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You can’t stop the graphic novel reviews!

by  in Comic News Comment
You can’t stop the graphic novel reviews!

So why do you even try? Yes, it’s time to look at some bigger, longer, handsomer books than your regular sorts of stuff. The big question you should asking, however, is “Did Our Dread Lord and Master steer Greg wrong, and will there be righteous retribution if he did so?” The answer lurks below!

And let’s get the suspense over right away, shall we, with our first book, Skyscrapers of the Midwest, the collected edition. This is written and drawn by Joshua Cotter and published by Adhouse Books. It’s $19.95 MSRP, and you get a huge chunk of comics for the money in a gorgeous hardcover package.

Brian loves this comic. Adores it. Probably sacrifices virgins to it to keep him young and virile! I ordered it not only because I had heard good things about it elsewhere, but because the love Brian feels for it seeped through my computer and infected my brain. I couldn’t NOT order it, if you get my drift. But would I love it even a fraction as much as Brian does? I couldn’t love it as much, could I? And if I hate it, will I now need to fly east on a journey of vengeance? Is it time for a blog smackdown?

(Oh, I’m kidding. I do like that panel, though.)

Well, we’ll see. There’s a lot to like about Skyscrapers. Cotter’s art is simply magnificent. He easily blends the mundane and the fantastic, as the main character (who conspicuously remains nameless, but is a fictionalized version of Cotter) and his brother, Jeffrey (who are portrayed as cats, which is odd, as they have pet cats) navigate an uncertain adolescence in the American Midwest. “Cotter” and his brother have overactive imaginations, so their dull surroundings often become strange landscapes where robots stroll through fields and weird things try to drown “Cotter” when he’s baptized and insects nest inside people’s heads to give them migraine headaches and cancer pods attach themselves to people. Cotter nails both the sad rundown aspect of the region and the bleak beauty of it. He also does a wonderful job with the surreal and absurd parts of the comic (and there are quite a few of them), balancing them against the mundane reality of the kids’ surroundings. Cotter is remarkably versatile, too, altering his style at times, as when he draws the “superhero” comic Nova Stealth. It’s still Cotter, but it’s smoother and slightly more comical than the rest of the book. The book is packed, too, with not only the main story, but fun asides, like Skinny Kenny, the cowboy advice guy who slowly degenerates over the course of the book, and the twisted Sunday newspaper comics section. It’s an amazing book to look at, and really gets under your skin.

Cotter’s story … gets better as it goes along. The first half is extremely disjointed, with little bits of story that don’t have much emotional impact and don’t point toward a bigger story. When the focus is on “Cotter” and his brother, it’s better, and as Cotter begins, in the later stages of the book, to zero in on their relationship and their troubles, it becomes much better. Cotter took a long time to find his footing with the story, however, and he doesn’t quite redeem himself by the end. His targets are far too easy – the abusive father, the uncaring church, the mean jocks – and he doesn’t give us any reason to think these things are bad or that “Cotter” and Jeffrey are all that persecuted. Their relationship and how it becomes slightly easier throughout the course of the book is nicely done, because Cotter makes sure that we understand that they are still going to torture each other, but at least they’ve reached a small accord on the way to a mature relationship. They’re still kids, however, so the moment is all they get, but it’s a good one.

Those moments of “realness,” however, are often overwhelmed by Cotter’s satiric jabs at everything, and that’s where the book loses me. There are two problems: Cotter isn’t as funny as he needs to be, and his targets are stock characters from the “persecuted nerd” handbook. Cotter’s advertisements for summer camp, for instance, are supposed to show how dull and stultifying a “normal” life can be, but his jokes are typical and nihilistic, and ultimately, we don’t care. Similarly, the idea that nerds live this life of persecution that only their imagination can alleviate is a tired concept. I’d like to say that I can’t relate because I had a “normal” life even though I was (and probably still am) a nerd, but it’s deeper than that. Cotter introduces the evil scout master who treats “Cotter” poorly and won’t let him go to the bathroom, and I guess he’s supposed to be symptomatic of the way adults destroy kids to make them more malleable, but he’s such a cartoon and the situation is so weird that it has no effect. At one point, Cotter shows the program from the church the brothers attend, and “Cotter” has drawn robots fighting all over it. That’s a nice slice-of-life, because it’s such a kid thing to do. At the bottom, however, it has a “thought for the day”: “How will you spend eternity – Smoking or Non-Smoking?” I went to church for twelve years, and in that time, our minister never lectured us on burning in Hell. Maybe it was a “feel-good” church, but he was much more concerned with the positive parts of Christianity – you know, doing nice things and helping in the community and trying to live your life based on a moral code. I know that many churches are “fire-and-brimstone” kind of places, but Cotter never gives us any indication that this is one of those place – the baptism scene that follows this page doesn’t show the minister as anything but kind – and it starts to feel as if the author has some issues with organized religion that he hasn’t worked out yet. As “autobiographical” as this book is, there still needs to be some basis for his discontent. It can’t all be vignettes from his childhood.

Ultimately, that’s the problem with Skyscrapers. As an evocation of a child’s imagination and how he uses that imagination to deal with the world, it’s magnificent. As a story about why, exactly, this boy needs to do that, it falls short. We never buy that “Cotter” is having such a hard time of it, even though we see the jocks bullying him and treating him badly. It gets back to the unreality of the jocks, as if their insults come from the Jock Cliché Guide. I’ve tried to view this book without considering my own normal and happy childhood, because it shouldn’t be that I can’t relate to it, but how well Cotter makes me relate to it. He falls short in getting behind “Cotter’s” behavior, however, so the book never becomes something more than just a beautiful-looking and interesting case study of a boy with no friends. In some ways, it’s a very melancholy book. In other ways, it’s too stereotypical to achieve that. There’s no denying that Cotter is a very talented creator, however. We’ll see what he comes up with next.

Our next book doesn’t have that problem. La Perdida, by Jessica Abel, is a wonderful work of fiction. It came out in collected form a couple of years ago and was published by Pantheon Books. It will set you back $14.95 unless you go to one of those fancy Internet booksellers. I don’t truck with those – too shady!

La Perdida is the story of Carla, a Mexican-American young woman who decides to drop out of Chicago and move to Mexico City to “discover her roots,” even though, as she narrates early on in the book, she spent most of her life resenting her disappearing Mexican father. She arrives in Mexico speaking no Spanish, with no real plans, and crashes at the home of Harry, an ex-boyfriend who had moved there three months earlier. She doesn’t even know the language, but she throws herself into life in the city with gusto, trying to get beyond the typical tourist experience. She meets several expatriates and even more Mexicans, including Memo, a left-wing intellectual who challenges her every time they meet with his rants about Mexico’s relationship with the United States, and Oscar, with whom she eventually lives after Harry practically kicks her out (she has it coming, to be fair). During the year she spends in Mexico, she gets deeper and deeper into the culture of the city, but Memo constantly reminds her that she’s not part of their world. It’s this dichotomy that Abel explores throughout the book.

What’s fascinating about this comic is that it appears to be one thing – a young woman’s coming of age in a foreign country – but it’s not only that. Abel takes her time getting to the “plot” of the book, such as it is, but we don’t mind the leisurely pace, because she’s laying important groundwork for the way Carla’s world shatters in the final act of the comic. It comes on her rather unexpectedly, even though we can see it coming a mile away, and Abel deftly highlights Carla’s complete naïveté which blinds her to the reality of her situation. Carla has tried to immerse herself in Mexican culture, but as people (mostly Memo) constantly remind her, she’s not Mexican. There’s a wonderful argument she has with him where he simply points out how all her attempts to “become” Mexican have totally failed, and she doesn’t even realize it. She finally breaks down and cries at him that she’s not a conquistadora, but he says, simply, “Carla, you are. You can’t help it.” This is really the fulcrum of the book, as when we next see Carla, she’s welcoming her brother, Rod, to the city. Rod is a breath of fresh air in Carla’s world, both for her and for the reader. Rod doesn’t give a shit about Memo and his Communist anti-American attitudes – he just does what he wants, and to hell with anyone else. Carla thinks that she’s going to be the “older sister” and show him the city, but Rod ends up teaching her more than she teaches him, and he becomes her lifeline to a degree, even after he returns to the States.

I don’t want to ruin the ending of the book, even to the point of telling what happens to Harry that really sets the plot into motion (something happens to him, obviously, but I won’t say what). As it moves along, however, it becomes more and more obvious what’s happening, even though Carla refuses to face it. This part of her personality has been revealed so well by Abel throughout the book – seeing only what she wants to see, about Mexico, about Harry, about her Mexican friends, and about her life – that even though we want to shout at her that she’s being stupid, we can’t help but understand why she can’t face reality. There’s a part of this book when it comes close to a cliché-ridden horror story – the stupid American gets in over her head, and all the friendly foreigners aren’t what they seem – but Abel manages to keep it away from that, mostly because of all the work she does setting up the final act. Memo is never anything but what he says he is, and Oscar is as naïve as Carla, which leads to big problems for both of them. It’s a stunning turn of events in the final third of the book, but Abel never stops making points about what it means to attempt to experience another culture from the inside and whether someone ever really can. Carla is the ultimate “politically correct” tourist, and at the end, when she narrates, “I didn’t judge because I thought I wasn’t qualified to judge, but as it turned out, that was just an excuse not to be engaged, and not to act right,” it’s a simple but devastating critique of the idea of honoring cultural differences above all. The book becomes a fascinating meditation on the absolute ideal of right and wrong, and Carla, who always tries to see the other side of things, realizes that sometimes, a person needs to make a stand. She loses a great deal because she fails to do so.

La Perdida is a brilliant look at another culture and the things that make us different and things that make us the same. There’s something interesting on every page, and it captures so much about the expatriate experience that you’ll feel like you lived for a year in Mexico. It’s tense, tragic, and insightful. If you like good comics, you should check this out. And who doesn’t like good comics?

Okay, let’s move on. I received the next book in the mail, and I’d like to thank Markosia for sending it to me (it’s been a while since I got it, so I can’t remember if the folk at Markosia actually sent it, but as they’re the comics publisher, I’m going to assume it). It’s called The Dopple Ganger Chronicles: The First Escape, and it’s written by G. P. Taylor, with illustrations by Daniel Boultwood and Joseph Sapulich. Taylor is an author I’ve never heard of, but he’s apparently rather popular. This book was originally published by Markosia in 2006 under a different name, but it’s now published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. It’s coming out in September and will cost you 20 bucks. I should point out the final version will be in color, although most of this copy isn’t.

It’s a young adult title, so I wasn’t as thrilled with it as I might have been, but if we look at this from a young adult viewpoint, it works pretty well. Taylor tells a story that is fairly familiar, with all the Dickensian elements of a young adult book that we’ve come to expect. The twin Dopple sisters, Sadie and Saskia, are orphans (although they believe their mother is still alive, and I’m sure in subsequent books we’ll find out they’re right) at Isambard Duncan’s School for Wayward Children. There’s a mean matron and her crazy crew of assistants, there’s a girl who’s a rival, there’s a young man (Erik Ganger) who was also left by his parent (his father this time) at the school and was taken in as a servant. Early on in the book, a writer, Muzz Elliott, adopts Saskia, but not Sadie, splitting up the twins and setting the plot in motion.

Saskia discovers that Muzz Elliott is trying to contact her dead grandfather, who buried a fortune somewhere on her property and then forgot where he hid it. Meanwhile, she finds out that, not surprisingly, other people are also terribly interested in this vast fortune. Sadie, meanwhile, continues to cause trouble at school, which leads to the headmistress planning to send her off to prison. She and Erik escape and go looking for Saskia, followed by the evil forces of the school and a persistent bloodhound. They meet a disgraced magician, the Great Potemkin, and that just complicates matters. Naturally, everything comes to a head at the vast mansion in which Muzz Elliott lives, and it all works out. I doubt if I’m spoiling anything there, because it’s all about how it works out, after all.

It’s a decent book, but nothing great. It’s interesting how Taylor and his collaborators blend prose with comics, as much of the book is straight prose, while comic book pages are sprinkled throughout. There are also some prose pages with illustrations on them. The only strange thing about it is that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to switch from prose to comics and back. Some prose pages seem like they would work better illustrated, while some of the comics pages seem like they would flow better as prose. Boultwood, who handles the comics pages, has a typically cartoonish style – everything is very angular and straight, without many curves. It’s not bad, certainly, but it’s done in that Cartoon Network style that seems popular. Nothing about the art makes it stand out, even though it’s not ugly to look at.

Taylor hits all the standard plot points, and that’s what hurts the book a bit. There’s nothing terribly original about the book, so although it’s a nice breezy read, it won’t dazzle you. Some of the scenes are a bit scary, and others are a bit funny (Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats both show up at the séance, and that’s a humorous scene), but it’s simply a fairly inoffensive adventure book. If that’s your thing, this might be for you. If that’s the thing your kids are into (as this is a young adult book), they’ll probably like it. Of recent young adult fiction I’ve read, it’s about as good as the first Harry Potter book (not as tightly plotted, but written better) and not as good as Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Take that as you want!

Moving on, we find American Terror: Confession of a Human Smart Bomb by Jeff McComsey (who co-wrote and drew it) and James Cooper (who co-wrote it). This was published by Alterna Comics and cost 10 dollars. It’s volume 1, and I’m not sure how many volumes are planned (the web site doesn’t say).

This is quite a neat comic. It begins on Veteran’s Day, 2041, years after a war that turned the world into a perfect place. Victor Sheppard is an old soldier, one of the few people who remembers the war and why it was fought, but he’s losing his grip on reality, as he’s haunted by ghosts of his past. One of his old comrades dies, and when he goes to the funeral, he begins talking to the pastor and telling him about his life. It ain’t pretty.

We only get a bit of Sheppard’s story in this volume, but it’s fairly intriguing. He was sent to Serbia in the late 1990s and did something that got him in trouble with his superiors. After four years in prison, he had nothing left on the outside. But his skill set got him noticed by two different groups of people – those people who run private security firms and go into Third World countries and basically take over, and those people who oppose the first group. Naturally, because he’s a hero, Sheppard decides to join the second group. By the end of the book, we’ve gotten that far. McComsey and Cooper play a bit with chronology, beginning the book with a big ol’ shoot-out that takes place after he’s already involved with the group and then going back to tell how he entered that world. Meanwhile, of course, we get Sheppard in the present, who sees his younger face on T-shirts, as he’s something of a mythical war hero. He obviously doesn’t think he’s much of a hero, which adds some interesting tension to the book. His visage on shirts made me think of Che Guevara, who has become a fashion icon to people who don’t know much about Guevara himself. Sheppard walks among these people, but according to him, if anyone knew the real story, he’d be treated like a terrorist. As he tells his story, we begin to wonder what he did that was so terrible. I suppose we’ll find out in subsequent volumes.

McComsey and Cooper do some interesting things with the narrative to elevate it above a standard war story. First, a few subtle clues lead me to believe that they’re far more pro-military and pro-Christianity than your average comic-book creator, and that adds an interesting tint to the book. (I could be completely wrong, of course, and the two could be atheistic pacifists, but even if they are, the book’s tone is what I’m talking about; and before you say that people like Garth Ennis are pro-military, I don’t believe they are – they’re pro-soldier, but not necessarily pro-military.) The idea of the regular army being shoved aside in favor of private corporations is fascinating, too, given how it’s “ripped from the headlines” with regard to the war in Iraq, where far too much of the operational capability right now is being handled by groups with no accountability whatsoever. But it also has a rich history in the United States, stretching back to the coup in Iran in 1953, which was assisted by certain “unofficial” elements in our government, if you believe this guy. McComsey and Cooper take it to its logical extreme, of course, and that’s what makes this book compelling. It’s not unbelievable, based on what we’ve already seen can happen, and although it may never reach a point the creators come up with, it’s not completely beyond the realm of possibility.

McComsey’s art is very good, too. He has a Marc Hempel look to his art, and although the entire book is in black and white, the way he contrasts the present with the past is interesting. In the present, the shading is much rougher and has a woodcut kind of feel, while in the past, the inking is smoother and the panels seem to flow a bit better. It’s a deliberate choice to show Sheppard as an old man, completely rough around the edges, in a world he no longer fits into or even understands all that well. Even though the younger Sheppard is having a hard time of it, his world makes more sense to him. Stylistically, it’s an interesting and successful choice. Despite the fact that after the first chapter (there are four in this volume), there’s not a lot of action, the art is never boring and demands a great deal of attention.

I’m not sure when the second volume of this book is coming out. This is a good first step, though, so I’ll be looking for it. It fits into a genre that provides action, but is a bit more thought-provoking than you might expect. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The last book in this post (I decided to split these reviews up, because I seem to be accumulating graphic novels and collections, and it’s getting a bit ridiculous, so I’ll post this and try to get another up soon) is The Safest Place, a new OGN by Victor Riches and Steven Grant (the writers) and Tom Mandrake (the artist). It will cost you no more than $12.99 and is brought to you by the fine folk at Image and 12 Gauge Comics. Joe R. Lansdale, Ed Brubaker, and Geoff Johns all provide pull quotes on the back, but I know you’re far more interested in what I have to say about it!

Well, it’s a tiny bit disappointing, mainly because Riches and Grant, it seems, take the easy way out at the end. But I’ll get to that (and try not to spoil it, so fret not!) in due time. First, let’s consider the good stuff in the book, because there’s plenty of it.

The set-up is quite good: War photographer Matthew Castle (a Steven Grant comic starring someone named “Castle”?) is a man who never wants to get involved in anything. He just wants to do his job. He is asked by a rich woman to bring back her granddaughter, who has been taken to Sudan by her father, who is not a nice man. He’s into slave-trading and fun stuff like that. Matthew wants nothing to do with it, but after investigating the guy (whose name is David Khouri) a bit and seeing some of his handiwork, he decides to go to Khartoum and rescue the girl. Along the way, he hooks up with a woman from MI 6 and we learn something interesting about Matthew – he doesn’t feel pain. WHY he doesn’t feel pain is a particularly awful tale, but it does help him in certain situations. David Khouri, of course, is an “important asset” to the United Kingdom and the United States – he’s an arms dealer, among other things, and he helps in a shadowy way in the “war on terror” – and they don’t want Matthew screwing things up. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

It’s an intriguing idea, and has a very “real-world” feel, as Riches and Grant bring in themes about terrorism, child abuse, gray morality, even xenophobia. Mandrake’s art is absolutely stunning. In the back of the book he explains that he did very simple layouts with pencils and ended up almost drawing the entire books with inks. Mandrake’s art has always had a rough feel to it, but the way he uses the inks adds a nice impressionistic feel to the gritty figure drawings. His penchant for drawing larger panels with several images blurred together, which works well in color, is even more powerful in black and white. It’s some of the best work of Mandrake’s career, and considering he’s a darned good artist who has done some stunning work, that’s quite impressive.

Riches and Grant flub the ending, however. Without giving too much away (I hope), the book turns into too much of an action movie, robbing the comic of some of the powerful intrigue in the early parts of the book. It would probably have to be longer in order to keep up the complexity, but I certainly wouldn’t have had a problem with that. It seems like David Khouri, who is a truly evil man, becomes more of a super-villain by the end, and Matthew Castle becomes far too much like a certain Marvel character with whom he shares a surname. It’s certainly an exciting way to end the comic, and it’s not enough for me to not recommend the book, but like a lot of action movies, a complex situation devolves into a shootout. If you’re going to set up a premise that is morally ambiguous (not that Khouri isn’t evil, but Riches and Grant make it very clear that he loves his daughter and that his removal would lead to repercussions from on high), it’s frustrating to see it turn into a gunfight at the OK Corral.

It’s a good read, however, and the art is amazing. Grant knows how to write these kinds of things, of course (I don’t know how much he came up with; Riches is credited with the story, but is a co-writer with Grant), and Mandrake does a marvelous job. It’s a bit disappointing, sure, but it’s better than a lot of stuff that’s out there.

With that, I have to stop. I have about five or six more longer graphic novels and collections to review, but I figure I should split it up a bit. I’ll start working on those right after I get done with this! So, to review:

Skyscrapers of the Midwest: Beautiful to look at, not as good a story as it could have been, but gets better as we go along.
La Perdida: A wonderful story about a young woman in another culture and how difficult it is to fully understand that culture.
The Dopple Ganger Chronicles: A decent young adult book, about on par with Harry Potter.
American Terror: The first volume of a potentially excellent story; it’s a war comic with an interesting premise and good art.
The Safest Place: Excellent art and an intriguing premise with a slightly disappointing ending.

Phew! More coming! I haven’t even gotten to that Bryan Lee O’Malley comic I bought recently!

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