Archive for the 'reviews' Category

Brecht Evens’ THE WRONG PLACE

I’m hardly an impartial commenter, since I’m promoting a comic book by Brecht Evens coming out in March, but I thought Sean T Collins pulled some great insights from the man (and made some great observations himself) in their interview here for Robot 6 about his very impressive book THE WRONG PLACE.

Personally, after getting over the initial moment of visual confusion, I thought the book did a stellar job of making the real-life experience of city nightlife (gossip, dancing, dinner parties, one-night-stands) look as magical as it sometimes (rightly or wrongly) feels.

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First thoughts on Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Riverhead, 2007

I really enjoyed Díaz’s voice here — even beyond the geek references, his writing has a clever & confident conversational elegance — and the content was often absorbing, but I was disappointed to find that the parts didn’t add up to a whole.

Díaz introduces us to Oscar, then looks elsewhere, only to return occasionally — so that this Life of Oscar is missing its main character for at least half the book. Díaz also declines to allow Oscar to grow. Is he crippling his novel’s potential power, or boldly avoiding cliche? I can imagine some defenses here — to read it as a tragedy (it’s the pathos, stupid, not the character development), and place it in a context of stories like Jaime Hernandez’s Death of Speedy Ortiz (in which the titular climax is never shown, only hinted at, and the title character’s importance is shown only through his effect on friends and family). But I’m still left feeling unsatisfied.

The much-discussed geek references are thrilling to geek readers who have never encountered them in a Pulitzer-winning novel before, sort of like hearing characters swear on early South Park. On a few occasions they really add another dimension of meaning to a real-life scene, or conversely demonstrate the depth of feeling previously unnoticed in lines from a campy old Stan Lee script. I wish this happened more often; usually they’re more superficial. Obviously Oscar gets a lot out of his fandom, but I don’t think Díaz ever really explores what he’s getting or how that works.

The most successful characters are the women. It’s especially rewarding to move around in time and have the past deepen our understanding of the future. As we learn about the tortures that shaped each stubborn young woman into a haunted matriarch, we begin to love and forgive them.

A couple formal things threw me — is Yunior narrating the whole book? Why is one (and only one) chapter narrated in Lola’s voice (after a brief second-person introduction in italics)? How is the story enhanced by the revelation that we’re hearing all this from a guy who sort of knew some of the characters in college? If hearing Yunior say “I guess I could have handled that better, but in the end I didn’t, oh well” makes the book more realistic, but less satisfying, are we better off?

Díaz is a joy to read; I’d love to see him do non-fiction, especially arts criticism. He knows a lot about people, and books, and what they can do to each other. I really wish this one had come together for me.

Review: FIGHT OR RUN by Kevin Huizenga

fightorrun

FIGHT OR RUN: Shadow of the Chopper
Kevin Huizenga
Buenaventura Press, November 2008
$3.95

Huizenga, as ever, blows minds six times per page without breaking a sweat, but my first read through this project felt unsatisfying. On almost every page I found myself asking “why did that happen?” and resorting to “because he felt like it, I guess.” The victor of each fight is pretty arbitrary, which I don’t mind, but in some fights the apparent loser is declared the winner — which has a certain rock-paper-scissors logic (what the hell does a rock care if it’s covered by paper?) but still struck me as unfair.

Fight or Run is described as “an open source comics game” on the back cover (H doesn’t even list his full name anywhere in the book), which implies that other artists are encouraged to try it out for themselves — it’s an activity rather than a story. Things happen less because of logic and more because Huizenga simply enjoys drawing them. A character has two heads? Let’s go ahead and have him grow another! And then another and another! But what if the head-stack gets severed? Ooh, then each head could sprout its own body — wait for it — made of heads! Once you get into it, the goofy improv fun of the thing is infectious. Of course, Huizenga being Huizenga, he doesn’t even make it halfway through the book before he’s already diagrammed out the Platonic algorithm of the concept, broken his own rules (with a sub-fight taking place between the personified “Fight” and “Run” options themselves), and conducted a deconstruction of the old cartoon dustcloud “fight” symbol.

There’s also a lot of classic animation influence here, I think, where you have two characters engaged in a battle for completely arbitrary reasons (Tom & Jerry, Roadrunner & Wile E., Bugs & Elmer), giving the animators license to just come up with goofy visual gags and tables-turnings. No consequences, just fade to black and fade in with the next gag.

It does seem like a great loosening-up exercise, along the lines of the 24-hour comic, with the added benefit of not requiring 24 hours… and also (though Huizenga doesn’t explore it) the possibility of collaboration. James Kochalka has done similar projects (both “The Conversation” series with Jeffrey Brown and Craig Thompson and the monster fights with his son Eli). Mostly it made me want to hang out with a bunch of cartoonists and try it out… New SPX tradition, anyone?

As a demonstration of the possibilities of a new game, FIGHT OR RUN: Shadow of the Chopper is definitely successful, and certainly worth your $3.95. But like most games, I bet it’s more fun to play than to watch.

What a piece of work is this comic

no-fear-shakespeare

In the spirit of Chris’s ranty ranty post, here: SparkNotes’ line of No Fear Shakespeare graphic novels is actually really awesomely good, and none of the artists are credited on the front cover, only on the back cover, which is laaaame. Hamlet by Neil Babra is my favorite, but Macbeth by Ken Hoshine and Romeo & Juliet by Matt Wiegle are also solid. All three creators deserve way more critical attention.

hamlet

Here’s my brief review of Hamlet:

Neil Babra’s done an outstanding job with this one. His character designs, graytones, page layouts are all superb. The characters’ “acting” is strong, the pacing works well, and (most impressively) the script is a hybrid of Shakespeare’s original and SparkNotes’ dumbed-down “translation,” capturing the best features of both (and leaving Shakespeare’s best lines undamaged). Note also the fantastic frontispieces drawn by Babra for each act – each one a masterpiece I’d be proud to hang in my house. Hats off to Babra for taking a project that could easily have been phoned in (SparkNotes? Seriously?) and knocking it out of the park. This is a fine graphic novel.

hamlet-int

“All bad art is the result of good intentions”

Wilde (1997)
dir: Brian Gilbert

Stephen Fry is a treasure and it’s a privilege to see him perform in any circumstances.

To see him portray Oscar Wilde, an even greater genius and one of Fry’s personal heroes, should have been a delightful experience. Unfortunately, the result is disappointingly lifeless and generic.

I think the primary fact crippling this production was the filmmakers’ goal of presenting Wilde as 1) an ordinary man to whom we can all relate and 2) a tragic hero of gay liberation. Undoubtedly both of these elements are present in Wilde’s story, but the emphasis on his ordinariness in this production ultimately left him uninteresting, a passive character in his own life story, often at a loss as to what to say or do. Oscar Wilde was many things, but he was never uninteresting and never at a loss for words. The humanizing of a genius only works if we are shown the genius, at least a little bit — which this team has either forgotten, or deliberately declined, to do. Wilde’s conversational wit, his outlandish manner and costume, his ideas about interior decorating, his unprecedented celebrity, and most of all his writing, are all mentioned but barely shown. Fry has said “it’s very important that we don’t see him as this sort of peacock, this kind of posing, prancing queen,” and screenwriter Julian Mitchell mentions not wanting to pack the script with Wilde’s “greatest hits,” which is fair enough, but we’re left with no sense of scale, and no reason to care about him at all.

It’s typical that the film poster, featuring Fry as Wilde in this outrageous suit striding through the grumpy barristers, has been digitally altered to make the suit a supersaturated pink. With several openly gay folks involved in the production, one clear goal of the film was to reach contemporary gay audiences and connect Wilde to “the contemporary gay experience.” But on the other hand, he doesn’t wear anything so shocking in the film itself — the suit in that scene is actually a modest pale tan, and the scene isn’t particularly outrageous at all. The filmmakers are stuck with either cliché or ordinariness, both of which seem rather treasonous in a film about Wilde, of all people.

Fry is a captivating critic and speaker with a deep understanding of Wilde (see podcast #3) — indeed, watching him in the making-of featurettes and interviews is more fun than the film itself. That he as Wilde is so often forced to keep quiet and stare thoughtfully off-camera is a great waste. Young Jude Law is appropriately angelic in appearance and infantile in behavior.

The score, like the film itself, is too easy — standard Hollywood melodrama.

Oscar Wilde was certainly a man who loved men, but if that’s all he had been, we would not remember him today. That’s essentially all we’re shown here, and the result is forgettable. It’s not the film Oscar would have made.

Black Metal (warning: this is big)

It’s still Monday somewhere in the world! And that means it’s time for the first edition of METAL MONDAYS here at Picture Poetry. Also by far my biggest blog post ever. I’m psyched!

There’s been some discussion lately about the role of visual samples in comics criticism. Let it be known that I am all for it! I’m trying to pass along some observations about the works I read, and if those works happen to be visual, I can hardly expect to communicate my point clearly unless we’re both looking at the same thing.

Now then, let’s get to it!

Rick Spears & Chuck BB - Black Metal
Black Metal
Rick Spears, writer
Chuck BB, artist
Oni Press
2007

Black Metal is a new graphic novel about, well, black metal. Two reasonable questions might immediately spring to mind: 1) what is black metal? and 2) will this book mean anything to people who don’t know?

My answers, in reverse order: 2) yes. Much more successfully than Gillen & McKelvie’s recent Phonogram (sorry, guys), Black Metal uses its musical background for imagery and inspiration without ever requiring familiarity with that background. (Phonogram had a key moment depend upon readers recognizing an unlabeled Jarvis Cocker, or possibly Damon Albarn, as drawn by McKelvie.)

**BRIEF SIDEBAR**: I wonder how much of this was avoidable. Britpop by its very definition was completely saturated in media coverage and analysis; extreme metal, on the other hand, has been a consistently underground phenomenon with the exception of the church-burnings. That might make it ironic that a black metal comic is more popularly accessible than a britpop comic, but Spears used the generic tropes of the scene, including a generic fake band (if he’d had the boys meet Darkthrone or Gorgoroth, it would have been completely impenetrable), while Gillen constantly used specific real people and bands, because he felt they were famous enough. In my case at least, they weren’t. for his own reasons [see comments below].
**END SIDEBAR**

1) Briefly, black metal is one of the important strands of extreme metal, all of which is characterized by extremely fast tempos, indecipherable vocal delivery, heavily distorted guitars, and deliberately offensive texts. Whereas death metal was developed primarily in Florida and Sweden, black metal is focused in Norway; it’s also more ideological than death metal (the church-burners and white supremacists came from black metal). Sonically speaking, black metal favors thin vocal shrieking and high-pitched guitar melodies played as a constant stream of repeated attacks (tremolo picking). Drumming is rarely innovative; generally you just get a straight blast beat underneath the whole thing. A lot of recent black metal has broadened to accept keyboards, and then only gotten more and more lush and ambitious in its orchestration. The early stuff all has legendarily bad production, though. Here is Darkthrone’s video for Transylvanian Hunger (1994), which looks like it was filmed by an idiot wandering in the woods, which is appropriate — it sounds like it was recorded by one too.

Ideologically, black metal is heavily focused on northern Europe and on Germanic heritage (both physiological and cultural). Lyrics generally position the bands as faithful adherents to “the old gods” who idealize the culture of the pre-Christian North. In extreme cases this includes talk of racial purity and violent revenge against the poison of Judeo-Christianity; in other cases it’s merely a celebration of pagan culture.

Black Metal - Confectionery

Oh! And then there’s the corpsepaint. Blah blah blah, pantomime, romanticization of death, absence of compromise or ambiguity, cf Rorschach, superhero morality.

As you can see, black metal is also more than a little bit preposterous, and any book that wants to dabble in it must walk a fine line between reverence and mockery. Keep this in mind.

It’s interesting that the creators and editors felt confident in the market viability of a book about such a narrow musical niche. Maybe it’s the staggering growth of Hot Topic and the like among America’s youth. Maybe it’s now safe to assume that a respectable portion of the audience has seen this: The Top 10 Most Ridiculous Black Metal Photos of All Time, or at least this photo of Abbath and Horgh from the band Immortal:

OKAY, enough preliminaries! Here’s how the book begins:


Yes, that’s right, it’s the Scott Pilgrim opening. Quiet opening, turn the page, giant loud rockin’ title spread. It’s exactly how the first Scott Pilgrim book begins (though it’s surely older than that). I’m of two minds about this: it feels a little bit cheap, but honestly it’s a really killer technique, and if any book has the right to steal it, it’s this one. BM is definitely a cousin to SP, and while it’s not as good as that series (nothing is), it’s a worthy follower. Tactfully, Spears and BB admit the debt:

Anyway, the book stars twin brothers Shawn and Sam Stronghand, who find themselves arriving at yet another new high school, having been expelled from all their previous ones. We follow them for a day at school, but nobody really cares about the school scenes (including the creators?) and they’re over quickly. When the boys procure a new LP by the mysterious Frost Axe, the adventure begins. Backwards messages, mystical visions, ancient prophecies, celestial battles, and lots and lots of yelling while in badass poses. But then “yelling while in badass poses” is quite possibly what comic books are for — at least those published by Oni.

Here’s our first glimpse of Sam and Shawn (it comes after a pitch-perfect two-page montage of people all over the school whispering increasingly outlandish rumors about them):

Notice the hands. This is key. One of the essential features of metal culture is its ethos of brotherhood and tribal identity, and this is most famously symbolized with the Horned Hand. It spread to the mainstream long ago and has been widely co-opted, but somehow this gesture still holds meaning for metalheads: as a sign of defiant self-assertion, a greeting between friends, or a gesture of admiration and unity [metal, more than most musical cultures, is egalitarian, based on a very loose boundary between artists and fans]. The proper formation of a Horned Hand even acts as a shibboleth to distinguish the True Metalhead from the Poseur. Appropriately, the Horns are all over this book — somebody throws them up whenever something badass happens. Take a look at the bottom of the book’s spine:

Even the Baron of Hell gets in on the action:

Actually, Chuck BB draws pretty distinctive hands across the board — those chunky fingers have a lot of personality to them. I wonder how fair it is to bring in a comparison to Ditko hands (the current generation of comic critics have decided that the true legacy of the famous artist Steve Ditko is the distinctive way he drew characters’ hands: see Douglas Wolk, Andrew Hultkrans, etc).

Back to Black Metal. Take a look at this panel:

In two lines, Spears nicely summarizes the book: it’s about orphans discovering their identity, outsiders finding their niche/clique, alienated youth becoming socialized (in a way), and prophecies being fulfilled. Unfortunately, this panel also summarizes the progression of the book. The early sections are really unstable — the book doesn’t seem to know what kind of story it wants to be; lots of different threads are introduced but some of them seem to disappear abruptly. To be honest, after reading the first third I wasn’t optimistic about the rest. Once the action starts, though, the book really finds its feet and consistently nails scene after scene, to the point that I’m now actively looking forward to the next volume.

There are lots of fun little references thrown into the mix. Becca’s response to Shawn’s ingenuity —
Black Metal - Black wizards
— is a reference to Emperor‘s most famous song, “I Am the Black Wizards” (1993/4).

There’s a panel where Sam calls their classmates “a weak and superstitious lot,” which is pretty close to “a superstitious, cowardly lot,” a famous line from Batman’s origin story. Also, I have halfway convinced myself that the unusual panel layout of this page — a montage depicting our heroes buckling up for a road trip adventure — is a sly reference to the Autobot logo from Transformers.
Black Metal - car montage

Am I crazy?

Take a closer look at the page mentioned above where the twins reject Easter:
Black Metal - cross
The panel forms an inverted cross, which often symbolizes the rejection of Christianity and has been used by a bunch of metal bands. Throughout the book, BB’s layouts are clear and strong and perfectly paced, plus peppered with little tricks and jokes of this sort.

What really gets me about this book is how accurate it is. I don’t have a twin, but I do have a brother. I did go to high school. There are so many instances in Black Metal where Spears and BB simply nail it, where you nod and smile and say yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. Here are a few:

The old “go buy a book/movie/record because a girl you like mentioned it”:

The “get home from shopping with your parents, run upstairs to your room and immediately escape into the book/album/game you just bought”:

(I must point out the utter pointlessness of having the giant stereo system when they only ever listen to it with headphones.)

Like Scott Pilgrim, Black Metal simply gets how real people act. One such maxim is spoken by Shawn:

But equally true is the one the boys immediately demonstrate:

The typical hero narrative has the hero receive a magical device along the journey that only is used during the climactic final battle. But Sam and Shawn know better — they know what every kid knows. When destiny offers you a sweet new toy, you immediately go and try it out. This often involves screaming “YAAAAH” and hitting something.

Also well-observed is this scene where the twins visit the offices of Frost Axe’s record label in search of the band:

Of course the label consists of a heavyset dude with facial hair and a skinny dude in a hoodie! This is how things work. I especially love the skinny dude’s reaction when Shawn throws the horns and lays out the deal. Beefy McShadesalot is still skeptical about some weird kids busting into his office with a sword, but this dude is totally with it.

I’m not even going to post the scene where they summon Tyr. There are runes. And Tyr gets pretty much the most badass entrance in the history of fiction.

Other things I love:

This panel (for its symmetry and its overall emphasis on design over representation):

The way everyone talks in this book!

I totally threw the horns when I read that panel.


Flying horned skulls that fire lightning bolts! [Also, unfortunately, the frustrating choice to include a mentally disabled character to be the butt of jokes. As you can see, he eventually joins in the adventure, which is good because watching characters antagonize him was making me really uncomfortable.]

Did I mention everyone in black metal goes by ridiculous stage names? Here are some lineups from my iTunes library. Mayhem: Maniac (vocals), Blasphemer (guitar), Necrobutcher (bass), Hellhammer (drums). Emperor: Ihsahn (guitar, keyboard, vocals), Samoth (guitar), Tchort (bass), Faust (drums). Cirith Gorgor: Nimroth (vocals), Astaroth Daemonum (guitar), Asmoday (guitar), Lord Mystic (bass), Levithmong (drums). Immortal: Abbath Doom Occulta (vocals, guitar), Iscariah (bass), Horgh (drums).

That thing on Berserker’s head? Not his hair. A BEAR SKIN. He wears it for (almost) the entire book.
Black Metal - Berserker

There’s a line from Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life where Scott is desperately trying to carry a conversation with the girl of his dreams and not doing a very good job. She tells him bluntly, “You’re all over the place.” “But I’m so sincere! replies Scott. I will never be able to resist books that know themselves and love themselves, purely and honestly.

This is a book that was created by love and joy, and it shows. Bring on volume II!


[bonus pinup drawn by Rick Spears Rob G]


Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.