Archive for August, 2012

If anyone were to put a pistol to my head and ask me to name my absolute favorite comic of the last couple of decades, Debbie Drechsler’s Daddy’s Girl, a hardcover collection published by Fantagraphics Books collecting all her various shorter works from the 1980s and 90s (some in color, some in black and white, as the art samples included with this review will show) just might be it.

First off, though, please understand that this is by no means an easy  or pleasant read. Quite the opposite : Drechsler’s account of her (via her surrogate character, Lily) horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her father is stark, harrowing, and at times even painful to read. It’s also unflinchingly honest, amazingly heartfelt, and above all agonizingly human. It’s not just the mindset of a sexual abuse survivor that Drechlser portrays so authentically, but the “new kid on the block” mentality that she had to endure so frequently as a kid whose family moved around a lot growing up, and the little ways in which adolescents have to process and interpret aspects of the adult world that are only beginning to make any sense to them, to the extent that they even do at all.

Drechsler’s heavy brushstrokes and her expert utilization of thick, inky blackness drive home an almost oppressive feeling that suits her subject matter perfectly, and gives the book the look and feel of a series of captioned woodcuts that expertly capture not just various moments frozen in time, but the emotions that go along with, and/or result from them. It’s damn uncomfortable reading on occasion, but it also feels brutally necessary. Watching Lily’s attitude toward her father evolve from scared to forced nonchalance to one of pathetic derision happens at such an organic pace that it’s often hard to believe that many of these stories, appearing as they did in irregularly-published journals such as the original Drawn & Quarterly, often appeared years apart, so natural is their progression, and while it does, in fact, feel like something of a personal victory for Lily to finally see her old man not as a deadly predator but a useless, limp-dicked piece of shit, it’s definitely a hollow victory at best, given the horrors she has to endure to get to that point.

Still, on the whole, the sexual abuse narrative, while central to Drechsler’s work here, is only part of the overall portrait of the pain and awkwardness of adolescence that runs throughout this collection of vignettes, all of which are suffused with more authenticity than the entire output of the “Big Two” publishers in total in — well, their entire history. We keep hearing that comics have “grown up,” then watch Marvel and DC prove they haven’t. Books like Daddy’s Girl, even though it’s about teenagers, prove they certainly have, but nobody’s paying much attention, relatively speaking, to this in comparison with, say, Avengers Vs. X-Men, which is a rather depressing prospect to consider — but at least work like this is out there now, which is a step in the right direction.

Still, a work as powerfully affecting and meticulously crafted as Daddy’s Girl deserves to be a lot more than just published, it should be read, and if I manage to convince any of you out there to pick up one book you otherwise wouldn’t have as a result of these “Comix Month” (which really is about to end — finally! — I promise) reviews, I sincerely hope it’s this one. Debbie Drechsler , after winding up her solo series Nowhere, said she felt she’d probably said all she wanted to say via the comics medium and didn’t think she’d be back anytime too soon, if ever. It’s been over 15 years and so far that’s proven to be true, which is our loss. But this masterwork stands as a testament to her natural visual storytelling ability and only increases in power and resonance with successive re-readings. Do yourself a favor — if this book’s not on your shelf, rectify that situation right now. This is the rare comic that I can think of absolutely nothing bad to say about. It’s demanding. It’s nausea-inducing. It’s ugly. It’s heart-wrenching. It’s  often desperately hopeless.

And it’s  uniquely, unpretentiously, unreservedly, unquestionably perfect.

Posted: August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

My continuing series for Through The Shattered Lens —

Through the Shattered Lens

There are those who insist that good things come in multiples of three and there are those who will tell you that bad things tend to come in threes — both camps have a Star Wars trilogy they can point to as evidence for their pet theory, and while neither are strictly correct, on a purely rational level, neither side is technically wrong, either.

So let’s just face facts here and admit there are some good movie trilogies and some bad ones, that within the good ones some better than others, and that within the bad ones some are better than others. All of which brings us back to that rooftop scene we started this “Rebooting Batman'” series with, from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween miniseries, the second page of which is reproduced above (and I apologize for its crookedness, it’s the only scan…

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Well, whaddaya know — I certainly didn’t see this coming.

Oh, don’t get me wrong — I saw the first 21 pages of this 23-page comic coming from a mile away. As the last of the Before Watchmen titles to debut, J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes’ Dr. Manhattan four-parter probably had the lowest set of collective fan expectations surrounding it of any of these books. After all, Hughes is best known as, essentially, a “cheesecake,” pin-up style artist (his hyper-sexualized cover for issue one, as shown above, being entirely par for his course — alternate covers, by the way, as will be posted here in a minute, are by Paul Pope and Jim Lee, respectively), and Straczynski is busy making a mess of things over in the Nite Owl series, so hey, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons probably weren’t losing too much sleep about the prospect of these two guys surpassing their Watchmen work.

Which, of course, they don’t. Not even close. And like I said, the first 21 pages here are pretty much Straczynski doing what he does in Nite Owl — the lead character is just standing around reminiscing about various chapters in his past, many of which we’ve already seen (including the first disastrous Crimebusters meeting that was already shown for the second time in Nite Owl #1 and gets replayed yet fucking again here), for pretty much no reason whatsoever. To his credit, “JMS,” as he’s apparently known in comics cirlces, at least gets the tone of Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan’s characterization right, which is more than you can say for what he’s doing with Rorschach in that other book, but nevertheless, this series essentially starts life as,  more or less, Watchmen #4 all over again — only not nearly as good.

As for the art, Hughes is a perfectly competent and capable draftsman, and he probably draws Dr. Manhattan in “blue form” better than anybody this side of Dave Gibbons, but he’s still, crucially, not Dave Gibbons, quite obviously, and the heavy reliance of the script on images directly out of the original Watchmen series makes such comparisons between the two artists more or less inevitable — comparisons that Hughes is going to come up on the short end of every single time.

The other annoying thing that Straczynski ports over into this work directly from Nite Owl is his wretched use of foreshadowing to demystify aspects of Moore and Gibbons’ original work. Just as he’s given us the “origins’ we never cared about of Rorschach’s “The End Is Nigh” sign and Nite Owl’s fixation with chicks in costume, here we learn that the cool clockwork-ship Dr. Manhattan either creates from thin air (as some have theorized) or finds buried under the sand (as I’ve always maintained) on Mars is, in fact, unambiguously a work of the Big Blue Naked Guy’s own creation, based on a fancy clock his dad gave him as a birthday gift when he was a kid. So there’s that cool, unexplained, open-to-interpretation event from the original wrecked forever, then.

And hey,  now that we’ve hit the point where it sounds like I’m more or less completely down on this work, let’s get back to that “hey, didn’t see this coming!” that I opened things with here, shall we? Because really, I didn’t see this coming — the “this” in question being this issue’s amazing, awesome, mind-blowing, genuinely surprising “cliffhanger”-style ending.

An ending that, asshole that I am, I will now remain completely silent about. Because seriously — you’ve gotta read this book. I mentioned that Straczynski pretty much nails his characterization of Osterman/Dr. Manhattan here, and that includes his “quantum perception” (or whatever we want to call it) of time. Moore did it better, sure, but “JMS” does it well enough. And that’s key here because when, in the midst of his unforced, apparently entirely self-indulgent, idyllic reverie, “Big Blue” decides, on a wild hair, to go back to the moment of his own creation and watch himself be “born” again, it feels like a “natural” enough thing for him to do. You can do or see anything you want at any time since it’s all happening simultaneously anyway, right? Okay, fair enough, for reasons unknown he encounters a brief “blip” of resistance for what you or I would perceive to be a “moment,” but then, presto! He’s in! He’s back at the lab! He’s going into the intrinsic field generator to get his coat! And then —

Everything we know, or thought we knew, about the birth/creation of Dr. Manhattan changes in an instant, right there, on  the last two pages of this hitherto-wholly-unremarkable book. And I’m cheering and fist-pumping-the-air at the ending of a comic book in a way that I haven’t done since, hell, I don’t know when. And while I’m still apprehensive, based on his track record to date, that Straczynski could, and maybe inevitably will, find a way to fuck this whole thing up, the fact is that he’s given us an ending for the ages here, and the first genuine “shocker” moment in any of these BW  titles. It could all end in disappointment, sure, but for now, well — I’m something I had recently resigned myself to feeling I never would be when it came to anything to do with any of this Before Watchmen stuff : genuinely, eagerly, can’t-wait-see-what-happens-next excited. Bring on the second issue now, already!

Posted: August 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

My continuing series for Through The Shattered Lens —

Through the Shattered Lens

 

They just don’t draw Batman like that anymore, do they? These days, he’s a “ripped” steroid freak in a high-tech suit of armor who’s usually either thrashing someone to within an inch of their life or brooding silently. Ever since Frank Miller’s legendary Dark Knight Returns story — which, I’ll grant you, is still probably the single-best Batman story ever — he’s been getting increasingly somber, morose, and violent. Miller himself even portrayed him, essentially, as a child-abusing psychopath in All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder. The films,  Joel Schumacher aberrations aside, have been getting increasingly darker over time, as well. People thought Tim Burton’s Batman flicks were a little too dark, so Warner went to Schumacher for a “course correction” that fell flat on its face, and then Christopher Nolan came along with the most popular, and darkest, cinematic version of Batman yet.

Then came the…

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Posted: August 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

My continuing series for Through The Shattered Lens website —

Through the Shattered Lens

 

If there’s one area (and actually I think there are several, but that’s rather beside the point and I promised to remain focused like a laser beam on each individual subtopic in this “Batman reboot” series of posts) where I think Tim Burton’s Bat-flicks had it all all over Christopher Nolan’s it’s in their depiction of Gotham City. Not only did Burton’s Gotham have a fantastic Metropolis-gone-gothic look thanks to the late Anton Furst, but it felt like an intrinsically different sort of place than a real city, a place where you could sort of actually believe guys might run around in bat costumes and Joker facepaint , while Nolan’s Gotham was just, essentially, New York only a little grimier (even if his first two films were shot in Chicago).

I understand the reasoning behind making Gotham less fantastic, of course, and those reasons do make sense —…

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Posted: August 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

The first in that lengthy series for Through The Shattered Lens website I hinted about —

Through the Shattered Lens

Bear with me, folks, ‘cuz this is gonna be a looonnnnng one. Not this post in and of itself, mind you — in fact I’m going to do my very best to keep things brief in this and subsequent installments (whoops! I just gave away what’s going on here, didn’t I?) and try, perhaps even desperately, to confine all postings in this series (and if I didn’t give it away before I sure did now!) to one particular aspect of what we’ll be discussing here each time so as not to throw too much out there at once before receiving input from you, dear readers, as to your own thoughts on what I’m talking about before plowing ahead to the next part. I know, I know — all bloggers say they genuinely want the input of their readership on what they’re posting, but in this case I really…

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Remember back in the late ’90s/early 2000s when it seemed that every self-respecting “underground” cartoonist had figured out that the best way to pay the bills between doing the creator-owned stuff they actually cared about was to write monthly series for Marvel or DC? It was all the rage there for awhile, with talents as diverse as Jon Lewis, Dylan Horrocks, Terry LaBan, etc. churning out superhero garbage while still managing to have just enough spare time to devote to the kind of work they really wanted to be doing all the time.

Well, apparently that well has more or less dried up now, as the only guy still operating that was is Canadian cartoonist Jeff Lemire, best known for the superb Essex County , who’s writing Animal Man and a couple other books for DC on the side when he’s not working on his creator-owned Vertigo series Sweet Tooth  and his “major projects” such as his new 224-page graphic novel from Top Shelf Productions, The Underwater Welder. Apparently this book was a couple years in the making and a definite labor of love, and while it’s far from a flawless work by any means, Lemire’s devotion to it clearly shows.

Our story here revolves around one Jack Joseph, a thirty-something deep-sea welder attached to an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s an unusual way to make a living, that’s for sure, but it sort of runs in the Joseph family blood, apparently, as his father was a freelance scuba diver, as well as being a raging alcoholic and general fuck-up. Jack still worships his memory, though (he disappeared under the murky depths some years ago), and even seems to have inherited some of his less admirable traits — which is not to say that he’s a hard-core booze hound or anything like that, but he seems to have picked up the old man’s intrinsic fear of commitment. Jack’s wife, you see, is pregnant with their first child, and for reasons known only to him, our ostensible “hero” seems to be pulling further and further away from the Mrs. and his soon-to-be-born son or daughter the closer she gets to the big day.

Then, one day while welding ‘neath the waves, Jack notices a shiny object glinting at him from the ocean floor (is it really called a floor? And if so, why?), goes down to have a closer look — and is catapulted into a Twilight Zone-type world of memories both real and false, and a future that may or may not be. It’s part Rod Serling, part Charles Dickens, all served up with a healthy dose of contemporary family angst, and while it all unfolds rather predictably, and never achieves the weighty sense of gravitas that Lemire is actually, and quite obviously,  hoping for (Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate tread on somewhat similar thematic matter in the criminally underrated A Small Killing, for example, and did a much better job of it), there’s still no denying that this is, in its best moments, a powerfully understated book that explores issues of childhood pain and loss and the desperate desires of new and prospective parents not to repeat their own folks’ mistakes all wrapped up in a pleasantly-enough-executed, quasi- surrealist package.

Lemire has a well-established “scratchy linework” style that suits the material here quite nicely, and his underwater scenes, achieved (I’m assuming) by employing an old-school inkwash technique of some sort, are a particular standout element in what is, on the whole, a really well-drawn book. His script is pretty economical in terms of word count but might be stretched a bit thin at 224 pages, although it does maintain a fairly organic flow throughout that tightening things up may have compromised a bit, so I won’t complain much as far as that goes. And yeah, there’s no doubt that we’re firmly and fully in “labor of love” territory here from the outset, as it’s obvious our guy Jeff has paid attention to pretty much every detail along the way as his little melodrama unfolds. Atmosphere is key here, of course, and Lemire delivers that in spades, and his time-period transitions feel quite natural and almost rhythmic, even if he occasionally resorts to some of the more hackneyed elements of the “Serling style” in order to frame them. All in all, my complaints about this book are few, far between, and pretty small, given the overall scope of the work.

Still, while The Underwater Welder has an undeniably satisfying conclusion, and one that feels entirely appropriate to the story itself, I can’t say that this is absolute “rush out and buy it” material. Maybe it’s because you can pretty much only see one possible ending the whole way through, maybe it’s because the whole “fantasy” element is frankly completely unnecessary to the type of story that Lemire is telling here, maybe it’s because the book’s principal female characters, namely Jack’s wife and his mother, feel less like actual people and more like ciphers for drawing out and/or expounding upon the the protagonist’s various unresolved neuroses, or maybe it’s just because, as I mentioned before, others have mined similar ground more successfully, but all in all this feels like a book that would have been absolutely revolutionary 20 years ago, but is just — and maybe the use of the word “just” if unfair here, but bear with me, if you would, please — a really solid, nicely-done graphic novel in this day and age. I was glad I read it. I’m pleased to have it on my shelf, available for re-exploration anytime I choose. But it doesn’t feel like one of the really important comics works of the past several years, and Lemire seems to be talented enough to have a book like that in him. This isn’t quite it — but it’s close enough to make for a very impressive read in and of itself, and honestly, that probably should be enough. You get the sense that Jeff Lemire is knocking on the door of genuine greatness, and I’m hopeful that his next project will be the one that throws that door wide open, in which case The Underwater Welder will be remembered as the book where he got the last few things he needed to worked out before stepping up to the final rung on the creative ladder; a necessary precursor to something more, something larger, something undeniable, that seems to be right within his grasp — he just needs to seize it , trust in his abilities, and not let go. While this isn’t a book that shows Jeff Lemire making a quantum leap forward creatively, it does show that he’s probably ready to do so, and that alone certainly makes it worth a look, as well as your time.