Recipe For Disaster and other Stories


By Penny Van Horn (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 0-56097-330-7

Raised in Rye, New York, Penny (Moran) Van Horn worked in publishing before moving to Austin, Texas to begin her inexplicably low-key career as a cartoonist and storyteller. After years producing some of the most evocative and memorable graphic narratives of the 1990’s independent comics scene for magazines such as Weirdo, Wimmen’s Commix, Snake Eyes, Twisted Sisters and Zero Zero she now primarily works in newspaper illustration and produces a weekly strip for the Austin American-Statesman. She is also adept at painting, lettering and design and recently began experimenting with animation.

Recipe For Destruction is a collection of her early strips: deep, intense concoctions, more black than white, many crafted in her immensely labour-intensive scraperboard illustration style (see also the wonderfully mordant supernatural dark romance The Librarian), and all dwelling in the hazardous borderland between autobiography and bleakly comedic self-exploratory fantasy.

Latterly citing inspiration from such varied sources as Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett, Van Horn’s introspective retrospective begins with the eponymous ‘Recipe for Disaster’, which describes with harrowing aloofness her brief period of mental instability – her original title for the tale was “Mystical Experience or Nervous Breakdown” – before the book moves on to shorter but no less challenging fare.

‘Ten Dollars for Two Minutes’ details an unpleasant experience with her landlord, ‘Molested’ takes a slightly different glance at modern drama’s favourite plot device and ‘Catholic School’ is for anybody educated by nuns (Big ‘Hi’ to anybody else who survived Sacred Heart Convent Primary School without paying for therapy…) an utterly understandable slice of pictorial vitriol…

‘There’s No Such Thing as a Pregnant Silence’ outlines with frank and memorable humour some clear downsides to the Happy Event, ‘Binge and Purge’ reveals a different manner of addiction, ‘Domestic Bliss’ is a gloriously excessive examination of wedded bliss and ‘A Revealing Dream’ confirms that men’s suspicions of “what women want” has never been more wrong…

‘The Psycho Drifter’ is a remarkably unsettling account of modern dating, whilst ‘Texas Characters’ is plain laugh-out-loud whacky and ‘A Bird in the Beard’ returns to the subject of looking for love with more salutary comic reminiscences. The volume ends with a deeply moving cautionary tale about the heart ruling the head in ‘Mid-Life Crisis’, as well as the inclusion of some entrancingly unlovely pin-ups.

Van Horn’s work is astonishing in its captivating power and subtle influence. Her stories aren’t pretty but they are beautiful, and this collection, still in print and readily available, is one of the best grown-up comics collection around. If you believe that there’s more to strips than fights, tights and honking big guns, this book is all the proof you need.

© 1998 Penny Van Horn. All rights reserved.

Unlovable volume 2


By Esther Pearl Watson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-314-9

This arrived cold: I had never heard of the strip nor the magazine Bust where it has run for years, but as I’m always up for something new I sat down and lost myself in the world of Tammy Pierce, Texas Teen…

Ostensibly based on an actual diary the artist found in a gas-station restroom in 1995, this concluding volume resumes with the innermost thoughts, dreams and experiences of a dumpy, utterly ordinary girl surgically displayed for our examination in a catchy, breathless, effusive warts ‘n’ all style as she endures her Sophomore year of High School, from Christmas Eve 1988 to the Summer of 1989.

When you’re a teenager some things are truly timeless and universal: parents are unreasonable and embarrassing, siblings are scum and embarrassing and your body is embarrassingly finding new and horrifying ways to betray you almost daily… Your friends can’t be trusted, you’re attracted to all the wrong people and sometimes you just know that no one will ever love you…

Drawn in a two colour, faux-grotesque manner (you can call it intentionally primitive and ugly if you want) the page by page snapshots of a social hurricane building to disaster is absolutely captivating. Although this is a retro-comedy experience, behind her fatuous obsession with fashion, boys, music (equal parts Debbie Gibson and The Smiths!), social acceptance and traitorous bodily functions, Tammy is a lonely bewildered child that it’s hard not to feel sorry for. Actually it’s equally hard to like her (hell, its difficult to curb the urge to slap her at times) but that’s the point after all…

If you live long enough you’ll experience the pop culture keystones of every definitive era of your life at least twice more. The base, tasteless and utterly superficial aspects of the 1980s are currently in vogue for the current generation, which is too young to remember them – but you and I can get all nostalgic for the good bits and blithely ignore all the bad stuff: this big little hardback (408 pages, and about 15x15cm) is a delightful and genuinely moving exploration of something eternal given extra punch with the trappings of that era of tasteless self-absorption.

Like those other imaginary diarists Nigel Molesworth, Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole Tammy Pierce’s ruminations and recordings have something concrete to contribute to the Wisdom of the Ages and this book is humorous delight tinged with gentle tragedy – although that’s more in the readers apprehension of how her life eventually turned out…

Modern and Post-Ironic, Unlovable is unmissable.  Now please excuse me, I’ve got to put on my legs warmers and chunky sweater and hunt down a copy of volume 1…

© 2010 Esther Pearl Watson. All rights reserved.

Joe and Azat


By Jesse Lonergan (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-570-2

Here’s a wonderful little waste of time: cartoonist Jesse Lonergan drew upon his youthful experiences as an American Peace Corps volunteer in the nation of Turkmenistan in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall when the Soviet collapse released many countries from seventy years of iron repression…

Granted autonomy and self-rule virtually overnight, a lot of Warsaw Pact countries didn’t fare well with instant democracy and Free Market Capitalism. In Turkmenistan, their new leader Turkmenbashy (with 99½ % of the vote because “everybody likes him”) was a real pip, renaming the days of the week after himself and using the nation’s entire budget to send a book of his poetry into space. In a pitifully arid country, he built a river through his capital city – because all great cities have rivers running through them. Images of the ruthless potentate are everywhere: it’s a shame nobody ever found oil in the country…

This is a charmingly subtle tale of culture shock and national misapprehensions as young Joe grapples with the outrageous differences between his liberal and wealthy homeland and the rules, laws and ingrained prejudices of a newly liberated society.

Nervous and alone the Yankee lad slowly finds a friend in the astonishingly upbeat and forward looking Azat: an ambitious convert and zealot for “The American Way”, although most of Joe’s time is spent futilely apologising and explaining that what that actually means is as far removed from the US Movies Azat is addicted to as the decades of Russian propaganda he grew up with.

Becoming almost part of the family (as complex and dysfunctional as any western one) he is caught in the tidal wave of Azat’s enthusiastic aspirations and daily frustrations, but never seems able or willing to staunch or crush them, even though he knows how hopeless they ultimately are…

Poignant, bittersweet, with an end but no conclusion, this is a superbly understated dissertation on the responsibilities and power of friendship, the poison of unattainable dreams and the unthinking cruelty of cultural imperialism, illustrated in a magically simplistic and irresistibly beguiling manner: a delight for any fan searching for more than simple jokes and action. Reading this would actually be time very well spent…

© 2009 Jesse Lonergan. All rights reserved.

The Year of Loving Dangerously


By Ted Rall & Pablo G. Callejo (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-565-8

If you live long enough you’ll experience the pop culture keystones of every definitive era of your life at least twice more. The base, tasteless and utterly superficial aspects of the 1980s are currently doing the rounds again as the current generation – which was too young to remember them – get all nostalgic for the good bits and blithely ignore all the bad stuff: same as it ever was…

…Except for Ted Rall. The contemporary essayist and American political cartoonist, like everybody who was actually there, also recalls the decade that most tellingly shaped his life and has now written a largely autobiographical graphic novel memoir for rising comics star Pablo G. Callejo to beautifully illustrate.

For us Brits it was Union-Bashing, loads-a-money, poverty, excess, daft hair and Thatcher, whilst America endured trickle-down Reaganomics, insider dealing, covert warfare and poodle rock – so nobody really got off lightly either side of the pond…

In 1984, through a series of concatenating disasters and no fault of his own (well, not too much) college student Ted Rall was expelled from Columbia University, lost his apartment and was dumped onto the streets of New York with only a couple of dollars in his pocket.

Homeless and desperate in a land with no safety-net (not much different from Britain in the 80’s, in all honesty) he faced a short, bleak future, with very few options, the best of which was jumping off the dormitory building roof…

His happy salvation came as he sat in a diner. Accidentally picking up a young woman he spent a night at her pad and discovered a new career. For nearly a year he bounced from pick-up to assignation to one-night-stand, not for cash but only bed and board.

This book follows his narrowest of escapes from poverty, addiction, sexual infection and extreme loss of self-respect as, with the dubious aid of the luckiest dope-fiend in the city, Ted claws his way back to semi-respectability and security (as a stock market trader!) by means he clearly still doesn’t quite understand decades later.

What ought to be a salutary parable about the wages of sin is actually a sincere, sensitive and immensely humane tale of triumph over adversity, free from bragging, tawdry prurience or sordid machismo and truly funny in a heartwarming manner. Rall the student gigolo is a charming, if hapless, protagonist and the non-judgemental treatment of casual sex is wonderfully refreshing, as is the good hard look at the heart and soul rather than the surface veneer of the decade.

Not a book for everybody, but rational adults with an eye to an endearing human drama will love it.

© 2009 Ted Rall & Pablo G. Callejo. All rights reserved.

King – a Comic Biography: The Special Edition


By Ho Che Anderson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-310-1

There are books to read, books you should read – and some perhaps, that you shouldn’t – and there are important books. The relatively new field of graphic novels has many of the first but precious few important books yet.

It’s hard enough to get noticed within the industry (simply excelling at your craft is not enough) but when we do generate something wonderful, valid, powerful, true to our medium yet simultaneously breaking beyond into the wide world and making a mark, the reviews from that appreciative greater market come thick and fast – so I’m not going to spend acres of text praising this superb, controversial and unique examination of the man that lived beside – not “behind” or “within” the myth of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the course of ten years (1993-2002) young Canadian cartoonist Ho Che Anderson struggled to produce three comics books that offered another perspective of a man who was as much sinner as saint, but whose determination, passion, energy and sheer luck drove a cleansing wedge into a rotting, repressive, stifled society and succeeded in opening enough doors for America’s racial underclass, so that forty years later a black American can govern the World’s greatest superpower.

Not that four decades is so brief an interlude: but than again, how many European or white Commonwealth countries can boast that their highest echelons of power have made even that much progress?

In both stark black and white and mesmerising colour, Anderson uses all the strengths and tools of sequential narrative to reveal, relate, question and challenge the oft-recounted facts of the Georgia Pastor’s life in this magnificent volume, released to celebrate Barack Obama’s – and the American people’s – landmark achievement. Gathered within are those hard-crafted three issues, extra and deleted scenes, the thematically linked one-shot Black Dogs and many other extras in one compelling tome, with a fascinating overview from Anderson; sketches and reminisces, a treatise on his working practises and a gallery of related art.

This is a true historical examination and a perfect example of comics at its most effective – biography not hagiography – and as important a landmark achievement for our art-form as Maus, Safe Area Goražde or American Splendor, Watchmen, Pride of Baghdad or Persepolis. Whenever and wherever we have to defend our Art from decriers and peddlers of prejudice, King will be one of the paltry few examples that cannot be contradicted or ignored. It’s a book no thinking fan can afford to miss.
King: The Special Edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All content © 2010 Ho Che Anderson. All rights reserved.

Escape From “Special”


By Miss Lasko-Gross (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-804-6

When I recently reviewed A Mess of Everything (ISBN: 978-1-56097-956-1), the second part of Miss Lasko-Gross’ bewitching graphic autobiographical trilogy, I heartily bemoaned missing the first volume. Thanks to the wonderful people at Turnaround Distribution (that’s their graphic novels homepage under the publishers section to your right) and especially the hyper-efficient Jessica, no sooner had that earnest question appeared than a review copy was winging my way.

It was even better than I could have hoped.

Little Melissa is a very difficult child: smart and constantly questioning her unconventional parents (easy-going hippie-types) and the guards and inmates at her elementary school (both intransigent teachers and status-obsessed kids). Even at six years old she is a fiercely independent thinker – the kind of kid modern parents usually dope with Ritalin.

She flounders in all the arenas of childhood, subsequently being moved from school to school. She has a child-therapist and like many smart creative kids has problems with reading. Painfully self-aware but ultimately adamantine, Melissa has to endure the social horrors of Special Education.

But please don’t think this is a book about the crushing of a spirit. Whether on a tour-bus with her so-very-hip ‘n’ cool folks, fumbling with classmates or fighting off nightmares, this is a series of skits and sketches that affirm Melissa’s vibrant character; one which can adapt but will never buckle. Illustrated in a powerful primitivist – almost naïve-ist – art style and symbology, the little girl endures and overcomes in tales that are charming, sad, funny, reassuring and just plain strange.

Miss (that’s her name now – she changed it ) Lasko-Gross has been producing graphic narrative for most of her life, editing the Pratt Institute’s Static Fish comicbook, working in Mauled, House of Twelve 2.0, Legal Action Comics, Aim and others whilst generally living the kind of life that finds its way onto the pages of fabulous books like this one.

I have to plead a special interest at this stage. I’ve been producing my own autobiographical strips for years now; in assorted small press and self-produced publications as well as various annuals produced by the Comics Creators Guild, so I’m a dedicated proponent of the form, but the powerfully direct stories in Escape from “Special” are of such a high calibre that they’re far beyond some new genre and demand to be seen by a greater audience that don’t even care if their reading matter has pictures or not. These tales are in the same category as American Splendor, Maus and Persepolis.

Now unless you’re blessed with the unique blend of whiney charisma that I possess and shamelessly exploit, you’ll have to obtain your copy the old fashioned way – and you really should. These are words and pictures that you’ll revel in for years to come.
© 2006 Miss Lasko-Gross. All Rights Reserved.

A Mess of Everything


By Miss Lasko-Gross (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-956-1

I’m appalled to say that I actually missed the release of this very talented creator’s book Escape From “Special”: the initial autobiographical foray and first of a planned trilogy of tomes following the life and progress of a smart and troublesome girl-child with overly-understanding parents surviving the blandly oppressive horrors of growing up normal.

So I approached this second collection of tales, ranging from single page statements to fully rounded short stories, with a completely open mind: and I’m pleased to say that A Mess of Everything is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in years, a picture-perfect blend of honest reflection, graphic invention and shared fragile humanity from a woman who knows how to captivate an audience.

Melissa has reached those difficult teen years. She’s not pretty, not a follower, not a conformist: but she’s experiencing the feelings that every kid feels and dealing with it her way. As Grunge Music begins to dominate the teen-scene, Melissa has to deal with anxiety, a paucity of friends, drugs, booze, shoplifting, letting off steam, feeling horny, wanting a “true love” (Lord, didn’t we all?), second-hand eating disorders and having a Perfect Older Sister…

If it wasn’t for the mini-comics she can’t stop producing, life might be completely unbearable…

Miss Lasko-Gross has been producing graphic narrative for most of her life, editing the Pratt Institute’s Static Fish comicbook, working in Mauled, House of Twelve 2.0, Legal Action Comics, Aim and others whilst generally living the kind of life that inevitably leads to superbly readable books like this one.

Frank, funny and painfully familiar these beautifully realised vignettes of the kind of outsider-we’d-all-like-to-be are a worthy addition to the burgeoning pool of exceptional graphic autobiographies such as American Splendour and Persepolis. Unflinching, uncompromising, this adult look at growing should be compulsory reading for ever teenager – just to prove life has always been like that…

Now where can I lay my hands on that first volume…?

© 2009 Miss Lasko-Gross. All Rights Reserved.

Best of American Splendor

Best of American Splendor 

By Harvey Pekar and various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-096-4

Harvey Pekar is something of a conundrum. By his own reasoning and admission he is a fairly ordinary working stiff, just trying to get by. For all of his life he has had a “real job” and a “real life”. His comic scripts are introspective, and let’s be honest, not illustrated in a manner guaranteed to suck in the average comic fan, but his comics are always beguiling, intriguing and utterly readable. By telling tales and sharing thoughts he has managed to make an everyday world extraordinary.

This compilation features strips from 1990 to 2004 and is the usual, unusual mix of self-exploration, reminiscence and social trivia blended with some more of his compelling potted histories and commentaries of historically “lost” figures from literature, sports and music. This ability to impart his obvious fascination and empathy for other creators unjustly forgotten and critically downtrodden (like himself?) may simply point to personal bias. Maybe he is championing those he feels have been similarly mistreated, or does it perhaps go deeper than that?

Here is a creator inarguably obsessed with achievement and the justice of recognition, but he is not saying “Hey, look. You’re doing to me what you did to them!” Here is someone who simply perceives genuine worth that needs to be revered and shared, just doing his bit to make it right.

As for my earlier crack about the art, please don’t misunderstand. The artists are not pikers, they just aren’t cranking out your everyday fancy-dan, computer-coddled, mutant fan-boy fodder. The illustrators here include Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld, Joe Sacco, David Collier, Gerry Shamray, Sam Hurt, Joe Zabel, Gary Dumm, Paul Mavrides, Alex Wald, J. R. Stats, Jim Woodring, Carole Sobocinski, Scott A. Gilbert and even Spain. If you read comics broadly rather than stockpile fanatically, you will know most of these names. Hopefully you also know their other work.

The stories themselves range from slice of life single gags, to the familiar recollections and ruminations, from short yarns describing the authors’ close brushes with fame and security, to the extended and deeply moving “TransAtlantic Comics” co-pencilled and inked in two sections by Frank Stack and Colin Warneford. This gem alone is worth the price of admission. The stories set at comic conventions where Pekar was in attendance are horribly familiar and should serve as a warning to any comic collector who retains a semblance of rationality.

If graphic novels are ever to attain the critical, let alone popular acceptance of their picture-free namesakes, it is going to be because of creators like Pekar. I’m unsure of the value of a review such as this, in a venue like this one, to change the minds of notoriously close-minded comics fans, (and yes I regretfully include myself in that description) but I live in hope. Perhaps I’ve convinced you to try something a little different. To paraphrase this most extraordinary man himself, and his philosophy on Jazz, “You either get it or you don’t”. You should get it.

© 2005 Harvey Pekar LLC. All Rights Reserved.