Recommended Reading from December

DECEMBER 2014

I  didn’t read a whole lot of comics this month, compared to previous months. Especially not a lot of minicomics. I think the only minis I cleared from my huge “to-read” pile were:

Dry County sufficiently remarkable - memory
Dry County by Rich Tommaso. I’ve always liked Tommaso, who works in the alt-comics tradition of Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, David Mazzuchelli et al.; his work has a similiar style and themes to those guys but has never hit it big with a graphic novel (yet). This one is a Florida-set noir-ish mini about a down-at-the-mouth cartoonist (what a surprise) and a femme fatale with some fucked-up baggage (it’s chapter one, I think the series runs on Act-i-vate, but I’d rather find the next mini). (update: I ordered it from him online at http://recoilcomics.bigcartel.com/) Sufficiently Remarkable: Memory by Maki Naro. A mini I got at MICE 2014. Another one that comes out of a webcomic, it’s a touching little comics poem about the protagonist’s grandfather’s failing memory.

 

I spent some time this month catching up on a few of the GNs that got a lot of attention this year, including a couple that made a lot of the “Best of the year” lists:

 

This One Summer beautiful darkness
That One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki. This made nearly all the top-ten comics and graphic novel lists I saw. I agree with the hype. It’s beautifully drawn: the dry-brush strokes she uses to draw hair, and the fluid curving brush lines that describe cheeks and jaw-lines linger in my mind. The story involves a series of relationships as seen through the eyes of a tween-age protagonist, and the themes of adults (or teens) grappling with responsibility/parenthood/sex is developed with subtlety and nuance; it doesn’t feel like “YA.” Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët. Another one that showed up on all the end of the year lists, I’m not quite as on board with the hype here. The book is gorgeous, drawn in watercolors; as pages, this is fantastic comics-making. And though the premise of the story is intriguing and original, I found it repetitive and ultimately mean-spirited and a little pointless, indulging in morbidity and cruelty without much nuance (note: I read it in the English translation). But I’ll open up the book with pleasure to look at any random page.
 IRL IRL (In Real Life) by Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow. One ends up reading a lot of YA material when you’re into comics these days, because there’s so much of it, and that’s where the paying work for good artists is, I guess. IRL makes a good compare/contrast with That One Summer; the art is equally wonderful (and similiar in style; the coloring is fun too), but this is YA that feels very much like YA. It’s a positive message for kids, but simplistic as well. So simplistic, in fact, that I wonder if its positivity is really meaningful at all, since it never questions the assumption that relating to other players/avatars in online gaming is as or more important as relating to people IRL.

Then, two great kids’ adventures in space comics, made on two different continents, 75 years apart, but seem to me to have a certain kinship:

Low Riders 1 Kasei Tanken
Low Riders in Space, by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (Somerville-via-El-Paso’s own Raúl Gonzalez). This has to be one of my most-anticipated comics ever, and I wasn’t disappointed. A crazy, goofy kids’ adventure, funnily written by Cathy Camper, with the added appeal of joyous multiculturalism (including lots of Spanish expressions and an appreciation for low rider culture). But what makes this book sooo great is Raúl’s art; there’s really nothing like it in comics, like a combination of Fleischer cartoons, Big Daddy Roth, grafitti art and psychadelic notebook doodles, with a beautiful/cheap aesthetic (all drawn with Bic ballpoint pens), on paper that looks like it’s been soaked in coffee. The characters are lively, cute, weird and rubbery, but at the same time he has a perfect sense of form and composition, color and movement that make every page a delight. And if re-reading counts… (which it does, because I say so)…Kasei Tanken (Voyage to Mars), art by Noboru Oshiro, written by Taro Asahi. Beautiful 1940 manga, which I read in the facsimile reprint. A scientist’s son and his talking dog and cat have adventures on Mars (actually, it’s all a dream). I can’t read the Japanese, but it doesn’t really matter – I follow along with a synopsis, and mainly just read the pictures. There’s a very long sequence where the trio eats some tomatoes that make them sick, and then spend a long time in a Martian hospital.
Here are some great pages from Low Riders in Space (click to enlarge):
Low Riders 2 Low Riders 3 Low Riders 4
…and from Kasei Tanken:
kasei tanken 49 kasei tanken 53 kasei tanken 52
Finally, there was Bidouille & Violette by Bernard Hislaire…
 Bidouille et Violette A complete collection of a relatively minor series that ran in the journal Spirou between 1978 and 1985. Though the strip appeared only sporadically during its brief life-span, it seems to have made an impact on readers of the time, in part for being the first strip in the venerable, juvenile Spirou, that broke from traditional genres of action and humor, and focused instead on a relationship: a “melancholy chronicle of first love,” as the sub-title describes it.

It doesn’t come up in any of the histories of Franco-Belgian comics that I’ve read, but I saw this page online while browsing original art sites. Hislaire - Bidouille et Violette - La reine des glaces - p13 1984 I was intrigued by the unusual line-work and atmosphere, the drama created by the page, the way he draws the hair and the weird eyes.  The page stuck in my mind, and after some months of vacillating, I sprang for the collection from Amazon France.

The love is between two shy teenagers in a provincial French-or-Belgian city (the fictional town of Mayon, so that the inhabitants can be referred to as Mayonnaise, *chuckle*), their innocent youthful passions somewhat inexplicably foiled by un-supportive parents. At first, I found the comic a little too twee, but by the end of the book, which comprises material that made up four albums, I felt positively about it; it’s rather uneven, perhaps reflecting the youth of its artist-writer Hislaire (just 21 years old when the series began). The early chapters do verge on twee-ness, as we meet the tender young proagonists and follow their halting progress toward young love. There’s a lot of graphic energy and inventiveness, though:b&v1

Then there are some episodes of misunderstandings and jealousy, from which we veer into a psychedelic dream sequence that takes up nearly a full album…
b&v2…followed by a slightly absurbist episode of B & V going on an urban “mountain climbing” adventure over the roofs of the town.  b&v4Finally the story resolved by invoking Romeo and Juliet for a surprisingly dark conclusion.

Despite this somewhat flailing approach to story, there’s a sincerity and intensity of feeling that I bet accounts for the fond memories it inspires in those who read it as adolescents. Throughout it all, I remained fascinated by Hislaire’s style, which falls into neither of the two dominant Franco-Belgian “schools”: the precise, Hergean ligne claire style, or the rounded Andre Franquin-ish look that generally charactertized Spirou. Hislaire favors eccentric shapes for his characters’ heads and figures, a wide variety of types of line and texture marks, all contributing to the loose, askew world he creates. B&D detail 2 His style (or his graphisme, as the French would say) reminds me a little bit of Fred, the artist of Philemon, though they work in very different modes, of course.(1)

 

Fred - Le naufragé du a
Fred – Le naufragé du a

Hislaire especially excels at drawing the settings his characters inhabit and move through, using them to create mood, especially the cityscapes.

b&v3

 

B&D detail 1After Bidouille & Violette, Hislaire launched the series that really made him a bande dessinee star: Sambre, which ran in the new journal, Circus. Very very different from B&V, a more serious and adult romantic adventure, set against the French revolution of 1848, and drawn in a completely different, more “realistic” style. To punctuate this dramatic shift in style and tone, Hislaire even changed the spelling of his name to Yslaire. I haven’t read Sambre; I’d always lumped it in with what I consider a mediocre slate of historical comics in Circus, but, as with Bidouille & Violette, there’s something about the look of it that’s always intrigued me; I think I’ll give it a shot sometime soon.

Yslaire - CIRCUS 94 - 1986 - cover

(1)NOTE: I should point out that two of Fred’s fantastic Philemon adventures were finally released in English this past year by Toon books – with no fanfare whatsoever. I haven’t seen the English versions, but these are really wonderful imaginative French classics, for all ages.

 

Dan
Lives in: Cambridge, Mass. Does: comics. Used to live in: Topanga Canyon, California But grew up in: Cambridge, mostly Used to do (maybe still?): Screenwriter, journalist, teaches some too

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