Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: The Great War, by Joe Sacco, with an essay by Adam Hochschild

With The Great War - July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, An Illustrated Panorama, comics journalist Joe Sacco has created a single, 24-foot-long gatefold image which re-creates the events of this day of battle across time and space. Surrounded by two hard covers, the gatefold image comes in a slipcase which also includes a booklet with an author's note and annotations by Sacco, as well as an essay ("July 1, 1916") by historian Adam Hochschild.

Technically, Sacco's image is a tour de force, utilizing shifting perspectives to create the illusion of a single image while also presenting a chronological narrative of the battle's stages. The amount of detail Sacco includes is staggering, including scores--no, hundreds!--of soldiers, and mazes of trenches that seem to go on for miles. Explosions, debris, and devastation abound, and the passage of time allows us to contrast the idyllic pre-battle landscape to the horrific aftermath.

I was intellectually impressed by Sacco's artistic achievement, but it is only Hochschild's essay that really devastates on an emotional level. I already knew that the First World War, that horribly mis-named "War to End All Wars," was a ridiculous waste of human life,;but Hochschild's essay covering the myriad details of this particular battle--the blindly hubristic plans, the utterly devastating results--really drives the point home in ways that not even Sacco's massively detailed panorama can achieve.

The artwork is stunning technically, but without Sacco's annotations and Hochschild's essay, I'm not sure how affecting the end result would be. Actually, I do, and the answer is that it would appeal a lot to my eyes and brain, but much less so to my heart. Sacco's image needed to be a part of this complete package; the panorama alone, impressive as it is, is not enough to drive home the point Sacco strives for. Which he himself acknowledges in his introduction:
Making this illustration wordless made it impossible for me to provide context or add explanations. I had no means of indicting the high command or lauding the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths. ("On the Great War," Author's Note, p. 2)
Design-wise, The Great War is an impressive package, even if the panorama itself is an unwieldy read (but how could it not be, unless it were mounted along a wall?). One bravura touch it how the book begins and ends. The first image on what would normally be the front endpaper is a close-up drawing by Sacco of the famous Lord Kitchener WWI recruitment poster, followed by the title page; the rest of the book is the panorama itself, which extends all the way to what would normally be the back endpaper. In that final portion of the image, we see soldiers digging and filling graves. So the design leads us rhetorically from heavily romanticized recruitment to the devastating, utter finality of death. The end.

Make war no more!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Service Interruption: Use Alternate Route

It's been a few months since I've posted a review here, but that doesn't mean I haven't been reading and reviewing books! It's just that I've been podcasting instead of typing. Many weeks ago I was invited by Derek Royal to sit in for "an episode or two" of The Comics Alternative ("Two guys with PhDs talking about comics!") while his regular co-host Andy Kunka was unavailable. Well, "one or two" episodes soon multiplied, and now, even though Andy is now back in the fold, the Two Guys have invited me to be a permanent addition to the show.

So, to keep up with my verbal comics reviews, along with the interviews that I help conduct with artists and writers, you can follow the Comics Alternative updates I post at my other blog, Comics Research and Such. Or, just subscribe to the Comics Alternative podcast!

And I haven't forgotten about this blog. I have a few non-comics books waiting to be reviewed right now, and I plan to get those up here sooner rather than later.

Happy reading!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review: Agent Gates and the Secret Adventures of Devonton Abbey (a parody), by Camaren Subhiyah and Kyle Hilton

It's an intriguing idea for a mash-up: Take the severely reserved characters of the incredibly popular Downton Abbey ITV (and PBS) television series, and re-imagine their story (already tinged with political overtones), changing many of those characters to secret agents. Seems like a can't-miss premise for wacky genre fun, right? And it almost is.

While it's primarily the working-class characters who get to be secret agents, the upper-class characters are almost invariably portrayed as superficial simpletons (Richard Crawhill, Earl of Granville, being the most ridiculous of the ridiculous here). This characterization helps sell the class-conscious narrative, of course, although the parody does descend to some very silly depths. For instance, the inheritance question lying at the center of Downton Abbey here gets an additional wrinkle: if the Crawhills' pregnant dog Sweetsie has a male pup, he will inherit Devonton, and then Lady Margaret won't need to marry Cousin Martin after all. And so on.

Artist Kyle Hilton's character likenesses are usually spot-on, so much so that, except in rare instances, it really does look like you're "watching" a lost episode of the series. Alas, writer Camaren Subhiyah's script isn't content simply to mash-up two genres; instead, it adds strong science-fiction and fantasy aspects to the plot as well, involving elaborate pseudo-scientific gadgetry, the Philosopher's Stone, special mental and physical powers, and more. Oh, and Gates & Co. manage to avert the onset of World War I in the bargain.

It all just seems a bit too over-the-top. The SF aspects threaten to divert the plot too far from parody into, dare I say it, originality. I guess I was looking for something a bit more comfortable in this parody. Agent Gates and the Secret Adventures of Devonton Abbey might have been better served by disguising its Downton-debt and simply telling its original story on its own merits. Although I wonder if it would have been published at all in that case...

Agent Gates and the Secret Adventures of Devonton Abbey (A Parody)
by Camaren Subhiyah and Kyle Hilton
Andrews McMeel 2013
ISBN-10: 1449434347
ISBN-13: 978-1449434342
128 pages, $14.99

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: FF vol. 2: The Supremor Seed, by Hickman, Tocchini, Epting, Kitson et al.

Collecting issues #6-11 of the first run of the title FF (which temporarily replaced Fantastic Four), this book continues a cosmic epic begun in who knows which other comics, Fantastic Four or otherwise. Briefly: The Future Foundation (the remnants of the Fantastic Four after the Human Torch has died, plus Spider-Man, plus Dragon-Man, plus Reed Richards' father, plus Reed and Sue's children, plus assorted other younger characters) team up with a bevy of their greatest villains (including Doctor Doom and several others) to stop renegade Reeds from different dimensions from taking over all of everything. At the same time, the Inhumans return from exile. And various mayhems ensue.

Growing up in the 1970s, I always loved the Fantastic Four - I benefited from being able to read the current issues of the title as well as much of the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run thanks to the Marvel's Greatest Comics reprint title - and consequently I like to peek in every once in a while to see what's being done with the characters. FF vol. 2 has some interesting moments of characterization, but the plot intricacies rely too heavily on deep continuity knowledge which I don't possess, and which the book itself fails to provide; the Inhumans' storyline in particular is nearly impenetrable, even with an entire issue featuring just them, without a single appearance of the title team. Also, the switch in art styles more than midway through is jarring.

It's a shame, because I did like the book in places. But too much remains unsaid, relying either on previous plot knowledge or too heavily on the art to convey narrative nuances that simply aren't there without accompanying text. The story was, I'm sure, more rewarding to those weekly comics-shop readers who followed several titles as they were published, and who were therefore able to see connections only hinted at in these pages. FF vol 2 is a prime example of a "stand-alone" graphic novel that doesn't.

FF vol. 2: The Supremor Seed
By  Jonathan Hickman, Greg Tocchini, Steve Epting, Barry Kitson et al.
Marvel Comics, 2011
ISBN-10: 0785157697
ISBN-13: 978-0785157694
144 pages, $24.99

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: The Monsters' Monster, by Patrick McDonnell

Patrick McDonnell, the cartoonist behind the already-classic comic strip Mutts, has created a picturebook about monsters whose bad behaviors are very much like those of this book's potential audience. "Who could complain the loudest? Who could throw the most terrible tantrum? Who was the most miserable?" Their most fiendish plot of all involves creating another monster, one whom they hope will be the most terrifying of all. But this Monster (a chunky, cartoonified version of Boris Karloff's portrayal of the Frankenstein monster) has other ideas. I won't give it all away, but I will note that jelly donuts play a part.

McDonnell's artwork is, as always, loose and playful and highly expressive. Little two-headed Gloom 'n' Doom is especially hilarious to watch throughout. The text is clever and a bit sing-songy in places, perfect for reading aloud. And the book's gentle lesson will warm the heart of any little (or big) monster.

"Dank you," Patrick McDonnell.

The Monster's Monster
by Patrick McDonnell
Lttle, Brown, 2012
ISBN-10: 0316045470
ISBN-13: 978-0316045476
40 pages, $16.99

Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: Black Paths, by David B.

David B. is one of my favorite cartoonists: His lush drawings brim over with bold design work, mythological references, and symbolic energy. Epileptic, his account of growing up with a brother who suffered from grand mal seizures and his family's attempts to cope with the situation, remains one of the finest non-fiction graphic novels I've ever read. My French is very poor, but back when I had access to French-language comics I would buy anything with his name on it, just to luxuriate in his imagery, even when my understanding of his verbal nuances was lacking.

Black Paths is a fictionalized account of the Free State of Fiume after the First World War, told mostly through the eyes of Lauriano, a young writer who suffers from his experiences in WWI, and Mina, a French cabaret singer. The book is utterly beautiful: B.'s artwork sings with the addition of color (most of his earlier work I'd encountered was in black and white only), and--as usual for him but unusually for most cartoonists--there are many passages where impressionistic images and non-standard design and layout create beautifully dream-like moments.

However, the ins and outs of political intrigue have never held much appeal to me, and such matters are the meat of this book. Perhaps I simply wasn't in the right mood when I read it, but I could never seem to connect with the narrative in a meaningful way. I am convinced that the fault lies with me, not with the cartoonist, though. One day I'll give this book another chance, which it deserves. It's a bravura exercise in cartooning, but on a subject matter I couldn't seem to relate to. This time.

Black Paths
by David B.
Self Made Hero, 2011
ISBN-10: 190683833X
ISBN-13: 978-1906838331
128 pages, $24.95

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Spider-Men, by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli et al.

The reason this book exists is the very reason that so many people find it hard to "get" superhero comics. Briefly? There's another "Marvel Universe"* outside the regular one with all the heroes you probably know (from the movies if nowhere else**). This "Ultimate universe" has the same heroes, mostly, although with sometimes subtle, other times profound differences. Perhaps the biggest difference is that "Ultimate" Spider-Man--a youthful Peter Parker--died. In the Ultimate universe, at least so far, dead means dead (unlike the regular Marvel Universe, where people die and come back to life over and over, like clockwork). But before too long, Miles Morales, a thirteen-year-old mixed-race youth, gained spider-powers and assumed the mantle of Spider-Man. These two universes existed side-by-side on the comics store shelves for a dozen years, but until Spider-Men, there had never been a cross-over story bringing them together.

If you're confused, you probably don't read superhero comics all that regularly. And therefore, Spider-Men might not be the book for you to start with. Writer Brian Michael Bendis (who's scribed Ultimate Spider-Man from day one) does his best to set the stage(s) for this event: we get a very clear idea of who Peter Parker is, and a somewhat less-clear but still revealing portrait of Miles Morales. The first chapter opens with a several-page monologue by Peter/Spider-Man about why he loves New York City; once Peter gets transported to the Ultimate universe and Miles shows up, we see how the young hero is slowly fitting into the super-fabric of his own version of the city.

But the heart of the book--and I do mean heart--lies in the meeting, mid-point in the narrative, between "our" Peter Parker and the Ultimate versions of Peter's Aunt May May and Gwen Stacy (who, in our universe, was Peter's girlfriend until she was killed at the hands of the Green Goblin, in one of the most momentous story lines in the character's history--a death which haunts him only second to that of his Uncle Ben). Clearly, beyond the hook of the first cross-over between these universes, what writer Bendis is most interested in is these characters.

At first, May and Gwen--like everyone else--chides this adult Spider-Man for dressing up in the dead Parker's costume (his identity having been revealed to the world at his death). Once Peter unmasks and, predictably, May faints at the knowledge that her beloved nephew (at least a version of him) is alive and in her life again, the three characters have a lengthy conversation, which moves from tentative outreach and regret to gradual acceptance and, eventually, a kind of joy.

It's pure soap opera. But then, that's really what superhero comics are, when they work well. The costumes and powers and fights are part of the genre, of course, but the serial nature of superhero comic book storytelling has relied on the emotional histrionics of soap opera since at least the birth of the so-called Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960s. Writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four began the trend, but Lee and artist Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man arguably perfected the formula. Bendis and Ultimate Spider-Man artist Sara Pichelli show a lot of comfort working in larger-than-life, character-based psychodrama here.

Pichelli's artwork is lean and clean and very much what good super-hero comic art looks like now, with detailed environments and some very nicely exaggerated spider-poses on our eponymous heroes. But if anything, her depiction of facial expressions is a bit restrained--which would be fine in a literary slice-of-life comic, but super-soap gives you a license to kick up the histrionics. Still, that's a small quibble. I prefer my cartooning a bit more expressive and abstracted (see: Ditko and Kirby again), but as contemporary superhero art goes, this is fine stuff. Layouts are varied but always readable, moving the story forward without much in the way of flashy distractions.

I haven't talked much about the plot or the villain here. But really, beyond the fact that Spider-Man goes to the Ultimate Universe*** and meets not only his replacement but also several other heroes, the plot's incidental to the character interactions. If you haven't read many superhero comics--particularly Spider-Man comics--the character stakes might not mean all that much to you. (Again, serial storytelling means that you get to know these characters in depth; a small verbal aside here can feel freighted with import if you've followed the characters beforehand.) But for regular Spider-Man readers, Spider-Men provides a dose of emotion and a bit of wonder. And Peter's mysterious discovery at the very end ensures that there will be more where this story came from, in some other fashion.

*Actually, there are an infinite number of them, but I'm trying to keep this simple...

**Although the Marvel movies often conflate the "original" and "ultimate" versions of these heroes...

***Where everyone talks in a mixed-case typeface, unlike the all-caps "regular" universe. No, there's no particular reason I placed this footnote in this sentence; I just wanted to shoehorn in a font-nerd reference somewhere...

by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli et al.
Marvel, 2012
ISBN-10: 0785165339
ISBN-13: 978-0785165330
128 pages, $24.99