Monday, January 20, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 4: Mind Mgmt.

The National Lampoon once ran an article purporting to discuss the nature of pornography. One of the examples given was a single panel gag depicting dogs humping while a policeman watched and recited political slogans. The article said, "this is not pornography. Anyway, we're not sure what's going on here."
That's the way I felt when I began reading Matt Kindt's Mind Mgmt. (the not sure what's going on aspect, not the porn question) - a bit nonplussed, but in a great way. I've been an admirer of well-crafted solipsistic paranoia since The Prisoner first ran on American TV.
A plane lands with everyone aboard, save one girl, afflicted with amnesia.
The girl in question becomes a reluctant celebrity as a result of the incident. She authored a bestseller based on her experiences, but her career since then has been precarious at best.
Her daily life as an investigative journalist is hampered by her insistence on delving into The Event, as it comes to be known, at the expense of her current assignments.
As you might surmise, there's more going on here than even those cryptic events imply.
Our heroine, Meru, is propelled into an international journey of discovery, searching for the mysterious figure known only as The Manager.
The obvious comparisons apply. The work evokes Kafka, Phillip K. Dick, the aforementioned The Prisoner, and in some senses, more mainstream paranoia like The X-Files and its predecessor Kolchak, the Night Stalker, though the paranormal plays a diminished role in Mind Mgmt. 
Note the border elements/story!
As the narrative unfolds, we are drawn deeper into it in almost Machiavellian ways. The pages are bordered with text that unfolds a related story and offers excerpts from the Mind Mgmt. manual. These become inside messages to the reader, clues to what may really be going on. And in an aspect that's frustrating to those of us who sometimes prefer to read these stories as collections, there's a third (or fourth) story unfolding on the inside front covers of the individual issues. This sub-story is not included in the first collection (I've yet to read the second). So there's a piece of the story that you can only get by buying the back issues, at least as of this writing. Grr.
 I've had sporadic and passing acquaintance with Kindt's other work. I enjoyed his work on the New 52 Justice League series, but an earlier solo work, 2 Sisters, left me cold.  Very well crafted, but just too melancholy and too detached for my tastes. In contrast, though it also has its morose aspects, his work on Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is an over-the-top romp through the best chaos that escapist fiction has to offer. He also contributed some material to Jeff Lemire's wonderful Sweet Tooth. Kindt's 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man is on my short list for catching up on my reading, and has been optioned for filming.
Meanwhile, back at the story:
Kindt's design and color sense
are also vital parts of the story.
Even here, Meru is more a cipher than a fully fleshed-out character at times. While she does drive events, she is more driven than she is the driver, if you get my drift. There's an undertone that even within the story, her life has been scripted for her, and she's struggling to care about it. But there's enough of her here that we do care what happens to her (which I did not experience reading 2 Sisters), and I will revisit the narrative when Vol. 2 makes its way to the library. The regular series is ongoing from Dark Horse, with issue no. 18 due out this Wednesday. Again, kudos to Dark Horse. Their business model is a comic line that maintains an effective balance of licensed and more mainstream titles and ambitious experiments. Mind Mgmt. is a challenging and worthwhile example of the latter.
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 3: a tie!

Best Comics of 2013, No. 5: Genius

(Note to the faithful: the final page of the current Surrealist Cowgirls story is done, but the scan files were corrupted and I will not be able to rescan until Tuesday. Have faith.)
Some years ago, a student recommended Steven Seagle's It's A Bird as a text for the superhero portion of my Graphic Novel course. Intrigued, I dived in and got a great deal out of it. However, I thought its premise, that a very limited man could not identify with a Superman, was too thin for two weeks' course discussion, and that the theme had been addressed more succinctly in Michael T. Gilbert's Mann and Superman.
However, I was quite impressed by the book, and when Seagle's Genius appeared this year, I was tantalized.

The story of a promising physicist whose fire burned out too early, Genius is told in awed yet vibrant tones. Visually and verbally, this book is the poetry of loneliness and inadequacy. Reading it, I kept returning to the line from Leonard Cohen's Story of Isaac: "my father's hand was trembling with the beauty of the word."

The physicist in question, Ted Marx, lives in fear of losing his job, of losing his dying wife, of alienating his distant father-in-law, of losing contact with his children who are growing progressively farther away from him.
But mostly, he fears himself, and fears that he will never fully understand or equal the work of his idol, Albert Einstein.

One day, his father-in-law casually mentions that he knew Einstein, that he served briefly as his military guard. Of course, Ted does not believe him at first. The old man must be addled; he cannot have known my God!

But he realizes the elder man tells the truth ("work on my used car" is a private father-and-son moment, nicely played).

And he learns that Einstein confided a secret to him. Awed, he asks for more information.

Only to be rebuffed. The elder man's principles are not to be compromised, especially to a man who he does not respect.

As his increasingly smaller life comes into conflict with the magnitude of the promise in the elder man's secret, Ted feels himself diminishing. This encounter with his dying wife sums up his utter failure to grasp the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.
At last, the elder man relents and tells Ted Einstein's secret.

I can tell you all that and it will spoil none of the book's rapture.
There's a school of writing in graphic novels (also in text novels) in which things are plainly stated, and the magnitude of their meaning is made clear by their simplicity. Clearly, Genius is a very successful example of this.
Teddy Kristiansen's painted art is sublime. The stylized faces do take a tad of getting used to, but it's a short lived problem. I've enjoyed his work on GrendelSandman, Sandman Midnight Theater, the aforementioned It's A Bird, and my personal favorite, his Deadman story with Neil Gaiman from the SOLO series. His style reminds me of another personal favorite, Bernard Krigstein, in that they both use very raw and stylized elements in service to the story. Kristianses is slated to release another collaboration with Seagle in 2014.
This is another book that will bear revisiting- not daily, but often. It's a beautiful, humbling read.
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 4: another for the mind.