Sunday, January 31, 2016

Fashion Beast

Story by Alan Moore and Malcolm McLaren
Adaptation by Antony Johnston
Art by Facundo Percio

So apparently back in the day, impresario Malcolm McLaren convinced Alan Moore to write a movie script for a story idea he had.  The film was never made, and the script languished for a while, before being acquired by Avatar Press, who then got Antony Johnston and Facundo Percio to adapt it for comics.  In some ways, the idea of two icons like McLaren and Moore working together is as interesting as their final product, but this story also stands on its own without worrying about its providence.

Fashion Beast is set a little ways into the future (as seen from the vantage point of the 80s), after England has been plunged into a nuclear winter, while it still fights some sort of war against an unnamed enemy.  London is slowly emptying of young men of fighting age, as well as undesirables.  The economy has tanked, and things are looking pretty grim.

This is not the case, though, for the fashion empire of Celestine, a reclusive designer whose gigantic salon remains brightly lit.  Doll Seguin is an androgynous young woman who works in the coat check of a local nightclub, until an unruly patron causes her to lose her job.  She ends up auditioning as a model (really, as a mannequin) for Celestine, who hires her against the wishes of the two simian Madames who actually run his operation while he sits in the dark and sketches clothing.

Not long after being hired, Doll discovers that the person who caused her to lose her job, Johnny, works at the salon.  Their rivalry pushes the two of them to do greater work.  When Johnny criticizes Celestine's designs, it is Doll that takes that criticism to the great man, and they are incorporated into his collection, which further enrages Johnny.  Things continue like this for a while until the tragic secrets behind Celestine's self-imposed exile from the world come to light, and Doll has to decide whether or not she will remain complicit in the deception at the heart of her new job.

I'm not sure how this would have worked as a film, unless it had been directed by Peter Greenaway, with a big, ostentatious score by Michael Nyman.  It definitely feels like a story whose time has passed, but that doesn't make it ineffective.  Johnston, as always, does a fine job of adapting Moore's screenplay, pacing the comic nicely to make it work across ten issues.  Percio is pretty Avatar-esque in his art, but that's not exactly a bad thing.

At the end of the day, this is really just a footnote in Alan Moore's career, and an odd piece of trivia in McLaren's, but it's good that it managed to make its way into the world.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


by Gene Luen Yang

I read Gene Luen Yang's Boxers a little while ago, and felt it was time to dig into Saints, its companion graphic novel.  Where the other book looked at the Boxers Rebellion from the perspective of a young Chinese man who played a key role in that conflict, Saints is concerned with the experiences of one girl who converted to Christianity and lived in a small Christian community.

Four-Girl is born to a difficult life, shunned by her family, and convinced of her own inherent devilry.  At the age of eight, she goes around making a face at everyone she sees to convince them that she is a devil, something she's been told by her family her whole life.  Her mother takes her to an acupuncturist, who introduces her to his Christianity.

Four-Girl, believing in her powers, places a hex on her aged grandfather, and then within days, he dies.  She feels guilt, and starts visiting the acupuncturist daily, mostly to eat cookies, avoid her chores, and nap through his stories, but the religion begins to stick.  When Four-Girl announces that she has converted, her family beats her, and she runs away, joining a French missionary as he moves to a new community.

She grows up there, taking on the name Vibiana.  Where before she imagined conversations with an old raccoon, as the story progresses, she begins having lengthy conversations with Joan of Arc, who often visits her in the evening and shares information about her life.  As Vibiana grows up, she becomes a little less religious, especially around the time that she starts to feel interest in Kong, a minor character from Boxers.

Vibiana sees herself as the new Joan of Arc, and as the person who is going to protect her community, as news arrives of the coming of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, the group that has been killing Christians and foreigners.

Yang's work here is very nice.  He makes Vibiana a sympathetic character, while also making it completely okay to question her sanity and motivations.  I've personally always wondered about convert communities, and how 'pure' their faith must really be, or to what extent they are just looking to make substantive changes in their lifestyle, and their new religion becomes a means to that end.  Yang allows me to keep my cynicism with this book, as Vibiana really just looks out for herself.

I found it interesting that Yang kept the colours for this book pretty drab, while Boxers was brighter and more vibrant.  It's not hard to imagine which side in the conflict between traditional and missionary cultures Yang feels more sympathy towards.  I particularly like his portrayal of Father Bey, the priest whose strict devotion and judgemental ways landed him in China in the first place, where he really didn't trust even his closest followers.

This book, both on its own and with its companion title, belong as part of the larger conversation of post-colonial literature.

Monday, January 18, 2016


by Craig Thompson

I can't really explain why it's taken me this long to read Blankets, especially since I read Thompson's incredible Habibi as soon as it came out, but I read a lot of comics, and there are a lot more that I've never read, so it happens when it happens.

Blankets is a beautiful, beautiful book.  It's a very honest look at Thompson's early days, living in a remote farmhouse in Wisconsin as a child, and it follows him through his first love in his final year of high school.  More significantly, it looks at his evolving ideas about religion, and how he eventually walks away from the harsh, unforgiving Christianity of his parents.

As a kid, Craig is an true outsider.  He's artistic and sensitive, uninterested in sports, drinking, or drugs.  He does not easily fit into large groups, but also at home, is not all that interested in spending time with or getting to know his younger brother.  Craig is not mean or snobbish, he's just pretty self-sufficient.

In high school, as he's forced to attend yet another Christian camp during his winter break, he meets Raina, a girl from Michigan who is just about a perfect match for him.  They have a lovely (chaste) time together at camp, and then begin a relationship held through the mail.  Eventually, Craig is invited to stay at her house for two weeks (it says a lot about how trusting both kids' parents are that they never even assume there could be problems with this), and we get to see their relationship grow.

I'm not sure to what degree Thompson chose to fictionalize some of these events, but what we get to see is one of the more touching coming of age stories I've ever read.  Craig is the type of kid who feels sad sitting next to the girl he's in love with because he knows that soon he won't be.  Raina, on the other hand, is dealing with a lot at home - her parents are divorcing, her sister keeps using her to babysit her baby, and her other two (adopted) siblings have intellectual disabilities of differing severity.  She's looking for someone to make her feel less alone and overwhelmed, but is not exactly after the level of commitment that Craig is.

Woven through all of this is the austere Christianity that Craig's been raised in.  He's been taught forever about the rewards of heaven (which, to be honest, sounds pretty terrible, even if you like to sing), and has been singled out as a good candidate for seminary school from an early age.  He reads the Bible nightly, but, as we see, begins to question a lot more than word choice in the various translations.

This is a very good read.  Thompson's art is lovely, and he plays with layout and design in interesting ways.  He is able to convey a great deal of emotion in pretty simple facial drawings, and makes great use of white space (the snow that blankets Craig's life so often) to help focus the narrative.  I can easily understand why this is such an acclaimed graphic novel.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Strange Attractors

Written by Charles Soule
Art by Greg Scott

It's not uncommon, for a comics reader, to find a moment when a character discusses how magic is science that is just not understood yet.  Strange Attractors, by Charles Soule, upends that maxim, and gives us a story about mathematics so hard to understand that it may as well be magic.

Heller Wilson is a PhD. candidate who is working to complete his thesis in New York City.  He's studying complexity theory, and is led to meet with Dr. Spencer Brownfield, an ex-professor who did groundbreaking work on this concept before stepping down for reasons that are shrouded in secrecy.

We learn that Brownfield, who is more than a little eccentric and obsessive, spends his days adjusting the ebb and flow of New York City in a variety of ways, all in an effort to keep the living organism of the city healthy.  It's just about impossible to try to understand the mathematical underpinning in Brownfield's actions, but the concept fascinates Wilson, who begins working with the older man.

As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that something cataclysmic is about to happen to New York.  The professor has a plan, but it's all pretty hard to believe, and Wilson goes through a lot of doubt as to whether or not he should commit to the project.  We, as readers, have a good idea of what the problem will be, as we keep seeing glimpses of terrorists constructing a dirty bomb, as well as some behind-the-scenes moments at City Hall, where a police strike looms.

Soule is a very impressive writer.  I love his Letter 44, and have been very impressed with his work at Marvel (She-Hulk, Daredevil, even the Inhumans) and DC (Swamp Thing).  This is one of his earliest published works, but it's clear at this point that he has a new way of constructing comics stories.  Greg Scott is a capable artist, and he manages to make what is largely a talking heads comic visually interesting.

I don't know how the mathematics behind this story could possibly work, or how an algorithm to map so many different data sets into a cohesive image could possibly be developed in such a rush, but the idea of cities as living creatures is a compelling one, and this book opens up some interesting notions for future exploration.

Saturday, January 9, 2016


by Joe Sacco

At this point in my life, after spending just about all of it reading comics, I'm always a little surprised when I realized what some of my gaps are.  For example, I've never read a complete Joe Sacco book before now.  Palestine collects his individual comic books from the mid-90s, recounting his visit to that unfortunate place.

I don't know what kind of response this book got when it came out, but it clearly wasn't strong or outraged enough.  In this book, Sacco walks around the towns and refugee camps of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, going into peoples' homes, hearing their stories, and observing their living conditions.  He gives a very honest portrayal of Palestinian life as it was twenty years ago.

That things have only gotten worse in this occupied land is unbelievable to me.  I don't want to get into my political thinking here, but as someone who likes to see himself as a humanist, this book made me angry and sad.  Knowing that, were Sacco to find these same people and talk to them again, their lives are not likely improved, is a tragedy.

I think the main reason why I never read a Sacco book is because his art kind of turns me off.  His people are strange looking, and their teeth disturb me.  That said, his draftsmanship is great, and his establishing shots, or his panoramas of Palestinian life, really impress.

It took me a little while to adjust to his use of cascading text boxes, and the overall wordiness of this book, but by the time I had read the first three issues collected here, I was hooked.  Sacco should be admired for the bravery and sensitivity he brought to this comic, and I liked the way he kept himself front and centre, providing us a perspective to react through.  This is a classic piece of graphic literature.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards

Written by Jim Ottaviani
Art by Big Time Attic (Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon)

I remember that this historical graphic novel was promoted in a Free Comic Book Day giveaway back when it was first published, and it caught my attention as entertaining and original, but I never got around to buying a copy until not that long ago.

Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Paleontology is a book that looks at the (un)professional rivalry between two giants of the field of Paleontology at the end of the nineteenth century.  Edward Drinker Cope is an obsessive collector of dinosaur fragments, constantly looking to expound on his theories (even to German-speaking fellow coach passengers) and promote his ideas, well beyond his meagre financial capabilities after losing most of his money in some bad mining investments.  Othniel Charles Marsh is a fatuous gasbag whose inheritance and social position has provided him great privilege in bending the ears of influential people in Washington DC.

To say that these two men hate each other is to minimize the extent of their feelings for one another.  Marsh plants fake fossils in the badlands in hopes of discrediting Cope, and has him removed from his lucrative position in the US Geological Survey.  Cope never misses a chance to put down Marsh, and carries around documents that disprove his rival's theories that he has sewn into the front of his pants for safe keeping.  Along the way, we meet some of their other colleagues or acquaintances, including Charles R. Knight, the artist whose dinosaur paintings were responsible for constructing the public attitude towards dinosaurs to today.

Ottaviani does a great job of exploring these two eccentrics, and carefully documents the places in his story where fact is stranger than fiction.  I'm always attracted to well-sourced historical fiction, and so found the notes in the back almost as enjoyable as the story itself.

What really struck me was the casual, dismissive attitudes of both scientists towards their lives' work.  They were more interested in mashing pieces together to form their preconceived idea of the larger puzzle, and were usually much more interested in showing up the other than conducting proper scholarship.  This is a book about ego more than anything else.

The Cannon brothers do fine work in this black and white comic.  I started to get a real feel for these characters based upon their appearances and facial expressions.

In all, this is a very enjoyable book.  It might be a little hard to track down, but it's worth it, especially for anyone with an interest in the intersections of history, science, and paleontology.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The People Inside

by Ray Fawkes

Ray Fawkes is an interesting, very multi-faceted comics professional.  Over the last bunch of years, he's become a much more recognized name, writing for Batman Eternal, Justice League Dark, Constantine, and the excellent Gotham by Midnight.  He also co-wrote the terrible Wolverines though.

Outside of that, he's built a following for his children's comic Possessions, and has put together some very artsy, very strange books like Intersect, The Spectral Engine, and the incredible One Soul.

The People Inside is a stylistic follow-up to that endeavour.  Where that book focused on individual lives, from birth to death, this one looks at relationships.  Each double-page spread follows twenty-four people.  Most of these people are paired up with one another, creating at most a six-panel grid on the page, but as partners separate, their panel splits into two smaller ones.  When a character dies, their panel goes black and stays that way through the rest of the book.  The position of each character's panel never changes, although at one point, two people meet and begin a relationship together, and their panels merge.

Fawkes uses a very minimalist style in this book.  His simple pencils tell just enough information to get a sense of what's going on, and he blends dialogue with stream of consciousness inner monologue, so it's often impossible to tell if we are hearing a character's words or their thoughts.  It's very effective, although at times, I found it hard to keep track of who was who, and would sometimes have to flip back a few pages to remind myself which story was happening in which panel.

Fawkes includes a fair amount of sexual diversity in this book, featuring straight, gay, and bi couples.  We also see reflected in this book the full gamut of relationships, from one that is incredibly happy and rewarding, to one that is so abusive that one partner ends up in prison.  A couple of the characters never really find someone for themselves, although I kept expecting them to hook up.

While this book is very beautiful, it's also a little cynical.  More than the average number of people end up killing themselves here, and very few of these relationships end up being fruitful in the long term.

This is definitely an important book though, and works nicely as a companion to One Soul.  I'd like to see more like this from Fawkes in the future - not necessarily in this format, but with this level of inventiveness.