinitely, only to roll out in some posthumous Complete Works or similar exercise.

But, for whatever reason, Smith decided to look back, to clean up, and to publish a comprehensive collection of his earliest major work: it shipped to his Kickstarter backers recently and is scheduled to hit regular retail channels this summer.

It’s a big book: over three hundred pages, on good paper, in a wider-than-tall format suitable for printing strip comics two-up on each page, in a large, clean presentation. And the material is equally comprehensive, with all of the strips Smith did in college – the full run of Thorn from his college paper The Sundial, a short try-out called Mickey & Rudy that ran very briefly during a Thorn hiatus, and a book-formatted one-pager from another campus publication – surrounded by notes, introductions, and other material to put it into context and explain how it all came to be.

So, physically and technically, this is impressive. It’s the best possible presentation for this material, treating it all seriously and presenting it all well and clearly. The material itself if a bit more of a mixed bag, which is what we all assumed.

Thorn was a daily strip – five days a week, during the four quarters of the Ohio State academic calendar – and it has the rhythms of a daily. It wanders, it digresses, it has one-off silliness and gags. Dailies, especially by college students, tend to be “about” everything in their creator’s worlds, almost equally, and that’s the case here. The first two years of Thorn feature a shorter, substantially different version of the main plot from Bone, alongside other material and including topical elements that dropped out of the later comic-book version.

Most obviously, Thorn was a Reagan-era strip. There’s a Reagan caricature that shows up late in the run, and other digs earlier on. Smith has a whole quirky subplot about Thorn’s religious mania, which loosely ties into a storyline about a con-man evangelist – it was the 1980s, and shady evangelists were big in both pop-culture and the real world. There’s also plenty of Cold War material, including a major antagonist – a Russian-accented pig who denies he’s a pig – that dropped out between this version and Bone.

It’s not all successful, or artfully done, but it’s all authentic. Smith was young, working on deadlines, and getting his stuff down on paper to tell stories. Some of the threads don’t go much of anywhere, or are phrased weirdly – the Thorn religious material, and her subsequent feminism, have particularly stilted phrasing a lot of the time, either because that’s how those topics were discussed in Ohio in the ’80s or because that’s how Smith could phrase them for a general newspaper.

The art runs through the same variations, too: some of it is as crisp and clear as early Bone, and some is a lot sketchier, or with half-formed ideas left in the drawing or half-erased. Thorn herself in particular isn’t as pretty as I think Smith wanted her to be: her face is usually an only-slightly-younger version of Grand’ma Ben’s. Or maybe what I mean is that she’s treated as an adult here, and turns into an ingenue for Bone. She clearly does seem to be somewhat surer of herself, and possibly older, here than in Bone.

All of that is reading Thorn with one eye on the future. It’s more difficult to think of it as a thing complete in itself, to imagine how we would look at it if Smith had never reworked this material into Bone, if he’d, for example, done something like RASL or Tuki first in the comics field. That’s also partially because a few years of a daily, even one with a clearly defined central story (at least for those first two years) like Thorn, isn’t generally one thing: it’s a conglomeration of dozens or hundreds of things, one per day, for as long as the strip runs. Dailies generally stop rather than end – even this one, with that clear plotline, kept going almost as long again after the big climax.

Thorn is a fun ’80s-era college strip, and a fascinating signpost on the way to Bone. Smith was a solid artist even this far back, and does at least workmanlike art all of the time, and quite nice art fairly regularly. It’s a quirky, interesting precursor to a major work, and it’s great to see it get published in this definitive edition.

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

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai
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Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

We all have holes in our reading, some more surprising than others. I started reading “comics” seriously about 1986, when I went off to college to a town (Poughkeepsie) with a good shop (Iron Vic’s) and bought mostly the weirdest stuff I could find on the racks at that time. There’s a lot that I’ve read since then, sometimes by following the same creators and ideas, sometimes by deliberately paying attention to new things (manga! YA! Eurocomics!). But no one can read everything – no one wants to read everything, to begin with, and it’s not physically possible now, if it ever was.

So I’ve known who Stan Saki was almost since that first trip to a comics shop in 1986 – maybe even earlier, since my kid brother might have already been reading Groo before then – but I’ve never sought out his central series Usagi Yojimbo, which started in anthologies (the old-fashioned kind, single issues published on a semi-regular schedule) in the mid-80s. As I’m writing this, I looked up the details , discovering that there are thirty-eight Usagi collections to date – well, I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end, but let’s see if I can read at least a few of them.

To make clearer my ignorance: I think the only Sakai book I’ve read – I have read his stuff in anthologies and collections, and works he contributed to but doesn’t own, to be clear – was The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy , a pre-Usagi short series of stories I saw a decade ago.

So this is a thing I could have paid attention to, and maybe should, but didn’t. And, nearly forty years later, I finally got to the beginning: Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin .

It collects eleven stories, originally published in random single issues, mostly the anthologies Albedo and Critters – all of the scattered Usagi stories from before the main series began in 1987. (This book was also published in 1987, back in the era when trade paperbacks were random and occasional rather than the expected next step of every series. That’s a sign of the initial interest or importance of Usagi, I think.)

The stories are episodic, but the world and backstory is clear from the beginning – it’s an anthropomorphic version of late Edo-era Japan, with different clans and groups drawn as different animals. Our hero is Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit samurai formerly in the service of an (I think unnamed) lord who was betrayed by one of his generals at the battle of Adachigahara and died there. Usagi now wanders the country, working as a bodyguard (Yojimbo). I gather Lord Hikiji, the evil feudal leader who betrayed Usagi’s master, is the major background antagonist of the series, and he shows up here, both in person and through his minions.

So this book is a mixture of early world-building – the very first story tells us the story of Adachigahara in flashback – and random wanderings, which I gather stays the pattern of the series throughout, with longer stories that seem to fall into both categories (“mythology” and “monster of the week,” to use not-quite-accurate borrowed terms).

The art is crisp and clear from the beginning, though some angles (especially Usagi looking up) and some of the smaller panels of battle scenes are not as clear as I might like – these are shorter stories, that likely had page limits, and Sakai was trying to tell expansive stories from the beginning. 

I often have a quizzical reaction to anthropomorphic stories – wondering why that style was chosen, and if there are world-building hints buried in the choice of creatures – but this seems to be the old, traditional style of anthropomorphism: the creator’s style aims this way, he’s leaning into it, and that’s all it means. The style is slightly disjoint from the bloody, mostly serious and mostly historical matter, but that doesn’t seem to be meant as a source of irony: it’s just the way Sakai tells stories.

These are good stories, though they seem somewhat derivative (of samurai movies, mostly) at this point in the series’ history. That’s not a fatal flaw – lots of things are derivative, maybe most things – but it is pretty central. On the other hand, going in any reader knows this is a long-running comic about a rabbit samurai, so all of the potential deal-breakers are right up front. The good news is that it was strong and assured from the first page: if you are interested in rabbit-samurai stories, you can start with Book 1 very easily.

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

One Hundred Tales by Osamu Tezuka
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One Hundred Tales by Osamu Tezuka

It’s tough to be a fan of someone when you’re not quite sure what aspect of their work you’re a fan of. I read a big bunch of Osamu Tezuka books, mostly published by Vertical, more than a decade ago – MW, Ayako , Ode to Kirihito, Apollo’s Song, a few others – and liked them all a lot. They were smart, sophisticated, serious books for adults, with a striking depth of expression and focused imaginative power.

Vertical might have published everything Tezuka did in that vein; I really don’t know. But I haven’t seen anything else similar from Tezuka in my scattered reading since then. The latest attempt was One Hundred Tales , originally published in Shonen Jump magazine in installments in 1971 under the title Hyaku Monogatari and translated by Iyasu Adair Nagata for this 2023 Ablaze edition. (It was part of a series called “Lion Books” that some awkwardly-worded backmatter in the this book attempts to explain, but doesn’t do a great job of – they don’t seem to have been “books” in the first place, but multiple-segment manga stories published in SJ; the narrative slides from talking about this series to other manga projects to anime projects without a whole lot of clarity; and there’s no explanation of what “Lion” is meant to mean in this context.)

Tales is, I think, part of the main flow of Tezuka’s career, the huge flood of stories mostly for teen (and younger) boys that he created for so long at such volume. There are elements that resonate with adults, but it’s mostly an adventure story with minor pretentions of philosophical depth, with the usual random Tezuka comic relief and contemporary cultural references thrown in willy-nilly.

The title makes it sound like a retelling of the Arabian Nights, but it’s actually a loose retelling of Faust, set in a vaguely historical-fantasy Japanese setting. The main character is a mousy accountant/samurai (shades of “Office? Submarine!” ), Ichiru Hanri, sentenced to commit ritual suicide for his very minor role in a coup plot against his feudal lord. He doesn’t want to die, and offers his soul if he can survive – so a demon (yokai, more accurately) in the form of a beautiful woman, Sudama, offers to buy his soul in exchange for three wishes.

Ichiru wishes to live his life over again, to have the most beautiful woman in the world, and to rule his own country and castle. And so the episodic story moves forward – first Sudama makes Ichiru young and handsome, then he visits (in his new face and under an assumed name) his horrible wife and lovely young daughter, then he chases his choice for most beautiful woman (Tamano no Mae, a powerful yokai) with no good result, then has the requisite training montage to become a stronger and better sword-fighter, and finally spends the back half of the story working for another minor feudal lord, massively enriching that lord and then overthrowing him.

It’s all pretty zig-zag. It does add up to a coherent story, but it only maps to the wishes fairly loosely. Sudama is also vastly more “helpful attractive supernatural woman” than she is “powerful scary demon” – the Faust parallels are mostly superficial, and drop away for the required happy ending.

Tezuka was an energetic cartoonist – sometimes too much so, to my eye, since this book starts off with Ichiru in full comic-relief mode, all goofy panic and silly faces, and the tide of comic relief comes in several more times as the book goes on. But, if you think of this as an adventure story made very quickly for publication in a massive weekly comics magazine for boys – which is exactly what it is – it’s admirable and pretty accomplished in that context.

Whether that context is enough to overcome the negatives is up to every reader to decide. Tezuka is a world-renowned creator of stories in comics form, but his standard mode is very idiosyncratic and very tied to the specifics of the Japanese market and audience at the time.

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.

Michael T. Gilbert’s The Complete Wraith!

Michael T. Gilbert’s The Complete Wraith!

Sometimes there’s a creator whose work you like, and you keep checking to see if they have anything new, and they just don’t. For a decade or two. You’re pretty sure they’re still out there, and you hope they’re doing something fun and interesting. You may have the secret hope, most famously centered around J.D. Salinger, that the creator is just piling up lots of Good Stuff, kept unpublished for idiosyncratic reasons, and you will eventually get to see all of that on some glorious future day.

Michael T. Gilbert is one of those, for me. I liked his Mr. Monster stories both in the ’80s, with goofy, near-parody humor/horror style, and in the ’90s, when he retooled in a more serious mode for an “Origins” series. And I gather he’s had some random Mr. Monster stories since then, but nothing regular. I keep hoping there will be a book, since I mostly read books these days, but that seems unlikely. (I gather most of Gilbert’s comics work for the last two decades has been scripting Disney comics for European publishers – nice work if you can get it, but apparently completely unseen in his own homeland.)

But I did just see Michael T. Gilbert’s The Complete Wraith! , which collects the major work he did before Mr. Monster, in the late ’70s. And I’ll take what I can get.

Wraith is an anthropomorphic version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, created as such to be a feature in the all-anthropomorphic anthology series Quack! in 1976. Quack! had six issues, with eight Wraith stories, over the next two years, and there was one more Wraith story in a 1982 solo Gilbert comic – add in a new comics introduction featuring Mr. Monster, some explanatory text-and-photo pieces between the stories, and extensive story notes from Gilbert, and you have this book. It’s designed well, and showcases what does seem to be the entirely complete Wraith: it’s a model of what a book like this should be.

On the story side, Gilbert is very clearly aping Eisner, in story structure, twists, ironic reversals, and even cast. That’s not a bad model, since Eisner’s Spirit was a lot more ambitious than it might look, and Gilbert is always entertaining here, even if not all of the stories make full use of the Eisnerian materials.

Gilbert was already experimenting with washes and Craftint and other texture and background effects that I can’t really describe adequately – I’m no artist, or a serious scholar of comics art. But his pages, even at the very beginning of this book, were carefully constructed, from panel layout to art tools to textures, and towards the middle of the book, it begins to look pretty much the same as Gilbert’s mature Mr. Monster style. (And, aside from the first story, which is pretty thin, the storytelling holds up as well, too – they’re short kicker stories about a dog adventurer in an Eisnerian world, admittedly, but they do good work within that tight structure.)

This is a fun ’70s exercise, collecting energetic work from a then-young creator working out some of his influences and seeing how different kinds of stories can work on paper for him. It’s not a lost classic, and the tone is pretty different from both Mr. Monster eras, for anyone looking for more of that. Oh, and he gets testy if you call him “Wrath,” which I expect a lot of readers did. With that in mind, this is a lot of fun, presented in a well-made package.

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.

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.

Grosz by Lars Fiske

Grosz by Lars Fiske

Today I’m going to try to describe a nearly wordless book about an artist I’m not all that familiar with, by an artist I’m not all that familiar with. If I descend into potted history and bland statements, that will be why.

George Grosz – I probably could force Blogger to display the original German spelling of his name, but I don’t have the energy for that this morning – was a German painter and caricaturist of the early 20th century (1893-1959). As you probably can guess from the intersection of the time, place, and field, Grosz was artistically radical and politically engaged: he was strongly anti-Nazi from the earliest days, moderately Communist (but, like so many others, disillusioned after a visit to the Soviet Union), and generally anti-clerical and anti-“high society.” He escaped Germany with his family just as Hitler rose to power, living in the US for the last twenty-five years of his life before dying in an accident in postwar Berlin very soon after his return there.

Lars Fiske is a cartoonist and artist and maker of other kinds of books; he’s Norwegian. His cartooning style is not a million miles away from Grosz’s paintings: both are complex, full of overlapping elements and extreme caricature. And, maybe a decade ago, maybe not quite that long, he made a book about Grosz’s life. In 2017, Fantagraphics published a US edition as Grosz . I didn’t see any indication of a translator, but the text is minimal: Fiske may have done it himself.

Grosz is a potted life, made somewhat more elliptical by being wordless. We see Grosz doing things, and have chapter titles (with what I think are quotes from Grosz) and place/time tags, but we’re not told the meanings of events and have to piece it all together ourselves. But we can follow it pretty well: Gorsz was a dandy of a young man, with big ideas for art, served in the army in the Great War where he apparently was wounded, loved American culture and strongly criticized German society, was involved in radical movements both artistic (Dada) and societal (Communism), ran afoul of growing oppression in Germany throughout the ’20s, and eventually got away to the US, where his life calmed down substantially.

Fiske’s art is extremely energetic, mostly black-and-white with some pops of color (red in particular) and a beige-ish overlay with geometric shapes of white cut out. Gestures are large, faces are caricatured, and he uses strong diagonals throughout – sometimes to divide actions into overlapping panels, sometimes as defining elements, sometimes as vanishing-point lines that he leaves in the drawing, sometimes just to be there. His drawings are visually dense: this is not a book to scan quickly.

I found I got a decent sense of the high points of Grosz’s life, and came to like the hawk-nosed guy, who is a bit of a sex-mad loose cannon in Fiske’s telling. Probably not just in Fiske’s telling, too, and to the end of his life, frankly: Grosz died from injuries sustained by falling down the stairs after a long night drinking. Which is definitely a colorful way to go, especially in your mid-sixties.

Even if you don’t care about Grosz – I didn’t before I read this – Fiske’s strong, assured cartooning and his aggressive linework make this a really visually interesting comic to read.

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