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


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.

CityTrollCover (2)

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. 


Jeffrey Brown’s Robot Slapstick: Incredible Change-Bots


I spend quite a bit of time reading graphic novels with some commentary on life experiences, philosophical concepts, or traditional genres and cultural motifs. However, more often than not, I love a good, silly yet clever work of comedy. And, there is no better comedic graphic novel creator than Mr. Jeffrey Brown.

For this week’s review, I’m reaching a little further back in time for a series of Brown’s that deserves some attention, particularly after the string of Transformers films; that is the Incredible Change-Bots.

Cover for Incredible Change-Bots


Released in August 2007, right after the release of the Michael Bay all flash re-vamp of the Transformers series, Incredible Change-Bots parodies the Transformers world of robot heroism. The change-bots live on Electranocybercircuitron in the midst of a War of the Roses a la robot, where the two leading tribes, the Awesomebots and the Fantasticons, battle for control over the planet they inhabit. Despite all efforts to succeed over the other tribe, both end at a stalemate and manage to destroy the planet they spent time and energy fighting over.

The two enter a shaky truce and decide to head to another planet, but, alas, their futile feud reappears on their spaceship in transit, and the whole group ends up landing on Earth after a few haphazard laser shots at each other. After their landing, the Awesomebots and Fantasticons reinitiate their war, but this time with human beings on each side. The two forces endlessly fight, and in the war on Earth, Brown introduces lots of jeering stabs at the plot “twists” we see from miles away in action and superhero films until the two forces, to yet again, lead to another robot war stalemate.

There is little to be said about the intellectual properties of Incredible Change-Bots beyond its warping and distortion of common superhero motifs. Ultimately, both the Awesomebots and Fantasticons are led by incompetent alpha-male type characters, which carries most of the comedy of the book. Brown’s re-envisioning of the Transformers’ Autobots and Decepticons as bumbling, clumsy, and myopic egoists delivers plenty of inappropriate laughs because these change-bots have no redeeming qualities to them and from their incompetence comes many moments of awkwardness, discomfort, and hilariousness.

Acutely honing in on all of the plot devices used in superhero movies to appeal to general audiences ranging from the peripheral love story to the interior betrayal to the hidden familial tie between enemies, Brown irresponsibly and cleverly uses the same plot conventions to turn the Transformers series into a complete and utter spectacle and debacle. But, in its comedic and absurdist approach, there is something oddly very human about the Incredible Change-Bots, for the change-bots act so badly because they possess more human foibles than any hero or protagonist in any superhero story. As a result, the change-bots stand less like the pinnacles of human virtue and more like robot versions of the Three Stooges.

As with most Jeffrey Brown novels, his comedy lies in the dialog, and the same goes for Incredible Change-Bots. The change-bots insult each other, comment on their own robot characteristics, and expel the best onomatopoeia when they transform from cars to standing robots. In addition, with every action each change-bot takes and every word spoken, you get a sense that Jeffrey Brown took a look at each item he encountered in the Transformers series and asked himself, “How could I make this both more absurd and realistic?”

With summer always bringing about superhero blockbusters (which do occasionally carry their own entertainment value), do check out the Incredible Change-Bots in parallel to that next outrageous super action film you see. It’s certainly a graphic novel challenging the motifs attractive to the summer superhero audience, but it will have you endlessly laughing and then cringing at the thought that you invested time into the fantasy of any of the films of the Transformers series or really any superhero series in the first place.

I’d love to think of a universe where Jeffrey Brown wrote all screenplays; it would be a world with fewer car chases and explosions and many more honest yet never caustic comments on the ridiculousness of the things that tend to capture our collective attention.

Incredible Change-Bots One and Two are available via Top Shelf Productions.