Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/18/2018 – 02/24/2018


Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

I’m utterly lacking in anything resembling a clever (or even a relevant) bit of preamble for this week, so let’s just dispense with the formalities and talk about some comics I read that you may — or may not, I won’t hold it against you — find of interest —

Vertigo founding editor Karen Berger seems to be in “full-steam ahead” mode with her Berger Books line at Dark Horse, with Emma Beeby, Ariela Kristantina, and Pat Masioni’s Mata Hari #1 marking the imprint’s third debut in, if memory serves me correctly, as many weeks (they might have taken a week off, I guess, it’s all a bit foggy at this point), and while this fairly nuts-and-bolts historical re-telling of the trial of the infamous spy/femme fatale presents a more sympathetic view of its subject than you’re likely to find from books authored by any of us goddamn men

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“Punks Not Dead” — Is It?


Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

Here’s the thing — there are a million and one perfectly valid reasons for walking away from the first issue of writer David Barnett and artist Martin Simmonds’ Punks Not Dead, the latest offering from former Vertigo editor Shelly Bond’s new (-ish) Black Crown line at IDW, fairly unimpressed. For one thing, it seems to either not understand, or to deliberately eschew, punk’s radical politics in favor of glomming entirely onto its obnoxiousness. For another, it further cements the narrow aesthetic and editorial constraints that Bond has frankly shackled this entire label with since its debut a few months back. And for yet another, despite its present-day setting, its core premise is hopelessly dated and leaves the book wide open to charges of being the sort thing cooked up by people trying to be self-consciously “cool” — only their idea of what passes for “cool” is about 40 years…

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Mini Kus! Round-Up : “Nausea,” “Collection,” “Master Song,” And “Resident Lover”


For fans of international “art comics,” there’s no more exciting package to receive in the mail than the latest four-pack of minis from Latvian publisher Kus! — you never know what a new batch from them will have to offer, but you can be certain that, one way or another, it’s going to be challenging, thought-provoking, idiosyncratic stuff, so solid is the Kus! track record. And so, with their latest quartet hot off the presses, then (printed, as always, in full and lavish color on top-quality paper stock and featuring heavy cardstock covers), now would pretty much be the perfect time to give ’em all the once-over, would it not? Why don’t we do just that —

Nausea by Abraham Diaz (Mini Kus! number 63) is a wild ride through the socio-economic gutters of Mexico City, infused with a hard-edged immediacy and vulgarity that the lazy might call “punk,” but is probably more accurately described as “nihilistic.” The narrative is linear enough after a fashion, but definitely scattershot, and the same can be said of the art, which certainly calls to mind the early-career works of Gary Panter and Lloyd Dangle, but with a decidedly more dangerous undercurrent. Diaz has been plumbing these sorts of depths for some time in woks like Suicida, and shows no signs of “mellowing out” when it comes to depicting the underside of the underside of the underside of his home city. A visceral gut-punch that’ll leave you reeling — and, frequently, laughing in spite of yourself.

Collection by Pedro Franz (Mini Kus! number 64) is an emotive series of images, with accompanying text, that sees the noted Brazilian cartoonist/fine artist filtering a series of melancholic reminiscences of various childhood injuries through the lens of another set of memories — those of the racks n’ stacks that once populated expat Mexican artist Ulises Carrion’s quasi-legendary Amsterdam books/art/comics shop Other Books and So. Of the four offerings under our metaphorical microscope today, this one is admittedly the most difficult to get a firm “handle” on, so personal is Franz’ vision and methodology, but it more than returns the investment of time you’re willing to put into it by revealing new depths not only of the work itself, but of your own reactions to it, with each successive re-reading. My best advice? Try feeling, rather than thinking, your way through this one and see if the at-first-glance oblique connective tissue holding it together becomes less so as you absorb not only the cartoonist’s offerings, but the intent behind them. This is a comic that may very well mean something entirely different to each reader.

Master Song by Francisco Sousa Lobo (Mini Kus! number 65) is a strictly-formatted (four panels per page) character study of a complex, no-doubt-emotionally-damaged young nanny in London who harbors anti-Semitic views and a deep passion for the risible novel Fifty Shades Of Grey, and if that sounds like a combination for internalized conflict of the most harrowing sort, well — it is. Emily, our protagonist, isn’t what one would call a sympathetic character by any stretch of the imagination, but Lobo does a masterful job of making you feel her emptiness and longing as she seeks fulfillment of her jumbled fantasy life by means of anonymous bar hook-ups that are, of course, doomed to disappoint. The simplicity of the cartooning and text in this comic stands in stark contrast to, while simultaneously drawing out, the depth of the painful self-examination Emily is constantly drifting into/out of, and the clinical dispassion with which she analyzes her own existence is at once disconcerting and, somehow, logical. A work of sparse and haunting beauty delineating a person’s near-complete sense of estrangement from their own life that raises a million probing questions, the most prominent for this reader/critic being — how does one process an alienation so deep-seated that one is even alienated from it? Sosa is a Portuguese talent that I admit to having been unfamiliar with previous to this, but I will be eagerly hunting down whatever works of his I can find in the very near future.

Resident Lover by Roman Muradov (Mini Kus! number 66) is one of those comics that almost manages to leave me at a loss for words — almost. I’ve read this through eight times now, and came away more impressed each time. Ostensibly a story about love that conspicuously never mentions love once, it’s actually something far more than that — a study of duality, symmetry, and identity (or lack thereof) that poses the same query a more youthful version of myself was floored by in the early-days Tears For Fears single Change, “Where does the end of me become the start of you?” Muradov’s cartooning is a mass of beautifully-balanced contradictions : rich yet austere, symbolic yet literal, mechanical yet organic, static yet fluid —- it’s no wonder that this Russian “import” now based in San Francicso has seen his work featured prominently in everything from The New Yorker to Vogue to GQ to The Paris Review. Visual poetry gets no more poignant and absorbing than this — prepare to spend hours poring over its mysteries and magnificence.

Once again, then, our friends at Kus! have outdone themselves with perhaps their strongest slate of new offerings yet, and the only thing better than buying each of them is buying them all together for the bargain price of $19 — with free shipping to the US! No need to hem and haw over this decision, get off my website now and get over to https://kushkomikss.ecrater.com/p/29745014/mini-ku-63-64-65-66

 

“Is The Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman” : Here Comes Box Brown To Save The Day


Don’t look now, but it appears as though Box Brown is making a concerted play for the title of “Best Biographer In Comics” — and he’s doing it by telling the life story of a guy who held a title of his own, that of “World Intergender Wresting Champion.”

Yup, dadaist comedian Andy Kaufman is back under the media microscope in a big way, and it makes all the sense in the world that the cartoonist who chronicled the exploits of Andre The Giant and the history of Tetris in his previous volumes for First Second (who also publish his latest) would be the guy to do it. Kaufman’s never really left the spotlight entirely, of course — his tragically early death, combined with his singularly bizarre (and I mean that in the best possible way) career are more than enough to ensure that his legend will always carry on — but detailed looks at the man behind such memorable characters are Latka Gravas and Tony Clifton have been few and far between. Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman gave it his best shot with Man On The Moon nearly twenty years ago (the title being taken from R.E.M.’s song about Andy — which also never seems to go away completely), but despite a stellar starring turn from Jim Carrey, who absolutely inhabited the role (or should that be roles?) of Kaufman, I think most would agree that the film didn’t quite manage to pierce the veil of its own subject. And so now it falls to Brown to humanize this most alien of talents, and with his graphic novel Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman, he (spoiler alert) manages to do it — at least to a greater degree than has been done in the past.

The fleshing-out of important members of “Team Kaufman” such as writing partner/Tony Clifton fill-in Bob Zmuda, girlfriend Lynne Margulies, and manager George Shapiro go some way toward answering the books’ titular question for us, as does a more-than-cursory examination of the future comic’s early years and of his relationship with his family throughout his life. Brown being Brown, though, you pretty much know going in that one particular aspect of Kaufman’s career is going to get the most attention — his turn as a pro wrestling bad guy.

Cue some rather curious side-bars — such as Brown devoting something like 15 pages to a re-telling of the career of Kaufman’s main “nemesis,” Jerry “The King” Lawler , as well as a relating of the history and minutiae of Memphis regional wrestling in general — that very nearly run the book off the rails, and yet things come back together more or less just in time to prevent your interest from waning, even if it is rather curious, to say the least, that Brown spends more time on the Kaufman/Fred Blassie one-off video Breakfast With Blassie than he does on Kaufman’s entire five-year stint on Taxi. Go Figure.

Still, for every lapse in judgment like that, there’s at least one strong choice that Brown makes to ensure that your faith in his storytelling abilities never wanes. He makes it clear, for instance, that yes, Kaufman’s entire “thing” was an act (or, if you prefer, a series of acts), and shows enough of the comedian away/apart from his various ingeniously-constructed personas so that readers finally have a fairly solid handle on where Andy ends and, say, the “foreign guy,” or the misogynist wrestler, begins. This takes a deft touch, to be sure, but the disarmingly straight-forward script is aided in no small part by Brown’s smartly minimalist cartooning that draws special attention to differences in body language, facial expression, etc. that let you know when various “switches” are “flipped.” No one will ever accuse Brown of having a hugely varied repertoire as an illustrator, but his rote and basic forms and figures carry a degree of nuance that their ostensible “simplicity” wouldn’t necessarily be assumed to be capable of conveying. There’s also something of the frank and absurd to Brown’s style that fits this material perfectly — as if something utterly unique unto itself is being communicated in a visual language we can all understand.

A style as no-frills as Brown’s is also highly adaptable, and so whether Kaufman is portraying Elvis, Latka, Tony Clifton, or Lawler’s foil in the ring, the panels transition into each role nearly as seamlessly as did the comic himself. At the end of the day, though, Box Brown’s greatest triumph with Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman lies in the fact that, perhaps for the first time (and thanks, no doubt, to the assistance and participation he was able to obtain from the late performer’s family, particularly his brother, Michael), he finds a way to show Kaufman  — at every phase of his life and career, from his earliest years to his ascension of showbiz’s heights to his painful final days — as his most complex and compelling character of all : himself.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/11/2018 – 02/17/2018


This has been an eventful week full of tragedy (yet another school shooting), triumph (Black Panther), and everything in between, has it not? And somewhere in between the grieving and the glory, there was even time for comics, so let’s talk about those —

Brian Canini remains as busy as always pursuing his various and sundry idiosyncratic cartooning visions, and recently found time to send me issues three and four of his superb ongoing mini-comics series Plastic People, which so far bears all the hallmarks of being his best work yet. Part dystopian sci-fi, part character study, and as of now — a murder mystery to boot? Clearly Canini’s spinning a lot of plates with this title, but so far pulling it all off perfectly. I don’t know how lengthy a narrative he’s pursuing here, but from all appearances he’s playing a “long game,” and after spending the first couple eight-page installments on “world-building,” the main thrust of his story is starting to come into view. The scene of the discovery of the dead body that comes to take center stage is downright Lynchian in its execution, what with one seemingly important event dovetailing into another, entirely unexpected and more consequential one, and the dialogue at the morgue that follows it a joy to read, equal parts procedural and personal. His art on these issues is equally strong, minimalist angularity that presents a foreign-yet-familiar future Los Angeles with a kind of “street-level” uncomplicated dynamism. About the only thing you could wish for from this comic that you don’t get is more pages, so absorbing and immersive is the tale being told here, but if you buy all four (and at just $1.99 each, why wouldn’t you?) and read them in one sitting, there’s that problem solved. I’m hoping he’s able to stick with a fairly regular production schedule on this one — I know, I know, easier said than done when you’re balancing your small-press publishing with a “real life” — because I’m pretty well hooked here and would love to be able to count on a predictable dose to mainline into my eyeballs. I know I’ve talked this series up in the past, but goddamnit, I’m going to continue to do so until you’re sick of hearing me talk about it. Do not pass this one up.

Also arriving in my package from Canini was the second issue of his full-color mini Blirps, another series of one-pagers starring his anxiety-riddled robot (I think, at any rate) monsters. These are always worth a chuckle and the concept seems like one that might have some commercial “legs” to it, as the set-up for each gag strip is simple yet infinitely applicable to any number of socially-awkward situations. I get a kick out of the deadpan humor here and could see this being a fairly successful Adult Swim-style animated short series — or, hell, maybe even being used as the premise for a line of greeting cards. You never know — but, again, I do know that this is well worth your two bucks and, as with Plastic People, is available from Drunken Cat Comics at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

Rachel Scheer is a full-time schoolteacher/part-time cartoonist based out of Seattle, Washington whose work I confess to being unfamiliar with until an envelope from her containing a couple of her mini-comics arrived in my mailbox the other day. Her drawing style is simple, but expressive, and lends itself equally well to scenes of fluid motion or static, single-panel illustration, and in Cats Of The White House we’re treated to plenty of the latter as she and writing collaborator Danny Noonan provide a series of brief-but-fun bios of some of the felines who have shared 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. along with their more-well-known human servan — sorry, “owners.” This is great little book for kids, cat-lovers, or both, and you may even pick up a tidbit or two of useless trivia along the way. Hell, I never even knew George W. Bush had a cat — or maybe I did, and I was just trying to forget it along with everything else about his presidency? Plenty of story and art on offer here to make it $3.00 smartly-spent.

The Scheer comic that really knocked my socks off, though, was The Hanukkah Fire, 1992, a family history wherein she traces the circuitous path her forebears took from Europe, though the little-known Jewish ghettos of Kobe, Japan and Shanghai, China, and all the way to the Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the Bronx. Her use of old family home videos as a framing device is a simple-but-ingenious springboard for this deeply personal tale that touches on topics ranging from religious/cultural identity (or lack thereof) to the transition into adulthood and an examination of why we keep certain family traditions going while letting others fall by the wayside. Quietly poignant, highly literate cartooning delivered in a disarmingly simplistic style that manages to convey an awful lot of emotion with a minimal amount of fuss and muss, this is one of those comics that I’ll be re-reading again and again over the years. It’s available (along with Cats Of The White House and Scheer’s other self-published comics, which I intend to check out) for $4.00 from the cartoonist’s Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/RachelComics?ref=l2-shopheader-name

And I think that’ll about do it for this week, but next week’s Reading Round-Up is already pretty well set in stone given that the newest four-pack of minis from our Latvian friends at Kus! Comics just showed up in the mail today, so I’ll hope to see you back here in seven days for a look at what promises to be another superb quartet of books from eastern Europe’s finest publisher.

“Black Panther” : Hail To The King


Let’s be honest — as was the case with last year’s Wonder Woman (in fact probably to an even greater degree), Black Panther was a cultural phenomenon before it was even released, and in future it will be examined as such. As something more than a movie. As something that resonated within, and reverberated throughout, the zeitgeist. Its trajectory in that regard is largely unwritten to this point, but can be predicted with a fair amount of certainty : near-universal praise will come first, followed by the inevitable backlash, followed by an almost apologetic, “ya know, maybe we were too hard on this thing that we loved at first” sort of acceptance. If we could just skip all that, and take it as a given, it would save us all a lot of time and effort — but it’s on the way, so tune in or out of all that as you see fit. My concerns here are considerably more prosaic : to talk about the movie as what it began “life” as, to wit — “just” a movie.

For what it’s worth (which may not be much), I’m tempted to agree, to an extent, with those who are pointing out that simply seeing this flick is in no way an act of “resistance” in and of itself : after all, if the fact that the first thing that runs in theaters before the film starts is a commercial for Lexus cars featuring Chadwick Boseman in full Panther gear isn’t enough to clue you in to the reality that, at the end of the day, this is much more about profits than it is about politics, then the product placement within the film itself should do the job — and at the end of the day, one of the largest corporations in the world, founded by noted racist Walt Disney, is still the one making all the money off it. If, then, shelling out ten or fifteen bucks to watch Black Panther is an inherently defiant or dissident act (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s a highly commodified and co-opted one.

All that being said, when a film is released out into the world, particularly a film with as much fanfare attached to it as this one, there are gonna be ripples that emanate out from it — and among the millions of kids, in particular, who watch this flick, the seeds of an interest in African culture are sure to be sown, and the more they follow the metaphorical stalks that grow and flower from those seeds, the more they’ll discover things like historical resistance to colonialism, exploitation, capitalism, and the like. So while Black Panther may not be a radical (or even a particularly political) work in and of itself, it may inspire some radicalism in the future — one can only hope, at any rate.

But that’s pure speculation at this point, so let’s talk about what we know for certain.

One thing anyone who follows this site, or my work anywhere else, absolutely knows is that I’m no fan of Marvel Studios product in general. Unlike, apparently, most people, I find the overwhelming majority of Marvel flicks to be hopelessly redundant, formulaic, lowest-common denominator fare directed in a flat and lifeless “house style” with no particular visual flair, no particularly standout performances, no particular vision to do anything but get audiences keyed up for the next one. They exist as a self-perpetuating celluloid organism, one with no distinct personality but a lot of business sense and promotional muscle. This has been going on for so long, and with so much box office success, that I went into flick essentially expecting more of the same — sure, I knew it had a predominantly-black cast, and was set in Africa (albeit in a fictitious country), but that doesn’t mean that director Ryan Coogler was going to break the mold in any appreciable way. Hell, it doesn’t even mean that he would be allowed to do so. Happily, my pessimism was turned on its ear almost from word the word “go” here.

Black Panther looks different, feels different, because it is different. Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole certainly capture the dynamism, the energy, the Afro-futurism that has been a part of King T’Challa’s backstory since Jack Kirby created the character and his world (nope, we don’t lay any credit at Stan Lee’s feet around these parts, but I’m not getting into the “whys and wherefores” of that right now because, shit, I don’t have all night), but advance it all considerably, absorbing the extra layers added onto the mythos by the likes of Don McGrregor, Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates over the years, and coming out with something uniquely suited to cinema and very much of the “now.” There’s a hard-driving and kinetic sense of energy to this film that the so-called “MCU” has been missing since it inception, and if you’re among the small number of those who agree with my assessment that most of these flicks play out more like two-hour TV episodes than proper movies, you can relax : this is as bold, brash, and big as it gets. This is blockbuster fare not only in name, but in execution, with visual effects that amaze, sets that inspire awe, cinematography that commands attention, action that sizzles, a script that charges forward, and music that slicks that trajectory along. This is arresting cinema that doesn’t even give you the option to leave your seat.

But what of the acting, you ask? It ranges from good to great, and thankfully the great includes the key players : Chadwick Boseman is regal yet human, fallible, relatable in the film’s central role: Forest Whitaker embodies aged wisdom tinged with regret as high priest Zuri; Michael B. Jordan is the first truly formidable villain, crucially one with a compelling backstory and some entirely valid philosophical viewpoints, as Killmonger; Martin Freeman not only reprises, but considerably expands, his already-extant “MCU” role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross with heart, humor, and brains; Sterling K. Brown makes the most of limited but significant screen time as T’Challa’s late uncle, N’Jobu; Andy Serkis — as a human this time! — chews up the screen with dangerous charm as Ulysses Klaue (or “Klaw,” as the comics would have it). These guys are all tops, really. And yet —

It is the women that carry this film. Whether we’re talking about Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, a determined, fiercely independent, and soulful force that isn’t just her partner’s “equal,” but his conscience; Danai Gurira as General Okoye, head warrioress of the Dora Milaje, who embodies martial discipline and loyalty with the controlled fury of a hurricane ready to strike at any moment; Angela Basset as Queen Mother Ramonda, a living embodiment of grace, stature, and tradition; or Letitia Wright as younger sister Shuri, part “Q” to T’Challa’s “Bond,” part grounding and humanizing influence, part Moon Girl-style intellectual prodigy — as in life, it is the women that both make this movie’s men what they are, while also being complete and fully-realized in and of themselves. African history is far less patriarchal than is commonly believed, and in Wakanda that proud matriarchal lineage is exemplified, modernized, magnified — and honored.

Most films reflect the moment. Others define the moment. Black Panther goes one further by creating the moment. It’s as near to flawless as big-budget blockbusters get and eschews the too-common-flaw that movies made on this scale have of dumbing things down to appeal to the masses. Coogler and company instead trust those same masses to be intelligent enough to meet them on their level, and to respond to being talked “up,” rather than “down,” to. By believing that the world was not just ready, but eager, for something that goes far beyond mere spectacle — something that challenges the intellect while speaking to the heart — they have woken what could very well be a sleeping giant.

Now, let’s just keep our fingers crossed they’ve spurred that giant to do something more than simply go out and buy luxury cars.

The Truth About “The Lie And How We Told It”


Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

Cartoonist Tommi Parrish comes to us from Montreal by way of an Australian upbringing, but their (as a gender non-binary individual, Parrish’s pronouns of choice are “they” and “their”) perspective seems to be a heady blend of the highly singular and the undeniably universal — and if that sounds inherently contradictory, then buckle in for a review that’s going to make your head spin, because the underlying tension between disparate polarities, both personal and artistic, forms the beating thematic heart of their new Fantagraphics-published graphic novel, The Lie And How We Told It, and how you process duality is going to go a long way toward determining your level of enjoyment of/appreciation for this work. In short, if it already sounds like it’s not going to be your cup of tea, then it probably won’t be — but if explorations of who we are vs. who we present ourselves…

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