Dan Clowes’ The Death-Ray is kind of like a superhero story, but a very Dan Clowesian version of one. When Andy starts smoking back in the 70s he learns he’s got super strength. He and his friend try to find people who need beating up, but it’s difficult. Then he finds that his dead father left him a death ray. Using that is even harder.
It’s not a happy book. Andy isn’t a real heroic type. I like the format and how the storybits are fragmented in a less regimented way than Wilson, the last Clowes book I read. Good but not mind-blowing.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is the story of a group of Japanese soldiers in World War 2 who are stationed on the South Pacific island of New Britain in 1943. There’s no one character that’s the hero, just a bunch of poor saps who have malaria, malnutrition and get eaten by alligators. It’s bleak as hell.
The characters are drawn in this cartoony style while the backgrounds and animals are very detailed, which is an interesting effect. I feel it put me in their shoes as the rookies got slapped for no reason, or as they decided they needed to eat their fill before going on their suicide mission. This kind of manga is a bit different from what the kids these days are all about, but this was a really good comic.
John Stanley’s comic, Melvin Monster is about a little monster who does good things, which makes him a hugely annoying person in the monster world, where you’re supposed to do bad things. His parents are called Mummy (a mummy) and Baddy (a frankensteinian monster) and they have an alligator in the house that is constantly trying to eat Melvin. They’re fun comics (and John Stanley is the guy who created Little Lulu if you need an idea of the art style) that should still mostly work for kids today, especially ones with a good grounding in classic Warner Brothers cartoons.
Sleepwalk and Other Stories is a collection of Adrian Tomine stories. Tomine writes and draws realistic fiction short stories, kind of old-fashioned like Raymond Carver. I really liked these stories. There was one about twin daughters going to a comic-con with their dad which I really liked. They were all quite restrained (even the story about a guy getting curb-stomped ends before the worst of the violence) and made you feel lonely. Very good stuff.
Paying For It is Chester Brown’s comic-strip memoir about being a john. It is a fascinating look at prostitution and the arguments for and against it. Brown documents his decision to start paying for sex and each of the prostitutes he visited (with obscuring details) and the discussions he had with his friends about it.
Basically, Brown decided that romantic love was bullshit and why shouldn’t people have sex with people for whom it is a job? His companions tend to be more romantic (or as the cartoonist Seth says in the afterword, they “experience human emotions”). I should clarify; it’s possessive monogamy that Brown feels is the problem. We can have lots of friends, but why only one sexual partner? The afterword is filled with more information and notes about the book, and even if it doesn’t convince you to go pay for sex, it will make you think about the standard shortcut ways of thinking about prostitution.
Reading this book right after Debt: The First 5,000 Years was interesting, since that one was talking so much about how slaves are people who are removed from their social context, and Brown spends a good amount of time in the afterword debating whether any of his prostitutes were sex slaves (he doesn’t think they were).
Hicksville is a comic by Dylan Horrocks about comics and their creators in all their weird diversity. It’s amazeballs.
There are a lot of stories going on here, but they all circle around the fact that Leonard Batts has showed up in Hicksville, New Zealand to do research on Dick Burger, an international superhero comics magnate from the town. Nobody in the town wants to talk about Dick. And there’s Sam, a local comics creator (though everyone in Hicksville is a comics aficionado) who’s been fired from his last job for not being funny enough. There are more people too, including characters in everyone’s comics.
Huge chunks of story are told in minicomics by the characters involved (including Sam’s trip to LA where he’s given the opportunity to sell out), and there are scenes from the Captain Tomorrow comics, and there’s this crazy historical comic about New Zealand being pulled into the Southern hemisphere that dogs Leonard wherever he goes. In the end Leonard stumbles on THE GREATEST LIBRARY IN THE WORLD (emphasis mine).
The whole thing deals with comics as an art form, as a way of making a living, as movie-fodder, as fiercely debated local gossip. If you care at all about comics you should really really read this. I can’t believe it took me this long to do it.
Kate Beaton has been making silly comics about history (and other things) for years on the web. There was a self-published volume of her webcomics, but last year Beaton had a huge hit with her Drawn & Quarterly book Hark! A Vagrant.
Part of the awesomeness about Kate Beaton’s comics is the modern perspective on history. She’s Canadian and has fun with Canadian stereotypes. The jokes aren’t huge and don’t rely on clever wordplay so much as they do on the situations these people find themselves in. It is all very silly, but excellent.
If you aren’t reading Hark! A Vagrant already and you like jokes and history you really need to get this book.
Jar of Fools is a comic by Jason Lutes about a couple of stage magicians, a conman and his daughter and a barrista. Everyone in the story is kind of a loser, not very good at what they do and haunted by things they couldn’t change.
It’s a very small scale story. There is a change-swapping con early on and it leads to the barrista punching someone and having the cops looking for her, but for the most part the objective stakes aren’t that high. For the characters though, these are the most important things in the world and the sense of sadness and desperation shows through.
Baloney is “A Tale in 3 Symphonic Acts” by Pascal Blanchet. It’s a beautiful book with art all in shades of white black and red and a kind of retro cartoony design sense.
In a small town there is a butcher named Baloney, who’s had a sad life. His wife fell to her death from the town’s cliffs and his daughter has lost a hand, a leg and her sight. He knows she won’t be able to go to a good school so he sends for a tutor. The tutor is a dreamer and man of science and they run afoul of the tyrant of the town who sells all the heat. Nothing good comes of it.
The neat feature is how each act is preceded by a description of the music accompanying it. Example:
Orchestration: Slow waltz in a minor key
- Bass for gravity
- Flute for the wind
- Vibraphone for mystery and snow
- Cellos for austerity
- Oboe for melancholy
I really liked how that worked and especially how it slowed down the way I read the book. There’s a playlist at the end that gives the different characters and themes their own music (mostly Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
The story doesn’t have many words and would work as a picturebook bedtime story if you wanted your kid to grow up to be Chris Ware. It’s a great dark little book.
Lint is a Chris Ware comic, that is a sad story about a sad man. It follows Jordan Wellington Lint from birth to death with lots of missed opportunity (especially in the various parent-child relationships he could be involved in) in between.
Chris Ware books are always interesting to read because of the way he lays out his stories, and how his drawings are so stripped down to be almost unrepresentational but they carry all this pain in them. It’s a great little book (a chapter in the ongoing Acme Novelty Library experiment), but not something to read if you want to feel wonderful about the possibilities in life.