MoCCA 2013: The Comics of Today & Yesterday

If you quantified and graphed the coverage of last year's MoCCA Festival, you would have ended up with a whole bunch of data points in the quadrant labeled "sad" and "seriously in decline," and even in my relatively positive review of some of the books I picked up at the Armory show last year, I tossed forth sentences like this: "Without Picturebox or Adhouse or Koyama Press or Ben Marra or Zack Soto or Frank Santoro or Michael DeForge, the MoCCA Festival did have a distinctive emptiness."

This year, Picturebox and Adhouse and Koyama and Ben Marra and Michael DeForge graced the newly decorated halls of the MoCCA Festival, so much of that emptiness was allayed. And the show, under new management, with a fancy "steering committee" and an even fancier "jury" helping to advise the coordinators and hand out glorious awards, respectively, was much better than in years past. More lively. More comprehensive as a survey of what's going on in comics right now. And, surprisingly, not all that crowded on Sunday, which meant I got to have decent-length conversations with comic creators I only get to see once every year or two.

The lack of crowds on day two was likely of concern to the organizers and the vendors, and the gang at Secret Acres has more to say about that stuff, so I won't even try to speculate on what it all means.

Instead, I'll talk about comics. Yup.

I picked up "Copra" #5 and "Zegas" #0" from Michel Fiffe, but I didn't read those comics yet. I need to set aside time for Fiffe. He's really good, and I can't just tear into those books while my kids are running around telling me about the new dresses they designed for Ghoulia Yelps or how many Gym Leader badges they have in "Pokemon Black 2." That Fiffe stuff deserves more attention. Former comic book critic turned indie comic madman Matt Seneca insists "Zegas" #0 is going to be looked back upon the way we now look back upon the early "Love and Rockets" issues. He dares the world to prove him wrong. I just like Fiffe's comics.

We all like Walt Simonson. I don't think he was at the show.

I also picked up the Self Made Hero compilation of "Rob Davis's two-book Don Quixote" adaptation because Glyn Dillon advised me to and after reading and loving "The Nao of Brown" last year, I take Glyn Dillon's advice to heart. My son ended up reading the Quixote book and it's now buried somewhere in his room. He says it's great and I should read it. I also take his advice to heart.

And Glyn Dillon also advised me to buy Robert Sellers and JAKe's "Hellraisers" because JAKe was at the Self Made Hero table alongside Dillon and Davis -- the three of them were clearly conspiring to present the most impressive trio of books-sharing-one-table while the artists sat back confidently and pretended to be super-nice and friendly, but were surely secretly plotting some kind of cricket match or something. Those guys were too nice, if you know what I mean. And when JAKe pointed to the cover of "Hellraisers" and asked me "which one" I wanted him to sketch inside the book, he indicated the likenesses of Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed and I knew it was some kind of trick. "The correct answer has to be Richard Harris," I replied. And so, get this, the guy drew me an amazingly jagged and beautiful Richard Harris inside my copy of the book. Pretty sneaky.

"Hellraisers," if you don't know, and I certainly didn't, is a Self Made Hero release from 2011, which makes it old news by comics internet standards, but since it's a graphic biography of Burton, O'Toole, Harris, and Reed, and their hard-drinking, living-life-to-the-fullest lifestyles, it is immediately worth your attention, no matter how much the world of 2011 has passed us by. The book has a bit of a sloppy conceit with a flimsy protagonist who is just there to act as the Ebenezer Scrooge for the various ghosts of Christmas past in the form of the four great actors mentioned. Only, it's not about Christmas, it's about Hollywood and sex and alcohol and acting and fame and self-mythologizing and as each of the "ghosts" appears -- and O'Toole notably points out in the book that he's not yet dead, but he still has a lesson to teach -- we get a brief tour through their rise to fame and fortune and drunken tomfoolery. It celebrates all four while showing the price they all paid for the way they chose to live. The celebration outweighs the tragedy though, so the "lesson" the protagonist learns doesn't quite line up with what's been presented, but that's okay. He was just a framing device and doesn't much stand in the way of the more interesting stuff. In retrospect, "Richard Harris" remains the correct answer to almost any question.

Devin Clark passed me a copy of the first issue of "The Raw Edge" which is some kind of unholy Mike-Allred-meets-Ben-Marra sci-fi concoction printed on green paper with a slick cover. So, yes, I liked it quite a bit. Clark structures the first issue like a hardboiled crime story, but it evolves into something increasingly dreamlike and surreal. I don't know the plans for "The Raw Edge," but I'll pick up every issue I see from now on.

Between Matt Seneca and I talking about his loathing for David B. and everything the French cartoonist did to ruin comics and Seneca's unrepentant praise for the greatness of "Zegas," he ensured me that I had to pick up the new Dash Shaw release from Fantagraphics. He wasn't talking about "New School," which was expected at MoCCA but delayed at the printer. He was talking about Dash Shaw's "3 New Stories," a saddle-stitched single that ends up being the best thing Shaw has released so far. In "3 New Stories," Shaw provides black-and-white brushwork over colored backgrounds, but the color layer is composed of photographs or painterly patterns, rather than anything that might be deemed "coloring." It's a juxtaposition of image, color and texture, and though that sort of collage-mixed-with-overlaid-narrative trick has been done by others, I've never seen it work as impressively as Shaw makes it work in these stories -- the first and third particularly. Both of those bookend tales also use a similar narrative technique, a kind of age-swap premise, with the first tale telling of an adult retreating back into a childish school environment and the final tale throwing us inside a prison for children. There's something in the realm of Michael Kupperman in the concept of each of the strips, but the depth of exploration is deeper and played for more than absurdist humor.

Dash Shaw remains excellent, and may be getting better, it turns out.

Since I've mentioned Matt Seneca at least twice, it's only polite that I point out his four minicomics made for an impressive display at his first-ever MoCCA table, and Seneca's newest Very Fine Comix release, "Zomb," demonstrates a new level of his artistic skill. His three previous minicomics are his explorations of the form, and you can see his art evolve and his experiments become more complex if you bounce between "Daredevil 12 Inch" and "Trap" and "200 Deaf Boys" (which were not necessarily drawn in that order, from what I understand). But with "Zomb," Seneca's use of color explodes and he seems more reliant on the strength of his imagery -- more confident in what he is able to put on the page -- and it makes for a more thematically unified package. "Zomb" is a zombie story, sure, but it's one that's framed around a sentence that lingers with portent: "A skull is more interesting than a naked woman." It's an allusion to Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," but this is not a comic that's merely satisfied to play chess with the grim reaper.

The best book of MoCCA 2013 wasn't any of the comics I've already mentioned, though I liked them all quite a bit. No, the best one I read so far turned out to be -- and this is probably no surprise to anyone paying attention to French comics -- the Picturebox release of Blutch's "So Long, Silver Screen." Blutch's work is almost completely absent from American comic shops, so I have no idea if this new Picturebox hardcover is particularly representative of his comics, but it's a fine book that continually surprised me with its essayistic qualities and its beauty.

It's a conversational book, as if Blutch is engaged in a discourse with the reader, using words and images to describe his connection with the cinema of the past. It opens with an ink wash allusion to the famous gun-pointed-at-camera image from Edwin Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" from 1903, ending with a passenger train zooming into a tunnel as the old man (the voice of the artist?) declares "...don't count on me to ramble on about movies, or the twentieth century... no more than I would about play, or childhood lying in ambush. This is where I get off." What rests in between is what seems to be a very personal exploration of what cinema means to Blutch. Actors and directors are invoked -- summoned -- as if to carve some meaning out of a series of personal experiences that pretend to be shared experiences. I suspect "So Long, Silver Screen" would seem thin if you, too, didn't have some kind of personal affection for or reaction to "The Wild Bunch," Burt Lancaster or late-phase Orson Welles or Fay Wray.

Blutch circles around those icons and turns them into his story about what it means to consume art and become transformed by it. That's a fascinating journey to take inside a comic, and Blutch draws the whole thing with a kind of vulnerable power that balances anxiety and certainty with this feeling there may be no answer to what it all means, but the questions are always worth asking.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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