McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, No. 13

Edited by Chris Ware
ISBN: 1932416080

Its a hardcover book, its a mini-comic, its the funny pages…

But there is no Superman. It is the alternative comics issue of
McSweeney’s, Number 13.

As an object, it really is a beautiful thing. Heavy paper cover,
embossed design on the book’s cover, smooth pages, and the reassuring
heft that comes with a book comprising a goodly number of pages. Chris
Ware designed and edited this issue.

With collections, there are always questions of what is included and
what is left out. The artists included contain most of the usual
suspects in non-superhero alternative comics publishing today: Ware
himself, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Seth, Ben Katchor, Gilbert
Hernandez, Debby Dreschler, Chester Brown, Richard Sala, Lynda Barry,
John Porcellino, and Joe Sacco. (No Craig Thompson or James Kochalka,
though, two big figures in alternative comics. Then again, Top Shelf
isn’t listed as a place to go for more, as are Drawn & Quarterly,
Highwater Books, and Fantagraphics – a curious omission.)

There are contributions in prose by Chipp (the nearly-omnipresent book
designer) Kidd and Michael (he even write comic books into his novels)
Chabon. Ware also includes articles about and reprints of developments
in comics history, from arguably the first comic writer to Charles
Schultz’s preliminary sketches. And there is Art Spiegelman, of course,
alternative comics claim to responsibility – whether he wants it or not
– because Maus won the Pulitzer.

I picked up this book for two reasons. The first is that I’ve read the
work of only a few of the contributors, so I was curious, and this
seemed like a good way to see a lot of new material. The other one has
to do with my attraction/repulsion to the idea of McSweeney’s (Dave
Eggers is the publisher) and my idea that the folks who put out
McSweeney’s probably think of themselves as too clever by half.

What I discovered is that they are capable of putting out a
high-quality book, and introducing me to work I liked. I enjoyed
Porcellino’s mini-comic, David Heatley’s stories about his dad, Ben
Katchor’s excerpts, the amazing amount of detail Joe Sacco packs into
each page, Chris Ware’s stories, and Lynda Barry’s struggle with
creativity.

Recommended. Considering that graphic novels and anthologies often cost
upward of $20 for so much less in softcover, this is a good deal even
at full price.

Sticks and Stones

by Peter Kuper

ISBN: 1400052572

Kuper has crafted a wordless story of empire, of conquest and its consequences. It is a story that would probably be recognizable in any time and any language, but seems all the more impressive in its stark condemnation of ruthless power given current events. No doubt Kuper’s intention in creating an inept, angry, powerful and greedy blockhead who squelches dissent was to tell both a timeless and timely parable.

The art here is fantastic. The bold sketchwork combined with a fine-spatter noise bring to mind both old cartoons and vintage silent movies. Most of the story is in black and white, with a few pages and panels breaking out into vibrant color. I found myself reading for the story, reading again to really look at the art, reading again to see how Kuper put it together… mainly, just reading it again.

If wordless graphic novels, political parables, or just well-made square books with art in them appeal to you, pick up Kuper’s latest effort. I haven’t read any of his other books, (including an adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis) and now I think I will seek them out. Recommended.

Owly

by Andy Runton

ISBN: 1891830627

If Owly were cuter, this book would be unbearable. You’d get a toothache looking at it, if it were any sweeter. We are talking serious puppies!-level adorableness.

And I loved it.

Owly is the sort of friend you wish for when you are feeling lonely in the world.

Owly is, you may have guessed, an owl. He’s careful, he’s thoughtful, but other smaller creatures still have an instinctual fear reaction when they seem him. The birds that come to his feeder scatter if he gets too close; the worm parents whose child he saved and nursed back to health slam a door in his face. He’s a can’t catch a break kind of little guy, and that makes him endearingly human.

So he plods along and makes his own breaks, not giving up to despair and discouragement. There is fun, wonder, adventures, and humor in Runton’s mostly wordless stories.

Everything is there in the black and white images: shivering hummingbirds, tearful Owly with his hurt feelings, Wormy’s intent focus. The visuals carry the story because they are the story, and Runton knows it. Fortunately his art is more than up to the task. Panel layouts, flow, perspective, cartoony drawing style — he pulls it all together to create a whole believable world, where things move and change and make you feel.

This is an all-ages story. The fact that there is virtually no reading required does mean that younger kids can enjoy the book on their own, but any grownups in their lives (especially grownups who have their own comics habit) should read along with them. Simple, tender stories aren’t pitched to adults often enough, and you won’t want to miss this one.

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Note: If this books sparks interest (yours or the kid’s you buy books for) you may also want check out Sara Varon’s Sweaterweather, another cute and all-ages appropriate book with friendship themes.

Conversation #1

by James Kochalka and Craig Thompson

available from Top Shelf Comics

James Kochalka has published mini format comics before, but none as slick as this collaboration with Craig Thompson. Five inches square, forty-eighty pages long with a full-color cover, Conversation is packed with self-deprecating humor and back and forth on the meaning of art.

The design is one panel per page, occasionally forming two-page spreads. Kochalka and Thompson share the drawing and lettering duties, and the result blends well together. I was worried the comic would seem disjointed, as each has a strong and distinctive visual style, but instead the overall effect is that of, well, playful conversation.

Magic Boy argues that “making art is like getting into a wrestling match with God,” and Craig feels that art can be “more like a prayer than a ‘wrestling match.'” Both think art can be used to challenge the unknown, and that artists shouldn’t be afraid to look like idiots.

Which they both kind of do here, what with the getting peed on by God, nearly strangled by a giant octopus, and losing their underwear. A must-have for Kochalka and Thompson fans, and a good risk to take with five bucks for other comics readers looking for something new.

Salmon Doubts

by Adam Sacks

ISBN: 1891867717

This is an entire graphic novel about, well, fish. As the title would suggest, anthropomorphized salmon who think.

We all know the basic deal with these fish: born in a river, they grow up, go to the ocean, return to the river they were born in to spawn and then die. Do we really need a book about this? They way Sacks tells it, yes.

This is also a story about the uncertainty of childhood friendships, the awkwardness of adolescence, conformity, and curiosity. All the characters happen to be fish and look more or less alike, true. Good thing Sacks can draw fish well.

Cover to cover, from the screen-printed first pages to the final panel, I enjoyed the art. Sacks employs thick, flowing lines, more cartoonish that realistic in style, but with veering into overly cutesy territory. A two-panel layout with few variations could get boring over a work of this length, but here it works. Shifts in perspective help with this, and to create a sense of motion — they are swimming fish, after all. He also uses three colors of ink (most of the time) and not black, but shifting blues and grays, helping to orient the reader throughout the journey.

Most of my favorite panels were from the open ocean scenes in the story. These were more visually compelling (swarms of starfish, dozens of manta rays, the soaring sense of open space) and mostly wordless. This brings me to the one thing I found myself disliking in the book: the lettering. I can see what sacks is trying to do — distinguish individuals and genders that as bodies look the same by employing different lettering styles — but I don’t like it. As an idea it isn’t a bad one (but do the girl salmon have to have more flowering looking script?) it is that the lettering isn’t as high in quality as the art. Couple this with the additional focus that switching lettering styles brings, and it becomes distracting.

This is a solid first graphic novel for Sacks, and another good bet on a different idea for Alternative Comics, the publisher. I look forward to what else Adams Sacks will do. Recommended.

The 13th of Never

by Crab Scrambly

ISBN: 0943151902

One of the latest offerings from Slave Labor Graphics, this book isn’t quite a graphic novel, but an illustrated story. What is the difference? Type that is set and not in panels is the shortest, clearest answer. I’m tempted to say images that, well, illustrate the story rather than drive the narrative forward is another answer, but then that just might be the way I feel about this book.

The setup is promising: a disaffected young worker who is cursed from birth comes across a magical charm that transports him into another dimension. Flipping through the book looking at the artwork, it is full of interesting creatures (always a plus for me) and curious objects. The style is angular, all black ink and hatch marks, with a clean appearance.

Going through the book again, it could almost be done in a wordless style. Not a great thing to say about a 70 page trade paperback-sized book that is half text, I know, but the images are much stronger and more compelling than the writing. I wish “Scrambly” had relied more on his art than on his words, because this is a neat story. The ending is a little too neat in fact, but I wonder if it would have seemed that way with a “less telling, more showing” approach.

Bottom line: an illustrated story that would have worked better in a comics format. The creator is worth keeping an eye on, but I’m not sure this story in this form is worth eight of your entertainment dollars.

The Octopi and the Ocean

by Dan James

published by Top Shelf Productions

James gives us the True Story of the octopi, presented as a fable. In this clever tale, a young boy with cruel parents is kidnapped by the school bus driver, who is really an octopus in disguise. (A tentacle is cleverly arranged as a tie.) He is taken to aid the octopi in their battle against the sharks. Its a brain vs. brawn kind of thing, and they need his help.

It is a story told almost without words, save a short “once upon a time”-type setup and suitable “moral” at the end. The format of the book is square (just under 60 pages, staple-bound with a heavy paper cover) and is printed in blue ink instead of black, as is fitting for a fish story. The crispness and boldness of the art, along with the effective use of negative space and color, remind me of woodcut prints.

James pays attention to the little details that move his story along, like the photos stuck to the family’s refrigerator with magnets, or the pictures hanging on their walls. (This is how we know the parents are bad. Well, this and the way the father goes everywhere in his underpants.) James uses a variety of page layouts, breaking his panels up within a larger blue square background on many pages, and not using panels at all on others. The way he switches perspective and zooms in and out both focuses attention on individual visual elements and creates a sense of a much bigger plane of action than is actually shown.

Brian Ralph fans would enjoy this book, as it (mostly) wordlessly communicates a story involving a unique journey (though shorter than Cave-In or Climbing Out) and it captures that certain magic in storytelling that I find in Ralph’s work. Folks who appreciate James Kochalka’s quirky humor and sense of fantastic possibility are also advised to pick up a copy of this book. I don’t mean to say that Dan James is “just like” Ralph or Kochalka — because James brings his own distinct style to the page — only that I think fans of these more established comic artists will find Octopi and the Ocean a rewarding read.

Because it is a rewarding read (and re-read): I loved it. Dan James has created a fun, original, and compelling story. Octopi battle sharks, parents are evil, a misunderstood kid has a bug for a pet, and it all looks wonderful, what more could you want? (Especially for seven bucks.) Highly recommended.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

by Marjane Satrapi

ISBN: 0375422307

In this graphic novel, Satrapi draws us a childs-eye view of revolution and war in Iran.

In the opening story “The Veil” we see girls using veils as a toys on the playground, underneath the narrator’s explanation: “we didn’t really like to wear the veil, especially since we didn’t understand why we had to.” This story reveals a fervent, childlike faith in God (whose appearance is stereotypical, with flowing hair and beard) which does not appear to follow any particular religious precepts. It sets the tone for the stories that follow: Satrapi trying to understand what is happening around her and to her, wondering what to believe.

Satrapi’s parents are activists who go to dangerous protests (her mother dyes her hair in fear after her picture appears in magazines) and yet they are well-to-do, having both a Cadillac and a maid. So what we see is at times confusing–they march against an existing social order, yet expect that the boy next door will not want to see their maid once he realizes she is a maid, and not a daughter of the family. They talk about Marx, Lenin, and Communism–and go on a European vacation.

The everyday stories are the most compelling: Grandmother comes to visit, the family runs to the basement every time the sirens go off (until the missiles–then there is no point in going to the basement, the damage is too great bother sheltering from), an Uncle who was imprisoned comes to visit, Mother hangs heavy curtains so they neighbors can’t see what they are up to and report them, Satrapi risks arrest for wearing fingernail polish. These events take place as Satrapi grows from tween to teen, stretching to understand more of what happens around her even as events become more inexplicable to the grownups, who in the end of the book send her on to Europe, alone at fourteen.

Satrapi’s art is stark black and white, with heavy lines and strong shadows. The page layouts vary from large, full-page panels to arrangements of rows three to a page. The art is simplified, with details generally rendered no finer than a bold print on a shirt. All the main figures are distinguishable, but the others, whether women on the street, or soldiers, or schoolkids, are drawn more as groups than identifiable individuals. The sameness of the images is broken only by a few jagged, sketch-like scenes of violence: the fire at the cinema, the boys on the minefields, and the rubble of the neighbor’s house after a missile strike.

I understand there is a sequel, which I will be interested in reading. I found young Satrapi’s stories interesting enough to want to see how she turns out as a grown up, and found the glimpses of Satrapi’s drawing in the sketchy scenes tantalizing enough to see what she can do if she lets herself go.

Peanutbutter & Jeremy’s Best Book Ever!

by James Kochalka

ISBN: 1891867466

I reviewed some of the material in this book before, when I read the first three issues of the Peanutbutter & Jeremy comic books, so I’ll keep this short. (In fact, reading notes is a blurb on the back cover of the book.)

Kochalka serves up a great big helping of all-ages comic humor in Best Book Ever. The quirky stories explore the nature of cats and friendship. The crow Jeremy tries to steal Peanutbutter’s hats, calls her a liar, and is scheming, nasty, and selfish. That doesn’t stop good-natured cat Peanutbutter from trying to be good to Jeremy, even caring for him when he gets a concussion. (Of course when Jeremy regains consciousness “under the most comfortable chair” in the office, he accuses Peanutbutter: “that’s where you take your victims to lick them!”)

With bold black lines, Kochalka clearly and cleanly drives his stories forward. He draws scenes with just the details needed to make them seem “real” and then stops, every line essential. He also has a hell of knack for cute: I found myself more than once wanting to pat Peanutbutter on the head.

If you are a Kochalka fan, you probably already have this book. If you are new to comics, or are looking for a good, kid-friendly comic, buy this book. You won’t be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t.

Pop Gun War

by Farel Dalrymple

ISBN: 1569719349

I heard the buzz about Dalrymple’s comic when it was coming out in single issues. So, apparently, had just about everyone else, because the individual issues sold out before I could buy them. More about what I see as a problem with that in a minute — what about the buzz?

In a word, justified. The story centers on Sinclair, a young black kid with angel’s wings. He picked them out of a trash can after they were removed with a chain saw — or were they a gift? There is both grit and wonder in the city Sinclair lives in. We meet a floating fish who wears glasses, a dwarf and a giant, a tormented homeless man, a label-crazy eccentric, and none of these seem out of place. The stories question what is real, and what is believable, and how these aren’t always the same thing.

I can say now I’m glad the individual issues were sold out when I went to buy them. It would have been incredibly frustrating to wait for the next installment, rather than reading issues 1-5 straight through as I did thanks to Dark Horse releasing a trade paperback compilation. Yes, I miss the color covers of the individual issues — and with their stark images painted on solid-color backgrounds, they were visually compelling — but I get the same talent with the strong black ink on every page, the engaging layouts, the energy in the line, and the satisfaction of reading “the whole story” all at once this way.

I just don’t think an individual issue of a comic — unless it is a one-shot, because those are designed to be self-contained stories — is worth reading most of the time. As a reader, I find there is more tease than reward in them. The stories barely have time to grab my interest and then they are over, and I have to wait until next month to see how things develop. A good writer doesn’t need a publishing schedule to create suspense — they do it with their art.

I don’t know what Dalrymple’s plans for Pop Gun War are; I know I am deeply interested in the world he has created, and I see possibilities for many more stories with Sinclair, Addison, and others in this city. I’d love to see them played out in a longer format from the beginning — there is a novel’s worth of material in this world, at least one. Highly recommended.