Comics Reading, Spring-Summer 2012 (1st of a series)

This past spring I began posting reviews to Goodreads, mostly short reviews of new or recent comics (let’s say comics that were new to me). I started gradually, but once my teaching duties eased off after Memorial Day, I started to gain some momentum. For a while.

It was good to get back into the flow: to put my antennae to the wind, grab some new comics, and also catch up with some important books I hadn’t been able to read for the past couple of years due to working on other things. This to me was (is) a purely personal exercise, which I hope to keep up—though of course I lost the momentum mid-summer, first to Comic-Con International and speaking gigs, then to travel, then to editorial responsibilities and, finally, the usual late-summer teaching prep.

Below, lightly edited, are a baker’s dozen reviews I did between mid-April and late July. They’re in chronological order. Of course this list doesn’t cover all my comics reading over that stretch of time; I’ve left out magazines and old comics, and perhaps a few others. But what’s here is a fair reflection of what I found most interesting as a comics reader in the early summer. I hope to follow this up with other posts about more recent reading.

I see that I gave most of the comics below pretty high numeric “ratings,” which I suppose reflects two facts: first, these were mainly books I sought out myself rather than unsolicited review copies; second, these were books I chose to prioritize in my long backlog of titles “to read.” I made those choices on the basis of strong, particular interests, so it comes as no surprise that I dug a lot of the books I read. Some were disappointing, though, as you may be able to tell.

Of course it may be that I’m just a gushing, comics-loving softy. :)

If you click on an image you’ll open up a publisher’s page or post for that book—either that or the author’s website.

Cleveland

Cleveland. Scripted by Harvey Pekar and drawn by Joseph Remnant. ZIP Comics and Top Shelf Productions, 2012. 3/5 stars.

Another rambling, garrulous book from Pekar, stronger than The Quitter, but still a bit shapeless and randomly edited, with uneven and flickering emphasis on topics both political and personal. The artwork by Remnant (what an apt name!) has the lumpen, crumpled, Crumb-like look, often quite effective in spite of its familiarity. The book ambles and gets around and finally, simply, ends, up in the air—as is so often the case with Pekar. But it’s hard to dislike, and hard to regret having read, because of its insistent localism, its louche charm, and, of course, its big-hearted honesty. A testament! (21 April 2012)

Flex Mentallo

Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery. Scripted by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely. Vertigo/DC Comics, 2012. 4/5 stars.

A dizzying, head-spinning metafiction, in which various ontological levels never quite resolve into a trustworthy, concrete setting; instead, Morrison & Quitely engage in a dazzling ping-pong match among realities. The book has way too many ideas, but its sheer barreling excess works wonders. M&Q suggest the power of fiction, the plasticity and worth of that absurd pop culture figure, the costumed superhero, and the virtues of hero worship, which in this case is inoculated with just enough acknowledgment of worldly pessimism and darkness to make the final, bright new dawning seem earned rather than generic. Perhaps too undisciplined to finally snap into clear, crystalline focus, but, oh man, the trip. Lovely. Morrison tends to be at his best when working with the elegant and ingenious Quitely, and this was their first collaboration—a harbinger of what they would later achieve in the terrific All-Star Superman. (22 April 2012)

Wilson

Wilson. By Dan Clowes. Drawn and Quarterly, 2010. 3/5 stars.

Wilson is a remarkably acrid, unpleasant work that follows a certain inexorable logic and rhythm that ultimately become as predictable as a Cathy Guisewite Sunday strip. In each self-contained one-page episode, the titular Wilson indulges in a grandiose or absurd monologue (or a failed, one-sided dialogue with someone else) that soars ever higher into self-deluding fatuity, then pops like a pin-stuck balloon into some comic comeuppance or anticlimax, or else a cruel rejoinder that would be shocking were the rhythms of the book not so predictable. The pacing is as reliable as a finely tuned motor, but the compulsive repetition of the method renders the humor arid and tedious. That may be part of the point: Wilson is deliberately structured to emphasize existential torpor, boredom, and flattening of affect, punctuated with sudden bursts of incivility or outrage, and the flatness of the contemporary Sunday strip may be the perfect vehicle for that feeling. But the results are off-putting.

The smartass side of Clowes and the humanly insightful side are ever at war with each other, and so it is with Wilson, a work that, like Clowes’ great Ghost World and “Caricature,” seeks to sound out the limitations of a world-weary, cynical POV even as it enacts that cynicism. In Wilson the tug o’war is made especially bitter by the compression enforced by the one-page strip format. The consolation here is Clowes’ visual craft, which tackles each page in a different style, from naturalism to bigfoot cartooning, the shifts in style presumably matching changes in Wilson’s mood or self-perception. This is all exceptionally well-done, smart as hell really, but the emotional outflow of the work is so constricted, the results such a study in willed flatness, that I don’t imagine rereading it anytime soon. Again, an acrid work, stunted in feeling. (28 May 2012)

Big Questions

Big Questions. By Anders Nilsen. Drawn and Quarterly, 2011. 5/5 stars.

In this eerily post-9/11 fable, a plane crash, an unexploded bomb, and the wanderings of two men—one the downed Pilot, the other a preverbal Idiot, i.e., either an imbecile or a saint—disrupt the lives of a motley community of animals, most particularly a charm of finches, who live on a vast, vague plain in some unspecified microcosmic world. One of the finches, Charlotte, reads “the giant bird” (the plane wreck) and its “egg” (the bomb) prophetically, becoming the evangelist of a new faith. Others, like Curtis, are skeptical, or, like Betty, caught between faith and skepticism. One finch, Bayle, becomes the disciple of the Idiot. Another, Algernon, is abducted by a Snake and thus discovers a ghostly underground world. Also appearing are murderous crows, a few hungry dogs and squirrels, and mysterious visions of swans.

Nature, red in tooth and claw, becomes the backdrop for pained spiritual and existential questioning. Long stillnesses and passages of achingly slow, deliberate movement sometimes give way to bursts of deadpan violence. The finches, despite being depicted from a distance without individual markings, and thus visually interchangeable, develop humanly complex characters; their relationships and conflicts, against the open-ended blank whiteness of the plain, constitute a fully realized story-world, rendered in exceedingly delicate strokes.

Collecting a series of minicomics begun as long ago as 1999, and showing Nilsen’s tremendous artistic growth over the past dozen years, the 600-page Big Questions is a minimalist epic: a spiraling story whose studied graphic austerity gradually reveals a terrific richness in terms of worldbuilding, characterization, and theme. Above all, the book achieves a dreamlike atmosphere: a quietness that is sometimes charming, sometimes full of threat. I found it at once terribly open, frightening even, and yet provokingly inscrutable. As Nilsen discovers and warms to his story—one of faith, interpretation, and existential crisis—those damn finches and their surroundings do become, to me, a world.

This is an incredible comic. (4 June 2012)

The Acme Novelty Library 20

The Acme Novelty Library #20. By Chris Ware. Drawn and Quarterly, 2010. 5/5 stars.

Jesus, what a sad, relentless book. Ware’s Acme Novelty Library No. 20, or Lint, is a grinding, crushing exercise: the life story of one Jordan Lint (1958-2023), an unlikable if not wholly unsympathetic study in, unsurprisingly for Ware, broken masculinity. Lint inverts the premise of Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: instead of a shy, painfully recessive, Charlie Brown-like shlemiel à la the semi-autobiographical Jimmy, Jordan Lint is extrapolated from the archetypal locker room bully, a bluff, crass, blindly acquisitive, homophobic, sexually selfish exemplar of failed if not pitiable machismo. Of course both Jimmy and Lint are saddled with problematic or emotionally absent father figures; both are unable to rise, quite, to the masculine ideals they strive for. But Lint gets closer; he lives a macho life.

Lint surprises again and again with his capacity for self-serving and self-destructive action. It’s hard for me to tell whether Ware’s attitude toward Lint is one of contempt or grudging sympathy; I suspect the former, but, still, Ware does the hard work of delving into Lint’s psyche and finding toeholds of human interest. Jordan Lint is very much un-Ware like, and it’s Ware’s ability to probe such a character that makes Acme No. 20 a notable step forward—that and, as usual, new formal advances.

Like Citizen Kane (I know the comparison is hyperbolic, but in this case it’s deserved), Lint is a formalist tour de force that puts a huge array of techniques to experimental effect in order to portray a difficult, in some ways repellant character. But whereas Kane focuses on the egomania of a man who has everything, Lint deals with a rather ordinary guy, whose childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and senescence are captured in pitiful detail. Jordan Lint harbors a few terrible secrets, although it’s not always clear whether the flashbacks and revelations are entirely “real”: there are fresh disclosures about the past even near the end of the book, but they’re presented in such mediated, ambiguous terms that I’m left wondering. In any case, Ware pushes his diagrammatic formalism to an extreme in order to evoke the workings of the mind: faintest impressions, fleeting mental connections, desires, sensory details, psychological confusion. There’s also an extraordinary sequence late in the book that invokes the very different style of Gary Panter (as Lint’s son bares his soul to the world in what is, basically, a tell-all autobiographical comic). That too is a new move for Ware.

Putting it all together, the artistic yield is tremendous. As portraits of assholes go, Lint is a much stronger, more layered work than Clowes’ Wilson, much more humanly complex, much more challenging and more rewarding. Yet one thing gives me pause: every Ware comic, whatever else it’s about, seems to be about solipsism, because Ware’s formal techniques don’t admit of real dialogue among people, in a fully fleshed-out, interactive way; instead they remain keyed to a single consciousness, with an almost suffocating intensity that doesn’t admit any fresh air. In other words, Ware’s mastery of focalization is so intense that it shuts out the possibility of truly dialogical, intersubjective engagement. The results leave me gasping for air, even as I say to myself, Damn, that’s one hell of a comic. (9 June 2012)

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother? By Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin, 2012. 3/5 stars.

Psychonalysis is pretty much alien territory for me. This is not because I haven’t studied it; in fact I read a great deal about it in grad school, and continue to encounter psychoanalytic theory and criticism on a very regular basis. I can talk the talk. But I generally don’t find the talk credible, not in the sense of grounded empirical claims such as we usually look for in science and clinical work. My sense is that psychoanalysis works, insofar as it works at all, by providing a smart, compelling, but nonscientific and untestable symbolic system that allows the client/patient to become the co-investigator of her/his own case. In other words, my guess is that psychoanalysis succeeds for certain patients who have committed to learning its symbolic system, but may not have any meaning for people outside of the learned circle that participates in that system. Though I’m prepared to be proven wrong on this, my understanding is that psychoanalysis persists in literary theory to a degree well out of proportion to its currency in clinical practice, and that it functions better as a symbolic vocabulary than anything else. So call me a skeptic.

Are You My Mother? essentially belongs to the literature of psychoanalysis, which makes it a tough sell for me. Even more than its predecessor, Fun Home, Are You My Mother? is reflexive, self-aware, and achingly meta, and in this case the self-reflexivity of the text testifies to Bechdel’s awestruck fascination with self-analysis. Ostensibly a story about her relationship with her mother, the book is actually a recursive meditation cued by Bechdel’s recollections of analysis, which keep returning her to the same scenes and confrontations in obsessive fashion. As a result, it oscillates between scenes in which Bechdel reaches out to her mother, usually remotely, by mediated means (post, email, phone), and scenes in which Bechdel directly confronts, or is confronted by, her analysts. The book’s reflections on motherhood, childhood, and her own particular family come off as distanced and abstracted, giving long passages a diffuse or tortuous quality. What’s more, Bechdel’s drawing, generally charming and often wholly persuasive in the past, seems sorely taxed here; she has, I think, particular difficulty rendering her adult self, as opposed to the child and adolescent selves that dominate Fun Home. Likenesses wobble, and the drawing sometimes seems stilted.

Also, whereas her father seemed such a potent and indelible presence in Fun Home, her mother doesn’t get a chance to register as strongly here. Indeed much of what I think I know about her mother still comes from the sharp, insinuating, if brief portrait of her in Fun Home.

Bechdel may be aware of this: part of the book’s dramatic argument is to show how her ideas of her mother often get between her and the real person. If self-awareness could answer all charges, then I’d have no gripes; Bechdel is the very master of self-awareness. But this time her self-involvement and meta-awareness vitiate the story’s dramatic power.

And yet—and yet—there comes a moment in Mother? where the accumulated weight of the book’s reflections seems to break something, where raw, unmediated emotion, undiluted by Bechdel’s usual hyperconscious filtering, breaks through, with a power only strengthened by the fact that she seems to struggle to convey it graphically. There comes a moment when tears flood, and then the book’s abstractions come home to roost with renewed power. Here I began to feel rescued from the sheer grinding work of reading; I began to think that Bechdel had earned something, that the tortured, knotty structure of the book had brought me somewhere important. In spite of the stiffly mannered formalism that holds Bechdel in its grip from first to last, the book has a desperate human core, and this I found—find—fascinating.

In the end, Are You My Mother? strikes me as an intriguing yet only half-realized exploration of personal mystery. Unfortunately, its rewards are cocooned in a willed remoteness and dryness. The project impresses me in the abstract for its courage, but it doesn’t come off narratively: its indirection and needlessly over-elaborated structure sorely attenuate its emotional impact. Fun Home achieved a tremendous yield by warily circling its subject, but Are You My Mother? just retreats and crumbles.

Certainly I’ve never read another book like this. I do expect to read it again; Bechdel’s talent is that great. But the book feels like a damp wick. I miss the spryness and lightness of Dykes to Watch Out for; I think perhaps Fun Home‘s great, gusting success has pushed Bechdel into a tight corner. (10 June 2012; revised 30 July 2012)

Baby's in Black

Baby’s in Black. By Arne Bellstorf. 2010. Translated from the German by Michael Waaler. First Second edition, 2012. 4/5 stars.

Baby’s in Black is a sweet, and I suspect idealized, account of the love affair between artist-photographer Astrid Kirchherr and the “Beatle who got away,” Stu Sutcliffe. In essence, it’s the semi-fictive, or at least freely dramatized, biography of a couple, shown very much from Kirchherr’s POV. It’s also a story about the Beatles, their apprenticeship (so to speak) in Hamburg circa 1960-62, their sketchy, almost desperate living circumstances there, and their dependence on each other. I gather the book covers much the same territory as the film Backbeat (dir. Iain Softley, 1994), but I haven’t seen that.

This may be a story that can get by on built-in poignancy: the idea of eavesdropping on the Beatles’ growth is irresistible, and the story of Sutcliffe, in hindsight, cannot help but seem tragically fated. I could not quite decide whether Bellstorf’s very gentle approach to the material worked wonders because of the inherent grace and vivid atmosphere in his cartooning, or because I knew just enough about the story already, and cared enough about the Beatles, to go along. The story’s tensions are underplayed, and its strongest moments are evocations of environment and passages of understated tenderness. There are perhaps a few too many similar-looking young men to tell apart in the comic: sometimes I would stumble when Bellstorf shifted from, say, Sutcliffe to Klaus Voorman, who is also a major character here. Yet Bellstorf is very good at capturing subtle likenesses through minimal style: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison are all distinct, easily recognizable persons. What’s more, the settings have a wonderful, moody authenticity—by which I mean lived-in distinctiveness and telling details—that made me feel as if I’d been fairly transported to early-sixties Hamburg.

It may be that Baby’s charms are fragile. It overt complications are few. But it’s hypnotic, with its fluent, sure-handed cartooning, wonderful pillow shots, silent intervals, dreamy transitions, elegant design, scenic particulars, and well-observed characterization (Lennon is a particular standout, acutely aware of his status as a displaced Englishman among Germans). And the last few pages, which of course lead to a foregone conclusion, startled me with the way they were handled: the book manages to end with a genuine surprise that I find rather moving. A lovely book, on balance. (14 June 2012)

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man. By Matt Kindt. Dark Horse, 2009. 3/5 stars.

The premise of 3 Story is that of The Incredible Shrinking Man in reverse: the protagonist is a giant who cannot stop growing, and whose superhuman size both alienates him from human contact and, paradoxically, renders him physically vulnerable. But there are big differences between the two stories. Whereas The Incredible Shrinking Man, though also dealing with loneliness and alienation, celebrates its tiny hero’s ingenuity and will to survive, 3 Story centers on a bemused and passive protagonist whose seeming physical power belies his terrible helplessness. The story has a inexorable, tragic quality, strengthened by Kindt’s penchant for evoking (without entirely explaining) deep-seated emotional pain: grudges, losses, long-buried and lingering hurt.

Kindt’s graphic handling of the story is distinctive and smart. His organic, slightly distressed-looking style, muted watercolor (thankfully not digital) palette, tellingly awkward figures, and expert dramatic framing of the action make 3 Story visually haunting.

The story doesn’t come off quite as well. 3 Story is in part an experiment in focalization, with the three women in the giant’s life (his mother, wife, and daughter) each telling her story in turn. This in itself intrigues; particularly poignant is the wife’s story, as the giant’s unstoppable growth sunders their love and family. Yet each story is also punctuated and complicated by “found” texts, for example an insipid official biography of the giant, or newspaper articles. Also, occasional graphic footnotes give backstory that the narrators are not privy to. At times these texts shift POV in midstream, muddying the tale’s perspectives. Ironies and confusion abound. I’m not sure Kindt has these entirely under control, though the total effect is provocative.

More damaging is a distracting espionage subplot: the giant becomes a spy. This move accomplishes nothing that couldn’t be accomplished otherwise, and it flummoxes me. IMO it undercuts the book’s humanizing gestures and leads to some narrative jury-rigging that needlessly complicates Kindt’s fable. This is another way of saying that there are loose bits rattling around inside 3 Story that are not quite satisfactorily resolved. Pity, since the book has much going for it: a distinct aesthetic, a soulful, melancholy tone, and intelligent visual storytelling. (24 June 2012)

Marathon

Marathon. Scripted by Boaz Yakin and drawn by Joe Infurnari. First Second, 2012. 3/5 stars.

Marathon retells, at a furious clip, the legend of the first marathon run ever: that of a tireless Greek, here called Eucles, whose nonstop running helped Athens gain victory over the Persians who sought to conquer them in 490 BCE. Eucles runs from Athens to Sparta in a failed attempt to garner timely support from the Spartans, then runs from Sparta to Marathon, there to join the embattled Athenians in their assault on the Persian invasion force, and thence runs to Athens (that fabled 26-mile distance) to warn of approaching Persian ships. The book’s narrative consists of running, fighting, running some more, being chased, and, for a lot of characters, dying. Did I mention the running?

This story of the first Persian invasion of Greece, drawing as it does from Herodotus and Plutarch, cannot help but recall Frank Miller’s 300—which retells part of the second Persian invasion of Greece, an event that Marathon alludes to briefly, in effect consigning Miller to sequel status (Miller’s hero, Leonidas, is here recast as a voice of reason against his father Cleomenes’ mindless tyranny). Surely this project was greenlit because of 300? In any case, like Miller’s work, Marathon locates in its ancient heroes the origins of prized American values, in this case not just liberty but democracy and the self-respect of the common man. Thankfully, it lacks Miller’s hateful stereotyping and one-sided veneration of brute power. (But it does seem like the treatment for another movie waiting to happen.)

The book has momentum to spare: it starts at a run and stays there, sprinting briskly from one challenge to the next. Infurnari’s sketchy, fiercely energetic naturalism conveys the necessary desperation; the violence goes by in a blur, punctuated by the occasional moment of fatal clarity. Gorgeous sepiatone production compensates a bit for the hazy indeterminacy of the settings, which run a distant second to the characters’ hurtling bodies. The layouts bespeak the influence of manga, alternating open and paneled images, laying smaller panels on top of bleeds, and, in the most violent, action-filled moments, favoring slashing, diagonal panel shapes. The net effect recalls Sanpei Shirato or Goseki Kojima when they’re whipped up to full fury. I like this; a more sober graphic treatment, like that typical of European historical BD with their ligne claire tendency and full color, wouldn’t do the job for me.

Unfortunately, Infurnari pays the price in narrative clarity. The action is hard to follow, and the characters often indistinct. His frenzied graphics run afoul of what seems to be a fully researched scenario by Yakin, one which includes a large handful of characters drawn from historical personages and demands a certain precision—if for no other reason than so that we can tell the characters apart and understand the surprises and reversals in the plot. Marathon doesn’t help us do this. It’s too much of a blur. Staring at the pages in hope of understanding doesn’t help; in fact it’s better just to read at a runner’s pace, and not worry about the details, even though this robs the story of what could be some powerful comeuppances and resolutions.

Simply put, the story is hard to keep track of—and this isn’t one of those art comics where a deliberate obscurity adds to the atmosphere or buzz. Rather, this is a story that maneuvers like a blockbuster movie, and asks for emotional investment and big returns. So some middle ground was needed between too-staid precision and frenetic sketch-work, something that would have preserved Infurnari’s breakneck pacing but made it easier to tell who is who and what’s going on. For all its energy, Marathon ends up a vagueness. (25 June 2012)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009. Scripted by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill. Top Shelf/Knockabout, 2012. 3/5 stars.

More smart but acrid anti-pop from Moore and O’Neill, carrying on the mood of gloom and alienation evident in the previous two LOEG: Century volumes. In this one, the youthful Antichrist, implicitly Harry Potter, goes mano a mano with God, implicitly Mary Poppins, while the surviving agents of the League, Mina, Allan, and Orlando, look on, dazed and confused. The reigning mood is despairing; the lunges toward satirizing J.K. Rowling’s Potter feel like just that; and the plot crumbles into deus ex machina as quite a few Moore stories have: an implicit takedown of the idea that his heroes should act, you know, heroically, saving the day and all that. They don’t. Or maybe they do. I’m a little hard-pressed to tell.

Much has already been said about this book, though it’s only been with us for a few weeks [at the time I wrote this review, that is—CH]. I particularly like the conversation at The Mindless Ones blog. I myself reviewed the previous volume unfavorably, and I guess I could say similar things here. Adding to the disappointment is the fact that, as so many have pointed out, Moore is not so keen on contemporary pop culture as to be able to pull off a coup comparable to the earlier LOEG volumes. The building blocks of the League are always other stories, and Moore is not so fond of the present-day stories he is riffing on here.

But the general gloom is redeemed somewhat, or rather made compelling, by the tenderness that Moore and O’Neill show their leads, by the fumbling human ordinariness of these seeming immortals, and by the way they register loss and disappointment. I did feel something for them. Moore and O’Neill, I think, have been trying to earn that human response almost from the very first, and I believe they have succeeded. Too bad the plot mechanics and the big (anti)climax are so worn. (8 July 2012)

It Was the War of the Trenches

It Was the War of the Trenches. By Jacques Tardi. 1993. Translated from the French by Kim Thompson. Fantagraphics edition, 2010. 5/5 stars.

This war comic—absolutely a war comic, which is to say a profoundly antiwar comic—is an awful masterwork of aggrieved and wounded humanity. Hovering between blunted affect, righteous fury, and pitch-black, absurdist humor, it is one of a very few comics to, and I mean this literally, give me the shakes. Tardi’s barrage of fictional (though obsessively researched) soldiers’ vignettes about the first World War goes off like a bomb in slow motion, the precise, pitiless unraveling of each anecdote like the ticking of a cruel clock.

The book’s total effect strikes me as paradoxical. On the one hand it de-emphasizes specific human “drama” through the very interchangeableness of the hapless soldiers: the whole book reads as a just that, a whole, each new vignette simply continuing the mood of the previous. The book gives off the air of helplessness before vast forces that I associate with literary naturalism at its bleakest. On the other hand, each tale is keenly, piercingly, specific. Each is personalized and particularized with exquisite care, down to the varied likenesses of each and every doomed man. The result is stunningly powerful.

Tardi combines a searching moral imagination with ice-cold unsentimentality and an animating rage that he has sublimated into art. That the book succeeds in being a narrative about war rather than merely an obvious diatribe against it does not in any way lessen its angry, heartsore quality, its fury at the nightmarish self-destructive pointlessness of mass human slaughter. What makes all this work is the slight emotional remove of Tardi’s narration (which alternates between third and first person but never gives in to mere sympathizing).

Above all, the book rests on Tardi’s cool, measured formalism and the extraordinary vividness of his compositions: there are some staggering drawings and pages here. These make It Was the War of the Trenches a relentless black masterpiece.

Unquestionably an essential volume for any serious comics library, and one that is now embedded in my mind. (8 July 2012)

Wandering Son, Vol. One

Wandering Son, Vol One. By Shimura Takako. 2003. Translated from the Japanese by Matt Thorn. Fantagraphics edition, 2011. 4/5 stars.

This is a provocative but also endearing example of manga: a school story about the friendship between two classmates edging into adolescence, one a boy who longs to be a girl, the other a girl who longs to be a boy. A nuanced, remarkably understated, and yet emotionally fraught study in gender trouble, Wandering Son explores the feelings of its leads with a light but knowing touch, braiding recurrent images, remembered encounters, dreams, and fantasies into a subtle, insinuating weave.

More than queer-positive, Wandering Son is fundamentally open to the exploration and questioning of gender identity, yet poses its questions with an exquisitely fine hand. This is not a book about “sex” in the brute literal sense of mechanics and titillation; in fact it scrupulously avoids raw imagery, even as it suggests raw feelings. Rather, it’s a discreet and poetic text that balances emotional frankness against a loving regard for its characters. So little seems to happen in the story, and yet so much can be read into its silences and gaps. Gazing at a dress on a hanger, or choosing whether or not to have one’s hair cut, or silently absorbing the implications of a friend’s or sibling’s remark: these are the dramatic cruxes of Wandering Son, and yet the book has an undeniable gravity and suspense. The total effect, for me, is genuinely thought-provoking. That Shimura manages to keep me hanging suspended between nervousness and sympathy for the characters is no mean feat.

On the basis of this first volume alone, I’d like to be able to call Wandering Son an undoubted masterwork. Yet I have to echo some other reviewers and note that I had real and repeated difficulty parsing the book’s transitions and telling some of its rather similar-looking characters apart. Settings are often vague; likenesses are hard to distinguish; both the leads are shadowed by other characters who look so close to them that at times I lost the thread. (In fact these very problems are noted in a humorously self-deprecating epilogue by the author.) At times reading Wandering Son is a frustrating, will o’ the wisp kind of experience. And yet there’s a humane and challenging core to the book that makes me determined to read the other volumes.

I should add that Matt Thorn’s translation and accompanying cultural and linguistic notes have won my respect, as has the book’s total design (by Alexa Koenings). This is a scrupulous, ever-so-carefully presented cross-cultural adaptation, in a beautiful package. Clearly a great deal of thought went into how to explain the contexts for this story (without intruding on the pleasures of the story itself), and how to reinforce its power through graphic design. A top-notch translation and publishing effort. (8 July 2012)

Superman: Red Son

Superman: Red Son. Scripted by Mark Millar and drawn by Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett, et al. DC Comics, 2004. 3/5 stars.

Red Son riffs on an obvious hook: what if Superman was a Commie? What if his rocket fell in the Soviet Union instead of the corn-fed American midwest? What if he answered to Stalin and Communist ideology rather than the American way? Millar & Co. run with this, telling a lot of story in short space, going from start to finish with the Superman mythos in long, nervy leaps. Along the way they cover decades, eventually millenia, of human history.

In short, Red Son gets a lot of mileage from its premise. It also throws in bushels of DC Universe stuff. There’s Wonder Woman, there’s a Batman, there’s a Green Lantern Corps of sorts, and there’s plenty, plenty, of Lex Luthor. Lex is in fine, supercilious form, playing chess, playing God, multitasking beyond human ability, a frothing fount of vainglorious human intellect matched against Superman’s superhumanly handsome brawn. In an odd way, Lex represents the USA, foil for the Red Supes, though there’s nothing heroic about Lex’s ambitions.

The book seesaws between riffing on politics—there are JFK cameos, and so on—and ringing delirious changes on DC’s familiar storyworld. What can you say about a compressed epic where a Russian Batman gets ushered on and off in record time, fighting against Superman, inevitably losing? All this goes by fast: a story in a wind tunnel. What poignancy it gains comes from subverting continuity in a brassy, shameless way. It’s very smart. It’s also a pretty good-looking Superman comic, despite the roughness of the transition between artists (Dave Johnson to Kilian Plunkett). Certainly it’s a design orgy.

I cannot bring myself to rate the book more highly, because it’s so schematized and dependent on a patently rigged “high concept” that there’s no sense of struggle, no soulfulness or emotional complexity, and no characterizations that feel earned (as opposed to simply posited for symbolically fitting reasons). Characters like Lois Lane don’t really get to be characters; they get to be, instead, tributes to the busyness, but ultimately the ideological stasis, of the DC Universe. Superman registers a bit, and Luthor registers strongly, but all the characters, even them, are ultimately puzzle pieces rather than motivated people.

I bought this book because I heard a conference paper about it recently and because at least one student of mine has written about it. I’m not sorry I read it; it’s an unusually smart superhero riff. But it doesn’t reach the genuine subversive heights (depths?) attained by Watchmen and the other revisionary texts in whose shadow Millar et al. are plainly laboring. It remains a continuity workout rather than a politically serious text. (30 July 2012)

2 responses to “Comics Reading, Spring-Summer 2012 (1st of a series)

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