Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Graphic Lit: Best comics of 2008

Readers were rewarded with a wealth of stellar comics this year. There were so many good books, in fact, that attempting to group them in some sort of hierarchy could be a bit of a mug’s game.

Not that it’s going to stop me. As before, I thought I’d trot out what I hope will be my annual awards list, tentatively called “The Moxies.” (What? It was my nickname in college.)

Here then, organized into completely arbitrary categories in order for me to include as much good work as possible, are my picks for the best comics of 2008.

Best Original Graphic Novel: “What It Is” by Lynda Barry. This revealing and fearlessly original work deserves as much attention and accolades as it can get.

Runners-up: “Tamara Drewe” by Posey Simmonds, “The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard,” by Eddie Campbell, “Three Shadows” by Cyril Pedrosa, “Bottomless Belly Button” by Dash Shaw.

Best Debut: “Skyscrapers of the Midwest” by Josh Cotter. New cartoonists shouldn’t be able to create works so assured and emotionally devastating right out of the gate.

Runner-up: “Swallow Me Whole” by Nate Powell.

Best Collection of Previously Published Material: “Willie & Joe” by Bill Mauldin. Fantagraphics’ massive collection of Mauldin’s WWII work gives new generations the chance to experience it.

Runners-up: “The Explainers” by Jules Feiffer, “Breakdowns” by Art Spiegelman, “Where Demented Wented: The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes,” “Jamilti and Other Stories” by Rutu Modan.

Best memoir: “Little Nothings: the Curse of the Umbrella” by Lewis Trondheim. Master Trondheim once again shows how it’s done, this time providing a bit of navel-gazing that never becomes solipsistic.

Runners-up: “Paul Goes Fishing” by Michel Rabagliati, “Haunted” by Philippe Dupuy.

Best European Book: “Alan’s War” by Emmanuel Guibert. Guibert uses his friend’s ruminations to provide a unique look at WWII.

Runners-up: “The Rabbi’s Cat Vol. 2” by Joann Sfar, “Aya of Yop City” by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie.

Best Manga: “Disappearance Diary” by Hideo Azuma. A chronicle of homelessness and alcoholism that refuses to be gloomy, “Diary” is perhaps the cutest story about despair you’ll ever read.

Runners-up: “Dororo” by Osamu Tezuka, “Cat-Eyed Boy” by Kazuo Umezu, “Red-Colored Elegy” by Seiichi Hayashi, “Good-Bye” by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

Best General Nonfiction Book: “Burma Chronicles” by Guy Delisle. Delisle chronicles his time spent in a far-off, oppressive country with enormous good humor and insight.

Best New Series: “Love and Rockets New Stories” by Jamie, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez. OK, it’s not a pamphlet and it’s not like the Hernandez brothers are new to the scene. I don’t care. I loved this comic.

Runners-up: “RASL” by Jeff Smith, “Glamourpuss” by Dave Sim.

Best Superhero Comic: “Omega the Unknown” by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple. Lethem and Dalrymple offer a decidedly off-kilter take on the traditional superhero tale.

Runners-up: “The Boys” by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.

Best Kids Comic: “Optical Allusions” by Jay Hosler. Hosler drops science with visual aplomb and shows a knack for engaging small minds on tough subjects.

Runners-up: “Kaput & Zosky” by Lewis Trondheim, “Little Vampire” by Joann Sfar.

Best Comic Strip: “Cul de Sac” by Richard Thompson. I don’t care what y’all say. This is one of the funniest strips to come down the pike in years.

Runner-up: “Lio” by Mark Tatulli.

Best Book About Comics: “Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester” by Bob Levin. I didn’t get around to reviewing this in my column, but I’m recommending it now anyway. It’s a harrowing look at family, art and the legal system via the life of Tinsley, a Hustler cartoonist who found his envelope-pushing work used against him when he was accused of abusing his daughter.

Runners-up: “The Ten-Cent Plague” by David Hajdu, “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front” by Todd DePastino, “Gary Panter,” edited by Dan Nadel.

Best Comic I Didn’t Get Around to Reviewing in this Column: “Travel” by Yuichi Yokoyama. Obsessed with motion to the point of abstraction, Yokoyama’s comics are unlike anything produced either in Japan or here in the U.S.

Runners-up: “Ganges #2” by Kevin Huizenga, “The Education of Hopey Glass” by Jamie Hernandez.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Graphic Lit: Graphic novel mish-mosh

The end of the year draws ever closer and yet there are tons of notable books I haven’t mentioned.

Let’s try to rectify that somewhat with this quick review:

“Bourbon Island 1730” by Lewis Trondheim and Appollo, 288 pages, $17.95.

The idea of Trondheim doing a pirate story sets up expectations of high farce in the manner of his “Dungeon” series.

The big twist then, is that he and collaborator Appollo play it completely straight, telling a realistic, melancholy tale of colonialism, slavery and the end of piracy that proves to be quite moving and thoughtful despite the fact that the characters are rendered as funny animals.

“Gus & His Gang” by Chris Blain, 176 pages, $17.95.

The unbelievably talented Blain offers a subversive take on the American Western. The catch here is that Gus and his band of expert bank robbers are more concerned (nay, obsessed) with hooking up with beautiful women than making money and keeping one step away from the cops.

Blain portrays the men as hapless romantics, eager to pitch woo but utterly flummoxed as to how to go about doing so. Their cluelessness toward the opposite sex is hilarious and endearing, especially in the case of Clem, a family man who finds himself besotted by an adventurous cowgirl. “Gus” is the rare funny book that resonates as well as entertains.

“Chiggers” by Hope Larson, Antheneum Books, 176 pages, $9.99.

Returning to summer camp, Abby finds herself adrift from her usual clique and ends up making friends with Shasta, the new, weird girl everyone hates.

It’s a slight tale, and I had trouble at times telling the supporting characters apart. Still, Larson shows a real inventiveness (I particularly like the way she handles sound effects) and she takes enough care in shaping her main characters for the book to win over its target audience.

Buy it for the young tween girl in your life.

“Freddie & Me” by Mike Dawson, Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $19.99.

Dawson humorously recounts his lifelong obsession with Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury in this memoir. Dawson is a good raconteur and caricaturist, but he never examines why Mercury and his music meant so much to him and as a result the book feels more than a bit superficial.

“A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lindbergh Child” by Rick Geary, NBM, 80 pages, $15.95.

Having chronicled various gruesome true tales of 19th-century homicide, Geary moves up a century to chronicle a news story that held all of America in its grip in 1932 — the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son.

True to form, Geary avoids sensationalism to lay out the details of the crime and subsequent trial in thorough, objective fashion. It’s an engaging, fascinating recounting of a sad tale that underscores what a remarkable talent Geary is.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Graphic Lit: Alan's War

Those who sit down with “Alan’s War” expecting a conventional World War II memoir might come away disappointed.

Cope didn’t take part in any big, famous battles. He didn’t join the Army until late in the war and spent a good bit of his initial time in training. He got into few firefights and witnessed only one scene of brutal violence (which was a stupid accident).

Despite — or perhaps because of — Cope’s memoir, “Alan’s War,” transcribed and illustrated by French cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert, is one of the most fascinating accounts of life during wartime I’ve read in awhile.

Guibert (“Sardine in Outer Space,” “The Professor’s Daughter”) met the then-elderly Cope in 1994 and struck up a close friendship that resulted in this book.

Cope is a natural storyteller, relating in relaxed, easygoing detail the people and places he happened upon during the war and afterward, when he resettled in Europe. He exhibits a curiosity that is constantly rewarded by serendipity.

Guibert keeps his backgrounds as sparse as possible in the book, often putting his figures against all-white backgrounds with only the occasional building lining the background. When he does provide detail, the lush black and white watercolors provide a breathtaking contrast.

At times, what Cope doesn’t discuss is just as interesting as what he does. He details his formative friendships in the Army and Europe, but rarely talks about his family.

His wife and children in particular seem pushed aside. Perhaps their presence would have muddied the book’s focus, but their absence nevertheless seems a trifle odd.

What we’re left with in “Alan’s War” is the story of a man for whom war provided the opportunity to expand his horizons and visit the world beyond his backyard, in turn giving him the ability to make decisions in ways that would have never occurred to him had he stayed home.

Perhaps that’s not exactly “The Longest Day,” but it’s a compelling tale nonetheless.Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

From the vault: Tiny Tyrant

Note: This review originally ran in issue #286 of the Comics Journal.

Tiny Tyrant
By Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme

First Second $12.95

Tiny Tyrant must have taken a lot of hard work to produce.

I say that because it seems so completely effortless. Its wit, both visual and verbal, is so razor-sharp and utterly charming, the net result seeming so delightfully tossed off, that I can only assume a lot of toil and tears when into its making.

The book follows the adventures of King Ethelbert, the six-year-old ruler of the imaginary kingdom of Portocristo, a title that, as you may guess, gives him license to behave like a spoiled brat.

Already I hear the gears turning in your head, no doubt imagining a variety of humorous scenarios spun off from such a story pitch. I’m willing to bet, however, you’re not imagining that in a fit of pique he might ship off all of the nation’s children out of the country and replace them with robot duplicates of himself. Or that, fed up with his small size, he would shrink the entire kingdom down to minute size.

But that’s what’s so great about the book: it combines the premise’s dark wish fulfillment of getting your way regardless of behavior or consequences (and what adult, never mind child, hasn’t at some point dreamed of such an opportunity?) with high slapstick and a large helping of absurdity. Most of the fun is seeing how Ethelbert’s reckless behavior leads to bizarre, but within the Portocristo universe entirely logical, consequences.

As you’d expect from the author of Mister O, Trondheim is in his element here, though he rightly tones the level of violence and scatological humor to better suit his intended audience. Parme’s art, meanwhile, compliments the text perfectly. It’s slick and assured, yet rubbery and playful enough to go absolutely loopy when called for, like when giant rats attack the city (don’t ask).

In the end, the best sort of recommendation I can give for Tiny Tyrant is this: I wish this book had been around when I was a kid.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

From the vault: "God of War"

Enough with the old TCJ reviews. Here's a video game review I did for the Patriot-News back in 2005, before I started this blog.

When the "Prince of Persia: Warrior Within" came out a few months ago, I decried the developers' decision to fill the artful, stylish franchise with over-the-top blood and gore, Goth trappings and needless sexism.

Now comes Sony's new action title "God of War," from the folks who brought "Twisted Metal Black" and "War of the Monsters." If anything, it's got more gore and Goth -- not to mention outright nudity -- than "Warrior Within."

It goes without saying, of course, that I absolutely love this game.

How is such a thing possible? How can I decry one game for its crass trappings and praise another that has virtually similar qualities? Should I just turn in my official game critics card and be done with it?

Well, to quote the old horse, it's not what you do that counts, it's how you do it. And the fact is, "God of War" is such a flawless, epic exercise that one can forgive its excesses.

In "Warrior Within," the violence and scantily-clad ladies seemed like a marketing afterthought designed to draw in puerile gamers, but "God Of War's" level of violence and other "adult" content all serve to aid the game's dark, brooding tone.

Set in ancient Greece, "War" centers on Kratos, a pasty-white warrior who rather unwisely makes one of those"be-careful-what-you-wish-for" deals with the war god Ares. Justifiably burned, Kratos sets off for revenge, helped along the way by Zeus and the rest of the Greek pantheon, who have apparently had their fill of Ares' behavior and aren't above using Kratos as
their pawn.

Most of Kratos' back story is revealed in bits and pieces as you play, but what you learn doesn't necessarily add much to your initial opinion of him. Even from the start, Kratos seems a bit, well, psychotic, and perhaps one of the only serious flaws in the game is that it's hard to feel anything for him as a character.

The game doesn't slavishly adhere to the classic Greek myths so much as take what it sees fit and adapt it to its own means. For example, I didn't know there was a desert right outside Athens, did you? Pandora's box, Minotaurs, Cyclopses and Medusa all show up here, but in a considerably altered fashion. This is Greek mythology filtered through a Nine Inch Nails video.

And yet, it works. The developers did a terrific job of creating a striking, beautifully designed world that seems immense without ever getting lost or being unable to figure out what to do next. It's also probably one of the best-looking games you'll ever see on a PlayStation 2.

But graphics are nothing next to solid gameplay, and it's here that "God of War" really shines. Kratos' main method of attack is a pair of swords on long chains which are in turn seared to his flesh. Kratos can whip these things around like a string of paper clips, and it's a real visual treat to see him fling them around into a horde of undead soldiers. The various attack combos available might be a bit simplified for hard-core action fans, but I found them easy to learn and utilize and the ability to upgrade ensured that I would never grow bored with the system.

In addition, Kratos gains magical abilities such as flinging thunderbolts or turning enemies into stone. And once you've got an enemy close to defeat, you can enact a minigame of sorts that allows you to perform a gruesome finish through some timely button pressing. Each type of enemy has a different minigame and utilizing them adds a needed level of variety.

Like a lot of current action games, "God of War" also has puzzle solving. Unlike a lot of current action games, these segments never seem tacked on or too complicated or confusing to solve.

And perhaps that's the real magic behind "God of War." Most games might focus on one element, say combat, to the detriment of others, but "War" never sacrifices one component of the game for another. Each piece feels like a part of the whole, so that what you are left with is a fluid, enthralling world with no sore thumbs sticking out.

"God of War" isn't perfect. There aren't very many boss battles to speak of and not much variety in terms of different types of enemies (which tend to come upon you in maddening wave after wave). It isn't particularly innovative and doesn't advance the art of videogames. And no doubt there will be those who will be turned off by the huge amount of blood and occasional bare breast.

What "God of War" does is polish the genre to such a sheen that it sets a benchmark in terms of the action genre. To pass it up solely because of its adult content is to deny yourself a massively good time.

Copyright The Patriot-News 2005


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Graphic Lit: Tamara Drewe

For decades, cartoonist Rosemary “Posy” Simmonds has been regaling U.K. readers with her sharp, sly satires of middle to upper-middle class British life.

Little of her work has reached American audiences, the sole exception being 2005’s stellar “Gemma Bovary,” a modern reworking of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

Her latest graphic novel, “Tamara Drewe,” finds Simmonds drawing upon classic literature once again; this time with Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.”

You don’t need to be familiar with Hardy’s novel to appreciate Simmonds’ update, nor do you need to be familiar with British life in general. Despite the occasional slang and Euro-reference, Simmonds’ characters are fully dimensional and completely recognizable.

The book is set in a bucolic countryside writer’s retreat, headed by the famous author Nicholas Hardiman. This seemingly idyllic milieu is turned upside-down, however, by the return of former local girl Tamara Drewe.

Newly confident with a nose job and newspaper gossip column, Drewe goes about unintentionally wreaking havoc, having affairs with displaced rock stars, Hardiman and others, while the caretaker she knew from her pre-surgery days quietly pines for her.

This being based on a Hardy book, it isn’t too long before tragedy strikes not once but twice, though some folks do manage to find a degree of happiness by the end.

The story is told from a variety of perspectives, both in diary and journal excerpts as well as dialogue and panels.

Just about every major and supporting character gets their say, from Hardiman’s long-suffering wife, to an insufferable American novelist forever working on his next book to a pair of bored teen girls, one of whom has an unhealthy fixation on the rock star Tamara is dating.

Simmonds gets several sharp digs in comparing the lives of the well-to-do writers and city folk who come to the country looking to “get away from it all” and the poorer country folk who “have to live here.”

Issues of class and snobbery linger tantalizingly in the background, as does the public’s unhealthy fixation with celebrity tabloid scandals.

Simmonds’ art is delightful throughout.

She has a real gift for body language and her use of watercolors (light blue for flashbacks or to denote a chilly winter scene) give the book an added emotional heft.

And though “Drewe” is loaded with text and dialogue it never feels overly busy or overburdened.

“Tamara Drewe” might sound a bit too dry and literary for some. But if anything it’s astoundingly down-to-earth, focusing on the concerns of real people and their messy lives.

Incisive, funny and touching, it’s one of the best graphic novels you’ll read this year.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Sunday, December 07, 2008

From the vault: Villa of the Mysteries

This review originally appeared in issue #185 of The Comics Journal, which was a looong time ago.

The Villa of the Mysteries #1
by Mack White
Fantagraphics Books

“The Villa of the Mysteries,” a new collection of comics by Texas artist Mack White, takes its name after a famous frieze in Pompeii, the largest surviving Roman wall painting in existence. The ancient work’s real fame, however, rests on its disturbing depiction of a Dionysian ritual.

In one section of the frieze, which White reproduces on the cover of his comic, a female with large dark wings is shown whipping a young initiate, possibly, some speculate, to prepare her for the marriage bed. Whatever is going on in that scene, however, it is a pretty safe bet that White has managed to get his finger on the same pulse.

“Villa of the Mysteries” is obsessed with pagan rituals, especially those involving Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility, and general all-out sexual abandonment. He and his cousin Pan, the god of nature, pop up either symbolically or literally in each of these short stories.

In between those ancient references, he throws in a dollops of Christian symbolism as well, as a reminder that the line between Jesus Christ and Bacchus is a thin one. In an introduction that would make a modern mythology major proud, he writes, "Jesus is another of his [Dionysus] incarnations . . . Yet in the translation something was lost. The sexual, animal aspect of the god, deemed incompatible with Jesus' image, was projected onto Satan, and what was natural now became evil." Part of the purpose of White's book then, is to tip the scales in favor of the pagans.

White rolls up his sleeves and dives in with the first story, the unsubtly titled "This is MK-Ultra, Baby." In the comic, big name rock star Dion Nysos (get it?) has arrived to the uptight Texan town where he was raised and abused as a child by his hypocritical aunt. While there, he spikes the punch at a party with an CIA developed aphrodisiac, causing a (dare I say it?) Dionysian frenzy.

Yet things don't turn out quite as planned. It seems there are a number of covert government intelligence groups out to get Dion as well, and the tables end up being unexpectedly turned on him.

As "MK-Ultra's" title suggests, White is not content with simply drawing pagan rituals and orgies. He also seems to have a genuine fondness for pulp literature and conspiracy theories involving UFOs, the U.S. government, and the Vatican. There's enough subversiveness in this one story to delight the most fervent paranoid. In fact, virtually every story in "Villa” has the feeling of coming fresh from of the headlines of the Weekly World News.

“The Nudist Nuns of Goat Island” is a perfect example. The very title brings to mind shows like hard Copy or pulps like Spicy Tales. In this narrative, a collection of, well . . . nudist nuns . . .guard a dangerous secret on their . . . goat island. One which, if let loose, would "have meant the end of the Christian Era." No points for guessing it has something to do with sex and Grecian gods.

The best story of the collection by far is “Cindy the Tattooed Sunday School Teacher,” perhaps because of the chilling way it reminds one of contemporary religious cults like the Branch Davidians. The tale begins in a Southern backwater, snake-handling church run by fire and brimstone preacher Brother Harris.

Into this mix comes Sister Cindy, a former circus worker and tattooed lady whose body supposedly became engulfed with Biblical images at the moment of her conversion. Sister Cindy proves to be a powerful speaker, and it isn't long before she wrests control of the church away from Brother Harris and starts proclaiming herself "the female Christ -- the new Eve."

Unlike the other stories, "Cindy" has a genuinely unsettling tone to it. It's not so over the top that it becomes ridiculous, unlike the one about the nudist nuns. Perhaps what adds to the tale's effectiveness is its ambivalence about Sister Cindy herself. Does she really believe herself to be the incarnation Eve or is it all a scam? Does she have the power to heal, or is she a phony? The story seems to suggest she is lying about her divinity, but she is such a powerful presence in the story, and Brother Harris is so unlikeable, that it is hard not to root for her. I have a sneaking suspicion that White wouldn't half mind us throwing out Christianity for a religion celebrating the "New Eve."

The ambivalence shows up in White's art as well. All of White's stories are done in a very flat, deadpan style, like the cartoon religious tracts of old (Jack Chick would be proud). Yet his art reminds me nothing so much as of those Johnny Craig ECs, where square-faced men with short hair and pounds of guilt sweated over unmentionable crimes.

The final problem with "Villa of the Mysteries" is that it's hard to tell just how seriously White expects us to take this stuff. It's hard to read lines like "Baby, I wouldn't miss this orgy for all the hash in Morocco" without chuckling. In some ways White resembles Sister Cindy herself. Is he trying to say something about the ties between modern and ancient religion, or is it all a big put-on? Both? White keeps a straight face throughout the entire book, but I can't help but feel that he's barely holding back a fit of the giggles.

Still, if nude nuns, strange early Christian cults, tattooed Sunday School teachers, UFOs, and satyrs with really, really, really big penises are your bag of chips, then chances are this comic was tailor-made to fit you.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Graphic Lit: Three from D&Q

One of the things that comics do remarkably well is provide the reader with a tangible sense of place.

Unlike prose, which must rely on verbal descriptions, or photography, which can only show you a small section of a scene, comics can immerse you in a landscape, be it town or country, giving you a concrete feel for a particular area, real or imaginary.

Three new graphic novels from the small press publisher Drawn and Quarterly underscore that idea by focusing on cultures and countries far outside of the U.S.’s boundaries.

“Jamiliti and Other Stories” by Rutu Modan.

Though not an official follow-up to her acclaimed 2007 book “Exit Wounds,” this collection of short stories by Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan nevertheless proves that she’s much more than a one-trick pony.

Modan’s tales deal with longing and isolation, though a sly bit of satire frequently shines through, as in “The Panty Killer,” an unusual murder mystery, or “Homecoming,” about a family that is forever waiting for the return of the prodigal soldier son.

The early stories here tend to take on a fairy tale tone, while more recent work, such as the title story, focus on the characters and the way they brush against one another.

No doubt some of Modan’s themes are lost to American audiences. You get the sense that there are issues specific to Israeli concerns. That doesn’t change the fact that these are wonderful, haunting tales though, that should only further cement Modan’s reputation as a first-class storyteller.
“Aya of Yop City” by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie.

This is a sequel to last year’s “Aya,” a charming look at life in the Ivory Coast during the late 1970s, when the country was prosperous and on the verge of modernity.

Thankfully, everything that made the first book so delightful is evident here as well. More soap opera than social drama, “Yop City” finds its characters continuing to make fools of themselves in the pursuit of love and/or success, with issues of gender, class and colonialism well hidden in the background. Only headstrong Aya, the Greek chorus of the book, has any sense.

The book risks turning its large cast into cartoonish types at times, but they remain winning and likable even when some of them are exhibiting inane or frustrating behavior.

This is a sumptuously illustrated book; Oubrerie’s art gives you a real sense of the particular place and time. Ultimately though, it’s the characters you remember best. Even if you don’t know the country, you know these people.

“Burma Chronicles” by Guy Delisle.

Having already chronicled his travels to China and North Korea (in “Shenzhen” and “Pyongyang,” respectively), Delisle ventures into Myanmar with his young son and wife, (her job for Doctors Without Borders providing the reason for the trip).

This is Delisle’s best book, a subtle yet pointed look at life in a totalitarian state. Delisle focuses on the everyday minutiae of expatriate life with humor and insight.

At times it seems as if Myanmar could be anyplace, until he abruptly runs into the poverty and cruelty pushed down upon the country. A visit with a bed-ridden elderly woman, for example, strikes home hard, and not for the reasons you might suspect.

Delisle exhibits a basic, blocky style here but is able to convey a wide range of emotions and issues. It’s an indelible portrait of a people forced to live in ugly circumstances that stays with you long after you’ve put the book down.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Monday, December 01, 2008

From the vault: The Blot

This review originally ran in issue #287 of The Comics Journal

The Blot By Tom Neely

There’s a danger in reviewing Tom Neely’s new book, The Blot, of being too effusive, praising the comic to the skies to the point where the reader starts rolling his eyeballs upward and saying “Come on. It can’t possibly be that good.” No one wants to lead the hype parade if the main float isn’t a stunner.

And yet The Blot really is that good. I’m actually sorely tempted, for example, to compare it to the first issue of Acme Novelty Library, or The Biological Show or Good-Bye Chunky Rice. Not that it’s necessarily standing on the same high aesthetic ground as those works (though I’d find it hard to believe it won’t be included on my “best of” list come January), but rather that it’s an impressive and declarative debut in the same fashion that those other books were. This is the type of book where after reading it you get the feeling you’re going to start expecting big things from the artist from here on out.

And there you go, rolling your eyes. Never mind, let’s move on.

The plot of this wordless graphic novel follows a nameless everyman -- let’s call him Tom, since, though I doubt he looks anything like the author, I find it hard to believe there isn’t some sort of autobiographical element that informed this work.

Anyway, Tom’s life is irrevocably and tragically altered by the arrival of a seemingly menacing ink blot. First appearing in the daily newspaper, and then out of thin air around a corner, the blot is seemingly everywhere, the stuff of one’s most primal nightmares. It’s as small or large as it needs to be, and can even inhabit the bodies of the most innocuous-looking folks – like children.

That being the case, the first third of the book resembles a horror film as Tom’s world starts to inexplicably disappear, only to be replaced by the ever growing and ever ominous inkblot. In fact the initial build-up in an early bathroom sequence is the type of thing you might expect in your average slasher film (though Neely subverts those expectations well).

But again, as in most nightmares, attempting to fight off the blot only results in Tom literally battling and destroying himself. Eventually he has no recourse but to give in to it, allow it to inhabit his body, and become a social pariah.

So far so good. In the second third of the book, our hero, resigned to his fate, his face obscured by the blot, finds succor and acceptance in the arms of a young, attractive woman. She gives him the strength to literally rise above the masses and accept his condition.

And it’s here that that book takes one of several interesting turn. Up until now we’ve regarded the blot as a menace, a destructive, dangerous force and something to be avoided at all costs. And we’ve pitied our hero as he’s struggled with his burden. A lesser artist would have left the metaphor lie strictly on that level: a hero burdened by his cross is saved by the love of a good woman.

Neely smartly aims for something a little stranger and deeper than that though. The woman shows Tom not only how to survive his affliction but how to thrive with it. The blot suddenly becomes capable of great works of creation, sprouting flowers where there were none, building homes, healing broken bodies. What at first was perceived as deadly is now a constructive, healing force (though it’s still capable of destruction and later serves as a formidable weapon).

Again, a lesser book might end here, with our hero triumphant over his new-found power. It’s clear from the very beginning, however, that the woman’s feelings for Tom are ambivalent at best and more than likely fueled by pity at worst. You know from her first appearance that heartbreak can’t be far away (in fact, it’s possible that her indecisiveness is one of the few moments where Neely overplays his hand). Her eventual betrayal in a chapter suggestively titled “Wanton” and his subsequent sorrow (he literally beats himself up -- easily the most disturbing section of the book) is harrowing.

Neely wisely never comes out and says what exactly the blot, or any of the other creatures our hero comes across, is supposed to represent. It’s enough that our hero fears its encroaching presence at all costs. There are hints scattered throughout; references to Moby Dick for example. But mostly he refuses to draw any easy metaphors between the story and the human condition. It’s not surprising that Neely’s influences are strongly evident (Jim Woodring, Al Columbia, Floyd Gotttfriedson), though I should add that they’re never so strong as to threaten to overwhelm the work.

If fact, if there’s any theme at all to The Blot it’s the impermanence of things. Nothing lasts in Neely’s world, be it abstract of physical. Everything is immaterial and transient and in danger of literally fading away from one panel to the next.

As you might imagine in a book about a destructive ink blot, Neely uses black frequently and liberally throughout the book, often having it dominate a full page, not only to separate the chapters, but often to offer an extra beat, hinting at shameful, horrors being foisted upon our hero that are best left unseen.

Neely’s imagery, meanwhile, is stark and powerful. On a certain level, that is mainly due to the simple juxtaposition of his early 20th century big foot, Mickey Mouse cartoon style (the main character even wears three-fingered gloves) and the disturbing, adult nature of the story.

But Neely proves to be an adept cartoonist beyond his mere rendering capabilities, using a simple grid structure, often breaking the action down into two, three or six panels per page, to wind up the tension. His sense of timing is excellent.

The book isn’t perfect. Not all of these different stories line up perfectly in a straight line from a to b. To a small extent, the love story regarding the woman and the main character’s troubles with the blot feel like two separate stories that Neely attempted to stitch together. It’s not something so damaging as to harm the book, but it is noticeable.

Caveats aside, The Blot remains a striking, highly original work that succeeds not only in its surreal, disturbing imagery but also in its ability to blend the sour-sad and beautiful in one volume.

It’s not for nothing that the book’s final image is of a lemon tree, which, as the song reminds us is very pretty but impossible to eat. A talented chef, however, can use those lemons to make one hell of a pie.

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