Some Indie Shit and Manga David Done Read

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.

A polyp in my heart

We've had a really good summer for graphic novels, haven't we? There's universally well received work like THE HUNTER by Darwyn Cooke, and stuff that doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar, like THE IMPOSTOR'S DAUGHTER from Laurie Sandell (I thought it was a terrific little book!), but without a doubt, the biggest winner of the summer is ASTERIOS POLYP by David Mazzucchelli.

I'm not that great of a critic, really -- not like Douglas Wolk, whose review can be found over here -- but there's not another book this year that has lingered in my brain like POLYP. I've already re-read it twice, each time picking up new little nuances in color and form.

Above all else, this is a masterpiece of cartooning -- Mazzucchelli's line is confident and bold and absolutely assured and in control of his medium. It's funny, but as I try to hand-sell this book to people, a lot of people have said "who?" when I mention Mazzucchelli's name (I suspect some of these people are the same folks who say "Uh, so what?" when they read the non internet-cracking news about Marvel(Miracle)Man's return -- for a guy like me who has been doing this forever and a day, it is easy to forget that when material or a creator is "off the market" for so long, people forget all about them. Man, has it really been 16 years since RUBBER BLANKET was last released (in '93!)? 15 years since his adaptation of CITY OF GLASS?

Even then, outside of a few dozen stores, RUBBER BLANKET didn't really have all that wide circulation, I don't think -- no, I have to mention BATMAN YEAR ONE to people to get that "Oh, yeah, that guy!" reaction. Which is kind of funny, considering the extreme difference in craft and construction between the two. Er, that's not to say that BATMAN YEAR ONE doesn't have craft and construction, more that it's kind of amazing to put the two side by side and realize that they're the same artist. It is rare to see that kind of growth, so starkly.

POLYP is a work that rewards re-reading -- in fact there's a scene at the very beginning that has a COMPLETELY different tone once you know what is in the middle of the book, and there's a lot of smart things happening through-out the work that you're not going to glom onto on your first reading.

One of the most amazing bits is the coloring -- on a "flip test" the book looks a bit limited and too pastel, but on the actual reading the color choices absolutely support and underline virtually every scene nearly perfectly. Good coloring, like good lettering, shouldn't draw one's attention to it, but should support the work itself. But I suspect that if you photocopied POLYP into gray tones, it would lose a tremendous amount of its power and readability.

In the same way, the lettering is amazing as well -- each character has a distinct "voice" conveyed through the lettering, yet the presentation of that lettering is never overwhelming or distracting whatsoever.

Basically, what I'm saying here is that if you appreciate craft whatsoever -- and I don't mean in terms of formalistic tricks like those first chapters of, say, LOST GIRLS (the chapter told all in a mirror, or whatever) -- I mean the actual craft of creating comics work, then this is most certainly the best book of the year so far, and, probably, is the best book of the decade so far; and, best of all, it shows all of that craft without a lot of "hey, hey, look at me!". Every choice that is made is in the service of the work, and it all works and flows seamlessly.

If POLYP doesn't absolutely sweep next year's Eisner Awards I will be shocked and disappointed -- and, if it doesn't, it will only be because it came out so "early in the year" (relative to the judging process, I mean)

I've three criticisms I can make here, but only one is about the work itself.

To start with, and here I am speaking as a retailer, the cover kind of sucks. It looks misprinted and out of register, and while that fits very thematically with the work, it makes it something that I really am having to hand-sell to people. Further, the "short" dustjacket is horrifically prone to ripping, both on the racks, and more perniciously, in the distribution process. I've had to return some 10% of the copies I've received because the dustjacket got mangled.

The second criticism is, again, as a retailer, this comic would have worked very well as a serialization -- it would be pretty easy to chop the book up into segments of 16-18 pages at a throw, and the chapter breaks are already there, in fact. I could have sold hundreds of copies of a serialization, where we'll be limited to scores of copies of a $30 HC (people can be cheap, yes), and there would have been an ongoing buzz for the book over the last x years.

The third bit, and this one relates to the work, is that I thought the ending was pretty bad. In a way, it made me think of LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON, where Clowes lost the thread of the story, and basically just had it STOP, rather than having a narratively satisfying conclusion -- that's probably overstating it in this case, but the end, at least for the lead characters, feels imposed by the author, rather than flowing naturally out of the characters. I'm glad there's a coda, of sorts, that mutes that to some degree, but the end is the one bit that I did not think worked at all. If that was the end of, say, a film, it would tank it at the box office because that's not how you want people leaving the "theater". Thankfully it IS a comic, and comics have different rules about time and space, but it still did mar the work to some degree.

Still, regardless of any of that, this really is the best book I've read this year, and I'm absolutely enamored of craft of ASTERIOS POLYP. I hope we don't have to wait another decade for Mazzucchelli's next work, because this is everything comics should be.

ASTERIOS POLYP is absolutely EXCELLENT work, and deserves a place of honor on your bookshelf.

What did YOU think?


From the vault: Asterios Polyp

Yes, you read that headline right. Even though David Mazzucchelli's long-awaited graphic novel Asterios Polyp doesn't come out until tomorrow, I some how ended up with a review copy months and months ago--I wanna say 2008, for pete's sake--so I reviewed the thing on my blog back in March. Now that it's finally coming out officially, I figured I'd repost the review here (in part to apologize for being an absentee savage these past few months). It's after the jump... PhotobucketAsterios Polyp David Mazzucchelli, writer/artist Pantheon, June 2009 344 pages, hardcover $29.95

An extraordinarily easy book to read, Asterios Polyp is, I'm finding, a nearly equally extraordinarily difficult book to talk about. Frankly I think I just feel out of my depth. For example, cartoonist David Mazzucchelli has a long history of making art comics in Europe, and I've flipped through a few in the store or off my buddy Josiah's shelf, but the only Mazzucchelli comics I've read from start to finish prior to this book are Batman Year One, Daredevil: Born Again, and that little comic with the spilled jar of ink he did for The Comics Journal Special Edition: Cartoonists on Cartooning. But hey, fine, I can fake it, I can certainly locate Asterios Polyp within the tradition of alternative comics. For exaple, it uses color and, to a certain extent, character design like a Dash Shaw webcomic or MOME contribution; it mixes imagery with external narrating text like Chris Ware, only with several orders of magnitude more room to breathe on the page, like Ware filmed in slow motion. That, I get.

What I'm having harder time with, where I feel really out of my depth, is in trying to locate the book's story content. Asterios Polyp is a highly lauded, award-winning "paper architect," i.e. a guy whose designs are awesome but have never actually been built, who divides his time between Manhattan and the Ithaca, NY university where he is a professor. We join his story already in progress, as a fire consumes his ratty, messy, porn(?)-soundtracked bachelor pad. Asterios does not pass Go, does not collect $200, proceeds directly from fleeing his apartment in the rain with his wallet and a handful of knicknacks and watching the fire department fight the fire down into the subway and back up and out at the Port Authority, where he takes a bus to the middle of nowhere and gets the first job he can find (as an auto mechanic) and crashpad he can find (renting a room from his boss at the auto shop). From there we bounce back and forth between revelatory events in the present day and key events in the life that led him there, mostly having to do with his ill-fated relationship with the talented but somewhat timid sculptor he was once married to.

In other words, it's very Woody Allen, very Philip Roth, very New Yorker. A sophisticated urban aesthete unsuccessfully balances the life of the mind with the life of his weiner and then wonders where it all went wrong; his life is contrasted with that of the spirited younger woman he can never quite get a handle on and various other sophisticated urban aesthetes whose arrogance and eccentricity he deplores yet cannot see within himself. And there's my problem: I know enough about that stuff to recognize the template, but I don't know enough of it to know if it goes beyond using the template into wholesale swiping and/or rote recapitulation. The best I can do is say "Well, this reminds me somewhat of the Woody/Alan Alda bits in Crimes & Misdemeanors." I'm simply not well-read enough in this area to comment beyond that. Ask me to speak authoritatively about the next Neil Marshall movie and I can probably handle that, but this? Donnie, you're out of your element.

What I can say with confidence, however, is that I enjoyed that story immensely. And a big part of that is because this isn't a Woody Allen film or a Philip Roth novel--it's a comic, and there's no mistaking it. Yeah, the basic story could be told in other ways, but if you wanted an illustration of that old saw that you should be able to look at a comic and determine why it's a comic and not a movie pitch or a short story, look no further. Mazzucchelli clearly had a blast drawing this thing.

My favorite ambitious graphic novels of recent vintage have been pretty manic and information-heavy in terms of the visual approach--Theo Ellsworth's Capacity and Josh Cotter's Skyscrapers of the Midwest spring to mind, and even Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button feels dense and claustrophobic compared much of his other recent work, if only for the lack of color. Asterios Polyp, on the other hand, is airy and light from start to finish, like giving your eyeballs a breath of fresh air. There are all kinds of panel layouts, splash pages, and stand-alone images here, popping right off the big white pages, and the CMYK colors are just a pleasure to look at.

Meanwhile, it's almost unspeakably clever. Mazzucchelli gives each major character and setting its own color scheme, that's apparent from the start--Asterios is bright blue, while his wife Hana is bright pink. But oh, the places Mazzucchelli goes with that! By the time Asterios takes Hana to meet his mother and invalid father, he's wearing a pink checkered jacket, while she has on a blue shirt. In a passage meant to illustrate how our memories slowly refine our original experiences "because every memory is a re-creation, not a playback," Asterios's remembered Hana slowly morphs from having a pink shirt on against a white background to wearing a blue shirt against a blue background. And in a much later scene which I'm going to try hard not to spoil, where the two encounter each other long after their divorce and after myriad transformative experiences, the color scheme is totally different--all oranges and greens. Meanwhile, "neutral zones" in both dreaming and waking life are yellow and purple. And let me assure you that as far as the use of color goes, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Then there are the countless clever references to the history and art of cartooning. Given our hero's occupation and preoccupations, there are quite a few mini-essays on architecture, philosophy, design, music...and they're drawn and lettered like something out of Understanding Comics. A Latina chef swats flies on the ceiling and looks like she could have gotten off the plane from Palomar yesterday, while her band's drummer sports a "Los Bros" sticker on his drumkit. Asterios's dapper in-his-youth father looks like he stepped out of a Seth comic. The Midwesterners who take Asterios in--Stiff Major and his zaftig wife Ursula, and no, Mazzucchelli is clearly not above having some Vonneguttian fun with names--could be thrown up on the screen in a Disney/Pixar production tomorrow. Hana I can't quite put my finger on, but she's got a distinct '50s/'60s illustration vibe, part Charles Addams part something else I'm too slow to pick up. Asterios himself is given to standing in profile and holding a cigarette like Eustace Tilley holds his monocle. His teaching career reads like Art School Confidential from the professor's perspective. (Student: "I'm thinking about adding fenestration to this planar surface...?" Asterios: "How about just putting a couple of windows in that wall?")

None of this would matter, or at least it would matter very little, if the comic weren't a series of emotional hooks and twists and high points and explosions, which it is. The dream sequences are uniformly strong, with one involving a flooded subway station-cum-dock so evocatively drawn--thick washes of purple ink, rough crosshatching for one of the first times in the whole book--that I could practically hear the echoing slosh of the water in the tunnels. Asterios's unique, virtually constant headshape (how have I not talked about this until now?) essentially requires him to be drawn in profile, so the few times we see him turn toward us (again in a dream sequence, notably!) are stop-and-pay-attention moments. The book's bravura sequence (you'll hear about this a lot) condenses the couple's entire life together into a series of snapshot images of Hana's various movements and bodily secretions; here's one case where my familiarity with this technique bred nothing but admiration for seeing it so well done. The ending...I'll say I imagine it will be controversial and leave it at that, but I got a kick out of it.

The real knockout moment for me, though, came during the pivotal argument that stories like this inevitably include, the storm that built for years yet ultimately came out of nowhere and nothing was the same after that. You spend the build-up to it noticing that something is awry, something in the way Hana has been drawn, something in the way there seem to be two or three things going on at once in the interactions between Hana, Asterios, and the other characters involved (including a memorable little imp named Willy Ilium in the book's Clare Quilty role). Once it gets going, once the pink-and-blue color scheme starts shifting appropriately and the linework and coloring get scratchier and choppier and angrier, you're rooting for Hana all the way, you think that finally the beef you've been accumulating on her behalf is going to get the apocalyptic airing it deserves. And then...and then...BAM, a line you just did not see coming at all, making it all the more devastating, because after all, neither did Asterios. I think this particular exchange may open the book up to charges that it embraces the same sexism it nominally deplores in its characters, but to me it's the human element that comes through, not the gendered one. I read this scene and said "My God" out loud on the train. (You really need to read the book to get what I'm talking about, I suppose, and it doesn't come out until June so unless you somehow ended up with a review copy months ago like I did I guess that's difficult, but do me a favor, bookmark this and come back later and see if you think I'm right, okay?)

I may not know ahhht, is I suppose what I'm saying, but I know what I like. And I like Asterios Polyp a lot. It's certainly a book to savor. I suspect it's a book to treasure. I guess it wasn't that hard to talk about after all.