Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Graphic Lit: Two by Bertozzi

Nick Bertozzi was one of the rising indie stars of the late 1990s, producing unconventional comics like "Rubber Necker" and "Boswash," which unfolded like a map.

Recently, however, he's been off the radar, leading one to wonder whether he decided to hitch his wagon to a more financially rewarding star (hey, it happens).

Turns out he was just busy working as he recently unleashed an impressive one-two punch of books: "Houdini the Handcuff King" and "The Salon."

Written by Jason Lutes ("Berlin") and drawn by Bertozzi, "Houdini" is the opening salvo in a new, slim series of biographies for kids from the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Rather than provide a dry summation of the man's life, Lutes and Bertozzi wisely choose to focus on one day instead, providing an intimate snapshot of the escape artist as he prepares to jump off a bridge into the Boston River.

Bertozzi's art is clean and distinctive, and he breaks down the story in a variety of interesting ways (Houdini's escape from the river is shown in narrow, long panels on the side of the page, opposite close-ups of worried faces and ticking clocks).

Through the book we get a clear sense of Houdini's drive to be the best, his knack for publicity, his insistence on loyalty and his deep love for his wife. The selection of notes at the end of the book helps round out the portrait even more, resulting in a satisfying book that would make an excellent addition to any child's library.

"The Salon," meanwhile, also deals with historical figures, though in a much different and more fantastical setting.

Set in Paris circa 1907, the book follows the adventures of painters George Braque and Pablo Picasso, on the cusp of discovering both cubism and fame.

Together with such Modernist luminaries as Gertrude Stein, Apollinaire and the composer Erik Satie, the pair discover a mysterious brand of blue absinthe, which, upon imbibing, allows one to actually enter a painting.

Yet the magical drink has a dark side. A blue figure has been seen wandering around the Paris streets at night, ripping the heads off of painters. Could the killer possibly be Gauguin, who vanished under mysterious circumstances?

Bertozzi's characters are strongly defined, and the narrative is lusty and profane (an excerpt published in a free comic and featuring a naked Picasso got a Georgia comic book store in serious legal trouble). It's a fantastical murder mystery combined with an art-history lesson.

And while Bertozzi clearly is having a great deal of fun with his premise, it's in latter sequences that the book really comes to life. The action scenes and cryptic goings-on are fun, but they pale next to the heated discussions between Picasso and Braque as they attempt to discover a new form of art. It's in those moments that the book really comes to life.

"The Salon" takes a few missteps -- its ending is a bit unsatisfying since we're left to puzzle out the ultimate fate of the villain -- but it remains a great romp and should further cement Bertozzi's reputation as a cartoonist worth reading.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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