Comics Works: Battling Boy—Execution and Expectations

Battling Boy, the most recent work by cartoonist Paul Pope, arrived from First Second Books last year, although I was late to the party, and what a strange party it is. Pope is one of comics’ most talented renderers-of-action, but on some pages, his talents actually undermine the story he’s trying to tell. Superficially simple–the combat-novice son of a godlike warrior arrives in a land besieged by monsters–the story invites all sorts of questions about the circumstances of its creation. Pope stages a series of fights with such fluidity–virtuosity, even–that even if his reader isn’t a comics nerd who had heard mention of Battling Boy for years, the book is still likely to read as the product of countless hours of labor. And even the immersed reader might be tempted to think, ‘All this work for a genre pastiche?’

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Battling Boy shouldn’t be written off as shallow exhibitionism. There’s too much charm and levity throughout the story for that charge to stick. (If Pope’s drawing to impress, he’s obviously drawing to have fun, too.) For instance, collection of animal T-shirts endows Battling Boy with the power of their respective animals; when picking a shirt before a battle, the boy must choose carefully. Details like this display a lightness of touch not always present in Pope’s earlier work, even if they don’t register as particularly personal. (In fact, the concept is weirdly reminiscent of ’90s cartoon toy shill Mighty Max and his magic baseball cap.)

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Battling Boy shouldn’t be written off as devoid of ideas, either. Pope has no shortage of those, and readers can find them in his renderings of space and movement. Comics are a visual medium; Pope’s innovations are visual in nature. Even the argument that Pope’s style is his substance doesn’t quite do him justice. His lines are too functional, carry too much of the narrative burden, to be celebrated-slash-dismissed as stylistic flourishes. And yet Pope is such a superlative artist that his comics will always disappoint to some degree as long as the quality of his plotting fails to match the quality of his cartooning.

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In this way, there’s something sad about Battling Boy. Paul Pope delivered a work that is, in some respects, pretty great. Just not holistically great. And holistic greatness might still be what the greedy reader expects, based on what Pope’s able to provide.

Comics Works: Brief Notes on Releases New and New-ish

Love and Rockets: New Stories, vol. 6 by Jaime Hernandez and Gilbert Hernandez

“The Love Bunglers,” serialized from 2010 to 2011 in New Stories vols. 3 and 4, didn’t mark the end of Jaime Hernadez’s  decades-long string of Locas stories, but it at least gave readers the sense of an ending. Jaime has been following the lives of people in and around the fictional southern California community of Hoppers since the early 1980s, particularly the life of Latina former punk scenester Maggie Chascarrillo , and “The Love Bunglers” both documents a horrific event from the Chascarrillo family’s past and restarts Maggie’s relationship with on-again, off-again boyfriend Ray.

Reactions from fans were effusive, and rightfully so. I know I got weepy at the end of vol. 4. The online chatter about Jaime’s contribution to New Stories vol. 5 was quieter, and maybe this was inevitable. These Jaime stories read like a deliberate swerve away from “The Love Bunglers.” Whereas the latter marks big changes in the life of a pair of beloved characters, Jaime’s vol. 5 pieces introduce Tonta, the kid sister of a supporting character who readers hadn’t seen for years, and then follow her around for a couple of summer days. The proceedings in vol. 5 are beautifully drawn–Jaime’s pacing, polished line, and expressive character work are some of comics’ great constants–but the work seems to anticipate its reception as whatever came after a soaring, heartbreaking career high. And maybe readers will remember them that way. But New Stories vol. 6, which completes Jaime’s set of Tonta stories, is still–sneakily–very, very good. If “The Love Bunglers” drew some of its power from years upon years of character history, the Tonta stories are remarkable for the opposite reason.

With the exception of Tonta’s sister Vivian, who plagued Maggie and Ray in earlier Love and Rockets comics, Jaime works with a cast of almost entirely new characters, many of whom belong to Tonta and Vivian’s fractured extended family.  Jaime traces the family’s history largely through allusion and ellipsis, letting his characters reference events that took place off-page throughout the last several years. A picture of distrust and long-held anger emerges, and it’s as vivid as anything else Jaime has produced in the last decade. In all of this, we also accompany Tonta through typical teenage bullshit: pining for boys in bands, trying to arrange for rides, realizing your teachers are people. These scenes are endearing, goofy, and sweet–and by the end, tragic too, as we realize we may have seen the end of a girl’s childhood. Continue reading

The Dain Curse

I finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse more than a year ago, as part of an ongoing effort to read more of the great American crime writers, and the story has lingered with me since then. The book is not Hammett’s best—the plot does some conspicuous zigging and zagging and lacks the single-minded focus of Red Harvest. But The Dain Curse stands out among Hammett’s other works for the attention Hammett gives to storytelling throughout the novel.

Not every member of the Pinkertons could have become the writer that Hammett is, but The Dain Curse suggests that Hammett’s experience as an investigator shaped his sensibility as a storyteller even before he turned his attention to fiction. For Hammett’s hero, the Continental Op, every crime scene presents the raw materials of a story. Narratives are introduced, then amended or dismissed, until the Op arrives at a persuasive explanation. We could say this about most detective novels (or films or TV shows)—that the protagonist is, if not a fabulist, than at least a storyteller.  What distinguishes The Dain Curse is the presence of Fitzstephan, an acquaintance of the Op and an actual writer.

Fitzstephan is an undisguised hack, vain, affected, and—as we see by the book’s end—mentally unsound. The Continental Op, meanwhile, is a no-nonsense, self-possessed dude, a man who follows his feats of imagination with feats of action. An obvious reading emerges out of the contrast between the two characters: Hammett is dramatizing a genuine ambivalence about the merits of the life he once led as a P.I. vs. the writer’s life he later chose. And for all I know, this is true. But if the Continental Op’s relationship with Fitzstephan were only that, a binary based in old stereotypes and hard-man clichés, The Dain Curse would not be a very interesting book. The novel’s Fitzstephan scenes are memorable because his presence gives the Op a chance to talk about storytelling, and the contrast between the Op and Fitzstephan means these conversations often take the form of an argument. It’s a stretch, maybe, to call The Dain Curse a stealth Hammett-on-writing text, but the book at least examines the problems of writing more closely than the rest Hammett’s fiction.

Take this exchange between the Continental Op and Fitzstephan. The Op knows the difference between a story that neatly follows a formula—that satisfies in the moment—and a story with deeper resonance. He is a good detective in part because he’s not content without details that suggest the oddness of lived experience or the presence of a larger, unseen world. The Op begins the excerpt, questioning an account of a recent crime:

‘…he was sure of her treachery; and, up to his neck now, decided to kill her.’

‘His wife?’ Fitzstephan asked.

‘Yeah, but what difference does that make? It might as well have been anybody else for all the sense it makes. I hope you’re not trying to keep this nonsense straight in your mind. You know damned well all this didn’t happen.’

‘Then what,’ he asked, looking puzzled, ‘did happen?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. … To fit in with what I saw, most of it must have happened very neatly as I’ve told you. If you what to believe that it did, all right. I don’t. I’d rather believe I saw things that weren’t there.’

‘Not now,’ he pleaded. ‘Later, after you’ve finished the story, you can attach your ifs and buts to it, distorting and twisting it, making it as cloudy and confusing and generally hopeless as you like. But please finish it first, so I’ll see it at least once in its original state before you start improving on it.’

The Dain Curse has more exchanges like this one, and the crux of the book—which I won’t describe in detail, for the reader who has made it this far without a working knowledge of Hammett’s novel—layers multiple narratives atop one another. And—whether this is evidence of Hammett’s vocational ambivalence or not—it closes by implying that the stories we tell sometimes tell us things we don’t want to know.

N Ways of Reading Incidents in the Night

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Adventure comic. Artist David B.’s Incidents in the Night unveils a conspiracy that involves the Napoleonic Wars, an ancient god of nothingness, and the enigmatic founder of an anthology that shares the book’s name. Our lead and narrator, meanwhile, shares his name with David B. The in-text David learns of the conspiracy as we do, and a narrative through-line like this—the pursuit of answers—is probably pretty essential to the project’s not going off the rails. David B.’s ambition seems to grow geometrically as the book advances, but Incidents is fundamentally an adventure story, and its strengths and weaknesses wrap around that structure like the snakes of the caduceus.

Bookstore elegy. It reads like one now, anyway. Incidents in the Night was first published twenty years ago in France. In the intervening years, bookstores have diminished in number, in their share of the bookselling market . . . These are things you already know. Our protagonist’s journey begins in a bookstore, and he visits other shops while collecting volumes of the Incidents anthology. Although David B. (the creator) drafted his story at a time when bookstores enjoyed relative security, he imbues these places with a sense of mystery, endless potential—a gesture that grows more poignant with time. Continue reading

Taking in Stoker

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Throughout Stoker, moment after moment, viewers watch light flicker across a character’s eyes. Depending on the character, the irises of these eyes are often a hazy, unnatural color—we learn quickly that these people enjoy a degree of difference from the rest of the population. But implicit in each flicker is also the request that we pay attention. Heightened senses are a motif in Stoker, something India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) makes explicit during her introductory narration. India can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear in abundance, a gift director Park Chan-wook extends to his audience for a couple of hours. His film is perverse and generous. 

A girl in all white, her clothes caked with dirt, shudders in the middle of an all-white tile bathroom. Red shavings crinkle off of a No. 2 pencil as it turns inside a sharpener. Wind blows through the grass, a spider creeps down a stocking…Scenes in Stoker frequently play as though Park is working to approximate a full sensory experience with only the tools of sight and sound. Continue reading

Hammer Down

 

Jason Molina, the singer, songwriter, and only consistent member of musical projects Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., died a few days ago at the age of 39. During Molina’s lifetime, the appeal of his music lay partly in the tension between its well-loved country tropes (lonesome highways, lovers left behind) and what played more like the sounds of Molina’s interior–the specifics, the lived experiences, that he decorated with imagery handed down from Hank Williams and George Jones. Following his passing, the division between the two blurs even further, and his premature death may seem like a foregone conclusion to listeners who discover Molina’s music later on. Ghosts populate his albums and the empty roads or small town dives within them.

The death and its circumstances (Molina’s years-long struggle with alcohol abuse) will also, in all likelihood, come to define how many people hear his entire catalog. As someone who did not know Molina, I can’t suggest with any authority that we try to mourn the man and not the persona–my estimation of where one ended and the other began is no more reliable than anyone else’s. But–to use another shopworn trope–in his absence, he leaves a hole in the lives of the listeners who were touched by his work.

Good Kid, Meme City: Froggy Fresh’s Hip-Hop Bildungsroman

The odds are against Tyler Cassidy, better known as Froggy Fresh, formerly known as Krispy Kreme. Not in the sense that the odds are against, say, the Compton youth listeners hear throughout Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. city; a listener never suspects that hip-hop is Froggy’s only escape from a culture of fear and violence. Froggy Fresh’s challenge is the difficult-to-improbable move from Internet novelty to serious MC. And regardless of the glints of self-awareness throughout his music, Froggy could only have begun as an Internet novelty.

“The Baddest,” Tyler Cassidy’s first song (he released his initial videos as Krispy Kreme before the donut company threatened legal action), went viral on the strength–or whatever one wants to call it–of lyrics such as “I could beat you up even if you had one thousand knives.”

The video has 11,097,925 views and counting. I hesitated to post anything about Krispy Kreme/Froggy Fresh because of a distaste for the self-conscious contrarianism of a lot of Internet music writing, writers styling themselves after Chuck Klosterman and acting as apologists for garbage in efforts to score pageviews. “Same Old Kid” changed my mind.

Froggy has improved as a rapper from “The Baddest” to “Same Old Kid” only by degrees. Even so, listening to him drill away at the barrier between viral-meme territory and a space in which he could be judged, positively or negatively, as a legitimate performer is genuinely exciting stuff. Continue reading

Comics Works: An Interview with Gabrielle Bell

Gabrielle Bell is a California-raised cartoonist living in Brooklyn. The Voyeurs, her latest collection of autobiographical comics and the first book-length release from Uncivilized Books, has been called “funny and endearing, even beautiful,” and “a rare glimpse of the fiercely mysterious human heart.” The stories throughout The Voyeurs document everything from the ebb and flow of relationships to the clamor of San Diego Comic-Con to Bell’s struggle to attend a party held in her honor, all with wit, an ear for the languid conversations of longtime friends, and occasional flourishes of the absurd. Bell spoke with me via email, and her replies were much like the vignettes in The Voyeurs: concise, self-deprecating, and dryly funny.

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Online talk surrounding your work is perhaps at an all-time high, with mentions on some widely ready non-comics outlets, as well as sites like The Comics Journal. And funnily enough, I came across those articles immediately after reading chapter one of The Voyeurs, with its section about how hard it can be to stay away from the Internet. How conscious are you of the online chatter?

Very conscious!

Have you had to make an effort lately to ignore mentions of yourself online?

No, I mean there’s not THAT much stuff about me on there. And I already know I won’t resist looking at it, so I’m not going to try.

What kind of changes did you have to make while adapting your online material for a print collection?

I did a lot of editing of the narrating and dialogue, reworded sentences, took out many extraneous words and sentences. Sometimes I took out whole panels, sometimes added whole ones in. I think working in film taught me not to be afraid to freely edit. Continue reading

Comics Works: The Keys to KING CITY

Brandon Graham’s King City is a futuristic, highly corporatized ethnic jumble of a metropolis, lined with hidden passageways and shaded by the pall of dark magic. It’s also a meeting place for hip-hop wordplay, the punkish stance of graffiti culture, and the storytelling sensibilities of ligne claire Eurocomics and Japanese manga. The comics series, collected in its entirety by Image last spring, tracks the exploits of a few of the city’s residents, including Joe, a thief, warrior, and pet owner. King City was a cult hit upon its initial release, and both the cult and Graham’s profile are poised to grow in years to come.

It’s possible to overstate the newness or distinctiveness of Graham’s work. A determined reader could spend a lot of time playing Spot the Influence across King City’s panels, and Graham has contemporaries in artists such as James Stokoe, Bryan Lee O’Malley and Becky Cloonan—other youngish comics talents who walk easily between genres. And yet books such as King City are still rare enough stuff—not of the Marvel/DC superhero tradition, nor of the indie comics naturalism of Dan Clowes and Chester Brown, nor of the art school primitivism of the Kramer’s Ergot scene. Even if Graham’s work isn’t fully-formed-from-out-of-the-ether new, it reads like the future, and that’s what counts. Continue reading

Trapped in the Echo Chamber

With Prometheus, this summer’s companion piece to the science fiction classic Alien, Ridley Scott has made the exact sort of movie one expects Scott expects people expect him to make. *About which spoilers abound in this post* More so than Scott’s other works of the last decade-plus, the self-consciously Great Films of the period epic mold, Prometheus is in dialogue with the director’s earlier and legitimately excellent films (Alien in particular). And it’s holding a bullhorn. Continue reading

Everybody’s coming from the Winter Vacation

Winter Vacation (2010), the third film by writer-director Li Hongqi, uses long takes and static shots the way The Great Gatsby uses symbolism; which is to say, conspicuously, repeatedly, and with resounding effectiveness. The film was first released in 2010 and has been making repertory rounds since then, including a recent stop at Minneapolis’s Trylon Microcinema. The film jumps, or at least lurches, between a group of idle teenagers and their fellow townspeople in a dilapidated part of Northern China during the kids’ winter break. In most scenes the camera stays in one place and lingers more a minute or more as some sort of minor cruelty takes place–long shots in which there is little to see. The message is the same in every case: the characters’ environment is permanent, unchangeable. The lives of these characters are likely to change only at the whims of circumstance, and they’re more likely to stay the same.

Li Hongqi’s pacing is similar to that of Jim Jarmusch circa Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law, and although Li’s film doesn’t share the sense of optimism/camaraderie of those movies, it does have its own blunt comic timing. (The beleaguered toddler glimpsed in the trailer is a frequent source of laughs, and in a way, warmth, in spite of the repeated threat that he’ll get his butt kicked by an off-camera uncle.) Humor isn’t much of a palliative in Winter Vacation. Its characters never seem in on the joke, for one thing, and the film’s laughs do little to mitigate the bleakness of Li’s vision. But Li’s humor gives the film its verisimilitude, more so than his frozen-vérité camerawork; unlike some other festival successes of recent years, Winter Vacation never plays like an exercise in miserablism. For a film about social stagnation, and of such deliberate pacing–and it’s available for stateside streaming, by the way–it has unexpected crackle and wit.

Comics Works: Kramer’s Ergot 8

Kramer’s Ergot 8, the latest volume in artist/editor Sammy Harkham’s anthology series, collects works from high-profile comics figures such as Gary Panter, Kevin Huizenga, and Gabrielle Bell. Many of the book’s contributors would appear equally at home in books like the annual Best American Comics anthology or other primers for casual comics fans. But Kramer’s 8, out now from PictureBox, is stranger than the sum of its parts.

Earlier volumes of Kramer’s have had a sprawling, free form sensibility, crammed with content from cover to cover with little to orient readers. Kramer’s 8 is a more obviously curated work. In an interview with Harkham, comics writer Sean T. Collins suggested-semi-seriously–that “the fact that it’s a Kramers with a typewritten table of contents at the beginning is somehow the Rosetta stone of the entire project.” Harkham replied by noting that it’s the first Kramer’s with white endpapers too. In other words, the anthology invites us to look for Harkham’s method in selecting and placing its pieces, while being (probably, partially) a product of instinct and also being (probably, partially) designed to send readers in circles. Continue reading

Comics Works: Keeping Two


For the last couple years, Jordan Crane has been rolling out his story ‘Keeping Two’ at art comics clearing house What Things Do. (‘Keeping Two’ has also been partially serialized in Crane’s semi-regular floppy series Uptight, previous editions of which are online too.) Crane’s story, a windstorm of deaths real, imagined, and figurative, is unsettling to a degree unlike anything else the artist has produced. It also reads like a primer on the advantages of the comics medium.

The latest installment of ‘Keeping Two’ lingers at the dinner table of a young couple that has recently suffered a miscarriage. As the two discuss a doctor’s visit and the offer of a cruise vacation, Crane shows the wife–broken by the death of her child–stabbing or otherwise inflicting harm upon herself. The conversation proceeds apace, our cue that the couple’s exchanges are real while the wife’s attacks upon herself are not. (Whether we’re seeing actual visions of the wife’s or more abstract indicators of her state of mind is less clear.)

‘Keeping Two’ takes one of comics’ most basic tools, and one of its most effective–juxtaposition–and uses it twice over in the couple’s dinner scene. Readers get the wife’s visual stream of consciousness and her public face in the same series of panels, as well as the crisscrossing of Crane’s extreme imagery and his couple’s tepid back-and-forth. The entire story traffics in this sort of formal play, and all of ‘Keeping Two’ thus far is powerful stuff, but Crane’s work becomes more moving–and more accomplished–as the story moves forward.

Strange Tales, Too Common

Michael Chabon’s “Citizen Conn,” from the Feb 13/20 New Yorker, has arrived at a moment which makes it unexpectedly relevant, ill timed, or both. “Conn” follows the last months of Mort Feather, a comic book legend in exile. Chabon has mentioned that Fantastic Four/Hulk/Avengers/X-Men co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were points of inspiration for the story’s marginalized but brilliant Feather and its comics writer/publishing impresario Artie Conn. He has also argued that Conn and Feather are not simply stand-ins for Lee and Kirby, and this is true. The story’s invented biographies for the pair depart from those of Lee and Kirby at important times, and in important ways. For instance, readers learn that the cause of Feather’s decades-long estrangement from former collaborator Conn –or at least the core of Feather’s bitterness– has less to do with unpaid royalties or withheld credit than with the tarnishing of the two men’s friendship once Feather was ousted from “Nova Publications.”

“Citizen Conn,” told from the perspective of the rabbi at Feather’s assisted-living facility, is sentimental, earnest to a fault, and wholly unlikely to change anyone’s opinion of Michael Chabon as a writer. If it succeeds, it’s because Chabon’s obvious affection for the imaginative crackle of comics and the people who make them distracts from his soft-focus handling of creator’s rights issues. Continue reading

What if He Meant Every Word?

The critical establishment’s dogmatic popism eliminates any consideration of the philosophy surrounding the creative and commercial genesis of music and elevates the aesthetic, so whatever sounds best must be best, and now somehow independent music has wound up in a place where Beyoncé is on the same purely aesthetic playing field that Sharon Van Etten is, because it makes you powerfully, stinkingly uncool to point out that Beyoncé is a meticulously calculated, choreographed, and focus group-approved product of the same system that Sharon Van Etten’s forebears in independent music rose up as a direct response to. Suddenly Sharon Van Etten sounds a little thin without the help of a billion-dollar machine.

Since I first encountered the above quote from David Shapiro (courtesy of the Village Voice‘s Pass & Jop ‘Personals,’ via fourth time around), his words have come to mind anytime I’ve listened to Psychic TV‘s “Godstar”–and lately I’ve been listening to “Godstar” an awful lot.

I’m sympathetic to Shapiro’s complaint, despite basically believing that the aesthetic does trump all other variables in the evaluation of a song. But more than that, occasionally a preoccupation with (and maybe illusions about) the “creative genesis” of a pop song will overwhelm every other consideration for me, which I’m not convinced is a good thing, and which is a problem that rarely extends to Shapiro’s targets anyway. Continue reading

With Tom Scharpling as Himself

Sometime after Tom Scharpling, host of the New Jersey-based cult call-in program The Best Show on WFMU, appeared on Marc Maron’s comedians-on-comedy podcast WTF in February of 2011, I convened with the friend who introduced me to the Best Show, and we found ourselves thinking back to the same moment in the interview. Speaking to Maron, Scharpling mentions that he believes listeners understand that his on-air persona–blustery, short tempered, and capricious; a “semi-benevolent dictator,” as GQ put it in 2010–is just that, a persona. To which my friend and I agreed: maybe, but it’s not always easy to tell.

This is not to say that listeners don’t understand that Scharpling is performing while on air. The Best Show features too many callers from the fictional Jersey town of Newbridge, and lately too many interjections from Scharpling’s prog-rock loving puppet Vance, to be heard as anything other than a comedy program. But callers to the show often approach Scharpling with real apprehension—so much so that Scharpling’s frustration with callers who led with ‘Is this me?’ and followed with ‘I’m a little nervous’ became a motif throughout fall ’11. Continue reading