Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Graphic Lit: Five Fantagraphics books

The small-press, art-driven publisher Fantagraphics has been on a roll lately, releasing a number of smart-looking, compelling books in a short space of time. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the more notable titles:

“Things Just Get Away From You”
by Walt Holcombe, 212 pages, $24.95.

Holcombe is one of those artists who regrettably slipped through the cracks in the 1990s, a variety of economic and cultural factors preventing him from garnering the sales and acclaim his work deserved. One hopes this collection from that period will result in a resurgence of interest.

Combining big-nosed, rubbery cartooning with arch, sometimes affected dialogue (“I’ve gawked into the maelstrom and for my trouble I get me a poke in the eye.”), Holcombe’s tales see-saw between grim fatalism and playful absurdity, often within the same panel.

“Things” is filled with sad-sack characters whose restlessness and selfishness keep them from holding onto love and happiness.

That sounds dour, but Holcombe’s universe is too unique and, in the end, too charming, not to visit.

“Misery Loves Comedy”
by Ivan Brunetti, 180 pages, $24.95.

When the first issue of Brunetti’s intermittent series “Schizo” saw print way back in 1995, the effect was something akin to being punched in the stomach really, really hard.

Full of bile, uncompromisingly scathing toward anything having to do with a) mankind or b) himself, Brunetti served up the blackest humor, with no subject matter deemed too taboo to wring a tasteless joke out of.

“Misery Loves Comedy” collects the first three seminal issues of “Schizo” along with an assorted collection of other gag strips, most of which cannot be described, let alone repeated verbatim, in a family newspaper.

The book is far from some sophomoric attempt to push the envelope for no good reason, however.

Brunetti’s attempts to deal with his crippling self-hatred and depression on the comics page makes for fascinating if highly unsettling reading (one panel shows hundreds of Brunetti clones killing and maiming one another in a variety of horrific ways).

Basically, Brunetti is too talented a cartoonist to be easily dismissed. To read “Misery” is to watch an artist use his creative abilities to guide him through a black depression and (judging by the end of the book) come out the other side stronger and more focused.

If you’re not the sort of person who’s easily offended, I highly recommend it.

“Percy Gloom”
by Cathy Malkasian, 180 pages, $18.95.

Usually when I hear the description “a fairy tale for adults,” all sorts of warning signs go off in my head.

“Percy Gloom,” however, thankfully manages to avoid the sort of twee sentimentality that readily applies to most books slapped with that label.

Created by the director of “The Wild Thornberrys Movie,” “Gloom” tells of a nebbishy little man whose sole goal is to become a “cautionary writer” for the Safely-Now Corp. It goes without saying that all sorts of unexpected obstacles stand in his way, and in the end Percy discovers that in life one can be too cautious.

Overall it’s a stunning debut, filled with striking, smart ruminations on the brevity of life and happiness and the sweetness of both.

by Josh Simmons, 80 pages, $12.95.

Three young hikers explore an enormous, desolate mansion when irrevocable tragedy strikes in this short, wordless horror story that doesn’t pull punches.

Simmons begins the book with large, open panels filled with white space that slowly become smaller and blacker as the story progresses.

The net effect is that of increasing claustrophobia, perfectly mirroring the characters’ ever-increasing despair. It’s a sharp, evocative little tale and easily the best work Simmons has produced thus far.

“The Three Paradoxes”
by Paul Hornschemeier, 80 pages, $14.95.

Autobiography and formalism merge in this slim volume that sees Hornschemeier at his parents’ home, reflecting upon his childhood.

The book’s art style changes frequently throughout, as the author remembers past slights, imagines other people’s wounds and even delves into Zeno’s philosophy (hence the book’s title).

“Paradoxes” isn’t perfect — the whole “artist writing a story about how he can’t write a story” has been done better countless times before — but the book is grounded in a sincere humanism as it ponders the transitory nature of life and how frightening that aspect can be.

Perhaps “Paradoxes” is best viewed then as a transitory work in itself, one more rung on Hornschemeier’s ladder as he slowly reaches toward what will surely be a truly seminal work. 

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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