Monday, January 29, 2007

Graphic Lit: Four experimental works


Sometimes you just want to veg out on mindless entertainment. Something fun but shallow; well-crafted, but not particularly meaningful.

And sometimes you crave something more. Something with more depth and ambition. Something a bit more challenging.

It’s with the latter in mind that I present the following run-down of some of the more experimental comics I’ve come across recently.

What, you thought I’d be focusing on the mindless entertainment stuff? Sorry, but no. Maybe next week.

“Ninja”
by Brian Chippendale
PictureBox, 144 pages, $35.

Standing tall at 11 by 17 inches, “Ninja” towers over just every book on my shelf, comics or not. And between its enormous day-glo covers you’ll find a frenzied, feverish fantasy story unlike any other.

The book starts with a series of goofy stories Chippendale drew as a child about a heroic ninja. Things take an abrupt shift, however, as the adult Chippendale extends the plot to include a seemingly endless array of characters in an expansive, menacing city.

The overall effect of the book is dreamlike. Conspiracy plots are hinted at but never brought to light. Seemingly important characters are introduced and then disappear. And then halfway through, the book turns into an impassioned rant against gentrification as the city is “bleached” for incoming, upscale residents.

The art is decidedly atmospheric and crowded; even claustrophobic at times as Chippendale infuses every panel with a variety of textures and lines. The panels move snakelike across the page, from left to right and then right to left, to suggest continuous movement.

Those expecting a conventional narrative will have trouble here — the book requires your full attention and certain passages may even need to be reread a few times — but the sheer force of energy found in Chippendale’s art will propel you through its pages. “Ninja” is an amazing achievement.

“The Mother’s Mouth”
by Dash Shaw
Alternative Comics, 128 pages, $12.95.

Shaw’s narrative is a little more focused — a young, overweight woman goes back home to tend to her dying mother and develops a relationship with a gangly, aspiring musician (who, in turn, reminds her of a long-lost childhood friend). But it’s how the author chooses to tell his story that makes the book interesting.

Shaw constantly shifts the focus in the book, trying on a variety of different art styles and approaches, frequently changing the point of view or including photos or diagrams to suggest the characters’ inner states or mournful pasts, for example.

“Mother’s Mouth” is not without its flaws — some sequences seem more awkward than perhaps intended — but I admire Shaw’s adventurous spirit and look forward to seeing what he’ll try next.

“Let Us Be Perfectly Clear”
by Paul Hornschemeier
136 pages, $19.95.

Hornschemeir’s art suggests a friendly, colorful, cartoon world, and the artist works as hard as possible to subvert that notion, offering some grim material designed for either humorous or dramatic purposes.

Indeed, the book is literally split in half, with one section focusing on his more serious stories and the other his gag strips (you have to literally turn the book upside down in order move from one half to the other).

Hornschemeier’s art goes down easy, which makes the more formalistic tricks on display here a lot easier to swallow. And when those tricks work, which is most of the time, it’s hard not to be impressed.

“Asthma”
by John Hankiewicz
Sparkplug Books, 104 pages, $17.

Hankiewicz’s comics are as cold and willfully forbidding as you can get. The “stories” in “Asthma” frequently focus on everyday objects — chairs, benches, notebooks — with people milling about in various states of distress or anxiety. One sequence simply shows a series of abstract images, while the text tells of a man arguing with his roofer. Rather than tell a story, he seems more interested in capturing a moment, no matter how minute.

Plot really isn’t the point in “Asthma.” The goal is not to explore a narrative but instead to evoke a particular emotion, specifically solitude, loneliness and nostalgia. It’s comics as poetry instead of prose, which may be enough to turn off most folks right away. But Hankiewicz’s work is unique and idiosyncratic enough to deserve attention.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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