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.

 

 

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Prophet vol. II by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milongiannis, and Farel Dalrymple

I wrote a while ago on Big Other about Brandon Graham’s King City, a work that established Graham as a cartoonist of large gifts and larger promise but which also reads as a little too cute upon return visits. Graham is one of several artists working on Image’s Prophet, serving as a scriptwriter, occasional illustrator, and general overseer–so one could conceivably give him false credit for what makes Prophet so rad, but I’ll at least argue that the preciousness of King City is nowhere to be found in these comics. In its place is a pretty brutal combination of discipline, forward momentum, and strong ideas. Graham’s scripts usually introduce a half-dozen weirdo sci-fi concepts each issue, almost throwaway notes, as if Graham has an endless supply of worldbuilding bricks–and perhaps he does. Simon Roy and Giannis Milongiannis are Graham’s most visible collaborators throughout the series’ first two volumes, each artist shaping a different plot thread through his respective style, although all three of them depict action with clarity, fluidity, and wit.

Prophet is a re-boot-launch-vitalization of a comic from the 1990s by (the infamous) Rob Liefeld. Anyone familiar with Liefeld’s school of comics making knows the potential for jokes is endless here, but Graham and his collaborators largely play it straight. What gags a reader can find are almost utilitarian in nature: Liefeld’s ’90s character designs were riddled with cargo pockets and gun holsters, Graham occasionally drops diagrams into his layouts, and so stray panels in Prophet will itemize the contents of a space warrior’s survival suit while he or she is on the move. As a synthesis of artist(s) and subject, and as an interpretation of a two-decade old property from corporate genre comics’ days of excess, Prophet is better than even optimistic projections would have allowed for.

 

Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill

In the cannon of late-’80s superhero genre subversion, these comics (collected, all in one place, by DC) might feature the widest gap between quality of art and quality of scripting. A year or so before the first Marshal Law books arrived, the Comics Code Authority declared Kevin O’Neill’s style objectionable in its entirety, and he’s at his nastiest here—story after story of spandex, gore, and industrial waste captured in lurid detail. It is an achievement. Mills’s scripts enable this, of course, but they also anticipate the Mark Millar school of exploitation disguised as satireMarshal Law came after Mills’s years of (sharper, funnier) work on Judge Dredd, and it’s a real oddity in this respect—a beautifully executed regression.

 

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The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

Jeff Lemire made his name in comics after writing and drawing Essex County, a series of acclaimed comics novellas about hope, longing, and regret in rural Canada. More recently, he’s been a lynchpin of DC Comics’s New 52 effort, scripting comics with titles like Justice League Dark. The Underwater Welder looked, in previews, like a return to form. Lemire does his own penciling and inking here, which he rarely does at DC, and the subject matter is perfectly suited to Lemire’s versatile linework, which captures the rustiness and uneven contours of old equipment, even the dampness that follows the welder around.

The book’s title character spends much of The Underwater Welder exploring a world similar but different to his own, or perhaps imagining this world, and through him Lemire explores subjects including young marriages and first-time fatherhood. In fact, Lemire’s book sometimes reads as so nakedly autobiographical that—let me get autobiographical and really own this part—I felt an uncommon kind of readerly discomfort as I realized how much I disliked the comic. (I’m a little afraid to revisit Essex County now.)

The Underwater Welder is often a lovely book. It’s also underplotted and aggressively sentimental. The welder emerges from his stay in a mirror world as though processed by a sudden maturity machine—Lemire’s conclusion reaches for the Twilight Zone snap of disruption, then resolution, but it lacks the attention to plotting and desire to surprise that made those old scripts sing.

 

Barrel of Monkeys by Florent Rupert and Jerome Mulot
A book so relentlessly mean-spirited that one of its milder gags involves a man being photographed as a boomerang decapitates him. So–buyer beware, your mileage may vary, etc. But those who can handle the artists’ black humor–or those who seek it out, for that matter–will also find surprising, innovative cartooning on display. Barrel of Monkeys is the first full work by Ruppert and Mulot to be published stateside and in translation; it’s also the first release of Bill Kartalopolous’s Rebus Books. I’m tempted to describe the thoroughgoing nastiness of Barrel of Monkeys as wedded to its formal play, but I’m not sure this is the case. Mulot and Ruppert seem capable of telling stories about nearly anything. Among brief gag strips, rendered in a brittle, clear-lined style that the collaborators apparently share, Ruppert and Mulot include phenakistoscopes (a method of animation in which a series of images is intended to rotate around a central axis) and a variety of other visual devices that prod readers not only to engage with the book in unusual ways but also to consider what comics are and what they can do.

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