Things Undone


By Shane White (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-563-4

The sheer variety of themes and species in modern cartooning can be quite breathtaking to an old coot who grew up with the severely restricted comics fare of a baby-boomer in Britain – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. These days I can peruse a graphic novel on any subject in any style and incorporating any number of converging genres – and this compelling lit gem comes pretty close to defying categorisation.

Things Undone is a little bit romance, a little bit alternative biography, a little bit punk and a whole lot of terrific. Young Rick Watts is an artist and world-weary peon in the art-consuming field of video games graphics. He’s just moved to Seattle for a new job, but nothing’s really changed and relationship-wise things aren’t going so great either. Long-distance never works so he dragged his girl-friend clear across the country, and his seven year hitch with her couldn’t have ended more badly…

When you can’t catch a break and the new life proves no better than the old one, what can a guy do? And it’s only a matter of time before somebody notices that Rick is a zombie, what with him leaving decaying extremities and eyeballs and such all over the place. Maybe he should just get a gun and do the job right…?

This sharp and bittersweet examination of modern life is funny and poignant, using the populist imagery of the walking dead as an effective metaphor for modern life, but it’s the amazingly comforting art and production (the book is printed in black, white and shocking orange, in a kind of skate-punk cartoon style) that underpins this tale, making the tragic comedic and using confusion as the means of exploring the mundane horrors of urban living.

Clever, witty and one of the most sensitive funny/sad, real/imaginary stories you’ll ever read: so you should.

© 2009 Studiowhite LLC.

Like a Dog


By Zak Sally (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-165-7

Some people do it for money or fame and money. It doesn’t matter what form of creative endeavour “it” is. Whatever art-form you’re thinking of there are those who are rewarded for their creative efforts (fairly or otherwise is another can of worms and I’m not going there) as they either work within or expand the boundaries of their medium, and there are the other sort. Sometimes the other sort gets really lucky and finds fame and fortune along the way.

Why am being so obtuse?

Because unless you are one of those other types that will produce paintings or music or poetry or whatever shapes your life even after every other carbon-based life-form on the planet is dead – or worse yet, just ignores or humours you – then you have no idea of how powerful the compulsion to create can be.

Zak Sally has travelled far (usually as member of the band Low) and dabbled in photography and all forms of print media, but what he is at his core is a cartoonist. He sees the world in terms of incidents, epigrams and bon mots produced as sequential images. He has been producing stories, mini-comics, gags, nonfiction and biographical tales and even historical and political drama for over fifteen years in his self-published ‘zine Recidivist, and other peoples productions such as Mome, Dirty Stories, The Drama, Comic Art Magazine and other places discerning enough to print them.

Even if they hadn’t he would still have drawn them, and now they been collected in a magnificent hardback collection from Fantagraphics which gathers the first two issues of Recidivist in their entirety, plus another thirteen unique and compelling tales in a variety of styles and media, all copiously and tellingly annotated.

Personal favourites – and there are many – include the bleakly informative ‘Dresden’ (because haven’t we all wanted to be rock stars?), the graphically bold ‘Dread’ and ‘The War Back Home’ but unfettered by commercial pressures the author has been able to turn his attentions to whatever caught his eye and the book is a broad anthology of material ranging from horror to comedy to surreal dreamy pure imagery, all underpinned by a keen wit, a canny eye for design and a great ear for dialogue.

Without doubt the best pieces are the utterly superb ‘At the Scaffold’ (an account of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s imprisonment by the Tsar and ‘The Man who Killed Wally Wood’ an “it-happened-to-me” recollection that will captivate any fanboy with an ear for scandal and rumour…

This is a gloriously rough-hewn and hands-on collection from a compulsive cartoonist and storyteller packaged with the flair and imagination that has become a trademark of the world’s leading publisher of fascinating comics. This book won’t appeal to everybody, (especially devotees of the superhero mainstream) but Sally’s dedication to innovation, exploration and imagination will astound and entrance anyone who knows capital A Art when they see it.

© 2009 Zak Sally except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

The Big Kahn


By Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-561-0

When Rabbi Kahn died it shook the close-knit, devout community he had spent four decades building and guiding. But his funeral, where his first born son Avi delivered a eulogy and prepared to assume his father’s role, was a shambles. Rebellious and troubled daughter Lea preferred furtive sex in a synagogue broom-closet to her rightful place beside her grieving mother and young Eli was clearly in a state of shock.

So tempers naturally flared when the unsavoury gentile Roy Dobbs intruded upon the event demanding to see the body of his brother one final time…

With mixed emotions the surviving family and larger congregation are forced to confront a terrible truth. David Kahn, Holocaust survivor, brilliant rabbinical scholar, wise and loving parent and spiritual glue of an entire community for more than forty years, was in fact Donnie Dobbs: a two-bit grifter and con-man who came to the neighbourhood to fleece the yokels but found something better and stayed and grew and blossomed…

With his death everything has changed. The man they all knew was a lie, so doesn’t that mean that everything he said and did was too? Surely the children of David Kahn are tarred with same brush and destined to repeat his thoughts and deeds?

How the implications affect the Kahn children and their broken, bereft mother is a masterpiece of human scrutiny, related with deft skill and great understanding, and the discreet, masterfully underplayed black and white art is effective and compassionate, never intruding into the tale but always providing just what the reader needs to see.

Here’s an intriguing human drama that deserves the widest possible attention, so I’m stifling my usual impulse and pleading that somewhere a sensitive and creative independent film-maker has the sense to option it. The Big Kahn is a witty and powerful exploration of truths big and small set against the backdrop of a traditional Jewish American community, and cannily examines not only faith’s effect on individuals but how mortals shape religion…

Until such a time however you can enjoy one of the best dramas of the year just by picking up this lovely, thought-provoking book.

© 2009 Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani.

American Century: Scars and Stripes


By Howard Chaykin, David Tischman, Marc Laming & John Stokes (Vertigo)
ISBN: 1-56389-791-1

The “straight” adventure strip, with a free-wheeling hero travelling the globe righting wrongs – long a mainstay of comics and strips – has to a large extent vanished from the assembled genres that make up the modern graphic narrative industry – at least in the English speaking world. Possibly the last – and wickedest – hurrah of the form came from a cruelly underrated series by one of America’s best creators: Howard Chaykin.

Wearing his sly and savvy social and historical commentator’s hat, the fabled bad boy of popular culture and frequent writing partner David Tischman created World War II veteran Harry Block, who won the war but loathed the peace, chafing at his boring pilot’s job, his cheating wife and his smug, scuzzball racist friends as they all chase the new American Dream in the Halcyon summer days of 1949.

When the Korean conflict flares up and he’s recalled to Active Duty, Harry decides enough is enough and flees to South America. If he’s going to be shot at again he wants it to be personal and not because some grasping, incompetent @$$h*le orders it…

Taken from issues #1-4 of American Century, this introductory saga finds him in turbulent Guatemala using the name Harry Kraft and sucked into a CIA-sponsored revolutionary war as his comfy smuggling gig brings him to the attention of Soviet Agent Provocateurs and the beloved “Santa” Rosa, bleached-blonde Angel of the Poor and bed-mate of the increasingly isolated and desperate General/Presidenté DeSantiis.

The American Way just won’t give Harry a break and the murderous, bloody results are going to repaint World maps in ways that ordinary people will regret and resent for decades to come…

Smart, complex, sexily cynical, headily political and darkly comic, this sardonic left-wing parable simmers with attitude and the no-nonsense clear-cut art from Marc Laming and John Stokes continues that splendid tradition of a decent man in a bad place that began with Captain Easy and Terry and the Pirates but adds enough uncompromising contemporary punch, smut and gore to captivate anybody over 16 who’s ever read a newspaper.

The series ran to 27 issues and only this volume and the follow-up American Century: Hollywood Babylon (ISBN: 1-56389-885-3) were ever collected, so there’s plenty more to see should Vertigo ever wise up and continue to re-package them. Of course, best of all would be a couple of definitive editions and an all-new sequel…

© 2001 Howard Chaykin, Inc.and DC Comics. 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.

Mighty Love


By Howard Chaykin, with Don Cameron, Kurt Hathaway & Dave Stewart (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-930-2

Don’t let the outfits fool you: it’s not just another kinky love story…

Oddly released under the DC rather than Vertigo imprint, this is a story about crime in the big city and of the compromises individuals must make to achieve their purposes.

Delaney Pope is a rough, tough cop on a corrupt force who is fed up with seeing the scum she arrests get away with murder – or worse. Lincoln Reinhardt is a slick, liberal defense lawyer constantly thwarting the frames and set-ups of those cops. He often clashes with Pope in the course of his job. They both loathe each other with a passion.

Unbeknownst to either they both assuage their work-day frustrations by putting on masks and costumes to beat the crap out of criminals (with or without badges) in the commission of their crimes – where there are no doubts about guilt, innocence or mitigations.

The thrill of these nocturnal forays inevitably lead to a meeting of “Skylark” and “Iron Angel”, and a tenuous, teasing team-up when separate cases bring them together against the city’s first criminal mastermind. Not knowing each other’s real identity, but afraid to unmask and lose that so-tantalising tension, the pair have to decide what’s most important, the actual or the promised…

This delightfully fizzy adult romp prods all the fetishistic trappings of superhero storytelling as the brassy and whimsical writer/artist (with computer effects by Cameron, lettering from Hathaway and colours by Stewart) blends riffs from The Shop Around the Corner, The Thin Man, Pat and Mike and even Adam’s Rib with a plethora of crime caper movies to produce a costume drama in the unmistakable Chaykin manner.

Clearly the pilot for an unrealized longer series, Mighty Love is a fast and stylish little oddity that reads well and looks great – so if all you want is a good time; Baby, look no further…
© 2003 Howard Chaykin, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Luba


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-960-9

In the 1980s a qualitative revolution forever destroyed the clichéd, stereotypical ways different genres of comic strips were regarded. Most prominent in destroying these comfy pigeonholes we’d built for ourselves were three guys from Oxnard, California; Jaime, Mario (occasionally) and Gilberto Hernandez.

Love and Rockets was an anthology comics magazine that featured the slick, intriguing, sci-fi-ish larks of punky young things Maggie and Hopey – las Locas – and the heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasy of Palomar. These gifted synthesists captivated us all with incredible stories that sampled a thousand influences conceptual and actual – everything from Archie Comics and alternative music to German Expressionism and masked wrestlers. The result was pictorial and narrative dynamite.

Palomar was the playground of Gilberto, created for the extended serial Heartbreak Soup: a poor Latin-American village with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast. Everything from life death, adultery, magic, serial killing and especially gossip could happen in the meta-fictional environs of Palomar, and did, as the artist explored his own post-punk influences, comics, music, drugs, comics, strong women, gangs, sex, family and comics, in a style that seemed informed by everything from the Magical Realism of writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez to Saturday morning cartoons and the Lucy Show.

Beto, as he signs himself, returned to the well of Palomar constantly, usually with tales centred around the formidable matriarch – or perhaps Earth Mother figure – Luba, who ran the village’s bath house, acted as Mayor – and sometimes police chief – as well as adding regularly and copiously to the general population. Her children, brought up with no acknowledged fathers in sight, are Maricela, Guadalupe, Doralis, Casimira, Socorro, Joselito and Concepcion. A passionate, fiery woman who speaks her mind and generally gets her own way, she keeps a small claw-hammer with her at all times.

Luba is a character who defies easy description and I don’t actually want to: As one of the most complex women in literature, let alone comics, she’s somebody you want to experience, not learn of second-hand. You will probably notice that she has absolutely enormous breasts. Deal with it. These stories are casually, graphically, sexually explicit. Luba’s story is about Life, and sex happens, constantly and often with the wrong people at the wrong time. If harsh language and cartoon nudity (male and female) are an insurmountable problem for you don’t read these tales. It is genuinely your loss.

After a run of spectacular stories (all of which have been collected in a variety of formats and editions which I really must get around to reviewing) like An American in Palomar, Human Diastrophism and Poison River, the magazine ended and Luba and her extended family then graduated to a succession of mini-series which concentrated on her moving to the USA and reuniting with her half-sisters Rosalba (“Fritz”) and Petra, taken when her mother Maria fled from Palomar decades previously.

Which brings us to this delightfully massive and priceless tome: Luba collects in one monumental volume her later life as an proud immigrant who refuses to learn English (or does she?), over 80 stories covering 596 black and white pages ranging from lengthy sagas to sparkling single page skits which originally appeared in Luba, Luba’s Comics and Stories, Luba in America, Luba: the Book of Ofelia and Luba: Three Daughters. The tone and content ranges from surreal to sad to funny to thrilling. The entire world can be found in these pages.

Although in an ideal world you would read the older material first, there’s absolutely no need to. Reminiscence and memory are as much a part of this brilliant passion-play as family feeling, music, infidelity, survival, punk rock philosophy, and laughter – lots and lots of laughter. Brilliantly illustrated, these are human tales as coarse and earthy any as any of Chaucer’s Pilgrims could tell, as varied and appetising as any of Boccaccio’s Decameron and as universally human as the best of that bloke Shakespeare.

I’m probably more obtuse – just plain dense or blinkered – than most, but for years I thought this stuff was about the power of Family Ties, but it’s not: at least not fundamentally. Luba is about love. Not the sappy one-sided happy-ever after stuff in chick-flicks, but LOVE, that mighty, hungry beast that makes you always protect the child that betrays you, that has you look for a better partner whilst you’re in the arms of your one true love, and hate the place you wanted to live in all your life. The love of cars and hair-cuts and biscuits and paper-cuts and stray cats that bite you: selfish, self-sacrificing, dutiful, urgent, patient, uncomprehending, a feeling beyond words.

Just like the love of a great comic…

© 2009 Gilbert Hernandez. 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.

Books of Magick: Life During Wartime

Books of Magic: Life During Wartime 

By Si Spencer & Dean Ormston (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-005-0

Neil Gaiman is a big name in comics. He’s one of those guys who’s “made it” in the realer world but hasn’t completely turned his back on comics. He is also one of a small creative elite whose name liberally spread out on a book cover can bring non-comic clientele to a package, which is a long-winded way of saying that no comic title he’s been involved with will long stay in Limbo.

The latest return of The Books of Magick and super magician Tim Hunter features yet another revamp of the young, guileless innocent that Gaiman, John Bolton and a small band of painterly superstars tasked with a journey of self-discovery through all the Mystic Realms of the DC Universe back in the 1990s. Unfortunately a lot of pages have been published since then and the scrofulous young yob starring here is no kin to that waif.

This in itself is no bad thing. The adventures begin in another universe where humanity and demons are at war, a supernatural global conflict that has pushed Man to the brink of extinction. One last bastion lies besieged and Vertigo stalwart John Constantine is their embattled leader, as they await the return of their all-powerful deity, The Hunter.

The echoes of William Hope Hodgeson and C. S. Lewis are interrupted with a segue to a young adult Tim in what looks like our reality, dossing about after graduating university, doing drugs, swilling beer and shagging totty, just like anybody. As the story progresses long-time readers will realise that something is amiss, though. This life is just as out of whack as the demon war-scape and events lead to the inevitable conclusion that a deadly congruence of circumstance will catapult Tim and his coterie of reprobates into an alien Armageddon.

My poncey locution aside, this is quite an enjoyable fantasy ride. Si Spencer brings his television writing (Grange Hill, Eastenders) into the mix of earthly and unreal to great effect – let’s face it, most comics are soap-operas these days – and Dean Ormston manages to be grungy and stylish at the same time. My quibble stems from what I said earlier.

Although a re-interpretation, much of the narrative depends on a more than passing knowledge of the DC Universe (Hellblazer, Zatanna etc.) and especially the characters such as idealised girl friend Molly, from the long previous runs of Books of Magick. If those comics had sold well enough to garner a solid readership, we wouldn’t be discussing this new version at all, and to ask new readers to muddle along knowing there’s a subtext but not getting it seems at best harsh and at worst a recipe for yet another early bath.

For those Gaiman groupies, it might be an actual turn off from an otherwise useful addition to comics’ adult fantasy stable, and even comics in general.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

War Stories Volume 1

War Stories Volume 1 

Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-912-3

Garth Ennis continues to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British war strip stories he read as a lad in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for Vertigo. The first four of these are collected in War Stories, with an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work to date.

“Johann’s Tiger” (with art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine) charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police as their guilt-wracked commander seeks Americans he can safely surrender to. “The D-Day Dodgers” (illustrated by John Higgins) sees a raw English officer join a combat unit as it slogs its way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war, namely the 20 month campaign to re-take Italy.

Dave Gibbons tackles the Americans in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of G.I.’s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a freshly abandoned Nazi chateau. David Lloyd closes the volume with the moody and moving “Nightingale”, Ennis’s powerful tale of the dishonour and redemption of a British Destroyer on escort duty.

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter. These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.

© 2004 Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons. All Rights Reserved.