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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life as we know it.

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

Coming Home.

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

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

What Happens When You Can’t Save Everyone?

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

Finding a way to survive.

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

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Review: THE BLAME by Jon Aye

THE BLAME

The Blame. by Jon Aye. mini-comic. 2021. 22pp. $11.11

This British mini-comic is a low-key rather urbane bit of fun, an excellent showcase for the wry humor of Jon Aye. If you like local color, there is plenty of it in this collection of short works. There’s even one piece that features Matt Hancock, an inept politician on his way to a comeback byway of a role as a UN flunky attempting to scare up business opportunities in Africa, despite the UK’s dismal record in getting vaccines into developing countries. So, in Aye’s Hancock satire, he has the miserable sod sadly lurking about until he perks up by trying out tiresome American slogans on for size.

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Paul Buhle Honored by The Progressive

Paul Buhle

Paul Buhle is an eminent historian who, from time to time, graces this site with his writings on comics and related issues. Today it is my honor to direct your attention to a wonderful tribute to Paul Buhle in The Progressive. Here you will find a very useful overview of what Mr. Buhle has accomplished in his lifelong exploration and analysis of progressive politics–and how he’s incorporated his work into the comics medium. Paul Buhle’s contributions are essential!

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Review: ‘COVID Chronicles’ published by Graphic Mundi

COVID Chronicles. edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson. Graphic Mundi. 2021. 296pp. $21.95

COVID Chronicles is a unique comics anthology, a testament to the collective response to COVID-19. The comics medium is exceptionally well-suited to convey, evoke and process the massive tangle of information and expression involved. We often say that comics is known for superheroes. However, on an even grander scale, comics is known for being a communication and educational tool able to make it possible to see the forest for the trees. This remarkable anthology was put together during the first half of 2020. We were lost amid the trees then and we’re still finding our way today. As a comics creator, I fully appreciate the challenges for a book like this to stay on point. I have seen countless comics anthologies and the biggest stumbling block for such an endeavor is a lack of consistency and vision. And then we have those gems that prosper because of a clear and compelling purpose. This is such a collection.

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Review: HELEM by Stanley Wany

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

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

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

Pages 22 – 23 from Sequences

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

Pages 36 – 37 from Sequences

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

Pages 106 – 107 from Sequences

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

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

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

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Review: ‘The Domesticated Afterlife’ by Scott Finch

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

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

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

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

Single Panel Excerpt from The Domesticated Afterlife

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

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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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Interview: Desmond Reed, ‘The Cola Pop Creemees’ and ‘Apples’

APPLES!

Desmond Reed is a very talented cartoonist with a unique voice. If you enjoy quirky and weird comics, this is for you. I would describe the work as highly inventive and ambitious. Welcome to the world of the most unlikely band, The Cola Pop Creemees! These characters are young, energetic, and sometimes sad: think of it as a mashup of The Monkees and Bojack Horseman. It all began as fun posts on Instagram to cope with the pandemic and now Desmond Reed has a book on the way with a publisher and a 28-page comic book, Apples, thanks to a 2021 MICE Mini-Grant. You can purchase Apples through Radiator Comics (as well as other venues) as of November 1, 2021.

Wallace T.J. was born to party!

Laugh and cry as you experience the adventures of everyone’s least favorite band, The Cola Pop Creemees! These are the misadventures of a group of friends who form a band: Ralph Jonathan, Wallace T.J., Mona Gertrude, Gil Christopher, and Henrietta Susan. The names of an uncanny ring to them and are perfect for the mix of zany and bittersweet stories that follow.

Apples represents the best of the daily one-page comics posted on Desmond Reed’s Instagram from 2020 to 2021.

Apples is a recipient of a 2021 MICE Mini-Grant, and will be available for purchase through Radiator Comics (as well as other venues) on November 1, 2021.

radiatorcomics.com/creator/desmond-reed

etsy.com/shop/desmondtreed

From The Cola Pop Creemees

Desmond Reed is definitely a talent to keep your eyes on. I hope you enjoy this interview where we discuss the artistic process and discuss comics and the comics scene. I’ve set this interview to premiere on my YouTube channel for this Wednesday, October 27th at 9am PST – 12noon EST. Your Likes, Comments and Subscribing are always welcome.

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Review: APPLES by Desmond Reed

APPLES!

Apples. Desmond Reed. Radiator Comics, 2021, 28pp, $5.

These are the misadventures of a group of friends who form a band: Ralph Jonathan, Wallace T.J., Mona Gertrude, Gil Christopher, and Henrietta Susan. The names have an uncanny ring to them and are perfect for the mix of zany and bittersweet stories that follow. Welcome to the imagination of Desmond Reed and the world of the most unlikely pop band, The Cola Pop Creemees. I think I’ve stumbled upon one of the coolest and most fun comics currently available. Check it out before this limited edition is sold out. You can find your copy (there are only 100 in this first run) over at Radiator Comics starting on November 1, 2021. This comic was made possible by a MICE Mini-Grant. Let me go on now and share my observations on this work. And be sure to tune in for my interview with Desmond Reed. I’ve set it to premiere on my YouTube channel for this Wednesday, October 27th at 9am PST – 12noon EST. Your Likes, Comments and Subscribing are always welcome.

Say hello to The Cola Pop Creemees

Now, keep in mind that Desmond Reed is a very diligent artist, always moving forward. There are now two full length graphic novels under his belt–and he keeps drawing and challenging himself. The Apples comic collects mostly one-page moments. These are moments that became posts on his Instagram and helped to create his devoted fan base. Some of these moments spill over to a few more pages but the idea here is to focus in on something worth a pause, funny or poignant.

How to Treat Depression. Tattoos usually help!

One such moment features Henrietta Susan. We start off with an imposing title and then one lone figure just standing, looking at her tablet. Some conventional options emerge in response to dealing with depression. A short pause followed by the final verdict/punchline: maybe it’s time for a tattoo. The drawing is very simple and there are only two dots for a face, everything adding to the deadpan humor.

The Social Media Silent Treatment. Who Knew?

Another piece has the whole gang in some undetermined public space. Everyone is self-involved and nothing seems unusual save for the last panel. Finally, Gil Christopher can’t wait any longer and bursts out feelings of insecurity.

It’s more than okay to be weird!

One last example here maybe sums it up best. Mona Gertrude is walking along a street when a car of hooligans passes by and yells out, “Weirdo!” For a moment, Mona is shocked by the intense animosity but she quickly regains her cool and yells back, “I already knew that!” Think for a moment how beautiful that is and the fact it’s posted on Instagram and people are engaging with it, celebrating it. Hell yes! It’s more than okay to be weird! That’s what this comic is all about, at its heart and soul. Desmond Reed is creating just the kind of work we hunger for and need today more than ever: funny and silly; uplifting and bright; and reaching out with some soulful purpose.

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