Posts Tagged ‘drawn & quarterly’

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In a way, it must be kind of great to be in Chester Brown’s shoes. Not that I share his same set of apparently-narrowing interests, mind you, but it would just be nice to have the kind of career where you can make a living (or at least something of a living) out of pursuing your uniquely personal passions.  Not too many people in too many fields of artistic endeavor have been able to delineate their own frankly obsessive interests with little to no concern for the larger “public taste” and yet somehow find an audience for their work (Woody Allen and Russ Meyer come to mind immediately), but Brown has evolved into just such an artist over the years — the question now is, will his work continue to be of interest to anyone other than himself?

Brown’s gospel adaptations are one of the things I’ve missed most since he wrapped up his long-running series Yummy Fur, so it’s great to see him returning to that wellspring of inspiration for his latest extended-form work, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus (subtitled “Prostitution  And Religious Obedience In The Bible”), but the cartoonist’s  many years of being a “john” (as related so matter-of-factly in his last graphic novel, Paying For It) have no doubt colored his take on the supposedly “good” book, to the point where he’s assembled this latest collection of Bible stories with a very definite thesis in mind — or rather, two of them. And that’s where things maybe get a little bit confusing.

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Beginning with the first story he chooses for this book, that of Cain and Abel, a reasonably clear “through-line” forms of Brown seeking to demonstrate for readers that God actually likes rebellious folks who blow off his laws and edicts in favor of doing their own thing. Fair enough, sounds like my kind of deity — although I have to wonder why he or she would bother laying out a bunch of commandments in the first place if the idea was for us not to follow them — but then with the stories of Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, his second major point comes to the fore, that being that the Bible is replete with stories that portray prostitution in a positive light. This becomes even more apparent when Brown posits that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was herself a prostitute and that Matthew, in his gospel, surreptitiously tried to slide that little bit of info in there without being too terribly explicit about it.

Now, I have no particular beef with this assertion myself — although I can imagine the conniption-fits it’ll give to “religious right” types — but I do have to wonder if this book might have been more successful split into two smaller “graphic novels,” each concerned with making only one of Brown’s points. It’s not that things here necessarily get all that muddled, but his two separate arguments do seem to be competing equally for the reader’s time and consideration, and that’s something of a drawback.

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One aspect of this book that will get nothing but praise from me, though, is the art. Brown employs a rectangular four-panel grid for these adaptations (apart from the story of Job, which is buried back in the appendices and footnotes — about which more in a moment) that I find far more visually satisfying than the eight-panel grid he used in Paying For It or even the six-panel grid he employed in Louis Riel —not least because the pictures are all larger, and his obsessively-detailed linework and cross-hatching really shines when shown at this more generous size. He must spend literally hours on many of these panels, and the attention to detail really comes through in this format. Nobody utilizes shadow and silhouette like Brown, either, and while his writing style is incredibly blunt and to-the-point, his evocative and moody illustrations communicate all the subtlety and nuance that his clinical dialogue purposefully avoids. This is a gorgeous little volume to look at, all told.

As any veteran reader of Brown’s work can tell you, though, the backmatter is where a lot of the action lies in these far-too-infrequently-published books of his, and here that’s cause for both commendation and concern. His afterword and footnotes, when taken together,  run to nearly 100 pages in Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus, and while they’re no doubt uniformly fascinating and illuminating throughout, the simple fact is that they make a much stronger case for both of his theses than do the comics themselves.  In fact, I wouldn’t recommend reading this book without reading the backmatter, because while the “main” portion does a reasonably good job of letting you know what Brown is going on about here, you don’t have any real understanding of why until you get to the supplemental material. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but equally-footnote-heavy works like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell use “the stuff at the back of the book” to expand upon the material they’re referencing, while Brown is coming perilously close to doing just the opposite — writing and drawing comics to expand upon the points he’s making in his footnotes.

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That fairly major qualm aside, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus is still an important and thought-provoking addition to one of the most iconoclastic cartoonists of his generation’s body of work. Brown certainly reveals himself to be a distinctly “new” type of Christian (one who doesn’t believe Jesus to literally be the son of God, for one thing, which makes me wonder why he wouldn’t be more comfortable self-identifying as a Jew, but hey — whatever works for him, I guess), and probably one that we could use more of — these dogmatic “do as we say or you’ll burn in everlasting hellfire!” sorts of people really work my last nerve, while our guy Chester appears to be more of the “find your own inner path to spiritual enlightenment and seek to develop a personal relationship with the divine” variety. That, at least, even a confirmed atheist like myself can respect.

Hmmm — could Chester Brown actually be a modern-day Gnostic? Spiritually and philosophically, he seems to be hewing pretty close to much of what they used to teach, whether by accident or intent. But maybe that’s a subject best explored in his next book.

 

 

So, yeah, here it is, the end of my “Comix Month” that went on for three — no, make that four months — and that still actually isn’t really all that over with since I’ll continue with the Before Watchmen reviews I’ve been doing (in fact, another one of those will be coming up this weekend) as long as I’m still picking those books up, but the fact is we’ll be moving back into film reviews for the most part starting on Monday. But hey, as far as comics/comix go, I did save one of the best of the bunch for “last,” so without any further ado let’s take a look at legendary Yummy Fur and Louis Riel writer/artist Chester Brown’s latest hardcover opus, his flat-out disarmingly matter-of-fact accounting of his time as a patron of the world’s oldest profession, Paying For It, subtitled, appropriately enough, A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John

First off, before we even tackle the subject matter here, let me say this about Brown’s ever-evolving art style — if you loved the detailed cross-hatching so prominent in Louis Riel, a lot of that’s gone here, replaced instead with a really strong use of inky blacks and frankly it fits his theme — Brown seems to have moved on from a world where things are indeed quite shaded to one where things are pretty solid, pretty black-and-white, in his mind. His attention to detail is getting more and more meticulous yet he’s doing it with fewer pencil-and brush-strokes than he used to, which is also reflected in his writing, as that’s grown more and more economic, shall we say, as his career as progressed, as well. So if we had to choose two words to describe this book’s overall aesthetic, they would be frank and direct.

 

As you’ve probably managed to figure out by now, this book, Brown’s first-ever work not to be serialized in an ongoing standard-comics format, is an autobiographical account of his, shall we say, “journey” from guy in a relationship to guy who pays for sex to, finally, guy who still pays for sex and has come to view romantic love as not only unattainable, but flat-out undesirable, as well. It’s an interesting philosophical “progression,”(if that’s the word we want to use), and while it gets to be a bit of a polemic, Brown never seems overly preachy simply because he’s always so calmly matter-of-fact about everything. His good friend, fellow Canadian cartoonist and Drawn Quarterly “stablemate” Seth (who features quite prominently in theses pages as does Spent creator Joe Matt) has taken to calling Brown “The Robot” over the years (one of many interesting facts revealed in Brown’s extensive and thoroughly engaging footnotes section at the end of the book — as always with Brown’s work, this section is where half of the real “action” in the book is to be found and shouldn’t be skipped over under any circumstances), and it’s easy to see why — he’s so clinically, even bluntly,  objective about pretty much everything, most especially his own life, that it’s almost dizzying at times.

All of which isn’t to say that most readers will find themselves in agreement with every argument Brown is advancing here, or that his frankness and objectivity (both in the literary and visual senses) can’t be pretty off-putting in and of itself at times (for instance, Brown displays few, if any qualms after patronizing a prostitute who could very well be underage — he does have a brief moment of semi-queasiness about it, but he sees her again anyway, and is simply willing to take her word for it when he asks if she’s 18, and he certainly doesn’t glamorize his sexual encounters with any of his paid-for partners in any way, with most appearing quite repetitious, no faces of the women ever being shown, and Brown drawing himself as, in the terrific words of another online reviewer, “a praying mantis with testicles”), but he certainly earns points for absolute philosophical consistency, if nothing else.

I’ll be honest — I’m not sure how persuasive Brown’s overall arguments will prove to be to folks on either side of the prostitution issue. I went into the book believing it should be legal and came out feeling the exact same way. On the other side of the coin, sorry Chester, but I still believe that good, old-fashioned romantic love is a worthy ideal and one worth striving for. Life, in fact, would seem to be pretty empty to me without it. But Brown does do an effective job of charting his own thought “progression” (again with the quotation marks) on the issue, beginning with the ending of his long-term relationship with well-known Canadian performance artist/dancer/actress/television presenter Sook-Yin Lee and ending with his return to a monogamous relationship, albeit one in which he still pays for sex on principal alone, with a former prostitute he identifies solely as “Denise.” He admits he even loves Denise at the book’s conclusion (be forewarned this book doesn’t have an “ending” so much as it just stops at a certain point in Brown’s life), but that he still thinks all sex should be paid for directly and that monogamy should always be a purely individual decision and that just because one partner in a relationship (of whatever sort) chooses to be monogamous doesn’t mean they have they have the right to expect that the other person in that relationship should be, as well.

It’s all interesting, even downright fascinating, to contemplate this stuff in theory, but most readers, myself included, will find it pretty hard to relate to many aspects of Brown’s outlook simply because we can’t divorce sex from emotion in the same way that he so clearly has. So be prepared to be challenged here, and don’t expect to agree with, or even to be able to relate to, all of Brown’s outlook here,  even if you’re sympathetic to pretty good chunks of it. Like all the best art, this is provocative stuff that has the ability to get you to look at the very nature of human interrelations in a new way. Whether it changes your mind on anything is almost beside the point — the fact is, Brown’s much more interested in simply relating how and why he thinks as he does and how he came to see things in that way than he is in getting you or me to change our minds. Chances are you’ll end up really enjoying Paying For It — I certainly did — but the absolute truth of the matter is that even if you don’t, you’ll still walk away from this work respecting what Brown’s done here. That’s pretty remarkable in and of itself, don’cha think?

 

I don’t care who you are, what you do, where you’re at, where you’ve been, or where you’re going — reading the disarmingly confessional comics presented in Joe Matt’s fourth volume of work collected from his late (and lamented) Drawn & Quarterly-published solo series Peep Show, a volume fittingly titled Spent, will leave you feeling pretty damn good both about yourself and your lot in life.

Not because Matt is a master of “self-help” motivational pablum, mind you — just the opposite. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that unless you’re living under a bridge and slowly, painfully, starving to death, your life is better than Matt’s was at the time he wrote and drew the material that eventually became this book. He lived in a shit rooming house, worked very little, had almost no money (and clung to what little he did have like a miser), saw almost nothing of his friends, was obsessing over a particularly nasty breakup with his ex-girlfriend, and his “hobbies” were collecting old Gasoline Alley comic strips, editing together the “best” scenes from various porn flicks into eight-and ten-hour VHS compilation tapes, and jerking off, quite literally, all the goddamn time (there’s a reason there’s toilet paper all over the floor on the cover).

 

See? You’re not such a loser after all, are you? All that being said, while Spent isn’t exactly an enjoyable book to work your way through, it’s definitely an engrossing one — in the same way, I suppose, that train wrecks are. And while it helps that Matt’s clean, cartoonish art style is very pleasing to the eye and that the author seems to be not only fully aware of, but  as downright repulsed by, his own numerous personal shortcomings as we are, make no mistake — this is a grim record of a guy who’s hit rock bottom and is too disinterested at this point to even lift himself back up. It’s a heady stew of depression, immaturity, egocentrism, and inertia, all wrapped up in a toxic bundle of self-loathing that’s enough to make Robert Crumb look like “Mr. Positive” in comparison, and when you consider that Matt’s best friends, legendary Canadian cartoonists Chester Brown and Seth, have actually said that he lets himself off pretty easy in his own work — well, the mind just plain boggles.

So, while it’s tempting to congratulate Matt for his fearlessness in airing out his own dirty laundry here, it’s also worth considering the very real possibility that he obsessively catalogues the mundanities of his own dead-end life for no other reason than that he’s simply so fucking lazy that he can’t be bothered to do the work  that would be required to write and draw about anything else! All of which might make it sound like I’m being pretty hard on the poor guy — unless and until you read this book and realize that, if anything, I’m being rather generous with my assessment here.

 

Autobiographical material has always been something that appeals to a very small “niche market” in comics readership, most of whom would rather read about guys wearing tights and beating each other up (and yet Matt is considered a loser? Figure that one out), but even folks who are into autobio work will by and large find our guy Joe’s stuff to be, at the very least, thematically off-putting. I admit that it’s phrasing things very kindly indeed to simply say that his work is an “acquired taste,” and the fact that, God help me, I enjoy this stuff probably says a lot of things about my own psychology that would bear close examination and analysis if I had the time, money, or guts to pursue them — but like it I do, and quite a bit, at that. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of such solidly-rendered, highly-accessible art (and I find mixing  some greys and greens into the black-and-white mix, as D&Q have done in this handsome hardbound collection, really works even though it sure sounds like it shouldn’t) with such off-putting, inaccessible material that keeps me coming back to Matt’s work.  Maybe I’m looking for someone to feel superior to and just chose an easy target. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. Or maybe I just like looking at train wrecks. Whatever the case may be, I’m definitely a Joe Matt fan — but I’d feel uneasy about shaking his hand if I ever met the guy, knowing where it’s been.

Postscript : Matt has moved on with his life, thankfully. He headed for LA some years back to pursue a possible HBO production deal for a TV show based on his work, and while it ultimately came to nothing, he has managed (somehow) to find himself a girlfriend and do some much-needed growing up. I’m friends with him on facebook (full disclosure) and he actually seems to be settling into middle age quite comfortably, even if it means (sadly) leaving comics behind (at least for the time being) and moving into freelance commissioned painting and illustration work. Hey — maybe there really is hope for any of us.

What a long, strange trip it’s been for iconoclastic Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s Ed The Happy Clown —starting life in the early ’80s inside the tiny pages of self-published mini-comics that Brown sold on Toronto streetcorners before moving on to become the serialized lead feature in his seminal solo comix series Yummy Fur, the (we thought at the time) completed work was  collected in trade paperback format by Brown’s at-the-time publisher, Vortex, in 1988. Nothing too circuitous about any of that, right? So why the “long, strange trip” bit?

Well, because it turns out things weren’t quite as over and done with as they seemed. In 1992, Vortex returned with a second edition, subtitled “The Definitive Ed Book,” which added a new four-page “extra ending,” if you will, to the original collection. Brown himself moved on to Draw & Quarterly publications at roughly the same time, and while he pursued other projects under their publishing auspices such as the still-unfinished Underwater, the highly-acclaimed historical series Louis Riel, and most recently the autobiographical (and highly confessional) graphic novel Paying For It, somewhere in between all that he found time to revisit Ed yet again, when D&Q reprinted the entire run of stories in the early 2000s in single-issue magazine form, complete with new (and stunning — one of them is reproduced below the next paragraph, so see for yourself) covers and extensive liner notes written by Brown detailing the thought processes that went into nearly every page, if not each individual panel, of the story.

Now, in 2012, it appears the Ed saga might well and truly be over, as D&Q have seen fit to release a handsome hardback edition of the complete story that includes the covers for the single-issue reprint books (mostly in all their hand-colored glory, although sadly a couple aren’t) and the footnotes Brown did for those issues. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a really nice package and should stand as the final word on all things Ed (although I’ve thought that once or twice before, so we’ll see), and it’s as someone who’s followed the whole thing since nearly the beginning (I can’t claim to have any of Brown’s old self-produced mini-comics in my possession, sadly) it brings a wide smile to my face to see this material finally get the absolutely comprehensive treatment it deserves.

As for the story ,well — if you’re unfamiliar with the mind-numbing universe (actually, that should truthfully be parallel universes) of Ed The Happy Clown, suffice to say you’re in for a wild ride. Ed himself is quite likely the most hapless character in the history of graphic fiction, yet isn’t presented as a tragic figure, really, at all, despite the fact that literally nothing good happens to him from start to finish. The actual plot itself is a tricky thing to describe with a straight face, though, so I’ll just say this — be ready for a healthy (well, okay, unhealthy) dose of scatological fixation, religious obsession, and an overall narrative tone that absolutely reeks of well-placed disdain for hyprocisy in all its forms. When this material first saw print in the 1980s it’s fair to say that a lot of people thought Ronald Reagan was a dickhead — in Brown’s story he really is a dickhead. Throw in sewer-dwelling pygmies, werewolves, vampires, and a TV science show and you’re got all the ingredient for a heady surrealistic stew.

On the artistic side, the drawing style employed by Brown goes through a lot of changes as things go along, since he was still experimenting (you could fairly argue that he still is, I suppose) with different panel sizes, uses of form, and even basic linework throughout this period, but even though the first page and the last look remarkably different to one another, there’s undoubtedly a sense of consistency clearly visible in each step of the artistic evolution on display here. Simply put, it all works, somehow.Like a lot of the films we take a look at around these parts, it’s certainly more than fair to say that Ed The Happy Clown isn’t for all tastes. If you go for artistic formalism, straightforward linear narrative, or take yourself too seriously, then you’re better of avoiding this altogether. But if you find the finished (again, I assume) product of an unfettered, unpretentious, and frankly even unhinged imagination to be a thing of at least interest, if not outright beauty, then this is a book that you’ll be glad to have in your collection and that you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.

While many of his contemporaries from the late-80s/early-90s “alternative comix” scene have either mellowed with age or disappeared completely, Eightball creator Daniel Clowes — perhaps best known to regular readers of this blog as the screenwriter of Ghost World and Art School Confidential — seems to be gaining a deeper, if ultimately more pessimistic, handle on the human psyche over the years, and while new work from his strikingly able pen appears at what could generously be called a snail’s pace at best, the meticulous nature of both his artwork and his economic and incisive scripting demonstrates that he’s certainly not resting on his laurels.

Case in point — The Death-Ray, originally published by Fantagraphics Books in 2004 as (to date) the final issue of his previously-mentioned Eightball series and recently reissued in a handsome, oversized hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly, is nothing less than a disarmingly bleak masterwork that’s stunning to look at and oftentimes painfully, albeit gorgeously, misanthropic in tone. The title of one of Clowes’ earlier lengthy serials was Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, and this book definitely packs a wallop underneath its lush, even soothing at times, visuals.

The story presented here of orphan-turned-teen-outcast Andy, a casually misanthropic (mostly) loner who acquires remarkable super powers through remarkably outrageous means (see the panel reproduced above for a clue) and also happens upon the titular “death-ray” gun that can instantly wipe anyone or anything completely out of existence, is, on one level, a pretty simple meditation upon the old “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” slice of conventional wisdom, but it’s also much more — a stark portrayal of deepening alienation that sets in slowly over the years and it’s resultant heart-hardening and conscience-numbing; a requiem for lost loved ones we never really knew; and a simple yet profound study of two friends who drift apart over time, all related through a series of what by all rights should be hopelessly disjointed short comic-strip vignettes that vary nearly schizophrenically in tone and style, yet flow from one to the next with grace, ease, and confidence in service of producing what ultimately reveals itself to be a jaw-droppingly seamless whole.It’s also a perfect example of how to subvert reader expectations — the more we see of Andy as the years progress, the more distant he becomes; the more we find ourselves able to predict his actions (and his targets), the less we can relate to him; the more casual and nonchalant his violence, the more it shocks us. As we watch a tragic figure devolve into a monstrous one, we can’t seem to fight it when our pity turns to despair turns to disgust. It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride delivered with a dead-pan, entirely matter-of-fact sense of almost clinical detachment. Camus in the American suburbs.

Andy’s story doesn’t end so much as it simply stops, with Clowes presenting the reader with a number of potential conclusions to the story in “choose your own adventure” style, but in all honesty, while this sounds like a bit of a cheat, if you’ve gone with his flow to this point it actually feels not only fitting but necessary, since a hard-and-fast resolution would, in fact, betray the tone of everything that has gone before by interjecting hard-and-fast authorial manipulation into a work that’s been meticulously constructed to avoid any semblance of it from the outset. Clowes’ style here has the distinct flavor of a true documentarian, even if the people and events he’s portraying are entirely fictitious.If there’s one minor quibble I have with The Death-Ray, it’s that $19.95 (assuming you pay full price) is an awful lot to shell out for a book that’s only 48 pages in length, even if those 48 pages are dimensionally more than generous and reproduce the varied-in-style-but-uniformly-stark-and-exquistite artwork in luscious, vibrant detail. It’s a just a damn hefty price tag, plain and simple. Still, this is a work that rewards rereading and careful analysis and can be viewed and interpreted in so many different ways that it’s downright impossible not to ultimately get your money’s worth from it. As rich, complex, and challenging a piece of graphic fiction as you’re ever likely to find, that presents no easy answers — or any answers at all, for that matter — yet resonates with an internal truth all its own, The Death-Ray numbers among a small handful of books that well and truly show comics to be a medium as limitless in terms of their possibilities as film or literature.