Lately I've inadvertently been reading one beautifully crafted comic book after another. It took a step outside of these current works to make me understand the different between reading intellectually interesting, genre-bending comic books, and the fundamentally satisfying intimacy of reading a well-crafted comic book.
On it's first issue, The Bulletproof Coffin by David Hine and Shaky Kane promises much, but will it fulfill this early promise? Right now we're still in the initial scene-setting of what the author's are trying to do. (If you'd like, you can read the entire first issue online) It's a slightly self-conscious sort of a foray into the Golden Age of comics, (when tales always terrified, and stories were usually scary, if not salacious) and I'm unsure where Hine and Kane will go in their dive into this genre, and more importantly, whether they'll show us something new within this context. So far it's an interesting little dialogue between the dry writing style and the very flat, stylized art, but whether that will merely be a book which is an entertaining homage to an earlier style, or a device to examine new ground remains to be seen.
As promised by the myriad glowing reviews, Afrodisiac was hysterical. An over-the-top take on a swinging comic book style of the far-out and groovy comics of the late 1960's. You know the kind of thing, imagine Shaft and Coffy had a comic book baby. A quick aside; isn't it odd that there is an official Golden Age of comics, but no official Groovy Age of comics? While comics about a go-go dancing Wonder Woman, or a stoned Lois Lane might have been made during the Silver Age, they weren't so much silver, as psychedelic... That being said, I'm going to call Afrodisiac an homage to the unrecognized Psychedelic Age of comics. It combines that classic art with the kind of outrageous attitudes to race that were prevalent during that era, but (naturally) never fully explored within the comic book genre. This type of comic book, with the strange mix of manga, Hanna-Barbera, and scrapbook mentality constantly forced me to acknowledge the medium, taking me out of the story to reexamine memories of this lost era.
Another comic book that (like Bulletproof Coffin) is just about at it's inception is iZombie. Mike Allred could do nearly anything and I'd buy it, so of course I got iZombie, even if he didn't write it. As it happens, Chris Roberson does a very nice job complementing Allred's delightful pop-art influenced work. With Laura Allred's painstakingly beautiful hand-coloring, the mood is set with a warmth and delicacy. It's got the feel of an old movie from the late 50's, something where all the girls have big skirts and ponytails. But instead it's very current, sort of, with hip young folk scuttling about in the night, hiding their various mutations and proclivities. It's eerie, cool, and pretty as hell. Only on issue 2, this strangely attractive universe is already rich with the promise of a eerie journey that belies the nostalgic setting.
Dan Clowes new book, Wilson broke my brain a little bit. In the format of a daily new strip (or maybe in the format of dozens of different daily strips) is this actual real, dismal life. Initially, the weird use of a mixture of classic cartooning styles creates the expectation of a rarely progressing, light-weight strip. These kind of weekly comics don't often get so grim, and so the book did this great job of keeping me constantly off-kilter. After a while, part of my brain tried to ignore the radically different drawing styles, using the basic clues of color to see the characters. But it's impossible to ignore, and each page conveys a new mood to it's (inappropriately gritty) storyline. Surprisingly linear and consistently dark, this is a strangely amusing, sad tale of narcissism. This use of this every-changing style keeps the mood so off-balance, that reading it becomes akin to being a little drunk or sleep-deprived.
Lastly, I picked up the beautiful new reprint of The Tale of One Bad Rat to read. Quite at home amongst these other elegant new, clever comic books that I've been reading, it was originally published 16 years ago. So different in every way from these very cerebral cultural commentary artworks I've been reading lately, it acted like a bucket of water in my face, waking me up and shocking me with it's intensity. This is a story, elegantly and gently told, of a young girl, at first escaping and then resolving her abuse. Told honestly and intelligently, it's happens so organically that even though the story is somewhat accelerated for effect, it feels right. There is a brutal, painful quality to it, quickly followed by a fearful hope, and ultimately a blessed peace transcends. The book conveys the emotional journey of an individual on a very fundamental level.
Simply an incredibly well-crafted book. It just reaches inside and tears out your heart. No clever meditations on what comic books are, what they were, or where they're going, just an excellent story about something so damn awful, that none of us like to talk about it. With love, care and respect, Bryan Talbot's One Bad Rat packs a hell of a punch. There's no gimmicks, no clever ruminations on technique, just the perfection of Talbot's painstakingly descriptive words and drawings. His work is always so rich, so clearly infused with so much of his effort and time that it's consistently rewarding. But up until One Bad Rat, I don't know if he ever so completely captured true human pain and joy so perfectly. Without any bells or whistles, after all of the head-scratchers of recent works by similarly talented people, reading One Bad Rat was akin to a mental sauna, sweating my brain and relaxing all those muscles with a bit of intense steam.
While I truly appreciate the fun and joy with which current comic book creators are approaching the medium, there's a lot to be said for the palate-cleanser that a slice of brutal realism and heart can offer. Exploring the past and future of the comic book medium with an eye on the surreal is a virtuous endeavor, exciting and stimulating, but reading a raw and brave story of human experience is the meat of the comic book experience. In my opinion, the true value of this kind of exploration and examination is in it's culmination, in the results. One day soon, we'll look back on this time as simply preparatory, leading us inevitably towards the next step in the comic book genre. For now we can enjoy books like The Tale of One Bad Rat as the culmination of it's own era of exploratory comics of the late 1980's and early 1990's, and see how far things came before someone could simply tell a realistic, painful story with honesty and vulnerability.