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Category Archives: I Review Other Stuff

Phil Hester’s “The Wretch Volume One: Everyday Doomsday”

In the mysterious Wretch, Phil Hester has created a character that I love so much that I honestly don’t care what kind of story he appears in. A bad Wretch story excites me more than a good Spider-Man story: this kind of excitement about a character is something that I miss about being a teenager, when a Spawn comic book was all I needed to be happy about life (don’t judge me, I had a lot of angst back then). I stumbled upon the character’s Wikipedia entry a few weeks ago, and immediately ordered this book on Amazon, confident that I would enjoy it. And enjoy it I did, even if the actual stories in this first book were sometimes a bit of a mixed bag.

Wretch is a bandaged silhouette with huge white eyes (think Spider-Man’s symbiote costume with spiky hair), and his costume, which we never see all of, changes based on the needs of the story. His powers also change each issue, based on the rule of cool, and he never says a word in the entire comic. The stories all follow the same basic rhythm: a resident of the wonderfully named Glass City is threatened, either by supernatural forces or by more mundane threats like racism or domestic strife. The threat is introduced and plays itself out, and then the Wretch comes in and uses his strange magic to solve the problem. His solutions follow an odd, dreamlike logic of their own: in one story, the Wretch takes the wedding ring of a man who was murdered in the snow and builds a snowman, placing the wedding ring into the snowman’s chest cavity. The snowman melts back into the no-longer-dead murder victim, who may or may not have received supernatural powers from the ordeal. Stuff like that.

These unlimited “rule of cool” powers detract a little from the suspense of the stories, although I’m not sure if a book like this is really SUPPOSED to have suspense. I personally would have enjoyed a story or two where Wretch turned out to be helpless in the face of some tragedy, but maybe Hester was going for a 1940s Detective Comics-era vibe, where an omnipotent avenger goes about righting society’s wrongs and the payoff is in watching him do it. Hester certainly attempts to tackle the touchy social issues of the 90’s and early 00’s, even if I found some of the results a little preachy and simplistic. A racist father who hits his daughter and refers to black people as “colored” is certainly an easy villain, but that’s ALL he is. Another story brings up bulimia and suicide in the context of insecure teenagers being preyed upon by a conman, and while the results are certainly less corny than any of Marvel or DC’s attempts in this area, they are still corny (particularly when the kids “rise up” to say “We’re not afraid anymore”). On the other hand, a story about striking workers clashing with Mexican immigrants is handled quite well. Both “sides” are portrayed sympathetically, and the tale’s symbolic threat touches all the right emotional notes.

All this makes it sound like The Wretch is nothin’ but social consciousness and symbolism, and I don’t want to make it seem that way at ALL. It’s fun and imaginative, bursting with pulpy energy, and the stories move at a breakneck pace. The artsy comics I read are almost always slow and self-conscious, so I always love to read something that’s both artsy AND entertaining. I may complain about the very real cheesiness in some of Hester’s writing, but his stories come from a unique and creative place and he tells them unapologetically, and that kind of renders my complaint moot. I’d rather read Wretch than most of the stuff in the Best American Comics collections, for example.

Aside from all this, Wretch is like the coolest character ever. He’s the kind of superhero you want to get a tattoo of, the kind of malleable avatar who can be absolutely anything the author needs him to be without losing his iconic qualities. I have a real fascination with characters like this: the closest I’ve ever come to creating one is my take on Satan in [shamelessplug: The Lost Works of Georges Melies /endshamelessplug]. It’s harder than it looks, but these are the kinds of characters readers fall in love with. Wretch is a Ditko-style weirdo written with a nineties indie-comic sensibility. If you like comics, it’s a hidden gem.  http://www.amazon.com/The-Wretch-Volume-One-Everyday/dp/0943151686/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336258355&sr=1-1

 
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Posted by on May 5, 2012 in I Review Other Stuff

 

Frank Miller’s Holy Terror

I’ve always said that I prefer a crazy comic to a boring one, but Terror is certainly testing this assertion. It’s certainly not good.

Frankly, I skimmed the thing. I’ve gonna make piecemeal observations but I’m not gonna read every word this jerk wrote, and if a scene is confusing I’m moving on. I hate this, I owe like half of whatever talent I may have to the fact that I obsessively reread Ronin and Dark Knight Returns as a kid. The little tiny panels, the minimalism, the splashes of black, the pacing: God, Frank Miller’s books TAUGHT you how to be a cartoonist. I really hate this.

The good stuff in this book comes in moments. The terrorists blowing up the Statue of Liberty was dumb (and why does a xenophobic idiot like Miller care about a French statue, anyway), but it was visually astonishing. Big black planes, and the statue was all robes. Very cool.

When a terrorist is killed, he says “aargh” and I’ve never seen strike-thru text as a way to show someone dying. That’s like Dave Sim-level word balloon brilliance right there. So at least I found something to steal ;).

The dumb stuff overwhelms the good stuff. I’m all for splattery artwork, but Miller overdoes it. There are almost no backgrounds except for the very beginning and the very end. If this had been combined with his usual crisp, clean artwork, that could give the whole thing a surreal feel, but all the splattered whiteout just reminds us that there’s nothing underneath the surface.

All the macho language really makes me understand why Grant Morrison told Frank to just join the army already. The Fixer (Batman without ears) talks like John Cena. I’m serious. Like if John Cena was kicking an Arab guy around the ring and saying “You like that, Mohammed?” and a bunch of kids in Tapout shirts were cheering that would be a lot like this comic.

I went into this comic knowing what it was gonna be, and I judge things by their own merits. I’ve written before about how much I like Doug Tennapel, and that guy isn’t exactly a progressive thinker. Holy Terror is supposed to be an offensive slap to the face of liberals who oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s fine. Comics are there to express things, and that is one possible thing that a person could choose to express. But it fails, even by its own standards.

Look, here’s how you draw THAT comic. First of all, show how the terrorists think about what they’re doing. Alan Moore gave his fascist villain a really scary little monologue in V for Vendetta, and in doing so made him more than a cardboard cutout (the guy still got killed real good, though). Dinesh D’souza’s What’s So Great About America gives a Republican-friendly description of terrorist motivations. COPY AND PASTE HIS ARGUMENTS!! Secondly, the heroes have to show a little vulnerability. Look at a Mel Gibson movie. He always wants to be a pacifist, and then bad stuff happens, and by the time he becomes a killing machine you’re rooting for him. The Fixer seems like he was born hating Arabs, probably because they don’t like hot dogs or baseball.

The book finally goes crazy enough to be interesting in the last ten pages or so. Al Qaeda’s hideout is a tech-savvy underground lair with pink floors that reminded me a little of the birdmens’ cave from the old 1940’s Superman cartoons. The Fixer kills the last of the terrorists with a horrible disease bomb “that was meant for us”, and the villain’s vicious and prolonged death scene is a guilty pleasure, hateful and satisfying. And as other reviewers have said, the last page is AMAZING (and effective).

I recommend that you do what I did. Go into a bookstore and skim it. Look at the kool artwork and ignore most of the dialogue. Just make sure that you read the ending. It’s the only time Miller’s story becomes the scary and challenging right-wing fantasy that he thinks it is. The rest of the time it’s a Dolph Lundgren movie, splattered with way too much whiteout.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in I Review Other Stuff

 

Drawing a daily comic, Doug Tennapel, and how we “get into” the things we like

Since I’ve continually heard (and by that I mean “read online”) that doing something daily is the best way to build an audience for one’s website, I’m going to do a daily comic. Right now I’m building up a backlog of material, so that I can keep like fifty strips in a file folder and post them one at a time. Ironically, while I’m preparing myself to make daily posts, I won’t have much to post in the meantime.

One of my inspirations for this project was Doug Tennapel’s Ratfist (www.ratfist.com). Tennapel is the creator of Earthworm Jim and he’s a very skilled cartoonist, but much of his work had been relatively obscure (he writes explicitly Christian comics about aliens, and there’s blood and cussing in some of them, which makes for a VERY heady mix: it certainly isn’t for everyone). For years, he had been essentially self-publishing his graphic novels, which are well-loved by many, but hardly Amazon top tens. With Ratfist he tried a different model, posting a page a day, all free, for 150 weekdays. Up until this point, I had never heard of the guy. Then a cartoonist friend of mine “liked” Ratfist on Facebook. I clicked the link because of the ridiculous name, and based on the first page I read, I probably would have written it off as a well-drawn but didactic right-wing webcomic.

But the name “Tennapel” rang a bell, and I Googled him, and found out that he had been involved with some video games I liked in the early nineties. So I kept reading Ratfist, not as a “good read”, but as one of those curious internet finds (“Huh! The Earthworm Jim guy is like a weird Christian now? This is kind of funny, in a Stephen Baldwin kind of way”). It took me about ten or twelve pages to realize that it was indeed a “good comic”, and about thirty pages to become invested in the story and start caring about the characters. Tennapel’s views are central to the stories he tells: if you took “the political stuff” out of Ratfist, it would ruin the comic. As a “spiritual but not religious” unmarried liberal in my twenties, I am exactly the kind of reader Tennapel wants to piss off and challenge. He is heavy-handed and cheesy, but he’s also a deeply thoughtful guy with an active moral imagination. And from a storytelling standpoint, he is a near-masterful craftsman whose silly, exaggerated drawing style hides the fact that he really seems to know what he’s doing.

I’m a Tennapel fan now: I’ve purchased three of his books on Amazon, and he’s become one of my favorite cartoonists (when he’s not busy being my least favorite cartoonist). The point is: think about all of the variables that had to fall into place for me to even find out about his comics, let alone start enjoying them!

1. He made some video games that I played.

2. I Googled those games and found out that he made them, then forgot about him for like a year.

3. He made a bunch of comics that I didn’t read or even know about. (This one was important!)

4. He made a daily webcomic.

5. My much more savvy friend “liked” it on Facebook.

6. I followed the link.

If #1-3 hadn’t happened, #4-6 would have been meaningless. I know that I’m just one reader, but I think that in this case I’m a good example of what HAS TO HAPPEN for something to be successful. If Doug hadn’t labored for years in (relative) obscurity, working on other things, I basically wouldn’t have continued reading Ratfist when I found it, and I wouldn’t have become a fan.

These days, almost everybody under the age of 35 has a blog, or a band, or a webcomic or a startup or a something that they’re trying to pimp online. I look at many of these, since I’m always trying to find new cool things to “get into”: then I immediately forget about almost all of them, even if they’re really good. I get the feeling that a lot of people look at my comics, think they’re kind of interesting, and then immediately forget about them. This is totally understandable, since I do the same thing! To get real FANS, who will think about your stuff and reread it and let it simmer in their minds, and then maybe someday like your stuff so much that they’ll pay money for it so you can do it for a living (sorry, I can’t help daydreaming sometimes ;)), you need to stand out from the pack. And in order to do that, I’m starting to think that you need to reach a “critical mass” of content that you’ve been involved in. Doug Tennapel draws stuff that isn’t exactly “mainstream”, but he’s built enough of a niche for himself that he can do it for a living, which is just endlessly inspiring in this day and age.

 

Check this out

I don’t know this guy, nor does he know me. But www.longboxgraveyard.com has terrific reviews of 70’s-era comic books.

Totally unsolicited recommendation. I’ve been looking at this stuff all morning.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in I Review Other Stuff, Misc.

 

Early comics and early film (formal writing I’m doing for an online magazine)

Having recently drawn a graphic novella about a silent film director, I’ve become interested in the parallels between comics and early films. The similarities are real: sometimes, eerily so. Both are mediums that grew out of the enthusiastic efforts of creative amateurs working under the close watch of barely-regulated, morally dubious big businesses. Early comics and films are both in love with “big-ness” and express broad, appealing themes with very little shame or hesitation (power fantasies, various triumphs of plucky, decent little guys, pretty girls as decoration, etc.) Film connoisseurs and comic snobs will both wax eloquent on the various subtleties of their favorite medium, but neither form can really escape a legacy of cheesiness and populism. I think that this is an essential part of what makes them “work”, and is something to be explored, not avoided.

Comic books rely heavily on exaggeration for the sake of clarity. Even in the “best” (dramatic) comic books, there is a level of pathos that would be laughable in any of the other storytelling artforms. Consider the risible films that have been based great cartoonists’ works: judging by the movies they inspired, one would think that Frank Miller and Alan Moore share the dramatic sensibility of an airport thriller writer. But this isn’t just a result of scriptwriter meddling. Allow me to use a panel from Watchmen, presenting the dialogue without the accompanying image, to illustrate:

 

Laurie and Dan kneel together by their nemesis’ luxurious heated pool, surrounded by Greek-style pillars.

“Laurie? Wh-what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to love me. I want you to love me because we’re not dead.”

 

This kind of ridiculous melodrama simply cannot work outside of its original media. Within that media, it is magical (think back to the first time you read Watchmen, and remember how you felt during that scene). When people called the book unfilmable back in the 1980s, it wasn’t because it was just “too good”; it was because comics (as a medium) actually rewards many of the things that modern film punishes. The Sin City movie at best was a clever homage to a great series: despite being an almost panel-for-panel translation, it could never recreate the dramatic appeal of the original.

Silent films also used exaggeration as a matter of necessity. When characters were surprised or scared, they couldn’t communicate this by slightly shifting their eyes or jumping a little. They had to throw their arms in front of their faces and literally leap backwards. There was no Sofia Coppola of early film, and what nuances there were, were not the reason people attended these movies. They went for big, broad, fantastical stories that could serve as escapism for a very broad range of consumers. While academics have filled volumes with their analyses of what Winsor McCay or Fritz Lang really “meant”, it is difficult to escape the feeling that they were just good storytellers who subconsciously put “easter eggs” into their works. Both mediums can absorb their audience utterly, creating the illusion of a magical world where all the things that should exist, do (right around the corner, in fact). And both are also rather silly in a way that they cannot escape.

It is estimated that roughly 90 percent of early twentieth-century silent films have been degraded or destroyed due to the cheap film stock used at the time. Stories of parents throwing away their children’s comic books in the first half of the century are a cliche, and a true one. They were not printed to last. The physical “product” of a comic book was made for one individual consumer, unlike movies, where the products were reels of film, duplicated for each theater involved. But in both cases, their throwaway nature gave them a freedom that is difficult for “real” artforms to attain.

The quirks and failings of individual artists are not removed from these smaller, low-budget works. Georges Melies made whimsical little film-poems that are most valuable as glimpses of a very creative person’s mind. They do not have big, important things to tell us about life, and if they do they are incidental (and more than a little cheesy). They are primarily “about” the joy of creativity. I would submit that the same is true of Action Comics #1, Dream of the Rare-Bit Fiend, Mutts, and the Scott Pilgrim books. Many of the “new comics” are trying to escape from the exaggerated, whimsical and slightly corny nature of the medium, and I think they lose something important in the process. The illusion of reality is overrated, and attempts to recreate it don’t give enough credit to the emotional power of art.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2012 in I Review Other Stuff, Misc.

 

Genius, “genius”, and artistic growth

I’ve started reading Berger’s The Success and Failure of Picasso, and it’s inspiring in its willingness to show how Picasso’s strengths were directly related to his weaknesses (it’s also cool for allowing that Picasso HAD weaknesses). People seem to have an inherent need to rank and rate the things they are inspired by, creating little “Facebook like” lists in their minds. But what if someone like Picasso was inspiring and worthwhile for the same reason that he was, in an important way, less interesting than many other artists of his time?

Picasso was certainly a prodigy, possessing great talent without ever having struggled or worked for it in the way that many others have. When he was fourteen, his father allegedly quit painting, telling young Pablo that the latter had surpassed him in skill and that there would be no point in continuing to paint. Berger believes that this event was related to Picasso’s absolute refusal to approach his art in any but an instinctual way:

“Is it likely that a boy will ever believe in progress step by step when at the age of puberty he is suddenly told by his father that he deserves to take his father’s place and that his father is going to step down? Since this is what every boy wants to happen, is he not more likely to believe in magic?”

By all accounts, Picasso did not respect theory, learning or explanations of any kind in regards to art (or life in general, for that matter). His art was a thing more powerful than him that worked THROUGH him, and all schools of art were simply unnecessary for “pure” expression. Because of this, he could only ever be a genius: he could never be humble enough to actually learn anything.

Many, many people have commented on the thin line between genius and madness, to the point where it’s tough to say anything new or interesting about it. Berger does, though: “He is lonely in the same way that the lunatic is lonely: because it seems to the lunatic, since he never meets opposition, that he can do anything.” This is a trait common to celebrities, “gifted” kids, mental patients, Americans, and many of the rest of us in our worst moments. Picasso cannot really be compared to any other artists, since he is not in competition with them. The same is true of a crazy person who thinks he has access to powers others lack. It is a tempting mental state, and probably an unhealthy one.

I want to explore this idea with Melies. He was an incredibly gifted artist, but the stories and movies about him have an unfortunate tendency to turn him into a magical, childlike innocent who died poor because he was just too much of a genius. I’m taking a LOT of creative liberties with my characterization of him. Who knows if any of it is true? But stories about flawed people are more interesting. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imply that maybe he wasn’t humble enough to learn much from other filmmakers.

(It’s really tempting to just post huge blocks of text from Berger’s book. It’s a good read, and has some interesting things to say about the artistic process.)

 

Comics review: Conversation #1 by Kochalka and Thompson

I have mixed feelings about both James Kochalka and Craig Thompson, and for similar reasons. Both are very masterful in the art of making comics, and at their best pull of flights of pure whimsy that can’t help but inspire a smile: at their worst, they are so precious and manipulative that their works seem more like those little “inspiration” books that old women read (the type with angels and cute little sayings in them). Conversation #1 confirmed my fears, showing moments of delightful whimsy right alongside moments of not-so-delightful whimsy.

First of all, the cover is terrific, showing the artists’ cartoon versions of themselves standing in a monochrome blue thunderstorm while holding a patch of non-outlined negative space that resembles an umbrella. It perfectly illustrates the kind of visual playfulness that both men are so good at, and it’s almost worth buying the book just to leave it out and look at the cover.

The pages of the booklet seem to have been alternately written and drawn by one artist, then the other. The narrative begins with Kochalka philosophically musing about the nature of art and its limitations, then on the next page Thompson responds in kind. The backgrounds reflect whatever their discussion point is: for example, the artists will be washed away by gigantic waves as they discuss how art allows people to make sense of the overwhelming nature of existence. If you think that sounds incredibly pretentious, you’re right, but it at least makes the book visually interesting. Had this technique NOT been used (say, if they had just drawn themselves sitting in a coffee shop), I think the result might have been more pretentious, not less.

At times, these guys mercifully take a step back to make fun of themselves. At one point Kochalka says “Wait, I’m getting confused. What does the flower represent?” to which a nearby fish replies “The human spirit?”. At other times, however, the dialogue just veers off into self-parody: a dolphin says, “Play is divine!” to which a shark replies, “Laughter is the Devil.” (Yeah.)

I’ve always enjoyed Thompson’s religious musings: he’s a very liberal Christian who frequently expresses anger and frustration with God, while being unable to shed his faith. It’s tough not to respect this after reading his “Blankets”. He does a little bit of that here, before veering off into more directionless musing.

After a certain age, one grows bored with philosophical conversations that conclude with both parties saying “Well we didn’t really resolve anything, but it’s all about the journey, man!” Thompson and Kochalka are both very good at what they do, but I’ve never read anything by either that wasn’t at least a little bit cloying.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in I Review Other Stuff