Reviews January 2011 week one

The Lodger (£14-99, KSA) by Karl Stevens.

From the creator of WHATEVER which impressed me and Tom no end, a second instalment of autobiographical episodes and full-colour paintings. But this is autobiography the likes of which you have never before experienced in comics.

If I may indulge in a sweeping generalisation, autobiography in comics tends to be the province either of the fragile sketch-cartoonist fretting over the frustrations of our quotidian existence (girls, shop assistants, being a shop assistant), or those bringing something big to the table in the form of social history, geo-politics, medical issues etc. I love both. And of course that’s a load of old rubbish: comics is far too individualistic a medium for a whole genre’s worth of creators to be so crudely pigeon-holed. But you’ve got to start somewhere and I use it to emphasise how different Karl is.

For a start, he’s got a pretty cushy set-up here, lodging with his former fine art tutor, his wife, daughter, dog and being force-fed pancakes for breakfast before walking the beagle in beautiful parkland often with his beautiful girlfriend. Other girls pose for him, happily, naked. He has no difficulty in dealing with the world around him nor its inhabitants. Yet these are indeed tales of the everyday, mischievously mixed for maximum self-mockery, published each week in the local Phoenix… and rendered in a delicate cross-hatched, photo-realism that’s occasionally in colour. Here’s the dog, Cookie, first and last, staring at Karl eating on the bare floorboards:

“What if when we die we get re-incarnated as ourselves again? We just keep living the same life over and over. But say the mistakes we make won’t necessarily be the ones we made in the previous life though. Free will is still a factor…”
“Hey. Cookie’s freaking me out.”
“She just wants your plate.”
“sigh.”

He’s young, comfortable, talented and funny. Tom Spurgeon writes, “I think the thing I like best about Stevens is I have no idea what he’ll be doing five years from now”. I do hope that it’s comics, though I suspect otherwise. Did I mention he was a painter? That’s not a photographic cover.

LINK

SLH

Sleepyheads (£13-99, Blank Slate) by Randall Casaer.

“Do you think it’s because we don’t understand any of it… or because there’s nothing to understand?”

Rule Number One: never ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to.

Perfectly delightful journey-in-dream full of all the weird scene shifts, strange logics and transmogrifications that can take you so easily from a submarine bullied by sperm whales into floating vertically then sinking without trace, to a Portuguese whaler and thence desert isle. Unlike Phillipe Dupuy’s HAUNTED, however, I didn’t sense anything lurking beneath the surface and wish it hadn’t even tried because my hackles rose whenever it did.

“You want to say your hand starts at your wrist… But you bite your tongue because you know the next question. Where does the wrist start?”

My wrist starts at the bottom of my hand. Life can be a two-way system like that. Americans living on the Pacific coast will find the East to their West.

“Frustrating, isn’t it?”

No.

“Shhh… Let it go. Look carefully: THERE IS NO BOUNDARY. Boundaries are tricks of the mind. You create them yourself.”

You jump over that cliff, then.

“You think something can’t exist until you’ve bound it in a word.”

That was a non-sequitur if ever I read one. Bollocks too: you don’t come up with a name like an Aye Aye until you’ve established that the scruffy little lemur exists.

“There is but a blurry line between wakefulness and sleep.”

Now there, under some circumstances, I’ll grant you one. A guy in my year at school called Emir was prone to somnambulism. Unfortunately he only discovered that one evening after he leapt through a dormitory window on the second floor and onto the asphalt below. Unfortunately he woke up just as he leapt; fortunately by the time he’d hit the tarmac he’d dozed off again. He then proceeded to sleepwalk round to the eight-foot link fence and climbed over it into the courtyard. With a broken arm. I think he then tapped on a prefect’s downstairs window and, covered in blood, scared the living shit out of him. Emir slept on the ground floor after that.

Then there are those dreams you wake up from only to wake up from them again and again because you never woke up from them in the first place. Or waking to find your house being demolished, only to realise as you come fully round that it’s merely the dustmen. With a wrecking ball.

On the whole, however, “Life is but a dream” is the most lamentably, culpably irresponsible lyric ever composed, for to confuse the two is to ensure that your dreams stand no chance at all of coming true.

Maybe that’s why the woman on the cover, who never gets a word in edgeways over her companion’s pontification within, is looking so wide-eyed with trauma: she’s had to endure so many pages of cod-philosophy. Maybe that is the whole point in which case brilliant: a charming meander through the mysteries of the mind as played out in dreams, none of which will you understand for there is nothing here to comprehend except that life is not a dream. If you ever make the mistake of confusing the two, then please: wake the fuck up.

SLH

A Single Match h/c (£18-99, Drawn & Quarterly) by Oji Suzuki.

“Walk between rain drops and you stay dry.”

Over two hundred and fifty pages of black and white brooding, always at night, often in the rain and while wandering around the Japanese countryside. But please be advised (I think ‘warned’ may be too loaded), this is not Taniguchi. The environments here are to be endured, not enjoyed, whilst the paths taken are often arduous, ill-lit and devoid of signposts. Such is one outlook on life.

“Everyone called Kyoto a halfwit. ‘Street-Lamp Kyoto’ – they called her that sometimes, too.
“She lived with an old cat in a small, three-mat room behind the Southern Elementary School. She got by on the little money she received from the town hall and on leftover lunches from the school kitchen.
“As those old people – once found in any town – had done before her… she became a shadow lingering on the side of the mountain.”

The use of the word ‘lingering’ is devastating, for Highway Town is an eloquent evocation of an old age whose sole purpose now rests in recalling what came before, and sadly what didn’t. It’s also the most traditional and coherent narrative in a book whose stories are meandering and their meanings oblique, peppered as they are only by the sparsest of impressions in the way that the mind does indeed ramble, but they do give up their secrets after several considerations, in part if not in whole.

Overwhelmingly this is a book of memories; of loneliness, isolation, loss, fear, sacrifice and regrets. Childhood features prominently, its early impulses or obsessions occasionally contrasted with the practical responsibilities of being a providing adult, even if those responsibilities are consciously rejected by the compulsive gambler at the expense of feeding his family or boozed away blithely in spite of a young soul waiting up at night.

Nor is it easy on the eye, being raw and scratchy, but Suzuki’s ability to lead the eye down the roads ahead and into the next shadowy terrain beyond is undeniable. Lay this book open on almost any page and you will see one, two, or even three of those paths curving round a corner, snaking over the next hill or sweeping off into a fog-shrouded harbour.

Haunting, even harrowing, with many more clouds than silver linings, I don’t think it’s the work of someone fixated on a glass half-empty. I think it’s the work of someone who acknowledges that for some the glass was drained a long time ago, then left unwashed in the middle of the room.

LINK

SLH

Stop Bullying Me! (£9-99, June) by Natsuho Shino.

Yaoi of such an innocent bent here that racking it up with our Hot Boy-on-Boy Action would be mis-selling it by a mile. Nor is there any bullying in spite of Tomo’s constant protestations. Instead he’s being teased by his older brother’s best mate Izumi because Tomo has the most insatiable crush on said older brother Ei, following him everywhere like a star-struck groupie. So that’s… weird. Then Tomo and Izumi then fall for each other at which point Ei grows jealous, not of his younger brother Tomo, but of his best mate receiving all the attention from his younger brother which he was happily revelling in himself. There’s a bizarre scene in which Ei catches his younger brother romantically stuffing his mate with sushi and demands the same treatment.

“Will you feed me, Tomo?”
“Yes! [HEART] Of course! [HEART]”

Throughout it’s referred to a ‘brother complex’. So that’s all right then.

The book is backed up by Please Keep It A Secret in which two childhood friends bump into each other years after they’d last laid hands – sorry, eyes – upon each other.

“Listen! Don’t talk about our past to anyone, all right?!”
“Our… past?”
“The stuff we did as kids, moron!! (It’s too embarrassing to mention.)”

He’s not David Heatley, then.*

*See MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN – ed.

LINK

SLH

Edible Secrets: A Food Tour Of Classified U.S. History (£7-50, Microcosm) by Mia Partlow, Michael Hoerger & Nate Powell.

“The Jell-O Box was the only piece of material evidence presented by the prosecution, and it, of course, was fabricated.”

In 1953 Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for conspiring to commit espionage. They confessed to nothing before, after nor during the trial, which must go down as one of the most arduously coached yet unconvincing performances until Jedward’s Oops, I Did It Again on X-Factor.* Jedward, it should be noted, weren’t actually executed for that crime even though there was plenty of evidence and more than a few eye-witnesses.

The first thing I should make clear is that this isn’t comics. This is political agitation illustrated by Nate Powell (SWALLOW ME WHOLE, PLEASE RELEASE and SOUNDS OF YOUR NAME) with the same sort of wit which TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN MAGAZINE mustered when reviewing the Top Ten Wars of all time, effectively reminding you what a lying piece of shit the FBI has been when framing individuals in order to discredit movements or scare the crap out of its citizens. The above was a Cold War Red Scare, whereas the first section exposes the extent to which the Black Panther Party was harassed, undermined and thwarted in its attempts to activate, educate, organise or even feed its fellow citizens by setting up the likes of Fred Hampton then finally throwing in the towel and simply bumping him off. Fred Hampson, you see, didn’t have a criminal record. They needed him to have one in order to get him into the system, and so created a scenario whereby he could be imprisoned for stealing $71 worth of ice cream from an ice cream lorry, which isn’t that easy while mowing your lawn at the same time.

Further chapters explore the attempts on Fidel Castro’s life using milkshakes, a brief history of subliminal messages, mind-control drugs tested by the CIA, and the Coca-Colonization of the world. They’re aided by documents original classified but now partially revealed, and the most compelling argument in each of these cases is that their targets have such unlimited resources to sue the authors right out of the water should any of their facts prove wrong. No movement yet…

*There was a recent poster campaign for travel tickets featuring the Jedward twins, one of whom was shown wearing an ear stud. “Identical,” it declared. “But this one’s cheaper”. I’m still rather fond of that.

SLH

Batman: The Dark Knight #1 (£2-99, DC) by David Finch.

Written and drawn by the exceptional superhero artist on Bendis’ NEW AVENGERS and the recent Morrison one-shot BATMAN: THE RETURN, I can’t actually think of a single thing that distinguishes this from any other Batman story other than the art. Which is exceptional.

Other than that a girl from Bruce’s parentally present past, sullen yet impetuous (capricious, then) is kidnapped and Batman follows the clues from one heavy-hitter to another. Maybe it’ll be like Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s BATMAN: HUSH, then: a console-game plot with a level-end boss at the end of each.

SLH

Sleeper: Season Two (£18-99, Wildstorm/DC) by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips.

Had this in since 2009 but the review never found its way to our site, sorry. Probably won’t be many reviews this week (Christmas/New Year etc.) so here you go!

Hair-tearingly tense undercover espionage thriller deftly conducted by the creators of CRIMINAL, which doesn’t just avoid the pothole cop-outs of most superhero tales when it comes to crime and consequence, it pole-vaults over them and plunges the protagonist into a world where there’s no soothing alternative to ruthless expediency.

Holden Carver went deep undercover just as his boss went deep into a coma. Unfortunately a) the cover in question is hired thuggery for a ruthless powerbroker with a brain sharper than a meat slicer, b) his old boss at the agency was the only one who knew so c) there’s no one around to extract him. With no light at the end of the tunnel (that doesn’t turn out to be a train) Carver’s just got to carry out the missions for the slime he now works for without completely killing his conscience or the friends who think he’s defected. Not a lot of options there. How many innocents can Holden kill before the total begins to chime with his moral concept of “too many”? And how long can he keep this up before his new boss discovers the truth, Carver gives up completely or – worse still – throws in with the other side?

By this final train-wreck of a conclusion, Carver’s boss has emerged from his coma, Tao’s figured out the identity of his mole, but Miss Misery (for whom happiness is a life-threatening disease) hasn’t yet revealed where her loyalties really lie. It’s a battle of wits and nerve for all the warring factions, with one final chess piece coming into play from the pages of SLEEPER’s prologue, POINT BLANK (best read afterwards), and the ending… the ending is so, so clever and really rather apposite if you consider the comic’s title.

Brubaker excels where lesser writers would leave us with more monochromatic characters: Holden Carver, undercover amongst the world’s most dangerous criminals, actually makes friends with some of them. He can’t help himself. They spend time at the bar together, they watch each others’ backs in the firing line and, hell, the man has a sex drive. What’s he going to do about it, other than sleep with the enemy? Now, there was an accident several years ago that left Carver incapable of feeling pain. Instead he stores it up to inflict it on others. Miss Misery, on the other hand, discovered some time back that if she didn’t inflict pain she would fall ill and die. Before each mission, therefore, she charges up by dishing it out but she cannot allow herself to fall in love, and if she does, it’s a matter of practical survival to cause pain to the object of her affection by being unfaithful. And that’s the sort of pain Holden can feel. Isn’t that fucked up?

This is less about superpowers than about espionage, cunning and deceit, but every so often Ed provides little origins – parodies of standard superhero fare – to lighten the predominantly pitch-black tone, as characters reveal their past to their mates over drinks. Here’s Claudia talking about herself in the third person singular:

“All right, so where was I?”
“In High School.”
“Right, okay, so… in High School, Claudia was the girl all the gay boys came out to. (“– And no one knows, not my mom. No way about my dad, he’d kill me.”) She wasn’t gay herself, but she had always enjoyed the company of fags, the queenie-er the better, really. (“I was all snap! get out of my face, bitch, and he was all –“) They were funnier than most of the girls she knew, didn’t want to have sex with her, and rarely got jealous when she made out with some guy at a party. And so her early High School nickname was Faghag. Now one of her friends, one of the less queenie ones, was also a bit of a science geek, and one day she attended a demonstration with him. This kid was the most picked-on guy ever. Not only was he a nerd, but he was also openly gay, in a day where that really wasn’t accepted at school. So, at the demonstration, some jocks started pushing him, and accidentally shoved him right into the beam of this interspatial particle accelerator, and everything went crazy. Her poor friend was irradiated or something. She never understood exactly what happened. But in his dying moment, as he flailed for life, his teeth ripped right into her neck.”
“Wait. You were bitten by a radioactive homo –?”
“Can I please tell the story my way?”
“Oh, you go, girl…”

You’ll just have to pick up the book to find out the second half of that origin!
The art is shrouded throughout in a dangerous twilight, where neither you nor Carver can be sure who’s lurking round the corner, and delivers this second half’s climax with a relentless passion and rarely matched fluidity. Deliciously nasty.

LINK

SLH

And, strangely enough, the following until now contained my review of IDENTITY CRISIS!

Kingdom Come: Absolute Edition (£49-99, DC) by Mark Waid & Alex Ross.

Armageddon Days Are Here Again…

One of the first signs of real literacy that now hits the DC Universe with a little more regularity, this has so far been the work of Waid’s career, on another level entirely from anything I’ve read from him before or since. Set far enough in the future that Bruce Wayne has a silver mane and even Superman’s going grey (Wonderwoman is almost exactly as she is now, but with a sturdier frame), it begins when everything’s gone horribly wrong, and ends after it gets far, far worse.

The new generation of superheroes aren’t as altruistic or restrained as their predecessors – something that Superman cannot abide, will not condone and so wants no part of. But after living in self-imposed exile for so long, he’s joined by his peers in a terrifying final conflict with the more reckless upstarts, and you just know that there are some more familiar, positively malicious hands pulling strings from afar. What they do to poor Billy Batson is horrible, and what Captain Marvel (his superhuman counterpart) is capable of doing to Superman will have your jaw on the floor. I can promise you total carnage on an epic scale, and lots of grey to muddy the old black and white outlook about what is right and what is wrong and what may be some mistakes, like the gulag they set up.

Speaking of epic scale, have you seen the size of these slipcased Absolute Editions? If you thought Alex Ross’s paintings were magnificent before, they really benefit from this sort of reproduction, and you’ll be aghast at the level of detail that could almost use further enlargement. Where Ross stood out from most painters stodging their way through page after page of comicbook art, is the light. Not since Muth had there been such translucency: in spite of the level of detail I never thought the images overworked. The other thing about these editions is the tonnage of extras. Here each page is fully annotated in the back, there are sketches with commentary (dozens of pages), variant paintings from various productions and tie-ins, a who’s who and family tree, and although I think 99% of this was available with the original, limited, double hardcover slipcased edition (I haven’t had time to compare and contrast – we keep selling out of this!), if you didn’t pick that one up, this is very good value for money. If you can’t afford it, rest assured that we have the softcover version in stock at all times, which compared to most others is bafflingly good value for money!

LINK

SLH

Also arrived:

Gente: The People Of Restaurante Paradiso vol 2 (£9-99, Viz) by Natsume Ono
House Of Five Leaves vol 2 (£9-99, Viz) by Natsume Ono
Thunderbolts: Siege s/c (£11-99, Marvel) by Jeff Parker & Miguel Sepulveda, Wellinton Alves

–  A bit pathetic, I know! Basically, Diamond only discovered at the last minute that their current courier was refusing to deliver anything between Christmas and New Year, so gamely expedited as much as they had in the warehouse. Better than nowt, eh?

 

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