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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Recently Read and Re-Read, 2014.04.26

SPACE USAGI [1998] collects the three 3-issue SPACE USAGI mini-series from 1992 to 1996, plus a few other short stories. In this book, Stan Sakai translates his long-running samurai rabbit character into a science-fiction setting, apparently because he wanted an excuse to draw Usagi fighting dinosaurs. This is a nice little stand-alone book, especially for those who find the over 200-issue and counting run of USAGI YOJIMBO too daunting a challenge to jump into without a warm-up. Sakai brings all his usual skills at writing and art, and quickly lays out a new scenario and plays it out over almost 300 pages.  The plot will probably remind you of the Star Wars films, either due to a direct influence or common earlier influences (one particular plot twist is right out of the Star Wars prequel films, except it pre-dates it by seven years).

THE PROPERTY (2013) is the latest book by Rutu Modan. It chronicles a week long trip by an Israeli woman who returns to Warsaw for the first time since before World War II, accompanied by her grand-daughter, for reasons which she may not be completely honest about. It's an entertaining little book with a little bit of everything, some comedy, some romance, some history, some mystery. Modan's work is clear and detailed when it needs to be, still in the "clear line" school of Hergé, but developed in a few ways from her earlier work EXIT WOUNDS.

FRAN (2013) is the latest silent epic from Jim Woodring, "continuing and preceding" his 2011 book CONGRESS OF THE ANIMALS and featuring his long-running character Frank. I'll have to go back and re-read that, and the other Woodring work, since I think it's all starting to make some sort of sense. Always fascinating to see Woodring's world, where every little detail might be a clue or might mean nothing at all, possibly both at the same time. The standouts in this one are the weird pets(?) Pupshaw and Pushpaw. I saw once that Woodring had a solo book about them that I unfortunately didn't pick up and does't appear to be that easy to find at a decent price.

ATTACK ON TITAN Vol 1 & 2 (2012) are the first two books of Hajime Isayama's on-going science-fiction adventure comic, which has been getting a lot of attention lately as it's been adapted to a successful cartoon about to be translated into English, which is the most sure path for a Japanese comic to become a sales success in English. There are some interesting ideas in here, a future where the world has been taken over by monstrous giants called Titans, forcing the few remaining humans to retreat behind elaborately built barrier walls, which work great until an even larger Titan appears, able to destroy the walls. A little bit silly, but with the potential to provide some light fun. Unfortunately, I didn't find a lot of Isayama's storytelling to be at all clear, often I'd have keep reading to see the characters explain what I had just read. There are a few interesting designs, and the second book closes with what appears to be an interesting revelation which might make the series much stranger than I imagined (but because of the storytelling problems, I can't really be sure until I read the next book to see what the characters say). I'm getting them free from the library and they're quick reads, so I might stick around for a few more books.

THE G.N.B. DOUBLE C (2011) by Seth

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I recently re-read Seth's WIMBLEDON GREEN (2005), which is among my favourite modern comics, in preparation for reading THE GREAT NORTHERN BROTHERHOOD OF CANADIAN CARTOONISTS (2011), a second sketchbook comic by Seth on some similar themes, which I somehow missed when it was published.

I've now read THE G.N.B. DOUBLE C, and it's an interesting companion piece to GREEN, although a very different book. Interestingly, Seth's introduction outlines the creation of the works, and it turns out that the initial work on this book actually began before GREEN was created, and picked up again after GREEN was done (all as a sideline to Seth's other work in that period). It sort of makes sense when you think about the two works, with GREEN being much more open and fanciful, less shackled by the bonds of reality than the much more melancholy world of THE G.N.B. DOUBLE C.

For those unfamiliar with the works, GREEN is a pretty broad comedy adventure about a world where vintage comic book collectors are rich and fanciful characters who engage in elaborate and unlikely escapades in the pursuit of rare back issues, most of which are fake golden age books created, sometimes in great detail, from Seth's imagination. THE G.N.B. DOUBLE C is, I guess in theory, set in that same world (or at least uses some of the same fake creators that Seth created for GREEN), but looks at the creators of the comics, in particular the members of the association of the title, of which Seth's stand-in is number 650. In his tour of their clubhouse in the fictional town of Dominion (plus an extended description of their off-site archive far in the north), Seth traces the history of cartooning, both real (Doug Wright's Nipper) and fictional (Bartley Munn's Kao-Kuk, Eskimo astronaut). It's a fascinating presentation, especially when the subjects are so obscure that it takes a few page to realize which are real (I'm still not sure about a few of them, and am resisting the urge to Google non-brand-specific web search for confirmation).

It's also kind of funny that I only read the book now, since a few months ago I would have had no clue that one of the last major "cartoonists" discussed was loosely based on Martin Vaughn-James and his fairly obscure 1975 book THE CAGE, which was only just republished with an introduction by Seth.

This is the type of book it's going to take me a few readings to fully digest.  At some point I want to re-read it, WIMBLEDON GREEN and Seth's earlier, more "serious" book IT'S A GOOD LIFE, IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN together, since I realized half-way through that these two are sort of cousins to that book, which revolves around Seth becoming fascinated with an obscure NEW YORKER cartoonist who turned out to be just as real as Albert Batch of "Trout Haven" fame (I assume).

A good companion piece to WIMBLEDON GREEN, or worth checking out as an independent book, especially if you find comic book history fascinating, whether real or imagined.

GRENDEL OMNIBUS #1 [2012] by Matt Wagner & Co.

Matt Wagner's GRENDEL was always a bit of a blindspot for me in terms of the long-running major 1980s independents. I started shopping at direct market supplied stores in the late 1980s, just as the original run was wrapping up. Most long-running independent books that were in progress I either tried and liked, so I ending up getting at least the first long run of issues, or tried and dismissed as not for me. I know I read a few issues of GRENDEL, but while it seemed intriguing, it also seemed very hard to jump in the middle, and the early stories weren't readily available. Everything I heard about the series seemed like I would like it, especially the stories of the original incarnation of the character, Hunter Rose (which pre-dated the stories I sampled), but there never seemed to be an easy entry point when I was interested.

A few years ago I did finally get the 1986 collection of the original Hunter Rose story, the prose/comics hybrid "Devil By The Deed" that ran as a back-up in MAGE, as well as the two Grendel/Batman crossovers Wagner did in the 1990s. "Deed" was great, as was the first Batman story, the one which featured Hunter Rose. The other one I didn't quite get, and I think needs more knowledge of later Grendel tales than I have. Still, getting more at that point seemed to involve navigating a hodge-podge of back-issues and often out-of-print collections. Fortunately, that changed with the recent publication of four volumes of GRENDEL OMNIBUS, which seem to collect most of the Grendel stories Wagner wrote and occasionally drew over the years, except those with Batman.

The first volume, subtitled "Hunter Rose", collects "Devil By The Deed" by Wagner and Rich Rankin, now in a black-white-and-red format matching the rest of the contents, two short-story anthology books, "Black, White & Red" (1998) and "Red, White & Black" (2002), written by Wagner and drawn by various artists (plus a few other scattered short stories from various publications), and "Behold The Devil", the 8-issue miniseries by Wagner solo from 2007-2008.

"Devil By The Deed" is still a powerful work. It looks pretty good in this duo-tone format, except that the typeset lettering is way too small in this more compact size (6x9 instead of the 8.5x11 of the 1986 book). It was an fascinating way to begin the story, pretty much starting with the death of your lead, and then going back and telling his life story from a skewed perspective (the conceit of "Deed", for those who don't know, is that the narration is from a book written a generation later by Christine Spar, the child of one of the characters, who becomes a main character in the next story, based primarily on the diary of Hunter Rose plus other research, though the images sometimes show a version of events not evident in the text). There's a lot of story, some of it glossed over quickly, but creating a solid foundation to build on.

That building came with the 45 short stories that take up almost 400 pages in the middle of the book, a few drawn by Wagner but mostly by other artists, exploring various aspects of the life of Hunter Rose. It's a bit of a mixed bag, but mostly high quality, as Wagner is very clearly writing to the strength of each artist, and playing with various storytelling styles to flesh out the original story, looking at how Hunter Rose became the person he is, how he rose to power in his criminal empire and how he ultimately fell, often by exploring the lives (and frequently deaths) of those affected by his actions, including lawyers and literary agents and the other supporting characters. A few times I thought Wagner was explaining a bit too much, robbing the story of the elegant simplicity of some of the passages in "Devil By The Deed" (I didn't really need to know the names and circumstance of death of each of the 23 crime bosses Grendel killed in one night), but for the most part he explains just enough and treats Hunter Rose more as a force of nature in the stories. There's some exceptional art in there, a few stand-outs include Stand Sakai, Michael Zulli, Tim Bradstreet, Paul Chadwick, Jill Thompson and Cliff Chiang.

The final chunk of the book is the most recent major Grendel story that Wagner has done, "Behold The Devil". It's kind of a jarring transition from the tight, compact and efficient storytelling in the previous 400 pages of the book, this time there's a single story that takes almost 200 pages to tell. This is presented as a time covered in Spar's "Devil By The Deed" only by outside evidence, as the period is missing from Hunter Rose's diary. We're privy to much more detail than Spar is, as Wagner follows Grendel during that period, as well as a reporter and a detective who are trying to find him. There's a lot of good stuff in the story, but I found it to be the least satisfying part of the book, as the main purpose of the story in the end seemed to be to place Hunter Rose firmly in the the larger legacy of Grendel, an aspect of the character that is mostly absent from the other stories in the book. My feelings on that aspect might change if and when I learn more about that larger legacy from the later volumes. I haven't decided if I'll continue yet, but right now I'm leaning towards reading the next book at least.

So definitely recommended, a good block of entertaining reading for $25, with frequent moments of excellence.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Recently Read and Re-Read, 2014.04.14

Quick thoughts on a few things I've read or (mostly) re-read lately. I'm on a bit of a paper acquisition moratorium lately, with a few key exceptions I want to avoid getting any new print comics until I've made a good dent in reading or re-reading everything I own, and hopefully finding a way to productively discard some of it. I am still getting stuff from the library and digitally, though. I won't write about all of them, of course (especially not the stuff I decide to dispose of), but here are a few from the last couple of weeks.

This has long been my favourite work by Seth, which I know is something that might horrify him. I mean, I read the total published (still unfinished) "Clyde Fans" serial that he's been working on for over 15 years recently, and I thought it was okay, but I didn't like any of it as much as any given chapter of WIMBLEDON GREEN, a book he tossed off as a throwaway in his sketchbook during a few months in the middle of that 15 years. Anyway, I somehow missed the fact that he did a sequel of sorts in 2011, THE GREAT NORTHERN BROTHERHOOD OF CANADIAN CARTOONISTS, so I have a copy of that here ready to read, but decided to re-read WIMBLEDON GREEN first. If anything I like it even more than I did before. Seth creates an odd but fully realized world where golden age comic collectors are eccentric rich adventurers in pursuit of rarities, and even creates some great throwaway concepts for the comics they collect. Seriously, I would read a full comic of Seth doing the hoboing misadventures of Fine & Dandy much more quickly than another chapter of  "Clyde Fans". There's a lot of unfettered imagination mixed in with some genuine heart in these stories. Looking forward to reading GNBCC to see if that carries over.

This is a collection of pantomime strips by Sergio Aragonés, which from the biography in the back were published all around the world before getting an American edition. This collects 44 single page comedy adventures of the hapless human and monkey astronaut duo of the title. If you're familiar with Aragonés work from MAD, you have a good idea of what to expect, as he manages to get in every kind of sight gag fitting the theme across clearly. It was published at the same time as SMOKEHOUSE FIVE, another pantomime book of single page stories, that one with a fireman theme. I'm not sure if the single books published in America for each represent all of the work Aragonés did on the characters, some searching around indicates some foreign publishers had two volumes of each, but I can't find page counts so they might have just have been thinner books. If there are more I wouldn't mind a nice thick book of every strip of both features, and any other little-seen Aragonés work there might be.

BIKEMAN #1 - #5 [2011-2013]
I really liked Jon Chad's first LEO GEO book (and should have the second one soon), so when I saw him at TCAF last year I picked up a set of his "minicomic" BIKEMAN. Well, "minicomic" is what he calls it, but they're actually pretty large and pretty long, with about 50 pages of story each. It's a fascinating elaborate fantasy world with intelligent bikes, a bear-masked Bikeman who shepherds them, a long-standing war between intelligent bears and wolves and the villager named Pedl who gets involved in that world. It's a weird and fast paced story that gets increasingly more complicated, and if there's a new issue out soon I'd make an exception to my paper moratorium to get it.

This is the first of four published English language translations of Lewis Trondheim's diary strip "Les Petits Riens", which is apparently still going on and up to six published collections in the original French. This is my favourite series by the very prolific M. Trondheim. Each page is a complete unit, and could be anything from his life, from travel stories to family life to work tales, and sometimes even, as the title notes, absolutely nothing. Everything is filtered through Trondheim's slightly quirky perspective, and drawn beautifully in his clean but detailed funny animal style and with a lush watercolour finish. After I re-read the four published books I think I might brush up on my French to read the on-line version.

I really enjoyed Jon "Bean" Hastings' second series of SMITH BROWN JONES from 1998-1999, but never could find the last issue of that, or the self-published 1996-1997 series. It was a nice goofy book about an alien accountant working undercover on Earth, along with his floating robot companion and other friends, dealing with other aliens and everyday life. Recently I finally tracked down both the missing issue of series two and this collection of series one, so I read this one first (and it's the only book in this group I'm reading for the first time). It was pretty good, but not as good as I remembered the second series being. I'll see how that holds up soon, but my memory is that Hastings got a lot more polished in his scripting, the story moved along much faster once the set-up was out of the way and the artwork was much more accomplished. I don't want to sound too down on it, there's a lot to like in this book, but after all this time I guess I was hoping for more. Maybe combined with the second series I'll like it better.

P. Craig Russell adapted eight of Oscar Wilde's nine prose fairy tales to comics in five volumes published between 1992 and 2012. This is the only one I have, adapting "The Devoted Friend" (OP. 49) and "The Nightingale And The Rose" (OP. 54), though I've read a few of the others. I keep telling myself I'll get a single omnibus volume of all of them when he's finished, even if at the rate he's going that might not be for another decade. I see they are available digitally now, so that might suit me until a single volume paper edition is done. It's pretty much what you'd expect from Russell, a faithful adaptation of Wilde's short stories told with Russell's clean and expressive style. I especially liked "The Devoted Friend" of these two, with some nicely humourous bits with the animals telling the story.

I've been reading Jason Shiga's new webcomic DEMON, and that gave me the push to re-read my first and still favourite exposure to his work, BOOKHUNTER (though DEMON is off to a good start). What I wrote years ago still stands, only to add that it gets better every time I read it. There are lots of clever little things that I missed the first time around, and I'm still impressed by how he put out such an insane premise (library police) and just rode it out in a perfect pastiche of procedural crime fiction.

This is a collection of the five issues of Mike Kunkel's introduction of his characters, which made a big splash when first published from 1999-2002, but sadly didn't continue back then except for an apparently unfinished crossover with a book called DECOY and a solicited but unpublished second series. In 2013 Kunkel finally returned to the book, with a serialized reprint of the original book and two new comics, a "Special" and an "Annual", with a new mini-series set to start soon. I've got the two new books ready to read digitally, but figured I should re-read this one first. I still like it, but not as much as I did when it was new and I read it out of order (as I recall, I started with #4, liked it a lot but couldn't find the earlier books, got #5 when it came out and then later got #2 and #3, and only read #1 when this collection came out). Still very good, and I'm definitely in for the new material.

This is the current hardcover edition of Bryan Talbot's comic which I first read when it was serialized in four parts back in 1994-1995. This is the story of Helen Potter, who we meet as a homeless teen in London and follow on her journey to put her life back together and deal with the sexual abuse in her past. All of this is intertwined with a lush visual look at the English Lake District and the works of Beatrix Potter, including a dead-on allegorical pastiche of a Potter book. Talbot's afterword explains the fascinating way that the story grew organically from a number of interests and events. This and ALICE IN SUNDERLAND are probably tied as my two favourite Talbot works, the winner being whichever I've re-read most recently, and guarantees I'll give anything he writes a try, like his upcoming book (with Mary Talbot and Kate Charlesworth) about suffragettes in Edwardian England.

BIGG TIME [2002]
This is an original graphic book by Ty Templeton, about a homeless man named Lester Bigg who finds out his bad luck is due to his cruel and somewhat incompetent guardian angel Stavros, who he can suddenly see. Bigg coerces Stavros to use his powers to make Bigg famous, and comedy ensues. This is always an amusing book, few comic book artists can manage wild slapstick as effectively as Templeton, and there are a lot of clever bits of dialogue and bizarre plot twists. It also has an odd surprise connection with an earlier unfinished Templeton work.

And some books I'm in the middle of reading (generally I'm trying to limit myself to 10-15 pages at a sitting for each, every few days):

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