Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: X'ed Out and The Hive, by Charles Burns

I first learned of Charles Burns' work in the pages of the anthology RAW, and I've been seeking out his work wherever I could find it ever since. I was curious to see what would follow his magnum opus Black Hole (collected in 2008), as that book seemed to sum up the "Teen love/Horror" themes he'd been exploring for some time.

X'ed Out (2010) and The Hive (2012) are the first two parts of a new trilogy. Love and horror are still there, but they're both... even weirder than they were before. (Those of you already familiar with Burns' work will realize how much weight the word "weirder" carries in this context.) Doug, a young performance-poet ("Hi, I'm Nitwit, also known as Johnny 23") with an ailing father, falls in love with a Patti Smith-loving photographer who forces him to explore some of his family secrets. "Meanwhile" (in some way) in an alien landscape, a simplified version of Doug finds work caring for "future queens" of a hive (even procuring strange romance comic books for one of the women) while constantly being berated by his alien co-workers; his name in this world almost seems to be "Asshole," given the number of times he's called that. His one friend in this world, a homunculus-like grifter, is on his side but also seems untrustworthy. Oh, and there's body-horror everywhere.

It had been about year in between my reading of X'ed Out and The Hive; once I read The Hive, I had to go back and re-read them both in order to try and understand what's going on. I'm not sure I succeeded. Burns' storytelling here takes "non-linearity" to new heights; there are visual and verbal echoes between the two worlds on a number of levels, but two-thirds of the way through this tale, things have yet to come together. That's to be expected in a work like this, but it's still a frustrating experience to be in the middle of. Once the third volume comes out it will be easier (I hope!) to come to terms with the narrative.

Visually, the books are stunning. Burns has occasionally let his love for Hergé's Tintin shine through in his publication designs, but here their influence of informs every inch, from the European album format to the flat colors (amazing to see this much color work from Burns, after decades of mostly black-and-white work) to "alien" Doug's quiff of hair to the endpapers featuring scenes from the books. 

I always thought that black and white perfectly suited Burns' work, so I'm surprised at how much the color really adds to the storytelling here: some scenes play out in heavily-tinted monochrome; the pages of the alien romance comic books pulse with odd printing techniques; and there's a sublime juxtaposition of a green, buggish alien face scowling over a white dress shirt, with a loose necktie flailing in the breeze. What would normally be the half-title page in these books becomes an eighteen-panel page, with panels of two colors in different patterns from book one to book two. I can't help but expect that these patterns will ultimately be revealed to be meaningful once book three, Sugar Skull, is published (this year, I hope).

These books aren't for everyone, perhaps, but I can't wait for Sugar Skull - its answers and, I expect, its further mysteries. 

X'ed Out
by Charles Burns
Pantheon, 2010
ISBN-10: 0307379132
ISBN-13: 978-0307379139
56 pages, $19.95

The Hive
by Charles Burns
Pantheon, 2012
ISBN-10: 0307907880
ISBN-13: 978-0307907882
56 pages, $21.95

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: The Shark King, by R. Kikuo Johnson

R. Kikuo Johnson's The Shark King is another wonderful comic for younger readers from TOON Books. I'm not sure if this tale is an actual myth or just feels like one, to its credit. Set in old Hawaii, the story concerns a woman who falls in love with and marries a mysterious man, and their child Nanaue who, born with special abilities, goes on adventures and meets his destiny. The cape you can see him wearing on the cover helps conceal the boy's strange and somewhat goofy birthright.

Johnson's art style is deceptively simple in its directness - clean and clear, with a muted palette almost out of the 1950s, the drawings often inhabit relatively complex page designs. Readers encounter lots of angular or jumbled panels along with more fairly standard griddings, giving the pages a real life and kinetic energy. (I'm reminded at times of Stephen R. Bissette's page designs in comics such as Swamp Thing and Tyrant - and coming from me, this is high praise indeed.)

The Shark King is what TOON Books calls a "Level Three" book ("Chapter-book comics for advanced beginners [...] Reader needs to make connections and speculate"), and Johnson's work certainly fits this bill. Parts of the tale are told via suggestion rather than statement, encouraging the child reader to ask questions, to guess what has happened or will happen next. This isn't lazy storytelling; it's exactly the opposite. Johnson knows what to emphasize and what to allude to, in order to engage young readers' imaginations. TOON Books expects that kids will be reading these books with their parents, and a story like this will certainly encourage the active engagement of both older and younger readers that can lead to thoughtful reflection and - that grail of grails - re-reading.

I think kids will really enjoy this book, for its artwork, for its imaginative and evocative setting, and for the impish pluck of young Nanaue. Plus, it will give kids yet another reason to tie a towel around their neck like a cape...

The Shark King
by R. Kikuo Johnson
TOON Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1935179160
ISBN-13: 978-1935179160
40 pages, $12.95

Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, by Mary M. & Bryan Talbot

Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is a book unlike any other I've read, a combined graphic biography (of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce) and autobiography (of the graphic novel's writer, Mary M. Talbot, daughter of Joyce scholar James S. Atherton and a respected academic in her own right). Talbot had a pretty big "in" in terms of an artist for her first graphic novel, seeing as her husband is the legendary Bryan Talbot, the award-winning creator of many comics and graphic novels, from the groundbreaking The Adventures of Luther Arkwright to heartbreaking The Tale of One Bad Rat to the genre-busting Alice in Sunderland and more.

Given that I've long been a fan of Bryan Talbot's work and studied (and enjoyed!) a fair bit of Joyce in my undergraduate and graduate student days, I was prepared to love this book. Sadly, I only liked it well enough - usually that's fine, but I had such high hopes, given its subject matter and pedigree. Mary is a fine writer, without question, and Bryan's artwork is top-notch as ever (although this is not the bravura performance he gave in Sunderland), but I just didn't feel that these two stories really needed to be told together, or that they benefited much from their joining. It's true that there are obvious linkages between the two (Joyce, most obviously, plus enigmatic fathers), but those links don't really add up to much in the telling, apart from those basic means of comparison.

Lucia's story is heartbreaking, to be sure. A talented dancer, she found her life choices always constrained and compromised by her parents' constant moving from one country to another, even after Lucia reached adulthood. Her eventual committal to a mental institution in 1932 (her first of what became many stays) is as terrible as it is incomprehensible: After one of many rows, Lucia throws a chair at her mother, and "Her brother made a snap decision. He had her committed" (82). We're not given any hint previously that anyone in her family thought she had mental issue: She fights with her parents and chafes at their control, yes, but who doesn't, really? In this telling, this "snap decision" signals the end of Lucia's active life - the book ends less than ten pages later. It's a tragedy, without question, but an incomprehensible one here. Surely there has to be more to the story than a simple "snap decision" by her brother.

Mary's own story, growing up the only daughter in a postwar British household, is engaging, if sad: Eager to please but also intelligent and headstrong, Mary constantly runs afoul of her father and his snap-temper. Perhaps the book's most powerful and damning observation appears on page 30: "Claims about men being unable to express emotion irritate me to no end. My father did anger very well." The love story between Mary and Bryan charms though suggestion; there's enough tensions here to sustain a much longer, more detailed narrative.

Visually, the book is divided into three portions: The present-day frame story, in clearly inked full color panels; Lucia's story, in borderless blue-grey; and Mary's story, borderless and primarily in sepia. The borderless panels throughout both help to emphasize the flashback nature of the narrative and allow for some beautifully blended page layouts. In Mary's story, the artwork is the least polished, with preliminary pencil lines and paste-up markings visible. I'm guessing this is somehow to make that section feel more "authentic," perhaps, as it is the author's own memories? I don't know - it doesn't look incomplete, exactly, but it is rougher... maybe to mirror Mary's own pain at "becoming" an adult?

The pages also show evidence that it was a couple who created the book. There are several places where Mary inserts a footnote about something that Bryan got "wrong" (the frilly apron that her mother never would have worn, the favorite children's book of Bryan's that he "snuck " into a montage of her favorite children's books), and a place or two where we see "dueling footnotes" from both author and artist. It's a cute personal touch, but it creates a bit of tension when it comes to how the book presents history: If there are factual errors (such as they are) in the Mary sections, might the same be true in the Lucia sections? If the book were Mary's (and, to a lesser extent, Bryan's) story alone, these moments would seem utterly good-natured and fun; but they introduce questions of authenticity that seem strange in a book that's based as much on research as it is on memory.

Still and all, I'm glad I read Dotter of Her Father's Eyes. It's an enjoyable if at times painful set of true tales, of interest to readers of biography and history and literature. I imagine that, seeing as how it was awarded the Costa prize for biography, it will serve to introduce non-comics readers to the graphic novel format, which is a good thing, and I'm looking forward to what both Mary and Bryan have coming next.

 Dotter of Her Father's Eyes
by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1595828508
ISBN-13: 978-1595828507
94 pages, $14.99