Friday, September 27, 2013

Sex Criminals #1

Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky

If you had the ability to stop time when you orgasm, and after years of not understanding this gift, finally found someone else who could do the same thing, what would you do?  If your answer is rob banks, then Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's new Image series is probably perfect for you.  Even if that's not how your brain works, this is a comic that is well worth checking out.

Fraction has long established that he is a writer who is not afraid of exploring new ground, but you have to wonder where the idea for this book came from.  The obvious source is Nicholson Baker's strange novel The Fermata, but the protagonist there used his time-stopping powers to masturbate, not the other way around.

Regardless where the notion came from, the writing in this book is excellent.  Fraction spends most of this issue building up Suzie, our narrator.  When she was young, Suzie's father was killed in a workplace massacre, leaving the girl very much alone, as her mother retreated into a bottle.  Suzie explored a very usual adolescent escape, and that is how she learned of her ability.  Fraction follows her through the early teen years, as she figures out how her powers work, and learns that nobody else has the same ability.

The book picks up on Suzie as a young woman, who is obsessively trying to buy up the stock of local library that is being foreclosed upon by a bank.  Surrounding herself with old books, she throws a party to help raise funds to buy more.  It is there that she meets Jon, who she later learns has the same abilities she does.  That's where the bank robbing begins, and where the issue ends.

I really like the way that Fraction is pacing this series (many of his other books are much more frenetic), and think he found the perfect partner in crime in artist Chip Zdarsky.  He has a slightly cartoonish style, but it works very well in the context of this series.  Suzie is shown at different ages, and it's easy to tell how old she is in each scene.  As well, Zdarsky, a local artist, has Suzie living in a house not far from the spot where I pick up my comics every week, which is pretty cool.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Suicide Forest

Written by El Torres
Art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta

I'd enjoyed El Torres and Gabriel Hernandez Walta's earlier horror comic, The Veil, and so thought I'd give this one a try, but was not prepared for the growth in the two gentlemen's storytelling between that project and this one.

The Suicide Forest is set in Tokyo and in Aokigahara Forest, the vast and dark forest near Mount Fuji which is known as a place where people commit suicide.  The story works along two parallel lines for a while, until everything converges in an ending that is disturbing and kind of sweet.  Ryoko is a young woman who works as a forest ranger in Aokigahara, the same job her father had before he disappeared.  She is a deeply spiritual person who adheres to a number of Shinto beliefs that are now considered outdated or mere superstition.  She works in the forest as a way of helping the spirits of the suicides find some peace.

In Tokyo, we meet Alan, an American who has a Japanese girlfriend, Masami, who is more than a little clingy.  Every time he's tried to break up with her, they've ended up back together, but as the book opens, he leaves her for good, and she assaults him before descending into a terrible depression.

After Masami goes to Aokigahara, two of Alan's friends turn up dead.  It's not long before Alan and Ryoko run into each other in the forest, and have to deal with angry spirits and other creepy things.

This book is very well written, with the characters feeling nuanced and complicated.  Gabriel Hernandez Walta's art is dark and suggestive, an interesting cross between mid-career Frank Miller and a toned down Ben Templesmith.  His forest is a foreboding, menacing place.

The Suicide Forest makes me think of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service series of manga, which begins in the same place, but this is a much darker read.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Zero #1

Written by Ales Kot
Art by Michael Walsh

I was disappointed to see that Ales Kot got booted off of DC's Suicide Squad.  His Change mini-series was interesting, if a little hard to follow, but with the Squad, he was showing a new linear-ity to his writing.  On the upside, though, not writing corporate-owned comics gives more time for a book like Zero.

This first issue introduces us to Zero, a soldier who works for 'The Agency', a shadowy organization that we assume is American, but could just as well be British.  Zero has been sent to Israel to retrieve some technology that has been used to augment a Hamas soldier, who is currently in the middle of a pitched battle with one of Israel's own augmented soldiers.  Zero has disguised himself as a tank operator in the IDF, and has to figure out just how he's going to complete his mission without getting discovered.

There is a framing sequence set far into the future (the rest of the book is set a little into the future), where an aged Zero sits at the side of a cliff, with a young boy holding a gun to his head.  The rest of the comic is supposedly the story that he tells the boy, although at this point, much is left to the reader to figure out.

Kot has a good handle on the augmented soldier genre, and sets this up to be a pretty interesting story.  Michael Walsh, who did such a good job on Comeback, reminds me a lot of Paul Azaceta in this issue, and has a good feel for this sort of action.  This is a good new series.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Instructions

by Adam Levin

When reading dense, gigantic novels, I tend to fall into a headspace where finishing them is less a cause of celebration (i.e., "I can finally stop lugging this giant thing around"), as reason to begin mourning the characters and their world after spending so much time with them.  To me, The Instructions, Adam Levin's 1030 page tome, belongs alongside books like Willam T. Vollmann's Fathers and Crows, John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead, Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven, and Roberto Bolaño's 2666, as a book that I found completely immersive and consuming.

Unlike those other books, which are all have a sprawl to match their heft, Levin takes just over 1000 pages to detail only four days in the life of his narrator, Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, one of the most unique and believable (while not being plausible) characters I've ever read.

Gurion believes he may be the long-awaited Jewish messiah.  Having been kicked out of a pair of Jewish schools for violence, and being expelled from the Chicago school system for more violence, Gurion has washed up at Aptakisic Junior High School's CAGE program, a lock-down class for troubled students.  He must spend his days sitting in a study carrell, facing forward, and not talking to anyone, at the supposed mercy of Monitor Botha, the hook-handed Australian who runs the program like the petty tyrant he is.

Gurion is an incredibly bright (and verbose) ten-year old, who became revered among students at the Jewish schools for his scholarship and leadership.  While their are few Israelites (never Jews) in the Cage, it's not long before Gurion begins to bring these violent, strange, and just misunderstood kids together under the banner of The Side of Damage.  Before this happens, Gurion falls in love with Eliza June Watermark, and has many long conversations with just about everyone around him.

Levin has crafted a very complex look into a junior high school.  Aptakisic has a number of groups, from the traditional basketball stars, the band kids, and the everykid no-ones, but also has the Main Hall Shovers, a thuggish group that model themselves on British soccer hooligans, but who also are concerned with the design of their uniform neck scarves.  Levin's school has complex rules around detentions and hall passes, and the Cage system is almost medieval in its inability to meet anyone's needs.

This book is full of fascinating characters.  Leaving Gurion aside, his friends and enemies are all complex and fully realized.  His best friend, Benji Nakamook is a brutal thug with a very clear and demanding understanding of loyalty.  Bam Slokum is the god of the school, a position he is both very aware of and beholden to.  Eliyahu of Brooklyn undergoes the biggest transformation in the book; a recently orphaned Orthodox youth with little understanding of other kids, he becomes a powerful leader in his own right under Gurion's tutelage.  There are many other memorable characters in this book - Ronny Desormie, the pervy gym teacher; the Five, a group of young Israelite friends; Leevon, the elective mute; BryGuy Maholtz, the nasally bully; the fascistic Monitor Botha; Call-Me-Sandy, the psychology student with a crush on her professor; Boystar, the child popstar who attends the school; and Main Man Mookus, a Cage student who has Williams Cocktail Party Syndrome, a form of retardation that causes him to speak in great long, complex sentences, the meaning of which he doesn't understand.

And then there are Gurion's parents.  His mother is an Ethiopian-Israelite psychologist who was in the special forces in Israel.  His father is a civil rights lawyer who has taken on a venomous Neo-Nazi as a client.  Their scenes in the book were the only ones that felt a little too long, but their support for and strange parenting of Gurion make the story possible.

Gurion himself is a rare character in literature.  He analyzes everything he does, but often finds that the best response to a situation is violent action.  He comes across as very loveable, but also vicious and dangerous.  He has armed his followers with pennyguns (devices made of pop bottles and balloons that can fire coins with great accuracy) and his own dogma, called Ulpan (or, in English, The Instructions).

The text of this book is meant to be Gurion's own scripture, as he himself wrote it.  To that end, Gurion (or really, Levin) often chooses words that are more 'scriptural' in nature.  When loading up on ammunition before launching the attack on the gym that sets off The Gurionic War, The Side of Damage choose to forsake the dimes, not pass them over.  It is these little touches that make this book so successful.

It's been a long time since I've read a book that has affected me the way The Instructions has.  Levin's consistency of vision, ear for dialogue, constructions of logic and scholarship, and most of all, wicked sense of humour (because this book is funny - I don't think I've conveyed that yet) make this a book I am dying to share with others.  This is an absolute gem, and one of my favourite books of all time.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Couple of Winos

Written by Charles Bukowski
Adapted by Matthias Schultheiss

I came across this single issue from 1991 recently, having never been aware of the fact that German cartoonist Matthias Schultheiss had adapted some stories by Charles Bukowski.  I snatched this up right away, not sure of what to expect from it.

The story is set in the California desert, perhaps in the forties.  The narrator is a wandering alcoholic who is picked up one day to work a manual labour job in the middle of nowhere alongside an older wino.  The two men struggle through their job before moving on in life.  That's about all there is, plot-wise.

Schultheiss's sparse style fits with Bukowski's bleak prose.  We don't learn much about the narrator - and we only know a little more about his companion.  The landscape is as barren as the art, and the protagonists' hopes for their futures.

There are a few odd things about this book.  To begin with, Schultheiss portrays the vehicles as having right-hand drive, which threw me out of the story.  I also don't understand what the cover, which is a little more explicit than one would normally expect on a comics shelf, has to do with the story.  Still, I'm now on the hunt for any other Bukowski adaptations like this, and would gladly pick up a collection of them.  This was a good find.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Autobiographical Conversations

by Ryan Claytor with Dr. Harry Polkinhorn

A few years ago, Ryan Claytor had an appearance at the comic store I shop at, as he was travelling around supporting his self-published series And Then One Day.  That series is an autobiographical one, and creating it led to his pondering the nature of autobiography.

This book depicts, in comic book form, Claytor's conversation with Dr. Harry Polkinhorn,  a professor at San Diego State University, who teaches classes on the personal essay.  At the time the two men met, Claytor was doing graduate work on comics, and they had a long and kind of rambling discussion on autobiography, the concept of objective versus emotional truth, and the proper way to convey personal experiences in a comic format.

Of course, the conversation is shown as a comic, and the two men move from Polkinhorn's office to a lunch spot, and then walk around the campus while they chat.  The conversation is pretty academic, but is rendered in an easily understood format, and is quite interesting.  They do discuss other cartoonists, such as Craig Thompson and David Chelsea, but most of the conversation is given over to Claytor's own approach to his work.

What has me most curious after reading this is seeing how the concepts touched on in this conversation shape Claytor's future work.  He thinks about things at a level that few cartoonists do, and so I'm interested in seeing how these notions get applied.

This is an interesting little book, which can be grabbed at Claytor's website, if it sounds like it might be your thing.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

Written by Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson and Ben Greenman

I'm not sure I can adequately express the depth of my respect for Questlove and The Roots.  I've been following their music for over fifteen years, and have almost always been impressed with each new album or concert.  More than that, though, Questlove has, through his writing on Okayplayer and other media outlets, been a teacher and guide through music, race, and just about any other topic he decides to talk about.  I remember his eulogy for J. Dilla moving me to tears.

Anyway, although I never read celebrity memoirs, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.  Quest does a great job, in many ways, of situating himself and The Roots in the various historical eras of hip-hop, showing how the band grew from the music that he and Tariq 'Black Thought' Trotter were listening to in high school, and how industry forces and trends, and their own inter-group dynamics, have shaped them over time.  He also explains the rise and fall of neo-soul, and a number of other things that I hadn't always put together as being related.

What he doesn't do, for which I'm thankful, is 'tell all'.  He never once names the girls he's dated, or shares salacious information about others.  When he does talk about other famous people, it is usually self-deprecating, like telling about the time he first met his idol, Prince, or the story of being at Lyricist Lounge when Mos Def dissed Puff Daddy on stage, only to later find him in the audience.

Quest comes across as a little awkward, and not always aware of how his actions are going to play out, which is a very honest and risky level of truth for a book like this.  I'd always admired the man, but having read this book, I now really like him.

There are a few things missing from this book that surprised me.  At its heyday, the Okayplayer website was a huge force in hip-hop, and served as my introduction to a lot of great music.  While the site is mentioned here or there, Quest never gets into a lot of detail about his role in forming that site, which is something I'd expected to learn a little more about.

I did come away from this book with an even greater understanding of music.  I found myself constantly cueing up videos on Youtube while reading this book, listening for the drums Quest talks about, or just satisfying my curiosity.  I didn't grow up surrounded with music the way he did, and so feel like I have to play catch-up in some key areas.

It's impossible to discuss this book without talking about the 'meta' material in it.  Really, this book is written by three people: Questlove, Dan Greenman, his co-writer, and Richard Nichols, the band's co-manager.  Some chapters are structured as a conversation between Quest and Rich, and they are pretty entertaining.  As the book progresses, Rich moves into the footnotes, sometimes adding more detail to a story Questlove is telling, and at other times flat out contradicting it.  His contribution to the book is great.

Ben Greenman, I'm not so sure of.  From time to time, he includes an e-mail to his editor, Ben Greenberg, about the direction the book is taking, or about some aspect of his job in the book.  None of these (short of the first one explaining that Rich is the bold text), add anything to the book, except for making it obvious that there is a co-writer involved in the process, who we know nothing else about.  I found myself reading into his presence (is it ego?), and later, that made me very conscious of the fact that despite the text being in first person, I never really knew whose words I was reading.

Regardless, this book is a solid document of a band that has had an important place in my life, and the world they've lived in.  I'm sure it could have been a lot longer and more detailed (the last two albums barely get a page each), but as it stands, it was always entertaining, and very educational.