Monday, March 22, 2010

Comics/Fiction Review: Kim, Seth & Simon Kallan Deitch, Deitch's Pictorama

Kim Deitch and his brothers team up in an ostensible effort to combine comics and prose fiction into a new form. But apart from an elegant autobiographical piece by Kim, the book never really comes together--in terms of form or content.

Deitch's Pictorama, by Kim, Seth & Simon Kallan Deitch, is available for sale from Powell’s Books. Click here to order a copy.

The five stories in this collection of work by Kim Deitch and his brothers Simon and Seth aren’t comics; they are prose pieces that occasionally try to combine the two media. In his introduction, Kim writes that his ambition for the book was “to contribute toward a hybrid medium for graphic novels, better merging the written fiction and comics mediums.” Kim’s “The Cop on the Beat,” which deftly mixes prose exposition with cartooned scenes and asides, is the only piece that succeeds in this regard. “The Sunshine Girl,” adapted by Kim from interviews with story protagonist Eleanor Whaley, handles the blending of media far more awkwardly. And “Unlikely Hours,” a prose story by Seth that Kim attempts to shoehorn into the format, would have been better served if it had been left alone. The interplay between prose and pictures often seems gimmicky. Worse, it frequently disrupts the flow of the story. “The Golem,” written by Seth with art by Simon, is an illustrated story in the traditional sense. Seth’s “Children of Aruf” is all but exclusively prose; the only illustration is Kim’s frontispiece.

The story quality is mixed. “The Cop on the Beat” is the best of them. It’s an autobiographical piece about an unrequited romance of Kim’s that shifts gears into a discussion of the musicians Kim loves from the 1920s and ‘30s. It ends with an amusing epiphany that ties the two parts of the story together. “Children of Aruf,” which imagines a world in which dogs can talk, is the most enjoyable of Seth’s contributions. “The Sunshine Girl” and “Unlikely Hours” are ostensibly autobiographical pieces (“as told to” with the former) that veer into wild fantasy, and they both have the same problem: the stories don’t effectively prepare the reader for the outlandish climaxes, which makes them come across as ridiculous. “The Golem” recounts the Hebrew legend (in a Holy Land setting instead of Prague); its only distinction is in using shifting points of view to tell the familiar story.

The lettering in the book is a distracting flaw. Kim’s stories are both hand-lettered, and given the sloppiness, typesetting would have been preferable. There are numerous problems with baseline adherence, word spacing, and size consistency. The lettering also occasionally butts up against the pictures. These may seem like minor matters, but they make the book a needlessly bumpy ride.

This is a revised version of a review first published in The Comics Journal #296.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Publication Announcement: Review of Archie Goodwin's Blazing Combat

My review of the book collection of writer/editor Archie Goodwin's Blazing Combat has been posted at The Comics Journal's Web site.

For the uninitiated, Blazing Combat was a 1960s comics anthology magazine that featured adventure and suspense stories in historical war settings. However, the strips were not jingoistic or sensationalistic. Goodwin's models were the 1950s EC Comics war titles written, edited, and occasionally illustrated by Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman, and like Kurtzman, Goodwin emphasized the waste and tragedy of war. He also employed the finest draftsmen in comics to illustrate the stories, and the magazine featured page after page of masterfully drawn artwork.

Blazing Combat was cancelled for low sales after four issues, and the story of its demise has become comics-industry legend. The original publisher, James Warren, has alleged that the American Legion became aware of the anti-war content of the magazine and successfully pressured newsstand distributors to drop it. My review highlights the fact that Warren's claims are speculation. I also provide an alternate theory for the magazine's commercial failure. It's one I think makes far more sense.

The review is now posted to this site. Click here to read.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Comics Review: Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill, Tales of the Green Lantern Corps: "Tygers"

This short journeyman piece from twenty-odd years ago is the inspiration for its publisher's most recent crossover-event project, but it still ranks among Alan Moore's ephemera.

Tales of the Green Lantern Corps: "Tygers," by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, is featured in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. It is available for sale from Powell's Books. To purchase a copy, please click here.

As part of my Alan Moore review series, I considered working my way through each of the stories included in the DC Universe collection, which gathers Moore's stand-alone journeyman pieces at DC Comics back in the 1980s. I decided against it. Once one got past the famous ones, namely Batman: "The Killing Joke" and Superman: "What Ever Happened to the Man Tomorrow?," there wasn't much worth discussing. It seemed there was only one other story that had any significant meat or interest to it, and that was Superman: "For the Man Who Has Everything," an early collaboration with Watchmen partner Dave Gibbons. Once I'd reviewed those three pieces, the book went back on the shelf.

However, an interview Moore gave last September left me wondering if I'd passed over the other stories too quickly. I was especially struck by these remarks:

It’s the paucity of imagination. I was noticing that DC seems to have based one of its latest crossovers [Blackest Night] in Green Lantern based on a couple of eight-page stories that I did 25 or 30 years ago. I would have thought that would seem kind of desperate and humiliating. When I have said in interviews that it doesn’t look like the American comic book industry has had an idea of its own in the past 20 or 30 years, I was just being mean. I didn’t expect the companies concerned to more or less say, “Yeah, he’s right. Let’s see if we can find another one of his stories from 30 years ago to turn into some spectacular saga.” It’s tragic. The comics that I read as a kid that inspired me were full of ideas. They didn’t need some upstart from England to come over there and tell them how to do comics. They’d got plenty of ideas of their own. But these days, I increasingly get a sense of the comics industry going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night.

In a just-published interview with Kevin O’Neill, Moore’s collaborator on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books, the story was identified as “Tygers,” which Moore and O’Neill had worked on in the mid-1980s.

After reading it, my immediate reaction is that Moore owes the creative personnel on Blackest Night an apology. Beyond that, his involvement in this story is hardly anything to brag about.

I'm not saying this as a reader, much less a fan, of Blackest Night. I have little interest in what DC (or Marvel, for that matter) publishes these days, and I've always been completely put off by these crossover-event storylines. The initial ones in the 1980s, Marvel's Secret Wars and DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, were what prompted my teenage self to largely give up on either company’s new output. My experience of Blackest Night is based entirely on the synopsis from its Wikipedia page. It's clear from the article that, at most, scriptwriter Geoff Johns and cartoonist Ivan Reis used some ideas in Moore and O'Neill's piece as a springboard for their own story. And Moore has one hell of a nerve complaining about this; "Tygers" uses the 1959 Green Lantern origin story in much the same way. Johns and Reis aren't stealing from Moore any more than he was stealing from Green Lantern creators Julius Schwartz, John Broome, and Gil Kane.

For those unfamiliar with the Green Lantern character, his real name is Hal Jordan, and he is a military pilot who becomes a member of an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps. Members of the Corps are armed with a near-omnipotent power ring with a green lantern insignia. In Schwartz, Broome, and Kane’s origin story, Jordan becomes a Green Lantern after encountering a dying member of the corps--an alien--who has crash-landed on Earth.

In “Tygers,” Moore and O’Neill use the alien predecessor’s final moments before the crash as a framing device. The predecessor, whose name is Abin Sur, knows he is about to die, and he thinks back on a prophecy foretelling his death. A spaceship had crashed on a planet used to imprison a race of demons who once terrorized the universe. Abin Sur follows, and while looking for the ship and possible survivors, he encounters several of the demons, who promise all sorts of things if he would only ask. He takes up the offer of one who will give answers to whatever three questions he might have. His requests are for the location of the crashed ship, the circumstances of his death, and the worst catastrophe the Green Lantern Corps will come to face.

Rather surprisingly, Moore doesn’t do much with this set-up. The rescue of the crash survivor goes off without a hitch, and the predicted catastrophe is all spectacle and no drama. (The catastrophe material is apparently the basis for Blackest Night.) The prophecy of Abin Sur’s death is the only one crucial to the story. Moore uses it to construct the moment of narrative irony on which the story ends--Abin Sur realizes that his efforts to escape his foretold future are what have caused it to occur. It’s a tried-and-true story twist at least as old as SophoclesOedipus the King, but in Moore’s hands it falls flat. He doesn’t build the suspense needed to make it effective.

Kevin O’Neill’s artwork is the story’s main point of interest. It’s considerably more grotesque than his work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Grotesque is, if anything, the artwork’s defining attribute. O’Neill devotes a great deal of attention to the horrible deformities of the demons’ bodies--hideously contractured muscles, distended bones, and teethed orifices of various sizes appearing anywhere and everywhere. The intensely hachured rendering recalls Basil Wolverton, and the artwork often looks like something Wolverton would have turned out in the grip of a Lovecraft-inspired nightmare. It garnered O’Neill a fair amount of notoriety after he turned it in. The Comics Code Authority, a content watchdog group set up in the 1950s by the newsstand children’s-comics publishers, took one look at the piece and declared O’Neill’s drawing style completely inappropriate for children. He was the first, and as far as I know, only comic-book cartoonist to be condemned by the Authority in these terms. Their response to his work was a major nail in the coffin of their power. It didn’t discredit them, but the piece’s almost immediate publication thereafter showed how toothless their judgments had become.

In closing, “Tygers” is an exemplar of a historically significant work that, at best, is more important to know about than to read. The success of Blackest Night has ensured its place in DC’s story canon, and it marked a fairly noteworthy moment in the comics field’s history of censorship. But on its own terms, it is a dull little potboiler by a creator whose career is all but entirely made up of much better days. Moore once said that his interest in these journeyman efforts was in coming up with fun things for the artist to draw. O’Neill responded with gusto, but for most readers that probably isn’t enough.

Reviews of other works by Alan Moore (click title to read):

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Publication Announcement: Review of Unlovable, Volume One, by Esther Pearl Watson

My review of Esther Pearl Watson's Unlovable, Volume One, is now up at The Comics Journal's Web site. The book is the first collection of Watson's humorous teen-girl angst strip from Bust magazine.

Update 12/17/2011: The review is now posted on this site. Click here to read.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Publication Announcement: Review of The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier

The Comics Journal has just posted my review of Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier's The Photographer, a graphic-novel memoir of Lefèvre's experiences as a photographer accompanying a Doctors without Borders mission in 1980s Afghanistan. The book doubles as a narrative showcase for Lefèvre's pictures. Emmanuel Guibert is a French cartoonist best-known for his graphic-novel collaborations with Joann Sfar, including The Professor's Daughter.

Update 12/13/2011: This review has been republished on this site. Click here to read.