Just What Did Happen at Stan Lee’s Comic Con 2016?

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In Southern California, there are three comicbook conventions that we never miss: Long Beach Comic Con, Long Beach Comic Expo, and Stan Lee’s Comikaze. For the comicbook lovers out there, the Long Beach events cater to you. Their Artist Alleys are always packed with sensational veteran and up and coming comicbook artists, so you will undoubtedly leave the event with some new discoveries and some insight into how those works were developed, since you purchased them directly from a creator. In addition, the Long Beach events have one entire track of event programming known as Creator Lab, which offers advice and education for all aspects of comicbook creation. Long Beach Comic Con and Long Beach Comic Expo preserve and celebrate the spirit and importance of comicbooks in and of themselves.

Meanwhile, Stan Lee’s Comikaze is an event that is more reflective of what the general public think about a modern day comic con. It has some comicbook content with a general focus on the big two (DC and Marvel), but it mostly underscores pop culture pieces of the television and movie variety, and even though the convention definitely spotlights Marvel and DC’s television and film properties as well, Comikaze always has space for things of an odder variety, things a bit more on the fringe. Consequently, Comikaze is the place for the fan of really any media; regardless of what you like, there’s something for you on the exhibition floor or in the panel rooms.

This year, Stan Lee’s Comikaze became Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con (SLLACC), and the newly branded convention had a perfect mix of pop culture mainstays and oddities of the past and present. We have a considerable age gap between us (Generoso and Lily, your guides to Los Angeles Comic Con 2016), but given the diversity of the programming of the convention, our various interests and thirsts for media were overwhelmingly satisfied throughout the weekend.

One of the highlights to Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con was of course the chance to see Stan The Man himself. Always exuberant and more energetic than most of us who are are decades younger, Mr. Lee always opens up the convention with an enthusiastic introduction paired with a spectacle related to his current projects on the Hot Topic Stage, the main stage where the special guests of the con arrive to speak. Last year, the opening included a green crystal figure of a character from his upcoming anime series, The Reflection. This year, Stan packed in far more than we expected into his introduction.

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Stan The Man, looking good!

First, he gave us a preview to the second season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, his successful television series about a man who possesses the superpower of luck that currently can only be seen on TVs in the UK but will be arriving to America in the near future. The shining star of the Sky 1 network, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man has a premise that will likely lure in audiences based on curiosity, since, after all, when you were a little kid, was great luck a superpower you wanted? And, of course, the series benefits from its action cinema approach, creating explosions and settings that could be seen on the big screen but prefer not to be.

Immediately after the preview for Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, we received an update on the previous year’s announcement of The Reflection. Though we did not get any animation previews, we did get to see poster art and receive a glimpse into the music for the show via an awkward presentation that started with an earnest introduction of the producers and the artist of the anime series but morphed into a neon festival of J-pop (or more correctly, electropop). The Japanese idol group 9nine collaborated with Trevor Horn, the man responsible for “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Yes’s album Drama, for music on the show, and both were in attendance for the updates on The Reflection. After getting a glimpse into Horn’s hits via clips filled with big hair and synthesizer sounds, 9nine performed one of their hits in neon tutus, metallic sneakers, and cutoff school vests. As the dolled up girls danced on stage, Generoso stood behind Lily embarrassed because Lily is a small Asian woman, and in the face of the 9nine’s cloyingly adorable performance, something seemed too uncomfortable about Lily standing right in front of Generoso.

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The Uncomfortably Cute Ladies of 9nine

At this point, we may have neglected to mention that Stan Lee’s Comic Con has been scheduled on Halloween weekend these last two iterations, which did heavily influence our decision-making process when selecting panels throughout the event. So, what better way to celebrate evil than by revisiting the cartoon pair who spent the latter half of the 1990s trying to take over the world, Pinky and the Brain? Taking the Hot Topic Stage were the voice actors who gave life to our fiendish lab mice, Maurice LaMarche and Rob Paulsen, who were there purely for nostalgia and not to promote a new property as they were there to share story after story of productions past. There was one segment of their open conversation that involved the art of voice acting that hit home, which was their claim that more often than not, Hollywood has recently opted for contemporary star power to voice a legendary cartoon over the original voice actors. LaMarche then cited the exception to the recent trend when he, and many of his generation, felt overjoyed when the heard Peter Cullen’s voice as Optimus Prime in Michael Bay’s 2007 live-action Transformers film instead of some new actor. Hopefully, if Pinky and the Brain sees a rebirth anytime soon, we will hear LaMarche and Paulsen reprise their roles, as just a few moments of them voicing those characters brought Generoso back to the era of ska-core shows in friends’ basements and the last season of Seinfeld and Lily back to the era of eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Cookie Crisp during Saturday morning and after-school cartoons.

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From Left to Right: Andre Meadows, Rob Paulsen, and Maurice LaMarche discuss taking over the world.

As we needed a bit more in the scare department after Pinky and the Brain, we gleefully gravitated towards horror master Clive Barker and the aptly titled: “Clive Barker: Looking Ahead” panel, which highlighted all of the upcoming efforts of the prolific artist/ painter/ director’s offerings. Though, by written description, this panel would simply seem like an one hour salvo of pitches laid out by a collection of speakers who are working on various Barker projects (there were indeed a staggering amount), the panelists assembled and regaled the audience with personal stories of first experiencing Barker’s work and, in some cases, of meeting and working with Barker that ranged from touching to comical, with most of these experiences happening for our panelists around the age of twelve, which considering the viscera normally associated with Barker, drew more than a fair share of giggles and concern from the attendees.   

So, what is there to expect from all things Clive Barker? A reissue of the 1992 novel, The Thief of Always is due out soon with thirty pages of new artwork. Chapters four and five of the eight volume series, Imaginer are due out in 2017, with each volume containing at least one hundred photos from Barker’s oil painting archives, which at this point contain thousands of works. Back in 2001, Todd McFarlane and Clive Barker teamed up for the Tortured Souls figures that each included a story (with six in total); then, in 2004, the two teamed up for the Infernal Parade figures and stories, and now, the tales from that collaboration have finally been collected on the soon to be released Infernal Parade novella published by Subterranean Press. In Clive Barker film news, Tommy Hudson, who directed the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary, Never Sleep Again, is directing a documentary on Clive Barker, which is tentatively titled, Clive Barker: Where the Monster Lives. Unlike previous horror docs, Hudson is hoping that his piece on Barker is more about the whole creative person as opposed to the usual horror documentary that is just a collection of film clips. At this point, Hudson is hoping to get the film out around the 30th anniversary of the release of Hellraiser in 2017, which would be a perfect way to celebrate the continued impacting terror of Pinhead, the character that introduced much of the world to the mysterious, horrifying, and fascinating mind of Clive Barker.

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Clive Barker’s collaborators present future plans of the horror master as they also express their own love for the horror master’s work

As mentioned in the introduction, modern day comic cons definitely have a great emphasis on television and film, and while we do enjoy these aspects, no comic con would be the same without some appearance of the giants of comicbook world. Given that Wonder Woman turns 75 this year, various creators who have worked with the character invented by William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston joined together to talk about the modernity of Wonder Woman and their experience in working with the character for the panel “Wonder Woman 75: A Retrospect of an Icon.” Moderated by Londyn Jackson of the podcast, History of the Batman with Londyn, the panel featured the voice of Wonder Woman on Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends, Shannon Farnon, the artist of Wonder Woman ‘77, Cat Staggs, the writer of Wonder Woman ‘77, Marc Andreyko, the voice of Wonder Woman on Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, Susan Eisenberg, the granddaughter of William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Christie Marston, and the managing editor of Comic Book Resources, Albert Ching. All of the panelists described the role of Wonder Woman in their life, and one name consistently emerged throughout the discussion: Lynda Carter. Farnon and Eisenberg both voiced Wonder Woman; Staggs draws Wonder Woman; Andreyko writes Wonder Woman; and all agreed that Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman in the 1970s television series marked the pinnacle of who Wonder Woman can be for future generations. The group also touched on their excitement for Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot’s take on the iconic lady, but overall, the panel was an open celebration of Wonder Woman as a diplomatic, optimistic, and virtuous superhero.

Back on September 17th of this year, we were stunned to hear of the sudden passing of C. Martin Croker, who most of us knew as the voice of Zorak, the mantis archnemesis, co-host, and bandleader on the epically influential Adult Swim animation/live-action talk show, Space Ghost Coast to Coast. In 2012, fellow Adult Swim star Eric Andre, cited the show’s technique of heavily editing celebrity interviews to whatever line of questioning that could be added in post-production as a huge inspiration. We ourselves have long adored the Space Ghost, and soon after seeing the programming lineup for Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con, we immediately circled the panel honoring C. Martin Croker (Clay as he was known to his friends and colleagues) on our event calendar. On the panel was voice actor Andy Merrill, the voice of Brak, Space Ghost’s childlike bean-loving enemy, and Jon Schnepp and Jay Wade Edwards, who both served as longtime editors on the show. The first half of the panel got deep into the editing process of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which eventually led into a conversation about their time with Clay and his sizeable contributions to the show beyond his considerable voice acting skills and the mastery of the Zorak voice. Being that this panel was happening just a month or so after Clay’s passing, it gave a chance for many members of the audience during the question and answer portion to express their feelings about the late voice actor’s talents. One moment that stood out for us was a story that Schnepp shared about one of Clay’s barbeques when a child came up to Clay to ask him to do the voice of Zorak to which he (Clay) replied “I am sorry but Zorak isn’t here.” Soon after the child turned around, Clay started doing Zorak’s voice to make the child think that Zorak was lurking in the yard. Clay’s voice, imagination, and sense of humor were essential to the success of many of the early Adult Swim shows, and Schnepp, Merrill, and Edwards emphasized this through their many stories about working on Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Aqua Teen Hunger Force with Clay.

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From Left to Right: Jay Wade Edwards, Jon Schnepp, and Andy Merrill take questions from Adult Swim lovers and C. Martin Croker fans.

One of the highlights of the 2015 edition of Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con was the appearance of Tommy Blacha and his band of deviants from Titmouse, who relished the opportunity to jokingly torment audience members through the use of a sketchpad during the panel-long question and answer session. This year, Blacha (clad in vampire cape of course) returned to the convention along with Jon Schnepp to discuss the Adult Swim program they helped to create with Brendon Small, Metalocalypse. Blacha and Schnepp got deep into the multitude of inventive deaths that took place during the show’s four season run with the demise of the “Make a Wish” girl being a high point; even that one got us too on its original airing. During the panel, Blacha’s ability to embody William Murderface, Toki Wartooth, and Dr. Rockso at will was as funny as it was impressive. And, during the latter portion of the panel, when an auction of sorts of Metalocalypse memorabilia began to happen, it was Blacha’s impression of Toki that had the room laughing out loud when Schepp’s claim that they would be selling “rare” copies of the Dethklok hardcover book brought forth the following comment from Blacha/Toki…”Rare, you haves like three copies right theres!”

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From Left to Right: Jon Schnepp and the vampire metal star known as Tommy Blacha

On the second and final day of Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con, we spent the entire morning with the awkwardly lovely, fantastically entertaining, and always hilarious folks of Troma Entertainment. First, the Tromaville inhabitants unearthed Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo for a screening. Made in 2006 by Les Claypool of Primus, Electric Apricot follows the mockumentary structure of This is Spinal Tap but (appropriately) centers its jests at the jam band world. Featuring interviews with major jam band figures such as Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo makes audience members uncomfortably wonder, “If this music is supposed to be so free form and groovy, then why are they so neurotic?” Les Claypool’s characterization of the jam band drummer named Lapdog spends two days in the studio miking his drum set before the band’s first recording and blaming the bass player during every take that fails. The jam guitarist, Gordo not only idolizes Jerry Garcia’s sound but also emulates the lead singer’s playing style, haircut, and girth. And, the Electric Apricot’s keyboardist, Herschel, the overly delicate musician who performs mantras while serving coffee at a local cafe, speaks to the camera in yoga poses. Also, we cannot forget Aiwass, the bassist who still lives in the treehouse in his family’s backyard. This mockumentary has its own share of laughs, and although the recording sequences go far past their joke being funny, the final scenes at Festeroo provide the audience with more than enough laughs to compensate for a thin middle.

Immediately after the screening of Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo, the Troma Entertainment team emerged for a panel discussing the history and upcoming films of the underground, DIY organization that gave us The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., and many other fun, wild, wacky, and outrageous films that we’ve come to expect from anything branded with the Troma name. Of course, the leader of Tromaville, Lloyd Kaufman was in attendance, and he brought many people with him, including Pat Swinney Kaufman, his wife and longtime Troma member, Jason McHugh, the man who plays the band manager of Electric Apricot and the producer of the mockumentary screened before, and Kansas Bowling, the precocious director of B.C. Butcher who we got a chance to speak with separately here in a short, but fun interview that you can read here. Throughout the panel, we heard plenty of funny and insane tales about Troma productions, including examples of how Sgt. Kabukiman struggles to handle his fame and tidbits of Lloyd’s film experience and extensive knowledge, but we heard one thing more than anything else: Troma Entertainment is a family, and Lloyd treats everyone in Tromaville like family. And, this was certainly true because everyone on the panel spoke of Lloyd like a father or a really cool uncle as he sat a few seats by. At the end of the panel, one could only hope to have a family like the Troma one; life would certainly be more entertaining and amazingly sweeter too.

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From Left to Right: Kansas Bowling, Lloyd Kaufman, and Pat Swinney Kaufman celebrating the past and present work of Troma Entertainment.

Another highlight from last year’s SLLACC was the “Heroes & (Crisis of) Faith” panel that was expertly moderated by Jordan B. Gorfinkel, the creator of the comic strip, Everything’s Relative. The panel (now in its fourth year at SLLACC) addresses issues of faith, religion, and atheism within entertainment, and this year’s edition had the theme: “Faith and Fallen Heroes: The interplay of faith and our work in the entertainment business.” The well-balanced group of speakers (Ali Mawji, Jim Covell, Jeffrey Alan Schechter and David Sacks), which was comprised of members of varying faiths, was asked a multitude of stimulating, introspective questions, including the need for perfection to be inherent within the individual heroes of each of the speaker’s religious texts. Regardless of where you stand on the subject of faith, the conversations that occur during every version of this panel always open up a massive load of questions that you will discuss long after the convention, which is why it is a panel we will never miss.

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From Left to Right: Jordan B. Gorfinkel, Ali Mawji, Jim Covell, Jeffrey Alan Schechter, and David Sacks at the end of their panel which reflected on the principles of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism on works of entertainment

So far, we’ve focused this journey to Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con on panels and events, but of course, no trip to a con would be acceptable without some comicbook coverage. After walking up and down the aisles of Artist Alley, passing by everything from artwork to handmade buttons and hairpins, we met Dave Baker and Nicole Goux, the creators of Suicide Forest, F*ck Off Squad, and Action Hospital. In their work, Baker and Goux experiment with different drawing techniques, and their willingness to commit to a technique and see it to full fruition can be seen in Suicide Forest, a graphic novel set entirely in one room with one genuine scare and surprise that emerges from their design for character movements from page to page. In a world where comicbooks are becoming an incubator space for film and television, it was refreshing to see Baker’s and Goux’s work and to hear them speak about the meticulousness of their craft and their dedication to pushing comicbooks further as a medium in and of itself.  You can read Lily’s entire review of Suicide Forest here. 

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Nicole Goux and Dave Baker speak about their collaborative process of writing and drawing comics.

For both of us, Heavy Metal magazine has been a part of our comicbook education for many years. Since 1977, Heavy Metal has featured exceptional contributions from artists around the world, and this year, at Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con, the magazine made issue #583, the Fear Issue, available just in time for Halloween. At last year’s con, The Invisibles creator Grant Morrison spoke about his approach to the magazine for 2016, the year of his inauguration as editor-in-chief, and this year, at the convention, we were able to see all of the fruit of his labor at the Heavy Metal booth that was covered with the beautiful covers of the magazine. With Morrison at the helm, Heavy Metal looks and is better than ever.

This year, Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con offered a vast buffet of offerings from television, film, and comicbooks; and if you are a fan of any or all of these media forms, the con was a place for you because you could learn more about the works you love from the people who made them while also getting to discover some new talent, all at a convention that balances humor, joy, reflection, optimism, and seriousness exceptionally well.

So, until next year…

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Written by Lily and Generoso Fierro

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A Doorway into Terror: Dave Baker and Nicole Goux’s Suicide Forest

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Hello hello hello comicbook and graphic novel lovers!

Many months have passed since my last review! Seasons have changed; timed has moved forward and probably not given you a chance to catch up. A nasty election season is finally over, and for us, the major comic con season is over as well.

Since the last review, we attended Long Beach Comic Con and Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con (formerly known as Stan Lee’s Comikaze), which means that I have collected some new (and of course old) comics to spotlight for you.

To kick off the return to comic book reviewing here on this blog, I have selected Dave Baker and Nicole Goux’s Suicide Forest. At Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con, we had one of the most refreshing and energetic conversations about comics as a medium rather than an incubation arena for films with Baker and Goux, and their dedication to making comics a visual communication form unbounded by the panel-to-panel, page-to-page conventions that have often defined comicbooks shows in Suicide Forest.

The beautiful cover of Suicide Forest

The beautiful cover of Suicide Forest

Taking cues from the theater tradition of the single room setting meeting horror à la Paranormal Activity, Suicide Forest starts and ends in a child’s bedroom. Each page presents half of the bedroom, giving plenty of space to examine each action and every detail. As you turn each page, a new action, large or small, occurs, and with each turn, you notice a new detail that you missed on the previous page. The plot of Suicide Forest is simple, and some may argue its plot devices are derivative of horror cinema; but, its elegance comes from its execution.

On what looks like any normal night in American suburbia, a child sleeps in her bed. We see her hugging a teddy bear fast asleep with a full moon casting a soft light in the room through a window. The room has various pictures and toys surrounding a bed with built-in drawers (remember the popularity of those beds in the 90s?); it is a standard child’s room you would see in the idyllic suburbs. Everything looks calm, but of course, we know that something will change.

Within a matter of a four pages, we see a thin, hunched, masked figure, dragging a baseball bat and walking in the hallway, all through the doorway of the bedroom. Quickly, sounds of a struggle flow into the tranquil room, and after seeing/hearing the sounds, we see a fight between a mother and the figure occurring.

We as the audience see most of the major action for Suicide Forest through the door, which acts not only as peephole for us to see sequences through but also as an entry point where a terrifying outside world not too far away will invade and conquer the child’s room. Consequently, as we anticipate the action that will come through the door, we also feel this enormous dread about what we will see with each page turn, and this desire to see what happens while being concerned that what comes next will be something unpleasant is the strength of Baker and Goux’s technique. The thin, hollow-faced man has changed the lives of the family forever in a matter of small moments, and even though he never steps into the room, we know that all innocence has been lost.

The moon does not change. The Sailor Moon sketchbook does not change. The toys in the basket stay unmoved. But, we know that life for the child and for the entire family will forever be haunted by the man and his actions in their house, and as a result, the house itself, the inanimate setting will disturb them as well.

When you see the masked man in Suicide Forest, you will immediately think of Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween, but do not be fooled by the character similarities (though you could argue that the experiments in perspective in the two make them closer), Suicide Forest shares more with Richard McGuire’s Here than it does with Halloween. Like Here, Suicide Forest uses the fixed, one room setting technique to elicit not only emotion out of the plot and the page changes but also an overall viewer experience. In Suicide Forest, you watch the actions ensue as if you were standing in the corner of the room, and as a result, you feel the impact of every step, every scream, and every word.

Though I personally would have liked Suicide Forest to be longer because the visual technique is one I would have loved to spend more time with, the graphic novel accomplishes what it intends to achieve with a supremely minimalist approach. Suicide Forest strikes quickly, just like its antagonist, the masked man who you fear to see in your doorway.

Suicide Forest is independently published by Dave Baker and Nicole Goux; it can be purchased here

Failure, Success, and Life in Turkey: Özge Samanci’s Dare to Disappoint

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When Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis reached worldwide audiences, the book legitimized the graphic novel form as a medium for nonfiction, personal perspectives on historical events. With Persepolis, Satrapi materialized a subject we would expect more in literature than in cartooning, opening the floodgates for other autobiographical stories to emerge in graphic novels and to be taken with seriousness and read by audiences inside and outside of the comicbook world. But, despite this climate ripe for more “serious” graphic novels, few other autobiographical stories have received such broad appeal and even fewer have given glimpses into historical topics and cultural traditions bypassed by western media and schools.

Thankfully, within the last year, multiple graphic novels have risen to carry on the flame of history based stories told through a relatable narrator. Sonny Liew’s outstanding 2016 novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, employs a fictional memoir to recount an unbiased view of the modern history of Singapore, and Özge Samanci’s 2015 release, Dare to Disappoint, gives us insight into the cultural and political of landscape of Turkey during civil war, martial law, and afterward.  

When you open Dare to Disappoint, you may have the temptation to draw parallels between Samanci’s work and the seminal Persepolis, but let me prevent you from doing so. Do both document the effects of cultural and political turmoil on a person? Yes. Can both books be classified as a Bildungsroman for women? Yes. Do both look at the Islamic fundamentalism? Yes. Are both autobiographical? Yes.

The two books have a substantial amount of content in common, but Dare to Disappoint has four factors that distinguish it from Persepolis: its tone, its visual style, its setting, and its narrator’s journey of maturation. Consequently, silence any initial instincts to dismiss Dare to Disappoint as a Persepolis wannabe because if you do not, you will miss out on an intimate view into Turkey in the 1980s and an encouraging tale for adolescents to think for oneself.

Cover for the light-hearted and relevant Dare to Disappoint

In Dare to Disappoint, Samanci captures the familial and societal pressures for professional success in a culturally repressed world and how all of those forces can influence and shape growth from childhood to adulthood. In under 200 pages, we see Samanci transform herself based on her desire to please various people in her life. Her teacher, Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, her father, and her sister all impact Samanci’s decisions throughout childhood and adolescence; the satisfaction of others takes first priority during these formative years. Even though Samanci has a wildness in her spirit that stems from her mother’s side, she mostly represses her desires to see the world and sea like her idol Jacques Cousteau and to work in the arts. As a result, by the time Samanci prepares to attend the same prestigious college as her sister, she has little self-confidence and possesses almost no understanding for what she really wants in life.

After continuing to follow the standards of others into adulthood, Samanci finds herself with a math degree she has taken too long to complete and a failed attempt to get a drama degree. Doing what will garner oohs and ahhs from neighbors and extended family has led her to failure in multiple ways, and ultimately, no one is happy, especially Samanci herself. Fortunately, failure tends to awaken a person, and by the end of Dare to Disappoint, Samanci finally realizes that thinking for herself has more value than her current course of conforming to the expectations of others; even though making her own decisions may lead to failure and disappointment, the disappointment in herself weighs heavier than the disappointment of others, especially since they will most likely be disappointed regardless, which she sees through everyone’s disappointment in Pelin, Samanci’s sister who graduates with a praised degree in engineering from the best school in Turkey but does not succeed in the field and works instead in a bank.  

As Samanci progresses, we see the changes happening to the Turkish political and cultural climate woven into the story of growth. Samanci’s observations on the severity of Turkish government on the daily lives of the nation’s citizens grow in depth and acuteness as she develops, and through these comments, we receive a perspective into Turkish history delivered without an overburdening omniscient narrator or a cold, sterile textbook presentation. This personal approach makes the understanding of Turkish history richer and more enjoyable. Occasionally, Samanci’s visual and tonal playfulness borders on the edge of too light, making the illustration of some moments in Turkish history feel far too jovial to be considered as an example of irony (one glaring case is the silliness of the drawings of the killings of the civil war between the liberal left and conservative right and the resulting military coup), but overall, the style effectively conveys the self-effacing nature of Samanci’s reflection on her own life.

With its vivid and lively visual style that mixes cartooning and artwork synthesized from images of real objects, Dare to Disappoint will appeal the most to teenagers, but it also has value for adults in its perspective on Turkish history. If you look at Dare to Disappoint and expect to find Persepolis, you will not get what you hope for, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Samunci’s Dare to Disappoint centers itself more on the road to failure via the desires of others and the realization of this truth, making Samanci’s path to adulthood far different from that of the strong-willed and impassioned Satrapi. Both novels inspire; both inform; both offer complex views into cultural and political change. They just take different paths to get to their final messages of enlightenment.

Created by Özge Samanci, Dare to Disappoint is available via Margaret Ferguson Books.

The Distance of California in Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying

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When completing Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, only one word could describe my first reaction: distance. When reading Killing and Dying, you always feel like an outsider looking into the world of the people in the six stories. You never feel close to the characters, and the visual style has a sterile perfection to it that reinforces this sense of distance. Reality inspires the world of the graphic novel, but a genericness to the scenery makes every setting seem like a faceless suburb somewhere in California, giving way to a coldness in the delivery of each story.

However, this distance is not a bad thing, and it makes plenty of sense when you live here.

Yes, I’m late to this renowned graphic novel of last fall, but after living in California for a year, the atmosphere of the book makes more sense now than it would have in October 2015. This state has an abundance of beauty in it, and it still has an undercurrent of untamed energy that you can trace back to the wild west of the past, but California, despite the sun, mountains, trees, and ocean, has this palpable sadness to it. Maybe it comes from the lost hope from dreams that never came true or maybe from the interactions that never happen because so many spend a large percentage of time in their cars, making a sense of community feel far away, but regardless of the reason, this dourness lies just under the topsoil that sees the frequent sun. This gloom manifests itself in many ways, and one of them emerges in distance between people.

Adrian Tomine perfectly captures this sullen mood of life in California with his stories in Killing and Dying. Similar in its construction and tone to Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, but with desperation and sadness stemming from a different place than the return of Hong Kong to China, each story has similar elements of compulsion and absurdity stemming from miscommunication or misinterpretation by people and their actions.

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The Cover for Killing and Dying with a composite of California and a Denny’s from Pasadena

 

In “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’Harold, a gardener, finds inspiration in the thoughts and work of Isamu Noguchi and begins a new creative enterprise, which he terms as “Hortisculpture.” Part formal sculpture, part horticulture, Harold’s art fuels a passion in him for his work, and this passion develops into obsession as his Hortisculptures fail to attract the attention and capital of his gardening clients, his colleagues, and his own family. The Hortisculpture fixation lasts six years, and it consumes his existence and tears up his family. In a state historically looked at as a beacon of opportunity, Harold’s story resembles that of every actor, actress, technologist, and inventor whose creations and work fail to gain the attention of people, making it an excellent opening story to set the tone of the book. He gives everything to his creativity, but it goes nowhere and takes him far too long to realize when his artistic dreams need to be placed on a hiatus.

In the title bearing story, the daughter in a family wants to test out comedy as a potential for a career. The mother offers unbounded support and gives the daughter the opportunity to try out this creative outlet, and the father, the pragmatist, offers his skeptical opinions. As we see the daughter’s development and failures in comedy, we also see how the mother’s illness shapes the father’s bitterness, the daughter’s fearlessness, and the mother’s optimism. The strongest of the six stories included in the graphic novel, “Killing and Dying,” condenses killing in a comedic sense, dying of embarrassment, dying of humiliation, and death into a quiet story constructed entirely from conversations and comedic performances, good and bad. The dream to become an entertainer makes “Killing and Dying” a California-centric story, and its disappointments coming from failures and life further place the story here.

Killing and Dying closes with “Intruders,” hearkening again to Wong Kar-wai, but this time, to the film Chungking Express. In between tours, a man returns to his home city. Unwelcome by his family and lacking a permanent home, he establishes a base camp in a hotel room, waiting to travel again. During this period, he gets the keys to his old apartment from a young woman who once house sat for him, and he begins to live in the apartment in the hours that the current tenant leaves it for work. Like “Killing and Dying,” “Intruders” toys with multiple interpretations of the term intruder, and it concisely sums up the book, for by the end, you also feel like you have intruded on the lives of all of the people in the stories, and as a result, you will most likely have one of two reactions. You may want to start narrowing this separation from others, or you may want to make it larger and only view people and places through your windshield.

Killing and Dying has received adulations from the literary and alternative comics world, and that praise is well deserved. Tomine understands the motivations, disappointment, and derailment of people, and he discusses them with minimalism and detachment that draws empathy without pathos, allowing you to see the underlying sadness of the setting, which exactly feels like modern day California.

California is a place where people can become larger than life. California is a place where people can fall far from grace. California is a place where finding your own identity and understanding yourself feels far harder than anywhere else because others always feel far away physically and emotionally, and Killing and Dying examines this distance and resulting melancholy with a sharp eye and efficient tongue, reminding all that not everything is golden on the edge of the Pacific.  

Killing and Dying is written and illustrated by Adrian Tomine and is available via Drawn & Quarterly. 

Patience: Daniel Clowes’s Foray Into a More Whimsical and More Inane Territory

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If you’ve read my reviews in the past or spoken with me in person about comicbooks, then you most likely know that when it comes to Daniel Clowes’s work, I have never been able to take a final stand on whether or not I like his comics. Though Eightball as a complete series ranks high in my favorite comics of all time, I really dislike Ghost World, which debuted in Eightball. Clowes’s cynicism and ability to navigate the line between absurdity and reality always motivate me to take a look at anything he creates, but sometimes, he soaks so much contempt for humanity into the pages that I have to stop reading because as much as humans can cause frustration, pain, and anger, I myself cannot look at humanity with such bitterness and despise. I’m sure that says something about my character, but regardless, that optimism despite disappointment in humans (be it foolish or not) modulates my attraction or repulsion to any of Daniel Clowes’s work.

However, those sentiments apply only to creations before Patience, Clowes’s most recent book, which arrived in March of this year. Patience explores the all consuming power of love on the space-time continuum and presents a very different Daniel Clowes to his readership. Sprinkles of skepticism and wit garnish Patience, but overall, the book has a far more introspective tone. Clowes’s visual art stands tall here; in 2016, he has achieved his best artwork to date. His storytelling has more balance than ever, and his writing has a surprising and impressive fluidity.

Sadly, as much as Patience attests to Clowes’s continued growth in skill as a cartoonist, it simultaneously exposes the loss of boldness and subversiveness in his voice as a creator.

The cover of Patience shows us a brighter Daniel Clowes

The cover of Patience gives us a brighter Daniel Clowes

Jack Barlow has little in this world beyond his wife Patience. Immediately, when the book opens, we learn, along with the couple, that Patience is pregnant. Jack responds with joy, and Patience responds with happiness but with hesitance. The two love each other, but they may not have a stable income to support their child, which worries Patience. What initially looks like a projected concern for Patience emerges as an actual problem when the readers see Jack going to work, not at a desk, which Patience believes is the case, but at a sidewalk where he hands out flyers. Jack, aware of the multiple responsibilities of parenthood, also worries about his work situation and for that reason has avoided telling Patience about what he actually does to pay the bills, but everything changes on the night that Jack raises enough gumption to tell Patience the truth.

Upon returning to their apartment after work, Jack finds Patience dead. Someone killed her, but no clear suspect stands out. Jack conducts his own investigations for years but without any success. Time passes, and we meet Jack again in 2029 as a middle aged man. Patience still plagues his mind 17 years after her passing, and her unsolved murder haunts him, preventing him from moving forward with anything in his life.

After getting kicked out of his local watering hole, Jack prevents a woman from getting beaten by her boyfriend, and the two spend the evening talking. The girl turns out to be a prostitute and offers Jack a go for his help, but given his grief, he cannot handle such intimacy. Instead, they continue to talk, and the girl mentions how one of her clients has a time machine. Though Jack does not initially believe that the time machine exists, it is his only hope in trying to understand Patience’s death, and so he tracks down the man with the time travel abilities, and he manages to step back in time and into Patience’s life before him.

In his explorations into the past, Jack witnesses the events of Patience’s unspoken life history. The desire to prevent Patience’s murder drives every move he makes, but Jack also uses the time traveling as an opportunity to protect her in moments of sadness and pain that she had hidden from him, which weaves his middle-aged future self into her timeline into the future. Interference with the past usually changes the future, but oddly enough the steps Jack makes in Patience’s past do not drastically change the course of her life, and he eventually gets the chance to prevent her death.

Here, Patience proceeds in its ending toward the sanguine, a term I would not have expected to use when reviewing a Clowes book. Without getting into full details of the end, as the book closes, Jack describes the importance of every event in his and Patience’s life and in the universe at large, and this conveys a level of hubris that would warrant a torrential downpour and flooding from the gods. Every moment to Jack only begins to matter after he’s gone back and changed the course of time, and as he travels back and changes time, he even begins to think that his future self was meant to be part of the past, an arrogant and myopic viewpoint. All parts of life matter to Jack only when he finally gets his way, and this is an offensively bourgeois mindset because time and the world move beyond our minuscule existences, and who are we to determine what matters or not. If everything matters, then Patience’s original death had meaning to it, and claiming that the death occurs because Jack needs to travel back in time to prevent it and to learn more about Patience renders her death into more of a plot device, which is completely fine if the story aimed to simply be entertaining like Time After Timebut Patience culminates in a philosophical statement that only selectively applies to the book itself.

With his closing statement on life and the universe in Patience, Clowes almost seems to apologize for his previous contempt toward the world, but the apology comes from a place I find more offensive than misanthropy: arrogance. In 2016, Clowes is a highly accomplished author who can really do anything he wants. He has a son, even though he claimed he had enormous doubts about fatherhood. Life for Clowes has turned out extremely well, and now, the contempt of his earliest work disappears into a grandiose statement about meaning in life. Sure, we cannot all live in angst for all of our lives, but Patience ultimately feels like a book created out of  comfort, out of a bourgeois belief that one can control everything and that if we want something to happen, it will.

Patience perfectly positions itself with the indie rock, creative class Generation X members who seemingly have their lives under control and think that they can bypass death with children, finance, exercise, and organic juice. Maybe I’m too young for this and have a streak of nihilism in me that drives me in my mid-20s, but I just cannot agree with the perspective of Patience, and I hope I never will.

 

 

The City Troll: Not Quite Whit Stillman, Not Quite Jeffrey Brown

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After a bit of a hiatus from the blog due to a surge of event reporting, interviews, work, regular life, and the facelift of this site (we have our own domain now!), we’re finally back. During the past few months, I’ve picked up plenty of comicbooks and graphic novels, and they have piled up waiting for review. In the spirit of the content I post here, I figured the return should be a selection from the underground, and after a debate, I grabbed Aaron Whitaker’s The City Troll, a graphic novel I picked up at the hectic but fruitful LA Zine Fest 2016.

From start to finish, there is nothing entirely original about The City Troll, yet it managed to have this peculiarly engaging rhythm and momentum that kept me reading. After spending a few days ruminating on how to describe the novel, I finally realized why I continued to care about the characters in The City Troll: they vaguely remind of characters in Whit Stillman’s films.

Stillman’s characters tend to be criticized for their unrealistic dialog, but regardless of how you feel about the formalist and dialectic nature of the characters’ speech, the best Stillman characters capture the dysfunction and hypocrisy of young bourgeoisie adults trying to understand their own lives. Whitaker’s main characters, Ian and Paul similarly represent the modern young bourgeoisie with their actions and reactions to the various parts of life, and as a result, even though I cannot necessarily agree with the trajectories that they take, they do reflect the nebulous lines between morality, loyalty, and love that exist in our post-internet times. Thus, Ian and Paul probably resemble more of the leads of a Mumblecore film, and Whitaker does allude to this similarity to the indie talkie genre in the formation of Paul’s ideal love, but Whit sets the gold standard of conversation-focused films on young people, so I had his work most in mind as I read The City Troll.

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Cover for Whitaker’s debut graphic novel

Ian is a perfect being with one exception: his sad-sack, pathetic, self-loathing friend Paul. The two come as a package, so they both move in tandem, for better or for worse. Ian always falls in love, and Paul always pines for love, creating the foundation for an eventual disaster from conflicts between jealousy and loyalty. Amazingly, the two are in their late 20s, and a meltdown has yet to occur, but that entirely changes when Emily enters both men’s lives at separate moments. Ian completely falls for Emily and wants to spend his life with her, but Paul also believes that Emily is the long awaited girl of his fantasies. Ian, as expected, makes the first move, but Paul sneaks himself in between the two, forming a classic love triangle. The battle for Emily’s attention and love follows the course you would expect from all love triangles, making this narrative center the weakest part of the book, since you can predict the entire course that it will take between Ian and Emily, Paul and Emily, and of course, Ian and Paul.

If the core frame of the book fails, then why did I feel compelled to read The City Troll further? The answer: for Paul’s interactions with his father.

Paul struggles with his verbally abusive mother, and we see a few glimpses into that battle, but his relationship with his father is a loving one, even though the two very clearly do not understand each other, especially given that his father has met a hippie woman named Understanding who drastically changes his father’s lifestyle. As Understanding begins to play a larger role in Paul’s family life, we begin to see more of Paul’s evil alter ego, the City Troll, who survives on Paul’s own inability to handle any change and aims to destroy in order to feel satisfied.

This interaction with his father gives us the deepest insight into Paul, and the exchanges between father and son feel the most honest, uncomfortable, and relatable. Given his strained relationship with his mother, it is of no surprise that Paul struggles with the opposite sex, but how he finds shelter in non-romantic relationships with other males creates a far denser premise. Unfortunately, Whitaker focuses on the dysfunction with women through the trite device of a love triangle, pushing the relationships with Ian and the father to the side when they have the most substance to form a stronger narrative. But, tidbits of the father-son bond and the friendship with Ian do remain in The City Troll, and they encourage you to continue on to see what happens to Paul, even if the relationship with Emily feels far too cliché.

As a first graphic novel, The City Troll is unspectacular, but it is not awful. Constructed from Whitaker’s own screenplay, the book’s strongest asset comes from its deliberate yet empathetic conversations between characters, and the weakest comes from the romantic parts, which, sadly, are the most marketable in the film world. Alas, graphic novels and comicbooks do not require as much return on investment as a film does, so marketability should take lower priority than character development and investigation, but the need for a profit in the screenplay rears its head into the graphic novel creation. The City Troll shows that the comicbook medium could work for Whitaker, but he may need a little less American arthouse cinema in his work and more Clumsy era Jeffrey Brown.

The City Troll is written and illustrated by Aaron Whitaker. It is a self-published work. 

 

Giallos and Expressionism in a Family Drama: Sarah Horrocks’s The Leopard

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With a new year always comes new goals. We have whirred past a month and a half of 2016, and this year, I am committed to digging deeper into the physical and digital shelves of the comics world to find the unexpected. As a result, I’ll try my best to veer away from the major independent publishers here on this blog, with the exception of works that I just cannot pass up, in the hopes of excavating works that strive for something bolder, be it by a visual style, a narrative structure, or a subject.

In this quest, after a bit of searching, I’m happy to present a review for Sarah Horrocks’s The Leopard.

Alluring Cover for Volume 1 of The Leopard

Sure, a cover never tells a full story, but sometimes a cover strikes you and forces you to peek inside. After spending a couple of hours searching through various online comics providers only to find too many recycled genre motifs and archetypes (vampires are over, zombies are fading, time travel is an overused method of transportation across story arcs…), I saw the cover for volume two of The Leopard and a description which included the term “giallo”and was instantly intrigued.

From a premise perspective, nothing in the basic plot of The Leopard is out of the ordinary. The matriarch of a wealthy family lies on her deathbed, and her offspring return to their childhood home to determine the fate of the family’s riches. As expected, the children despise each other, united only in their hate for their mother and their thirst for fortune, and consequently, when all of the siblings must remain in the same place for more than an hour, nothing good will come from the bonding time. The warring wealthy family is not a foreign theme in media; from Antigone to Dallas to You’re Next, family members have battled and killed each other over inheritances and power for thousands of years, regardless of changes in society, so the family of The Leopard does not experience an unfamiliar conflict to any reader; however, the art and the development of the different characters involved distinguish The Leopard from other family dramas and horror stories, creating a visually fascinating and psychedelic mystery that pays homage to Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Andrzej Żuławski along with, of course, Luchino Visconti and his film that shares the same name as this series.

Given the clear inspiration from three filmmakers with outstanding and unique visual styles, Horrocks, like the three mentioned above, persistently experiments with the visual style on her medium. Every page of the the first three volumes of The Leopard presents something surprising, and while some ideas work better than others, every single page demands extra study and admiration. In The Leopard, you will find piercing color combinations, collage, and even some radial paneling, all of which help to create an appropriately ominous and disorienting mood for the sinister deeds on the horizon. While at points, the art may exceed the complexity of the story, it never takes over and makes The Leopard just a collection of artwork; every visual detail has a role in conveying the motivations and personas of each character, and this is the strongest feature of Horrocks’s style as a creator.

One of my favorite pages of giallo-inspired artwork from The Leopard (page from Volume 2)

To emphasize themes and ideas in horror, The Leopard and the comics paired with each volume have rich references to brilliant works and iconic images for any cineaste. Horrocks alludes to the in-shower eye gouging of Fulci’s Zombi, Isabelle Adjani’s disconcerting lovemaking with a tentacled creature in Żuławski’s Posession, and the ballet school of Argento’s Suspiria in her work here, conveying her own inspiration in visual storytelling and connecting the reader to the tones and moods of these works. While I was excited to see any reference to Żuławski, these specific allusions somewhat hurt the success of the comics. Horrocks already has her own strong style that blends influences from giallo, horror, and experimental film, so the inclusion of nearly exact ideas from the works that inspire her as allusions or homage distract your focus from the characters, the story, and the artwork of the comics because you leave Horrocks’s world that she has meticulously created to think about the work of other creators that are somewhat but not entirely connected to The Leopard

While The Leopard absolutely contains deeply embedded cues from cinema in its storytelling, the overall aesthetic of the series has a starkness and grotesque nature much like the artists of the Die Brücke group. The sharp color combinations of the pages form images that are unified but also jarring, severe, and fantastic, much like the work of Kirschner. And in a similar stylistic vein, the family members have exaggerated forms that make them appear more like demons than people, which, based on their personas as the series progresses, makes sense, for none of their ugliness lies internally; the hideousness presents its plumage on the faces and figures of the characters and reinforces the incorporation of German Expressionist visual concepts.

With such a distinctive combination of styles, Horrocks proves her awareness in her own work in addition to her unconventional (by comics standards, at least) sources of inspiration. In turn, The Leopard aims for far more than your traditional comic, and though at times, the influences slightly overwhelm the series (after all, it’s a great challenge to incorporate stalwarts of Western art and cinema), all of the diligence to create a new and daring comics reading experience shows itself on the pages.

Currently only available in digital format, this is one of the first digital comics I really wished I had in print, and for that statement alone, The Leopard should be on your reading list as soon as possible; I suspect Horrocks will have even more to admire and astonish in future volumes, and you will want to be there for the extravaganza.

The Leopard is written and illustrated by Sarah Horrocks. It is available via Gumroad here

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. 

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.