Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Scenes from an Impending Marriage, by Adrian Tomine

I was a big fan of Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve when it was first being published, but eventually I became disenchanted with his work; it just became to seem too sterile, too "same-y" for my tastes. But when I read an excerpt of Scenes from an Impending Marriage in this year's Best American Comics anthology, I was enchanted, and I quickly requested a copy of the book from my library. I wasn't disappointed.

Tomine's cartooning is looser here than I'm used to seeing - he's having fun, and it shows. The book is a collection of short-short stories, vignettes, and even one-panel cartoons concerning the planning of his wedding to his fiancee Sarah. Anyone who's ever gotten married will identify with these mini-horror stories, which are nevertheless told with engaging humor. The influence of Charles Schulz (Peanuts) shows up more than once here, to good effect. This is a slight book (you can read it in a few minutes), but it's a keeper, and it has convinced me to check out some more of Tomine's recent work. If it's half as entertaining as this book, I'll be happy.

Scenes from An Impending Marriage
a prenuptial memoir by Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly, 2011
ISBN-10: 1770460349
ISBN-13: 978-1770460348
54 pages, $9.95

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: Blabber Blabber Blabber (Everything vol. 1), by Lynda Barry

I freely admit it: It's impossible for me to be objective about the work of Lynda Barry. I simply believe her to be one of the very finest cartoonists ever to have lived. I first discovered her work in the pages of RAW (edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly) back in the early 1990s, and I quickly became a devoted follower of her work, both in books and in her syndicated comic strip Ernie Pook's Comeek.

Blabber Blabber Blabber is a collection of her earliest published work, the bulk of which has never before appeared in book form. It also includes her complete 1981 publication Girls and Boys (the whole book - even the endpapers!). These early comics are accompanied by lengthy, contextualizing, collage-based autobiographical/historical sections by Barry [watch for guest stars like Matt Groening and Gary Panter!]. Reading this book is a joyful experience.

I found it quite interesting, after absorbing her two previous "how to be creative" books (What it Is [2008] and Picture This [2010]), to see how evident Barry's thematic preoccupations have been from the earliest days of her career. She mines her early and inner lives not for autobiography, but for verisimilitude: Her work feels solid, feels "real," in ways that are poetic and crystalline, wild and dangerous, careful and carefree. I cannot recommend her work highly enough, and Blabber Blabber Blabber is a great place to start.

Blabber Blabber Blabber
[Everything. Volume 1, Collected and uncollected comics from around 1978-1982]
By Lynda Barry
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011
ISBN-10: 1770460527
ISBN-13: 978-1770460522
176 pages, $24.95

A shorter version of this review was originally published at Goodreads.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Superman: Grounded, vol. 1, by Straczynski and Barrows et al.

I see that this is "Volume 1." I'd be somewhat curious to read volume 2, if only to see if there's any larger point to any of this. Uninspired story, lackluster visuals, unanswered questions, but little suspense. Curious that the "Volume 1" tag only appears in 4-point type in the indicia - there's nothing else about the book that gives a clue that all you're getting is just a part of a larger (?) story.

Superman: Grounded vol 1
by J. Michael Straczynski and Eddy Barrows et al.
DC Comics, 2011
ISBN-10: 1401230768
ISBN-13: 978-1401230760
168 pages, $17.99

This review was originally published in slightly different form at Goodreads.

Review: Who I Am, by Pete Townshend

Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend is one of my musical heroes, but a complicated person: spiritual but self-destructive, innovative but prone to nostalgia. So I was predisposed to like this book, yet knowing full well that parts of it would annoy the hell out of me. And I wasn't far wrong. I came away both admiring him more than I had before, but feeling sad for him and being angry at him in equal measure, as well.

His childhood traumas, hinted at in earlier portraits of him I've read, are spelled out in a bit more detail here, though some things - especially what was most likely molestation at the hands of one of his grandmother's boyfriends - are discussed only nebulously. Which is absolutely within his right: no one needs to know specific details like that, perhaps most especially the young boy who experienced their horrors in the first place. The trauma has haunted him personally, artistically, and, sadly, publicly ever since.

We learn a lot of the thinking behind not just his songs, but behind his career moves: his struggles in developing the band The Who's looks and sounds, his solo albums, his editing career with Faber and Faber, his many charity works, his spiritual quests. What we don't learn as much of as I would have expected is about his Who bandmates Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon. It's not that we learn nothing about them, or of Pete's opinions of them; we do, but somehow I expected them to play larger roles here. This is probably my own failing, however, of still thinking of Pete as "a member of The Who" instead of as his own person. Of course we get some crazy Keith stories, and tales of fistfights with Roger, and concerns over John's financial difficulties; but mostly, what comes through is his obvious love for these men, his absolute admiration of them as friends and musicians. Roger in fact comes across as a rock for Pete more often than I would have guessed.

He's generally very forthright about his goals and choices, and he isn't afraid to admit mistakes (which are many). For a man who had it in his mind that he wanted to be a good husband and father, he had a remarkable ability to fall in love with other women at the drop of a hat. Was he confused and conflicted? Yes. Did he reign himself in? Occasionally. Did I want to slap him for his inconsiderate stupidity? Repeatedly.

The same could be said for his use of drink and drugs, which varied over time from abstinence to depravity. Yes, it's "the life of a rock star" - but why, damnit? He gives some reasons, but they're usually excuses. His multiple, non-ironic references to alcohol as "medicinal" in small doses seem myopic for someone who's had a much therapy and treatment as he's had. I'm far from a teetotaler myself, but if someone has an admitted, serious alcohol problem, comments like these seem disingenuous, at least. But again, what he's given us is a portrait not of a perfect or perfected person, but of one who is at least acutely aware of and at peace with himself.

Of course, a career like his is full of great stories, and even having been a fairly obsessive fan, there was a lot here that was new and unfamiliar to me. Phil Collins called to offer his services as drummer after Moon died? Pete was and is a fan of Bruce Springsteen? I knew of Pete's longstanding and fruitful obsession with recording technology, but not with boating. And he does sort of claim to have invented the idea of the Internet, though that one is less of a surprise.

Townshend is a good writer (this is not news), and I've seen enough interviews with him that I could easily hear his voice, his cadence in my head as I read the book; if there was any ghost-writing involved here, I'd be astonished. He does have a tendency to skip back and forth at times chronologically, but that might simply be a symptom of a life pulled in several directions at once. In the Acknowledgments, he admits that he had to cut the book down from 1,000 pages to 500 pages, and you definitely can feel the gaps at times at times; I would love to be able to read the longer version.

Who I Am: A Memoir
by Pete Townshend
Harper, 2012
ISBN-10: 0062127241
ISBN-13: 978-0062127242
544 pages, $32.50

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review: The Truth About Cousin Ernie's Head, by Matthew McElligott

What a strange little book! Crazy family arguments are "settled" in an unusual way, through the discovery of old home movies, with disastrous results. Some innovative visual storytelling (which I won't give away here) adds to the fun. The library categorizes this children's picturebook as a Holiday book, because the story takes place at Thanksgiving, but it would make a good read for any time.

The Truth About Cousin Ernie's Head
by Matthew McElligott
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 1996
ISBN-10: 0689801793
ISBN-13: 978-0689801792
32 pages, $16.99[?]

This review was originally published in slightly different form at Goodreads.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Unterzakhn, by Leela Corman

Esther and Fanya are twin sisters and first-generation Jewish Americans growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City in the early 20th Century in Leela Corman's graphic novel Unterzakhn ("underthings"). We follow the girls from around age six well into adulthood, tracing their very different but intertwined life paths: Fanya takes a job with a female doctor who specializes in women's health, while Esther works in a burlesque house / bordello before establishing herself in New York's arts scene. With set-ups like that, you might guess that events take dark, adult turns, and you wouldn't be wrong. Some of the story points teeter towards the melodramatic, but they're nevertheless convincing and compelling. Flashbacks to the twins' father's youth in Europe show a different sort of grasping at life's opportunities and viscitudes -- rural, not urban like the girls' -- but together these life portraits bring the past, a specific past, to life.

Corman's art, always accomplished, here takes on an almost velvety texture. The drawing on the first twenty five or so pages is tighter, more delicate and controlled than the rest of the book; but after that things tend to get looser, with ink lines growing bolder, more gestural, lusher. (Hair in particular becomes an occasion for artistic abandon.) The settings are richly defined -- Corman's research doesn't hit you over the head, but it informs every page, every panel. These are lived-in environments, detailed and believable.

Unterzakhn is a book about choices and circumstance, adversity and love. It's not always an easy read, but it's a valuable one. 

by Leela Corman
Schocken Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 0805242597
ISBN-13: 978-0805242591

208 pages, $24.95

Review: The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull

The Art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is everything it should be. It reproduces every surviving image author J.R.R. Tolkien produced for his children's novel The Hobbit (1937) and provides copious contextualizing essays by editors Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. I'm no Tolkien expert (far from it!), but the text seemed extremely authoritative, based on solid research and textual understanding. Several gatefolds throughout allow easy comparison of Tolkien's various drafts of many illustrations, sometimes evolving from just a few scratched lines to eventual woodcut-like ink drawings or lush watercolor paintings

Some of Tolkien's early drawings seem positively amateurish, but I find many of the finished pieces simply breathtaking in their beauty. This book demonstrates that the painstaking care he put into his writing applied equally well to his artwork. Since maps play a large role in creating the scope of Tolkien's Middle Earth, it's gratifying to see their development here, as his skills improved and his story concepts changed or expanded.

Being a publication design nerd, I especially appreciated the attention paid by the text - and by Tolkien himself - to even the smallest things, like the decorative elements embossed on the hardcover.

This book may have been timed to coincide with the release of the upcoming motion picture, but this is no quickie tie-in product. It's a substantial volume in its own right.

The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
ISBN-10: 0547928254
ISBN-13: 978-0547928258
144 pages, $40.00