Category Archives: Graphic Novel Reviews

Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank by Eric Orner review – Tribute to a Liberal Giant

Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank. Eric Orner. Henry Holt. New York. 2022. 222 pp. $25.99

Barney Frank was a tireless public servant. We need more of his kind of dedication: someone who gets things done. He was a man ahead of his time and, sadly, a little too much of his time too. Frank came of age in the 1950s, great for some bright kids with bright futures, but not all kids. And hardly an easy time for a bright gay kid. For much of his life, the guy who got things done for so many, lived life in the closet. Critically acclaimed cartoonist Eric Orner provides a unique perspective on one of the great legislators of our time with his debut graphic novel. Orner is a former congressional aide to Frank and that shows in the level of detail found on these pages. It was my pleasure a few years back to review a collection of Orner’s comic strip, The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which ran from 1989 to 2005. And it’s a honor to share with you this most impressive work.

Orner has that particular sensibility you find with the best cartoonists: an inquisitive mind; a compulsion to get to the essence of a subject; and the ability to express complexities in a concise and clear way. Barney Frank may not appear to be an obvious choice for the subject of an in-depth graphic novel but, oh, he most assuredly is! The big mistake made my some marketing folks is to have tunnel vision and think that a protagonist in a narrative needs to look and act a certain way. Well, Barney Frank fits that unconventional profile and that’s part of the beauty of his story. Here we have a guy who didn’t dress well, or eat well, or was careful about social niceties. He could be curt and rude. But he cared, heart and soul, about improving the lives of others as a public servant. His weakness was that he was afraid that, if he was outed, that would end his life in politics. But it didn’t and he learns that he can have a good life too. Orner deftly conveys this whole arc of a fascinating life filled with one battle after another, both personal and political.

For my money, I’m just captivated by all the accounts of political intrigue. If you’re a political junkie, that alone is reason enough to read this book. Born in New Jersey, and graduating from Harvard, Frank proved to be an exceptional student of government with a decidedly New Deal inspired fervor to do good in the world. Determined to see through his PhD thesis, those plans keep being derailed in favor of the public arena. Massachusetts politics keeps beckoning. Right out of the gate, Frank impresses the right people. After helping to run a successful Boston mayoral campaign for a local scion, Frank is promoted to a top level position in the Mayor’s office. Frank’s star just keeps rises as he himself enters politics and wins election as a state legislator and, ultimately, as a congressman. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he makes some political enemies along the way as he’s no slouch for a good fight. It’s Frank’s fight for gay rights that takes him closest to the edge as he fears his involvement will lead to his undoing.

Orner has set up a graphic novel with as quick and urgent a tempo as his subject. It is packed with so many assorted details, all neatly presented, sometimes even itemized within a panel. All the better to evoke the whirlwind of activity. Orner’s Barney Frank is a hero to relate with and to root for, all the more so given one of the greatest of challenges a politician can face, a sex scandal. The story begins with it in a brief prologue leaving you to wonder what exactly is supposed to have happened. And, believe it or not, it’s complicated. From that teaser, the narrative mostly keeps to a steady chronology all leading up to that fateful denouement. By then, the reader has come to believe in Frank from a multitude of vantage points: as he runs to catch that last train to an important meeting; or simply struggles to be likable; or pleads with a man to understand he’s not quite ready yet to come out. Barney Frank is the “smahtguy” who, through conviction and sheer will power, is ready and willing to do the work that others would rather avoid. Politics is not romantic and can kill idealists. But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then there’s a chance to make a real difference. That’s the greatest lesson from Barney Frank and it adds up to a very compelling life story which Orner so vividly tells in this book.

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WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE: Dying For Attention by Susan MacLeod review – a Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care

Dying For Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care. Susan MacLeod. Conundrum Press. Quebec. 2021. 184pp. $20

Attention all hipsters, know-it-alls, and the like: We are all growing old and will die. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Now, a book like this may inspire utter dismissal by some self-appointed taste-makers and aspiring trend-setters, but the book I present to you is, without a doubt, a book anyone will benefit from and, yes, it is a worthy book to anyone who cherishes what the comics medium is capable of. Yep, that’s one of the driving forces for what I’m all about, sharing with you comics that are really worth a hoot. One way or another, we are all going to die. It’s the ultimate equalizer. If we care about social justice, then we must care about issues related to aging.

Sorry, Charlie, but nobody gets out of here alive. If you truly appreciated that, what a world this could be!

Aging is somebody else’s problem until it’s not. Parents in need of care can become an abstraction; a project that needs to eventually be confronted. All the while, we seem to forget that we’re all going to die. That reality should humble us. Susan MacLeod has created a book that answers a lot of questions through words and pictures on nursing home care by way of her involvement in the industry and her own personal experience with her mother and the long-term care system. MacLeod’s hand-drawn cartoons bring life and levity to this serious subject and even offer hope.

MacLeod’s approach is part whimsical James Thurber, mystical John Porcellino, and part concise reportage via sketchnoting: brief drawings and text that get to the point fast. It is a hybrid of graphic memoir and the emerging genre known as Graphic Medicine, comics focusing on medical issues. I offer up the term, personal Graphic Medicine. In the hands of MacLeod, it all adds up to an immersive and informative experience. The narrative kicks into gear with brutal honesty as MacLeod paints a picture of growing up in a highly dysfunctional family. As a child, she felt so marginalized by her parents that her way of coping was to repeatedly beat up her little brother. While the image of a big sister slugging her smaller sibling is a classic comics trope, the reality of such an exchange is dark to put it mildly. MacLeod acknowledges this and doubles down by showing how this messed up dynamic has haunted her to the present day. To her credit, she follows this line of inquiry to illustrate the potential challenges that can face a family navigating the labyrinthine world of assisted-living with its myriad of limitations. It requires real determination and a united family front certainly helps.

The title of the book, Dying for Attention, speaks not only to the ongoing struggle of elders to be heard amid bureaucracy but to MacLeod’s own journey to find a voice. Going back to when MacLeod was a child, she had a passion for drawing that was repeatedly discouraged by her mother. Drawing was her outlet, within a dysfunctional family, and she never let it go. Back then, she managed to gain attention through bad behavior which resulted in the wrong kind of attention, like her father slapping her across the face. Fast forward to the present, MacLeod is modest about her comics, as she shares in the book’s acknowledgements page. But the fact is that many authorities in comics support this book, including The Center for Cartoon Studies and various notable creatives, like comic artist Colleen MacIsaac. MacLeod’s work has a deceptively simple vibe to it, akin to the energy in a doodle. However, it’s one thing to doodle and quite another, as MacLeod does, to sustain an offbeat style. Add to that a compelling need to create. It was only after her mother’s death at 99, after a nine-year journey with her mom and nursing home care, that MacLeod reached back to her fine arts background (yes, she did end up going to art school) and set out to share her story with words and pictures. She wanted a format that would allow her to share such a heavy subject with a certain amount of levity.

Doodles are complex: enlisted as anti-art tools (look up Sunni Brown); or part of an artist’s palette. MacLeod spikes her doodle-like style, loads it and mixes it. The results are in her pacing and flourishes: the way she hurls a character through space; or the way she evokes transition. So, it is within this relatively simple, or accessible, style, that MacLeod masterfully boils down facts and insights gathered from books, her own interviews, and her own experience in the trenches. Her career was in public relations for the Canadian Health Department where she learned the hard way that spin is everything. She endured the wrath of the government when she dared to include in a public statement that there’s a waiting period of at least six months for elders seeking public nursing home care. In the meantime, they are kept in hospital, where they are less than welcome, known as “bed blockers.” MacLeod comes back to this term in her narrative, fully aware of its visceral effect, putting her skills in using concise language to good use. That is MacLeod’s appeal for me. It’s not bravura drawing skills. And, let’s be honest, skills are only part of it. Moomin, for example, is not an incredible work of art, per se, and yet there’s something endearing, worth staying with. I think MacLeod not only has her heart in the right place but she demonstrates to me a genuine need to share what she knows and make it compelling and accessible. While some cartoonists inspire suspicion in me, I don’t get that from MacLeod.

It’s actually not an easy thing to draw in an easy style. People often think they can completely lean into an easy style and just sleepwalk their way through. It doesn’t work that way. Pitfalls range from generic mush to a style that is too slick and formulaic. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it but I think MacLeod’s determination and sincerity serve her well with a style that has integrity. It’s a simple comic strip vibe punctuated with a heightened sense of whimsy here or a smart hint of perspective there. On one page, for example, one panel sums up denial quite aptly: MacLeod is racing up a flight of stairs pulling her frail and disoriented mother along behind her, who is flying like a rag doll. It’s not a “great” drawing and yet it is real and it is memorable.

MacLeod’s most ambitious motif has to do with the notorious call bell, which demonstrates the ongoing struggle her mother was having in alerting the nursing home front office about her needs. First, her little buzzer, the call bell, kept being placed out of her reach. Later, it became obvious that the staff was avoiding her buzzing. For MacLeod, this became a game of trying to figure out the nursing home culture. All this avoidance of buzzers was taking its toll on the quality of life of both residents and staff. Spoiler alert: MacLeod does find a way out of this mess. She discovers a technique which has staff regularly ask residents about their needs. By the time MacLeod is wrapping up her book, she switches from depicting her mother as a cartoon character to a more realistic rendering. The very last drawing is of her dead mother with one hand as if frozen in time, as if holding a call bell.

Keeping a tally of all the slights and missteps she must endure, MacLeod provides an uncanny report from the nursing home front lines. No curt or rude remark goes unnoticed. Each is duly noted and followed by the recurring question, Who taught this person this is the way to respond? No wrongful act goes unnoticed. For instance, when MacLeod discovers her mother’s soiled underwear in her mother’s hospital closet. This leads to a page in the book devoted to a chart that follows the chain of events. Apparently, it all comes down to a recurring problem: a breakdown in communication. And, finally, no problem-solving conversation goes unnoticed. Whether based on various meetings with small groups or interviews with experts, MacLeod consistently mines for golden bits of wisdom. For example, a popular refrain from politicians is to gut public funding for administrators when, in fact, it is going to take funds to attract the best administrators to tackle systemic problems and make sound public policy.

We don’t die in vain when we value life!

In lieu of any all-encompassing solutions, the answers to how to deal with a parent in a nursing home come right back to the child. MacLeod learned the hard way that it takes every inch of self-awareness one can muster to see it through. MacLeod’s mother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more affectionate. MacLeod’s brother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more cooperative. And all the other factors in the world that one could blame, from the patriarchy to ageism, they weren’t going to change suddenly either. In the end, MacLeod had to rely upon herself first in order to move forward.

MacLeod’s book is going to help many readers in search of a better understanding of what’s involved when a parent needs nursing home care. It’s not an easy process and it never really ends. In broader terms, MacLeod’s book offers insights into the search for wellness in general through self-discovery and an appreciation of what it takes to live a worthwhile life.

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What Happens When You Can’t Save Everyone? Review of STRAYS by Chris W. Kim

Strays. by Chris W. Kim. SelfMadeHero. London. 2021. 192pp. $19.99

Chris W. Kim draws a certain way and not for the pursuit of a particular style but as a way to best express what’s deep inside him. It’s a scribble style, but a very refined and elegant network of scribbles that he’s leaned into and allowed to develop over time, nourishing the accidental and letting it grow into the intentional. You don’t always know what works…until you do. Random marks, along with words, build up and graduate into perfect moments of joy. It’s the stuff of revolutions. This uncanny vision has the power to tell bold stories and one of the boldest in comics right now is a modern-day fable questioning what we owe society.

Life as we know it.

This is a hard luck story about a simple but persistent guy, in a similar vein to Kim’s debut graphic novel, Herman by Trade. You can read my review here. This is a very different story, to be sure, but it shares that same whimsical spirit. The writing is just as quirky as the art. Every aspect of this story’s world has been attended to, like a Wes Anderson film. Essentially, what you need to know is that our main character, who goes unnamed, was part of a work crew that experienced a monumental explosion at the work site leaving everyone at loose ends. Our hero makes it back home to his sister, Carey, and, from there, lands a new blue-collar job, this time as a deliveryman. There’s much to enjoy in Kim’s depictions of everyday life and the offbeat beauty amid the daily grind. The words-and-pictures narrative vibrates: cars, trucks, city dwellers, the whole urban landscape, dancing along Kim’s jittery vibe. This is a strange urban dreamscape with a hypnotic glow, the people as elongated and lopsided as their surroundings.

Coming Home.

Just as the main character has settled into his new work routine, he crosses paths with one after another of his former workmates: Sammy, Lionel, Jun, Gina, Sean, Ameya, Yama, the list goes on. It’s a whole village of people, the numerous becomes countless; the individual blurs into the faceless. No one stands out. Kim underscores this by rendering them with a thicker line turning them into an endless sea of dark brooding figures. No one speaks up or distinguishes themselves. But our hero believes in them, while he has his own receding qualities, deliberately nameless and unassuming.

Kim is unrelenting in depicting the soul-crushing and dehumanizing effects of life in the big city for the average human being, especially the wage slave. There’s a certain haunting beauty to his rendering of wave after wave of utterly anonymous crowds of people. Even people with names have only a fleeting sense of individuality. Perhaps the only character with a dynamic personality is a rather dour-looking house cat named, Kurt. In fact, Kurt will play a pivotal role towards the end of this tale, whether he realizes it or not.

What Happens When You Can’t Save Everyone?

So, everyone from the old job is now in the big city with new entry-level jobs keeping them afloat. And that works out until it doesn’t. One by one, the whole gang find themselves out of work again and homeless. Somehow, it becomes our hero’s mission to save them all. But what happens when you can’t save everyone? It’s a very difficult lesson to learn and our nameless hero is too stubborn to contemplate it. No sooner does he discover the plight of his numerous down-and-out friends than he implores his sister to take them all in. Of course, she balks at the idea but ultimately gives in out of a sense of charity. She doesn’t want to appear to be a not-in-my-backyard naysayer even though she can ill afford to help in the first place. It’s not going to be easy to properly accommodate a mass of humanity in a tiny apartment for too long, is it? Kim is at the top of his game as he bends reality in order to allow room. Bill Plymton, another great spacetime-bender, would be proud.

Finding a way to survive.

Reality has a way of breaking through, even in the most whimsical of settings. A utopian homeless encampment is as unsustainable in a fable as it is in cities tinkering with social engineering. What our nameless hero comes to appreciate, push comes to shove, is that he can’t impose his crazed over-the-top misguided ideals on the back of his sister, the one person here who is steadily making a living and being responsible. It’s just too much of an ask. Kim shows how our nameless hero learns the hard way that he can’t always do for others what they ultimately need to somehow bring about for themselves. In the end, Kim finds a way out of this self-made predicament for our nameless hero culminating in a satisfying resolution to this most unusual, and most timely, urban tale. Suffice it to say, in a story where a cat can earn more respect than a human, it’s clear that humans can’t be treated as little more than strays.

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Review: PIXELS OF YOU

Pixels of You. written by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota, art by J.R. Doyle. Amulet/Abrams. New York. 2022. 176pp. $16.99

How many times do we experience a true inflection point in our lives, something that significantly changes our attitude and approach to life? This is a story of such a change: a story about two polar opposites who must confront the challenges posed by each other. Set in a future when AI androids are co-existing with humans, this graphic novel provides a delightful slice-of-life series of exchanges between Indira, a young human, and Fawn, a “young” robot. Both are creative types struggling to establish careers. It’s an intriguing premise that steadily builds and beautifully plays with coming-of-age tropes: uncertainty; a sense of adventure.

So, Fawn is a robot caught in the same rat race as human Indira. For this story, we don’t need a deep dive explanation as to why that is. Part of the charm of this book is the natural and light approach it takes. You just accept the tech and go from there. It seems, for the purpose of this story, that robots and humans have reached a point of co-existence where they treat each other as equals. Thus, we have the evolving relationship between Fawn and Indira. They are rivals. They are friends. And maybe more.

The writing team of Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota provide a very tender exploration of what motivates these two characters: what may cause friction; and what may stimulate attraction between them. The artwork by J.R. Doyle is right in step with this easy-going vibe. The characters and settings are rendered in a loose semi-realistic style that evokes the spontaneity of a sketchbook. It all adds up to a pleasing glimpse into the lives of two complicated characters, one human, one android, sometime in the future.

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Review: ‘Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?’

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Brian Fies. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2009. 208pp. $24.95 hardcover.

We are constantly documenting…from the most ephemeral to the everlasting. Much of art is one form of documentation or another. Most graphic novels are some form of a document, some more specific than others. That brings me to a work in comics that does a wonderful job of collecting a lifetime’s worth of observations into a cohesive whole. Brian Fies is an excellent cartoonist in every sense of the term: an auteur creator who dives in and makes sense of the world with crisp and concise combinations of words and pictures. Brian Fies is someone that I look up to as an example of the cartoonist-explorer or cartoonist-journalist. One of his landmark works is A Fire Story which chronicles the devastating California fires from both a personal perspective and a collection of profiles. You can find one of my reviews here as well as one of my interviews. For the book I’m talking about with you now, Fies explores the futuristic dreams promised Americans at the end of World War II and what has actually resulted. That book is Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

Fies takes the reader to the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and shares a boy’s excitement and idealism on a visit with his father. Buddy is a boy with big dreams fueled by pop culture, government propaganda, along with the inevitable conclusion that humanity is indeed destined for the stars one way or another. Human progress could not be denied, despite a few setbacks, right? Alternating between inspiring entertainment (Chesley Bonestell’s space age paintings in Collier’s magazine) to bona fide advancements (universal electrical wiring, trans-atlantic telephone cables, high-speed motorways), Fies paints a picture of a future that seemed to only be getting brighter. However, there were still those bumps in the road as well as bumps to pave over in the name of progress.

A cold war was to trigger a space race and propel the space age into high gear. Fies dutifully recounts the back and forth rivalry between the Soviets and the Americans. And then it all seems to come to a head in one transcendent moment. During the two-man U.S. Gemini mission in 1965, two astronauts engage in some playful bickering. Jim McDivitt must coax his fellow astronaut, Ed White, to cut short his spacewalk and return to the ship. This less than by-the-book behavior revealed humanity. And it laid to rest Wernher Von Braun’s concern over whether humans could tolerate the free-falling sensation of being in a weightless environment.

The reality that Buddy, our main character, must face is that the idealism of the space age is not just about idealism but also tied to politics and the military industrial complex. Over the decades, our perpetually boyish Buddy and his remarkably youthful father, get to see the full arc of the space age, from its inception to its dwindling popularity. Fies has a lot of fun extending the life of his comics characters in order for them to get the full picture. The era of the big swagger gave way to a new era of smaller, faster and leaner. But this was hardly a step backward and, truth be told, we were inevitably heading in that direction. That’s what Buddy figures out. Tomorrow maybe be late but tomorrow will inevitably come. And what about those jetpacks we were promised? Well, at the time of this book’s release in 2009, that was still a promise. Today, we’re on our way to keeping it. A jetpack currently goes for around $400,000 but they’ll become common someday, within the reach of anyone, and that’s worth the wait.

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Review: PASSPORT by Sophia Glock

PassPort by Sophia Glock

Passport. by Sophia Glock. Little Brown & Co. New York. 2021. 320pp. $24.99

There’s this moment in Sophia Glock’s new graphic memoir when the main character (the author’s teenage self) is peering out into the audience from the backstage of a high school play. Marc, one her classmates, points out to Sophia that, if she can see the audience, they can see her. It’s a helpful enough comment also meant to sting, just the sort of callow comment young people will nudge each other along with. It’s a moment indicative of what the reader will find in this mellow yet haunting tale of a displaced young person.

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Review: HELEM by Stanley Wany

Helem. Stanley Wany. Conundrum Press. Wolfville, Canada. 2021. 240pp. $20

A work of comics will sometimes go from one form to another and such is the case with a couple of titles by Stanley Wany. Agalma (2015) and Sequences (2017) were both published by Trip which have recently been combined, with added material, into Helem, published by Conundrum Press. So, two works have been combined into one which is fascinating given what seemed to me to be open-ended options in two mostly wordless comics. However, there’s a narrative running its way through both titles, and now more emphasized in the final version, Helem.

We will first take a look at one of  Wany’s previous titles, Sequences, as a way into the new book, Helem. As the title to the older book suggests, we are dealing with sequences, one page at a time, and in connection with each other. If you were to view this as a show in an art gallery, you might accept each page as just a set of four small drawings. As the reader takes in more pages, something sequential emerges. What follows are three pairs of sequences.

Pages 22 – 23 from Sequences

In this first pairing, Wany offers us a look into the inner life of a call center, complete with its peculiar hum of activity. It’s hard to say if there is any hint of irony on display and maybe that’s the point. People working in call centers is so common that it’s most likely you have worked in one or know at least one person who has. It’s a strange and highly artificial world but, when you are in it, it’s the only world you know.

Pages 36 – 37 from Sequences

Our pairings become progressively more surreal moving forward. We start off with two friends chatting on a walk in the city. But what exactly happens next is anybody’s guess and best to chalk it up to dream logic. Mr. Death appears to be in a foul mood and not to be ignored. And then there’s a crack in the system, a sign of greater concerns ahead.

Pages 106 – 107 from Sequences

Finally, our last pairing of pages takes us to a higher plane of existence. Our protagonist appears to be lost but soon finds a potential ally, a queen no less. Who is this queen? Does she possess supernatural powers? Our friend will soon find out.

Wany is a master of manipulating the quotidian and transmogrifying it. With Helem, the final and complete version to his two previous books of art-comics, he takes the reader into the heads of two lost souls. The two main characters, both relatively young, are adrift, in an existential crisis. This is Wany’s landscape of the inner world and welcome to it. In both stories, the reader first experiences the world through the eyes of each protagonist and it is only towards the end that we get some closure through actual remarks. In the second story, originally from Sequences, it turns out we have a man wondering where some of the best years of his life have gone. He loops in and out of reality to discover that some of his most compelling moments are in his nightmares.

Stanley Wany is in that select group of artists who are diligently creating comics as art or art that is also comics. A cartoonist who makes art. An artist who makes comics. Wany’s linework is exquisite. The lines dance upon the page and seem quite capable of anything–and telling more than one story all at once. Wany delights the reader on many levels with his flights of fancy; he offers gifts for both the eye and the mind. It really would be no surprise to me if these same pages were to be sliced and diced yet again to tell a completely different story! Isn’t the comics medium malleable by its very nature? Of course it is! Any work by Wany is a delight and I look forward to seeing more from this exciting artist.

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Review: ‘The Domesticated Afterlife’ by Scott Finch

The Domesticated Afterlife. Scott Finch. Antenna Works. New Orleans. (available thru Domino Books) 200pp. $18

There are certain things I love and respect: compelling art like finely-crafted comics; and places that can make your heart sing like Louisiana. So, it’s a double-pleasure to feast upon this work of comics by Baton Rouge artist Scott Finch. He is the real deal: an artist who can make art-making look easy, as natural as breathing, because of all the work that he does to reach that level of grace and ease.  Too many artists can fall into a perpetual trap of producing slapdash work which is lifeless to say the least. The more that I’ve seen of Finch’s work, the more that I appreciate his level of commitment. Finch treats the comics medium with a genuine artistic sensibility. What Finch does is precisely what I aim for with my own work so I know of what I speak. If you’ve spun a comics narrative about animals in some domesticated afterlife, and you’re an artist with a consistent vision like Finch, then expect to find your very essence deep in that world.

We are decades away from a true metaverse, a complete virtual reality landscape where we are totally sucked into another world. That’s a good thing so enjoy reality while you still can before everyone has drunk the Kool-aid. What we’ll experience now with such entities as Facebook lurching into the future should be bad enough. That said, the metaverse is alive and well in fiction and comics is especially adept at evoking such a loopy terrain in the right hands. Finch is just the kind of artist to tap into the potential of the comics medium. This is both a philosophical and mythological work on a grand scale; a grand opera about a metaverse of humanoid animals, mostly dogs and cats, at the mercy of chicken-like creatures. The dogs and cats fend for themselves as best they can in this virtual world. Their minds, their psyches, have been tampered with to such an extent that all they know is that something isn’t quite right and maybe they want to reach for a portal to the outer darkness, what they assume is the real world.

Finch’s arcane sense of humor informs this comic’s cryptic sense of logic–which is totally cool. It’s difficult enough losing yourself in a work of comics given that a lot of comics doesn’t even try to challenge or engage the reader. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of the good stuff out there but you need to look. This comic delivers with page after page of striking imagery and a whipsmart narrative. Finch is a painter and that special insight shows here as you’ll delight upon one panel after another that could easily be worked into a stand-alone drawing or painting. As I’ve always maintained, it takes someone with a well-cultivated sensibility, part novelist, part painter, to truly make the most of comics as an art form and Finch proves he’s up to the task.

Single Panel Excerpt from The Domesticated Afterlife

The story itself, with its byzantine subplots, provides so many delicious and thought-provoking moments that you are bound to get hooked. This is a world where animals act like humans: they don’t eat to live; they live to eat. They are utterly disconnected from the natural world–and what kind of life is that? It’s a twisted world where dogs and cats are outsmarted by chickens. Everyone is weak but just strong enough to claw at each other. We naked apes are so prone to folly that our own metaverse, with chickens ruling over us, could be our destiny. Finch’s book is one part cautionary tale and one part just good old-fashioned loopy fun.

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Paul Buhle on Comics: ‘The Day the Klan Came to Town’

The Day the Klan Came to Town. Written by Bill Campbell, Art by Bizhan Khodavandeh, Foreword by P. Djeti Clark.  Oakland: PM Press, 2021. 128pp, $15.95.

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

This review begins with a personal revelation. I am more than comfortable to recall, privately and in public, the saga of my great great (maternal) grandfather, the farmer-abolitionist who marched with Sherman through Georgia. He lived long enough to spend time with my mother when I was a youngster and to regale her with stories of the Civil War. I am less comfortable contemplating my paternal grandfather, a pattern-maker and small shop-keeper who seems to have joined the KKK in Illinois shortly before he abandoned the family. Or was kicked out.

White folks by the millions have restless skeletons in their closets, of that there can be no convincing denial. How could it not be so in a deeply racist society? But some experiences are very different; and some involve real racial solidarity. The Day the Klan Came to Town offers us vivid details and precious insights. This story unfolds in African American comics writer Bill Campbell’s own home town in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a town ironically and iconically named for one of the great cruel industrial tyrants of the American nineteenth century. (Admittedly, Andrew Carnegie was also the great benefactor of libraries and other public institutions.)

Clark reminds us immediately that the 1920s vintage KKK, perhaps as strong in parts of the North as of the South and largely in control of Indiana politics for at least a decade, could take shape as anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-black or all three, depending upon local circumstances. Campbell has taken pains to study the contemporary documents, maps and other records, of a conflict that really took place, one of many in the years shortly following the First World War. He reminds us that this is, importantly, often enough also an immigrant drama. Like many parts of Pennsylvania, industrial or mining, the conflict posed Irish, Cornish, Slav and several regions of Italians against each other as competitors for jobs, and against African Americans, in the schemes of rising capitalists to divert class resentments away from the strike waves of wartime.

Here we have, in Carnegie, Sicilian immigrants unlikely even to identify with a common national origin. They would not have been considered “white” until at least the 1930s in the US. Many a newly-erected KKK hall (as in my own hometown in Central Illinois)  of the 1920s bore the proud self-identification of “WHITE AND PROTESTANT,” marking Catholics clearly unwanted. Most Italian immigrants, especially those from Southern Italy had little political background in the Left or labor, but many responded to the appeals of the IWW and its working class militancy, likewise to unions organizing in the mine fields among other places. We count leading Italian-American leftists as some of the greatest organizers and poets, but they don’t seem to have got themselves to Carnegie, PA.

Here, in the first pages of the comic, Klan organizers present themselves as leaders of a respectable civic organization out to protect “American” cities from purported outsiders and non-whites. We soon flash across the seas to Racalmuto, Sicily of 1915, where young miners suddenly face the draft imposed upon them for cannon foder in the First World War.  They wisely choose migration.

Barely “Americanized,” they face a racist mob clothed in KKK uniforms. The African Americans among the city dwellers, not a large but a significant portion, respond first because they recognize the Klan.  Sicilians, in turn, recall the Fascisti and the rise of Mussolini sponsored by the ruling classes to defeat labor’s claim on the government. The artist is especially adept at moving back and forth, continent to continent, language to language. They learn to fight back.

The author and artist strive to emphasize the multi-racial and multi-cultural, multi-lingual character of the fightback, and a more severe critic might say that they try too hard. The shifts, Irish and Jewish and Italian to East Indian and Latin American, not to mention women and men taking their own roles or battling hand in hand, can be jarring at times. But the fightback of the immigrant crowd against the Klan offers page after page of real comic action.

This is a tight, well-drawn work in the best of comic traditions.

Paul Buhle

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Review: LIFETIME PASSES

Lifetime Passes. by Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre. Abrams ComicArts, SURELY, New York. 2021. 160pp. $23.99

Editor’s Note: This book is ready for pre-order purchases. Available as of 11/23/21.

How we treat each other, and ourselves, is at the core of wellness. We all have some connection to care-giving, whether on a personal level or a professional level. My past work as a caregiver still inspires me and informs me. Lifetime Passes, is a wonderful new graphic novel that explores the interconnections between those providing care and those receiving care. It’s not as simple as some may think.

Writer Terry Blas and artist Claudia Aguirre together weave a story that speaks to the shared responsibilities of caregivers and those cared for. First of all, no one wants to feel like they’re being “cared for” so a delicate balance must be struck. It’s during a journey of self-discovery that Jackie Chavez comes to appreciate the nuances of respect and self-respect. It’s a process that takes Jackie from being a kid who just wants to blend in with everyone else to someone willing to take a stand and to lead.

Jackie Chavez is in a predicament that is going to take time to figure out. It’s a problem liable to spin out of control. But, oddly enough, it also seems like Jackie is having the time of her life. Blas and Aguirre are sensitive to a young person’s perspective and life struggles. This is a portrait of a Mexican teenager who has been separated from her parents due to the immigration laws currently in place and so it’s just her and her aunt Gina. Jackie helps her aunt at work at the Valley Care Living retirement home. Over the years, Jackie has relied upon visits to the Kingdom Adventure theme park in order to cope with the stress of feeling like an outsider. What she never expected was to have an elder care facility and a theme park collide in her life. It’s a nicely-paced story told with wit and heart.

Claudia Aguirre’s artwork is soulful and touched with a whimsical spark. All the characters, whether noble or less than noble, come to life. The reader will be engaged and immersed in this coming-of-age tale. Jackie Chavez is someone who, at first, wants nothing more than to be alone but is willing to compromise in order to fit in. She is set upon a misadventure that will demand she think differently and show her a whole new way to live.

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