Sunday, January 8, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 12: The Children of Captain Grant

I used to love those live action Disney movies when I was a wee tad. Now they seem a bit of a cornball, but they still stand up well for the most part. Many of them, like The Incredible Journey, The Miracle of the White Stallions and The Three Lives of Thomasina are about survival and search against impossible odds.
And thanks to Dell/Gold Key, a lot of them got their own comics too! Many were illustrated by Dan Speigle. I didn't realize it at the time, but his art influenced me almost as much as that of Curt Swan.
This book is an adaptation of a film of a Jules Verne novel, one of a very LONG series of adventure books he wrote. Though Disney played fast and loose with the novel, the resulting film (and comic, and I think there was a paperback novelization as well) was very engaging and exciting.
I had forgotten all about it, until I was reading the recent reprint of the French adaptation of the original novel, The Children of Captain Grant. As I was reading it, I found the pacing a bit off-putting, as it has that Victorian air about it that can slow the telling of a story in its deliberation. But I found the story itself oddly familiar. It wasn't until I did some background research for this piece that I made the connection back to this earlier adaptation from my childhood- a "well, duh!" moment.
I may have been misled by the subgenre in which the graphic novel is recast.
The story is retold using the furry motif.
All the characters are humanized animals- or if you prefer, anthropomorphized  humans. There's no real reason given for this. It's just assumed that that's the world in which these characters endure. The same as ours, except that everyone has fur, or feathers, or scales, or fins or some such.
Longtime readers will know of my affinity for such stories, both in consuming and in creating. From my early exposure to Barks' Duck books to my apprenticeship on Reed Waller's Omaha the Cat Dancer (a short chapter in my life that I never tire of bringing up), funny animals have been an integral part of my worlds. And I've seen all stripe (so to speak) of art in these books, ranging from the crude to the energetic and elegant (Katherine Collins' Neil the Horse comes to mind). There are some funny animal stories (to use Reed's preferred term) that take the art more seriously than others- the mechanical precision of Martin Wagner's Hepcats comes to mind here.
But I don't think I've ever seen as lushly painted a furry book as this, with the possible exceptions of Blacksad and the Grandville stories.
Every page explodes with meticulously controlled color. Landscapes, ships, architecture, different cultures, all exquisitely rendered.
Once again, I'll rely on the publisher (in this case, Super Genius) to provide a plot overview: "In this adaptation of the classic novel, the entire cast of characters has been transformed into anthropomorphic animal! It begins with a message-actually three water-damaged messages-found in a bottle removed from the belly of a shark. Written in three different languages the messages reveal that the long-missing Captain Grant was shipwrecked and is being held hostage. The only clue from the messages that might be of any help, will lead Lord Glenarvan and Captain Grant’s children on an adventure literally around the world!"
The story has the requisite elements: quirky characters, burgeoning romance, yearning for a lost parent, and so much adventure and derring-do you could plotz.
Though published in the US in 2016, this book was originally published in three volumes in France between 2009 and 2013. Its creator, Alexis Nesme, is well established as a children's comic illustrator in France. Here's an interview with him (in French- I can make out about half of it, not enough to provide an accurate translation, so I'll leave you to your own devices).
video

This book was a bit of a slog at times. My tolerance for quaint period writing is not high, so it took me a while to get through it. But that's a failing in me, not in the work. It was worth the effort. This book is exciting, lush and ultimately very satisfying.
Next: Best Comics No. 11, behind the scenes...

Friday, January 6, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 13: the Drawing Lesson

The 1990s were a heyday of new titles. Between the zine explosion and new publishers not only trying, but getting distribution of, new and innovative titles, some great work came out of that era. One of the most ambitious of these publishers, Sirius, gave us titles as wildly divergent as Dawn, Dogwitch, Poison Elves, and the delightful Akiko on the Planet Smoo.
While creator Mark Crilley moved on to other projects after more than 50 issues of Akiko, his work remained fresh and innovative. I didn't keep with his post-Akiko work, but did note in passing that he had begun to produce How to Draw... volumes, mostly on manga.
When I happened on The Drawing Lesson in a search of recent public library volumes, I was intrigued but skeptical. I've seen numerous volumes on the subject, some of which, like the Christoper Hart books, are simply awful. But given that it was Crilley, I vowed to give it a chance.
The book describes itself as "a graphic novel that teaches you how to draw." Usually such books have a thin plot that serves as a framing device for lessons. A classic example that works fairly well is David Chelsea's volume on comic book perspective drawing. This book also employs a such a device, but it's a bit meatier than most.
In The Drawing Lesson, Crilley tells of David, a young boy who wants to draw, but is reluctant to do the work of mastering the basics to get there. As a teacher and as a student, believe me, I've been there. Following a chance encounter with a woman named Becky, he begins to pester her until she agrees to give him his devoirs in drawing.
In her review of this book, Joanna Draper Carlson points out the myopic male privilege young David exercises in his demands on Becky. I agree to a point. He is demanding of her time and energy, and resistant to her teachings, but I saw that more as a function of youth than of sexism (though the latter is also a clearly valid point). Also, Becky is not shy about sticking up for herself, and understands what it means to be so young and so eager to get somewhere that you forget to take the whole trip!
A very good Becky lesson!
This is the real strength of the book. Yes, the lessons are solid and work well. But Crilley never loses sight of his characters. They become plausible and empathetic very quickly. The story twines about both David's growth as an artist and his fledgling friendship with Becky, also touching rather elegantly on the special bond between teacher and student, a bond different than any other I've experienced in life- deep and profound, but always at a necessary distance, and often transitory by necessity.
The lessons are not perfect. For instance, in the above spread, Crilley overlooks the cast light halo that often appears at the base of an object's cast shadow. But he's quick to point out that everything is not contained in David's lessons, which serve only as a foothold for fundamental skills and for the confidence to grow as an artist.
Crilley recognizes the place of art in life, while also observing life with a compassionate eye. This book is an elegant and effective approach to drawing, one I'm adding to my own overcrowded reference shelf on the topic.
Next: No. 12, kids on a search in their animal natures...

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 14: Dr. Strange

I've admired Dr. Strange for decades. The movie made me so happy, despite the Ancient One controversy. While the comics were clearly calculated to cash in on the film, I was eager to see the Doctor in an ongoing title of his own, which he's not had since his last book ended in 1996. 21 years without his own title and still a major player. Now that's magic!
The ads showing the cover of the new book did not give me hope.
An axe and a belt of skulls? What is this, Strange the Barbarian? Sheesh.
Well, turned out I was wrong to doubt the good Doctor.
Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo have given us an opening story arc about magic itself being under siege. This gives them a chance to play fast and loose with Marvel's mystic universe (while remaining surprisingly consistent with established canon) and give some fun little bits, like a neutral territory magic bar where mages can hang out and unwind.
Strange became Sorcerer Supreme again a few years ago in an issue of the Avengers, after Brother Voodoo died in battle (another black superhero lost!). His faltering skills, as chronicled in the miniseries The Oath, appear to have been fully restored along with his mantle.
The core of the first arc, the duel between magic and technology, is not new territory for Dr. Strange. Many of his foes are simply anti-magic, like Silver Dagger. And the core of his involvement in the Fantastic Four arc Unthinkable is his ability to help Reed Richards come to terms with the dichotomy between science and magic. But really, there's only two primary ways a Strange story can go: either an anti-magic bad guy or a powerful magic bad guy. Other than the stories with a more introspective tone (my favorites), that's most of them. And they appear to be coming around to the latter, as Dormammuu jumps into the fray at the end of the most recent issue.
Dr. Strange is one of those characters that a lot of artists want to draw, but unlike Spidey or Bats,  his books have been sporadic, there haven't been as many opportunities. This makes the iconic artists on the title- Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Marie Severin, Dan Adkins, Marshall Rogers, Paul Smith - shine all the brighter. It's too soon to know if Bachalo's work will be held in that high regard in the long run, but there's certainly promise here. Bachalo manages to emulate the greats on Strange with imitating. It's no mean feat to innovate in the illustration of other magical realms, but Chris has done so consistently in this book.
My only quibble with Marvel's current handling of the good Doctor is that they're milking it a bit. In addition to the main title, there have been a couple one-shots, a 2-issue movie prequel, a second book, Dr. Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme (a back history book that's really pretty good in its own right), and a Dr. Strange/ Punisher crossover that I picked up, but haven't been able to bring myself to read yet. There's a Golden Book for the wee ones out this week as well. Come on, Marvel. I know you're a for-profit company, and the profit window from a movie like Dr. Strange is smaller than some of the more established characters. But there's no reason to be that calculating about it.
Really, that's the only reason this book ranks as low as it does on this year's Best list. The merchandising aspect of the title hangs like a shadow over the whole book. Despite that, the book itself remains strong, and I am likely to continue picking it up each month.
Next: Best Comics of 2016, No. 13, a lesson for us all.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 15: Agony

Every year, some remarkable and unexpected reprint projects present themselves. There were several in 2016, and a couple of them made the list.
The first one takes a little explanation.
In the mid 1980s, Art Speigelman was bringing out the iconic RAW anthology. At the same time I was reading these, I began listening to The Residents, Tuxedomoon and Snakefinger. The strangeness and beauty reminded me of The Doors and of the compelling aspects of Dada, to which I was first exposed late in high school. I was privileged to see Snakefinger in concert once, a remarkable experience. Simultaneously poetic and raw, aggressive and vulnerable, dark yet hopeful, Snakefinger sounded like no one else.
And the record covers were equally compelling.
I was fascinated by this image. It reminded me of the late Rory Hayes, whose horrific primitive works in early undergrounds were simultaneously innocent and brutal. When flipping through issues of RAW, I woke up and recognized it as the work of Mark Beyer. Beyer's AGONY was published as one of a series of RAW One-Shots.
AGONY is back in print in 2016, courtesy of New York Review Comics (an imprint dedicated to reprints, currently numbering nine volumes). They did a fine job, printing cleanly and binding the work well, while not jarring with the work's overall aesthetic. Several years back, there was a deluxe two-volume slipcase edition of Gary Panter's work, and I remember thinking how odd it was to have such aggressive and "street" art in such a lush format. In contrast, the new edition of AGONY has a decent dustjacket and a plain white cover.
The dustjacket cover
So what's it about?
Well, the title actually sums up the work pretty thoroughly!
Presented as a page.
In the reprint, each panel is its own page.
This is part absurdist theater, part Grand Guignol, part mean little kid. The story is so implausible as to be laughable, yet the reader can't help but feel sorry for our hapless heroes, who seem to be the only two decent people in the world, constantly beset by the vicissitudes of nature and the caprices of their fellow man. Like the best of Crumb's more outrageous works, this leaves me laughing and cringing at the same time. To quote the promo blurb from the publisher's web page: "ENJOY THE ECSTASY OF AGONY. Amy and Jordan are just like us: hoping for the best, even when things go from bad to worse. They are menaced by bears, beheaded by ghosts,  and hunted by the cops, but still they struggle on, bickering and reconciling, scraping together the rent and trying to find a decent movie. It’s the perfect solace for anxious modern minds, courtesy of one of the great innovators of American comics. Now if only Amy’s skin would grow back ..."
My only problem is a minor issue with the layout. In the new edition, each panel is presented as a  single page, while other versions have used the classic 6-panel grid shown above. I think it flows better in the earlier format, but it's such a thin volume that the new panel per page presentation may have been more strategic than aesthetic.
That minor quibble aside, there's a lot going on here. Beyer plays with time much as Dali and Bunuel did in Andalusian Dog. The story is set in February 0000. Captions include the obtuse "soon" and "two weeks later". Beyer's work alternates/intersects the violent melancholy of the relationship commentary in the Dali/Bunuel film with the adolescent puerile humor of early John Waters films, to great effect.
The lyrics to the single pictured above come to mind in summing this book up:
You can follow me and I guarantee to take you far away
But we must leave before the eve of everlasting gray
Next: Best of 2016, No. 14: Strange days indeed.