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. 

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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.

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.

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. 

A Journey into Adulthood With Witches and Haints: Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s Harrow County

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Supernatural creatures seem to dominate media attention in cycles. In a matter of 5 years, we’ve seen vampires return to vogue with an oversaturation of vampire themed TV, books, and films that made the blood-sucking motif transition into the trendy and then the passé. At the moment, the zombie craze may just reach a similar oversaturation line, forcing the subgenre to also begin to lose its steam, which means that a new supernatural horror creature can take over. Will we see a return of the werewolf next? Or Frankenstein? If comics continue to influence TV and film and vice versa, then I suspect the new supernatural fixture to capture the terror of the  public will be…witches.

Witches? Is there anything new to add to the mythology? Haven’t witches remained in our collective imaginations for hundreds of years? While witches never really disappeared from the horror genre over the years, the last time I can recall witches in the foreground of public attention is in the 1990s, and those witches tended to be more of the sillier, more kid-friendly kind (think Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hocus Pocus, Halloween Town, and late night episodes of Bewitched on Nick at Nite). Based on the enormous success of Scott Snyder’s Wytches, it looks like the cute witches of the 90s are getting a makeover, one that brings them closer to the primordial connection of witches to the earth and to evil.

Taking a similar approach with the grim, eerie witches of Snyder’s creation, Cullen Bunn, the mind behind the magnificent Western series, Sixth Gun, creates Harrow County, the fictional setting that gives the the series its name and the place destined to feel the influence of Hester, a witch who once healed the citizens of the area with her powers but eventually succumbed to the evil around her and in her inherent power. Though the residents of Harrow County killed Hester, her connection to the earth allows her to live on, particularly through her ability to create humans from elements of the earth, and to carry on her own spirit, she has created Emmy, a child born from a tree. While everyone in Harrow knows about Emmy’s non-human origins, she does not, and on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, when dreams become strange and people begin to gather in the night, Emmy and her powers begin to awaken.

Cover for Harrow Country Volume One: Countless Haints

As with any strong horror work, the horror here represents something more universal; in Harrow County, Emmy’s discovery of her power and her attempt to wrangle its darkness symbolize a less supernatural experience almost all of us go through: growth into adulthood. For Emmy, adulthood not only means learning more about life away from the farm she knows but also learning about the forest, all of the Haints (ghosts of wandering spirits who cannot seem to leave the world) who wander there, and the graveness of her powers. Emmy’s struggle to understand the internal and external ambiguities between good and evil in her world exaggerate the belief formation process we experience as we develop as adults and begin to understand that good and evil can be relative rather than exact.

Consequently, while Harrow County certainly exists as a work of the horror genre, it is ultimately a coming of age tale. As a result, the core plot of the series focusing on Emmy’s growth and conflict does not contribute anything particularly groundbreaking and is a tiny bit stale. However, Tyler Crook’s artwork and Cullen Bunn’s imagination for the creatures Emmy encounters strengthens Harrow County and pulls it up from falling into being yet another alternative form of the bildungsroman. In Harrow County, there are uniquely creepy ideas and images. From glowing skeleton ghosts to multi-eyed creatures that look like minotaurs crossed with Giger’s Aliens to a decrepit tree with jaws and crooked teeth to a little boy who can shed his skin and use it as a communication device while the rest of his body travels elsewhere and reports back on any impending danger, the creepy crawlies of Harrow County are the reason to return to this series. Bunn’s ideas for characters capture your fear and dread, and Crook’s illustrations colored with loose and haunting watercolors make them just real enough to be believable but also loose enough to be almost mythical and archetypal.

Emmy discovering the boy whose skin can speak about what his flesh sees

The first volume of Harrow County, Countless Haints, includes character development sketches as well as the original prose chapters for the story, which Bunn originally intended to publish in parts online. These materials provide an insight into Crook and Bunn’s collaboration and their thought process in creating a complex setting, making the first volume a fun first read but also an enjoyable re-read after getting a better sense of the creators’ thoughts on the world they have created. For someone taking a beginner’s step into contemporary horror comics, Harrow County Countless Haints is a strong candidate as a starter book; it has a balance of horror and non-horror concepts, providing some chills but with the familiarity of a coming of age drama.      

Though I prefer Snyder’s take on the witch, Bunn and Crook have undoubtedly created a fascinating, unsettling, and scary world in Harrow County that I hope will get further incorporated into the plot as the series progresses. After the first four issues, Harrow County has promise, but I would like to see it steer away from familiar journey to adulthood devices and move toward exploring the combination of its environmental and external horror with psychological internal horror for Emmy, which will take her character on more uncharted paths. Regardless, if my prediction comes true that witches will soon dominate our television sets and movie screens, I will look forward to seeing a version of Harrow County beyond comicbook pages.

Harrow County Volume One: Countless Haints collects issues 1-4 of the series, which is written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Tyler Crook. It is available now via Dark Horse Comics. 

 

Taking Cues from Steinbeck and the Bible: Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s Two Brothers, an Adaptation of Milton Hatoum’s Dois Irmãos

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In recent years, the graphic novel has emerged as an alternative medium for literary adaptations. From the writings of Victor Hugo to Edgar Allen Poe, graphic novel writers and artists have begun to dissect and reimagine famous Western literary works into word bubbles and panels of illustration. Generally, I avoid such adaptations (there’s something a bit disorienting about the idea of reading The Black Cat in comicbook panels), but sometimes, when the adaptation is placed in capable hands, a gem can emerge, one that not only has a distinct style of its own but also pays respect to the source material in a way that encourages the readers to delve further into the origin of the adaptation; this is the case with Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s Two Brothers.

Cover for Two Brothers, released in October 2015

Adapted from Milton Hatoum’s celebrated novel, Dois Irmãos, released in Brazil in 2000 and translated into English in 2002, Two Brothers opens with the images of an industrialized town center before abruptly transitioning to the haunting, decayed remains of a once glorious European style manor in the Brazilian town of Manaus. Immediately, the narrator, once intimate with the family that lived in the home but not necessarily a member himself, prepares you for a tale of the rivalry between two twin brothers and their disastrous consequences on the people and the world around them. From the start, you know that Two Brothers will follow the course of Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, but Hatoum’s tale travels to the bowels of uncertain morality as foreign investment and industrialization creep into Manaus, eliminating its quaint history as a quiet port town and the people tied to the city’s former heart.

While Two Brothers certainly alludes to the biblical battle between brothers, it most resembles Steinbeck’s approach to the adaptation of Cain and Abel in the early 20th century in East of Eden. Like Cal and Aron, Omar and Yaqub are twins, with Omar possessing a darker complexion and more sinister in nature like Cal and Yaqub possessing a kinder heart and an affinity for education like Aron. Zana, the twins’ mother, fixates on Omar, a sick and weak infant who required more care as a baby. Omar continues to devour Zana’s affection and attention throughout his growth, and as a result of his mother’s incessant doting, Omar never seeks to accomplish anything because, after all, he will always stand as his mother’s favorite, guaranteeing him a home for the rest of his life or at least as long as his mother is alive.  

The same cannot be said for Yaqub. As the more accomplished and kinder son, Yaqub must fend off most of the world himself. Zana abandoned Yaqub as an infant, leaving him primarily in the care of Domingas, an orphan given to Zana and Halim as a servant for their home, and this first act bears course on Yaqub’s status in his home for the rest of his life. When an adolescent Omar slices Yaqub’s face open with a broken bottle upon seeing Yaqub with Lívia, a girl both brothers have tried to pursue, Zana and Halim send Yaqub away to Lebanon in the guise of allowing him to learn more about his family’s roots, but in such an act, they cast away their first born son, placing him on a course of aloofness and solidifying the contempt between the two brothers and Yaqub’s conviction to establish himself without the aid of his family.

For the first half of the book, Omar emerges as the obvious antagonist in Two Brothers, but by the end, it is difficult to determine whether Omar or Yaqub possesses more evil. While Omar outwardly displays his jealousy toward his brother as Yaqub succeeds as an engineer in Rio de Janeiro, Yaqub quietly holds his spite and acts on it in a more backhanded and manipulative manner. Though Omar has the darker complexion, Yaqub has a permanent scar on his face, a mark which can parallel the mark placed on Cain after he murders Abel. Both brothers have inherent malice and malevolence, but they choose to act on it differently. Omar conveys his evil in the sense of an irresponsible child; he’s hedonistic, violent, lazy, and outrageously selfish. Yaqub’s evil manifests in a more covert manner; he’s a vengeful industrialist determined to wipe away the history of the town and members of his family who made him a pariah. Which is worse?  

To contrast the graveness of the tale of Omar and Yaqub’s destructive relationship, Moon and (twin brothers who we imagine have a far better standing with each other) illustrate Two Brothers with a deceiving simplicity and lightness. The wilderness surrounding the family home has a certain whimsy to it, and the fading of this magical sense of the jungle into decay then manicured, superficial gardens of a parody of the Orient on the edges of the Amazon jungle best conveys the changing face of Brazil in the years after World War II. The shifts in the settings along with the physical appearance of the characters help to tie each character to a certain place and time and aid us in understanding why as time passes, certain types of people rise as others fall depending on their connection and adaptation to the evolution of society.

Though the story of Omar and Yaqub dominate the plot because their actions influence all of the peripheral plotlines and the future of the town of Manaus, Two Brothers, at its core, addresses and explores the psychological motivations of individual family members and how their differing states lead each to interact differently with each other. While Omar and Yaqub do possess inherent evil, the expression of this evil comes from the environment that their parents created in the family home. Halim, the patriarch of the family, never wanted to have a family, and as a result, he keeps a specific distance from his family that prevents him from being a strong parent. Zana displaces her original passion for her husband on her son Omar, alienating the rest of her family. As a result of the psychological states of Zana and Halim, we spend the rest of the Two Brothers studying their impact on their sons and anyone else who crosses the threshold to enter the family home, adding a richness to the story that keeps you engaged with every character and page.

Fábio Moon and Gabriel handle the adaptation of a novel containing severe ideas and concepts with poise and grace, making Two Brothers a captivating and enlightening but never heavy-handed read. They manage to extract the fundamentals of the book without overly simplifying its themes, and in doing so, have me interested in picking up and visiting Hatoum’s original novel, which is a result that every adaptation should try to achieve.

After reading Two Brothers, I realize that I perhaps have been too judgemental against graphic novel adaptations of literature. Admittedly, I have avoided the adaptations of works by literary authors I adore, so perhaps I read Two Brothers simply because I have no familiarity with the original work. Thus, my opinion may change after reading Hatoum’s Dois Irmãos, but I can say that a standalone piece, Two Brothers, balances layers of complexity in a graphic novel in a way that few other releases have this year, and for that, it should be commended regardless of its relationship to its source material.

Two Brothers by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá is available via Dark Horse ComicsIt’s a heck of a gift for any graphic novel enthusiast this Christmas. 

Wilfrid Lupano and Jérémie Moreau’s The Hartlepool Monkey: A Microcosm of England and France’s Ugly Past

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After reading Wilfrid Lupano and Jérémie Moreau’s The Hartlepool Monkey, I began to prepare myself for giving, at best, a lukewarm review for the book. At face value, I found the monkey trial of espionage on behalf France and consequent hanging by a group of townies in Hartlepool to be a bit of a heavy handed metaphor in combination with the final discourse and cautionary message about the effects of severe xenophobia. In fact, immediately after my first read, I felt that The Hartlepool Monkey possessed the satire sensibilities of Voltaire’s Candide but diluted with a few buckets of distilled water.

But, everything changed when I delved into the cultural history of the legend of the Hartlepool monkey. Sure, the back cover alluded to the inspiration from the legend, but prior to reading the book, I had not realized the influence of the monkey across the course of time.

Cover for the English Edition of The Hartlepool Monkey

So at this point, you must be asking, what is the Hartlepool monkey legend? And what about it caused you to reverse your perspective of the work?

The legend/myth/tale of the Hartlepool monkey claims that during the Napoleonic Wars, when Napoleon attempted to extend his ruling domain across Europe, a French commercial ship crashed off the coast of Hartlepool, a small city on the eastern coast of England. It is believed that the only survivor was a monkey, most likely some type of chimpanzee, and given that the denizens of the town had never interacted with any citizen of France, they believed that the monkey was in fact a spy for France. The legend then claims that the town gave the monkey a trial, and as expected , they found the creature guilty of espionage and lynched it on the beach (how could a monkey proclaim its innocence in the first place?).

Though the exact origins and the truth of the tale remain somewhat contentious, Hartlepool has continued to embrace the story, so much so that the city’s soccer club’s mascot is H’Angus the Monkey. And as if the impact of the tale could not get more absurd, the man who dressed up as H’Angus for Hartlepool F.C. became the mayor of Hartlepool in 2002, serving the town for ten years until the city decided to eliminate the role of mayor in favor of a ruling local committee. With absurd and macabre origins, the legacy of the Hartlepool monkey got even more bizarre in modern times.

Given the generally positive perspective of the myth of the monkey hanging in Hartlepool, it makes sense that Moreau and Lupano would want to revitalize the story with a focus on its outrageousness and absurdity. The skeleton of the story focuses on the Hartlepool monkey, and the flesh focuses on building the mannerisms and cultural practices of the people of the setting. Unlike in the original myth and the song popularized by Ned Corvan in the 1800s, The Hartlepool Monkey contains a voice of reason whose thoughts weave through the tragedy of the monkey. A doctor, whose carriage fails on a trip, stops into Hartlepool and offers a more modern perspective on human brutality and xenophobia. However, it becomes clear that his perspective is out of place, and as thus, the course of events of the legend will have to occur.

While most of the narrative focuses on Hartlepool’s rogues, who Moreau illustrates to their utmost grisliness, Lupano prefaces all of the events in Hartlepool with a sequence that casts light on the overall ugliness of the people of the time. The Hartlepool Monkey opens up on the decks of the French vessel that crashed, where the captain himself proves to be as ignorant and vulgar as the Hartlepudlians to come. As a former slave trader turned navy man, the captain reigns over his ship with a reverse direction xenophobic severity as the Hartlepool yokels. In foreshadowing the idiocy ahead, the captain sentences a French servant boy to death when he sings a sea shanty and mentions that his nanny was English. Though the tale of the Hartlepool monkey certainly exposes a dark truth about the town, the actions of the French navy on the ships do not make the French citizens more sympathetic than the Hartlepudlians. In this period, France hates England; England hates France, and both act stupidly and violently out of their hatred.

With the contrasting settings on the boat and in Hartlepool, Lupano conveys the overall heinousness committed by humans, regardless of nationality, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, which is by far the strongest part of the novel. Sadly, it stands in the shadow of the doctor’s more philosophical statements and eventual closing speech on the brutality of man in the name of patriotism, which the book could do without, for we as readers should be able to infer such a message from the story. But, I’ll pardon these more dogmatic and heavy-handed panels, since after all, perhaps we need a more explicit reiteration of the learnings from the tale of the Hartlepool monkey, since a slightly disconcerting pride in the tale continues to exists nearly two centuries later.

The Hartlepool Monkey is written by Wilfrid Lupano and illustrated by Jérémie Moreau. The English edition is available via Knockabout.

A Tale of Parenting Beneath a Vietnam Veteran and Werewolf Tale: Brian Buccellato’s Foster

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A devilish cold has been rampaging through the Fierro house, and in the midst of our cough syrup and cold medicine stupor, I rummaged through a couple of stacks of recent comicbook purchases looking for this week’s review piece. After recent convention visits and trips to our local comic book shops, the “to read” pile is steadily getting out of hand. Consequently, I completely forgot about the volume of Brian Buccellato’s Foster that was hiding underneath a copy of Will Eisner’s To the Heart of the Storm (on the to read list…) until I pulled apart the precarious stack of books above our modest comicbook shelf.

Cover for Foster Volume One

Truth be told, I probably never would have picked up Foster based on its cover. Upon opening up the collection, it is evident that Foster wants to eat, breathe, and consume the 70s of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and James Toback’s Fingers, but the cover gives off more of a Rambo with a hint of werewolf scent. Thankfully, the psudo-script opening written by Robert Place Napton describing or pondering on Buccellato’s origins lured me in and opened the curtain for the character of Eddie Foster and the setting of Vintage City, a future wasteland and composite of America’s major cities in the 1970s.

Buccellato’s first full-creator controlled series, Foster, exists in 6 issues that trace the first arc for Eddie Foster. A Vietnam War veteran, Eddie struggles to re-adapt into society. We know he saw ghastly things and committed the same in Vietnam, and as a result of his sins and those of others, Eddie cannot function as a husband, father, or working man. Instead, he remains in a haze of depression and alcoholism, languishing in the ruins of his past and present.

Adapted to the wreckage of his current state, Eddie attempts to rise above, but he lacks a clear reason to live. Redemption may be something he craves, but he is so mired in his regrets that he is unaware of it. That is, until, one day, his next door neighbor’s son, Ben, appears to be orphaned by his dysfunctional mom, and Eddie Foster must serve as his guardian, caretaker, and protector in the days to come.

In parallel to Eddie Foster’s chance to redeem himself as a father, the leader of the Dwellers has returned to Vintage City, and he wants his son back to become the heir of the Dweller kingdom. Part ape, part wolf, part human, the Dwellers lurk in the night, picking off the unnoticable of members of the city’s society. They quietly rule the underworld of Vintage City, and they are ready to emerge at the surface.

The Dwellers not only interest those fascinated with the supernatural beings of nightmares but also the geneticist Doctor Marjorie Fisher, who wants to learn more about the biology of the creatures. Consequently, Marjorie has had a few conversations with Ben’s mother, Trina, because Ben is not just the adorable six year old he appears to be. In fact, he may only be the only documented half-human, half-Dweller to exist.

Thus, the task of caring for Ben involves far more than just taking him to school, preparing his meals, and providing him with a place called home. Eddie must protect Ben from Dr. Fisher and the Dweller king, both who want him for their own motivations, and both who will prevent Ben from ever having any consent in the course of his future. So, despite the characters and plot which have hues of Vietnam Veteran, werewolf, and science fiction tales, Foster, at its core, explores the meaning of being a parent in a world in disrepair. Eddie, the Dweller king, and Dr. Fisher all represent different parental motivations with Eddie as the unlikely (and unconventional) but most supportive parent, the Dweller king as the genetically tied parent demanding filial loyalty, and Dr. Marjorie Fisher as the parent interested in studying and experimenting on her own child.

While the dialog does get a bit clumsy here and there, Foster, stands as an accomplished first full creator-owned work for Buccellato because his own battles with parenting ascend from the action sequences and the Dweller battles of the series, making Foster a far more introspective and ruminative work than it would seem on its action-packed surface. I am a firm believer in synchronicity, and it is of no surprise that reading Foster reminded me of a film we caught at AFI Fest 2015 and remains fresh in my mind, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan. Buccellato and Audiard have similar sensibilities in understanding the differences between genetic and constructed families, and both Dheepan and Foster involve war veterans on a track for redemption via the protection of their non-traditional families. In turn, both are able to balance an enormous amount of action with sympathy and emotion, creating a story that should not only pull in people attracted to explosions and gunfire but also those who prefer more conversationally based, pensive works.

And while I do emphasize that Foster at a superficial level looks like a comicbook inspired by a extravagant action films of the 70s and beyond, I must admit that I love Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort and Streets of Fire, both of which have covers and surfaces that do the same, so perhaps my appreciation of Foster is not such a surprise after all.   

Foster is written and colored by Brain Buccellato and drawn by Noel Tuazon. The first volume with the first six chapters/issues is available via OSSM Comics. 

Learning How to Create Comics With a Rabbit Samurai – Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: Samurai and Other Stories

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Given my natural affinity to Westerns, I am amazed that I have yet to dive to far into the samurai genre, the foundation for most of the tropes and themes in the Westerns I adore. With the variety of samurai adaptations seen over the years, I always wonder what each incarnation has to offer. Melville’s Le Samouraï placed the concept of the bushido code in 1960s France. In contrast, Kobayashi’s and Takeshi Miike’s versions of Harakiri remained true to the Edo period. Consequently, when I found the gallery edition of Usagi Yojimbo, I was curious to see the effect of anthropomorphism on the story of the traveling ronin.

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Cover for Gallery Edition Volume One of Usagi Yojimbo: Samurai and Other Stories

A series spanning over nearly three decades, Usagi Yojimbo follows Miyamoto Usagi, a former samurai whose lord died in battle. As a ronin (i.e. lordless samurai), Miyamoto wanders across Japan during the shifting Edo period, offering aid to towns in need and offering services as a yojimbo, a bodyguard. Unlike the images of samurai we know, Miyamoto is a rabbit, and his world involves other animals in the place of humans.

Certainly entertaining, Usagi Yojimbo has a far different tone than the standard samurai tale. Rather than using minimal and distant storytelling, Stan Sakai, the creator of the series, focuses on making Usagi Yojimbo more didactic. By using animals in the place of humans, Sakai invites younger audiences to read the stories, and by including explanations of core samurai concepts, Sakai also teaches readers about the fundamental basics of the samurai genre.

The early stories of Miyamoto included in the gallery edition, Usagi Yojimbo: Samurai and Other Stories, explore the bushido code in addition to human motivations, ranging from honor to guilt to greed. In sum, all of the stories focus on Miyamoto’s code of ethics in a changing world where the samurai has begun to face extinction. While less dire than Harakiri, the Japan of Miyamoto Usagi needs the original samurai code of ethics, but the people do not seem to realize it. Usagi Yojimbo teaches readers about the way of a righteous samurai in contrast to the ignoble ones he encounters as the feudal society around him begins to change.

Given its educational leanings, Usagi Yojimbo may be a bit frustrating for readers looking for a new perspective on the samurai. However, for what Usagi Yojimbo lacks in complexity, it makes up in charm. With the gallery edition, Sakai earnestly draws himself introducing the collection, and he even conveys how he creates each page of Usagi Yojimbo. Furthermore, the gallery edition includes re-prints of the original, unedited, Bristol artboards used for the collected stories, which span the first ten years of Miyamoto Usagi. Thus, as a collection, the gallery edition of Usagi Yojimbo not only teaches the audience about standard samurai motifs but also how to create a professional comic. In addition to explaining techniques at the beginning, the stories include imperfect pages with an occasional whiteout spot here or there, serving to remind and encourage any new or seasoned comic book artist or letterer to keep on practicing and creating.

Admittedly, if it were not for the gallery presentation of Usagi Yojimbo, I am not sure if I would have enjoyed the book as much. Miyamoto Usagi, the samurai rabbit, is an appealing character, but beyond his manifestation as an animal, he differs little from other ronins we’ve seen in samurai films and the various versions of ronin adapted over the years ranging from the man without a name to the rogue yukuza. Despite this, Sakai’s humble and welcoming introduction along with the large format pages make the book something special. You can study each line, each letter, each character and combine all of them to admire Sakai’s vibrant, kinetic visual style. Usagi Yojimbo: Samurai and Other Stories serves best as a comic book creator’s resource or as a gateway into the samurai genre for a new reader, but regardless of your understanding of samurai or comicbooks, you’ll still have fun seeing rabbits with top knots fight rhinos, moles, and cats and get excited to see the adorable tokage (lizards) that look like a cuddly cross between a brontosaurus and Al Capp’s Schmoo; I know I certainly did.

Usagi Yojimbo: Samurai and Other Stories by Stan Sakai is available via Dark Horse.