Tales From Outer Suburbia

by Shaun Tan
ISBN: 9780545055871

I’ve loved Shaun Tan’s work since I discovered The Red Tree. From The Rabbits to The Lost Thing and on to The Arrival (which seemed to bring Tan the wider attention he’s deserved) I’ve been fascinated, enthralled.

I have to wonder if there is even a point in me writing reviews of his books anymore, because I feel like I keep saying the same things. Which is not to say his books are all the same — other than the art is stunning in each one — only that I’m repeating myself (go buy it, you won’t be sorry). Shaun Tan is on a very short list of folks whose next book (whatever the next book is) I’m buying, in hardcover, at full price, because without question it will be worth it.

Not that his work has to be the same to be worth it. This book is different from the last, in that The Arrival was wordless, and this is one has typed up text on pages stories. (Fabulously illustrated short stories, of course.) There’s strangeness: large water mammals on the lawn, a water buffalo who gives advice, a tiny truly foreign exchange student living on a pantry shelf strange.

There’s also danger and absurdity (“Alert But Not Alarmed”), violence and uncertainty (“Stick Figures”) sadness and wonder (“Undertow”) and, like all good collections of stories, too many associations and feelings to pack in to a single review. Tan’s writing is not as strong as his visuals, but I almost didn’t notice that; the art is so compelling and the ideas absorbing enough, I’m not sure I can separate out the text from the images, nor do I think that is the point.

Tan is a world builder (that is the point) and the fifteen tales here all take place in a peculiar surburban world. There is an edge to the map; you might fall off. Pick up this book and see what you recognize, see if you get lost.

Kingdom Come

by Mark Waid and Alex Ross with Todd Klein
ISBN: 1563893177

Superheroes — the traditional ones, with capes, such as Superman — usually aren’t my thing. All bulging muscles and unstoppable powers and moral superiority, they tend not to appeal to me, as story line or as visual art. I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to read it, but a coworker who has recommended other books to me (The Long Run) left it for me on my desk, so I figured I’d better give it a try.

It’s different. The art — while it still has requisite bulging muscles — is done as painting, and is on the less extreme side of comic book hero art. Not that you can quite call it subtle, but fair to say it is subtle in comparison. The story is quite dark: apocalypse is upon us, for Superman and his generation have gone off and left the world to the rebellious, difficult, more violent super-powered next generations. Kids these days.

It is a bit of kick to see Superman middle-aged and gray at the temples. Batman is pretty much an old man. Wonder Woman is aging better than they are. There’s the human point of view character, epic battle, sweeping good vs evil with, let’s face it, pretty much the ending you’d expect. I can’t really speak to how true comics fans would feel about the whole legion of heroes showing up for this (pretty much the whole universe appears), as I didn’t grow up following the comics. I’d say it’s a pretty good introduction if you haven’t been following the story of any one hero carefully as it’s enough to know whether or not you want to explore the genre further. The story makes sense without all the background information, but is no doubt deeper for those that know it.

I was happily surprised at the darkness, but I could have done with less fire and brimstone and deeper flaws and… well, less godlike superheroes, I guess. Which is usually my problem. Well, that and freakish bodies in spandex.

It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken

by Seth
ISBN: 189659770X

The production quality of this paperback book is high: it has a solid binding, cover flaps, and the blue and black printing looks wonderful on the off-white (sepia, really) pages. But then, Seth didn’t just create this graphic novel, he designed the book, too.

The storyline first appeared in in his Palookaville comic series, and works to good effect here divided into chapters as more “traditional” novel — it doesn’t seem too choppy or arbitrarily segmented at all. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything arbitrary about Seth’s work in this book. The paper it’s printed on, the smooth but not glossy cover, the appendixed inclusion of his obsessive learning all fit just so.

Which makes sense, as the Seth narrating this story strives to have things just so, and frequently yearns for an unreachable “just so” somewhere in the past. The Seth in the book knows his own affectations, struggles with meaning (even gets a bit sick of himself) and sinks into depression the way others sink into a warm bath.

Its a good book, but I didn’t think the character was all that likable, or even smart — certainly not as smart as he thinks he is. (Sure, he’s smarter than his brother, and much more couth, but that is setting the bar fairly low.) I was more distant from the melancholy in his story than I would have been if I’d read it ten years earlier, but that probably has more to do with me than his rendering of it.

My advice would be that if the title itself piques your interest, you may well like this book. The art on the cover does make it possible to judge it — certainly worth taking a look at. It has received much critical praise, and The Comics Journal put in on its Top 100 Comics published in the 20th century list. Personally I don’t find Seth’s investigation of (wallowing in?) nostalgia or quest for self-discovery as charming as most critics apparently have, though I appreciate the precision and beauty of its crafting.

Robot Dreams

by Sara Varon
ISBN: 9781596431089

Varon does cute very well, without being cloying or self-conscious about it. I really enjoyed her previous book, Sweaterweather, in part for that reason. I feel the same about this one. Except this one has robots! And a dog!

There are also bunnies, a snowman, an ice cream-eating penguin, and a recycling monkey. If this still doesn’t sound interesting to you, maybe comics and graphic novels really aren’t your thing. (The book itself is well-made, with full color pages and sized like a trade paperback, so in theory you could pretend it isn’t a comic. If you are nerd-shy, it can probably be found in regular bookstores, too.)

It’s a charming story about friendship, making mistakes, connections, and trying again. If you loved Good-Bye Chunky Rice, you’ll probably enjoy this. Fans of Owly will also probably appreciate Varon’s work. If you are looking for violence or rippling muscles, you can safely move along, but if you want a dose of charm with a little bittersweet, pick up a copy.

Cat Getting Out of Bag

And Other Observations
by Jeffrey Brown
ISBN: 9780811858229

Jeffrey Brown has previously published several graphic novels, mostly about the sad state of relationships. Saying that might not be fair, as I haven’t actually read them so I might be wrong — that’s my perception based on what I’ve read about them, and what I’ve heard. Honestly, they didn’t seem that appealing to me.

This one is about cats. Stereotype all you want, but I couldn’t resist, and I tried.

If you have a cat or have ever spent time with a cat, you’ll recognize the little truths Brown captures. (Unlike James Kochalka’s Peanutbutter, Brown’s cats are real.) There’s the way kitties fold themselves into legless little loaves, or their eyes grow big before they pounce, or they chew on the pen you are trying to write with, death rattle birds outside the window, be all affectionate right before they bite you, or fail to understand the word no. Pages full of funny, cute, occasionally infuriating cats — it’s a sweet book.

I liked this well enough I’m reconsidering not reading Brown’s other stuff; I’m probably missing something interesting and quirky.

Truth Serum: The Lonely Parade

by Jon Adams
ISBN: 0979387906

Imagine if an inept superhero had a misguided plan to protect small town citizens. That’s Ameriman — “He is by your side. Just from headquarters where he’s safe.” His right hand man, the real brains behind his operation? She’s called Orifist. Yes, really. Take a look at the two of them, prepping for a press conference:

Orifist: If you run into any tough questions we’ll have a feed running into your ear.

Ameriman: But that doesn’t always work. Do you remember when I accidentally used my iPod instead of the receiver you gave me?

Orifist: I do. You started singing “My Sharona” when somebody questioned you about the moral dilemmas involved in sending people to their death in order to save lives.

Ameriman: The worst part is that I didn’t even know all the words.

Adams is a bitter, funny polemicist. His drawing style, on the realistic side for comics, works to disturbing and funny effect here. If you’ve lost the ability to closely follow political news because you suffer from seething rage when you do, this is probably for you.

Both

by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia
ISBN: 0747569495

I discovered Fluffy in a comic book store a couple of year ago, and since then I’ve wondered when I might be able to get my hands on more of Simone Lia’s work. Then I found this book, put out with her partner in crime Tom Gauld.

I should warn you now: Cabanon Press, which they created to publish their works, is based in the UK so they could turn into an expensive habit. Or unrequited love. Or you could just get lucky and find them at a shop. Because you are going to want everything they do.

This book comprises First and Second, early work from the pair. Yes, see how clever and dry the wit. There’s an astronaut and a happy bunny on the cover of this fine hardcover book… really, either you are hooked now or this isn’t your cuppa.

Their work is an interesting pairing. Lia’s work is fluid, rounded, with childlike appeal. Yes, the bunny is hers… so are the talking nuts, the toast, and the arguing couples. Well, Gauld has arguing couples, too, in a way: astronauts in space, medieval castle defenders, and masked wrestlers. His work is crosshatched, angular, and (visually) darker. The differences in their styles show off each to advantage.

So, if you are lucky enough to do your comics shopping in London, or if you come across Lia and Gauld’s work in your local shop, give it a look. They mix just the right amount of bitter in with their humor, and a good balance of disappointment in with the cuteness. Highly recommended.

The Rabbi’s Cat

by Joann Sfar
ISBN: 0375422811

This book contains three stories about an Algerian Rabbi and his cat. The character you as reader are aligned with is the unusual feline — he talks.

Yes, the cat talks: out loud even, in words people can understand, at least part of the time. Among other things, he argues that he should have a bar mitzvah. The cat is a keen observer of human behavior, though he doesn’t always understand it. As a result, the stories touch on many major themes (faith, love, pride, history, family) but don’t offer definitive answers — something that makes them more satifying than if they did, I think.

The art here is unusual, veering between fairly realistic sketching to more fluid, energized images, and packed with details. Everything is in full-color, printed on thick, glossy pages. Pantheon doesn’t skimp on production quality.

If you like quietly odd short stories, you’ll probably like this book. It would make a good introduction for folks who haven’t tried or don’t think they like graphic novels, but do like stories. Recommended.

Fluffy, Part One and Part Two

by Simone Lia
published by Cabanon Press

Fluffy is an almost impossibly cute bunny rabbit, one that speaks, walks on two legs, and can use round-tipped children’s scissors to cut pictures out of library books. Michael Pulcino is Fluffy’s Daddy, but of course not really, as he is a man and Fluffy is a bunny. Not that you can tell Fluffy this — Fluffy throws a fit at the idea. Michael is afraid to fly, afraid of getting into a relationship with Miss Owers, and an uncertain parent.

All this is to say Lia has created a charming and offbeat story in Fluffy.

In Part One, Lia establishes Fluffy as intensely curious, full of child-like determination (“Can I keep this book Daddy? Can I? Can I keep the book?”) and unknowingly mischevious. Michael’s idiosyncrasies are more developed in Part Two, as he avoids planes and embarks on a train and boat journey to visit his parents.

I keep thinking I’m not getting to real reason I loved these books so much: it is just as simple as the bunny is entrancing, and the little stories seem so true in their impossibilities.

Lia’s art is a combination of simple, bold lines with enough details to evoke the real-life clutter of a kitchen counter or a swaying passageway on a train. The layouts vary from whole-page panels to grids without whitespace to polaroid photo album effects. Everything is printed in navy blue ink with a variety of screens.

The comics are just over six-inch not quite square-format books, around forty pages each. Covers are card stock, and the pages are high-quality paper. Most importantly, Fluffy is completely adorable, and Fluffy’s Daddy is charmingly neurotic. Books like these make me hate the independent comic book publishing “schedule”: God only knows how long I will have to wait for Part Three. Highly recommended.

Babel, volume 1

by David B.
ISBN: 1894937783

I’d keep hearing good things about David B.’s work Epileptic (L’Ascension du Haut-Maul in the orginal French) but I could never find the beginning issues, so I wouldn’t read it. Yes, I’m one of those comics readers — if I can’t start from the beginning, I just won’t start. So when I happened across this, and I saw it was the first volume, I let myself look at it.

The combination of the artwork, featuring clean lines and amazing creatures, with the promise of mythology and dreams as subject matter is really what sold me on this comic. At a full-sized 32 pages with a heavyweight cover and full-color dustjacket, I did think $9.95 was a bit pricy. Then I considered uncertain publishing schedules and the need for translation, and thought maybe ten bucks wasn’t so bad. Another look at the red fish floating in the darkness, and the bright-eyed creatures marching along, and realized I really did need to have it.

David B. captures the magical world of a child struggling to make sense out of his reality. In these stories, the boy struggles to understand his brother’s epilepsy, unfathomable news reports, and the power of his own dreams.

I’m glad I could catch this one from the start. I understand the Epileptic issues have been released in a hardcover version, and given the strength of this volume, I’ll be looking out for that book. I’d recommend this comic to the no-flying, no-tights crowd as David B. is doing stuff here that is fantastic in that no-superpowers-needed kind of way.