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A View From The Cheap Seats:
SPX 2003: The Comics By Rich Watson
I had a good time at this year's Small Press Expo, as usual, despite the fact that it was my shortest visit - only one day. Regrettably, I couldn't stay longer due to tight finances. I did get to have dinner with friends afterward, at this Mongolian restaurant up the street from the Holiday Inn. I'd never had this kind of food before, and I'm pleased to say that I liked it just fine. I'm also excited that the show will stay in Bethesda after all. Besides being a great venue geographically (and easy to get to from DC) it's become part of what makes SPX distinctive, which I believe it should always be.
And now, once again, here are reviews of some of the many books I picked up this year:
The Waiting Sun by Justin Madison. A surreal romantic fantasy about a guy searching for the girl he once loved, only to discover she's no longer the same person, and all during a period where the sun is suspended over the horizon. The characters are very clearly delineated, yet leave room for interpretation. The minutiae, like the sunglass salesman or the telepathic grandmother, are inspired touches that add to the overall atmosphere. And there's a kind of poetry to the writing evocative of Craig Thompson's Blankets and especially Good-bye Chunky Rice. The only complaint would be that the artistic style (very James Kochalka-like) gives everyone the same facial expression. The faces don't convey any variant emotional states, which is disappointing. Still, this easily ranks among the best books I've read all year. A-
The Cavalcade of Boys by Tim Fish with Jay Laird. It's Queer As Folk the comic book - the lives and loves of gay men in an unnamed California city. Very soap opera-ish in terms of the large cast and its interactions with each other. There's no Howard Cruse-type sociopolitical stuff, but that's okay; it's fun to watch who sleeps with who and the head games being played, once you accept that all of these characters are capable of having such active sex lives. The Erik Larsen-like art is a bit disproportionate at times, but the bigger problem is trying to remember who's who. Some of the faces need to be more distinct. An enjoyable look inside the gay culture. B+
The Barefoot Serpent by Scott Morse. What does a tale about a day on the Hawaiian beach for a couple of kids have in common with a biography of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa? Well, the former (the primary story) incorporates elements of Kurosawa's films, including specific themes and images. The problem, though, is that it relies on the assumption that the reader will be as familiar with Kurosawa's work as the artist, and if you're not, those elements will go flying over your head. I would've preferred to have seen either the story about the kids, sans the Kurosawa framing device, or the Kurosawa biography by itself, because the connection isn't clear to someone with only a passing familiarity with the director's movies. Still, the primary story makes for a nice little character study. Morse is a dynamic and skilled illustrator with a highly appealing use of line and shape and tone (and color; the Kurosawa sequences are in color while the rest of the book is in greyscale). His art alone makes this worth a look. B
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Cuckoo by Madison Clell. An ongoing account of the author's struggles with Multiple Personality Disorder. Don't let the sketchy, frenetic art fool you: look closer and you'll see there is a deliberate process to the choices in line weight, texture, and composition on each page. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the end result takes on the level of fine art, where words and pictures are inseparable. The art made me think of artists like Renee French, Robert Crumb, and Sue Coe. It isn't always clear, though; some pages get do murky and hard to read. And aesthetically speaking, this is far from the prettiest art you'll ever see. But it's appropriate for the subject matter - and if even half of the stuff the creator writes about here is true, then publishing this book is a true act of bravery, second only to surviving. B
Styx Taxi by Steven Goldman & Jeremy Arambulo. A supernatural taxi service escorts the recently deceased to places where they can make peace with their death before moving on. A cool concept, made more intriguing by the fact that the drivers themselves are faced with non-existence if they fail in their efforts. The art is very clear and clean, though I wouldn't mind seeing a stronger use of solid black to punch up the contrasts. I hope there's more to come. B+
Intrepid by Jose Loeri & Zeu. In a futuristic fascist America, the last remaining superheroes make a stand against a corrupt government and a rogue metahuman. It was a bit unclear what the specifics of the conflict here are. Though it seemed like events were being presented out of context, it does go into much detail on what's going on, so I wouldn't call it hard to follow. The dialogue is borderline cliché in places, but the squabbling between the protagonists was the most interesting element. They clearly had a plan and it went awry, and now they're taking their frustrations out on each other. The art is excellent; in addition to looking great, it communicates the story well. This book has definite potential. B
The Art of Heartbreak by Neil Kleid and Jamesmith. A Western about a cowgirl getting over a failed relationship. This wildly ambitious attempt at playing with genre conventions comes up short on a few points. Unlike his other dramatic work, Kleid doesn't seem to trust the audience to get the point, instead leading the reader along with subheadings depicting the lead character's state of mind and quotes from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. I found this stuff distracting and not all that necessary for such a short story. And despite all of that, she still never really came alive for me. We never understand why she wants to be a sheriff's wife so much and we don't see enough of her past to appreciate what brought her to this point. Plus, the "widescreen" size of the book is inappropriate for an internal character study such as this. Jamesmith's art is the saving grace; a bit stiff in places but communicates very well. B-
Astronaut Elementary by Dave Roman. The Quicken Forbidden co-creator goes solo with an ashcan about the kids at a school for future astronauts. The cover bills this as a "mini manga," which shows up as much in the literal-minded writing as in the art ("Oh, Miyumi, you are so mean, but in the best way - which is fun"), and makes for a silly and enjoyable read. B+
That Thing You Fall Into by Diana Tanblyn. Potential long-distance romance goes awry. Being only eight pages, I can't help but wonder whether the creator felt this was all she had to say about this story or not. Well done as it is, both with the writing and art, it doesn't go into much depth (although I suppose one could argue that it needs no further embellishing). For what it is, it's done well, but there's more to this particular story and it wraps up far too soon. B-
SITTING ON THE BOONDOCK:
The September/October issue of Black Issues Book Review has The Boondocks' Aaron McGruder on the cover. The article addresses what his critics have had to say about him and his strip and his responses to same. He also discusses his future plans regarding taking the strip into television and film, not to mention his forthcoming non-fiction book and his graphic novel with filmmaker Reginald Hudlin. Plus, there's an accompanying sidebar that talks about black cartoonists in general and the rising popularity of graphic novels. Definitely worth reading.
So there's this girl at my new job who is slowly developing an interest in comics, thanks to yours truly. We had received a DVD box set of Neil Gaiman's BBC mini-series Neverwhere a couple of weeks ago and we put it on for a little bit (Read our interview with Neil about the DVD here). (We weren't too impressed.) This led to us talking about Gaiman's comics, and from there to comics in general. She said she had read Watchmen and liked it, so I lent her my copy of V For Vendetta. She finished it in a couple of days and emphatically told me she loved it! So now I've moved her on to Warren Ellis and The Authority. I'm tempted to introduce her to Garth Ennis and Preacher, but it may be too soon for that. Not that I think she'd be offended by it - she's a pretty brassy type - but I wanna show her some non-genre stuff too, preferably as trade paperbacks. I know - maybe Hate. She'd dig Buddy Bradley. I'll keep you posted on my progress.
My two cents on JLA/Avengers: I realize that this mini-series, almost by its very nature, must be an End-of-the-Universe kind of story; it's what Fandom Assembled expects and I'm sure it's what Kurt Busiek and George Perez want. If it were me writing this thing, though, I would've tried to find some way to put a different spin on it. Saving one life can be as dramatic and exciting as saving billions, and I think sometimes superhero creators forget that when they do these kinds of stories. I'm still wondering how everyone who's ever been an Avenger or Justice Leaguer will appear in this book (especially when you consider how much history that covers), not to mention why. Now that I think about it though, we did get a taste of that sort of thing in the climax of Busiek's Avengers Forever, so if anyone could pull it off, it's him. Regardless, the story is off to an exciting start. It looks like Atom will play a significant role, which is good. Flash's powers not working on Earth-Marvel makes me wonder who else shouldn't be able to function when they're on their opposite Earth. Hawkeye's "Squadron Supreme wanna-bes" line was a definite highlight. I was kinda disappointed to see the "Uber-Bat" version of Batman in effect during the JLA-Terminus bout because it seemed to be done at Superman's expense. Bad enough that he's obviously being mind-controlled. Writing's a little expository, but Busiek's trying to make the story accessible, which, let's face it, cannot be easy. Perez is at the top of his game - love the spread of the Avengers-Starro fight. Let's see where this goes next. I'm sure there'll be plenty more surprises before it's all over.
I leave you this week with the best metaphor for the comics industry ever, from Ninth Art's Antony Johnston:
"If comics is the shy young boy with a crush on the mass market, right now we're just trying to remember how to speak to the object of our affections without stammering and make sure our shoelaces are tied properly. Or perhaps we've got that down pat, and have moved onto casual smalltalk - but it's still going to take a lot more trust-building before we ask it to a late night movie, and maybe a quick grope in the bus shelter afterwards..."