October 28, 2008

I’m really glad Tom Spurgeon reviewed American Widow (Villard), because some variation on cowardice has been keeping me from writing about my own negative response to the book. I’m reluctant to review autobiographical works in the first place, which springs from the probably false assumption that creators are more sensitive to criticism of their own stories as opposed to criticism of ones they’ve invented. (There’s also the unpleasant prospect of essentially telling someone either that their life story is kind of boring or that they don’t tell it very well, or both.)

Anyway, Tom makes a fine argument against the book, and the only thing I’d add is that I felt like I knew less about the subject after I read it than I did before.

Upcoming 3/26/2008

March 25, 2008

Some picks from the ComicList for Wednesday, March 26, 2008:

Do you need anyone else to tell you that Hiro Mashima’s Fairy Tail (Del Rey) is a very entertaining fantasy adventure? Probably not, but I’ll chime in with my agreement anyways. Mashima isn’t aiming exceptionally high here, offering unapologetically mainstream entertainment about quirky wizards and their comic quests. It’s a very good example of an increasingly crowded field of comics that offer storytelling that’s as amiable as it is accomplished. The characters are lively, the art is eye-catching, and the stories are fast-paced and varied.

I think it’s smart of Del Rey to introduce the series by releasing two volumes at once. Endearing as it is, it’s also fairly lightweight, so doubling the quantity available should help to cement it in readers’ affections to a degree that a single volume couldn’t, at the same time drawing more critical interest than the series might have enjoyed otherwise. As I said, there’s a lot of competition in the field of amiable, accomplished, mainstream entertainment, especially on the manga shelves.

So yes, there’s nothing wrong with a comic that only wants to entertain. Allow me to contradict that assertion by wondering if Eiji Otsuka and Sho-u Tajima’s MPD-Psycho (Dark Horse) has enough on its mind. Part of the reason I’m so fond of Otsuka’s The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is the writer’s ability to fold deeper issues into superficially engaging stories. Imaginative gore and varied psychoses aside, MPD-Psycho seems to be vamping along, and I’ve got the feeling that it’s really going to need some larger purpose to keep me from losing patience. Up to this point, it’s read like a collection of creepy grace notes (like barcodes on people’s eyeballs) in place of a driving, meaningful narrative.

Along with Charles Berberian, Philippe Dupuy has created the wonderfully entertaining Mr. Jean, star of Get a Life (Drawn & Quarterly), and Maybe Later, a nicely modulated look at their creative process. Drawn & Quarterly offers a solo work from Dupuy, Haunted, which sounds a lot less down-to-earth but very intriguing.

Villard offers a handsome paperback collection of David Petersen’s first Mouse Guard mini-series. In addition to the beautifully rendered, smartly told story of courageous rodents, there are plenty of extras that make the $17.95 price tag very reasonable.

This isn’t a review

July 26, 2007

When reviewing a graphic novel, I sometimes struggle with distinguishing between evaluating what the book actually is as opposed to a comparison with what I’d like it to be. It’s the difference between asking myself whether something is good on its own terms or wondering what I’d do to make it better (i.e., more to my tastes). Basically, it’s a case of reviewing versus going into fantasy editor mode.

I’m not having any luck swinging myself back into reviewer mode when it comes to Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened (Villard). I’m too busy making mental notes of what I would have done differently.

My central problem is that, while I share editor Jason Rodriguez’s fascination with these found objects, my fondness for them comes from a different place. To me, postcards represent the promise of adventure or temporary escape from routine. They’re reminders that there are more interesting places out there waiting to be seen when the day-to-day gets to be too much. No matter what’s written on the back of them, they’re messages from a less mundane place.

Rodriguez seems more interested in what postcards can say about the lives of their senders –turbulent, often grim stories that have little to do with the cheerful or elegant images that inspired them, extrapolating instead on the terse , oblique messages they carry. In the worlds Rodriguez’s creators have found lurking behind these scraps, families are torn apart, love fades, lives end, and dreams die. Only one or two stories employ what could really be described as a lighter touch. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the stories are generally executed well, but there’s such a gap between my hopes for the anthology and the creators’ priorities that I just can’t bridge it.

I blame the elephant on the cover. He’s bursting out of his frame, casting off shackles and stomping towards new experiences. He’s not stuck in an isolated farm town or waiting for death to reunite him with his one true love or forging an uneasy connection with his unstable stepmother. He’s out and doing, and it may not end well, but it will be different, and it will be memorable. I guess I just was hoping for the elephant.

(This non-review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

From the stack: Elk’s Run

April 8, 2007

Before I get too far into the collected Elk’s Run (Villard), I have to take a moment to address novelist Charlie Huston’s introduction, because it’s awful. It’s filled with the kind of testosterone-fueled posturing that the story itself wisely avoids and even subverts. Here’s a sample:

“Read the fucking book.
“Burn, baby, burn.
“And learn something about yourself.”

If I knew nothing about Elk’s Run and was browsing it in a bookstore or comic shop, that invocation would compel me to set it on the nearest flat surface and move on, baby, move on. And that would be too bad, because the book is a fine and balanced piece of suspenseful drama, no matter what the introductory chest-thumping might suggest.

Fortunately, I’d read some of the early chapters in pamphlet form and knew what to expect. But if you did scan Huston’s remarks and your fight-or-flight instincts kicked in (and no one could blame you), I hope I can convince you to reconsider.

Elk’s Ridge, West Virginia, has isolated itself from the rest of the United States. Founded by veterans of the Vietnam War and funded by the eccentric heir to a coal fortune, they view the government as corrupt and the culture as fractured. They want no part of it and enter into their own social contract, raising their families and living their lives in relative peace and security.

As the younger generation comes of age, the flaws in the arrangement become increasingly apparent. Choices the original settlers made don’t work for their children. Natural curiosity breeds boredom, and boredom creates tension and rebellion. The environment that seemed ideal to the adults proves stifling to the kids it was created to protect.

And it isn’t just the kids. A defection leads to tragedy, which only escalates as the town’s power figures take increasingly draconian measures to keep their bubble culture sealed. Intergenerational tension blows up into the equivalent of civil war, and it can’t help but end badly.

Joshua Hale Fialkov structures the escalating crisis with care and intelligence. The events he portrays are extreme yet chillingly plausible. Characters are given depth and detail. Artist Noel Tuazon has an impressive cartooning vocabulary. He adopts drastically different styles to ground the story in place and time, but it holds together. And I love the rich, saturated coloring by Scott A. Keating.

The dialogue is a bit thick in expletives for a sheltered mountain town, though it’s reasonably easy to conclude that the kids are just repeating what they’ve heard from their parents. And in a story where the greatest danger is becoming what you despise, whether it’s an oppressive, deceitful government or a hypocritical, violent adult, it’s a fair way of illustrating that point.