Friday, January 20, 2017

Murder By Remote Control

Today I like to say that we are living in the "golden age of comics" because of the sheer volume of excellent material being published in so many genres and for so many different audiences. The key year in this transition (in the US at least)  is usually cited as 1986, when Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the first volume of Maus were published. The book I am reviewing today is an original graphic novel that predates those publications, and it had a difficult time finding a publisher in the US at the time. So I am glad to get to read and experience it today.

Murder By Remote Control may have been written more than 30 years ago, but it is still a fresh, interesting, and provocative book. The plot is about the murder of an oil tycoon in coastal Maine, an act perpetrated with a remote control airplane.
There are only four houses in the remote location, and the detective on the case, a trench coat-wearing Zen Buddhist named Jim Brady, employs some unorthodox tactics in his investigations. The suspects themselves are a motley bunch: a reclusive farmer, a former high-price call girl, a film star, and a gun-toting, paraplegic ex-criminal (pictured).
Far from progressing in a straight line, this investigation takes some weird turns into drug-trafficking, local corruption, as well as philosophical ponderings of America, sex, and popular culture. These narrative turns are also accompanied by beautiful and surreal splash pages full of portentous images that are just ripe for interpretation. I feel that all of it could easily go off the tracks, but the plot is well-paced and, more importantly, the artwork helps anchor the whole enterprise. Not only is it beautiful to behold, the style is realistic and done in the style of Wally Wood and Jim Steranko, two of the most revered and copped US comics artists.

Murder By Remote Control was created by Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering and US artist Paul Kirchner. Van de Wetering was a crime novelist whose work has often been called "off-beat." Kirchner has had a long career, drawing comics for Heavy Metal, multiple toy companies, and The Big Book of series. He also has been a toy designer and today works mainly in advertising. He speaks at length about this book in this interview. He speaks more about his career and specifically about this collaboration with van de Wetering in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Win Wiacek called it "a delicious treat for the eyes and a therapeutic exercise for the mind." Gahan Wilson, in the original 1986 review, called it "an enjoyable entertainment that succeeds in demonstrating very effectively that this form of storytelling has a unique potential and can work a special kind of magic unavailable to any other medium."

This re-issue of Murder By Remote Control was published by Dover Publications, and they have more information about the book here. This book contains some nudity and sexual situations, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle both. This edition also has a couple of extra essays, one an introduction by Kirchner, the other an afterward by Steve Bissette, and I found both fun and informative to read.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Other Lives

Other Lives is an exploration of identity as filtered through the technology we use, in this case online avatars. It focuses on the relationships between four people. Vader Ryderbeck is a neurotic journalist who uses an obvious pseudonym and whose insecurities threaten his relationship with his girlfriend Ivy. She is the family rebel, an Asian girl who moved out of her conservative parents' home and lives with a white boy. In writing a story, Vader encounters two friends from the past. One, Otis, claims to be an ex-federal agent, although this seems unlikely as he lives with his mother and gets caught in some untruths. The second is Woodrow, a gamer with a gambling problem whose marriage does not seem as solid as he claims.
Of course, the real-life foibles, insecurities, and personality issues each character has spills over into the virtual world, here a Second Life parody named Second World. And the result of all this interplay is conflict and some strained relationships when Ivy and Woodrow become embroiled in an online dalliance. I felt that the story was an interesting one that hits on ideas of truth, identity, and our many "real-life" relationships as they function both face-to-face and in electronic spaces. Certainly, the characters may be stock stereotypes but in the end they help tell a thoughtful and entertaining tale.

This book's creator Peter Bagge is one of my all time favorite comics makers. A multiple award winner with decades of comics to his credit, he created the seminal alternative comics series Neat Stuff and Hate and served as editor of the underground comics holdover anthology Weirdo. He has also created a number of graphic novels, including Woman Rebel, Apocalypse Nerd,  and Reset. More recently, he has been a frequent contributor to publications like Reason magazine (see his collection Everybody is Stupid Except for Me) and Vice Magazine (the Musical Urban Legends column).

The reviews I have read about this book have been a mixed bag full of lots of critiques. Alice Parker remarked that it "is clearly the work of a professional, but one that seems to have lacked editorial oversight." Shawn O'Rourke concluded, "Other Lives is an interesting story that confirms why Peter Bagge has become a acclaimed name in the art comic world." R.S. Martin wrote, "Bagge’s explicit theme is that the Internet has led to people assuming multiple identities within their lives, but he doesn’t develop it into any greater insight or irony. As such, it always takes a back seat to the character comedy."

Other Lives was published by Vertigo, and they have info about it here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening

Monstress is a book that has appeared on many Best of 2016 lists, and I liked it but did not love it. The main story follows Maika Halfwolf, an Arcanic (a magical creature that can look human), as she tries to avenge her mother's death. In the opening pages, she infiltrates a household of the Cumea, an order of sorceresses that treat the Arcanics like animals, experiment on them, and sometimes even consume them.


On Maika's side, she knows that there is something powerful and ravenous inside her, although she has to learn what it is and how (if?) she can control it. Her plan might not be the most solid one, but she soon finds herself embroiled in a world of revelations, double-crossings, cruelty, and surprising alliances. Also, she learns about the five races of beings in the world, one of which is cats. Smart cats that can talk and have multiple tails, how cool is that? They were among my favorite characters in the book.

If all of the above sounds like a lot to digest, that's because it is. My big issue with the book is that much information and exposition bogs down some of the proceedings. Still, this book is gorgeously illustrated, as you can see in the preview above, in a style that combines elements of manga with more western comic books. Its lush images are imaginative, interesting, and aptly frightening. I feel that this fantasy world is an interesting take on typical monster/magic books. It's a good allegory for several civil rights issues as well as compelling locale populated with complex characters.

Monstress is the creation of writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda. Liu has published best-selling novels such as the Dirk & Steele and Hunter's Kiss series as well as several comic book series about Wolverine, X-23, and the X-Men. Takeda's credits include work on Marvel's X-23 and Ms. Marvel. Liu speaks about her work on Monstress in this interview, and Takeda speaks about her evolving art style in this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have praised the artwork, but some have been more critical about the narrative. Jeff Lake called it "confident and complex, bolstered by a compelling narrative and wondrous visuals." Publishers Weekly summed up, "The labyrinthine drawings enchant, but the convoluted storytelling and extreme violence may drive away more casual readers." The reviewer at Comic Bastards liked the book overall but voiced "that in trying so hard to establish this vast, fantasy world for the reader, there is a tendency for heavy exposition and extensive historical dialogue that can be a bit of a drain at times."

Monstress, Volume 1 was published by Image Comics and they have much more information about this book and the series here. The series also has an official page here, if you are interested in checking out previews, art, and news about it.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Kill Them All

If you have read my reviews of Ricky Thunder or Sexcastle, you will know that Kyle Starks is one of my favorite comics creators. And I am not alone in my adoration, as he was nominated for a 2016 Eisner Award. Today when he is not making his own work he writes and occasionally draws stories for the Rick and Morty comic book adaptation. I got this latest book of his via crowd-sourcing on Kickstarter.

Kill Them All follows two plots that converge into a climactic, bloody rampage through a high-rise building. The one follows the exploits of the Tiger's Daughter, the world's deadliest assassin, who one day decides to break up with her boyfriend, which precipitates a bunch of bad stuff on her. The second follows former Detective Iruka, a disgraced police officer who has been stripped of the only job that made his life meaningful. Both of these characters end up on the trail of a ruthless crime boss, which leads to the aforementioned high-rise. It is full of thugs, killers, miscreants, luchadores, criminal masterminds, accountants, henchmen, and brain-washed child assassins. And like the title says, the mismatched duo seeks to kill them all.
This book is full of action and violence, but there are also lots of jokes and details that pay off in the conclusion. Seriously, I am amazed by how well Starks takes simple concepts and make them work so well in terms of story and character. Even with pretty straight-forward genre stuff, his sense of humor and drama shine through and make the whole enterprise exceptional. His comics work in primal, alchemical ways.
I was not able to locate many reviews of the book at this time, but the one I did find was very positive: Gary at Comics Anonymous called it "Bold, brash, funny & frantic." If you want to know more about this book, you can read this interview with Kyle Starks here, or if you would rather hear him speak about it you can listen to a different interview here.

If you are interested in learning more about Kyle Starks and his works (and why wouldn't you be?), check out his Tumblr, Twitter, Patreon, or website.

Like I said earlier, Kill Them All was published initially via a Kickstarter campaign. I am pretty sure it will be available for sale sometime soon on Starks' StoreEnvy page.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Favorite Graphic Novels from the Past Year!

I read a lot of comics and books over the course of a year, and here is a list of my favorites from 2016. More detailed reviews of each can be found by clicking individual title links.

 Best Overall


Rosalie Lightning

This story about how a couple deals with the death of their toddler is not just beautifully told, the way it is communicated in this book is a master class in what comics can do. A masterpiece.






Best Biography

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

This faux biography/real history of Singapore is technically excellent and also full of emotion and excellent story telling. The range of comics pastiches, from strips to sketches to comic books to academic commentary is fantastically impressive. Another masterpiece.







Best Younger Ages Book

Bera The One-Headed Troll

This tale of a troll defending a human baby against a witch, evil mermaids, and other evil critters introduced me to my favorite fictional character of 2016. I LOVE BERA, and I wish she was real. No lie.







Best Science Fiction Book


Nod Away

Brilliant in terms of story, art and how it presents personal relationships, this book does what the best science fiction does: makes us examine our present, explore our technology, and ponder what our future might be. It's the start of what should be an epic series of seven books.





Best Humor Book

Mooncop

Also a strong contender for best sci-fi book, this graphic novel portrays the surprisingly boring and mundane life of the last cop on the moon. It's full of subtle jokes and personality. And of course, donuts figure strongly in the plot.







Best All Ages Book

Night Air

Plus Man is kind of a jerk, but I still found myself rooting for him and his robot companion as he grifted, played fast and loose with gamblers, and tried to find rare minerals in a haunted castle full of shady characters. A fun and funny action tale to suit all ages, without insulting anyone's intelligence.






Best Illustrated


How To Talk To Girls at Parties

Neil Gaiman is no slouch, and I do enjoy the plot of this book, but the artwork by brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba is clearly the high point here. I typically love their work in black and white, but in color it is otherworldly.






Best All Ages Nonfiction Book (AKA, The Nathan Hale Award)


 Alamo All-Stars

I have very high expectations for every book Nathan Hale makes in this series, and he constantly has blown my mind by moving in unexpected directions, keeping things fresh, and innovating how nonfiction storytelling is done via comics. If you love comics, his stuff is required reading.





Best Nonfiction Book for Older Folks


Tetris: The Games People Play

This tale about the addictive video game is a powerful commentary on the intersections of  imagination, politics, commerce, and humanity. So complex and well told.







Favorite Series

Fantasy Sports

The first volume of this series was hilarious and fun, and the second might be less so but it more than makes up for it with its depth of characterization and narrative flourishes that make this fictional world much more realized. I cannot wait for the next entry!







Best Autobiographical Work

Something New

After reading this warm and personal account of dating, families, and marriage, I felt like I was at the wedding and that I know these people. It is quirky, fun, and excellent commentary on contemporary life and relationships. Lucy Knisley is one of the best comics creators in the business.






Best Superhero Book


Vision

Recasting the complicated backstory and continuity of a familiar superhero as a telenovela makes for a very interesting, probing, and compelling story. I have read a lot of superhero stories in my day, but I love how this one reinterprets and comments on the genre.






Best Monster Book for Adults


 KaijuMax: Season 1

If you ever wondered how life was like in the prison that is Monster Island, this is the book for you. It features an impressive amount of world-building in terms of its characters, situations, slang, and mythography. Zander Cannon is also a genius comics maker, and this is another in a long line of excellent comics by him.






Best Monster Book for Children


The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo

This collection of webcomics about a boy who calls upon a seasoned pro to investigate the monster in his closet contains some of the most fun and suspenseful yarns I read this year. I love the fictional world created here, and elementary-school-aged-me would have adored this book.



Best Graphic Novel That Should Immediately Be Adapted as an Action Movie


Kill Them All

I will admit it. I am a Kyle Starks super-fan. I will buy any comic he makes, sight unseen. This well-plotted, fun action adventure features a bunch of assassins, cops, super-criminals, and martial arts. It. Is. Awesome.






Well, that's all for now. Thanks for reading my list/blog! Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (TACCHC) is one of the best biographies I have read about a comics artist, which is doubly impressive given that the subject of the biography is fictional. It is truly amazing how much was fabricated for this book. It is full of dazzling details, including in-progress sketches, manga excerpts, paintings, museum pieces, and other artifacts that make this book seem as chock-full and well-researched as an actual artistic biography.
The premise of this book is that Charlie Chan Hock Chye is supposed to be "Singapore's greatest comics artist," but in our world the political realities of the time period prevent his coming about. Really, this book is more about the various conflicts with colonialism, communism, and self-government that define modern-day Singapore than it is about a single person, though all of these movements, conflicts, and events are filtered through the medium of comics. The artist is an imaginary symbol of what was lost in the various decisions over time. His potential greatness is represented via various pastiches in the style of several comics virtuosos, including Osamu Tezuka,
Walt Kelly,
Mort Drucker, Frank Miller (a la Dark Knight Returns) and Winsor McCay. And perhaps the fact that all of these styles are borrowed are supposed to speak to the collage that constitutes Singapore's culture. Whatever the intention, the amount of thought and craft in this book is astounding. It is truly a work to read, ponder, and contend with.

Sonny Liew is the artist/creator of this book. He has been nominated for an Eisner Award and is best known for his collaboration with Gene Yang, The Shadow Hero, as well as his artwork on the current Dr. Fate series. His past works also include  Malinky Robot, Vertigo’s My Faith in Frankie, and Marvel’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. He speaks extensively about his work on TACCHC in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book either praise it or remark on just how substantial and complex a work it is. Douglas Wolk called it "a mercurial delight." Etelka Lehoczky wrote that it seemed that Singapore itself,  "the pressure-cooker country — tiny and polyglot, globally competitive and politically repressive — seems to have been poured into this dense book." Dan Kois called it "funny and rich and satisfying, and one of the best comics of the year."

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was published by Pantheon and they have more info about it here.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Th3 Anomaly: Crossing the Rubicon

One of the highlights of my year was to speak about Th3 Anomaly, a unique, fantastic experience. It's both an art installation and a graphic novel. Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, this steampunk narrative stars Nikola Tesla, Jules Verne, and Sarah Bernhardt as wayward travelers who end up embroiled in a time travel caper. They sail flying pirate ships, contend with ninjas, assassins, and cyborg warriors. They strive against the machinations of a shadow organization who seeks to find, steal, and exploit puzzle devices called Rubicons that hold the key to traveling through time and space. There are also romantic and family relationships that complicate matters, and the plot is a fun one that holds up well with further readings. (Personally, I felt the book was pretty dense the first time through, but I got much more out of it during return readings).
As you can see from the excerpt above and below, the artwork is gorgeously rendered through paintings, which are also available from their author/creator David Landry.

It was my distinct pleasure to get to speak about this work during the Integrative Research Panel that closed the 2016 Literacy Research Association Conference in Nashville, TN. It was great to hear about varying views and analyses of the work, as well as hearing the author speak about it. Also, getting to see a chapter's worth of paintings as well as some of the props and costumes used to stage and create the artwork was a very rewarding and thrilling experience.

Personally, I found it fascinating to speak about the mechanics of comprehending comics with how they represent and filter experiences of time and space when talking about a work that so explicitly trucks with those concepts in terms of its story and composition. At some point the talk will be posted at the LRA Conference page, and I feel it will be well worth checking out or revisiting.

Th3 Anomaly was a project from abrasiveMedia, and you can buy the book digitally or in hard copy directly from them here. You can also learn more about abrasiveMedia in this article.