Monday, June 21, 2010

Squared Away

My waist-high to-read stack of single issues has finally been whittled down to shin-height, right in the stratum of The Uncanny X-Men. So lately, I've renewed the attack on my to-read stack of trades with vigor. Let's discuss, won't we?

Rabbi Harvey vs. the Wisdom Kid (Jewish Lights): The Jews are funny. This is an irrefutable fact. Jerry Seinfeld, Milton Berle, Red Auerbach, and the Three Stooges are all firm proof of this predilection of the Hasidim for comedy. So when I came across this little book, the third in a series, and saw also that it was a western, another favorite genre of mine, I was immediately intrigued.

And I was far from disappointed. Artist and writer Steve Sheinkin spins a familiar western fable, only instead of a draw-down at high noon, we get the wisdom of the Torah. I infer that this book's main purpose is to make Hebrew school less boring for the kids, so that they're not tempted to steal their Uncle Max's toupée and glue it on their faces to portray Moses. But this certainly doesn't mean that the goyim can't enjoy it as well. Even though it's geared towards kids, it's genuinely funny and the ancient Jewish wisdom abounds, if you're into that sort of thing. I wouldn't say I couldn't live without this book, but it pleasantly killed a half hour or so.

Ghostopolis (Scholastic): For those of you not in the know, I pay the bills by being a warehouse schlep for a joint that deals largely in kids' books. The company gets a lot of advanced reader copies of kiddie-lit, and a good chunka that includes the funny books, and an even gooder chunka them end up in the Free Box in the breakroom. Most of 'em aren't even worth the (non-)price, and most of the good ones are stuff I already have (like the Scholastic reprints of Bone). But when I saw this title in there about a year ago, I think it was, I recognized Doug TenNapel's name from his Iron West, which I enjoyed but didn't bother to hold on to. So I grabbed it up and it sat and collected dust for months on end.

Well, imagine how sheepish I felt when I finally cracked this bad boy open and found it to be one of the finest comics I'd read in years. It reminds me greatly of the aforementioned Bone: a very Campbell-esque quest story, very kid-friendly but never pandering, and just very enjoyable on all levels. I don't remember noticing what a huge Chuck Jones influence TenNapel shows in his artwork before, but here it is very clear indeed. My only regret other than not reading this sooner is that, since this is an ARC, only the first few pages are in color, and the contrast is far too noticeable for me to justify not shelling out the bread for this when it is officially released this here July.

I was talking to Cameron about this book, and from what he'd seen, he was surprised that I dug on it. But when I threw down the Bone comparison, he seemed convinced, as should you be. And I don't mind telling you that the last couple pages brought tears to my eyes. I may be a big pussy, but that sorta thing doesn't happen as often these days now that they got me jacked full of the anti-depressants. So do yourself a favor and buy two copies: one for yourself, and one for your ten-year-old nephew who always gets picked last for kickball.

Jonah Hex: Welcome to Paradise (DC): One of the few really good things about Hollywood adaptations of comics is, in the case of a character like Jonah Hex, the publisher will try to take advantage of the renewed interest in the character by reprinting some of his earlier adventures. This movie may bomb like the Enola Gay, but I've already got this nice little trade, so my troubles are over. The second volume of the Jonah Hex Showcase is permanently in publication limbo it would seem, even though it was solicited a handful of years ago. And even though this volume is a lot more slender and contains a good chunk of stuff from the first Showcase, the color reproduction is well worth the price of admission alone.

Though I feel the current monthly Jonah Hex by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray is by far the best rendition of this character, there is much to be said for the original. As I've said before, DC's westerns had it all over Marvel's back in the '70s, in much the same way that the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s kick the living shit out of the oaters of yesteryear. Like the films of Sergio Leone and his ilk, DC's westerns like Weird Western Tales portray a heavily de-romanticized version of the Old West, where morality is not worth more than what's printed on a wanted poster. Particularly striking in this collection are three stories by long-time Hex scribe Michael Fleisher, who is often also remembered for his losing lawsuit against Harlan Ellison and The Comics Journal, which he filed after Harlan playfully (according to Harlan) called him "bugfuck" among other things in an interview in that mag (having read the interview myself, I'd say Fleisher was pretty much misinterpreting things, and really only cemented anything negative Harlan may have had to say by going so far off the deep end).

But really, none of that has any bearing on the man's comics output, and if shitheads like me would focus on that instead of interdisciplinary gossip like this, we'd all be better off. In "Face-off with the Gallagher Boys!" we meet the title gang, who are largely folk heroes for their war of crime against the big-shot railroad companies. But during their encounter with Hex, they're revealed to their supporters to be just as much a buncha greedy capitalistic opportunists as their antagonists. It's a lovely bit of a cautionary tale about the underdog and what a rat he can often be.

The next two stories are pretty much one narrative which finally puts to bed the sub-plot of the mysterious Mr. Turnbull who'd been trying to have Hex killed almost since the beginning of the character's run. It also fills in the blanks as to Hex's reputation as a coward and a traitor to the Confederate States of America. Seems that young Lieutenant Hex could no longer fight a war to keep a race of people enslaved. Although he dearly loved his southern home, he surrendered himself honorably to the Yanks, pledging to never betray his homeland. But due to the manipulations of the petty Union captain, Hex is framed as just that: a traitor who not only gave up the location of his unit, but who then lead them to slaughter during an escape attempt.

It is this story which can be pointed to as mostly deftly characterizing the bounty hunter known as Jonah Hex. It's from this point on that Hex becomes a country unto himself, polarizing himself from society by not only continuing to wear the uniform of a Confederate, but by becoming a hunter of men, a profession largely looked down upon back then (as opposed to now, when it gets you a TV show despite how stupid your haircut might be). The reader is often witness to Hex acting in the interests of justice, but that is always despite himself. His deeply abiding hatred for humanity is well reflected on himself, especially in a beautiful sequence in "The Trial." Hex stops in a saloon in Virginia, and is soon recognized as the traitor of the 4th Calvary. Every single patron leaves in disgust, as does the proprietor, leaving Hex there alone to ruminate. Staring at his disfigured face in the big picture mirror, Hex smashes it into shards. The loathing of one man for his kind as well as for himself practically slaps the reader in the face.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Jonah fuckin' Hex.

FreakAngels, vols. 3 & 4 (Avatar): Look, either you're already reading this series for free on-line or buying the trades like me and the rest of the suckers or you're not gonna bother. So instead of telling you that this is more Warren Ellis goodness with more of Paul Duffield's excellent art, I'd like to take this opportunity to talk about on-line comics.

Way back when, when I first read the preview of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics in the back of Cerebus, I had only an inkling of how indispensable this book would be to the study of comics literature. By the time the follow-up, Reinventing Comics was released in 2000, I was all primed to have my mind blown further as to the possibilities within the greatest medium known to man.

Well, I'm still waiting on that mind-blowing. The furor that this book caused, with its intensive focus on on-line comics as the future of the medium, lead McCloud himself to consider the book "dangerous." I'd say the most dangerous thing about the book is how much it insults my intelligence. At one point, he even says something to the effect of, "I drew this whole book using a computer and nary a pencil or piece of paper, and you couldn't even tell, could you?" What am I, a fucking moron, McCloud?

But that was ten years ago. As should be obvious, I've become far more accustomed to our futuristic on-line society, with its rocket-packs and space-pets. But I still hedge at considering the on-line world the next logical step for comics. I mean, really, if comics become (or as they may already have become) as interactive as McCloud predicted a decade ago, well, then they're hardly comics anymore, are they? I mean, I know McCloud technically considers Egyptian hieroglyphics and medieval French tapestries to be forms of comics, but I ain't bagging and boarding them big clunky things. And the same goes for the future: on-line comics are more likely poised to become some blend of sequential art, video games and viral video, deserving of a terminology a little more specific than "on-line comics." I mean, otherwise, we'd still be referring to movies as kinetoscopes.

In the meantime, your more traditional on-line comics, which are pretty much static, Internet-only versions of the things stacked in my closet, are fine as far as comics goes. Some are good (read LaMorté Sisters now, if you aren't already. If I recommend a vampire story to you, you can be reassured that it's worthwhile, since I find vampires more boring than I do your girlfriend), some are for sucks (oddly, I find LaMorté Sisters' creators Johnny Zito and Tony Trov's The Black Cherry Bombshells to fall more under this category), just like any print comics. Personally, I spend plenty of time as it is on this computer machine, so I generally prefer to read my comics the old-fashioned way, and yeah, I'll pony up good money to do so rather than reading it for free on this contraption. But that's just me.

This is all to say, read FreakAngels.

Blankets (Top Shelf): I'm as surprised as you are that it's taken me this long to read this book. I remember hearing a lot about it, but I dunno. For one thing, I'd never heard of this Craig Thompson guy, and since I buy so many books, I usually don't have the money to roll the dice on stuff like this like I did when I was in high school and was a non-smoker. But John let me borrow it, and I am plenty glad he did.

Thompson is a very talented cartoonist as well as a top-notch story-teller. Really, even given my above comments, I should just buy everything Top Shelf puts out from now on, because even if I don't keep it all, it's all still very worthwhile.

All that being said, I do have a few...well, not problems, or even criticisms. I dunno what you'd call 'em, but here goes: first, I think I still have a major hang-over from the indie autobiographical comics boom of the '90s. Seth, Joe Matt, and Chester Brown formed this confessional Canadian troika back then, and even though they put out some good comics, I really got fed up with reading about sensitive guys and their sensitive up-bringings. And if I'm really being honest here, a lot of the embarrassing crap these guys go through tends to strike pretty close to home as well, and I just wanna shove it away. Not the most mature attitude to take, I know, but when you consider how much time and effort I dedicate to the adventures of grown men in spandex, this attitude shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

Another feeling that is a little difficult to pin down is the notion of child molestation. It's gross, to say the very least, and I should hope that I don't have to point that out to anybody here. Since Blankets is autobiographical and since the episodes with child molestation relate directly to the narrative, they're not only disturbing and powerful, but they play an important part in the story. I can get around my own personal discomfort with the subject enough to read it (hell, I've been reading Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn this week, so I oughtta be practiced enough at reading icky and gross stuff), but I guess my problem comes from the over-use of this sort of thing in modern story-telling. Not to say that Thompson is pulling this at all, but it seems that including child sexual abuse is a short-cut for writers to a volatile emotional reaction. And like any short-cut, if it's used too often, it defeats its own purpose. The reaction in the audience is in danger of becoming dulled. The possibility that this may extend to reactions to actual child abuse is for somebody else to worry about, like the argument that violent movies and video games desensitize people to the real thing. But what I am more concerned about is when a book like Blankets comes along and deftly depicts a horrible action like this, and my first reaction was almost an eye roll: "Here we go again." That's fucked up, and rather than take responsibility for my own reactions, I'm gonna blame lazy writers and generally worthless shows like Law & Order: SVU for such a saturation of this particular market.

Way to go, assholes.

The Killer, vol. 1 (Archaia): Again, I'll just briefly say this is a very fun read, written by Matz and drawn by Luc Jacamon, originally released in France ten years ago, about a bad-ass hitman and his bad-ass hitman adventures. And now I'll go on a tangent.

Pulp and noir fiction is some of my favorite stuff, as you should know by now. Not only do I enjoy reading it, but it also a big part of my own creative output. Out of the Gutter is one of today's premiere print rags of hard-boiled lit, and when one goes to submit something to them, they have a list of stuff to avoid, clichés that the genre is already full of. And yes, hitmen hold a firm place on that list.

Hey, who doesn't like to read about guys who kill guys? I sure as hell do. But I think one of the reasons the hitman has become such a boring crime archetype is unfortunately one of the most noticeable things about this first volume of The Killer. I already think that narration in comics is largely unnecessary: if you can't convey what you wanna through dialogue and pictures, then I'd say you're not using the medium to its utmost. Of course, there are a million counter-examples to that, but to me, it's a pretty good rule of thumb. But if you insist on using narration, especially first-person, please do not front-load all the motivation there. Especially with a hitman character. It seems to me that a lot of writers feel a need to make it clear why these guys are hitmen, why they would partake in such a detestable occupation. Is this trip really necessary? Why wouldn't I just buy that these guys are sociopaths? Hell, I'm a bad week away from becoming one myself. So all this tired nonsense of "Hey, it's just my job, and if I didn't do it, someone else would, and the people I kill are generally scumbags" and blah blah blah. Max Allan Collins is the only guy I've seen pull it off, and maybe Lawrence Block, and even then, I tend to skim over those parts, quick as. And those guys are legends in the field. Chances are, you ain't.

So stop it already. The guy kills people for money. If you feel the need to explain that further, watch Grosse Pointe Blank again and see what you're doing wrong.

West Coast Blues (Fantagraphics): As if predicting my reaction to The Killer, Jacques Tardi shows up with this adaptation of a Jean-Patrick Manchette novel and proves them frogs really do know what they're doing over there. One of my first thoughts on this book was how much it reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard's movies. And while that may be true, I'm suspicious of my own ability to make that call, since Godard is pretty much the only French pop culture I've had any interaction with.

But regardless, this book is loaded with more existenialism than you can shake being and nothingness at. And it's fucking awesome. I really can't get enough of this sorta stuff, not since I read The Stranger in high school and pretended to understand it, even though at the time, the only understanding it gave me was of The Cure's "Killing an Arab." The main character, average le schmuck George Gerfaut, has an attempt made on his life by two guys he's never seen before. So naturally, he bails on his wife and kids and goes to live in the mountains for a year. The narration in this book is largely expository, but only in real general terms, and it certainly doesn't allow us an open window into Gerfaut's mindset. That's for us to figure out, and I'm glad these boys left it that way. It makes for a much more staisfying read if I have to fill in my own blanks. Plus there are lots of drawing of penises.

Tardi is widely known in Europe and has been for years, so it only makes sense that I've only just become aware of his stuff. Apparently, Fantagraphics is gonna be reprinting a buncha his stuff, even the stuff that Dark Horse already put out a few years ago. So you have no excuse to grab this up and look real impressive down at the coffee house.

All right, kids, that's it for this month. See you next time.