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

Standard

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.

 

 

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

Standard

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.

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

Standard

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 Bear, Purple Hair, and a New Home: Robert Goodin’s The Kurdles

Standard

After reading Robert Goodin’s The Man Who Loved Breasts, which contained three comics with its humor slightly in the vein of Robert Crumb’s Snatch but with far more restraint and less genitalia, I did not know what to expect from Goodin’s first book, The Kurdles, a story with a tale and accompanying illustrations aimed toward children. However, when looking at the large album format and watercolor pages of the book, I knew I was in far different territory from the black and white clever and perverse pages of The Man Who Loved Breasts. And in addition to the different formats, the mostly non-human cast of characters of The Kurdles, led by a Snuggle-like, adorable bear, prepared me for a tale with just as much fun but far more innocence.

Cover for The Kurdles

The fundamental plot of The Kurdles is a simple one. Unwanted by her owner, Sally the bear gets lost in the forest where she meets Dog, Hank the miniature unicorn, Pentapus the five-legged color changing creature, and Phineas the little scarecrow. The group promises to help Sally return to the road to find her home, but only after they handle the disease plaguing their home. Consequently, Sally must return with the crew to their house, sick with a peculiar disease where purple hair grows and envelops it.

As the hair devours more and more of Hank, Pentapus, Phineas, and Dog’s home, it develops eyes, becomes a creature of its own, and begins to sing sea shanties, creating more urgency to find a cure in order to not only save the group from homelessness but also from insanity induced by the purple haired monster’s perpetual drunken songs. Consequently, Sally, originally a bystander, must jump into the mission to cure the house of the purple malady in order to try to make it back to her home. But instead of winding back up on the road in search of her owners who dismissed her, in the course of searching for a treatment and eventually creating and applying a yellow-green concoction to the house, Sally finds out the real meaning of the words home and family in the company of Dog, Hank, Pentapus, and Phineas.

Similar to other children’s tales of getting lost and finding a new home, The Kurdles distinguishes itself with a charming, inviting, and imaginative world and set of characters. While Sally is undoubtedly cute, so much so that you want to jump into the panels and give her a hug, Pentapus, Hank, and Phineas capture most of your attention. Pentapus’s color changes, sneezes and congested speech remind me of a goofier version of my childhood self in the midst of springtime allergies. Hank, the confident and somewhat temperamental unicorn, delivers some of the funniest insults, mumbles, and observations. And to temper the differences in personas between Pentapus and Hank, we have Phineas, the moderate, patient, and somewhat paternal of the bunch, who manages to keeps a level head throughout the course of the battle against the purple growth and leads the effort to take back the home.

With The Kurdles, Goodin makes a strong showing in his first venture into the children’s book arena. The sweet yet never sentimental plot influences the lovely artwork and vice versa, creating a complete work that will engage not only children but also adults. The setting and the characters are drawn and colored with the softness of Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear sprinkled with a touch of Dr. Seuss’s playfulness, humor, and imagination, taking you back to your own time of wide-eyed adventures and awe stemming from your own mental, magical creations. I look forward to seeing Goodin further develop children’s books, especially with further deviations away from traditional children’s storybook conventions and plots and more injections of his absurdist sense of humor and understanding of the oddities of the world as featured in The Man Who Loved Breasts

A nice, short escape from reality, The Kurdles accomplishes the balance of light and dark concepts to elicit sadness, sympathy, and joy, teaching children about the emotional spectrum ranging from despair to hope and reminding jaded adults of the same and all because of purple hair and inebriated sailors’ sea songs.

The Kurdles by Robert Goodin is available now via Fantagraphics Books. 

Changes Forced by the Loony Family Reunion in Bottomless Belly Button

Standard

A little over two months ago, I ranted and raved about Dash Shaw’s 3 New Stories. Excited by his experimental approach to graphic novel/comic book illustration and storytelling techniques, I have looked forward to the opportunity to explore more of the Shaw catalog.

Bottomless Belly Button back cover, spine, and front cover

On the surface, Bottomless Belly Button, a novel conceived from 2005 to 2007, looks like a conventional family drama. Upon the decision to divorce after forty years of marriage, the elders of the Loony family, David and Maggie, call their children and their respective families to the Loony headquarters (a beach house on a mysteriously desolate strip of sand) to break the news to everyone. As expected with any sort of major change, each member of the Loony family reacts in distinctive ways based on individual age and experience.

Dennis, the eldest brother, launches into a full adult tantrum and hysteria, determined to get an answer to why his parents decided to split. As the next-in-line head patriarch, Dennis feels a responsibility to understand his parents split and to try his best to keep the Loony family somewhat together by getting a reasonable answer. Accompanied on this trip by his wife, Aki, and son, Alex, Dennis unfortunately abandons them more and more as he delves deeper and deeper into his investigation of his parents’ relationship history and trajectory from the beginning up to the present.

On the other hand, Claire, the middle sister, remains unflinched. As a divorcee herself, marriage dissolution does not phase her; however, this indifference may stem from her current difficulty in returning to a romantic life and inability to release some residual feelings for her artist ex-husband. In addition, Claire must raise her awkward adolescent daughter, Jill, who also arrived with her mother for the family reunion before family disbanding. On the Loony beach, Claire and Jill both attempt to better understand themselves and escape their current situations, steering their focus away from Grandpa and Grandma Loony’s divorce.

Peter, the youngest of the Loony children, displays the least amount of distress of all. As the youngest and the outcast of the family (with his isolation exacerbated by Shaw’s illustration of Peter as a young man with a frog head), Peter has never felt any serious emotional connection to his family. His distance is further highlighted by the blueprints of the Loony beach house, showing how Peter’s room stands as the only room on the fourth floor of the house, far away from the rooms of his family and any communal rooms. As a failing filmmaker at the age of 26 whose inability to relate to his family transferred to a general inability to interact with other people with any modicum of social grace, Peter reacts to the divorce of his parents like a stranger invited to a family dinner where the uncomfortable news is released.

Consequently, Peter wanders, as usual, on his own course. Peter walks the beach with his kid niece Jill and eventually meets Kat, a girl who Jill bullies him to speak to. As his parents’ marriage ends, Peter begins a flourishing new relationship with Kat, a beach camp counselor who may be far younger than he is. Peter and Kat’s relationship has some truly awkward moments because of Peter’s inexperience, but their growth towards each other serves as a strong foil against the disintegration of David and Maggie Loony’s marriage.

Again, from what has been described, Bottomless Belly Button seems like a standard relationship drama for a white, middle to upper-middle class family. What I have yet to mention, though, is the presence of some undescribed, unidentified supernatural force that carries through the narrative, gradually smoothing away tensions, fears, and hatred. As Bottomless Belly Button progresses, every member of the Loony family reaches a level of acceptance of their situation; the Loony parents’ break up galvanizes a period of growth for all members of the family, and this mysterious force of nature or force of calm, be it from a deity or from elsewhere, pushes each Loony member onto a track that forces each person to experience something new and also reflect on past actions, allowing each member by the end of the book to have the resolution to return to their separate lives with a new perspective and a better ability to care and support the people in their lives.

Beyond the strength of the core narrative, what really makes Bottomless Belly Button special is its ability to weave in artifacts of each character into the story, ranging from childhood pictures to love letters between David and Maggie to even a review of Peter’s failed film. By entangling these seemingly trivial pieces of memories, Shaw immerses the reader into the characters, allowing us to understand the motivations and the full perspective of each person at the beginning of the visit, which then allows us to compare the shifts in demeanor and viewpoints by the end. Further supported by some brilliantly expressive, yet simple illustrations, Bottomless Belly Button sets a consistent tone and mood that pulls the reader into the full world of the Loony’s, making the reading of the somewhat intimidating 720 pages feel like a drive where the end is unknown, but there is a general synchrony with the surroundings that forces you to pull your eyes away from the clock and speedometer, causing you to release your thoughts and engross yourself in the small microcosm currently existing around you.

Loony Family Pictures found in Dennis’s search for answers

Bottomless Belly Button, despite its many quirks, is overall a serene and meditative work. It reminds the readers of the different stages of life in which we can attain further development and how that growth impacts the people in our lives. Though not a read for children (as the spine of the novel warns), Bottomless Belly Button is a graphic novel that should be handed to any person currently approaching a major shift in their lifestyle or in their perspective of the world.

Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw is available via Fantagraphics Books.