Yeah, so I haven't written about superhero comics for a while largely because - not to go all David Brothers in this piece - while I've been enjoying a lot of stuff coming out, I haven't been driven to write much about a lot of it. So instead, I've been dipping my uncultured, pervert-suit-loving self into the world of INDEPENDENT SMALL PRESS COMICS, not to mention the dangerous and exotic Orient of sequential art they call "man-ga."
Joking aside, here's some pretty great shit I read recently, and what I thought about it. (Obviously, there is more after the jump.)
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Pantheon Press
Yeah, I'm hardly the first person to come out and say that this is a pretty stunning artistic achievement. I've been putting off writing about it basically for that reason - after guys like Wolk and Mautner weighed in, what good is there in a schlub like me throwing his opinion horseshoe onto the post?
The thing is, I think it's easy to get lost in Polyp's shadow. The book is unmistakably a formalist masterpiece on first skim-through; Mazzucchelli's virtuosity with almost every aspect of sequential art is immediately evident. It's easy to get lost in symbolism and allusion with this book, since every single image seems weighted down with meaning, but there's a reason all of this symbolism and allusion is captivating in the first place: it's a good story, told astonishingly well. Yeah, Mazzucchelli's providing some incredibly stunning images and sometimes forcing you to read a comic in a way you're not used to, but it's all stunningly intuitive - Polyp somehow manages to be incredibly deep without being overwhelmingly challenging. It's not just this big stylistic monolith; it's also an engaging, emotional and entertaining story about two fully realized characters with dialogue that makes them easy to care about.
It's remarkable the balance Mazzucchelli was able to achieve here. It rewards each successive reading without requiring it; it can be a breezy, entertaining read if you want it to be and an annotator's dream if that's your thing too. It really is the kind of book you could hand to pretty much anybody. I've seen the comparisons to Ulysses thrown around, and considering the experimental storytelling on display combined with the penchant for alluding to Greek mythology, I can see where it comes from. But Ulysses is commonly seen as an undertaking or even a chore, while this is just a pure joy. Needless to say, utterly EXCELLENT.
I Killed Adolf Hitler by Jason, Fantagraphics Books
I grabbed this one largely due to the strength of Jason's fantastic contribution to Marvel's Strange Tales, which is probably the least hip reason ever to pick up an indie cartoonist, but hey, whatever. The result: I really enjoyed it! I'd read strong reviews of this around earlier, and I was expecting something offbeat and madcap (and certainly wasn't disappointed in that regard), but I was also surprised by just how emotional Jason was able to make a story about an Anthro-dog murder society and time travelling hitmen. Yeah, the entire thing is patently absurd on every level - self-consciously and humorously so - but it's also a story about the impermanence of rage and the importance of forgiveness, alongside what a goddamn twat Adolf Hitler can be when all you want to do is shoot the bastard. The description on the back describes the book as "deadpan," and that pretty much nails almost every aspect of its execution, from the anthropomorphic characters' frequently emotionless expressions to the unexclamatory dialogue to, well, the entire concept of the book. It's a quick read and very rewarding, and something I imagine I'll come back to from time to time for a while. Smart, funny and surprisingly poignant, this was VERY GOOD.
Pluto v.1-5 by Naoki Urasawa with Takashi Nagasaki, Viz Signature
Yeah, so I really lied when I said no superhero comics, because Pluto is basically a far more talented creative mind attempting the "maturation" of traditionally kids' comics characters exemplified by the spandex rape celebration known colloquially as Identity Crisis. What separates the two? As far as I can tell, where half of the American comics industry and Naoki Urasawa split up is the topic of sensationalism. When something terrible happens in a Brad Meltzer comic, the record stops, everyone stands around and the buckets come out for ten pages of superhero weeping. When something awful happens in a Naoki Urasawa comic, the characters react in various ways and the plot moves on without fetishized close-up spreads of a dead body or rape victim.
On top of that, Urasawa is essentially - like Grant Morrison or Alan Moore - a humanist at heart, and his stories are all about the necessity of holding the high road and respecting the sanctity of life, even when shit gets tough. They're also about the idea that redemption's always out there, and the virtue of forgiveness. It's difficult to find a pure villain in an Urasawa story; even in Monster, where he most explicitly dealt with the concept of pure, unmitigated, unexplainable evil, there was always stress placed on the importance of believing in change. This absolutely extends to Pluto, a gorgeously drawn and masterfully paced murder mystery that reinterprets "children's entertainment" through the lens of adulthood and nostalgia to create a sci-fi whodunnit bereft of moral judgments, just people (and robots) pushed to emotional extremes by unexpected events.
Every character in an Urasawa story is fully fleshed out, and Pluto is no different; seeming bit characters always have considerable background, and every action a character makes is placed into context by the life experiences that drove him or her towards it. Urasawa might be one of the tightest plotters in comics today, with a supernatural skill for creating a fully-realized character even through the broadest of strokes, without resorting to base sentimentality.
In short, everybody working on Big Two shared-universe superhero comics should have this as required reading. This is how you fucking do it. EXCELLENT.
Yotsuba&! Vol. 1 by Kiyohiko Azuma, Yen Press
I got this at the recommendation of David Brothers, and it did not disappoint: this book is basically an elaborate creation developed by research scientists to make even the most cynical person smile. The titular Yotsuba, whose exploits form the book's content, manages to be the rarest of fictional children: precocious without being obnoxious. It functions more like an episodic sitcom than any sort of continuous narrative, although the episodes (at least in this first volume) definitely follow a loose thread - a girl who behaves very strangely has moved into a new town and house with her long-suffering father, and now each episode features her "tackling" a certain subject (hence the title - Yotsuba&Moving, Yotsuba&Global Warming, etc.), usually by taking something symbolic literally or misinterpreting a piece of advice. Her antics are always amusing because they're not random; there's always a piece of logic, no matter how twisted, that justifies her behavior, so the laughs, while considerable, never seem cheap. The end result is a comic that makes me smile every time I read a chapter, no matter what kind of mood I'm in, and that's assuredly VERY GOOD.
Casanova Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba, Image Comics
Man, I feel like a moron for not getting into this earlier, since it has pretty much everything I enjoy in a comic: parallel universes, time travel, hilarious use of the word "fuck", and the absence of the overwhelming distaste for humanity that seems to, for me, infect all the Warren Ellis stories that meet the first three criteria. Casanova manages to channel the far-out wackiness of a Nextwave and combine it with real characterization and something resembling a point, and as one of the five people on the Internet who didn't like Nextwave I'm incredibly grateful for that. Other than that: incredibly imaginative, gorgeously drawn, took me a second read to grab a lot of the basic plot structure (it's QUITE complex) but that second read was rewarding enough I can't complain too hard. I've heard that as good as this is, volume 2 is a significant improvement, and I would greatly appreciate it if Image Comics and Mr. Fraction could see to the publication of a hardcover of those issues so that I can read them without rooting through back issue bins. Is there somewhere between GOOD and VERY GOOD? Because that's where this is.