Saturday, June 29, 2013

Holy Terror

by Frank Miller

For a very long time, I revered Frank Miller.  He was one of the first comics artists whose work I could identify on sight, and I can remember reading the first chapter of his seminal Daredevil Born Again story over and over again when it first hit the stands.

I followed his career from that point forward, but can remember getting a little bored around the time he did his fourth or fifth Sin City story.  There was a gaudy decadence in his story-telling, which was at odds with his ever more minimalist art, and it kind of bothered me.  The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the sequel to the excellent Dark Knight Returns really turned me off.

And then there's Holy Terror, the "Batman" story he published 2011.  It was originally intended for publication at DC, but they wisely passed on this story that has a caped crusader and his cat burglar companion take apart an Al-Qaeda cell in his home town.  It ended up at Legendary, and enough minor changes were made to the characters so that Miller could avoid a lawsuit.

The book opens with The Fixer chasing Cat Burglar across Empire City.  When he catches her, they engage in some light S&M foreplay before bombs start exploding all over the city.  Of course it's terrorists, and so the hero and the villain decide to team up (with help from some guy who looks like The Question with a huge Star of David tattooed on his face) to kill the terrorists.

There is a casual racism at play in this comic that would undoubtedly disturb many people, but it is the lack of character that bothered me the most.  Everyone here simply plays the most simplistic of roles, and the act only so that Miller can provide a number of bloody scenes that neither engage nor excite the reader.

Miller is a wonderfully talented creator who now makes terrible comics.  Maybe he's gotten too big to take creative direction from editors (he does have a pretty famous ego), but sadly, that also means he's gone too far down a path I don't want to follow.  My eleven year-old self would not have believed that possible...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

McSweeney's #43

Written by Charles Baxter, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, TC Boyle, Noor Elashi, Catherine Lacey, and William Wheeler

Since I began subscribing to McSweeney's, Dave Eggers's wonderful literary quarterly, I don't think I've received such a slim volume before, but when it's packed with this much quality writing, it's all good.

This issue (which was packaged with a collection of writing from the new nation of South Sudan that I haven't read yet) contains four short stories, and two pieces of non-fiction.

Charles Baxter starts things off with an excellent and touching story about a young man whose life basically falls apart after he returns to the United States from a stint volunteering in Ethiopia.  He ends up being dependent on a boyfriend he met while there, and Baxter does a great job of showing how their love fails.

In Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's story, a young woman and her mother end up having to care for the mother's first husband's mother, as economic inequality becomes entrenched in modern-day Russia.  There are interesting parallels to the first story.

TC Boyle's story 'Burning Bright' is the best part of this collection.  He uses multiple narrative streams to tell the story of a tiger in a zoo in San Francisco, and how it impacts on the lives of others.  Boyle is such a terrific writer, but I realize it's been years since I've read one of his novels.  I should probably do something about that.

Catherine Lacey's story 'Moment Stay' didn't really do a whole lot for me, but I'm willing to admit that that may be my fault and not her's, as her writing is superb in places.

Noor Elashi (who helped compile a section on the Egyptian Revolution a few issues back) writes with great honesty about visiting her father, who is currently serving a sixty-five year sentence for funding a terror organization, in his federal prison, which is known as 'Guantanamo North'.  Elashi travels with her mother, grandmother, and two younger brothers, and she shares all the intimate details of their visit. It's a moving piece; at their first visit, the father tries to show off his yoga skills, but the second becomes very strained under family dynamics and the sense that a year's worth of meaningful interactions have to be condensed into a short visit.  That Elashi pere's guilt is not certain makes it all the more poignant.  This could not have been easy to write or share.

This volume ends in a long non-fiction piece by William Wheeler about the rebel activities in Libya that led to the over-throwing of Mouammar Khadafi.  He writes about the ways in which the rebels and their collaborators planned to take Tripoli, and then sticks around for a while after that.  It's very good reporting, and he gives space for the major players, and some of the more colourful minor ones, to develop as people.  Good stuff.

On to the South Sudan book.

Monday, June 24, 2013


by Ross Campbell

I consider myself a big fan of Ross Campbell's work, but at the same time, I have to say that the cartoonist confounds me sometimes.  Campbell is best known (aside from his recent work on Glory at Image) for Wet Moon, a sprawling late teen drama about punk kids who have trouble navigating their relationships, and who are dealing with a killer in their midst.  It's a strange series of graphic novels, but there's something about it that makes it almost impossible to put down.

Shadoweyes is Campbell's newer OGN series (two volumes have been released so far), and it contains a number of the features one would expect from a Campbell comic - physical deformity, gender ambiguity, and girls and women shaped like real girls and women, in all their diverse splendour.  It's also unlike his other work (predicting the evolution that brought him to Glory), as it has a much more frenetic pace, and the art is much more hurried.

Scout is a young black girl living in a dirty, crowded metropolis in the future.  She is vegan, and very politically conscious.  She likes to patrol the city as part of a neighbourhood watch initiative with her best friend Kyisha (who is, of course, intersex).  After taking a knock on the head while helping a homeless man, Scout later turns into a blue creature with a tail.  At first, she can control the transformation, and uses her new abilities as a chance to help others, but does that according to her own moral code.  For example, when she stops a guy from robbing a store, she then stops the cops from arresting him, since he didn't actually do anything.

Scout rescues Sparkle, a girl from her high school, from a weird kidnapping scene, and they begin to get very close to each other.  It's at this point that the series most begins to resemble Wet Moon, as Campbell suggests that the two girls fall for one another (the next volume is called Shadoweyes in Love), and as Sparkle is missing fingers and toes.

At times, I found myself frustrated with the pacing and lack of clarity in some scenes, but at the end of the day, this is a very good book.  Campbell tells stories that no one else in comics tells, and you have to admire the consistency of his artistic vision and gender politics.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Taddle Creek No. 30

Edited by Conan Tobias

One sure sign that summer is on the way is a new issue of Taddle Creek, Toronto's best literary magazine. Behind it's lovely cover, this issue contains four great pieces of fiction, and some other cool stuff.

Dani Couture shares an excerpt (of a novel?) called 'Salt', which has a young woman struggling to reconnect with her absent mother after her death.  David Ross's story 'No Blood' is somewhat similar, in that it's about a man who is struggling to reconnect with his own past after learning that his childhood babysitter has died.

'The Canadian Grotesque' is a strange story by Michelle Winters, about a woman who is cheating on her husband with a man living (or squatting) in a house hidden in a ravine.

Andrew MacDonald's story 'Four Minutes' is probably the one that is going to stick with me the longest.  The protagonist is involved in helping his developmentally delayed twin sister to have her first sexual experience with a man in similar circumstances.  It's both straight-forward and kind of creepy, and MacDonald handles it all perfectly.

Among the fiction, there is also an interesting piece of reportage about the two men who now own the bulk of the film collection that the Toronto Reference Library discarded a few years back.  I can completely understand the temptation to take ownership of such an eclectic and unmanageable mass of cultural heritage, and would probably feel as equally overwhelmed by the task of cataloguing and housing it all.  Maybe Nicholson Baker would take it...

I rather enjoyed looking over the covers of past issues of Acta Victoriana, the literary journal published by the University of Toronto's Victoria College.  The covers do a terrific job of chronicling the changes in choices of graphic design among probably pretentious students over a period of a hundred years.  Cool stuff.

And then there's Dave Lapp's 'People Around Here' strip.  It's always the part of the book that I most look forward to reading, but half the time that's just because I know it's going to annoy me.  Once again, Lapp doesn't tell a complete story in his first page, instead giving us the beginning of a conversation wherein a guy (Lapp?) recounts being solicited by a strange woman on the street, who manages to con a cab ride home out of him.  I don't need to know if the guy ended up sleeping with her, but I would have liked to have seen him get to the part in the talk where he tries to justify his actions to his friend.

Anyway, if you live in the Toronto area, go buy this magazine.  It's good.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Foul Pus From Dead Dogs

by Crad Kilodney

When Mary Brown, the Chairman of the Ontario Film Censor Board arrives at work one day, she discovers the particularly gruesome, decaying corpse of a dog sitting on the front steps.  Later, Mary suffers from the sudden appearance of a painful, pus-filled boil that bursts and heals quickly.  This affliction begins to affect everyone who works at the Board, and Kilodney does not shy away from details in this forty-page book that he self-published back in 1986.

This is not a typical Kilodney story, because of its length, and also the greater depth of detail which he entertains throughout.  He takes his time and reveals that the people tasked with protecting the people of Ontario from film filth are mostly pretty twisted themselves.  Mary likes to imagine herself in Biblical scenes of a sexual nature, while one of her colleagues likes to spy on the residents of an exclusive boarding school for girls.

Kilodney's point is pretty obvious, but it's still a pretty entertaining story, if one can see past all the pus.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Rebel Blood

by Alex Link and Riley Rossmo

You may or may not be aware of the fact that zombies have become big business in comics, TV, and other media in the last few years.  Perhaps you're aware of this.  The problem is that zombies are pretty one-note.  That is not to say that there is not some terrific zombie entertainment out there (I love The Walking Dead as a comic, and enjoy it as a TV show), but the variations on the theme are not all that diverse.

Enter Riley Rossmo and Alex Link, who in this trade paperback, tell a zombie story that is different on two levels (although discussing one of them would constitute a spoiler).  What makes this story stand out is the inclusion of zombie-fied animals.

Chuck is working in a forest fire station, welcoming the isolation after having had problems working on a small town fire force, and going through marital problems.  Chuck gets tipped off, over his radio, to weird goings-on, and descends to find that all animals and people alike are infected with some kind of disease that causes them to grow some hideous external tumors, and to attack anything living.  The people still talk and show cognition, similar to the creatures in Crossed, without as many depravities, but it's the animals that make the horror feel more horrific.  Maybe I've just always found large groups of rabbits to be creepy...

Anyway, this is a decent story.  Rossmo's messy art works best on books like this, where his scratchy pencils suggest horror more than show it.  It's a quick read though, and I'm not sure that the big revelation that comes at the ending is given enough space to really breathe.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Templar, Arizona Vol. 3: And a Stick to Beat the Devil With

by Spike

Among the books that I was most hoping to be able to pick up at TCAF this year were the last two volumes (so far) of Templar, Arizona, Spike's bizarre alternate world webcomic set in that strange location.  The series follows the inhabitants of one apartment building in this fully-realized and thoroughly imaginative town.

Volume 3 is mostly focused on the fringe religions of Templar.  We discover that Gene, the seriously academically challenged father of Zora, comes from a family of Jakeskins.  This religion is obsessed with race, categorizing each race with numbers and a role in the world after civilization falls.  They carry knives, shave their heads, and apparently use their naked children to beg for money.  When Gene's family comes to visit, Scipio, the downstairs neighbour, worries that Gene should not be allowed to raise Zora, which leads to a big argument with Reagan, his closest friend.

The back-up story focuses on Moz and Sunny, and their connection to the Nile Revivalist faith.

There are some other things going on too - Ben has a strange encounter with his drunken neighbour, and Scipio gets peed on in the course of doing his body-guarding job, and gets his computer stolen, but most of the volume is centred on religion.

Spike's work is pretty fascinating.  It has a very untraditional rhythm to it, and the story would barely make sense without the endnotes, but it is a lot of fun to read.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sacrifice #6

Written by Sam Humphries
Art by Dalton Rose

I've really enjoyed Sacrifice, Sam Humphries and Dalton Rose's self-published and micro-distributed mini-series.  It's told the story of Hector, an epileptic who was somehow transported to the Aztec Empire in the period immediately before the Europeans arrived.  The series has followed his attempts to protect the Aztecs from the genocide that Spain brought to them, but we've seen him fail again and again.

Now, in this last issue, Tenochtitlan is in Spanish hands, and Malin is leading her remaining guerrilla fighters into the jungle to regroup. Hector lies dead, but that in turn leads him to a conversation with Quetzalcoatl, the god who has turned his back on his people.

There were a number of things that hadn't been explained yet, but with this issue, everything is made clear.  Humphries has done a terrific job of shining some light on a topic that is not usually explored in mainstream entertainment, and he handles it with sensitivity, while still telling a very good story.  This series is vastly superior to anything he's done at Marvel as of yet.

Dalton Rose's art is terrific.  He employs a number of different styles in this issue, from the psychedelic cartooning of the realm of the gods to a more realistic depiction of the pre-Aztec period.

Dark Horse is going to be publishing this entire series in hardcover in September - I highly recommend getting ahold of it.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys #1

Written by Gerard Way and Shaun Simon
Art by Becky Cloonan

A while back, I skipped reading The Umbrella Academy, the first series by Gerard Way, because all I knew about him was that he's in a band I'd heard of but never (knowingly) listened to.  Later, I went back to that series because of the art by Bá and Moon, and discovered it to be strange and rather wonderful.

Now, he has a new series with wonder-artist Becky Cloonan and co-writer Shaun Simon, and I was not going to miss out again.  On Free Comic Book Day there was a preview of this series, which intrigued me but didn't make a whole lot of sense.  This first issue makes things more clear, but there is still a lot to be explained.

We know that Battery City is not a fun place.  It looks like it's run by a company called Better Living Industries, and that it employs Scarecrows and Draculoids to keep the peace.  The Scarecrows look like astronauts (of course), while the Draculoids are created by putting a white mask over a victim.

Outside of Battery City, in an area that used to be protected by a superhero team known as the Killjoys, people seem to live in resistance to BLI.  We meet a young girl who was a companion to the super-team (in fact, they saw her as some sort of messiah).  She meets a group of rebels, who are quickly found by BLI, and stuff happens.

There is a lot of material in this book, as Way and Simon work hard to establish the strangeness of their vision of the future.  The main story hasn't really started yet, I don't think, but the issue stays interesting throughout, as the reader tries to piece everything together.  I'll need to give this a second read to really absorb anything.

Becky Cloonan's art is fantastic, but then we knew that it would be.  She's great at this kind of dystopian story that uses some aspects of the superhero aesthetic, but is not strictly grounded in it.  This book feels a lot more serious than Umbrella Academy did, and I'm very curious to see where it leads.

The Skating Rink

by Roberto Bolaño

The Skating Rink is quite unlike any other Roberto Bolaño book that I've read.  To begin with, while two of the three narrators are poets, there is almost no discussion of poetry and writing in this book, a first in my experience.  Secondly, the plot is very tightly focused, and the book does not meander in the way that most of Bolaño's other novels do.

The Skating Rink is narrated by three men who live in Z, an unnamed town on the Costa Brava of Spain.  Their lives intersect in a number of ways, but most significantly because of a secret skating rink built in the ruins of an abandoned estate on the city's edge.  The book alternates in sequence through the narration given by Remo Morán, a Chilean writer and owner of various businesses in Z, his friend Gaspar Heredia, an illegal migrant and nightwatchman at a campsite Morán owns, and Enric Rosquelles, a functionary for the mayor and the person who built the skating rink.

You see, Rosquelles has fallen in love with Nuria Martí, a figure skater who has been dropped from the  Olympic team.  To help her, he builds the rink using embezzled money.  Morán begins to date Nuria, and Heredia falls for a homeless girl who begins to camp out in the estate.  Eventually, there is a murder at the rink, and things begin to fall apart for all of these characters.

This is easily the most mainstream of Bolaño's books, but that does not detract from his ability to create compelling characters and use some very interesting turns of phrase.  This is not the book he'll be remembered for, but it is a good place for a reader to start tackling his collected work, and it's an enjoyable read.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

X'ed Out

by Charles Burns

X'ed Out, Charles Burns's oversized graphic novel, is a good quick read.  It's a strange book - Dougie is a young man in his late teens or early twenties, who doesn't do a whole lot with life.  He experiments with William S. Burroughs-style cut-up poetry and pretentiousness, argues with his girlfriend, and tries to pick up an equally pretentious photographer from one of his art classes (she likes to pose nude with a fetal pig).

At some point, he ends up spending his days in bed after caging his father's pain medication.  When he sleeps (or hallucinates), he goes to a strange alien world to search for his lost cat and eat omelettes with a short strange-looking guy.

Burns makes all this weirdness work, but at the same time, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was reading a graphic novel that was only 56 pages long, but cost $20 (not that I actually paid that much).  Burns's art is nice, but not at a price like that, especially considering that this is simply the first volume of an ongoing series (the second volume, The Hive, is out) that may take years to complete.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Los Angeles Ink Stains

by Jim Mahfood

Los Angeles Ink Stains, the book, collects roughly three years worth of Jim Mahfood's on-line comics diary of the same name.  It's a chronicle of nights out, meals, late mornings, comic-cons, live art events, and a lot of drinking.  Basically, Mahfood decided to channel both Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman at the same time, and keep a journal of his life.  And it's brilliant.

There are times when the monotony of this book gets to me - many strips start with someone visiting from out of town, lead to a taco joint, then a bar or three, where Food One and his crew run into people they know, followed by late night shenanigans, an after party at his crib, and then sleep.  The joy is in the details though.

This guy knows how to live.  Reading this, you'd wonder how he ever has time to write and draw, but at the same time, I came away from this book in awe not just of his talent, but of the circle of friends he's been able to surround himself with.  Mahfood rolls with indie comics gods, fine artists, DJs, rappers, and musicians from the LA funk/rap scene.  This book is not name dropping in a pretentious way, this really is his crew, and he's blessed to be part of it.

The book is at its funniest in the scenes set in comic conventions, especially the San Diego ones, which we get to see from an outsider's insider perspective.  I also enjoyed reading about his travels to France and other parts of the world.

I've been a fan of Mahfood's work for a number of years now (the first time I can remember coming across it was when he drew a comic for the Felt 2 album), but reading this, I felt a lot more affinity for the man as a person.  He finishes off the book with a few short strips, including the Gary Wilson piece he did for the Side A anthology, and a touching tribute to his friend DJ Dusk, who was killed when he was hit by a car.

This is a great comic, spotlighting the talent of a very unique creator.  Highly recommended.