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Review: ‘The Best American Comics 2016,’ Editor, Roz Chast; Series Editor, Bill Kartalopoulos

Reading "Best American Comics 2016" on the train.

Reading “Best American Comics 2016” on the train.

I read this year’s Best American Comics on the train and I loved it all the more for doing so–but more on that later. Bill Kartalopoulos is the series editor and this year’s editor is Roz Chast. Even if you think you don’t know enough about the contemporary American comics scene, you probably know Roz Chast’s work in The New Yorker. So nothing to worry about, even Roz Chast doesn’t think of herself as exceptionally knowledgable about the current comics scene. However, Bill Kartalopoulos knew right away that, no matter how splintered the comics scene may be, here was a legendary cartoonist, with a wealth of experience, insight, and a very special kind of irreverence. This book is a guide through the best of American comics from someone with just the right sensibility to add to the journey. And what a journey it will be kicked off by the artwork of Marc Bell on the cover, as well as within the pages!

From "Stroppy" by Marc Bell

From “Stroppy” by Marc Bell

The path begins with a forward by Kartalopoulos which explains how we got here from there and what sort of comics we are focusing upon. For the most part, the focus is on comics that have come to be known as alternative comics, or alt-comics. These are comics that fall well within comics as an art form. While genre comics occasionally rise to the level of art, that is not their main purpose. So, as I have maintained, it is useful to be able to separate comics within two main groups: genre and the alternative to genre. There is crossover (which is great when it happens and can be quite interesting), but, in general, art comics are on one side and superhero and various other genre comics are on the other side. So, while it is possible, you will usually not see the likes of Batman or Spider-Man in Best American Comics–even if that just doesn’t seem right somehow.

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine's "Killing and Dying."

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.”

Roz Chast’s introduction provides some clues as to what comics would appeal to her. Considering what she chose to include in the book, she is mostly intrigued by wry humor and in-depth autobiographical work. She says she’s not a prude but that if work gets misogynistic, that makes her sad. And she’s open to just about anything, even willing to go back to a comic that she wasn’t sure about at first. Chast does not categorize her selections. You just start reading. First up, is an excerpt from Adrian Tomine’s celebrated collection, “Killing and Dying.” In this excerpt from the title story, I can only imagine Chast’s love for zany humor telling her this is the piece to set the tone for the rest of the book: a story about a father struggling with his daughter’s sudden desire to be a stand-up comic.

Misfits band together in Chris Ware's "The Last Saturday."

Misfits band together in Chris Ware’s “The Last Saturday.”

Along with Adrian Tomine there are other clear choices to include: Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, among others. But the treat is that they are set within the context of choices that Chast came to make. That fact adds another layer to one’s enjoyment of a story about struggling misfits by Chris Ware. And, it is quite true, there are so many comics out there that you cannot keep up with all of them. It does seem best to find a way to hook in and make some sense of things using different approaches each year. To that end, series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos has settled into taking a long view of things. Ideally, you don’t just read one Best American Comics annual but you keep up with it each year to find out what has made an impression and how it may fit into the current wave. What novelist Johnathan Lethem did as editor last year is different from what comics historian Scott McCloud did the year before.

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry's "Syllabus."

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus.”

By the time I reached Lynda Barry’s story about coming to terms with a cartoonist’s goals and how to impart that wisdom unto students, I had a good sense of what Chast was going for. It provided me with a way to hook into everything else. And it was about that time that the rocking motion of the train added more resonance, especially as I patiently followed along lines of Barry’s handwritten writing reproduced from a notebook page. Both the train and the handwriting asked me to take my time. Earlier in my reading, I had been picking up on the fact that there is so much going on around you while riding in a train and how that is true for comics.

Barry brings up a challenging question: Just how long does it take to draw something? Well, it all depends. In the end, a good cartoonist develops a keen sense for this. It’s a variation of the old saw, When is a painting finished? So many art students have suffered from callous professors who dismiss work as simply unfinished. But, on the other hand, so many art professors have suffered from callow and impatient students who demand a checklist for assignment requirements. You cannot create anything, especially art, from a checklist! Time. It all takes time. So, in “Syllabus,” Barry sums it all up with, “Rushing it is missing it!” It is that standard that is maintained by all the cartoonists included here.

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

Cartoonists of this caliber are meticulous note-takers and obsessive in the best sense of the word. Among these type of cartoonists included in this book is an excerpt from “Adults Only” by Lance Ward. Ward states that he works directly on pre-made panels, without preliminary drawings, so that he can best attack his work. This runs counter to the Barry dictum of measured craftsmanship. However, Ward’s obsessive quality wins out. This is in the same spirit as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Ward has gotten to the point where he has hit enough marks to know, on an intuitive level, where the marks will end up. The work has a spare and energetic look to it. Ward is recounting his misadventures working in a porn shop. That is the point of departure for his delving into struggles with his sexuality. A more free-form style could not have been invented for him. A cartoonist can try to minimize or maximize their style but, usually a certain way of doing things falls into place.

"Bike Fast" by Sophia Zdon

“Bike Fast” by Sophia Zdon

Ward, along with other rising talents included here such as Sophia Zdon, has found what works. Zdon, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in 2015, provides heartfelt observations as if out of dreams.

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie" by Casanova Frankenstein

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie” by Casanova Frankenstein

One of the most raw and honest expressions in comics comes from Casanova Frankenstein. In an excerpt from “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie,” he confides in the reader about a tumultuous life.

Panel excerpt from "Fatherland" by Nina Bunjevac

Panel excerpt from “Fatherland” by Nina Bunjevac

An excerpt from “Fatherland,” by Nina Bunjevac, published by W.W. Norton, provides insights into a peculiar and dangerous life in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II.

From "Fashion Cats" by Alex Schubert

From “Fashion Cats” by Alex Schubert

Alex Schubert‘s “Fashion Cat” is a hilarious look at the misadventures of a feline hipster, originally published in Blobby Boys 2 by Koyama Press.

From "El Deafo" by Cece Bell

From “El Deafo” by Cece Bell

Cece Bell‘s “El Deafo,” published by Abrams, is quite a captivating story about a little girl coming to terms with being deaf and how to navigate the world. The story is given an added lift by the nicely modulated coloring by David Lasky.

"Don't Leave Me Alone" by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone” by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone,” by GG, is a dream-like compilation of growing up with fear and uncertainty in an intolerant and hostile world.

From "Blanket Portraits" by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

From “Blanket Portraits” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

And then there are those comics that are simply transcendent–and can best inform us on the integrity and purpose of the comics medium. “Blanket Portraits,” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum, is a visual essay on a lifetime’s appreciation for blankets, their beauty and comfort, and what they symbolize. Geneviève passed away on July 9, 2016 from pancreatic cancer. As Bill Kartalopoulos states in a postscript, what made her comics unique was that they were “entirely expressive of who she was.”

The Best American Comics 2016

The Best American Comics 2016

“The Best American Comics 2016” includes the work of 30 cartoonists. It is a full-color hardcover, available as of October 4, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Best American Comics proves to be an essential and inspiring guidebook. As I say, Bill Kartalopoulos has taken the long view. You’ll definitely want to read this year’s edition and make it a habit to keep up with this most distinctive collection.

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Filed under Art, Art books, Bill Kartalopoulos, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Marc Bell, Roz Chast, The Best American Comics, The New Yorker

Review: THE STRANGER by Jacques Ferrandez

Meursault and Raymond Sintes entered into an ill-fated friendship.

Meursault and Raymond Sintes entered into an ill-fated friendship.

It has been a number of years since I read the 1942 classic, “The Stranger,” by Albert Camus. Reading Jacques Ferrandez’s graphic novel adaptation, I was struck by all the details I had forgotten. It also helped me to appreciate the parts to this story that can be considered existential and the rest that falls more into philosophy of the absurd. The main character in “The Stranger” is a young and indifferent man, Meursault. He is in the tradition of such characters as Kafka’s meek Gregor Samsa or Melville’s nebbish Bartleby. For Meursault, there are no rules to follow and nothing really matters. That’s not to say one can’t make their way in the world and be decent about it. But there’s nothing in Meursault’s mode of living to motivate him to make any great effort. And then a calamitous chain of events deliver him his comeuppance. Ferrandez brings all this to life in a way that adds to the reading of the original novel.

A young man with plenty on his mind.

A young man with plenty on his mind.

Ferrandez favors a more painterly and economical approach to creating graphic novels. Throughout the book, he has paintings floating behind the panels. Elements of the watercolor artwork are mirrored back in the panels. The drawings are quick and simplified, kept light, while also providing substance. I see a lot of interesting play with character development. Marie Cardona, Meursault’s girlfriend is depicted as lovely and ethereal but also warm and concerned about Meursault. Then there’s Raymond Sintes, the unsavory fellow who leads Meursault astray. And, finally, there’s Meursault who Ferrandez is careful to depict with just the right mix of arrogance, vacancy, and idealism. Originally published in French by Gallimard in 2013, this new 2016 edition is published by Pegasus Books. The English translation by Sandra Smith is completely in sync and offers a smooth connection to the artwork.

Jacques Ferrandez's "The Stranger," published by Pegasus Books

Jacques Ferrandez’s “The Stranger,” published by Pegasus Books

After a good long while of playing with words and pictures, a cartoonist knows how to conjure up what matters most. It is remarkable to see how Jacques Ferrandez has made this landmark novel his own, confronting its ambiguity. There’s an added sense of effortless spontaneity running throughout which is, certainly, a result of a great deal of planning and foresight. I have to hand it to him for consistently finding ways to combine his desire for pure painting, and uninterrupted imagery, within the comics narrative framework of panels. You really do need panels and/or some way to keep the story coherent. Ferrandez makes the process look easy and natural. And, again I must stress, he provides a refreshing take on our lost soul, Meursault. It is a pleasure to behold.

“The Stranger” is a 144-page full color hardcover, published by Pegasus Books.

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Filed under Albert Camus, Comics, Existentialism, French Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jacques Ferrandez, Pegasus Books

Review: EQUINOXES by Cyril Pedrosa

Marion lost in art.

Marion lost in art.

Cyril Pedrosa is an ideal cartoonist: very observant, with a compulsive need to comment on what he observes, along with a compulsive need to collect and process everything he may need to depict and comment upon in his work. Pedrosa must take it all in. He has a true cartoonist’s need to absorb, like a sponge, like an overstimulated genius infant still fresh and new. Ah, this is just the way to come at such an ambitious work as “Equinoxes,” published by NBM Graphic Novels. With this graphic novel, the master cartoonist lays it all bare.

A true cartoonist's need to collect and process everything around him.

A true cartoonist’s need to collect and process everything around him.

Pedrosa is living and breathing what he’s setting down on paper at a delicious level. He has an extensive background in animation, which certainly helps, but he takes it even further. He knows how to speed up work. He knows when he can ease up on the details and when to add an extra coat of polish. And to do that well with both his artwork and his writing is definitely remarkable.

We all need a good recurring motif.

We all need a good recurring motif.

This book is comparable in America to, for example, “Asterios Polyp,” by David Mazzucchelli. Other examples of this type of commentary in comics are the work of Gabrielle Bell and Tom Hart, both of who will take part in panels during Pedrosa’s North American tour. For the Europeans, there’s more of a tradition for expansive work like this exploring the meaning of life and such things. Even within that milieu, Pedrosa rises to the top, among the best. Something unique that Pedrosa is doing here is to so effortlessly depict a world according to the author in all its glorious detail. A pretty tall order any way you look at it.

"Equinoxes" by Cyril Pedrosa

“Equinoxes” by Cyril Pedrosa

Divided into the four seasons, we follow the lives of various characters, all searching for answers, crossing each other’s paths in odd and random ways. The question arises as to whether or not there is any order or purpose for any of them. Perhaps everyone is just making it up as they go.

EQUINOXES by Cyril Pedrosa is a 336-page hardcover in full color, published by NBM Graphic Novels. Visit NBM, for more details, right here. You can also find the book at Amazon right here.

Pedrosa will be making the following appearances during his North American tour:

Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore
211 Rue Bernard O, Montréal, QC

September 7th, 7:00 PM

Albertine Bookstore at the French Cultural Services
972 5th Avenue, New York 

September 12th, 7:00 PM

Talk with Gabrielle Bell moderated by Bill Kartolopoulos

Small Press Expo (SPX)
Bethesda, Maryland

September 17th 11:00 AM – 7:00 PM

Special Guest; signing at our booth #W51-52

Signing schedule:

• 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
• 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM

Brooklyn Book Festival
209 Joralemon St, Brooklyn, NY

September 18th, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM

Guest of the show; signing at our booth, #135

Signing schedule:

• 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
• 1:30 PM -2:30 PM
• 4:00 PM-5:30 PM

Panel: 3:00pm Can You Draw the Meaning of Life?

Location: Brooklyn Historical Society Auditorium (128 Pierrepont St.)

Three comics creators take on big questions–philosophical, scientific, spiritual. Lauren Redniss (Thunder & Lightning) explores the past, present, and controversial future of our world through weather phenomenons. Best-selling French creator Cyril Pedrosa (Equinoxes) reflects on the connections made between people over time and space. And Tom Hart (Rosalie Lightning) asks in a tragic yet beautiful memoir about his young daughter’s death: can you capture the meaning of a life, as you mourn its loss? Moderated by cartoonist and choreographer Kriota Willberg ((No) Pain!).

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Filed under Bill Kartalopoulos, Comics, Cyril Pedrosa, Gabrielle Bell, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, NBM Publishing, Small Press Expo, SPX, Tom Hart

Review: PORTUGAL by Cyril Pedrosa

Evoking a Quiet Moment

A quiet moment.

Evoking a quiet moment is one of the most natural and satisfying things to do as a cartoonist. A story takes shape. A conflict. A conversation. Before long, a compelling story unfolds like Cyril Pedrosa’s “Portugal,” published by Europe Comics. Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is said. Pedrosa plays with the spaces in between words. This is the story of Simon, a young man struggling to find his place in the world despite the fact it would appear that he has everything in place: a loving mate to share a life with, a promising future in his chosen career, and the potential for lifelong stability. But Simon does not see it that way at all.

A conflict. Simon is a man who still feels he is only a boy–or a young man with much to learn. Simon is at that age when life has taken root from all directions but he is not ready to settle down. He must either break free or reassess his current state–do something instead of just vacillate. Pedrosa has created a perfect depiction of a Peter Pan syndrome: Simon refuses to grow up. Of course, Simon must grow up in some sense since he’s miserable. Claire, his longtime girlfriend, has been beyond patient with him. The clock is ticking but nothing is moving forward for Simon. Not the most inspiring or likable of main characters, right? Ah, but this is the stuff of life. This is a compelling story told in words and pictures by a master cartoonist. It also happens to be loosely based upon the author’s own self-journey. In 2006, at age 33, Pedrosa had his own reassessing to do.

A conflict.

A conflict.

A conversation. And then another. Pedrosa does a beautiful job of exploring Simon’s struggle even when his main character is the least cooperative, either hovering or drowning. There seems to always be someone open to pursuing a conversation with him not the least of which is Claire, Simon’s beautiful but beleaguered girlfriend. Nothing seems to get through to Simon. In one scene, Claire literally spells it out for Simon. If only he were to say that he wishes her to stay, she would stay with him. Simon has perfected his way of coping with the world: as little movement as possible; as few words as possible. In this case, with Claire, he chooses to remain silent. It is a moment that rings so true during the process of a breakup. Sometimes, one must read between the lines–or no lines.

A conversation.

A conversation.

Another conversation. And then another. If there is one thing Simon needs most, it is to talk and Pedrosa throws his main character into numerous opportunities to do just that. In fact, Simon, stumbles upon what will save him during a visit to a comics festival in Lisbon, Portugal. It is an chance for Simon to socialize with his fellow cartoonists as well as with the public. The interaction invigorates Simon.

PORTUGAL by Cyril Pedrosa

PORTUGAL by Cyril Pedrosa

It takes Simon a while to put two and two together. The reason that his Portugal visit enlivened him was that it gave him time to consider his Portuguese roots on his father’s side of the family. The third act to this graphic novel finds Simon finally turning to family after having remained in his own isolated bubble for so many years. While being around family alone won’t solve his problems, and may cause new ones, it does help Simon find some answers. With some luck and a new will to live, Simon may very well find himself no longer the boy in the bubble. Pedrosa provides you with an exquisitely paced narrative able to pause for quiet moments and sustain the delicate rhythms of human interaction.

Here is a trailer for the book:

Sometimes, as Pedrosa puts it, a story’s journey must go through a labyrinth. Pedrosa, in his own words, shares the process of making the book:

If you are going to the Small Press Expo in Maryland, the Brooklyn Book Festival, or are in New York City, be sure to catch Cyril Pedrosa during his North American book tour in support of PORTUGAL, published by Europe Comics, and EQUINOXES, published by NBM. On Monday, September 12th, you can see Pedrosa in conversation with Bill Kartalopoulos and Gabrielle Bell at Albertine bookstore. For details, click the image below:

U.S. Book Tour for Cyril Pedrosa

U.S. Book Tour for Cyril Pedrosa

PORTUGAL by Cyril Pedrosa is a 261-page hardcover in full color. For more details, visit Europe Comics right here. You can also find PORTUGAL at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Bill Kartalopoulos, Comics, Cyril Pedrosa, Europe Comics, European Comics, Gabrielle Bell, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, NBM, NBM Publishing, Small Press Expo, SPX

Review: ‘Pocahontas: Princess of the New World’ by Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky

"Pocahontas: Princess of the New World" by Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky

“Pocahontas: Princess of the New World” by Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky

Here is a story that will greatly resonate with anyone struggling with issues of Otherness. There is so much to love about the graphic novel, “Pocahontas: Princess of the New World.” If you are looking for a powerful and accessible way to talk about race and tolerance, here is a compelling new addition to that discussion. Depicted in a direct and straightforward manner, here is the story of Pocahontas and John Smith as you’ve never seen it before. This is truly a unique gift for young and older readers alike. Originally published in French by Sarbacane in 2014, this spirited and quite informative graphic novel by Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky is now available in an English translation by Pegasus Books.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky plays with that concept by mining closer to the known facts, at least much closer than a Disney animated feature could. Pocahontas was around eleven years-old in 1607 when she was supposed to have famously saved Jamestown settler John Smith from being executed by the Powhatans. The rest is a bit of history and myth. This graphic novel interpretation has Pocahontas in the role of vigilant defender and protector of John Smith and the English colonists. Originally named, Matoaka, there is some dispute as to how and why she became known as “Pocahontas.” Some versions of the story say the name meant “playful one.” But in this version, the Powhatans feel betrayed and the nickname is supposed to simply mean, “shameless whore.”

Young Matoaka

Young Matoaka

Matoaka, later to be known as Pocahontas, would be baptized by the English as, Rebecca. The Biblical reference suggested a healer to two separate cultures. That myth would blossom in the 19th century as she was portrayed as an emblem of the potential of Native Americans to be assimilated into European society. Keeping close to the facts gives way to some poetic speculation as Locatelli-Kournwsky explores the inner world of his celebrated main character. In a number of key scenes, we see that the the clash of cultures is quite overwhelming for Pocahontas. Even once married to John Rolfe and dressed in the best fashion, English society around her does not really embrace her. She is forever seen as part of the wilderness and best suited to remain there. The die is cast, for better or worse, once Pocahontas, always Pocahontas.

Readers will be pleasantly surprised to read a more enlightened account of such a celebrated figure in history. Locatelli-Kournwsky’s artwork is just the right mix of lightness and precision. And the new English translation by Sandra Smith provides a smooth and accessible path to this most engaging story.

“Pocahontas: Princess of the New World” is a 128-page hardcover, published by Pegasus Books and available as of September 6, 2016. Visit Pegasus Books right here.

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Filed under American History, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, History, Native Americans, Pocahontas

Book Review: ‘Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories’ by Dennis Etchison

A Dennis Etchison femme fatale. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

A Dennis Etchison femme fatale. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

A femme fatale in a Dennis Etchison story is “twenty-nine going on forty, and pretty, too, but not really very.” She is the sort who would visit a Beverly Hills beauty salon. She is the sort who would have a C-note handy in her pocketbook.

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories,” an e-book collection you can find through Bowery Books, is a great mix of classic short stories. The first two stories alone are priceless as you have the earliest published Etchison short story, 1966’s “Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly,” followed by 1976’s “The Walking Man.” From these, I make my assertion on Etchison femme fatales.

Etchison deliberately takes the same description for his 1966 female character (twenty-nine going on forty with a C-note in her purse) and attaches it to his 1976 female character. It’s a grand little inside joke since he is certainly not at a loss for words. Doing that adds another eerie layer of alienation. It’s a brilliant move, especially for a writer who enjoys playing with disconnection.

Having recently posted a review of a collection of work by George Clayton Johnson, it is fitting to follow up with a review of one of the great Johnson protégés, a masterful writer in his own right, Dennis Etchison. We can even begin with a comparison of work between Johnson and Etchison. Both wrote stories with the freeway as a looming background character. In Johnson’s short story, the freeway is much like one big car bowling alley. You simply let the cars be towed along by the grid. If you happen to lose your way and pull over, you are lost.

In Etchison’s story, also set in the future, the freeway is also a vast wasteland but one that results in carnage at a much higher rate. In fact, the system in place demands it. Welcome to the world of Dennis Etchison where the edges can be sharp but that does not take away from the storytelling craft at play. I became aware of Dennis Etchison through my friendship with writer George Clayton Johnson. It was in 2014, during our last conversation in person, that George went over some writers I needed to visit or revisit if I hadn’t. Robert Sheckley for my sense of humor. Theodore Sturgeon for my soul-searching questions. And Dennis Etchison for my dark side. I did just that. In fact, I’ve posted about Sheckley here and Sturgeon here. And, now, Mr. Etchison.

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

Nightmare logic is at play here in a big way. Do you remember any of your best nightmares? Wasn’t there some lyrical quality about them that got under your skin? Think of the placement of seemingly random things that you know, down in your bones, actually belong together. Here it is, special delivery just for you: a transmission from the deepest recesses of your subconscious. It’s as if someone, or something, is trying to pass on an urgent message that never gets through during the daylight hours. The pounding at the door. There’s a reason for it. Well, I’m getting a bit carried away here. Chalk that up to my writer sense becoming all tingly just now. The point is that here we have this writer, Dennis Etchison, who masterfully crafts stories with the special edge of a nightmare. Consider, “The Scar.” I swear, that is one long nightmare narrative. That’s it! I really think I struck on something. We follow these characters in mid-flight. They are literally fleeing and it looks like they do a lot of that. The background, the landscape, it’s all a blur. For all we know, it’s an post-apocalyptic setting–or it just feels like that for this man and woman on the run with a child. The man and woman are unfit for normal society, total nihilist trash. Then things get really violent. Everyone falls down. Our characters get up and start running again. Truly a nightmare masterpiece!

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories” is certainly a title that will get your attention. It’s a delicate balancing act going on here between the brash and the subtle. There’s a lot of groundwork involved. Consider the title story, we begin with a classic Etchison main character, a hardened Los Angeles native: jaded, wired, and angry. I’ve been devouring Etchison short stories to the point where I feel I have a good handle on his dark vision. His characters are usually doomed and susceptible to entering into delusions and false hope. This is noir, extra-dark. With a writer of the caliber of Etchison, this can be quite a ride. So, regarding the title story, you have one very angry dude making all the wrong choices. The last thing he needs is a partner in crime. Ultimately, this leads to deadly disaster–with a grace note of macabre humor.

"Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories" by Dennis Etchison

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

I’ll leave you with one more. This one involves another sad sack Everyman. Our poor anti-hero is literally just padding about his apartment when he gets a call that will seal his doom. Poor soul, he even lets his message machine pick up so he can monitor the call. But, it’s no use, the pull of fate is too great. The call is so compelling. It’s the voice of a little girl in panic. She is pleading for help. She mentions some landmarks before the line cuts out. The man has no choice, really, but to rescue the little girl. Which is actually the last thing he should be doing.

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories” is an excellent introduction to Dennis Etchison. There are numerous titles to choose from. I would definitely seek out more like “The Dark Country” and “Red Dreams.” You can find both of these titles at Crossroads Press. You really can’t go wrong with any Dennis Etchison title.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Dennis Etchison, George Clayton Johnson, Horror, Nightmares, writers, writing

Review: KRAMERS ERGOT 9

From Steven Weissman's "Silver Medicine Horse"

From Steven Weissman’s “Silver Medicine Horse”

As I stated in my previous review for “The Outside Circle,” about an Aboriginal’s journey, you get to that point in the process where you say your work is more like A than B or C. In the case of the comics anthology, “Kramers Ergot,” it is, without a doubt, totally in the fine arts camp. This is where anything goes with subversion ruling the day. The shifts can be jarring but the payoffs can be great too.

It’s perfect timing for me to start off with the first entry to the latest KE, volume 9. We can do a little bit of comparing to my previous review dealing with Aboriginal people. “The Outside Circle” is a very sincere work with more of an earnest tone. Its goal is clarity of purpose and to deliver compelling facts much like a documentary. Steven Weissman has a different take in keeping with the goals of Kramers Ergot. In his story, the Native American character seems to have been stripped of any significance. He feels more like just a guy and flawed in a low-key sort of way. No great drama. This guy is a little jerk (a favorite comics trope): basically selfish and inconsiderate. The simplicity and Zen-like quality to this comic can be deceiving too. As we see, he might be on a quest, per se. But he is petty narrow-minded and that kills off any mystery. In the end, the animals will eventually pull rank on him. He is no hero but the story itself is magical. There is plenty of irony in this short work as opposed to a more earnest approach with the last book I reviewed.

Panels from Michael DeForge's "Computer"

Panels from Michael DeForge’s “Computer”

For something more in line with pushing the limits as far as you can go, we can turn to Michael DeForge‘s totally ironic, “Computer.” This is a commentary on gorging on the internet and too much social media. The computer and college student love each other and they engage in unabashed sex. The acts they engage in are joyous and depicted in a relatively tasteful manner. It is what it is. That’s the limits that DeForge seems most interested in pushing. And, sure enough, it will offend some readers and helps to place this book in a teen and up category. The artwork is spare and crisp. Each reader will need to make their own value judgment on this one. Is it too crass? But, then again, hasn’t the internet made us all more crass or crass-tolerant?

Panel from Gabrielle Bell's "Windows"

Panel from Gabrielle Bell’s “Windows”

Among the excerpts on display to works-in-progress are pages from “Windows” by Gabrielle Bell. And, all I can say here is that Bell keeps getting better and better. If someone could get Bell to take her comics and adapt them into a series on HBO, that would be something! Certainly, Bell loves the medium she’s working in already. But, I’m just saying. What makes Bell’s work resonate? I’d say it is all about its honesty and consistent vision. For those of you unfamiliar with Gabrielle Bell’s work, you can think of it as autobio with a touch of magical realism. In the case of “Windows,” we follow Bell and her mom as they shop for a tiny house. You know, a tiny house, they’re all the rage. And pretty darn inexpensive. I’d love a tiny house of my own! Well, imagine a really good episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and then tweak in more dry wit and there you have it. Bell’s drawing style is as droll as her writing and that is no easy feat.

From Dash Shaw's "Discipline"

Page from Dash Shaw’s “Discipline”

“Discipline,” by Dash Shaw, is another notable excerpt included here. Shaw and Bell, along with a number of other artists in this book, belong to the same tribe, as Peter Schjeldahl has put it regarding certain artists from a certain time and place. And, what I say about Bell, also holds true for Shaw albeit in a different sort of way special to him. I admire Dash Shaw’s uninhibited process, as I see it. He’s the kind of artist who will draw, and draw, and draw. And the sheer power of persistence will carry him over to a higher level. He’s imaginative, brave, and always interesting. From looking at the pages from “Discipline,” I like how the ambiguity keeps the reader at some distance. And I really like the more refined handling of the artwork compared to some work in the past. And, whatever Shaw is up to with a Civil War theme is okay by me!

Panel from Anya Davidson's "Hypatia's Last Hours"

Panel from Anya Davidson’s “Hypatia’s Last Hours”

Another challenging work is “Hypatia’s Last Hours,” by Anya Davidson, which could be disturbing for some readers but is certainly one of the most compelling pieces here. It is Alexandria, Egypt, circa 415 CE. We find Hypatia, a young woman who is trying her best to tutor Anaxis, a wayward and lusty young man. She leaves him frustrated and in a rush to present a lecture on the algebraic equations of Diophantus. But, before she gets too far, she is forcefully detained. She has been sentenced to death for crimes against the bishop. I admire Davidson’s simple rather geometric drawing style, and her use of bold primary colors. This is a story that quickly builds up to its dramatic and abrupt ending.

Panel from Matthew Thurber's "Kill Thurber"

Panel from Matthew Thurber’s “Kill Thurber”

One piece that comes across as quite refreshing, so full of a joie de vivre, is Matthew Thurber‘s “Kill Thurber,” a hilarious time travel jaunt. Yes, Matthew Thurber is sick and tired of being associated with James Thurber. Sure, it was cute at first, but it’s really a drag when you find yourself on sort of a similar career path. Then it really sucks! Why did there ever have to be a James Thurber in the first place?! And then, as fate would have it, Matthew Thurber stumbles upon a plot by the writers who once held court at the fabled Algonquin Round Table. You know the bunch. People like Dorothy Parker and S. J. Perelman. Well, they would all like to see Thurber dead too! Utterly hilarious and drawn in a wry and witty style. Hooray for Matthew Thurber, no relation to James Thurber.

Panels from John Pham's "Scared Silly"

Panels from John Pham’s “Scared Silly”

Another piece with a playful vibe is John Pham‘s “Scared Silly.” This piece follows two young friends, Kay and Jay, as they search for Kay’s “baby,” Bacne. It seems that the little one got lost in Holy Lake Cemetery. This is an excellent immersive narrative playing off more traditional comics storytelling. While invested with a lighthearted and whimsical quality, in the same spirit as the best comics of yesteryear, a dark wisdom prevails.

"The Kanibul Ball" by Lale Westvind

Panel from Lale Westvind’s “The Kanibul Ball”

We come full circle with “The Kanibul Ball,” by Lale Westvind, with a decidedly existential bent. This is neither earnest or ironic. It’s a fantastical hybrid. Really, quite beautiful. We follow a woman who seems, at first, of no significance, more like a kook who would use tin foil to pick up signals from Mars. But the kooks shall inherit the Earth, right? It turns out that she has tapped into something cosmic. We then jump to the frantic anticipation of a huge animal gathering that will result in an orgy of feasting upon each other’s flesh. Our main character, in turn, is engaging in a gathering of beings from various interstellar origins. They are all gathered to feast upon each other, mind, body, and soul. The goal is to share in each other’s pain. It is a goal beyond our heroine’s understanding. However, the animals seem to understand these dark secrets all too well.

Kramers Ergot 9

Kramers Ergot 9

This is a book full of A-list cartoonists. These are the sort of comics artists for whom it is a point of pride to be squarely in the alternative comics camp. That means comics that are an alternative to genre, especially the superhero genre. Would they be at all interested in a corporate gig? No, not in general but do give them a call. They are mostly interested in the art. For these cartoonists, I dare say, they can take the art for art’s sake credo as far, even further, than some other artists in other art forms are willing to go. It’s a fascinating time to be part of comics at this level as the whole shooting match, comics as art and comics art criticism, is still so relatively new and in flux. A lot of these cartoonists are willing to only ask for some legitimacy and maybe even a taste of immortality. That is where a book such as Kramers Ergot gains its strength and integrity.

“Kramers Ergot 9” is a 288-page hardcover, compiled by cartoonist Sammy Harkham, with black and white and full color pages. It is published by Fantagraphics Books.

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Filed under Art, Art books, Comics, Gabrielle Bell, Kramers Ergot, Sammy Harkham

Review: THE OUTSIDE CIRCLE

"The Outside Circle" by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

“The Outside Circle” by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

To tell a big story that resonates, you need to fit it within the framework of a smaller story. This is what Patti LaBoucane-Benson does in “The Outside Circle” as she addresses the Canadian government’s treatment of its own native people though the journey of one brave man. When you embark upon the process of building up a graphic novel, you make various choices along the way. One critical decision is setting the right tone and that is tied in with what kind of work it is set to be. It can be a little of A, B, or C, and ultimately it will be mostly one kind of graphic novel. “The Outer Circle” is chiefly an educational work with lots of room for artistic expression. It is a tale with many facts to bring forth. In this regard, Kelly Mellings does a great job of balancing what must be said with finding a way to say it in the most compelling way.

A tattoo that speaks volumes.

A tattoo that speaks volumes.

“The Outside Circle,” by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings, is a story of flawed and vulnerable characters who seem resistant to change and yet hunger for redemption. We explore what led Pete, an Aboriginal Canadian, to succumb to a life of crime and violence. One of the most compelling pages shows Pete after he’s being rewarded by the gang with a tattoo. Pete has just committed a crime worthy of acceptance by the gang members. However, the tattoo reveals the pain and sorrow of Natives under the Canadian government.

Rehabilitation and redemption through the Warrior Program.

Rehabilitation and redemption through the Warrior Program.

Pete must lose everything before he can regain his own dignity and sense of purpose. After a fight that turns deadly, Pete is sent to prison and his little brother, Joey, is placed into foster care. The act of Joey entering foster care mirrors the plight of Canada’s Aboriginals. The government’s solution had always been to separate the native-born children from their families and have them placed into foster care and go to special residential schools. These residential schools turned out to be run-down and poorly kept. The children were often neglected and sexually abused. The last school of this kind closed in 1996.

But a strong spirit may rise above the worst trauma. Pete is deemed worthy of a second chance and a good candidate for the prison’s “In Search of Your Warrior” program. It is the journey that Pete embarks upon that informs the rest of our story. Pete must find ways to break the patterns of violence and self-hatred. This is a moving story told with compassion through words and pictures. And it proves to be a excellent source of information and hope, another great example of the power of comics and graphic novels.

“The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel” is a 128-page trade paperback, in full color, published by House of Anansi Press.

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Filed under Aboriginal, Canada, Comics, Education, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels

Interview: Jennifer Daydreamer: Comics and Beyond

Jennifer Daydreamer

Jennifer Daydreamer

Jennifer Daydreamer has been published by Top Shelf Productions and regularly contributed illustrations to the Seattle alt-weekly, The Stranger, in the late ’90s. In the course of a creative life, Daydreamer has seen her path take an interesting trajectory. I share with you now a conversation with artist and writer Jennifer Daydreamer on her new project, “Mack Stuckey’s Guide to the Center of the Universe.” A Kickstarter campaign in support of a print run to the book is going on now thru August 28th. You can find it right here. She is the author. Full disclosure, I’m the illustrator for the book, and I contributed to the story. And she’s my partner.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s begin, Jen. We can jump in to the very beginning of the Mack Stuckey project.

JENNIFER DAYDREAMER: You certainly did contribute to the prose. There are details in Mack, plot points, character names and so forth, that you came up with. We are both illustrators but you were the instant choice of illustrator. Although I can draw fast, I don’t normally paint in quick thick brush strokes, the kind you do, and so I was excited about a real artistic collaboration with you. Probably our first. I think after you’ve been blogging for ten years, this has been the first time you have interviewed me. So, thanks!

What was the impetus to writing Mack Stuckey?

Well, before 2008, I could score a job pretty easily. I’m a creative type but I have a detailed part of my brain that does well with accounting. I actually enjoy accounting because I find it meditative and so for most of my career I have been able to do accounting work for my jobs. I was in a series of job layoffs. One, the company went out of business, the next, the company transferred my position out of state, another one I was a new hire and when they do layoffs, the new hires usually get cut first. In a nutshell, the book is about the economy and expressing my frustration about it, in a creative way. I just don’t want to spend my time venting at this point. I have expressed my employment dilemmas to my friends over the years. At this point, I’d rather be joking.

Illustration for "Mack Stuckey" by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration for “Mack Stuckey” by Henry Chamberlain

Jennifer Daydreamer quote

Where does it take place?

It takes place in Seattle. Poor Seattle. The inspiration to write the book is my need to express myself in regards to the economy and state of housing and living in our city with a disappearing middle class. The story takes place in 2014, by the way, and so, any uptick of the economy happening today, I hope is really happening. I digress. Seattle happens to be the fall guy, the theatrical back drop of the story and so, we make fun of Seattle. Specifically, Fremont. We venture into Ballard, Downtown, and the U District.

How so?

For one thing, I create a feud between Ballard and Fremont, either real or imagined. I examine the tension that I think exists between the two locales because when you want to buy something practical in Fremont, like pens and a pad of paper there is only one or two small places to go. There are no standard drug stores allowed in Fremont (I think from building codes) so you have to take your car or the bus or your bike and dip into Ballard for practical needs.

What else is the book about?

Well, we describe the book succinctly on our Kickstarter page! Basically, I created a love triangle between a woman and two men, representing the upper, middle, and lower classes. I don’t come right out and say that in the book, because that would be too explicit, but that is one of the themes. I think there is something for everyone in the book, if you like humor, a sexy romance, or interest in the local icons. I try my hand at what I call comedic erotica.

Tell us about what you’ve been up to in the last few years.

After drawing comics, I was inspired to write a screenplay because that imprint, what was it called?

Minx.

Yes, Minx, from DC Comics, asked me for some ideas. They cancelled the imprint. One of my ideas was for a dystopian novel about the separation between a guy and a girl and killing in the army, that someday I should write. They really did not like it, too macabre, and then Hunger Games comes out later. I remember believing them at the time that the story pitch is not good, so its a reminder to believe in myself. I wrote the screenplay for the humor submission that they did like. Then Minx was cancelled. I never had a contract, just a “that’s funny, I like that one.” So, I spent about a year studying how to write a screenplay and it took me about 1.8 to finish it, because it was my first screenplay.

Where did that leave you?

With one foot halfway in the door! It left me with one manager who switched companies and his job position and so he could not represent it. Then I found an agent who read it, she is known in the industry and so I felt lucky. She was encouraging. She said I needed edits and she gave me her manager contact and said to try and do edits with him and then resubmit it to her. But her manager nixed it. By the way, I respected how he communicated with me, as he got to it, read the script promptly and let me know his opinion. Everyone I submitted it to over a year’s time or so, was very nice, frankly. I know there is crap that happens in Hollywood, but, somehow, I felt encouraged by people in the business I was in contact with. Most did not have room or time to read it and some commented that my pitch was great and so to keep at it. So, I got my foot in the Hollywood door about an eigth of the way. A toe.

Interesting visual, one toe clinging to a door. But, seriously, it put you in an interesting situation. You were in the thick of transitioning from comics, moving beyond comics.

It was fun to try. I felt a cartoonist could get a foot in the door because comic book movies were taking off. I had an agent/lawyer to make some pathway, also, when I submitted, so I was not completely unprofessional and just cold called everyone. I think the writing contributed to writing Mack – the more you create the better you get. Mack has taken 2.5 years to write and I still have some details I want to round it out with. Its basically done. Besides those projects, I have spent a lot of time writing and sketching out a four book Young Adult Fantasy Series which I am eager to launch on social media. For this YA series, I really think a book agent, editor or editors and publishing company is necessary. You need help to keep detail accurate when you are world building.

After Mack, I have one very odd book, I have to get off my chest, then I will launch my YA series. I have spent a year on it. Its not complicated like writing a story but I am scared of publishing it, and so, I have to publish it. I’m scared as I have to dip into some religious and societal explanations. I had an out of body experience or an altered state from drawing my mini comics long ago and it was not until recently when I studied Jung in detail and some Jungian psychologists that I realized there is a biological explanation or a science explanation for it.

Lots of room to dig deeper.

Usually the explanation in our society, is something spiritual or “occult” and so I am eager to lay out my idea to disprove the occult notions, that there may be a more reasonable or logic based explanation. I have not completely ruled out a spiritual component. I think there is a spiritual component, I understand the shamanic explanation for something like that, but I think there is a middle ground, because the explanations from psychologists are so clear and sound. There’s compelling commentary by Oliver Sacks on YouTube (13.45). Maybe you can link the video for our cartoonist friends because it’s interesting if you draw comics.

Yes, consider it done. It will run right below these comments.

Great!

What Oliver Sacks has to say I am relating to my experience in the book. I think the brain is activated because of the archetypal nature of comics. What archetypal nature is, should be explained more but there is not room in this intervew to go into that kind of detail.

“There is another part of the brain which is especially activated when one sees cartoons. It’s activated when one recognizes cartoons when one draws cartoons and when one hallucinates them. It’s very interesting that that should be (so) specific.”

–Oliver Sacks

Are you still drawing comics? Where would you say you are today in relation to comics?

I love comics. I am following my heart and my heart wants my YA series to be prose – just words – and my illustrations. And so, no, its not comics. I would like to draw comics and be in anthologies, but there is no time at the moment. I am really focused on the projects listed above. I have the door open on comics, the door is not closed. Same with, you know, doing another humor book like Mack. When I was in high school I was the kid that made fun of all the teachers and drew riffs on them and passed them to my friends in class. I have a humor side and I have the side that loves to create long fantasy.

Anything else you’d like to add?

One last word. We make fun of some drug usage in Mack but I don’t do drugs. I am a very very square cat when it comes to things like that. It’s important for me to be clear on this because I don’t like my out of body experiences nor my illustrations to be accused of being “drug influenced.” Because I think fantasy story and art is related to healing and I want to contribute to that. I want to explore more in the future on the connection to drawing comics and naturally based hallucinations.

Thanks, Jennifer!

Thank you, Henry!

Be sure to visit Mack Stuckey right here. To go directly to the Kickstarter campaign on thru 8/28, go right here.

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Filed under Comics, Humor, Interviews, Jennifer Daydreamer, Kickstarter, Satire, Seattle, writers, writing, Young Adult

Review: ‘Guardians of the Louvre’

Jiro Taniguchi Louvre comics

I would love to know the details on the Louvre series published by NBM. This latest installment, “Guardians of the Louvre,” by acclaimed manga artist Jirô Taniguchi just goes to show once again how unique this subject is and the endless possibilities for it. What a great cartoonist wants in a project, especially one who both writes and draws and has done so for many years, is a task worthy of the enormous effort. And, to sweeten the deal, make it something heroic. A cartoonist loves it when he or she can make a grand gesture.

Reading Guardians of the Louvre

Reading Guardians of the Louvre

What I’m saying about the grand gesture is so very true. Look at how Taniguchi responds to the task: his main character/alter ego is reduced to a little heap in comparison to the Louvre and its many treasures, opportunities, and mysteries. He arrives in Paris completely spent from a bad case of the flu. He is completely overwhelmed, out of his element, his observations through a fever dream. Like Little Nemo on his magic flying bed, we set off on a most unusual journey.

The Louvre, outside of any known realm.

The Louvre, outside of any known realm.

Our hero, due to a bad rabbit stew or some such mishap, is now in tune with the supernatural elements of the Louvre. When you consider that we are talking about a museum that is over 200 years old, as large as ten football fields, holding 70,000 pieces of art going back to antiquity, well, it would not be surprising to find that it has many tales to tell and that it is at least a bit haunted, right? Taniguchi asks that you run with that idea.

And so one grand gesture leads to another. We see poltergeist in all their gloopy glory floating about. We meet a beautiful ghost, presumably the Winged Victory. And, it just goes on from there as we go in and out of time, meet various artists long gone expect very much alive in this moment. The Louvre is a House of Leaves. It is a place that insists you shed your normal skin and walk amongst it. You inhabit a place such as the Louvre and you can’t help but let it inhabit you.

“Guardians of the Louvre” is the latest in the NBM Louvre series. It is a full color hardcover, right to left reading manga-style, 8 x 11, 136 pages. For more details, go right here.

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Filed under Art, Art books, Art History, Comics, France, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, NBM Publishing, Paris, The Louvre