Short story collections and oddly-shaped comic books should be good!

Well, I was going to review some of these in separate posts, but then I thought, What the hell, and decided to do them all together.  You guys don't mind, right?  I mean, who doesn't love reading these long posts where I ramble about comics I've read, right?  Right?  Hey, where are you going?

Oh well.  Those of you I haven't scared away, let's check out some graphic novelly kind of things!

Up first is The Last Sane Cowboy and Other Stories by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey.  It's published by AiT/Planet Lar, and it retails at $12.95.


Larry Young sent this to me in the mail, which was nice of him, and now I have two copies.  Yes, I smell a contest on the horizon.  The Last Sane Cowboy is, to put it mildly, a surreal book.  I'd say it's the weirdest book I've read in a while, but I have something else below that's even weirder!  And, despite the surreality of the stories in this volume, Goodbrey is spry enough with his prose that although you might get hung up on the giant scorpion wearing a cowboy hat (it's true!), each story zips along and manages to make some very nice observations about life.

Just how surreal are these stories?  Well, they take place on an "unfolded Earth."  This is from the introduction:

One day the world stretched, then twisted, then unfurled.  It was as if the many-folded thing we then thought to be reality had shrugged its shoulders and settled back into a more comfortable shape.  Our Earth, unfolded back into its true form, was for many years afterwards a place of strangeness.

If this makes no sense to you, well, it's not supposed to.  It's simply a way for Goodbrey to tell bizarre stories in some sort of context.  If the world makes no sense, the stories don't have to either.  And then he launches into the first story in the collection, "I Bleed Scorpions," which is exactly what it says it is.


It's easy to denigrate these stories as the product of too much mescal, maybe, and simply wacky ideas that don't really mean much - kind of like the criticism leveled at The God of All Comics.  And, to be sure, much of this book feels like that classic issue of Sandman when Richard Madoc simply tossed out ideas.  A guy whose blood turns into scorpions when it hits the air?  Cool!  The girl who could smell tomorrow?  Awesome!  The guy with the planet for a head?  Nifty!  It would be easy to say that this collection is all goofiness with no real substance.  Except it isn't.


Yes, the stories are strange.  However, Goodbrey, whether he meant to or not, creates some brilliant characters who speak to the human condition in a world gone mad.  No, his unfolded Earth doesn't resemble ours, but his people resemble those in our world, struggling with the same things we do.  The man who bleeds scorpions in the first story gets some advice from his doctor: "Don't get cut."  The absurdity of this statement is paramount, but so is the subtle thought behind it, encompassing everything from hemophilia to AIDS to the pain of living through heartbreak.  The idea of heartbreak comes up again and again in this book, as Goodbrey paints portraits of people who are lost and can't get back to something that makes sense.  Yes, their world has been turned upside down, but Goodbrey has just taken an internal, metaphorical shattering and made it real.  Again and again, the characters in his tales experience actual pain, and although the situations are absurd, the emotions aren't.


This comes up in "The Last Sane Cowboy," the second story in the volume.  A cowgirl walks into the town of Insanity to retrieve her brother, whose mind has been transferred into a goldfish.  Her brother is in a saloon with the last sane cowboy in town, and she can't go through the doors, because she's insane.  She manages to get in, and the cowboy tells her his sad tale.  She leaves with her brother, promising him that she'll be back.  It's a story of loss and a world gone mad, in which the only response is insanity.  But is the cowboy really sane?  That remains the question.


The third story, "The Girl Who Talked," is three vignettes with three different characters.  Each story is simply the character's head and upper body, in what appears to be a psychiatrist's office.  The girl who talked was raised by mimes, the man who fell from Earth is from a different Earth that doesn't have cheese, and the girl who could smell tomorrow can, well, smell tomorrow.  Once again, the absurdity of these stories covers up that each person loses something precious to them, and they feel that loss acutely every day of their lives.  The man who fell from Earth, particularly, is gut-wrenching.  He speaks of the different music on this Earth, and that when he hears it and it's close to the music of his Earth, he can almost imagine himself back there.  But then it changes, and it's horrible for him.  Conversely, the girl who could smell tomorrow takes something that might be a burden and turns it into a blessing.


Perhaps the most heart-wrenching story is "The House that Wasn't Her," in which the protagonist realizes that his house has been replaced by a living creature.  He enters the realm of the King of Sideways to plead for his house back, and we find out that he wants it so badly because it's all he has left to remind him of a girl who either left him or died - we're not sure.  It's a fascinating look at lost love, because despite the weirdness of the story (cats with eyeballs on stalks coming out of their mouths, for instance), it speaks to an emotion we're all familiar with, and one that is, as the King of Sideways and his sister marvel, difficult to get rid of even though it causes us pain.  The protagonist doesn't care that all he has left of the relationship is a house.  If that's all he gets, that's what he wants.


The final story in the collection, "Just Another Guy with a Planet for a Head," appears to be just an excuse for Goodbrey to draw a guy with the Earth on his shoulders, but again, he turns it into a rumination on counting your blessings.  The Planethead speaks of missing out on things, like shaving, but being able to imagine all the people on the Earth living their lives, and keeping that in perspective.  It's a marvelous little tale that folds back on itself and shows us that even when he's at his most bizarre, Goodbrey has a fine handle on what makes us human.


The art is not bad, but nothing special, as it looks very static, as if Goodbrey drew the figures and then photoshopped them onto indistinct backgrounds.  It actually adds to the dreamlike quality of the stories.  The art is not bad, though, because Goodbrey does a very good job with the facial expressions of his talking heads, which are, after all, the most important things in the book.  He does a masterful job at subtly changing the facial expressions from panel to panel, and even changing the positions of his subjects' heads to show that they are uncomfortable or distracted or sad.  There's not a lot of action in the book, so the fact that it's done in the style isn't a bad thing.  It actually helps lend some more surreality to the proceedings.


The Last Sane Cowboy is a beautifully strange book.  Despite its bizarre nature, Goodbrey has a fine grasp of human relationships and what makes us tick.  Even in the "Unfolded Earth," people are the same, and Goodbrey has brought us a beautiful group of stories that will make you laugh and think about how we understand ourselves.


Next up is Pulpo vol. 3: Transoptic Opus, which also arrived recently in my mail box.  It is published by Pulpo Press and cost 20 dollars.  It bills itself as "a swank collection of international comics and terror," and although I'm not really in love with it, it's a bunch of fun stories from creators you've never heard of.


Why am I not in love with it?  Well, I feel like I'm about 15 years too old to be the target audience.  These are comics by young people for young people.  I really admire the craft and enthusiasm of the creators, and the stories are fun, but they don't really speak to me.  The human protagonists are mostly teenagers or college kids, and there's a lot of slang that I just don't use.  The stories are mostly hyper-kinetic, with kids fighting against giant robots and aliens and monsters while surfing and riding bikes.  There's a lot of trash talking and punching in the balls and all the sorts of stuff that people enjoy in something like South Park, which I've never liked (although people who know me think I would, which is weird).  Again, I actually liked reading this collection, because the art is something to behold, and the fact that all these people are very young and are this crazy about comics makes me happy, but in the final analysis, the stories leave me a bit cold.  There are a few exceptions, of course.  The first story, called "Groove Junction" and created by Andre Szymanowicz, is a nice tale of a boy who wants to do the right thing but is paralyzed by inaction.  He wonders aloud why it's so difficult to be decisive in this world, and wonders if he'll ever break out of it.  It's a nice little story about a universal problem, which is maybe why I like it.


Mostly, this is a book that allows artists to show off.  And it's very nice to look at.  Here are just some examples of what you can see in the book:

 (Art by Lars Brown.)

 (Art by Rod Corpus.)

(Art by Alberto Rios.)

(Art by Nick Lopergalo.)

(Art by Sheldon Villa.)

So although I can't recommend this unequivocally, I do admit that it's a wild comic that takes no prisoners and just puts its foot on the gas for the entire ride.  If these artists are the future of comics, then comics will be just fine.

Moving on, we come to the oddly-shaped comics.  Why are these books wider than they are tall?  Only the Book Publishing God knows for sure!

First, there's Worry Doll, which is "an illustrated story" by Matt Coyle.  Mamtor Publishing has brought us this and charges us $17.95 for the privilege of owning it.  This came out a while ago, but I'm still wrapping my head around it.  Yes, it's even more bizarre than The Last Sane Cowboy, and that's saying something.


My biggest problem with Worry Doll is that I'm stupid.  Therefore, I just don't get a good chunk of it.  The story isn't all that hard to figure out: it's the tale of man who kills a bunch of people and recounts the events that follow, including his arrest, detention in an asylum, and escape.  This is fairly pedestrian.  It's fine, but nothing all that groundbreaking.

On the other hand, Coyle tells the story in a harrowing way, and despite my admiration for the way he tells it, I get lost a lot.  The book is split into the text part and the visual part.  Every left side page is text, while every right side page is a picture.  The text is an interview that our insane narrator is having with someone - we can presume it's a psychiatrist, but something at the end leads us to believe it's not.  The pictures follow his trail as he leaves the house where his victims are, travels deep into the forest, then returns to civilization and a motel, where he is arrested.  Is that clear?  Good.  That's about the last time this book is clear about anything.


See, the text section is very elliptical.  The narrator and his conversationalist don't actually refer to events as much as dance around them.  The narrator brings up events from his childhood and events from other parts of his life without really linking them to anything.  They do parallel the pictures to a certain degree, but not enough to make us really understand them.  Late in the book, the narrator gets a bit more concrete, as Coyle tries to explain what's going on in the pictures (I'll get to that, believe me), but just when we think it's going to be lucid, the book ends with a very ambiguous page that, frankly, I don't get.  One of the great strengths of comics is that the actual text doesn't have to have anything directly to do with the pictures with which it's paired but can still illuminate what the author wants to say (Watchmen, of course, is the great example of this), but Coyle goes a bit too far, leaving the text far too oblique.  The only justification for this is that his narrator is clearly insane, so perhaps he wants us to feel lost in the mind of a madman.  Maybe.


The art is the star of the book, but it also adds to our disorientation.  Coyle's hyper-realistic style is beautiful enough, but his main characters are dolls, which makes the intensely true-to-life style very odd, because the dolls stroll through the landscape as if they are alive.  Yes, dolls.  Check out the art!  The three dolls live in the house where the murders take place, and when the humans are dead, they leave on their adventure.  Along the way they meet a fourth doll, who is female and large enough to pass as a human, and then something happens (I'm not sure what) and our main doll is left behind.  When he makes it back to a motel where he thinks the others have gone, we learn the disturbing secret of his suitcase, which is far more than it seems.  The final page, with its look into the suitcase, leaves us very disturbed and very confused.  What has happened?  Did the killer escape?  If so, how?  What is the nature of the suitcase?  These questions remain unanswered (and I don't even want to give away what exactly happens, but let's just say it's ambiguous), and that's why the book is somewhat disappointing.  However, there's nothing wrong with Coyle's art, as you can see.


There's always a fine line with explaining too much and not explaining enough.  I would rather writers err on the side of not explaining enough, because it allows the reader to come up with his or her own explanations, which make the fiction more interactive.  The idea of using dolls, which is a way to show the separation from reality our narrator has, is brilliant, and brings a heightened sense of fear to the book - it's very creepy to read.  Although I liked that Coyle left it very open-ended, I did want a bit more.  The ending is disorienting, which is probably the point, but it also means you're left with more questions than you probably should be.  Maybe just one more answer, Mr. Coyle?


I would recommend Worry Doll, because it's absolutely unlike anything you've ever seen before, and it's a unsettling book.  There is that caveat, though: don't expect coherence.  That's not really what Coyle is going for.  If you can go in with that knowledge, it's a gripping tale of insanity and paranoia.  You've been warned!

I often skip recent comics that have come out in monthy format and are collected in trades, because I want to let people know about some of the more obscure stuff out there.  However, the second volume of Rocketo: Journey to the Hidden Sea came out recently from Image, and I got both trades because they tell a complete story.  This is a wonderful comic by Frank Espínosa (co-written by Marie Taylor) that I hope will be around a long time.  Like many comics these days, it's perfect for this format and probably not as much for the single-issue form.



Rocketo (pronounced like "rocket" with an "o" on the end) is essentially a science fiction story that reads like a Kipling or Haggard adventure story.  Espínosa accomplishes this by setting his story thousands of years in the future, but after the Earth has been shattered by a horrific extraterrestrial event.  Therefore, it's still the Earth, and there's plenty of futuristic stuff (flying ships, robots, strange creatures that are the result of genetic experiments), but the lands of the Earth need to be re-discovered, and that's where the main character, Rocketo Garrison, comes in.  He's a Mapper, a breed of men with innate abilities of direction and exploration.  Mappers in the New World are a select group of people who command a great deal of respect.  As the hero, Rocketo must go through many trials and tribulations, and this story is just the first in what promises to be several.


It's a heavily plotted book, so I'm not going into all the machinations, but let's just say that Rocketo and his "friend" Spiro, a half-dog, half-man, all con artist who betrays Rocketo as much as he helps him, end up in a race to a mysterious area of the world called the Hidden Sea, which, as it turns out, isn't really a sea.  (I was reminded of that episode of The Simpsons when Lisa is sent to Monster Island, which is really a peninsula.)  Both Spiro and his ex-boss, a gangster names Scarletto, believe that there are treasures beyond imagining in the Hidden Sea, and while they're right, the treasures are not exactly what they believed them to be.  Meanwhile, the Great Power of the New World, a country called Lucerne, financed Scarletto's expedition and plans an invasion of the Hidden Sea once they are able to breach its defenses.  Therefore, we get plenty of action, including a battle in Book 2 that is quite awesome to behold.


Of course, there's far more going on than that.  Rocketo is haunted by an event that killed his parents when he was a boy, and he must go through a soul-searching trial before he becomes a true hero.  Meanwhile, the real history of the New World is revealed, and it's nothing like anyone ever believed.  Espínosa packs each page with a lot of information, and that's another reason why this is a great book to read in trades - it would be hard to keep track of everything that's going on in a single-issue format, especially because I imagine the schedule wasn't perfect (it's an Image book, after all).


The art is excellent, too, and reminds us that Espínosa got his start in animation.  His imagination runs wild, with beautifully weird creatures inhabiting his world, wonderful land- and seascapes, and fantastic action scenes.  His art looks sketchy at first glance, but it's full of details, and the sketchiness allows us to fill in the blanks.  He does a marvelous job evoking a futuristic world that still has pulp elements.  This is the kind of comic book with its spiritual ancestors in science fiction of the 1930s, with wonders and marvels but still with a bit of clunkiness.  Only at the end of volume 2, when Rocketo and his allies battle against the invaders, does the art become a bit incoherent, and that's only for a few big fight scenes, when Espínosa goes a bit too far in the other direction and fills the panels with lines that are supposed to evoke movement but only clutter things up.  It's a minor complaint, however - most of the time the art is beautiful to look at.


Rocketo is really a joy to read, and the extras at the end of each volume make it clear that Espínosa has plenty of stories left to tell.  It will be nice to see him continue with his adventures of the New World.  These comics are a blast.


Last, but certainly not least, is The Salon by Nick Bertozzi.  It's published by the fine folk at St. Martin's Press and retails for $19.95.  I suppose it's kind of pointless talking about this, because it's been getting so much love from the comics blogaxy, but what the heck.  If I haven't lost anyone from the length of this post, let's check this out!


There are two things going on in The Salon.  First, it's a murder mystery/adventure, as a group of artists in 1907 Paris are targeted by a strange blue-skinned woman who rips their heads off.  Gertrude Stein, her brother Leo, her lover Alice Toklas, Pablo Picasso, and a few others decide to solve the mystery themselves, because Leo Stein is convinced the killer is Paul Gauguin's Javanese mistress Annah, even though Gertrude says she's probably dead.  It's also a story about the birth of cubism, as Picasso and Georges Braque debate the creation of the new art form throughout the book, which ends with the first public display of the new form.  So on the one hand, it's a weird voyage through an absinthe-filled landscape to find a supernatural killer, and on the other hand, it's a treatise about art.  Bertozzi does a nice job with both stories, although I have no idea how historically accurate he is.


The relationships between Picasso and Braque (on a professional level) and Stein and Toklas (on a personal level) are at the heart of the book.  The group realizes that the murders are connected to some blue absinthe they found in Hungary (from a region called Lysurgia, which is a nice, acid-tinged touch) which allows the user to enter a painting and experience what's going on inside it.  They don't know how the killer (who is Annah, in a way) is going around murdering people, but they investigate and get deeper and deeper into the mystery.  Leo, who's jealous of Gertrude and Alice (the siblings really did split up over the relationship), tries to figure out a way to get Toklas out of their lives, and he becomes more evil as the story progresses.  It's an interesting story, as Bertozzi ties in what was happening in real life (the Steins' fighting) with a fantastical element.  He also ties in the murder with Gauguin's vision of reality and the way Picasso and Braque are viewing the world.  The creation of cubism is tracked throughout the book, as Picasso and Braque debate art and how artists create and their various influences.  Picasso even steals from The Katzenjammer Kids when he sees the comic strip in the newspaper.  Even as their lives become more dangerous, they continue to experiment with this new form.  Again, I have no clue how historically accurate Bertozzi is as he shows the two artists working together, but what he does is give us a wonderful view of how artists work and what goes into these new ideas.  Of course, many people at the first viewing of cubism think it's crap, but they can't deny that it signals a radical new way of seeing the world.  If I may be bold, Bertozzi links the death of an old style (Gauguin's Post-Impressionism) with the birth of a new.  Gauguin and his absinthe represent the old world.  Picasso is the new world.  Or I could be talking out of my ass.  It's been known to happen!


Bertozzi's art is very nice, as well.  He uses the landscape of Paris wonderfully, with back alleys and cramped rooms serving as a contrast to the wildness inside the paintings.  He also does a nice job with exaggeration, distorting some characters to make them seem more desperate or overjoyed.  He brings the milieu to life, filling each panel with wonderful faces and details.  Each character looks like a real person, and the fantastic parts of the story are just that - wild and insane.  His colors bring the book to life, too, with the hallucinatory blue contrasting with the more muted palette in the "real world."  Finally, Bertozzi has fun with the sound effects, as he makes them "French" - so we see "slappe" and "quique" and other such goofy things.  It's a small detail, but it again highlights the unreality of the book while grounding it in a specific time and place.


I'm not quite as enamoured of the book as everyone else seems to be, even though I recommend it.  As an art student, Bertozzi occasionally seems to lecturing about art rather than having two characters talk about it.  He doesn't do it often, but enough to be noticeable.  It doesn't ruin the book, certainly, and Bertozzi redeems himself in the other aspects of the comic.  It's certainly something to check out, because it's a neat story with very cool art.  Like a lot of these comics, it's not something you see every day, and Bertozzi pulls it off with a good deal of flair.  Even if you're not into art history, can you resist a naked blue woman ripping the heads off of Frenchmen?  No, you can't!!!!


Well, that was a bunch of books that came out recently.  I still have a stack of graphic novels to read, so I'll be back with more reviews.  I hope you found something interesting here that you might check out!

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