Monday, February 23, 2009

Comics Recently Read

I’ve been writing about books on this blog as a way of encouraging myself to cut down on the number of unread books in my apartment. Thus far I've been making slow progress, being somewhat hampered by my habit of taking out books from my local library. But never mind that. The point is, because of this plan, I’ve so far written only about books, not music or movies or other media. But I do have a few quick thoughts on some graphic novels (or as we used to call them, comic books) I’ve read lately, so why not try a quick change-up?

Start of Darkness
by Rich Burlew

This is a spin-off from the popular web comic Order of the Stick, which follows a group of characters adventuring in a world that operates according to the rules of a game bearing a staggering resemblance to one iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. The trick is that the characters know that they’re in a game-world — manipulating rules, pausing fights to argue about interpretations, that sort of thing. It might sound facile, but Order of the Stick makes the concept work. It works because the characters come alive, and because Burlew has a wicked sense of comic timing — although maybe ‘comic layout’ is the more accurate phrase, since we’re talking about comics as a form. The point is: he’s funny.

While the online strip is free, this trade paperback isn’t. It’s all material which hasn’t appeared on-line, one of two such spin-offs (there are several collections of the web-comics as well). This one gives readers the backstories of some of the villains of the piece. It’s an occasionally brutal book, but then Order of the Stick has never been afraid to be cynical. It’s clever, and what’s more, it’s morally consistent. Funny, yes, but funny in the way the best of Terry Pratchett’s humour works — it gets at a larger point. The character work is often touching, and the ending, with one character firmly subjugating another, suitably crushing. Good work.

by Scott McCloud

This is a thick volume reprinting issues 11 through 36 of Scott McCloud’s comic Zot!, originally published from 1987 through 1991. It’s some strong material, though I think the decision to omit the first ten issues was ultimately a mistake. Those issues were in colour, while the reprinted work was originally (as it is now) in black-and-white; but they were perhaps more of a piece with the rest of the work than McCloud realised, introducing characters and setting up certain givens of the series. In those issues, Jenny, a girl from our earth, travelled to the futuristic utopia of 1965, where science had eliminated poverty and disease, and where the greatest problems the world faced were the many super-villains which plagued it — but who were themselves inevitably defeated by the heroic teenager called Zot. 

The first ten issues of the series introduced Zot and his villains; the next twenty-six issues contrasted that world with this one, with our world becoming increasingly prominent. McCloud’s interest is clearly in the interaction of his real-world characters, with the issues and complexities of their daily life. He makes it work, but it’s Zot who makes the stories live — he’s what makes the series unique, what gives it its voice. The presence of the larger-than-life metaphor transforms the stories, and lends them a unique sense of scale. McCloud expresses some doubt about the use of the super-hero figure in his commentary on the series, but in fact it’s that element of unreality that makes the “real world” of the series cohere. And without the first ten issues, the collection seems weirdly unbalanced; we don’t have the greatest sense of the contrast between Zot’s world and Jenny’s, we don’t really know the givens by which Zot operates.

Technically, McCloud’s craft is superb, as you’d expect from the man who literally wrote (and drew) the book on the subject of the comics form. His art is pretty to look at his, his stories are structured effectively, and the storytelling gives his material pointed shape. It’s strong material; I wish McCloud was less self-conscious, less Puritanical, about the element of fantasy within it.

Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel

Subtitled “a family tragicomic”, this book is Bechdel’s autobiography and also a meditation on family. It’s interesting, and deftly done. Bechdel’s questioning of gender identity and self-identification as a lesbian is balanced by descriptions of incidents from her youth and her father’s inability to explore his own sexuality. Constant literary allusions help sustain and structure the book, giving Bechdel’s story resonance beyond her own individual experience.

It’s an effective book on a number of levels. The storytelling is strong, and Bechdel’s art is both expressive and realistic — she captures a number of different eras very successfully. I found her language occasionally strained, especially when she reaches for a particular literary connection, but also often quite moving. Crucially, Bechdel understands that autobiography needs a shape to be understood; she’s found a good shape here, borrowing from a number of key texts. Still, one comes away with a touch of regret that the glimpses we get of the journal she kept when she was an adolescent has to be put in context by her adult self; there’s a liveliness to some of the entries, a window onto a developing sensibility that’s quite charming — but then, of course, the realisation hits that the sensibility in question has come to fruition in this book.

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard
by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best

This is a remarkably strange book about a not-very-good circus acrobat who has a series of improbable adventures ending in an equally-improbable apotheosis. It’s very amusing. Campbell’s humour is wry and absurd, recalling the Terry Gilliam of Time Bandits. This is a clever, fable-like, and touching work. 

It also, without making a big point of it, plays around with comics storytelling. Characters hold conversations in the gutters between panels, or fly through the air off the page and back on. Yet all these things seem natural. It matches the surrealism of the tale itself, which rambles here and there but somehow makes a consistent kind of right-brain sense. Campbell even plays around with his own history, as Inspector Abberline, the Scotland Yard detective who featured in From Hell (Campbell's collaboration with Alan Moore), turns up to investigate Leotard. This is a slight book, in many ways, as character ends up secondary to formal trickery, but worth reading nonetheless.

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