Martyrs or Not: Sean Lewis and Ben Mackey’s Saints

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Upon returning to America from travels in Italy, it seemed wholly appropriate to pick up Sean Lewis and Ben Mackey’s Saints. As much as Generoso and I have been adjusting our diets as we re-acclimate with America, I figured that I should also readjust to American culture in comics by reading something mildly related to the Catholic churches and the gargantuan paintings we encountered last week. Also, at one point, we stood by the altar that contained Saint Peter’s remains, so Saints feels like a reasonable selection to reacquaint myself with the secular and non-secular blending that is embedded in the identity of America.

Lewis’s first foray into comics, Saints explores the intersection of reincarnation, sainthood, and the battle against evil. The spirits and the powers of Saint Lucy, Sebastian, Blaise, and Stephen have emerged in today’s world as adults who not only need to adjust to life but also have a divine calling to join together to battle a surge of evil. In biblical times, the archangel Michael defeated the devil and the fallen angels in the battle in heaven, but in our contemporary world, a man who claims to be the incarnation of Michael leads a society of congregations who offer their children to battle against saints, who are believed to bring about the end of times when they reappear on earth. With Michael’s increasing power, Lucy, Sebastian, Blaise, and Stephen begin receiving messages from God that lead them to each other in order to face Michael’s new children’s crusade.

Favorite cover: Issue 5

Within a five issues, Saints packs in a ton. Lewis anchors the ensemble tale with the introspection and growth of Blaise, the saint with the least amount of confidence in his own identity much less his responsibilities to God and humanity. In secular reality, Blaise has attached himself to failed metal groups in order to relate to other people, but his connection to the metal groups feels all too thin and full of false idols. Consequently, when Blaise begins having recurring cryptic dreams set entirely in gold with strangers he feels some familiarity with, he does not dismiss them, but he also does not attempt to understand them. That is, until Sebastian, one of the people in the dream appears at a concert and explains that Blaise’s dreams signify a higher calling.

Once Sebastian and Blaise find Lucy and Stephen, the group attempts to decode why they have received messages to come together as well as their history in their previous lives. When the modern Michael’s army begins to attack them, the group goes into hiding and spend more time trying to understand each other, making Saints less of a superhero tale about the battle between good and evil and more of a road tale, where traveling forces characters to better understand their purpose.

Saints has a fascinating premise, and I must admit it kept me engaged even though the execution of the storytelling may not be the best. In an interview, Lewis described the writing process as one where he wrote a short story that he and Mackey then dissected to form the panels. This distillation from a longer story rather than the construction of a script or storyboard leads the first couple of issues of Saints to have a clumsiness and awkwardness in the progression of ideas and conversations from panel to panel and page to page, but by the fourth issue, the bumps begin to smooth out. Mackey’s shifts in color help ease the transitions from dream sequences to the saints’ reality to the building of Michael’s congregation and army, so even though the panel flow does not always work in the first three issues, you never get lost between the different branches of the story.

Given its non-secular focus, I cannot bypass a discussion of the adaptation of biblical concepts. I, in no way, am a scholar of Christianity, but I do understand some of the core tenants of the Bible. Lewis definitely loosely interprets the archangel Michael, but his modernization of the saints does not feel too distant from their original personas. While a secular fictional tale about the faith could use saints’ powers as superpowers, I appreciate that Lewis de-emphasizes the saints’ supernatural abilities and focuses the series on the saints understanding their divine calling; I hope Saints begins to focus more on the psychological aspect of the martyrdom of these saints, for those ruminations could make this series rise from just being entertaining to something daring and innovative. Additionally, the martyrdom aspect of the saints distinguishes these characters from any others out there in the comic book world that have some supernatural ability and some responsibility to other humans; by exploring this security or insecurity in faith and grace or hesitation toward martyrdom, Saints can emerge as a faith based series that intelligently and relatably discusses how to interpret and apply faith in a modern world.

Saints has solid footing in an excellent concept. I hope it digs further into the hearts and minds of its characters and their conflicts with their higher calling, but regardless, I’ll still follow along because Lewis and Mackey are aiming for a big idea and have yet to enter the pretentious territory, and that impresses me.

Saints is written by Sean Lewis and illustrated by Ben Mackey. Issues 1-5 are available via Image Comics.  

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To: R. Crumb’s Big Yum Yum Book

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Robert Crumb is a regular name discussed in the Fierro household. We always keep our eyes open for an issue of Zap, Snatch, or Big Ass Comics, and we adore his illustrations for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Despite this admiration and respect for his work, over the holiday, we realized that we did not own the Big Yum Yum Book, and that was an enormous error in judgement.

In order to not wallow too much in the glory of the past (which happens, but more offline), I try to keep reviews here constrained to comics and graphic novels released in the present and no more than three years back. Occasionally, I have to make exceptions for works of the past that I feel have left our collective memory of comics, so this week, I could not pass up the opportunity to write about the Big Yum Yum Book.

Cover for the SLC Books 1995 Printing of the Big Yum Yum Book

When we think of Robert Crumb, most hardly would describe his work as sweet, endearing, or lovely because of the sexual audacity of his creations in San Francisco’s underground; however, the Big Yum Yum Book, started in 1962 but not published until 1975, presents a softer Crumb, one who was nineteen and had yet to fully understand his carnal desires and his artistic style, and while the book lacks the exaggerated visuals and sexuality of his comics made only a few years after the completion of Big Yum Yum, it reveals the early cleverness and awareness of Crumb that would eventually morph into extreme hyperbole in the figure we now consider as the elder statesman of underground comix. In his introduction to the 1975 original publication, Crumb notes that he finds this book “adolescent and immature” and that others will feel it is “too cute,” but as Harvey Pekar notes in the introduction to the SLG Books 1995 edition, do not let the vivid and exquisite colors and the adorable animal characters and drawing style fool you into believing that this is a naive love story; the Big Yum Yum Book is an exceptional accomplishment that sharply comments on the young of the 1960s and captures life as an aloof observer during that time.

Ogden, a toad and our protagonist, enters college and adulthood with open and cynical eyes. As the child of a prominent business toad who hopes his son will continue his legacy, Ogden immediately realizes that college life does not suit him. He cannot relate to the intellectuals, the open lovers, the beatniks, or the political activists, and after exhausting attempts to fit in, he has an outburst from frustration that changes his life. After crushing and burying the ladybugs in his shared dorm room during his surge of anger, a giant beanstalk erupts from the ground and holds on to Ogden, launching him into space and eventually onto another planet.

Here on this new planet, Ogden has escaped the concrete harshness of the city he had known and has arrived to a beautiful forest abundant with fruit, greenery, and trees. After spending a few days in the bliss of nature, he realizes that, despite all of the greatness of his new home, he is lonely, like Adam in the garden of Eden, and ventures on finding some company. Ogden quickly discovers Guntra, a portly teenage girl, and he instantaneously falls in love. Unfortunately, Guntra only sees Ogden (and every animal that once lived on the planet) as food, but his love will not subside.

The Big Yum Yum Book progresses into a love story, but one from the mind of Robert Crumb, so do not worry, nothing is sentimental here. In the course of Ogden’s pursuit of the ever hungry Guntra, we not only see how love transforms an individual but also how humanity can disintegrate in the surrounding world and how different members of society inadequately react to its downfall. To deliver its biting assessment of our world, the Big Yum Yum Book twists motifs and stories common in Western literature such as the frog prince, the witch hunt, and the fall of the Garden of Eden into its absurdity, making this book undoubtedly one of satire but one that never takes itself too seriously. In turn, the Big Yum Yum Book has a levity to it that balances the severity of Crumb’s own observations of the time, making this book an impressive work for any comicbook creator not to mention a nineteen year old one.

Crumb in the years immediately following the Big Yum Yum Book exponentially increased the absurdity and the perversity in his comics, which definitely heightened the controversy around him and made his work less approachable. For those of us who enjoy these more obscene works, we’ll distill the core essence behind his exaggerations, but for people who do not really comprehend Crumb’s perspective, please read the Big Yum Yum Book, and you’ll understand that much more lies underneath the lurid illustrations of large women in sexual positions; Crumb is a highly perceptive satirist who, like Ogden, does not quite fit in but can use his alienation to assess the world without looking and sounding like a misanthrope. He may lose some friends and completely embarrass himself along the route of self-discovery, but he knows himself, and this self-awareness is the ultimate signature of Crumb that already existed in his earliest works. This key feature would just take on a more extreme and vulgar shell as he progressed as an artist and began to pour out his own psyche onto panels, but you must admire his unrelenting honesty and boldness to admit his inner desires, even if the pages of Snatch make you blush or shudder in shock.

Big Yum Yum Book is available via SLG Books; it features photographs of the original artwork. 

Aromatic Chicken Soup! Lily’s Mien Ga

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As much as we love the heavier dishes of Vietnamese cuisine, we want to eat a bit lighter in 2016. After contemplating on what dishes could be satisfying and delicious without too much salt, sugar, and red meat, Lily remembered Mien Ga, a perfect soup for the winter and spring.

Traditionally, Mien Ga is served with mung bean thread noodles. Lily loves Korean sweet potato glass noodles, so she serves her version with them instead. Additionally, the broth is made with chicken quarters and thighs. For a healthier version, you can use on the bone split breasts; you’ll most likely need to add a bit more fish sauce and salt and cook the stock a bit longer for better flavor.

In this version, Lily served the Mien Ga with a few serrano pepper slices. Beware! They are very hot, so do not place too many in each serving bowl.

Enjoy!

Music provided by Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, Hob. III:80

Riley Rossmo Shines as Others Fall: Dia De Los Muertos

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Of late, I have gobbled up quite a few comicbook anthologies featuring short stories from a range of creators, all united by a single motif. While I never mind diving into a lengthy graphic novel, something about the anthology form, when right, has a spark of light and energy to it that makes reading it enjoyable. That perceived vivacity, in part, comes from my hope to be surprised by the work of creators I already know, but most of my excitement for anthologies stems from the chance to discover new talent. Furthermore, with an anthology contribution, brevity and efficiency emerge as the highest priorities for each story, providing a challenge that tests each creator’s skills and limits and teaches us as the audience how to tackle storytelling constraints. 

Whereas other collections (such as the superb Humanoids anthology, The Tipping Point), have multiple artists and writers, Dia  De Los Muertos has Riley Rossmo as the primary artist paired with the writing talents of Alex Link, Christopher E. Long, Dirk Manning, Joshua Williams, Ed Brisson, Jeff Mariotte, Alex Grecian, Kurtis J. Wiebe, and Joe Keatinge. As a result, Rossmo has the greatest challenge of matching the visuals to the scripts of a range of writers with different specialties and vastly different approaches in interpreting the Day of the Dead, and he rises to the occasion.

Cover for the Dia De Los Muertos anthology that collects three issues containing separate stories

I wish I could give similar praise to the various scriptwriters. With the exception of Alex Grecian’s “Return of the Dead,” Joe Keatinge’s “Day of the Dead 3000,” and Joshua Williamson’s “Mine,” the stories fail to explore the richness and complexity of human emotion and reaction to the traditions and legends Dia De Los Muertos, making many of them feel too facile and unoriginal. In the shadow of Rossmo’s deft ability to transform his style throughout the anthology, most of the stories look even weaker, for the art and the layout have to carry more of the storytelling weight, but alas, even outstanding art cannot save a weak script.

The weakest stories fall into two categories: ghost tales about love or about spirits seeking vengeance. Dirk Manning’s “Te Vas Angel Mio” and Kurtis J. Wiebe’s “Lonesome” look at the love of a lost one with the sentimentality of a Lifetime film or that abhorrent Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Lake House (I’m ashamed that I watched even two minutes of this travesty…). Far different in topic but no less unimaginative, Christopher E. Long’s “Reflections” and Ed Brisson’s “The Skinny One” present ghosts of revenge for wrongdoing that evoke more self-righteousness than any terror. Though Alex Grecian’s “Return of the Dead” does end with a certain level of revenge on an evil one, the story and the art combined create an eerie and horrific tale that will make you shiver, and the extent of the awfulness of the villain provokes fear (and a few shudders), pulling it far above “Reflections” and “The Skinny One,” despite their shared topic.

As much as I enjoyed Grecian’s take on Dia De Los Muertos, I will admit that it did not feature anything beyond prediction. In contrast, Joe Keatinge’s “Day of the Dead 3000” and Joshua Williamson’s “Mine” do have unique and surprising elements to them, thus making them the most distinctive of the collection. Keatinge places the supernatural elements of Day of the Dead in the future and in the hands of a pessimistic and disillusioned fashion photographer, creating a cleverly nihilistic anti-superhero tale that explores the psychology of the adults of the future (and now) who inherit the problems of the past but feel indifferent to them. Paired with Keatinge’s excellent script, Rossmo creates the perfect art to match the fun but slightly cynical tale that incorporates more than just the skulls and ritual of the Day of the Dead.

Joshua Williamson has a far more traditional perspective on the motif, weaving the festival activities in Mexico in the mystery to find a girl, but right before the end, he takes a screeching turn in an unexpected and chilling direction. Illustrated with a innocence and brightness of a comic for children, the antithesis between what Williamson and Rossmo want you to believe will happen and what actually does distinguishes “Mine,” making a story that at first looks cheery all the more disturbing. Placed halfway into the collection, the section of a work that our human minds tend to forget the most, “Mine” will be severed into your memory due to its style and final detour.

As a whole, Dia De Los Muertos has some gems in storytelling, but it mostly serves as a showcase of Riley Rossmo’s diverse talents as a comicbook artist. Though most of the stories are forgettable, the collection is still worth a look for the stronger ones and for Rossmo’s chameleon artistic abilities. And, as with any short film compilation, if one work does not satisfy you, another one will arrive very shortly, a nice feature of the anthology and perhaps one of the reasons why they have caught my attention recently.

Dia De Los Muertos is available via Image Shadowline. 

Not an Item For My Shopping Bag: Sina Grace’s Not My Bag

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Before I jump into this review of Sina Grace’s Not My Bag, allow me to preface my thoughts with the note that I have always adored fashion. My days of fascination with couture are somewhat over, but the outrageousness of best works of John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier will always be near and dear to my heart. Consequently, my disappointment with Not My Bag does not stem from a lack of interest in the fashion industry, the subject of Not My Bag that may turn off many independent graphic novel readers; it comes from the lack of personal voice and introspection. As expected from a novel about a nightmarish job in the retail side of fashion, Not My Bag looks vibrant and stylish. Sadly, as with most of the prêt–à–porter world, little substance exists beyond the illustrations, making the novel far less innovative and expressive than Alexander McQueen (one of Grace’s muses for the work) and more like the sharp and sterile looking but never groundbreaking Ralph Lauren.

Alluring cover for the pitifully boring Not My Bag

Somewhat of a semi-autobiographical memoir, Not My Bag primarily focuses on the central character’s entrenchment and awakening from his retail job in a luxury department store where he sold pallid Eileen Fisher threads to middle aged women who felt that a cashmere stretch cardigan was a step up from sweatshirt. There are plenty of tales about the ignorant customers who purchased the sub-par made in China clothing he and his colleagues sold, but the main lens of Not My Bag hones in on the main character’s peers, the vapid and cutthroat brand specialists and sales associates of the nameless luxury department store that most resembles Nordstrom. Given a low base salary and a sales requirement that encourages even the shyest person to transform into a piranha, the sales folk of the store predictably have no moral compasses in their treatment of their customers not to mention each other, but alas, what else do you expect? Sales is sales, regardless of the product, so what makes the stories of these salesmen/saleswomen different from their counterparts in the notorious, reviled used car world, a group of sales miscreants that film has already explored quite thoroughly? Nothing, and if I must spend time with the dysfunctional salesmen, I’d rather watch Kurt Russell in Used Cars.

Grace adds a side arc about his broken relationships in the past to accompany his journey into the retail underworld, but we only see small vignettes of these moments into his relationship baggage with a couple more into his current relationship with a guy he calls, “the lawyer,” in a supposed to be cute, distant pet name way that comes off as dismissive and annoying. The relationships expose his insecurities, giving some insight into why he’s been consumed by the luxury clothing sales world, but overall, they add little dimension to his character. Together, his relationship history and his salesman identity create nothing engaging, nothing that explores the psyche of the multiple personas of the protagonist; he is as bland and vacuous as the Eileen Fisher clothes he sells.

In addition to the dull story, Not My Bag suffers from an inability to balance fantasy and reality. As a result, more realistic moments feel too caricaturish and more phantasmagoric panels feel half-hearted and unimaginative. The back cover describes the work as a Gothic one, and whoever felt that balloon like ghosts representing lovers of past and a slightly more sinister looking Isabella Blow who wears ominous masks constitute a Gothic work should revisit Lord Byron and Edgar Allen Poe; they (and I) are offended that anyone would ever consider Not My Bag as a piece of Gothic storytelling.

Thankfully, Not My Bag ends before hitting page 100, which was a relief as I read it, but its length is also one of its fatal weaknesses. Grace cites Craig Thompson as an inspiration, and one of the best features of Thompson’s work is his willingness to give a plot and characters time and space. Conversely, Grace presents his protagonist, his conflicts, and his characters with the brevity of a Reader’s Digest summary, which weakens the work even further because everyone is a shell of a character that offers, at best, a trait similarity to people in reality. Worst of all, Grace presents tidbits of the sources of his protagonist’s identity conflicts but does not delve into them, and this is the most frustrating because these struggles with identity could bolster the story with the richness it so desperately needs, but Grace treats them as asides, giving more attention to the hollow sales demons we really do not care about.

I wanted Not My Bag to succeed because of my own love for fashion and learned disillusionment with the industry, but unfortunately, it just does not work. Grace’s storytelling chops were definitely rusty with this one, especially since this work was his first since quitting his job as Editorial Director at Skybound. It’s a shame that everything feels so trite here because the intersection of avant-garde fashion and comics could produce something fascinating, but alas, the Eileen Fisher uninspired, drab lack of vision must have had a greater subconscious influence on Not My Bag, for the result evokes as much excitement as I would get from an overpriced denim tunic that I would barely even wear as a house garment.

Not My Bag by Sina Grace is available via Image Comics.

Caramelized Vietnamese Meatballs: Lily’s Sensational Xiu Mai

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As a kid, Lily loved Banh Mi Xiu Mai, a banh mi made with savory and sweet meatballs. When she moved to Boston, the Banh Mi Xiu Mai had a softer meatball that had a tomato sauce, which was satisfying, but it did not compare to the version she had as a child.

After plenty of recipes, Lily finally decided to tackle Xiu Mai. This version has a sugar based sauce similar to that used with Thit Kho, and instead of using traditional ground pork, these Xiu Mai were made with ground turkey. You can use whatever meat you prefer; Lily herself will probably experiment with a mix of ground beef and pork in the future!

We served the Xiu Mai as a Banh Mi sandwich, but you can eat the meatballs with rice, vermicelli, or pieces of bread. If you roll the meatballs smaller, you can even make them into tasty appetizers with a small slice of pickled carrot and daikon! Enjoy!

Music provided by Georg Friedrich Händel’s Concerto Grosso no. 1, HWV 319

Memory, Sin, and a Welcome to the Apocalypse: Inio Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph

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After two readings of Inio Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph, I, like many other reviewers that tackled the 2014 English translation of the collected chapters of the seinen manga originally released in parts from November 2003 to December 2005 in Japan, will admit that I may not completely understand the series. However, absolute comprehension does not prevent any enjoyment of this tale; in fact, it mostly relies on an ebb and flow of guttural reactions ranging from repulsion to somber recollection in the best Takeshi Miike way but with a bit (though not much) more anchored in reality.

Cover of the English Volume of Nijigahara Holograph

Opening with butterflies, a boy walking on the exterior of a school, and then a young man speaking about his ill father and the merging of reality and dreams to an elderly man whose face we cannot see, Nijigahara Holograph immediately distinguishes itself from what the West generally expects from manga. Expect no adolescent scantily clad women here; in fact, leave any hope for romance or lost love or even any bit of catharsis at the door. The world of Nijihara Holograph is severe, bleak, and unforgiving, and every single character suffers for his or her own actions or for the sins of others. This is not a read for the faint of heart.

The Eerie Second Page of Nijigahara Holograph

Time has no constancy in Nijigahara Holograph as ghosts and memories of the past never fade away: beyond the flashes we see in the minds of the characters, the evils of the past have a physical manifestation as glowing butterflies that swarm the city. As time unravels in the novel, so does reality, with everything in the present clouded by recollections, dreams, hallucinations, and even a touch of prophecy fulfillment. While the different characters have their own branches and paths that occasionally intersect, their arcs remain rooted together by Airé Kimura, a young woman who has remained in a coma in the local hospital since childhood. Airé prophesied the end of the world via a monster in the Nijigahara tunnel, and the people around her did not believe her and caused her harm by attempting to sacrifice her to the monster in the tunnel.

Airé is not new to the world; her spirit has transformed multiple times, with each version warning the surrounding world about the apocalypse to come and each message of caution receive with skepticism and distrust. The citizens of the village murdered Airé’s previous incarnations, but in the most recent cycle, after a majority of her classmates push her down a vent that ends in the tunnel fated to have the monster, Airé survives, but she remains unconscious through her adolescence and early adulthood. This permanent state of sleep keeps Airé safe from the world around her, away from the various predators who have either psychologically or physically attacked her, but it also keeps her force present on the earth. While life has remained quiet for most of the people who crossed paths with Airé, with her classmates growing uneventfully into adults and teachers having families as they approach their early 40s, an energy of dysfunction and hysteria has recently descended on the town, causing macabre scenes of violence and various, seemingly unconnected journeys toward the Nijigahara embankment, the entry to the tunnel that contains the creature of the apocalypse. An awakening to Nijigahara will arrive soon, and as the time approaches, more and more butterflies spread across the town and begin to consume people connected to Airé in one way or another.

While Asano alludes to philosopher Zhuangzi’s well translated and studied quote about the philosopher’s dream or reality as a butterfly, whether or not all of Nijigahara Holograph captures the dreams of Airé, her childhood friend Kohta, or Amahiko, the student transfer from Tokyo who never met Airé in person but who may have encountered her spirit, remains unclear by the end of the series, but whether everything occurred under dream logic or not is unimportant to Nijigahara Holograph, for the actions in the series speak as gravely in dream form as in reality about the cyclical desecration of purity through violence, cowardice, and fear.

Highly experimental in its image and story construction, Nijigahara Holograph creates a unique mood of dread with its sudden juxtapositions of visual beauty of Airé and the butterflies against the most abject and abominable acts of human will. As a result, the feelings of desperation and futility do not stem from Airé’s declarations of the impending end of the world; they come from the abject nature of the humans which gets passed on from generation to generation without a clear end in sight. This cyclical nature of pain, torment, and the destruction of beauty drives the world of Nijigahara Holograph, making the idea of the apocalypse paradoxically welcoming because while it does end life, it finally will end suffering generations of people have inflicted on each other.

More of a punch in the chest rather than a distanced, ruminative read, Nijigahara Holograph demands and consumes all of your attention. It challenges your own perspective, thoughts, and dreams along with the definitions and conventions of the comics and manga medium, making it a sobering read in the first week of the new year. While I still feel that I may not understand all of the layers of Nijigahara Holograph, I do know that it encourages me in 2016 to dig deeper for comics that test the boundaries of storytelling, and for that inspiration alone, I am grateful to Inio Asano, even if this work accomplished a remarkably overwhelming sense of gloom and desolation in its exploration of some of the deepest, darkest crevices of our collective hearts and minds.

The 1970s Workplace Comedy in Graphic Novel Form: Mimi Pond’s Over Easy

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When Generoso wrote about Peter Yates’s Mother, Jugs, and Speed, he discussed the concept of the “Workplace Comedy.” This sub-genre of comedy generally includes a group of characters who would unlikely cross paths beyond their workplace but naturally do because they all need to pay bills, and as a result, a day in the office, car wash, ambulance, or any other agency of employment, contains more entertainment and perception than you would expect from “a day in the life” comedy.

While the Workplace Comedy certainly has manufactured laughs and shenanigans, it also has an odd ability to capture the essence of the time and place through its characters, their interactions, and the circumstances they find themselves in because, after all, you learn the most about the people and their generation by their behaviors at home and their behaviors at work. Through this caricature approach, Workplace Comedies boil down and present the social dynamics of an era, making them a fascinating snowglobe of a moment in the past. Sure, larger, more philosophical themes may exist in them, but they are hardly ruminated upon, and as a result, plenty of ideas and comments on the times are packed into fast sketches, conversations, and moments into a fluid journey that may not lead to a climax or denouement but will give you a sharp insight into the characters’ times and a history of American culture.

Though in graphic novel, semi-fictional memoir form, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy falls into this Workplace Comedy bin. Paced almost like 1976’s Car Wash in its looseness with its characters, Over Easy captures the spirit of Oakland, California and America in the late 70s through the employees and clientele of the Imperial Cafe. Richard Hell called the 70s the Blank Generation, and Mimi Pond’s characterization of herself and her colleagues in Oakland in in 1978 would agree.

The Teal Preciousness of the Cover of Over Easy

Given that the fluidity of an experiential yet condensed (a term which our dear friend Mitch uses to describe the aesthetic of the 70s) film such as Car Wash relies on the time-based nature of the film form, Pond’s graphic novel interpretation of the form depends on her narration of her young adult self to guide you smoothly through the big and small moments in the Imperial Cafe, which minimizes the frenetic energy that devours you in Car Wash but prevents the novel from feeling too chaptered in its depictions of different events in the diner. As a result, Over Easy could be interpreted as an alternative bildungsroman for a budding female cartoonist who works in order to pay for her last year of art school and accordingly must learn how to live in the real world outside of the protective, pillowy walls of art school; however, the cast and crew of the Imperial steal the spotlight in Over Easy, making Mimi, or Madge (Pond’s Imperial Cafe moniker given to her by Lazlo, the manager), more of an omniscient narrator to the Workplace Comedy of a diner with hip waitresses in vintage dresses, surly cooks, and eccentric management who all serve premium Americana food to unusually good-looking hippies, freaks, and punks.

Beyond all of the relationship and sexual do-si-does between the various staff members of the cafe to tingle your prurient interests and also remind you of how incestuous contained groups of men and women can be (call in flashback to different social groups you were a part of or observed in high school, college, or life), Over Easy also brushes upon the precarious state of confidence and utter confusion of the late 70s. Through the clients and the employees of the diner, we see the rejection of hippie culture, disco, and political revolution and the embrace of the sexual revolution, punk, and a general distrust but passiveness toward the U.S. government. In turn, the crew of Over Easy have an overall ennui toward their own futures but indulge in their senses in the now. They are hedonistic; they are vulgar; they are self-obsessed; they are over educated in a field that probably adds no practical knowledge to the work force; they are prime for an awakening or a complete submission to the middle, the average.

Beyond only recounting the cultural shifts of the late 70s in the vacuum of the Imperial Cafe, Over Easy manages to document the roots of the modern day hipster. Consequently, I must admit that I cringed a bit when I saw various characters attempting to live a blue-collar life even though they served gourmand diner classics to everyone but factory and construction workers and anyone of color (with the exception of three belligerent, drunk black women, and I’ll leave the interpretation of that scene to you and how it relates to the surge of the squeaky clean 1980s), but these moments remind us of the contradictory nature of the time and how it has come to influence today. By including herself in the narrative during her integration into the Imperial Cafe climate, Pond captures the outsider’s fascination of the exterior of this pseudo-bohemian world and the less glamorous insider’s perspective into its hollow and confused middle, making Over Easy less of a rosy eyed work of nostalgia and more of a relevant observation of the chaotic life in Oakland and America at large in the late 70s.

Over Easy’s teal-sepia watercolors and past reflection premise will certainly pull in the modern day intellectual, but remember, even though the characters, including Pond herself, all discuss how they hate disco, Over Easy is not too far off from the disco-encoated Car Wash. Just look at the parallels between Babette and Lindy, and in this comparison, you’ll realize that Car Wash is a more accomplished film than you would ever expect and that Over Easy, while engaging, does not quite attain the same level of achievement. Then again, this outcome could completely stem from my own inability to relate to Madge and Co. because as I complete this review, I am living less than 5 miles from where Car Wash was filmed and am listening to the disco as I live in a generation that feels more vacuous and disastrous than that of the Imperial Diner…

Over Easy is written and illustrated by Mimi Pond. It is available via Drawn & Quarterly.

Warm and Delicious Sweet Potatoes and Coconut Milk – Che Ba Ba

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With Christmas just around the corner, I immediately think of sweets I ate around the holidays. After thinking about the different che I had over the years, I realized I had forgotten the one that I had the most: Che Ba Ba. Che Ba Ba is perfect for the holidays because it has all of the warmth from a variety of potatoes and a delicious richness from the coconut milk, making it the perfect closer to your holiday meal.

My version is made with taro, gold sweet potato, and purple sweet potato. Though Che Ba Ba is traditionally made with cassava as well, we really enjoyed the different types of sweet potato in lieu of cassava.

Make the che as sweet as you like! I prefer my che less sweet in order to taste more of the coconut, but do feel free to adjust the sugar to your taste! Enjoy! Merry Christmas! Happy eating!

Music provided by Jacques Offenbach’s Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld”

 

Anti-nostalgia for P.S. 49 in Robert Triptow’s Entertaining Class Photo

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The holidays always conjure up past memories, with some related to family, others related to friends, and some related to people who have no role in your life but manage to stay in your memory because you managed to cross paths with them whether in pre-school or at a party many years ago. While your imagination cannot be as active with pondering the courses of the lives of your family and friends if you still are in contact with them, it can ruminate on the people who you briefly met or only knew as an acquaintance, spending endless amounts of time thinking about “where are they now?” It is this curiosity that leads to shameless fascination in the Jerry Springer episodes focused on that question and to moments of deliberation on whether or not to attend your nth year high school or college reunion.

In our wired world, some of the allure of imagining what became of people you knew has been lost with the ability to search workplace websites and social media in order to get a small sense of what happened. But, what about people you never knew? People who lived in an era long before you were born? People who are pretty untraceable today? In this realm, your fictional whims and thoughts can thrive and wander on these strangers of the past, so much so that you could dig yourself into a perpetual abyss unless you had a group of people to fixate on.

Robert Triptow thankfully has a cast of strangers he can focus on for Class Photo while letting his imagination soar with their fictional lives. Inspired by a class photograph taken in 1937 of the P.S. 49 school in Brooklyn that he discovered with his uncle, Triptow creates humorous, strange, and wacky outcomes for each of the children in the photo while weaving in pieces of pre and post WWII American history and culture into each person’s life. No one in Class Photo can escape Triptow’s rampant and wild fantastes, and as a result, the class members’ lives veer toward the insane and the extraordinary despite their humble beginnings in a school that is believed to have existed for children seeking refuge from Hitler’s reign in Europe.

Cover for the Fantagraphics Release of Class Photo

Triptow takes great care in developing complex and concise profiles on each of the Class of 1937, and in the spirit of the American underground, leaves in all of the lurid details of life and injects the outrageous and sensational into his characters to conversely remind us of how we are simultaneously more regular and more strange than we believe. Beginning with Francis Fandango, the double left footed child of famous dancers who eventually became a Best Boy for a television show, and ending with Pat Flatt, the only member of the class to live an All-American life, the collected futures of the class remind us in the most hyperbolic way possible that life is strange and takes different turns for a variety of people. Yet, despite all of the crazy things that happen to various members of the class ranging from preventing an alien invasion to ascending the royal throne of Iceland, Triptow manages to capture how people’s lives tend to re-converge because of a similarity based on a specific place and time, and this is a normal concept that anchors the novel amidst his grandiose fantasies for the class members

As a result of the mix of the imaginary and the real, with a bias toward the fictional, Class Photo feels like an absurd walk through a 50th school reunion, making you laugh at the ridiculousness of some of the events of the individuals’ lives (I kept giggling as I read the tale of Gunther Spalch, the man with flatulence so potent that he became a research weapon for the U.S. government) and making you wonder about how peculiar your own future and those of your classmates will be. Sure, for the most part, our lives will lean more toward the ordinary, but reality does have a way of surpassing imagination sometimes, so who knows?

While there is a bit of a philosophical layer in Class Photo, the graphic novel, Triptow’s first solo book, ultimately showcases the author’s humor, sharply delivered through the expressions of his characters, the narration of their lives, and the dialog throughout the profiles of the Class of ’37. All of Class Photo can be summed up by one statement in its opening, “This book is highly recommended for your bathroom, as each page is about the right reading length per sitting and handy if you run out of tissue.” Class Photo entertains without ever getting too pretentious, despite its NPR-worthy found media premise, because of its self-deprecation and absurdity, so, really, enjoy it on an abbreviated or extended #2, depending on whether one page does or does not provide enough time for you to do your business. That is, after all, one of the common places for you to wonder about where people are today, since what else is there to do in a sanitary fashion while on the toilet?

Class Photo is written and illustrated by Robert Triptow and is available via Fantagraphics Books.