Category Archives: Graphic Novel Reviews

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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Review: BALLAD FOR SOPHIE

Ballad for Sophie

Ballad for Sophie. by Filipe Melo and Juan Cavia. Top Shelf Productions. 2021. 320pp. $24.99

Editor’s Note: This book is ready for pre-order purchases. Available as of 11/02/21.

Ballad for Sophie is a gorgeous graphic novel. It delights the eye and not in any obvious way. We are often led to think that what we want is a perfect smooth finish but this work shows us that we can have it all: a crunchy complexity to the rendering guiding a vision. There are what appear to be, at closer look, a lot of preparatory lines that are kept in. These type of lines usually act as marks towards the final work. Here they act as another layer of texture, vibrancy and energy. It is quite fitting for a work dealing with music! This is a very special book created by a very special creative team who have been working together for nearly two decades. Filipe Melo is a Portuguese musician, award-winning film director, and author. Juan Cavia has worked as an art director and illustrator since 2004. (A sidenote: Melo has composed a theme song to accompany this graphic novel which you can find here.)

An old legend takes account of his life.

A graphic novel with an added layer of squiggly lines is not  really a part of any comics publisher’s reliable house style plans. And yet here it is–and it’s most welcome. Often, a publisher wants to find just the right balance of getting out of the way even if a favored house style provides a nice security blanket. In this case, we have a work that already had a go elsewhere, originally published by Tinta da China, based in Lisbon, and now embarking upon an English translation edition with Top Shelf Productions. That said, this European graphic novel fits in well with the very best work (Blankets, Essex County trilogy, March trilogy)  from Top Shelf. In fact, all these titles share a hand-drawn expressive quality, whether loose or more lean and clean. Top Shelf is always mindful of a winning recipe and here we have a win-win.

Allowing the creative instinct to have its say.

I think it speaks to the distinctive quality of this book that I can write a whole review and only focus on the style. Some graphic novels are like that, as much, or more so, about finding an arena to draw as it is about telling a story. And that requires an artist with a masterful touch. You can’t expect a novice to really measure up like this. Even a master will have doubts when giving way to creative flourish. But Juan Cavia really lives and breathes linework and so he can afford to take some detours. In an interview with Top Shelf’s editor Leigh Walton, he describes his pursuit of quirky lines as a way to be true to the artist and to evoke a certain level of personality.

Balancing, and rendering, past and present.

This is a rivalry story, in the spirit of the great rivalry story, Amadeus. So, we have two prodigy piano players battling out over the course of their lives. The story is set in the small French village of Cressy-la-Valoise, framed around the trope of a young journalist interviewing a dying old legend. The cub reporter is the story’s namesake, Sophie, and the old legend is Julien Dubois, one of the two rivals. Julien comes from a wealthy family; his opponent, François Samson, is a janitor’s son.  The story goes back and forth between the conversation between Sophie, the youth, and Julien, the elder, and looking back to the past. For the scenes in the past, Cavia’s expressive style is emphasized with linework, halftones and a more muted color palette in order to evoke a more retro vibe.

This is comics at its higher levels.

And that’s really all you need to know. I’ve basically tried to keep my focus on the book’s style and it is a formidable one. This is easily the best rendered graphic novel for the year, or at least it should be on everyone’s end-of-year top ten lists.

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Paul Buhle on Comics: ‘Lugosi: The Rise & Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula’

LUGOSI!

Koren Shadmi, Lugosi: The Rise & Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula. Foreword by Jon R. Lansdale. Los Angeles: Life Drawn/Humanoids, 2021, 160pp. $29.95.

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

It is best to admit that we live in terrible times, while we struggle to keep things from getting markedly worse, as they surely will without the needed collective effort that a large number of Americans (among others) seem not actually to want. How does this gloomy reality affect the creation of comic art, one of the more interesting artistic developments of our time, all the more important for its popularity among young people?

Horror comics once occupied the center of social controversy, along with the supposed gay relationship of Batman and Robin and other such McCarthy Era nonsense. The Congressional hearings that broke the booming comic industry of the 1940s-50s, reducing its successors to smaller fields, hit paydirt in one real way: those horror comics were indeed bloody and grim. Harvey Kurtzman’s widow Adele insisted that she and Harvey never allowed the children to read them, not even the EC horror comics whose heavy sales made Mad possible.

Did the controversy around horror comics connect somehow with the huge cult of horror films going back to the Silent days, getting hugely bigger in the 1930s and turning upon themselves as parody in the 1940s? Without a doubt. Nothing was bigger, nothing in the future of horror films all the way into the twenty-first century, could be bigger than Dracula and Frankenstein, aka Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

We have no Karloff comic yet, and we can hope that it is more politically attuned than the volume at hand for Boris’ leading role in the early Screen Actors Union, his ardent antifascism and his insistence that children watching the classic Frankenstein (1931) knew the supposed monster was the real victim of the ignorant, vicious villagers. His literary lineage, of course, traced back to Mary Wollstonecraft and the big metaphor about the degradations of modern aka emerging capitalist society with the monster as metaphoric proletarian body, both product and victim.

Dracula comes from a different place, of course, but is historically wound around a surprisingly similar character. The careful tracing in this comic of Bela Lugosi’s Hungarian background, his meteoric rise to stardom, his floundering personal life, downfall and notorious final engagement with Ed Wood, is enlivening but misses a whole lot. Hungary had a red revolution in 1919 followed by a rightwing takeover that placed the nation in a similar spot, a natural alliance, with Mussolini taking power in Italy, followed by Hitler in Germany.

What could have been….

Lugosi was not exactly a union or community organizer. But the artistic giant of the large Hungarian-American Left, Hugo Gellert, would have been well known to Lugosi, politically and culturally. Lugosi, asked by revolutionary leader Bela Kun to be the leader of the national trade union movement before his departure, seems to have become a New Deal Democrat in the US, but played a key role in the Hungarian-American Counncil for Democracy, that is, working closely with Gellart and with that other  famed  antifascist Bela: Bela Bartok. As the rampage of Fascism threatened the world, from the middle 1930s onward, the “two Belas” could be counted upon for financial contributions and public appearances rallying the immigrant communities, in wartime to raise funds and support antifascism, in this case, Russian and Hungarian in particular.

Of all this, we see nothing in the comic.  Nor the ways in which the descending Cold War moods brought depression and a sense of panic among erstwhile antifacists. Hollywood, in Lugosi’s last years, was the home of the Blacklist. He escaped by not actually belonging to any Left organizations. Or perhaps because he was already too beaten to subpoena.

All that said, the personal drama of Lugosi’s life is well told here, and the drawing is impressive. Too much seems to be about the complicated romantic life, women won and lost, the over-extended ego that seemed to take over his creative power, with too little about the complications of his Hollywood career, let alone the unique artistry with which he approached his parts.

There goes a great star…

The Black Cat (1935), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, using a title from Edgar A. Poe’s work but bearing no other resemblance, was a masterpiece of horror and a brilliantly-wrought critique of the destruction brought upon humanity by the First World War. The two old military adverseries (the other is Boris Karloff) meet, and are seen with some of the staggeringly expessionist cinematography to that point in film-making anywhere. The subtle politics of the film are entirely lost to the comic artist, but the importance for Lugosi is clear. He was already a star, but now he became a super-star.

All too soon, the moment passed. By the time Robert Lees and his sreenwriting partner Fred Rinaldo delivered the script of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the studio in 1947 (sadly, Karloff had been replaced by Lon Chaney, Jr., and Lugosi is strictly camp), the cliches of monster films were already being turned inside out and played for laughs. Actually, with Bud and Lou offering up the best comedy around, Lugosi and Karloff were perfectly straight-faced and perfect.

But of course, this suggested a drift downward. Where to go from self-satire? Lugosi’s life was turning bad in every way. As depicted, he was addicted to drugs, unable to make a living or a personal appearance in Hollywood’s clubs and restaurants in the old way. He died too late, if earlier would have meant avoiding Ed Wood.

Paul Buhle

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Review: The Gloaming (#1-5) by Hans Rickheit

THE GLOAMING

The Gloaming (#1-5) on-going series. by Hans Rickheit. Chrome Fetus. 2021. Five-issue multi-pack: print $20 and digital $15

Hans Rickheit is one of my favorite cartoonists. I have reviewed his work going back some twenty years and have seen it grow in stature. Back then, I was part of a crew of reviewers and I was known as someone with a taste for the offbeat and strange and who championed the misfit. For a taste of Rickheit’s work, check out his ongoing series, Cochlea & Eustachia. I relate to Rickheit’s touch of strange. I aspire to pushing limits in my own work in comics: seeking out distinctive storytelling paths; refining a signature style; challenging the reader. I see all of that happening in Rickheit’s work. Of course, I am not alone. His quirky, creepy, and overall gorgeous art has struck a chord with readers world-wide. Fast forward to now, and we find Rickheit raising the stakes higher with his most provocative comics ever. Has he gone out on a limb and is it worth it?

Be careful what you wish for.

Up until now, Rickheit’s work has maintained an otherworldly vibe with some restrained erotic undertones. For his latest project, The Gloaming, this adults-only comic book series finds Rickheit having crossed over to work that is beyond overtly sexual. He would be the first to admit that it is pornographic in nature: explicit sexual content; X-rated material without a doubt. Rickheit is an interesting case as he seems to be someone who can’t help but create artful comics. He seems to be gingerly navigating his way through terrain that would prove way too challenging for many cartoonists to justify. And maybe he doesn’t fully succeed and that’s alright. This is a daring experiment and one perhaps inevitable. It’s clear that it engages this masterful cartoonist and, in turn, it will engage the discerning mature reader.

Don’t look too hard.

Let’s say that your favorite auteur filmmaker made a film with some very strong sexual content. You might say that the film is a challenging departure for the filmmaker. Or you might throw your hands up and say the filmmaker has gone too far. That is where Rickheit finds himself. He has concocted a narrative about a mad scientist with a penchant for creating sex slaves and a lot of the plot involves the slaves servicing the mad scientist or servicing each other. There’s also a parallel story going on about a race of space alien sex slaves who are programmed to relentlessly pleasure themselves or whoever crosses their path, like some unsuspecting demon who appears out of nowhere. So, lots of freaky furry stuff going on. But is it art? Is it porn? Well, it’s both. But mostly it’s art. It brings to mind, or at least to my mind, “Made in Heaven,” the collaboration between Jeff Koons and his then-wife Ilona Staller (“Cicciolina”). Now, there’s a work that straddles art and, well, porn, or work of a highly explicit sexual nature. The intent is said to be art but you can argue that the couple’s sex act show is more hype than anything else; an odd curiosity that is part of a greater whole. I think Koons would agree with me on that.

Easy does it.

The actual narrative to The Gloaming does have its subplots and nuances. This is a story that features a cult of clones, who are all programmed to have an insatiable sexual appetite and are loyal to the hive, especially the leader, the mad scientist. Like every plan, there are variants that creep in. That explains four particular clones. These four young women seem to have minds of their own. For the most part, they basically behave like wild animals out to satisfy themselves save for one who is methodical. This one gets picked on by the other three sisters. This one is sort of like a Cinderella, but prone to ungodly mischief like the rest. These four are set apart from the rest of the clones and get to live in the mansion. Like I mentioned, there’s also this parallel story going on involving a race of space alien clones and that subplot is festering in the background presumably to reveal a greater truth by the time this series wraps up.

The loss of innocence.

Rickheit has moved past the stage of wondering if he’s made the right choice with this project. His main concern it seems, based on the bits of comments he provides to introduce each issue, have to do with craftsmanship. Rickheit repeatedly worries about whether or not he’s up to the task of depicting all the anatomical contortions, and related sexual activities going on in his comic. I think he is. But I do appreciate that he’s sensitive to consistently keeping the human figure alive and dancing upon the page. Sometimes a shortcut here and there can take the reader out of the story. And, as I say, there is a story, one of a growing uneasy tension between mysterious forces. This is mostly a mood piece as the title implies. That said, this is also an experiment to see what readers make of it. Do readers of Hans Rickheit prefer to keep the veil of mystery on or do they want it fully ripped off with nothing spared? I think this project is an intriguing departure but I do not believe it’s sustainable in its present form, not in the long run. More often than not, it’s nice to pull the covers up. Then again, it depends upon what the auteur cartoonist wants to achieve. Blutch, for example, has claimed he’d like nothing more than to create pure porn but then he doesn’t go and actually do that because artful and literary concerns kick in. I think what he really means is that he just wants the freedom to do as he sees fit. At the end of the day, usually that will mean that he wants to create something with integrity. That’s what Rickheit is after too.

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Advance Review: PET HUMAN

PET HUMAN

Pet Human. Written by David Guy Levy with Steffan Schlachtenhaufen. Illustrated by Alex Heywood. Periscope Entertainment. 2021. 131pp.

The sooner you know this, the better. I love dogs but I see way too many of them in my Seattle suburban neighborhood of Ballard. It’s like nearly everyone is paired up with a dog, or more than one dog. Sometimes small. Often big. But also quite fascinating. I recall an old friend of mine lamenting how he’d succumbed to the Seattle blues, that funky feeling we natives blame on the generally overcast gloomy Pacific Northwest weather (and very poorly planned high-destiny living). He may have said this with his signature smirk but, the next time I saw him, he had taken upon himself to become the proud owner of four dogs! So, fast forward to now, I’m quite intrigued with this new graphic novel that explores a pet’s life…but from a highly irregular point of view. This time around, it’s the big furry creatures who are at the top of the food chain and it’s those puny hairless little apes, the humans, who make for the perfect malleable and docile pets. This wonderfully inventive book provides a rather sobering, and very entertaining, portrait of human as pet. This books originates from the mind of film director/producer David Guy Levy (Would You Rather, The Mandela Effect, Banking on Bitcoin among many others). The book was inspired by his late dog Buster.

Resigned to a pet’s life.

When you stop and think about it, we humans are pretty darn lucky in our overall place in the world. But what about life in some alternate reality? Even if you are in prime health and super fit, you’re simply no match for a high-functioning Sasquatch! And, even if you are highly intelligent and alert, you are still no match for any Sasquatch! Like it or not, humans defer to the big hairy ones in charge in this scenario. And, let’s face it, your typical human, given the chance to lounge around all day, will not put up a fight and simply give in. There are certainly exceptions. But Buster, our human hero, is not exceptional by any means. He is very typical. He gives in without so much as a whimper of resistance, albeit an occasional meek complaint.

Walking a human pet.

Illustrator Alex Heywood breathes life into this scenario with stunning results. It took him two and a half years to illustrate Pet Human. “I was excited when David reached out and asked me to illustrate his story, and bring the Pet Human world to life,” said Heywood in a press release. “It was my first long-term project as an artist and it fit perfectly with my style of drawing. I create dense, imaginative wildlife scenes in my art all the time, just for fun.” It is Heywood’s uninhibited depiction of lush natural, yet otherworldly, terrain that keeps the reader riveted to this wonderfully subversive story. Readers will cheer on Buster as he must navigate life with his alien family of Pruni and Blorg.

Pet Human is quite an unusual story that somehow manages to gently trod over a number of issues. Buster is a human being with a heart and soul who happens to live the life of a pet with two Sasquatch-like creatures. What could be more normal? Buster doesn’t seem to mind his lot in life very much but, of course, he lacks the capacity to see beyond his circumstances. Suffice it to say, there is plenty to unpack here. The creative team have set up a world as compelling and engaging as looking into the eyes of your favorite pug. As of this writing, a Kickstarter campagin in support of this book is just about to wrap up in a few days. Go check it out. And, for further details, check out Periscope Entertainment.

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Paul Buhle on Comics: A REVOLUTION IN THREE ACTS

A Revolution in Three Acts: The Radical Vaudeville of Bert Williams, Eva Tanguay and Julian Eltinge. By David Hajdu and John Carey. Foreword by Michele Wallace. Columbia University Press, 2021. 166pp, $19.95

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

This is an extremely remarkable comic, at once a historical look at the great and hugely popular genre of vaudeville,  and a treatment of the margins, racial and gender, that pushed closer to the surface than radio or films would reach before the 1950s.  David Hajdu is a distinguished music critic and a professor at Columbia University. His artistic collaborator, John Carey, less well known,  worked at Greater Media Newspapers for decades. Neither has produced a comic until now, but Hajdu wrote an insightful history of comics entitled The Ten Cent Plague, more than touching upon the condemned but lively elements of popular culture.

Bert Williams, “the son of laughter” in contemporary advertising of Vaudeville, was almost certainly the first native of the little island of Antigua, then still in the British West Indies, to make himself a major star in the US. He sang, danced, told jokes, charmed (white) audiences far and wide,  and became himself a producer of shows starring himself. He exhausted himself and died young, just as he reached his apex of success.

Eva Tanguay is remembered for one phrase, “I Don’t Care!” hailed by Andre Breton and the surrealists as capturing the spirit and radical possibilities embedded within popular culture. Flagrantly transgressive, she challenged every limitation of the lingering Victorian culture, dressing outlandishly, for instance, wearing pennies glued to a revealing body suit at the moment when the Lincoln Penny was introduced and fleeing when the police arrived to arrest her. She joined Williams on stage and drove audiences wild.

Cross-dressing Julian Eltinge completes this narrative. By way of Harvard and Hasty Pudding, he starred as a female performer, singing and dancing up a storm. Holding nothing back, he  openly proclaimed his sexual passion for a black man (doublng the provocation), with himsef as “The Sambo Girl,” on stage and in the sheet music of the day. The very idea that Eltinge could publish a magazine under his own name offers a transgressive moment in time and in the rising pulp magazine craze.

The genius of the comic intertwines the stories, sharing the threats of the cops and other thuggish males. Tanguay and Williams were widely rumored to be lovers, but the rumor that she was to marry Eltinge inspired no limit of mean-spirited satire (“who will wear the breeches?”) and some good spirited as well. But movies, even without the severe restrictions to come later, were just too limited for this leap out of propriety. (Bert Williams was also in several film shorts, but these are lost.)

The Art of Revolution in Three Acts finds John Carey perfectly suited with a greyish, sketch-like style, offering a kind of fluidity suitable to the subject. He aspires neither to realism, in the ordinary sense, nor to the altogether imaginative comic-art style adopted or adapted in modern “art” comics. Rather, it is his own.

The high spirits of these three characters, the visions they had of themselves and the crushing reality of a world unsuited for them, comes home collectively as we follow their lives. Eltinge, an entrepreneur in his own mind, bought a large chunk of land in California’s Imperial Valley, with a vision of a resort and a theatrical complex. He was quickly overextended, when a film showed his female impersonation at a disadvantge: society was not ready, although in failure, he inspired other stage female impersonators across the US and Europe. Tanguay, perhaps the luckiest, had a series of prominent affairs, passing before she could complete a tell-all memoir.

Paul Buhle

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Review: ENDSWELL and ANIMAL SPIRITS by Peter Morey

ENDSWELL by Peter Morey

ANIMAL SPIRITS by Peter Morey

Endswell. Books #1-#3. Peter Morey. Inky Little Fingers. 2018-2021. Bundle: $14.45

Animal Spirits. Peter Morey. Inky Little Fingers. 2020. $8.67

It was just a matter of time before I returned to the work of Peter Morey, which I had stumbled upon during a visit to Orbital Comics in London back in 2019. Even with a haul of comics to look over, I could quickly appreciate Morey’s distinctive and quirky work. Fast forward to the present, now I have three issues of Endswell compared to just the one a few years back. Reading over the first issue, and proceeding all the way through, I was treated to a fuller picture of this ongoing family saga. The first issue seems that much stronger now as it pulls together a number of dramatic bits all revolving around the misadventures of the granny of the clan, the matriarch in decline, who in recent years has brought in a suspicious character as her lover.

The family photo!

As with any sprawling comedy of manners, the first issue introduces the players and sets the tone. We begin with the main character of this loosely auto-biographical work, Peter Morey, as he relates to a therapist a series of events involving his grandmother. Things are a bit of a mess as it seems gran has reached a critical point where her well-being is a concern, not to mention her continued squandering of the family fortune for the sake of her vanity project. Plans must be made. Chickens are coming home to roost. Or, in this case, horses and dogs as gran runs an eccentric farm and kennel known as, Endswell. And then there’s Jim, the creepy ne’er-do-well she’s been living with. All of this is of concern to her now middle-aged children. And yet the worry has somehow spilled over onto Peter, part of the next generation. It’s not completely clear as to why Peter is so preoccupied by this drama other than it’s part of the neurotic goop that has overcome the whole family. Alright then, all very interesting family drama, as Chekhov would concur.

Morey does a fine job of giving a comedic shape to various family source material. In the end, we’ve got a nicely purring machine that sees us into the next couple of issues: one dedicated to the dogs at Endswell; and one dedicated to grandpa, which finds the clan reminiscing on the day of the grand old man’s funeral. So, all in all, this family comedy provides a neat platform upon which Morey can give the reader a bit of his take on the human condition. Morey’s droll sense of humor permeates his drawing style, which has an uncanny distant and ironic quality to it. The characters and settings, much like the narrative, are pared down to a mysterious enigma. Simple shapes and phrases leave much hidden, revealing only what’s needed and leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.

A poignant moment for Lady Foxhound.

Now, let’s move past Morey’s family saga to something more whimsical. This is more of Peter Morey’s droll humor but this time it’s animals–and not just any animals, these are power animals out to save the world. Animal Spirits is a deliciously over-the-top mash-up tribute to martial arts and violent manga, I would think. Actually, there’s only a few dollops of blood spilled, all things considered but you need to be mindful of the kiddos reading this, right? Morey’s light and lean line is nicely set off by his bold choice of colors. If you enjoy a cheeky adventure and root for animal rights, then this is for you.

You can keep up with Peter Morey right here.

 

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