Grotesque Anatomy
Friday, May 14, 2004
  Spring Cleaning, Spring Reading
Another thing that spring means is spring cleaning.  Last weekend I was attempting to restore order to my office when I discovered stacks of comics that I had never gotten around to reading.  Well, as you can probably guess, cleaning the office was put on hold so that I could attend to more important matters.  So here are some of the comics I've been enjoying this week.  (Not all the comics I uncovered were treasures, but I'm feeling positive, so let's focus on the good ones for now.)

Absent Friends:  A nice collection of quiet, everyday reflections on relationships of various sorts (friends, roommates, lovers, and business associates).  Paul Grist's sparse, simple artwork perfectly complements Phil Elliott's short, simple stories, resulting in a deceptively simple book that highlights the complexities of human entanglements.

The Complete D.R. & Quinch:  Sci-fi humor from Alan Moore and Alan Davis.  The basic setup is a bit repetitive (alien teenage delinquents go to great lengths to exact revenge on anyone who looks at them the wrong way) but it's amazing how much mileage the two Alans manage to squeeze from the premise.  Davis' art is a delight in black and white -- check out some sample scans at this site.

Jack Staff: Everything Used To Be Black And White:  A wonderfully fun superhero comic set in Britain by Paul Grist.  The trade paperback is a great bargain as well, collecting 12 issues and totaling just over 350 pages for only $20.  Johanna Draper Carlson has already done a fantastic job describing everything I loved about this book so I won't waste time repeating everything she's already addressed (that's her Jack Staff page I linked to above; strangely, Image's website doesn't have a page devoted to the TPB or the series, although they do have a couple previews of various issues), but I did want to reiterate how surprisingly great the book's structure is:  Although the book is titled "Jack Staff," the stories often ignore him and instead wander off to focus on other colorful characters.  It shouldn't work--the book should be frustratingly disjointed--but it does.  Somehow all the threads come together in a fitting manner.  (Well, except perhaps for the mysterious character known as the Shadow, but it looks as though that plot line is being addressed in the new color series from Image.)  Johanna cleverly describes this structure as being akin to what "channel-surfing would be if all the pieces worked synergistically to make one big show."  (Johanna's review also contains the brilliant description of Grist's non-repetitive plot recaps as "a spiral staircase, winding back over the familiar but with the reader advanced through the circuit.")  In a time when Marvel and DC are having trouble straddling the demands of conflicting audiences it's amusing to find that a creator-owned title is able to rise above the continuity quagmire and deliver such a satisfying, self-contained superhero series.

Mother, Come Home:  I didn't love this book as much as others did*, but perhaps part of my reaction was due to expectations having been set unrealistically high.  Still, I can certainly see why this book has garnered the praise that it has:  In addition to doing interesting things with the formal aspects of the medium, it's also a captivating story about a boy and a father who have lost their mother/wife.  As Time's Andrew Arnold points out in his review, Mother, Come Home is a work that rewards multiple readings due to the details one notices on subsequent passes.**  It's not a perfect work by any means--as Arnold also notes, the tone is perhaps too humorless and pretentious at times--but it's a challenging work I found myself reconsidering and reflecting on again and again, so the book merits a recommendation from me on those grounds alone.

Nausicaä of The Valley of The WindNausicaä is a difficult book for me to get a grip on.  Even after reading the first three volumes, I'm having trouble spelling out just what it is that I like about it.  The first thing that comes to mind is the art:  The art is just gorgeous--it's incredibly intricate yet it never feels over-rendered.  And the sepia tones the book is printed in (for the second edition, at least) only heighten the art's appeal, giving it an ancient, timeless look.  But I feel funny recommending a book based solely on the art (What is this? Jim Lee's Batman??), especially since that's certainly not the only reason I like Nausicaä.  I know many have focused on the environmental themes in this title (which makes sense, especially considering how creator Hiyao Miyazaki returned to those themes in films such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke) but that's not what really resonates with me.  I think what appeals to me most are the characters.  Even when the plot or themes don't grab me, I'm always interested in the characters and what they do.  Even the "villains" of the tale are interesting and authentic.  So that's my answer, then:  Read Nausicaä for the engaging characters.  And the art.  The art is simply amazing:


Planetes:  I'll always think of this as the comic beloved by both Alan David Doane and Augie De Blieck Jr.  Of course, many others have praised the manga besides these two.  Most recently, Johanna reviewed Planetes over at Comics Unlimited.  Johanna points out how much of the book's appeal is due to the gritty everyday feel of the stories despite the futuristic sci-fi setting.  (The book deals with garbage collectors who must round up space debris before it damages other ships.)  Another thing that makes the book stand out is its ability to juggle various moods without ever coming across as either indulgent or superficial.  It can be difficult to balance comedy with pathos, but Planetes does so without feeling jarring or schizophrenic.  Be forewarned, though:  Planetes is so good that, for some readers, it makes all other manga pale in comparison.

Hmm.  I'd meant to cover more comics, but this post has already become much longer than I had intended.  I guess I'll save some comics for next week.

* I was thinking mainly of Alan David Doane (the blog's gone but his review of Forlorn Funnies #2 can be found at Simply Comics) and Sean Collins here.  And with Sean I'm thinking specifically of his review in The Comics Journal #259, not his remarks online.  On his blog, Sean actually took ADD to task for "overselling" Mother, Come Home and complained on more than one occasion about the book's ending ("I think that towards the end Hornschemeier's desire to deliver an emotional knock-out punch forces the story off the tracks of believability a bit"; "I think it becomes a little too neat in the profundity of its tragedy by the end").  Sean was much more enthusiastic about the book and its ending in the TCJ review ("The climax that by all rights should seem ham-fisted and forced, and yet works, emerging as it does from intensely intimate (and therefore immediately understandable) details of touch and sight and (not) taste -- tiny, sensate building blocks of calamitous inevitability.  What hints of too-neat tragedy remain are torn to pieces by the book's final words, and the forward-looking eeriness of the image that accompanies them.")

** One of the things that gets richer and richer the more I think about it is the ending.  [OBVIOUSLY, SPOILERS AHEAD, AS I'M ABOUT TO DISCUSS THE ENDING]  By never showing us the father's body,
Hornschemeier forces us to imagine the grisly scene ourselves.  In place of the actual body, Hornschemeier provides us with the symbol of the sandwich, which Thomas tells us resembles his father's broken body (although Thomas must likewise be using his imagination, for he earlier told us that he did not watch his father hit).  Finally, Thomas does not eat the remains of his father's sandwich, perhaps signifying that Thomas will not adopt the sins of the father.  (This would fit with the forward-looking title to Chapter One, "We Are All Released."  (I'm guessing David Fiore would appreciate a book that ends with such an open-ended beginning.))
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