It’s a Good Life if you don’t Weaken – Seth

It’s a Good Life if you don’t WeakenSeth is the Cartoonist who produced the marvellous Wimbledon Green. This autobiographical work contains elements that you can see adapted into that fictional tale.

We follow Seth as he tries to track down a cartoonist that had a very brief career. Along the way we see his quiet anxiety about the world around him and how it has changed as he has grown older. We hear his insecurities and with painful honesty discover the kind of person he has become. This is a subtle and emotional work almost in the vein of literary fiction.

It is described as a “picture novella” and although it appears as a graphic novel the words do all the talking and the pictures are a kind of visual muzak that plays in the background. There are some occasions where the text goes silent and we are treated to a series of vignettes to help capture a moment of a place.

The panels are classic three rows per page and contain nothing of the flair seen in Wimbledon Green. But that is perfect for the melancholy and everyday subject matter. There are three colours used, black, white and a pale almost metallic blue-grey. This gives the whole work a very period quality that matches the nostalgic theme of the writing.

This is a charming and authentic tale that makes you smile and maybe nod sagely at Seth’s wisdom and shrewd observations.

Thumbs Up!

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware

Jimmy CorriganAutobiography, and more unusually Literary Fiction, are rarely seen in graphic novels. This bold endeavour combines both. Originally a newspaper strip running for over five years this mammoth examination of father/ son connections explores several generations of the same family largely using two different time periods.

The episodic nature of its origins presents a series of scenes or tableaus without commentary or judgement but with brutal honesty allowing us to see just how painfully uncomfortable relationships and familial interaction can be. There is a bit of monologue or narration but usually we are left, just as with real human beings, to puzzle out what is going on for ourselves.

You can sense Ware growing as a writer as it is not until the last third of the book that he really discovers just how poignant and moving this medium can actually become. There are some of the Ware trademarks such as cut outs and fake instructional manuals but these are rare.

The art is more illustrative than cartoonish. With a limited palette and limited dimensions (but good perspective) he creates his own distinctive style. Everything is very tidy and deliberate with no sketching or rough textures visible. He also loves tiny panels and tiny lettering which can slow you down as you are forced to stop and squint. Ware also develops his own visual vocabulary using different styles and colours to indicate memories, thoughts and even exposition.

This work relies on the reader working hard and investing in something that is more art than literature. But it is just as easy enter this story if you have never read a comic as if you are fluent on what has gone before.

This is a real labour of love that deserves a Thumbs Up!

The Acme Novelty Library – Chris Ware

The Acme Novelty LibraryBloody hell! This isn’t your usual comic that provides entertainment or escapism. This is an alternative comic, an art comic, a muse on the human condition, a work of pictorial philosophy, and an unkind mirror for our souls.

The book is 23cm x 38cm. It is a massive hardback tome yet the majority of the text and panels that appear are tiny. A lot of them smaller than your thumbnail. The strips are never more than a page long and at first glance are nonsensical. But a deeper look detects a small comment or theme usually decrying man’s destructive, petty, uncaring nature. Some of them like “Rusty Brown” – an action figure collector – have a recurring character we can identify with, and deplore and pity in equal measure. Even his life isn’t presented in order so we have to work out where in his timeline he is.

Along with cartoon strips there are also fake advertisements for ethereal concepts such as art, contentment, and big wide open spaces. These are done in the style of classified adverts that have been seen from the nineteenth century up to the present day. The star of the show is the inside cover of “fabulous prizes.” An almost perfect reproduction of the novelties on offer inside every comic book when you were a kid, yet skilfully twisted into a brutal statement about the Western world and its poor treatment of developing nations.

There is also a fictitious history of the Acme Novelty Company with fake depression-era photos. It is a bone-dry filibuster designed solely to suck time from your life and make you realise how much of your time is wasted, even in this digital information age we live in.

Even though you won’t, there are plenty of cut out things to make – as if you would risk tampering with this work of art. Little flick books and miniature playhouses and the kinds of things that would amuse children in simpler times.

This is a long read and once you get the idea you may be tempted to skip over large chunks of the text based pages to find something more accessible to you. This work will stay with you. Not as a moving, emotional experience but as hollow void that nihilistically echoes the failings of humanity. Or thereabouts. Maybe just a nagging thought of “what did it all mean?”

A true labour of love and a valuable work of art.

Double Thumbs Up!

Ice Haven – Daniel Clowes

Ice HavenThis is one of those indie comics. Something you feel you should be reading but are terrified you won’t “get.” Its purpose isn’t to entertain and provide escapism but rather to make you think and hopefully feel what the author is talking about.

It is a scrapbook of themes and emotions tied together by a group of separate characters who live in the same town. It deals with the feeling we all have such as confusion, rejection, doubt and the changes that life exposes us too. It may speak more to the creative individual as a number of the characters are writers, frustrated or otherwise, and there is a comic book critic that will definitely make you smile.

There is a mystery if you want something more straightforward to cling to, more than one in fact, but the author leaves you to imagine their conclusions should you choose too. Ultimately this is a series of vignettes about emotions, mostly painful ones. It is like a photo album of feelings that can draw you back to your own experiences of the human condition.

The art is great and uses a plethora of well-chosen styles. The adults are drawn realistically and the children more cartoonish. There is a great use of monochrome, unusual panel shapes, handwriting and other tools expertly employed. One of the genius touches is the lettering. Where a character is not listening to a conversation or something appears in the background the speech bubble will be cut in half by the edge of the panel or be lost underneath other text. This is a powerful technique that places us in the mind and mood of the current protagonist.

The book is a tough hardback on lovely thick paper in small landscape format. When you open the book it gets very wide indeed and is a very different tactile experience. A great example of presentation.

Thumbs Up!

Three Men in a Boat – Nidhi Verma

Three men in a BoatThis is a curious work indeed, being an adaptation of a nineteenth century English novel by an Indian publisher into an illustrated story for children. It does retain the spirit of the original book quite well and is a charming read but it is hard to capture the existential musings of the Victorian gentleman in anything but a novel.

It is an illustrated story as the pictures are there to accompany the text and never substitute for it. There isn’t a single mute panel and narration and dialogue are narrative engine. Having said that the art is wonderful to behold. Beautiful colours, quirky caricatures and a quaint style means it appeals to both children and adults. As much of the tale is a series of anecdotes some clever sepia washes and cloudlike borders are used to blend these seamlessly into the main thread.

There are two pages of facts and activities at the back of the book especially for children. This work certainly does not disgrace what has become a literary classic.

Thumbs Up!

Bigfoot – Pascal Girard

BigfootThis is a charming tale that reminds us of the pain of adolescence and how life just doesn’t go the way we want it to. Originally in French the universal themes apply to whatever language you speak and you really feel for the hero and the awkwardness of his situation.

The art is simple with lovely pastel colours perfectly complimenting the honesty of the story. Phone conversations, memories and moments of extreme emotion are all rendered in different techniques that work well. The layouts and clean style evoke the spirit of a young Hergé.

This is a short read but a wonderful glimpse into youth, friendship and the opposite sex with their attendant tribulations.

Thumbs Up!

Janes in Love – Cecil Castellucci

Janes in loveFour high school girls united by a love of art face the trauma of a Valentine’s Day dance and all that it entails.

You don’t have to be a teenage girl to read and thoroughly enjoy this book. You also don’t need to have read the first book, but it is a very good excuse to.

This is a charming and engaging tale of struggling to find yourself and dealing with just how big the world seems when you are young. It isn’t patronising or cutesy and will speak to part of you that wishes the world were simpler or brighter than it is.

The art is comic style in the best possible way and uses black, white and grey in intelligent and creative methods. With a large cast, a lot of dialogue and an internal monologue the lettering does a great job making things easy to follow.

I hope there will be more to come as this gets a Thumbs Up!

Heavens War – Micah Harris

Heavens WarThere is a reason the Da Vinci Code was a book first. That’s because it has a lot of big concepts and history and requires a lot of text to convey that to you. This graphic novel explores a similar set of Biblical and philosophical ideas. It also uses 20th century English writers as the heroes and occultist Alistair Crowley as the villain.

This is certainly an unusual idea, more so because it comes from Image Comics. It is also a premise that would probably work better in a different format. That isn’t to say the pictures aren’t useful but when the massive blocks of text appear the pictures degenerate into talking heads or disappear completely.

Unless you possess a wealth of knowledge of the history or theology in question you will be genuinely stumped in places. Luckily there more than a dozen pages of annotations that, whilst present to bolster the credibility of the storyline, do act as a breadcrumb trail.

The art is hard black and white, an interesting choice for the grey world of existentialism. The panels are more or less regular and there are few artistic techniques that have an impact on you. It is helpful to have illustrations when the subject turns to hidden meanings in paintings or statues, or when people’s consciousness moves forwards or backwards in time.

This isn’t something you read for entertainment. It also isn’t a hard debate on some of the more apocryphal branches of religion. As such it is hard to judge if this work is a success or not. But fair play to Harris for convincing a large publisher to print something that is the complete opposite to all their other books.

No Thumbs for content.

Eleventh Hour – Various

Eleventh HourThis is an anthology of twelve stories. Quite a brave thing to do. Most are self-contained and others could be the first part of many. There are only four authors however and it isn’t an even split.

Like most anthologies it is a mixed bag but there are definitely some gems. The art too has some really fantastic work with much more variety amongst the artists than the creators.

For the independent spirit and clever twists this gets a Thumbs Up!

Incognito: The Classified Edition – Ed Brubaker

Incognito Classified EditionThis book collects Incognito and its sequel Incognito: Bad Influences into one volume. It has a tough, sturdy hardcover and a solid binding that doesn’t make it impossible to read the centre pages (take note DC). The two stories are solid Brubaker works. Noir but with superheroes.

In addition the covers from all the issues are reproduced, most as sumptuous double page spreads. There is also a collection of sketches and production drawings. Finally there is an essay reproduced from one of the issues. Sadly this only really makes sense in context with the other essays so it is a bit of white elephant.

If you fancy giving Incognito a try then this is definitely the volume to buy.

Thumbs Up!