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The graphic novels just keep coming!

by  in Comic News Comment
The graphic novels just keep coming!

And I must review them! But then more come, and I must review them, and then more come, and then I swear off comics but who am I kidding, I have to get more! So let’s check some out. You’d think these are from San Diego, but I haven’t even gotten to those yet!

Back in the day, I reviewed Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life and did not enjoy it. But it wasn’t like I thought Bryan Lee O’Malley was a bad writer/artist. I didn’t want to read more Scott Pilgrim books, but I stumbled across Lost At Sea recently, so I picked it up. Lost At Sea is from Oni Press and costs $11.95. The first copyright is from 2002, so it’s an earlier work from O’Malley.

Lost At Sea is an absolutely stunning work, and it makes the fact that Scott Pilgrim is disappointing all the more vexing. This is a book about an 18-year-old girl named Raleigh, who is sharing a car with three other teenagers as they drive north from California to Canada. Raleigh knows them from her school, but she’s not friends with them. She also believes that her soul was sold and put in a cat. That can’t be good.

That last statement makes this book sound silly, but it’s anything but. This is the story of a girl who is desperate to find out who she is and why she feels so out of place in the world. It’s not really a “coming-of-age” story in the classic sense, as Raleigh is almost as confused at the end of the comic as she is at the beginning, but it is a story about someone who doesn’t understand her life but is able to make some peace with it. Lost at Sea is more about what makes people friends and what keeps them apart. And O’Malley does it brilliantly.

Raleigh and her co-travelers, Stephanie, Dave, and Ian, are thrown together by fate. Raleigh is in California visiting the “love of her life,” Stillman, who goes to college there. Stephanie calls her by accident to invite her to drive back to British Columbia with them. Raleigh spends the first half of the book feeling awkward around them, until a conversation with Stephanie halfway through the book changes her mind about what they’re thinking. The story is told completely from Raleigh’s point of view, so we’re privy to her innermost thoughts. O’Malley manages to keep this introspection from being the thoughts of a whiny 18-year-old, instead creating an interior monologue that is at turns humorous, dramatic, wistful, and tragic. Once Raleigh begins to open up and learn about her traveling companions, it becomes a more surreal book, as we learn why Raleigh believes her soul is in a cat. The quest for her soul is the gripping center of the comic, even though it could devolve easily into farce. O’Malley doesn’t allow that, as her friends take her seriously with all the earnestness of teenagers and allow her to experience what a soul really means. The end of the book is a beautiful emotional moment (Raleigh even acknowledges it as such) and the final page a wonderful piece of retrospective that is completely earned. Too often in books like this, the emotional payoff is undeserved, but not here.

I don’t want to say too much about the book, because a great deal of its pleasure is reading how Raleigh comes to befriend the other three. O’Malley nails the way teens speak, including using question marks for statements that aren’t actually questions. He does a good job with the structure of the story, too, as Raleigh reveals on page 5 that she has no soul. Bringing this up so early means O’Malley doesn’t have to rely on a big reveal later on and can focus instead on what Raleigh believes about herself and her life. Plus, the book isn’t really about that, so it’s best to get it out of the way early on.

Lost at Sea is a magnificent comic book, and anyone who loves the Scott Pilgrim books should check it out. And if you don’t like Scott Pilgrim, I would still encourage you to check it out. It’s far better than the first book of that series, and it’s a complete story in one volume!

Our next selection is a strange little comic I received in the mail a few months ago and should have gotten around to reviewing before this. It’s called Vampspew, and it’s written and illustrated by Steve Feldman, who currently hails from beautiful La Grande, Oregon, which is between nothing and nowhere out in the wild, untamed eastern part of the state. This is one of those do-it-yourself comics, which usually means a few things. It will probably be weird, it will probably be intensely personal, it will probably be pretentious (and there’s nothing wrong with that; more things should be pretentious), and it probably won’t be very good despite having some promise. Vampspew fits into those categories (well, except the “intensely personal” category; this is a bit too weird for that), and although it’s not terribly good, Feldman obviously has a lot churning in his brain, and it’s the kind of book that makes you feel that he has some good work in him. I can’t really say what the book is “about,” because it’s more of a meditative exercise, as our narrator, the “head of the Dynamic Anthropology department at the university,” goes on a walking tour through Eastern Europe. By page 2, he’s a vampire (and he doesn’t become one the way one normally becomes a vampire), and then he’s off on 45-page examination of his new life. Dead monks, aliens, ghostly medieval villagers, and giant kangaroo insects all show up to help or hinder him along the way. Feldman’s narrator attempts to learn everything he can, but by the end (of part one, that is), he has set off to search for the most moderate path in life. It’s a bit odd, as you can guess.

Feldman dazzles us with vocabulary (it’s quite an erudite book, I must say), and there’s plenty of humor in the book, which keeps its somewhat ponderous musings light. Feldman does a very nice job switching between gloomy drawings and more quirky ones, as when he illustrates his narrator’s mindset by drawing a brain experiencing various moods. The best part of the book is the art, and although it’s roughly presented (the book is self-published, after all), it’s a pleasure to look at.

I can’t really recommend Vampspew, except for the fact that I encourage everyone to check out and support guerrilla comics like these. Check out Feldman’s web site for ordering information and some of the comic, which you can read on-line. It’s certainly not expensive, so if you can go without the latest issue of Ms. Marvel (to pick a book at random), maybe you could give this a whirl!

Moving on, we find another book I got for free. Damn, I’m a comics grubber, aren’t I? Well, Brian specifically announces on the blog that we “accept review copies.” And I got an e-mail asking if anyone wanted this. Who am I to refuse?

The comic is Bluesman, which came out a few years ago from NBM. It’s written by Rob Vollmar, drawn by Pablo G. Callejo, and costs $25. This is the story of Lem Taylor, a blues musician in the late 1920s who is being hunted for a crime he didn’t commit. Yes, it sounds like a proto-A-Team, but bear with it for a while! Lem and his piano-playing friend (Lem plays the guitar) Ironwood Malcott roam across the south, playing the blues in backwoods bars and literally singing for their suppers. One night in Arkansas, it all comes crashing down, as Ironwood hooks up with a woman and convinces Lem to join her and her cousin back at her house. Not surprisingly, she’s a “kept” woman of a rich white boy, who of course shows up. By the time things shake out, murder has been committed, and Lem is on the run. A black man in the South during the 1920s on the run from the cops didn’t have a long life span, as Lem discovers fairly soon. Vollmar does a very nice job of not falling into clichés, as the white sheriff who initially investigates the crime wants to figure out what happened instead of simply hunting down the black man and hanging him (which other whites want to do), while Lem discovers that he can’t rely on all blacks to help him out. Each person acts according to his or her personality, rather than a stereotypical expectation. It helps the story, which becomes a fairly standard “Fugitive”-style chase (not that there’s anything wrong with that), take on a deeper meaning. Both Lem and Sheriff Beasley gradually realize that it’s difficult to overcome prejudice but that it can be done – and Vollmar doesn’t beat us over the head with that. It’s refreshing.

Vollmar also does a nice job introducing evangelical Christianity into the story. Lem was forced to memorize the Bible when he was a kid, and he uses that knowledge to ingratiate himself in with suspicious townsfolk of the hamlets they visit. It also establishes a part of his character that leads to the climax of the book, which is a stirring confrontation with the rich boy’s father and the sheriff. It’s a thrilling meeting that does not end how we expect, but is really the only way it could end. When we consider the ending, it’s one of those tragic but ultimately uplifting resolutions that leave us thoughtful and sad that Lem sees very little way out of his situation.

Callejo does an excellent job with the art, as it has a gorgeous woodcut look that is both rustic and old-fashioned, which is handy as it takes place in the countryside of the 1920s. The characters are distinctive and real – the women are attractive but not freakishly so, and Lem and Ironwood are suitably haggard. At the end, when the action ramps up, Callejo does a marvelous job creating an almost Apocalyptic landscape, and it’s a wonderful, expansive world he’s created while still keeping everything within a rigid panel structure.

Bluesman is a terrific comic, with an exciting story that delves into a portion of Americana that doesn’t often get the spotlight. It’s easy to fall into clichés when you’re writing about race in America, but Vollmar simply lets his story reveal the truths he wants. It’s ostensibly about music, which helps make the themes more subtle. It’s a very cool book.

Hey, here’s another one! Our next selection is Tiki Joe Mysteries volume 1: The High-Stakes Patsy. Mark Murphy (with some inking help from J. E. Smith) writes and draws this sucker, SLG publishes it, and you will pay five cents shy of 10 dollars for the privilege of reading it.

This is a fun, breezy little comic. It takes place in 1959 Las Vegas, which means it is drenched in nostalgia for a time that probably didn’t exist but we like to think did (of course, I wasn’t alive in 1959, so I have no idea if Vegas was like this or not). There are gangsters, sure, but they’re kind of gentlemanly! The men all wear suits, the ladies are all curvy and gorgeous, and everyone is very witty. Our hero, Joe, runs a tiki bar (which is why people call him Tiki Joe). When mobsters try to hustle him for protection money, he enlists his old Army buddies from WWII and they put on tiki masks and kick some gangster tail! In the second (and longer) story, he and his buddies get involved with jewel thieves and a motorcycle stunt team – an all-woman motorcycle stunt team, of course, so Murphy gets to draw curvy women in leather. There’s two-fisted action, adventure, double-crossing, and the requisite sexual tension. Murphy doesn’t bother with digging too deep into the actual culture of 1950s Vegas, but that’s okay. This book is more to have some fun with guys wearing tiki masks thwarting crime. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Murphy has a nice, clean, retro art style. It’s not unlike Michael Lark, if that floats your boat (and why shouldn’t it?). Murphy nails the feel of the period, and it’s probably the main draw of the book. It’s not that the stories are bad, because they’re not. It’s just interesting that I read this just as I started watching the first season of Mad Men, and although that’s just as fictional as this, it feels more real. Samantha, Joe’s main squeeze, is remarkably liberated for 1959, and it doesn’t ring terribly true. Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief, and it wouldn’t be much of a story if Joe was a typical 1959 male and Samantha was a typical 1959 woman. It’s not that kind of book, of course, but if you’re going to set a comic in 1959 because you want to evoke a certain “feel,” it’s frustrating that Murphy ignores whatever else is going on during that period. Anyway, it’s a minor point, but one that bugged me.

For 10 bucks, this is a pleasant, fun, mystery comic that doesn’t tax you too much. It’s more notable for the wordplay between the characters, the sense of the time period, and the stylish art than anything, but the stories are quite entertaining. And who doesn’t love tiki masks?

Our final book in this post is Antiques: The Comic Strip. It is, if you can’t figure out from the title, a collection of comic strips, written by J.C. Vaughan and illustrated by Brendon and Brian Fraim. Gemstone published this, and it retails for $14.95.

This strip was originally published in Antique Trader magazine for a year starting in June 2006. Like most serialized comic strips, it’s much better reading it all at once, mostly because I can’t imagine waiting a week to find out what happens, especially when you get so little at a time. When it’s collected, it’s a charming story about, well, collecting stuff. No wonder it showed up in Antique Trader!

The story is simple: an old collector dies, and his daughter puts his entire collection up for auction. As he was the biggest collector of, well, everything, it’s going to be the biggest auction of all time, pretty much. Our main characters (that’s them on the cover) are Suzie Magee, who is called in to provide security for the auction, and William and Reginald Winston, who run antique stores in America and England, respectively (if you can’t figure out which is which from the cover, then you obviously failed Stereotyping 101). The two men are cousins, but they don’t like each other and rarely speak. But they arrive in Baltimore for the auction, along with hundreds of other collectors, and the fun begins.

And it is fun. Both Winstons befriend Suzie, naturally, and they both plan their strategies about what they want to bid on. Bill, as the Ugly American, is more interested in the various kitschy pop culture stuff in the auction, while Reginald (don’t call him Reggie), as the Stuffy Brit, is more interested in the high-brow stuff. Suzie, of course, suspects that one or both of them might be up to no good. She suspects everyone, but those are the two we’re concerned about. If you guess that both a kitschy pop culture item and a high-brow item end up stolen, well, I’m not giving you any credit. But Vaughan keeps us on our toes, because we’re never quite sure who we can trust. Hell, Suzie might be using her position to steal things! It’s a light-hearted caper strip, but Vaughan does add some nice emotional touches, as both Bill and Reginald become interested in Suzie (again, no surprise there, but it’s handled well). Plus, the Fraim brothers do a really nice job with the art. As it’s not the kind of comic that will showcase a lot of action, the artist needs to be very good with characters, and the Fraim brothers give each character – even the minor ones – a distinctive personality. There’s a recurring character who shows up in different disguises, and once it’s pointed out in the afterword, it’s fun to see how the Fraims make it obvious it’s the same person while varying his look.

Another fun thing about the book, which is a credit both to Vaughan and the Fraims, is the cameos in the comic. Vaughan gives us a glossary of characters who appear, and although I know hardly any of them (not being part of the antiquey world), it’s fun to check them out when they appear. The Fraims do a nice job whenever we need to see parts of Baltimore, too, giving the book an extremely real-world feel. Plus, the Stan Lee cameo is frickin’ hilarious.

Vaughan leaves the possibility open for more strips starring these characters, and I’d love to see another collection. This is an interesting comic in that it reveals a fascinating world (to me, at least) that is close to the comic-collecting world but still different. It’s also a fun book with engaging characters and some cool information about the world of antiques and collectibles. It’s always fun to learn!

I have a bunch of other graphic novels and collected editions to review, but I’ll stop now, as these are the ones from before I went to San Diego. Next I’ll tackle some of those. See? I told you they’ll never stop!!!!!!

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